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The concept of race meant something different to 19th-century Americans than it means to us today.
Where we tend to see all descendents of Europeans as belonging to a single white or "Caucasian" race, Americans of an earlier age saw a multitude of different European races. In this worldview, the Anglo-Saxon race—Englishmen and, perhaps, Germans—were not only distinct from, but also superior to, the Celtic race a.k.a. Irishmen. Other Europeans belonged to the Slavic race (Russians), the Iberic race (Spaniards), the Nordic race (Swedes), and so on.
As the historian Noel Ignatiev has famously observed, the Irish in America had to become white. Upon their arrival, they were viewed as representatives of not merely a different nationality but a different—and inferior—race. Anti-Irish American cartoonists like Thomas Nast drew Irishmen using the exact same racist stereotypes they applied to African-Americans. Like Blacks, the Irish were depicted as subhuman monkeys.
Decades later, after the Irish had "become white," a new generation of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe would be subjected to the same dehumanizing, race-based stereotyping.
How did supposedly inferior European races like the Irish "become white?" Ignatiev suggests that they did it in part by embracing racism against American Blacks, with whom they initially competed for work at the lowest rung of the American economic ladder. Over time, and with the assistance of labor unions and the Democratic Party, the Irish in America were able to make modest economic gains, rising from poverty to the middle class.
Once elevated above economic parity with American Blacks—who were almost always confined by to the worst jobs in American society—some Irish embraced a virulent strain of racism to emphasize their difference from Blacks. In essence, the Irish became white—and helped to create the modern concept of "the white race"—by discriminating against Blacks.
While the Irish struggled to become white, another immigrant group—the Chinese, concentrated almost entirely in California—struggled to create a viable community in America. Chinese immigrants began arriving in California in large numbers in 1852, when the combination of famine in China and gold in California made the long journey across the Pacific an attractive prospect for Chinese migrants.
The Chinese initially faced just as much scorn as the Irish, but uh, they never received a similar chance to "become white" by assimilating into American society.
They were simply, in the judgment of California's Anglos, too different. Their physical appearance, language, dress, cuisine, and—perhaps most of all—their willingness to take on terribly arduous work for very low pay, made the Chinese seem almost inhuman to many whites.
Racism forced Chinese immigrants to settle together in segregated, all-Chinese communities within cities like San Francisco. Through no choice of the Chinese immigrants, those early Chinatowns took on very odd social characteristics.
Whites refused to sell land or rent housing to Chinese outside of a very small area, so large numbers of migrants had to pack into a tiny neighborhood. Chinese women were usually forbidden from immigrating, so the early American-Chinese community was overwhelmingly male. In fact, in 1855, 98% of the Chinese in America were men. With no women, the Chinese had no families, so they lived in overcrowded, all-male bunkhouses. With no families to support and no houses to pay for, the male Chinese workers could survive even while taking jobs for very low pay.
White Americans misinterpreted all of this as "proof" of the innate racial difference of the Chinese people, when in fact, it was the abnormal constraints imposed upon the American-Chinese community that made the Chinese seem more different than they really were. But the impression of absolute difference and unassimilability stuck, and became the basis of Anglo-American efforts to exclude the Chinese from entering the United States.
A striking anecdote revealing 19th-century white Americans' belief in the absolute racial difference between themselves and the Chinese can be found in a footnote to the Supreme Court's infamous 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that the Southern Jim Crow system of racial segregation against Blacks was legal.
The lone dissent to the shameful 7-1 ruling came from Justice John Marshall Harlan, whose minority opinion offered an eloquent defense of the principle of equality under the law. "In view of the Constitution," Harlan wrote, "in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."
The next flashpoint of nativist sentiment would be found not in the teeming immigrant cities of the East, but rather, in the West. And the target of the nativists' ire would not be Irish or Germans or Catholics, but instead, Chinese.
Chinese immigrants began arriving in California in 1852, fleeing famine at home and seeking fortune in the gold mines of the Sierra Nevada. White miners, jealous of competition for increasingly scarce placer gold, soon drove most Chinese miners out of the goldfields through intimidation and unfair taxation, and most Chinese workingmen settled into a life of low-wage labor. In the late 1860s, the Central Pacific Railroad's labor force in building the transcontinental railroad was 90% Chinese.blank">immigration service to enforce its new, restrictive laws. The era of free immigration into the United States was over.
Sorry, Chinese, idiots, and spinsters.
The anti-Chinese Workingmen of California succeeded where the Know-Nothings had failed, setting a precedent of discriminatory, categorical exclusion that would, by the 1920s, be applied to other "undesirable" immigrants who began to arrive in droves from Southern and Eastern Europe almost immediately after the Chinese Exclusion controversy was settled.
Between 1776 and 1882, tens of millions of immigrants left their homelands—overwhelmingly from locations in Europe—to build new lives in the United States.
They came in geographically-specific waves. First from England, then from Ireland and Germany, and later, from Southern and Eastern Europe.
These patterns cannot be explained as the simple aggregate of tens of millions of individual choices, made by migrants pulled to New World by the lure of American economic opportunity. Vast macroeconomic forces were also at work, pushing migrants out of their home countries.
We have a name for those forces: the Industrial Revolution.
And the Industrial Revolution was always accompanied by a revolution in agricultural production. By adopting new crops and new technologies, farms were able to produce more food with fewer workers. In one sense, this was progress—millions of peasants were freed from a lifetime of backbreaking rural labor.
In another sense, though, this was a problem—millions of peasants were freed from the only work they had ever known, and needed to find new forms of employment.
If they couldn't find work on the farm, they migrated to town. If they couldn't find work in town, they migrated to Europe's teeming cities. If they couldn't find work in Europe's teeming cities, they migrated abroad.
In the 19th century, Europe's population doubled, from 200 to 400 million, and another 70 million people emigrated to other continents. Half of those came to the United States, while Canada, Australia, and South America also welcomed millions of newcomers.blank">Homestead Act, so head over there for all of the deets on this free-land piece of legislation.
The fear that heavy foreign immigration might undermine American society is even older than the United States itself.
In the early-18th century, Germans poured into Pennsylvania at such a rate that they soon numbered a third of the Quaker colony's population. By 1753, Benjamin Franklin worried that the heavy concentration of these immigrants, who settled mostly in tight-knit, German-speaking communities, threatened Pennsylvania's social order.
"Few of their Children in the Country know English," Franklin wrote. "They import many Books from Germany. [...] The Signs in our Streets have Inscriptions in both Languages, and in some places only German. [...] I suppose in a few Years, [Interpreters] will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say. In short, unless the Stream of their Importation could be turned [...] they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will not in my Opinion be able to preserve our Language, and even our Government will become precarious."
These efforts to control the influx of refugees from the French and Haitian Revolutions might be considered the first nativist movement in the postcolonial history of the United States, but the restrictions enacted were quite narrowly focused and, in the end, short-lived.
After Thomas Jefferson led the opposition Democrats into power in the elections of 1800, the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed and the waiting period for naturalization fell back to just five years. Free and unregulated immigration would be the rule in 19th-century America.
Immigration rates fell dramatically during the first two decades of the 19th century, as restrictions on shipping during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 blocked the flow of migrants from Europe to America.
After 1820, however, immigrants once again began flooding into America at an ever-increasing rate. 150,000 newcomers arrived in the 1820s, 600,000 arrived in the 1830s, 1.7 million arrived in the 1840s, and 2.6 million arrived in the 1850s.blank">Source)
In 1856, the Know-Nothings ran ex-President Millard Fillmore as their candidate for president. Fillmore's weak showing—he garnered just 22% of the vote, running a distant third to Democrat James Buchanan and Republican John C. Fremont—marked the end of the Know-Nothings as a major force in national politics.