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Immigrants became American, or at least what they thought of as American, because they had no alternative. Educated in the rituals and standards of citizenship, they conformed to the vague but robust doctrine of “Americanism,” and sought, above all, to avoid being “un-American”…


On August 6, 1676, Nicholas Spencer, secretary of the Virginia Colony, complained in a letter to Lord Thomas Culpepper that Virginia was becoming “a sinke to drayen England of her filth and scum.”[1] One hundred years before Americans declared their independence, immigration was already a problem. At the same time, immigration has been among the most significant events in the history of the United States. It was essential to the growth and development of the American economy, for immigrants composed the bulk of the industrial labor force that during the twentieth century made the United States the wealthiest nation on earth.[2]

In 1850, even after the arrival of large numbers of Irish who were escaping starvation, there were only 2.2 million persons of foreign birth living in the United States. They constituted 9.7 percent of the population. By 1910, the number had increased to approximately 13.5 million, accounting for 14.7 percent of the population, a slight decline from the crest of 14.8 percent recorded in the census of 1890. (See Figure 1) The census data do not reveal other vital changes that resulted from mass immigration. English was the native language for 97 percent of foreign-born residents in 1850. With the deluge of persons arriving from southern and eastern Europe, fewer than 58 percent spoke English by 1910. Language and appearance rendered these immigrants an alien presence in American life, contributing to demands to restrict the numbers permitted to enter the country.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census of Population, 1850 to 2000 and The American Community Survey, 2010.

By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the rising tide of immigration had filled many Americans with a sense of uneasiness.[3] Not for the first time had mass immigration proven alarming, burdensome, and disruptive. The influx of émigrés from Ireland during the 1840s and 1850s, with approximately 1.2 million arriving between 1845 and 1854, had complicated American politics. Irish immigration helped to destroy the Whig Party and occasioned the first partisan dispute within the new Republican Party, which had arisen from the ruins of Whiggery. Even without the pressure of sectional discord, religious tensions, ethnic hatred, and economic rivalry made a confrontation between Protestant natives and Catholic immigrants all but inevitable.

The Irish newcomers overwhelmingly preferred the Democrats. To the Irish, the Whigs seemed the American counterparts of the English and Anglo-Irish aristocrats who had mistreated and oppressed them at home. Nativist Whigs had, in fact, already begun transforming their party into an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic organization. On July 17, 1854, they held a convention in New York at which delegates pledged to renounce all other party affiliations and vowed never to support a foreign-born or Roman Catholic candidate.

They also agreed to keep secret their membership, and all information about their political activities. Party bosses instructed the rank-and-file, if questioned, to answer: “I know nothing.” Participants christened the new association the American Party, but they became popularly identified as the Know-Nothings.[4]

Support for the Know-Nothing Party came less from the working class and more from the petit bourgeoisie, consisting disproportionately of white men in their thirties and forties who were skilled urban tradesman, business managers, or shopkeepers. These men had elevated themselves above the status of ordinary factory workers and day laborers, but circled the periphery of middle-class life, eager to avoid falling into economic misfortune and social disgrace. Their insecurities, their anger, and their prejudices made nativism politically attractive, for they looked with suspicion on foreigners and blamed them for all the ills that had beset American society. The most serious accusation they leveled against immigrants was to have corrupted American politics by transforming the established parties into clubs operating solely for the distribution patronage. The Democrats were the principal malefactor, but the Whigs were hardly blameless. The Know-Nothings intended to cleanse American politics and to situate in government men who, devoted to the common welfare, would be responsive to the needs of decent Americans, not pander to the alien rabble. It was, incidentally, the emphasis on trustworthy and honest leadership and a more virtuous Union that enabled the Know-Nothing Party to expand its appeal beyond the cities to small towns and the rural hinterland, where few immigrants had settled.

Although such prominent Whigs as Senator William Henry Seward of New York condemned nativism as disreputable, the outcome of a number of municipal and state elections in 1854 and 1855 suggests at least the possibility that nativist rather than antislavery and free soil principles might have come to dominate American political life, thereby elevating to prominence the American rather than the Republican Party. In May 1854, even before the Know-Nothings had formed a national organization, the party demonstrated an unexpected appeal, winning the mayoral race in Philadelphia by more than 8,000 votes. The November elections brought even more astonishing results. Polling 63 percent of the vote in Massachusetts, the Know-Nothings elected the governor, Henry Gardner, all but two state senators, and every member of the state House of Representatives, 379 in all. Additional triumphs came in 1855 in other New England states, as well as in New York, Pennsylvania, and California. A prediction in the New York Herald that a Know-Nothing candidate would win the presidency in 1856 seemed entirely plausible.

But by the time of the presidential election in November, the Know-Nothing Party was dead. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explain how both political circumstances and Republican maneuvering conspired to effect the rapid demise of the Know-Nothings.[5] Suffice it here to say that nativism and immigration, although they have become enduring issues in American political history, were but transient phenomena during the turbulent 1850s. For with the fall of the Know-Nothing Party, nativism assuredly did not perish. Divested of a political party to embody their agenda and carry forth their message, nativists continued to exercise influence over public affairs. After the Civil War, they merged into the Republican Party just as they had emerged from the Whig Party. Few developments have been more critical to the success of the Republicans than this sub rosa affiliation with nativists. From it, the Republican Party received a permanent endowment of support that not only made possible Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, but that has also bolstered the GOP in almost every presidential contest since then. To add to the Republicans’ good fortune, the party acquired this sustenance without having to offer any concessions at all to the nativists, and thus did not have to forfeit the endorsement they received from immigrants themselves.

Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, previous generations of immigrants, and certainly their children, sometimes feared that more recent arrivals threatened their standing and would bring reprisals against anyone who was visibly foreign. In 1905 the membership of the United Garment Workers of America, which was composed primarily of Russian Jews, petitioned Congress to suspend immigration for an indefinite period of time. Newer immigrants, they asserted, possessed neither the basic intelligence nor the political experience needed to prosper in a democratic society. They could never become good citizens, let alone realize the American Dream, and their presence deprived others more capable than they of the opportunity to do so.

In language sharply different from that of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which welcomed all who yearned “to breathe free,” the United Garment Workers resolved to “warn the poor of the earth against coming to America with false hopes:”

The unprecedented movement of the very poor to America from Europe in the last three years has resulted in wholly changing the previous social, political, and economic aspects of the immigration question. The enormous accessions to the ranks of our competing wage-workers, being to a great extent unemployed, or only partly employed at uncertain wages, are lowering the standard of living among the masses of the working people of this country, without giving promise to uplift the great body of immigrants themselves…. Little or no benefit can possibly accrue to an increasing proportion of the great numbers yet coming; they are unfitted to battle intelligently for their rights in this Republic, to whose present burdens they but add others greater. The fate of the majority of the foreign wage-workers now here has served to demonstrate on the largest possible scale that immigration is no solution of the world-wide problem of poverty.[6]

It was not long before the distrust of, and the animus toward, immigrants resulted in various legislative proposals to keep the “huddled masses” from passing through the “sea-washed, sunset gates” of America.


Race is an ideological construct, not a biological reality. The politics of race have nonetheless long informed American thought, policy, and law regarding immigration. During the last thirty years of the nineteenth century, American resistance to mass immigration was already extensive and uncompromising. Americans did not wish to associate with, or to understand, foreigners. Such bigotry had emerged as early as the 1830s and by the 1840s was commonplace, perhaps even more among the privileged than among the working class and poor. Immigration, it seemed, presented an existential threat to American society. In 1856, for example, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs affirmed that:

crime and pauperism are the bane of the republic…. Our country has been converted into a sort of penal colony to which foreign governments ship their criminals. It is not only the thriftless poor who come hither, spending their last cent in crossing the Atlantic to add to the burden of our poor laws, and to stand between native misfortune and the relief provided for it by charity, but inmates of the prisons of Europe are sent hither by their governments to prey upon and to contaminate our people with their vices.[7]

Nearly forty years later, in 1895, the patrician writer Owen Wister, author of The Virginian (1902), referred to immigrants as “alien vermin, [sic] that turn our cities to Babels and our citizenship to a hybrid farce, who degrade our commonwealth from a nation into something half-pawn shop, half-broker’s office.” Wholeheartedly espousing Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, Wister deplored the encroachment of the “debased and mongrel hordes” who were invading the United States from every part of the globe.[8] In his disdain for them, he was not alone.

Yielding to popular chauvinism and seeking to quell the anti-Chinese violence that had erupted in California, where by 1880 the Chinese made up approximately 10 percent of the population, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This legislation prevented the Chinese from entering the United States for ten years and denied to those who had previously arrived the right to become naturalized citizens. Renewed in 1892, the act imposed a permanent ban on Chinese immigration in 1902.[9] With support from members of both parties and citizens in all sections of the country, the Chinese Exclusion Act reflected the fear of labor unrest. Increasing numbers of Chinese had roused the enmity of white workers, who came to view them as dangerous rivals. Senators and congressmen reasoned that eliminating competition from Chinese immigrants would enable American workers to keep their jobs and earn higher wages, thereby diminishing the likelihood of a furious class struggle.

Denunciations of, and reprisals against, the Chinese had not originated solely from economic motives. They also grew from racial and cultural preconceptions. Henry George, an outspoken critic of corporate capitalism and a steadfast champion of labor, initially objected that Chinese immigrants took jobs away from American workers and depressed wages.

Efficient, hardworking, dutiful, submissive, and cheap, the Chinese, George wrote, would “underbid all competitors in the labor market…. And thus in every case in which Chinese comes into fair competition with white labor, the whites must either retire from the field or come down to the Chinese standard of living.” As a labor force, the Chinese would also not agitate for their rights, demand an eight-hour workday, or go on strike. They would instead labor “without a murmur” and not even ask off on Sundays.[10] Recognizing that the availability of Chinese immigrants benefited capitalists and harmed workers, and acknowledging the mistreatment to which the Chinese had routinely been subjected, much of it carried out under the sanction of law, George still depicted them as a cultural menace less prepared for assimilation than even the former slaves.

For George, the Chinese were without “the slightest attachment to the country—utter heathens, treacherous, sensual, cowardly, and cruel.” Scrupulous about paying their debts and painstaking in the completion of the tasks assigned to them, the Chinese nevertheless engaged in “lying, stealing, and false swearing” as a matter of course. They practiced all of “the unnamable vices of the East,” and had a remarkable capacity for forming “secret organizations… a State within a State, governed by their own laws….” Content to remain the barbarians that they had been for two thousand years, ever since a “strange petrification” impeded their cultural advancement, the Chinese, George concluded, were incapable of “understanding our political institutions.” Their participation in government invited corruption and ensured disaster, “the bitter fruit of social disease, political weakness, agitation, and bloodshed.”

Arrogant, immodest, and looking upon all others with contempt, the Chinese, if allowed to obtain power, would in a brief time subordinate whites to their whim and will. George did not mince words. The superior would then become the inferior; the master would become the slave. In fervidly antidemocratic language, George proclaimed that “to confer the franchise upon them would be to put the balance of power on the Pacific into the hands of a people who have no conception of the trust involved, and who would have no wish to use it rightly if they did.”[11] It was thus incumbent upon Americans to act while still in command of their own destiny. They must arrest Chinese immigration rather than try later to remove the Chinese once they had ensconced themselves in American society.

In 1887, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments did not apply to Chinese immigrants. Although the court had deprived the Chinese of both civil and political rights, leaving them powerless to defend themselves by appeals to the law and the constitution, many Americans worried that the existing immigrant population represented only a vanguard of the untold millions who were sure to follow. “The 60,000 or 100,000 Mongolians on our Western coast,” George cautioned, “are the thin end of the wedge which has for its base 500,000,000 of Eastern Asia.” California, the western states, and then the entire nation would be inundated and overwhelmed by “greater hordes than ever followed the sun across the plains of Asia.”[12] Should that eventuality take place, the Chinese multitudes would do to whites what whites themselves had done to the Indians. With remarkable candor, Frank Pixley, who had been the city attorney of San Francisco and later the Attorney General of California, explained to a congressional board of inquiry that “the Yellow races are to be confined to what the Almighty originally gave them and as they are not a favored people, they are not to be permitted to steal from us what we have robbed the American savage of.”[13]

More genteel, and in some respects more compassionate, forms of xenophobia surfaced among those concerned not so much that foreigners would endanger the American way of life but that immigration would create a body of impoverished men and women condemned to toil for the benefit of the wealthy. Henry George believed that the presence of so many immigrants would reduce the cost of labor and accelerate the concentration of wealth, as to make “nabobs and princes of our capitalists,” while grinding “our working classes to dust.”[14] Similarly, Julian Warne announced that the American people faced a stark choice about “the kind of civilization [sic] that is to have its home in the United States for coming generations.” A policy of unrestricted immigration, Warne was convinced, would “mean a continuance of the development in feverish haste of the country’s material resources by an inpouring of labourers with low standards of living and the perpetuation of a debased citizenship among both the exploited and the exploiters.” He preferred instead to restrict immigration in order to elevate to “a higher standard of living and a safer citizenship” among those already in residence.

Unlimited immigration had the unfortunate consequence of engendering what Warne called a “plutocratic caste class of idle nobodies resting upon the industrial slavery of the great masses of ignorant and low standard of living toilers.” Reducing the number of immigrants, by contrast, would afford those who remained “a decent and comfortable standard of living.”[15]

Considerations of humanity demanded a halt to immigration, or else the industrial, financial, and commercial elite would be free to dominate the untutored masses of the world who had ventured to America with the forlorn expectation of making better lives for themselves and their children.

Yet, in most cases, even such apparently benevolent entreaties rested on the unshakable conviction that immigrants, whether Asian or European, could not or would not become decent, patriotic American citizens. In 1919, when sections of almost every major American city were crowded with men and women who spoke a multiplicity of languages, former president Theodore Roosevelt wondered in a letter to Richard K. Hurd, the president of the anti-immigrant American Defense League, whether the United States had not become a “polyglot boardinghouse.”[16] Roosevelt’s apprehensions were unwarranted. This mass of supposedly ignorant, irresponsible, untrustworthy, and rebellious foreigners whose presence so dismayed him and his contemporaries quickly assimilated. They became respectable, God-fearing, law-abiding, loyal, industrious citizens, relentless in their pursuit of material gain, prudent in their attitudes, behavior, and ideas, and conservative in their politics.

Immigrants became American, or at least what they thought of as American, because they had no alternative. Educated in the rituals and standards of citizenship, they conformed to the vague but robust doctrine of “Americanism,” and sought, above all, to avoid being “un-American.” As often as not, they felt ashamed of their ancestors and their history. Having fled the suffering, humiliation, and injustice that were their lot in the Old World, they tried hard to forget where they had come from and who they had once been. As George Santayana observed, “the unkempt, polyglot peoples… turn to the new world with the pathetic but manly purpose of beginning life on a new principle.”[17] In America, many found, or at least hoped to find, not only freedom but also a kind of salvation. Born again in this unspoiled land, they could begin life anew, as if the past had never taken place.


Debates about immigration have bedeviled American national consciousness for nearly two hundred years. Americans have yet to find a resolution. One line of argument has insisted that the United States is a “melting pot” in which the weary and careworn masses can jettison the past and fashion a new identity. According to this view, America is a redemptive nation founded on the propositions that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The reassurance that anyone can become an American, and that everyone can take advantage of the economic opportunity and political freedom which America offers as gifts to the world, constituted until a few years ago the official ideology of the United States government. “Americans are united across the generations by grand and enduring ideals,” began the form letter presented to naturalized citizens during the administration of George W. Bush. The “grandest of these ideals,” the noble promise of American life, is “that everyone belongs, that everyone deserves a chance.” Not united by blood and soil but drawn together by principles that “move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests, and teach us what it means to be citizens,” individuals the world over can find a home in the United States.[18]

Exposed to what the playwright Israel Zangwill described as “God’s Crucible,” differences in religion, culture, language, and history vanish, or at least cease to matter, in America. These dissimilarities do not produce a nation of strangers, with one people isolated from, or antagonistic toward, another. Rather, as the presidential letter suggests, diversity fortifies and enriches the United States. Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot, which made its debut in 1908, offered a classic statement of the assimilationist position. The plot turns on intermarriage, which Zangwill envisioned as the best way to sweep aside the traditions and animosities of the Old World. In America, Zangwill wrote, people “must look forward.” They must disregard “the nightmare of religions and races” along with the inheritance of “hate and vengeance and blood.” Imagining that with this forgetfulness America “could melt up all racial differences and vendettas,” Zangwill made explicit the long-held assumption that unity rests, and has always rested, on historical and cultural amnesia. Assimilationists such as Zangwill consistently disparaged or ignored the emotional and spiritual costs of becoming American: the feelings of inferiority, and even the private loathing, that arose from indifference to, and perhaps contempt for, a previous life and a former self.[19]

Alternately, Americans have conceived of themselves as a homogeneous people bound by a common history, language, faith, and blood. This dogma characterized Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and even most Europeans as inferior to those of Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

Neither education nor discipline could transform these ignorant and backward peoples into useful, productive, and upright citizens of the Republic. As a consequence, they had to be excluded from the American polity or, at the very least, had to be governed by their cultural and biological superiors. The future of American liberty and progress depended on it.

By turns eager and reluctant to embrace newcomers, Americans in the twentieth century followed no uniform course of action. As late as the 1920s, Europeans who were not citizens could vote in a number of states. Between 1894 and 1918, states throughout the Midwest gradually abolished this practice, but it continued in Arkansas until 1926.

Meanwhile, legislation enacted in 1917 and 1918 proscribed illiterates, criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and other “undesirables” from entering the country. When Warren G. Harding became president in 1921, he expanded restrictions on immigration. The result was the Johnson, or Emergency Quota, Act. The Johnson Act decreed that total immigration could not exceed 357,000 persons a year. Congress apportioned quotas to every nation, essentially limiting entry to 3 percent of each nationality in the United States as reported in the census of 1910.

In May, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed, or the National Origins, Act, which reduced quotas to 2 percent of each nationality present in the United States in 1890, virtually eliminating immigration from anywhere save northern and western Europe.

“The United States is our land…. ,” avowed Republican Senator Albert Johnson of Washington, a co-sponsor of the bill. “We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.”

The law, Johnson exalted, would prevent “a stream of alien blood… from entering America.” Senator David Reed, a Republican from Pennsylvania, the other sponsor of the bill, spoke for those Americans “who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard—that is, the people who were born here.” Southern and eastern Europeans, Reed said, “arrive sick and starving and therefore less capable of contributing to the American economy, and unable to adapt to American culture.”[20] As with all complicated pieces of legislation, the Johnson-Reed Act was suffused with exceptions. Most notably, given the present furor over both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico and Central and South America, the law omitted Hispanics from the quota system at the insistence of western farmers who relied on their labor. During the Second World War, the Bracero Program further encouraged the temporary immigration of Mexicans to compensate for the shortage of agricultural workers.

For more than forty years the Johnson-Reed Act defined the immigration policy of the United States. Not until 1965, with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (the Hart-Celler Act), did Congress revise the quota system. Reformers maintained that all persons should be granted humane treatment and judged as individuals rather than as members of particular national groups. An increase in the immigration of Greeks, Italians, and Jews from the Soviet Union, along with Asians, West Indians, and Latin Americans, followed apace.

Additional legislation enacted during the 1970s eased restrictions on Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees following the withdrawal of American troops from Indochina in 1975, and on Cubans, as a preference to going to war against Fidel Castro. In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, 800,000 Cubans had fled to the United States; between 1974 and 1984, 600,000 Indochinese followed. But American immigration policy had a distinctly anti-communist bias. The government denied entry to Haitians, Salvadorans, and others seeking to escape right-wing dictatorships, or denied their applications for asylum and deported them.  Nevertheless, during the 1980s alone six million legal, and approximately two million illegal, immigrants entered the country.

Immigration from Europe simultaneously declined. Between 1820 and 1960, nearly 85 percent of immigrants had come from Europe. During the thirty years between 1930 and 1960, the number was closer to 90 percent. (See Figure 2) The 1960s marked the first time in the history of the United States that the majority of immigrants came from Mexico. In addition, legal immigration from Latin America and the Caribbean increased to 39 percent. More than 2.5 million Hispanics arrived in the United States in the next decade, the overwhelming majority again coming from Mexico. Estimates indicate that at least another 10 million entered the country illegally. They were joined by approximately 310,000 Filipinos, 298,000 Cubans, 240,000 South Koreans, and 205,000 Chinese. Despite a stagnating economy, the United States continued to hold out attractive prospects to millions of men and women who were fleeing poverty, violence, oppression, and war.


Foreign-Born Population by Region of Birth, 1960 to 2010
(in millions)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census of Population, 1960 to 2000 and the American Community Survey, 2010. Note: “Other Areas” include Africa, North America, Oceania, born at sea, and origin not reported.

Throughout the history of the United States, expansion had meant the enlargement of American territory and the spread of American institutions, values, and culture across the continent and around the world. By the end of the twentieth century, the process of globalization had assumed different contours and was transforming American society itself.

Sixteen million immigrants arrived in the twenty years between 1980 and 2000. This global movement of peoples was changing the racial and ethnic composition of the United States. By 2002, slightly more than one in ten residents was foreign born. (See Figure 1) Pressure again mounted to restrict immigration and to enhance surveillance and security; President Trump’s proposals to construct a border wall and to impose a travel ban are only the most recent instances.

The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the economic recession of 2008 prompted Americans to revive old debates and to reawaken former prejudices. As had previous generations, Americans in the early years of the twenty-first century became ever more fearful that immigrants were polluting their culture, if they were not actively threatening American lives.

Americans displayed a singular enmity toward those who had illegally entered the country. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 punished employers who hired undocumented aliens, but the law did nothing to stop immigrants from crossing the border.

The numbers alone distressed many Americans. If trends continued, demographers projected that by 2050 the American population would be barely 50 percent white.[21] The deepening resentment that white Americans have felt at the presence of so many whom they consider intruders has veiled an article of faith that, ironically, both immigrant and native share: The conviction that being an American is the foremost secular blessing that it is possible to confer upon a human being. [22]


There have, of course, always been those who feared that unless the government placed severe restraints on immigration, the United States would be changed beyond recognition and damaged beyond repair. To preserve the Anglo-Saxon character of the American people, these “exclusionists” sought to limit or, if possible, to eliminate diversity.[23] As the leading advocate of the exclusionist position during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts was adamant that the influx of immigrants would lower the American standard of living, foment political dissent, breed social unrest, encourage organized crime, and hasten national decline. As an antidote, he supported literacy tests to exclude those whom he deemed “most alien to the body of the American people.”[24] He further proposed that the national government halt immigration, at least temporarily, until the country could absorb or expel the millions who had already come. Promoting what he called “one-hundred percent Americanism,” Lodge clarified his thinking in an address to the New England Society of Brooklyn in November 1888. Every man, he told his audience, should:

honor and love the land of his birth and the race from which he springs and keep their memory green. It is a pious and honorable duty. But let us have done with British-Americans and Irish-Americans and German-Americans, and so on, and all be Americans…. If a man is going to be an American at all let him be so without any qualifying adjectives; and if he is going to be something else, let him drop the word American from his personal description.[25]

Yet, Lodge dismissed as errant nonsense the idea that all peoples were capable or worthy of assimilation. In “The Great Peril of Unrestricted Immigration,” he resolved that “you can take a Hindoo and give him the highest education the world can afford… but you cannot make him an Englishman.” To preserve their inimitable civilization, Lodge urged Americans to stand firmly against blending the “higher” and the “lower” races:

On the moral qualities of the English-speaking race… rest our history, our victories, and all our future. There is only one way in which you can lower those qualities or weaken those characteristics, and that is by breeding them out. If a lower race mixes with a higher in sufficient numbers, history teaches us that the lower race will prevail.[26]

Although Lodge never made it clear how or why the “lower races” would contaminate and vanquish the “English-speaking race,” he was satisfied that the only reliable preventive was to end, or at least to curtail, immigration. Lodge’s younger contemporary, the anthropologist Franz Boas, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1887, disagreed. Boas insisted that Anglo-Saxon racial superiority was a fiction without scientific validity. Like other forms of tribalism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and class consciousness, white supremacy was irrational and atavistic. It had evolved from the primitive fear of the other. By exposing and reconciling ancient hostilities, Boas anticipated that immigration itself would mitigate such emotional attachments and instill greater tolerance. Although racial and ethnic prejudice could be, and often was, tenacious and uncompromising, Boas took heart that the intermingling of disparate peoples would erode national cultures and encourage the acceptance of, and the respect for, all.

His study of the Eskimo had taught him to appreciate this common humanity. “They enjoyed life, as we do,” Boas discerned. “Nature is also beautiful to them,” and “feelings of friendship… root in the Eskimo heart.” The Eskimo is, in short, “a man as we are; his feelings, his virtues and his shortcomings are based on human nature like ours.”[27] However admirable, Boas’s sentiments conceal an unanticipated and fatal defect. As Boas himself recognized, the appeal to universal humanity breaks down if all people are not, in fact, the same, if they do not look, think, and act alike. The truth of human diversity contradicts and, finally, extinguishes the illusion of human fellowship. Variety in the human species is an affront to the dream of benevolence and good will. Like Israel Zangwill, Boas conceded that racism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism would disappear only when race and ethnicity had ceased to be observable attributes.[28]

Writing in 2010, I anticipated one of two possibilities likely to emerge from the controversy that immigration had provoked. Americans would either witness “the resurgence of a truculent bigotry or the decline of national cohesion. Neither prospect,” I added “bodes well for the fate of the United States. The first reaffirms the opinion that some peoples are unworthy of inclusion in American life; the second endorses the primacy of racial, ethnic, religious, local, or cosmopolitan allegiances at the expense of national identity.”[29] I was right and wrong. Americans have experienced both “the resurgence of a truculent bigotry” and “the decline of national cohesion.” I can propose no solution to the longstanding problems that immigration has caused. Nor am I competent even to dispense a remedy that will alleviate the worst symptoms of this recurrent crisis. I can only suggest another way of thinking about difficulties, past and present, in the hope that doing so may yet lead to a humane resolution.

Americans have every right to be vexed about, and every reason to condemn, the revival of intolerance and discrimination. But they should be even more alarmed by the erosion of community that has motivated and sustained such hatred. Franz Boas imagined that men and women, uprooted from their ethnic, tribal, national, and cultural loyalties, would come instinctively to respect, and even to love, those who were different from themselves. In our time, these deracinated individuals have more often than not become spiritual nomads and cultural fugitives, possessing no values or standards except those of the mob. Without a sense of community, feeling ignored and forgotten, they nurture an endless litany of grievances and surrender at last to a monotonous triviality of mind. Quite naturally, these lonely, desperate, and frightened souls gravitate to those who impart friendship, meaning, and purpose. They have adopted a contentious view of the world, operating on the principle of exclusion and united in their shared antipathy for outsiders—for others not like themselves. Those who are not members of their tribe are not only strangers. They are not even human beings.

Yet, cultural differences, and the ardor or enmity that they can stir, need not be intrinsically vicious. More than a century ago, Josiah Royce articulated the philosophy of loyalty.[30] Although not specifically addressed to immigration, Royce’s analysis encourages a distinctive approach to understanding and, perhaps, to ending the predicament to which its long history has led: how to safeguard family, home, community, and nation without also denigrating or injuring other human beings. Unlike Lodge and Boas, both of whom sought variously to eliminate social conflict, Royce extolled loyalty to kith and kin even at the risk of bringing diverse peoples into collision with one another. Attachment to a particular family, community, history, and tradition was, in his judgment, a healthy alternative to the deadening uniformity of modern life.

By nature, human beings are petulant, aggressive, and belligerent. Royce failed to explain, and, indeed, gave scant attention to, the means whereby quarrels might be avoided, mediated, or settled without resort to violence and war. But Royce was not intent either to avert or eradicate conflict. His aim was rather to show on what grounds men might engage in disputes with dignity and honor. No doubt Royce’s invocation of such antiquated virtues will today seem quaint at best and, at worst, irrelevant and even absurd; the charm of dignity and honor is lost on the contemporary world. But Royce hoped that loyalty to the principle of loyalty might serve as its own corrective. He did not imagine that those who had given themselves to a cause could be persuaded to forsake it. On the contrary, if they were principled men, they would fight unto to death to uphold the commitments to which they had devoted their lives.

The philosophy of loyalty thus entailed more than the agreement to disagree or the reassurance to live and let live. For Royce, loyalty provided a means whereby men could ascertain their common humanity in the midst of their discordant relations and irreconcilable differences. He anticipated the moment when the spirit of magnanimity would at last inspire human conduct. Every man, Royce thought, ought to feel a special affection for family, community, and all those nearest to himself. He must and should be loyal to them. But he also has an obligation even to his most bitter and hated adversary:

We see that the best in human life is its loyalty; while the worst is whatever has tended to make loyalty impossible, or to destroy it when present, or to rob it of its own while it still survives. And of all things that thus have warred with loyalty, the bitterest woe of humanity has been that so often it is the loyal themselves who have thus blindly and eagerly gone about to wound and to slay the loyalty of their brethren.[31]

If a man can appreciate the loyalty that others feel toward their own cause and people, if he can respect a worthy opponent, if he can acknowledge the humanity of an antagonist, if he can treat a rival with a measure of civility and justice, then Royce entertained some confidence that future struggles were less likely to be as degrading or as murderous as they were certain otherwise to become. To be pitiless, after all, is a choice.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

[1] Quoted in Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York, 1975), p. 236.

[2] The classic history of immigration is Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migration that Made the American People (Boston, 1990; originally published in 1951), but also see John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington, IN, 1987) and Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life, 2nd ed. (New York, 2002). For a concise overview of the subject, see David Gerber, American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction (New York, 2011).

[3] The classic history of nativism is John Higham: Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1920 (New Brunswick, NJ, 2002; originally published in 1955). See also Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882 (New York, 2005).

[4] See Tyler Anbinder, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings & the Politics of the 1850s (New York, 1994) and Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, Vol. III: Slavery and the Crisis of American Democracy, 1840-1860, (New York, 2007), pp. 222-30.

[5] See Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy, Vol. III, p. 240-44.

[6] Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems, ed. by John Hollander (New York, 2005), p. 58. The statement from the United Garment Workers is quoted in Frank Julian Warne, The Immigrant Invasion (New York, 1913), p. 176.

[7] “Report on Foreign Criminals and Paupers,” 34th Congress, 1st Session, House of Representatives, Report No. 359 (August 1, 1856), p. 1.

[8] Owen Wister, “The Evolution of the Cowpuncher,” Harper’s Magazine (September 1895), pp. 602-17. On Wister’s articulation of the Anglo-Saxon myth, see Mody C. Boatwright, “The American Myth Rides the Range: Owen Wister’s Man on Horseback,” Southwest Review 36/3 (Summer 1951), pp. 157-63; Sanford E. Marovitz, “Unseemly Realities in Owen Wister’s Western/American Myth, American Literary Realism 17/2 (Autumn 1984), pp. 209-15; Gary Scharnhorst, Owen Wister and the West (Norman, OK, 2015), p. 80.

[9] Working in gold mines, factories, and later on the Transcontinental Railroad, most Chinese immigrants did consider their residence in the United States to be temporary. Nearly half returned to China as soon as they had earned enough money to marry and buy property. The standard sources on Chinese immigration are Gunter Barth, Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870, (1964) and Stanford M. Lyman, Chinese Americans (1974). For an analysis of white attitudes toward the Chinese, see Stuart C. Miller, The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785-1882 (1969). Alexander Saxton, The Indispensible Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1971) explains the fears that Chinese immigration inspired in white workers.

[10] Henry George, “The Chinese in California,” New York Tribune (May 1, 1869), p. 1. See also John H. Beck, “Henry George and Immigration,” The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 71/4 (October 2012), pp. 966-87.

[11] George, “The Chinese in California,” pp. 1-2.

[12] Ibid, p. 2.

[13] Quoted in Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (New York, 1980), pp. 220-21.

[14] George, “The Chinese in California,” p. 2.

[15] Warne, The Immigrant Invasion, p. 316.

[16] Theodore Roosevelt to Richard K. Hurd, January 3, 1919, Library of Congress Manuscript Division; see also “Abolish Hyphen Roosevelt’s Last Words to Public,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, January 7, 1919, p. 4.

[17] George Santayana, Character and Opinion in the United States (New York, 1967; originally published in 1921), p. 196.

[18] Quoted in Mark G. Malvasi, “Good Fences,” Modern Age 52/2 (Spring 2010), p. 153.

[19] Israel Zangwill, The Melting-Pot: A Drama in Four Acts (New York, 1909). See also Arthur Mann, “The Melting Pot,” in Uprooted Americans: Essays in Honor of Oscar Handlin, ed. by, Richard L. Bushman, et al. (Boston, 1979), pp. 289-318.

[20] Quoted in James A. Monrone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (New Haven, CT, 2003), p. 339 and A. James Rudin, “Hatred of Immigrants has a long history,Washington Post (September 4, 2014).

[21] The same demographic projections show that the population would be 24 percent Hispanic, 16 percent black, and 9 percent Asian.

[22] The scholarly literature on recent immigration is vast. For studies that take an expansive view of the subject, see David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America, 2nd. ed. (New York, 1992) and Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn against Immigration (New York, 1998); Sarah J. Mahler, American Dreaming: Immigrant Life on the Margins (Princeton, NJ, 1995); Sanford J. Ungar, Fresh Blood: The New American Immigrants (Champaign, IL, 1998); George J. Borjas, Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy (Princeton, NJ, 2001); Frank D. Bean and Gillian Stevens, America’s Newcomers and the Dynamics of Diversity (New York 2005).

[23] See, for example, Henry Cabot Lodge, “Lynch Law and Unrestricted Immigration,” The North American Review 152 (May, 1891), pp. 602–12. Lodge had written his essay after eleven Italians were lynched in New Orleans. He blamed the victims and proposed tougher restrictions on immigration to forestall such tragedies.

[24] See Thomas H. O’Connor, The Boston Irish: A Political History (Boston, 1995), p. 156.

[25] Henry Cabot Lodge, “The Day We Celebrate,” Speeches (Boston, 1892), p. 46.

[26] Henry Cabot Lodge, “The Great Peril of Unrestricted Immigration,” reprinted in The New Century Speaker for School and College, ed. by Henry Allyn Frink (Boston, 1898), pp. 177-79.

[27] Franz Boas, “A Year Among the Eskimo,” reprinted in A Franz Boas Reader: The Shaping of Modern Anthropology, ed. by George W. Stocking Jr. (Chicago, 1974), p. 55.

[28] See the essays collected in Franz Boas, Race and Democratic Society (New York, 1969; originally published in 1945) and “The Real Race Problem” Crisis 1 (November 1910), pp. 22-25.

[29] Malvasi, “Good Fences,” pp. 155-56.

[30] Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty (New York, 1909), see also Royce, The Problem of Christianity (Chicago, 1968; originally published in 1918), pp. 41-42, 95-96, 125-30, 217-20. A helpful guide to Royce’s philosophy of loyalty is Mathew A. Foust, Loyalty to Loyalty: Josiah Royce and the Genuine Moral Life (New York, 2012).

[31] Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, pp. 115-16.

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