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Immigration and Social Amelioration
By Joseph Schafer (Volume IV: Page 54)

Benjamin Franklin in 1751 wrote in some alarm about the danger that Pennsylvania, established as an English colony, might ultimately become, through unrestricted immigration, a German society. He said: "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs any more than they can acquire our complexion?" He added the curious observation that the Germans, save only the Saxons, were swarthy in color. We have a good chance in America, he said, to increase "the lovely white and red." {1}

This statement, written one hundred and eighty years ago, is a mild but authentic prophecy of our general discussion of immigration in recent years. The prevailing tone is minatory; the immigrant is under accusation. Symbols of the current thought concerning him are the rubrics under which men write and speak of him. Some of these, selected at random, are: "the road to ruin," "the alien flood," "the swamping of the great race," "closing the gates," "the quota," "national origins," "reforging America."

While no thoughtful patriot can blink the fact that immigration during the past forty years has justified much of the alarm which these expressions disclose, the historian has no difficulty in recalling a series of phrases symbolical of a very different attitude; for up to about half a century ago it was customary to speak of the incoming foreigners as "our adoptive citizens," "our necessary labor supply," "our imported wealth," "seekers of liberty," and "developers of our national resources." True, there were hectic interludes when, due to the acerbity of American party contests, the foreigner, got themselves well hated and gave rise to programs for limiting their participation in public life. Also, their nonconformity to certain extreme Sabbatarian and other Puritan customs caused occasional restiveness. But on the whole immigrants were regarded as an unalloyed economic advantage to America and usually as at least not a social detriment.

Analysis will reveal why this was so. For the most part, historians have concerned themselves to explain the forces through which foreigners coming to this country have become "Americanized." It is natural that we should remain measurably unconscious of the ways in which Americans, remaining at home and inviting contact with immigrants, have become "foreignized." Yet it can readily be shown that vital changes in American life, American thinking, and American customs have taken place in consequence of immigration. Perhaps the present is the proper time to call attention to what we owe to the immigrant because the contemplation of this factor should render us more just and politic in our methods of carrying out the national resolve to maintain the purity of our American character and of our institutions.

Carl Schurz, in speaking for the German element, practically spoke for all foreign elements of the earlier immigrations when he wrote: "The mission of Germanism in America, about which some speak so loudly, can consist in nothing other than a modification of the American spirit through the German, while the nationalities melt into one." {2} All were destined to be American, Germans of the second generation adopting the established American language and American institutions; but yet all would be different Americans by reason of the contact of natives with the Germans. What, then, let us ask, are some of the ways in which the American spirit of a century ago could have been modified advantageously?

Officially, the history of immigration in this country begins about 1820. Despite large aggregate admixtures of other racial stocks with the original English, despite the virtual colonization by foreigners of a few sections like some of the Pennsylvania counties, the American population of 1820 was a reasonably coherent social mass. In the North, its spirit was dominated by a kind of Puritanism, deformed through two centuries of separation from old world influences which, on the one hand, helped to maintain its conscious militant purity, and on the other insinuated into it many a cultural grace to which the conscious Puritan spirit was naturally repugnant.

We are dealing particularly with the North, for during many years prior to the Civil War, immigration touched the South only gingerly, though in the course of the western advance the northern and southern movements coalesced at some points, thereby mutually modifying each other. It was the Yankeefied Puritan, or interior New Englander, who constituted the warp in the great loom of destiny on which a new social pattern for the American North was to be woven. The woof would exhibit diverse non-assimilated strands of the older American stock, but would consist mainly of Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Bohemians, Dutch, Belgians, and French, aside from the newer accretions from England, Wales, and Scotland.

What kind of "socius," to use the sociologists' nomenclature, was the "Yankee"? He was one of the most remarkable compounds of desirable and undesirable human qualities the world had ever seen. Rendered physically virile and resistant through a hard contest, continued for five generations, with reluctant nature, he was, as so often painted, the beau ideal of the free, continental pioneer. But, at the same time, and due to the same determining causes, he was socially "hard, stubborn, and indomitably intractable." Many Yankees, as Timothy Dwight declared, were true "foresters "-- too idle, "shiftless," "talkative," "passionate," to live in what to him was ordered society. "They are," he wrote, "impatient of the restraints of law, religion, and morality, grumble about the taxes by which rulers, ministers and school masters are supported -- at the same time they are usually possessed, in their own view, of uncommon wisdom; understand medical science, politics, and religion better than those who have studied them through life." Providence, he thought, had mercifully segregated those people from the sober, orderly Easterners, and given them a limitless outlet in the West.

Cut off from those contacts with Europe enjoyed by what he regarded as the "effete" East -- which meant the narrow rim of seaport cities -- the interior New Englander had learned to get along without "culture," as this term was understood in Europe. He was generally literate, he possessed an abounding curiosity, read what came to his hand, had opinions on all subjects. He was proverbially handy with tools, the best ax-man in the world, a good "bucksaw" carpenter, able also to lay up walls and chimneys with mortar and stone, to tinker iron and tinware, mend harness and perhaps make his children's shoes. In short, he could do all the things which a self-sufficing pioneer life compelled men to learn to do if they were not to suffer severely.

Every western community, after the first primitive period, would be able to show a certain leaven of more cultured Americans from the eastern cities, or from the colleges. These were mainly the families of professional men, of merchants, and manufacturers. But the backbone of society in the western states and territories was rural, and rural life had about it all of the crudity which was characteristic of the interior Yankee "forester" type.

Fortunately, this type did not often or long remain modified, and it was such sound and admirable material that it readily took a high polish when subjected to the right environment like the eastern colleges. Also, it responded to the gentle, indirect influence of changing environments at home. And everywhere in the West, families from one or another of the European states soon mingled with the American pioneers who were building up the new communities. At first these newcomers were not looked upon with social favor, unless they spoke English and were not Catholic. The Irish were obliged to fight for recognition; but, being quite ready to do that, they made their way. The "Dutch" tended to get forward more slowly, but ultimately gained a social foothold through their talent for prosperity and their ability to outskill the Americans in handicrafts, to contribute to social amenities through their music, and to excel in the schools. This statement will apply also to the Norwegians and some of the other classes of immigrants named.

Foreigners were doubtless less inventive than the Yankees. But having been regularly and systematically trained in particular handicrafts, their skill as shoemakers, blacksmiths, wagon makers, carpenters, and cabinet makers, mill wrights, plasterers, masons, bricklayers, locksmiths, jewelers, watchmakers, easily surpassed that of native practitioners of the same crafts. This was soon recognized. In the rural neighborhood best known to the writer in boyhood the mechanic arts were monopolized by Germans, Scandinavians, and Bohemians, native mechanics having been eliminated promptly in the competition with European trained workers. Equally important was the appeal of young men wishing to learn any of the "trades," to these foreign born masters, whom they were glad to serve as apprentices. In this way the skills developed in the course of ages under the most approved systems of transmission, came to be naturalized in all our western states, contributing to the building up not only of our material civilization, but of our social morale as well.

The above, however, represents only the cruder phase of Europe's influence on American life, as exerted through the immigrations. The immigrants in many cases, and those in the old world who sponsored them, were well aware of other ways in which they might modify the American spirit. In his poem Die Auswanderer des Ahrthals (The Emigrants from the Ahr Valley), Gottfried Kinkel admonishes the emigrating family:

So zieht denn hin mit eurem kargen Gute,
Ein Einzelkorn in jener Vø1kersaat!
Und wenn in Zukunft aus gemischtem Blute
Ein einig Volk wird, eins in Sinn und That.
Dann gebt hinzu die Keusche deutsche Ehre,
Dann haltet fest den redlich deutschen Muth,
Mit frommem Sinne pflegt des Geists Altäire--
Und weckt im kalten Volk der Künste Glut!

This may be rendered, though with much artistic loss, as follows:

Go forward with your scant supply of goods,
A single grain in yon new nation's seed!
And if in future out of mingled blood
Comes forth a people one in thought and deed,
Contribute ye the German honor chaste,
Let not the candid German mood depart.
In piety serve altars of the spirit,
And wake in colder hearts the love of art.

The poem was written in 1842. That was the year the emigration fever first struck the beautiful, retired, peaceful Ahr valley, a kind of earthly paradise to students from the near-by university of Bonn, whose vacation excursions were so often directed thither, especially in the season of wine making. The upper reaches of the valley, used for general agriculture and pasturage, had been growing steadily less productive with the years, while the population had been increasing. Poverty for many families was the result. In the wine growing middle and lower sections, a succession of partial or total failures of the grape crop brought hardships also to many vintners, the agricultural aristocracy of the Rhineland. Hence, both types of cultivators were ready for a new opening and the movement became intense. Hardly a family in the upper valley but sent one or more of its members to Michigan; some villages were almost depopulated. One village considered giving up its organization, selling its commons to the neighboring lord, and going to America in a body, "the priest at the head with banner and cross." {3}

These people are described as a sober, industrious, hard working peasantry, who had been growing poorer and poorer for a number of years, practically from 1804, when a terrific freshet covered much of the best cultivable land with sand and gravel, rendering it almost worthless. What could such folk do, to advance the "love of art" according to the poet's injunction?

Limitations to their efficacy as inspirers of beauty would quickly appear. Yet, in some directions even such settlers could help the Americans. Having, in the homeland, beautiful churches, some of them three or four hundred years old, their instinctive taste in architecture would lay the basis for improvement in one direction. The rich carvings of chancel, altar, and pulpit, the paintings by old masters on the walls, the sculptures in the niches and the fabricated treasures of the vestry, exhibited on the high festivals -- all these, though matters of course to Ahr villagers at home, would become objects of longing to the exiles and would be provocative also of pride and of emulation. Then there was the organization of the church music, in which a retired German, French, or Italian village might easily supply ideals to the proudest city churches in America. There were the folk tales and folk songs, which wove a mystical epic about the castle ruins so romantically crowning the heights in the view of all valley dwellers. There were the colorful pageants, such as that of Corpus Christi, when the ancient society of the Schutzen (guard) fully armed and in brilliant medieval regalia, led the procession, choral music and orchestral music alternating effectively during the progress of the dignified celebration. Then, too, the festivities of May day and the religious and social emphasis on the month of May help to explain the passion for beauty in growing plants which was a feature in the transit of culture to the New World. Though Americans, too, loved flowers, there was among the Yankees no such worship of Flora as one is conscious of among the Irish and the Germans. That gentle goddess meliorates the seasons of spring and summer. For the rigors of winter the German Christmas proved so enticing to Americans as gradually to displace the forbidding Puritan conception of that significant anniversary.

We have spoken of "common" immigrants and of what they had to give to Americans in return for the gifts of political freedom, equality before the law, and economic opportunity which our new society conferred upon them and which, through the agency of free popular instruction, and of participation in public affairs so rapidly changed them from Europeans to Americans. The larger influence was exerted by highly educated physicians, theologians, journalists, lawyers, poets, orators, and statesmen. Many such were among the immigrants from the countries mentioned, as witness the names of Edward G. Ryan, Edward Salomon, Hans C. Heg, and Carl Jonas of Wisconsin; Koerner, Hecker, and Hoffman of Illinois; Stallo of Ohio; and Knute Nelson of Minnesota -- to mention only a few and of these only men who engaged prominently in public life. Religious inequalities, political persecution, and the call to lead their countrymen settled in the New World were among the motives bringing to America a representation of the intellectual aristocracy of Europe.

The immigration of such men affected the whole current of American thought and training; it laid the basis for a more general cultural interchange with Europe through the sending abroad of American students; it gave the masses of the American people concrete proofs of the superiority in many respects of the Old World achievements over New World achievements, and stimulated our desire to learn.

Americans are aware, at least dimly, of what our present culture owes to the adoption half a century ago of the European idea of university training for scholarship and the professions. Such an early ascent to the intellectual planes of Göttingen, Upsala, and Paris would not have been possible but for the intellectual ministry of a Lieber, a Sylvester, an Agassiz. The mission of immigration of the best nineteenth century types, to paraphrase Carl Schurz, has been nothing other than to produce a modification of the American spirit through the supplementing attributes of the immigrating groups, while the nationalities have melted into one -- a higher American type.


<1> Benjamln Franklin, Complete Works, 2:233-234, 296-299 (edited by John Bigelow -- New York, 1887).

<2> Letter to his wife, St. Louis, July 8, x867, in Joseph Schafer, ed., Intimate Letters of Carl Schurz, 383 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1928).

<3> Kinkel, Die Ahr (Bonn, 1845).

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