Shaping America: Immigration in the Age of Mass Migration

Updated on October 29, 2018
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ata1515 is a student of history, focusing on the modern, medieval, and ancient histories of Europe.

Land of Oppurtunity

Since being rediscovered by Columbus the New World has enchanted the old with tales of men rising from obscurity to own their own land. For many immigrants the America’s were a chance to redefine generations of social order, and nowhere more so than in the United States.

The United States became a symbol of hope and escape across Europe, a chance to be free of the social order established in the Medieval Period. Elitism, land bondage, and control of the levers of trade in Europe have historically been held by small groups of people, but as industrialization cruised forward, people had become just another commodity. Escaping the wars and political domination of Europe helped to fuel a population surge in the USA.

In 1850 90% of foreign born people in the United States were from Great Britain, Germany and Ireland.(1) This number would staggeringly change throughout the Age of Mass Migration, and despite the changing language, culture, and religions of the people who came to the USA assimilation and income per capita continued to grow

Push Factors in the Age of Mass Migration

The Age of Mass Migration saw the USA grow from a regional power to a Great Power on the world stage. In Europe the old empires of France and Spain were withering as the growing power of Prussia created the German Empire and Sardinia united Italy.

The Holy Roman Empire was a massive super state encompassing the entirety of Central Europe and extending down into the Italian peninsula. By the end of the 18th century the German states had largely aligned with either Prussia in Northern Europe, or Austria, on the eastern edge of Europe. Meanwhile the Italian states had been broken off by constant war between the French, Austrians and Spanish.

The Napoleonic Wars ravaged Europe. The German states were decimated, but by the middle of the 19th century Prussia was preeminent, and they used war to corral the weaker German states away from Austria and formed a new empire. Protestant Prussia took control of largely catholic lands that had been loyal to Austria. Religious and political dissidents were pushed out.

Much of the same occurred on the Italian peninsula, as the old powers of Austria and France waned, local lords united the weaker states by rallying people to war with Austria. Those that chose the wrong side during the uprisings would quickly find themselves without land or home in a place that had too many hungry mouths to feed.

Endless war led to hunger, and the hungry searched for new, prosperous lands. They would find them in the USA.

Pull Factors for Immigration

Immigration to the USA was not simply from people fleeing their homeland, but from the abundance present in the American industry. Immigrants brought with them a desire to work and grow. While there was some social blowback, the economy was given a massive boost.

By 1910 38% of workers in northern cities were foreign born.(2) Thirty million immigrants had come to the USA in the waning years of the 19th century buoyed by higher wages, cheaper travel, and political freedom. Growing immigration had a clear positive benefit to the American economy, and led to greater and greater income per capita.

The Civil War decimated the American population. So many people dying left an opening in the American economic scene. Immigration was an open door, people simply had to show up to be allowed in. In large cities these people would gain contracts to go from the boat to the factory right on the docks as they landed.

Westward expansion also helped to fuel the need for more immigrants. Construction of railroads drew immigrants from all corners of the world, and the lands the railroads opened created great swathes of space for people to settle in.

Immigrants forged the steel and tools used to build the railroads that other immigrants used to build said railroads. They fought in the American army and rebuilt the nation after the devastation of the Civil War. Time would change the nations view of immigration though.

Assimilation and Immigration Reform

The America’s of the 19th century had an open borders policy. If you would come to the USA, pay taxes, and defend liberty you were welcome. Early immigrants shared cultural and linguistic similarities to their new neighbors, and this allowed for continued harmony, but as immigration expanded to Eastern Europe things began to change.

As immigrants became less Western European crime, discrimination, and urban sprawl began to trap and encourage immigrants to create cultural ghettoes. Where self-segregation occurred people stopped assimilating into the cultural fabric of the USA. More than anything else these cultural ghettoes accelerated the pushback against immigrants that led to quotas and closed doors in the 20th century, but even immigrants with no Anglo-German background were eventually brought into the American melting pot.

Laws were passed forcing children into public schools, teaching them English and American liberty so that they might assimilate into society. These policies helped to grow a new generation of Americans to replace the hyphenated-Americans that had come over.

As immigrants formed poor urban ghettoes the natives drew up laws blocking immigration from less desirable nations. History shows that immigration is a force for good in the nation, so long as the proper resources are devoted to protecting against the dangers of the social issues that follow.

Further Reading

(1) Sequeira S, Nunn N, Qian N. Immigrants and the Making of America. Review of Economic Studies. Forthcoming.

(2) Abramitzky, Ran, Leah Platt Boustan, and Katherine Eriksson. "A Nation of Immigrants: Assimilation and Economic Outcomes in the Age of Mass Migration." Journal of Political Economy 122, no. 3 (2014): 467-506. doi:10.1086/675805.


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    • Larry Slawson profile image

      Larry Slawson 

      20 months ago from North Carolina

      Interesting article! Thank you for sharing :)


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