Institute of History, Archaeology and Education
Let us bring the excitement and wonder of history and archaeology to your classrooms, meeting rooms, and libraries.

When Germans Were Hispanic
When Catholics Were Moslem
When Republicans Admired Lincoln

Who Is an American? The Immigrant Experience in American History
Peter Feinman

Editor's note: The recent Supreme Court decision about Arizona's controversial immigration control law has brought the issue of immigration back into the spotlight of American politics, and has done so in an election year. Before the Supreme Court's ruling, which upheld the law's most debated aspect but struck down several others, immigration issues simmered just outside of the spotlight thanks in part to President Obama's decision not to deport illegal aliens of a certain age who were brought into the country by their parents. This decision comes in a context of significantly more muscular enforcement of the law, which had put the Administration at least potentially on the wrong political side of Hispanic community activists. As we have noted, this is an election year.

Immigration comes and goes as an issue, and it has done so with particular alacrity over the past two decades. Each time it arrives it does so in at least slightly different garb and in a slightly different context. The American Interest has published several essays dealing with immigration over the years; it has always been in or near our spotlight because it is a very important and unresolved problem. Some years ago Daniel DiSalvo reviewed the train wreck of immigration policy in the George W. Bush Administration and set forth a formula that a new administration and a new Congress could use to get the job done. Unfortunately, it appears that no one took his advice. (You're shocked, I know.) More recently, Bob Litan lamented how misshapen U.S. immigration policies are, justifiably seeing a shift in how we think about immigration as a low hanging fruit available for harvest in difficult economic times. And even more recently former Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe reviewed the issue, including the Arizona episode itself, and some of its pertinent history for us.

We now offer our readers a more historical and philosophical essay, one that puts the issue into an even deeper and more valuable context. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Supreme Court decision, one with which the Chief Justice agreed, to the surprise of many, is that there is no basis for criminalizing the simple fact of being an undocumented alien on American soil. This may come as a shock to many conservatives, but as the essay below shows, this judgment aligns perfectly with the legal and cultural traditions of this country.

This is a story of three dead white English-American males and immigration to America. It is not the story of every wave of immigration that has crested on our shores, but of some of them. It is not the story of every reaction to these immigrations, but only to some of them. And it is not a story just about immigrations in the past, for the story of immigration to America is part and parcel of the story of what it means to be an American right here, and right now. I won't be coy: These stories can shed light on the path we have taken, and the one we need to take today. They are lesson bearers, for those who would learn them.

America's First “Hispanics”

Ben Franklin was upset, very upset. His adopted colony was being overrun by the wrong kind of people. Everything he hoped to accomplish now stood threatened by new immigrants who were overwhelming the native English of good stock. Here is how Franklin described the situation in 1751, in “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling the Countries, Etc.”:

Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and, by herding together, establish their Language and Manners, to the Exclusion of ours? 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 Anglicifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs any more than they can acquire our complexion? The complexion to which Franklin was referring was that of the English, meaning these Germans could never become one with “us” English people. Franklin specifically referred to “Anglicifying” them lest Pennsylvania become a German colony. Various maladies such as smallpox, dysentery and scurvy became known to Philadelphia residents as “Palatine Fever.” “Palatine Boors” was the disparaging epithet of choice adopted by society's betters, including Franklin.

Two years later, in 1753, Franklin expressed his concerns in a letter that in time would become a definitive part of the immigrant process. He wrote that the Germans in Pennsylvania generally were “the most stupid of their own nation” and he questioned their ability to cope with the liberty on offer in America. He objected to signs in two languages and to Germans importing their books and producing German-language works in America. He feared that “they will soon outnumber us.”

Thus a pattern had begun at the center of which was the mysterious dynamic of distinguishing between “alien hordes” and Americans-by-choice. In this case matters were resolved fairly quickly when it became clear that German immigrants were willing to put their lives on the line to prove their loyalty. Unlike the enemy Hessians from the American Revolution, these German immigrants were solidly in support of the war for independence and the liberty it promised.

Now let's flash forward to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Additional waves of German emigration led to a peaking of America's German-born population in around 1890. The Pennsylvania-German Society, formed in 1891, focused on early German emigration to that state. German-Americans now reflected on their participation in American history and their observations shed light on how the immigrant experience to America has played out in the past. Thus, to take but one example, a German pastor in 1897 wrote The Story of the Palatines: An Episode in Colonial History that employed imagery with which the Puritan settlers to America would have been familiar:

It was an exodus in the full sense in which the Bible story has taught us to use that word-a going forth from the house of bondage to a land of promise. It was not the incoming of a rabble of distressed humanity, hurried onward by the mere force of their misery [and who are] objects only for compassion. Note the obviously deliberate contrast between the hallowed German emigration narrative, one comparable to that of the Puritans, with the then-contemporary tired and wretched Ellis Island immigrants who were then flooding the land in 1897.

In 1900, too, the German-American historian Frank Diffenderffer (1833-1921) employed exodus imagery that would have done Plymouth Pilgrim William Bradford proud:

A chain of fortuitous circumstances seems to have been forged in the Divine workshop linking a series of events that finally culminated in the most remarkable, as it is also the most interesting, migration of a people from one country to another, although separated by thousands of miles of watery waste, which the world has ever seen.

In further describing the journey, Diffenderffer wrote (and remember this was in 1900):

The story of their treatment on shipboard equals all the horrors of the “middle passage” during the African slave traffic, while here, land sharks in the shape of the commission merchant and money broker, stood ready upon their arrival to complete the work of spoilation and plunder. Diffenderffer asserted the equal position of German emigrants within the evolving American civil religion by comparing their harsh treatment to the ultimate iconic voyage, that of the Mayflower.

The whole history of American colonization may confidently be challenged to represent so pathetic and sorrowful a tale [as the mistreatment of the German emigrants]. The voyage of the “Mayflower” has been told and retold in song and story. It is the entire stock of certain writers. Who were these writers of the Mayflower voyage? Diffenderffer was referring not to dead white males but to living New Englanders, living Cambridge men, living Harvard men, the academic elitists who wrote the American history books of the 19th century that privileged the role of the New England Puritans and overlooked or minimized the role not just of Germans but of Scotch-Irish and Southerners in the founding and peopling of the United States. This was long before women and blacks back in the fabled Sixties clamored to have their voices included in the American master narrative.

Of course, notwithstanding the glitch that developed during World War I, the Germans succeeded, and in doing so they more or less created the modern mold of inclusion in the American narrative. They succeeded so well that today German-Americans are considered fully American and there is little mention or use of their hyphen. The German-American community produced two American Presidents, Herbert Hoover and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and two of the greatest baseball players, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

That German-Americans found their place within the American covenantal community was aided no doubt by the fact that they were Christians and, in the main, not Catholic but Protestant Christians. German-American historians helped the process along by praising the German colonial experience, German anti-slavery sentiment and Germans' patriotic participation in the American Revolution. But suppose an immigrant people can't replicate these qualities or rely on this history? How do they become part of the American covenant experience?

America's First “Muslims”

Samuel F. B. Morse was upset, very upset. The Hudson Valley was being overrun by the wrong kind of people. Everything he hoped to accomplish was being threatened by the new immigrants who were overwhelming the natives (who now included Dutch and Germans as well as English) of good stock. Here is how the painter and future inventor of the telegraph described the situation in Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1835) based on a series of articles he had written for the New York Observer:

Foreign immigrants are flocking to our shores in increased numbers, two thirds at least are Roman Catholics, and of the most ignorant classes, and thus pauperism and crime are alarmingly increased. . . . The great body of emigrants to this country are the hard-working, mentally neglected poor of Catholic countries in Europe, who have left a land where they were enslaved, for one of freedom. . . .They are not fitted to act with the judgment in the political affairs of their new country, like native citizens, educated from their infancy in the principles and habits of our institutions. Most of them are too ignorant to act at all for themselves, and expect to be guided wholly by others [the priests].Morse's ire against a supposed great papal conspiracy was, if not a majority opinion at the time, very popular. And we recognize the idiom he used as well:

If Popery is tolerant, let us see Italy, Austria, and Spain open their doors to the teachers of the Protestant faith. The conspirators against our liberties . . . are now organized in every part of the country; they are all subordinates, standing in regular steps of slave and master . . . the great master-slave Metternich, who commands and obeys his illustrious Master, the Emperor [of Austria-Hungary]. . . . It is a war, and all true patriots must wake to the cry of danger. They must up and gird themselves for battle. It is no false alarm. Our liberties are in danger. The Philistines are upon us. Morse's song is still sung today. His words have been updated to our words: “If Popery is tolerant (today we would say “If Islam is a religion of peace”), let us see Italy, Austria, and Spain (today we would say “Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan”), open their doors to the teachers of the Protestant faith (if they want to build a mosque at ground zero).

Morse was not finished: “Where Popery has put darkness, we must put light. Where Popery has planted its crosses, its colleges, its churches, its chapels, its nunneries, Protestant patriotism must put side by side college for college, seminary for seminary, church for church.” Morse called for naturalization laws to prevent the lifeboat of the world from capsizing: “Our naturalization laws were never intended to convert this land into the almshouse of Europe.” Morse didn't want Europe's tired, its poor and its enslaved masses incapable of being free-he didn't want the Catholics and he certainly didn't want the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Jews of Eastern and Central Europe whose odyssey to American shores had yet to begin in earnest in the mid-1830s. Don't send your wretched refuse to me. Instead, he wrote that,

we must have the [naturalization] law so amended that no FOREIGNER WHO MAY COME INTO THIS COUNTRY, AFTER THE PASSAGE OF THE NEW LAW, SHALL EVER BE ALLOWED EXERCISE THE ELECTIVE FRANCHISE. This alone meets evil in its fullest extent. At the time Morse and others were writing such things there was a great concern in the land that the Mississippi Valley, not yet the heartland, and America in general were under siege. The papal minions were fanning out across the country spreading their pagan ways among God-fearing Protestants and they had to be stopped. America had to be saved from the clutches of this global religious conspiracy of people not capable of freedom and liberty and slaves to their overseas master. “War must be fought” is Morse's title for chapter 9. How was this war to be fought? Morse knew:

And what are the weapons of this warfare? The Bible, the Tract, the Infant Schools, the Sunday school for all classes, the academy for all classes, the college and the university for all classes, a free press. . . . These all are weapons of Protestantism, weapons unknown to Popery! As already noted, Morse by no means was alone in his views about the threat to America. The Know-Nothing Party arose in large part out of anti-Catholic bigotry, and it had non-trivial support in its day. But it also had its detractors, and against these Morse also took aim. Writing in 1835, Morse characterized the media as saying his chosen war was “the fruits of an intolerant, bigoted, fanatical spirit, and the revival of ancient prejudices”, but he would have none of it: “We have fallen on strange times, indeed, when subjects of the deepest political importance to the country may not be mooted in the political journals of the day without meeting the indiscriminating hostility and denunciations of such journals.”

So what happened to this immigrant group? Catholics did not fully participate in Civil War, seeing it in part as a war between two English groups. Many Irish immigrants signed up and fought, on both sides, but the Irish did not particularly welcome the emancipation of blacks-as well attested by the history of antebellum mob violence led by Irish against Negro communities in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Its true baptism by blood into the American covenant community occurred during World War I. Think of the great patriotic songs of George M. Cohan, later brilliantly portrayed by Jimmy Cagney in the midst of another great war. Think also of the death of Joseph Kennedy, Jr. before John Kennedy became the first and only Irish-American President (so far). And to continue the cultural diagnostic of baseball, think of the John McGraw era, when baseball was an urban game and the Irish played it very well indeed.

Unlike the Germans, the Irish could not look back on their colonial, Revolutionary or Civil War past. But they did learn to sing Yankee Doodle Dandy and write musicals about George Washington and meet with President Roosevelt during some of America's darkest hours. In fact, now there even is a book How the Irish Became White (by Noel Ignatiev), which is an American way of recognizing that those who once were foreign now belong. White, you know, is not a color but an attitude. For Franklin, the Saxons and the English made “the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth” while the “swarthy Complexion” Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, Swedes, and non-Saxon Germans were not. Imagine if our Census forms in 2010 contained that classification system! By those standards none of our Supreme Court Judges are white and all of them who judged the immigrant laws are themselves part of the immigrant experience.

America's Greatest President

This next group is one not often associated with the immigration movement to America, but, all the same, it deserves inclusion here in this brief “memory stick”-and yes, I do mean “stick” in both senses. Let's begin with the third dead white English-American male speaking in a debate with Stephen Douglas on July 10, 1858, in Chicago. The future President was redefining how one was to define an American in a way those who despise Lincoln have not yet learned.

We are now a mighty nation, we are thirty-or about thirty millions of people, and we own and inhabit about one-fifteenth part of the dry land of the whole earth. We run our memory back over the pages of history for about eighty-two years and we discover that we were then a very small people in point of numbers, vastly inferior to what we are now, with a vastly less extent of country,-with vastly less of everything we deem desirable among men,-we look upon the change as exceedingly advantageous to us and to our posterity, and we fix upon something that happened away back, as in some way or other being connected with this rise of prosperity. We find a race of men living in that day whom we claim as our fathers and grandfathers; they were iron men, they fought for the principle that they were contending for; and we understood that by what they then did it has followed that the degree of prosperity that we now enjoy has come to us. We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves-we feel more attached the one to the other and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit. Notice what Abraham Lincoln was doing here. In this July 10 speech, he reminded Americans that it is the annual celebration of July 4 that links the people of the present to the heroic forefathers who had created and built this prosperous country four-score and two years ago. This connection he referred to seems biological in nature. But suppose one wasn't a Son or a Daughter of the American Revolution? Could one still fully celebrate July 4? Now listen to Lincoln's answer:

In every way we are better men in the age, and race, and country in which we live for these celebrations. But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men-descended by blood from our ancestors-among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe-German, Irish, French and Scandinavian-men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

For Lincoln, one did not need to be a blood-descendant of the American Revolution to be one with the spirit of the event. Through adherence to the principles of the Declaration of Independence every American stood as one with those who had fought and died for America's birth. The new Republican Party that Lincoln had joined was the immigrant party (except maybe not so clearly the party of the Irish), the party whose political interests were served by reaching out newly arrived and would-be Americans. By disavowing immigrant restrictions it succeeded in holding on to a fair share of the foreign-born vote, especially among younger Protestant voters. These immigrants from Scandinavia, France and Cornwall, among other places, supported Lincoln, Union and America.

So now think again about these familiar words from the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” When Lincoln said “our fathers” he knew that many people in the audience were not descendants of those who had founded the country. But Lincoln was not excluding them by this word choice, for by examining his words from five years earlier we see that he knew how much of America and the support of the Union depended on the immigrants to this country. In 1858 he had merely referred to the “moral sentiments” that connected the immigrants to the Founding Fathers; now, in the midst of the Civil War, he asserted they had been baptized by blood into the American covenant community. Those who fought to preserve the Union stood as one with those who had fought in the war to create the Union. They sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic with the same gusto that Americans once had sung Yankee Doodle Dandy. They were Americans.

And so it goes. The Ellis Island-era immigrants, those who came between 1892 and 1921, were baptized by blood into the American covenant community during our last great war, our “good war.” These immigrants produced a new still-unofficial national anthem sung during the seventh-inning stretch in ballparks throughout the land. These immigrants bequeathed to American mythology not just the Lower East Side but a place called Brooklyn, where maybe next year the Dodgers would win the Series. These immigrants gave us a Miracle on 34th Street, “White Christmas” even, a parade on Thanksgiving and fireworks on July 4 as the Statue of Liberty, and not the Liberty Bell, became the penultimate symbol of the continuing American Revolution. The ancestors of Ellis Island have become Americans, too.

But what of the future? What of the new immigrants to America? What of the immigrants who have come since the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 abolished quotas and immigrants flocked here from all over the world? Do they, or will they ever consider George Washington the father of their country? Will they think of Thanksgiving and July 4 as their holidays, or as just a day off from school and work? Will we have to fight another cataclysmic war so that these immigrants may be baptized by blood into the American covenant community? Or will this country just be a place where they happen to live?

The answers to these questions depend not just on what new immigrants think and do. It depends as much on who we think we are, and how we express our identity. Schools were a legendary part of the process by which immigrants became Americans-by-Choice, Americans-in-spirit. As the Common Core Curriculum revises the K-12 curriculum throughout the land, what will the role of social studies be in future? What will be taught about immigration? How will the newcomers to this country develop a sense of place, a sense of belonging, a sense of community in their new homeland? These are the questions being discussed or ignored in secrecy as schools wrestle with these issues. Just because immigrants succeeded in becoming Americans in the past doesn't mean they will succeed in the future. There is nothing automatic about the process. As we celebrate the Sesquicentennial of the Homestead Act, the Morrill-Land-Grant Colleges Act, and the Pacific Railway Act launching the Transcontinental Railroad, I am reminded that even without the Civil War Abraham Lincoln was a great President who understood America as a great work always in progress. To fulfill the American Dream in the 21st century, our immigrant country needs to be inspired not just by Lincoln's monument and his legacy, but by people who reach for his vision, his eloquence, and his leadership. Lincoln may belong to the ages, but does he still belong to America?


Institute of History, Archaeology and Education
PO Box 41, Purchase, NY 10577




Discover the Excitement of
History and Archaeology

Teacherhostels™ :: Mission Statement :: Membership :: Education Programs
Staff :: Press Releases :: Contact :: Home :: Site Map

Copyright © 2010, - All Rights reserved