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Young Republic, 1815–60

June 2024
7min read

Jefferson’s optimistic vision of an always enlightened and open-minded America has survived as a hotly contested influence on the land. But his expectation that the nation would remain permanently agrarian was totally wrong. Half a century after he left the White House, steam power had transformed the country. Inventors and investors proved the truest American radicals. Steamboats and rail lines crisscrossed a Union that spread to the Pacific and boasted more than thirty states. Mills, mines, factories, distilleries, packinghouses, and shipyards yearly churned out millions of dollars’ worth of manufactured goods.

And it was linked to mass immigration. Immigrants furnished much of the labor that made the productive explosion possible and many of the consumers who made it profitable. The same industrializing processes that were at work and opened jobs here uprooted millions in Europe whose handicrafts became obsolete or whose land fell into the hands of those who could farm more “efficiently.” Two decades of Napoleonic warfare, followed by three more of suppressed democratic and nationalist revolution, created a new reservoir of suffering from which emigration offered an escape.

America was a major beneficiary. Europe’s growing cities and new overseas dominions beckoned, but the United States was the special promised land as the nineteenth century took its dynamic course. Fewer than 8,000 immigrants per year landed on American shores between 1783 and 1815, but 2,598,000 came in the next forty-five years: 1,500,000 in the 1840s and 3,000,000 in the 1850s. The pre-Civil War period of immigration belonged predominantly to 1,500,000 Germans and 2,000,000 Irish. It was the Irish whose transplantation was most shadowed in tragedy. Unbelievably, Ireland—only a few hours by water from the very center of the modern world in England—was stricken by the oldest of Biblical scourges, famine.

Irish migration had begun early. The rich English absentee landlords who ruled the country left their peasant tenants to feed themselves on the potatoes grown on tiny plots. A visitor declared that “the most miserable of English paupers” was better off. Irish Catholics and Irish nationalists were equally despised and frustrated. There was little future, and thousands, early in the century, migrated to the United States to find pick-and-shovel jobs on the growing network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads. But in 1845 the stream of opportunity seekers was turned into a flood of refugees. The potato crop, smitten by a fungus, failed in three successive years. Mass starvation was the result. In the hovels inhabited by the “Paddies,” rats gnawed on unburied bodies while others in their death throes looked on, too weak to move. “All with means are emigrating,” wrote one official; “only the utterly destitute are left behind.”

Victims of the “Great Hunger” were not through with their torments when they boarded filthy, overcrowded, and underprovisioned ships, where, said one witness, it was “a daily occurrence to see starving women and children fight for the food which was brought to the dogs and pigs that were kept on deck.” En route 10 to 20 percent of them died of disease. In the United States, lacking capital and prepared only for low-level employment, they were crammed into the new urban slums. Some were housed, according to an investigation committee, nine in a room in windowless and waterless cellars, “huddled together like brutes without regard to age or sex or sense of decency.”

It was a little better for the Germans. Many were professionals and scholars with some capital, political refugees rather than disaster victims. Some came in groups that pooled their money to buy cheap Western lands, and these founded towns like New UIm in Minnesota or New Braunfels in Texas. So many of them became Texans, in fact, that in 1843 the state published a German edition of its laws. An American reporter visited a German farm in Texas in 1857. “You are welcomed,” he told readers, “by a figure in a blue flannel shirt and pendant beard, quoting Tacitus, having in one hand a long pipe, in the other a butcher’s knife; Madonnas upon log-walls; coffee in tin cups upon Dresden saucers; barrels for seats to hear a Beethoven’s symphony on the grand piano.”

German farmers spread through Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. German brewers, bookbinders, butchers, musicians, and other craftspeople settled cohesively and proudly in cities from New York to New Orleans, St. Eouis to Cincinnati. In 1860, 100,000 New York Germans supported twenty churches, fifty German-language schools, ten bookstores, five printing establishments, and a theater, in neighborhoods known collectively as Kleindeutschland (little Germany). To contemporaries the Germans seemed a model minority, the Irish a problem minority—a kind of generalizing that would, in time, be transferred to other peoples.

To their contemporaries, the Germans seemed a model minority, the Irish a problem minority.

Besides these two major groups, there were Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes arriving in increasing numbers from the 185Os onward; French-Canadians moving into New England textile factories to replace Yankee workers of both sexes; Dutch farmers drifting to western Michigan; and in 1849 Chinese who had heard of the California gold strikes and came for their share of the “Golden Mountain,” as they called America—only to be crowded out of the mining camps by mobs and restrictive laws and diverted into railway labor gangs, domestic service, restaurants, and laundries.

The immigrants helped push the United States population from 4,000,000 in 1790 to 32,000,000 in 1860. They built America by hand, for wages that were pittances by modern standards—$40 a month in Pennsylvania coal mines, $1.25 to $2 a day on the railroads—but tempting nonetheless. (In Sweden farmhands earned $33.50 per year .) They dug themselves into the economy and into the nation’s not-always-kindly ethnic folklore. New England textile towns like Woonsocket and Burlington got to know the accent of French-Canadian “Canucks.” So many Swedes became Western lumbermen that a double-saw was called a “Swedish fiddle.” Welsh and Cornish copper miners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, were known as Cousin Jacks.

There were exceptions to the geographical stereotypes-Dutch settlements in Arizona, a Swedish nucleus in Arkansas, a Chinese community in Mississippi—and Irishmen in Southern cities like Mobile and New Orleans, where they were employed on dangerous jobs like levee repair because they were more expendable than fifteen-hundred-dollar slaves.

American culture shaped itself around their presence. Religion was a conspicuous example. The Church of Rome in America was turned inside out by the Irish, whose sheer numbers overwhelmed the small groups of old-stock English and French Catholics from Maryland and Louisiana. The first American cardinal, John McCloskey, was the son of a Brooklyn Irishman. The second, James Gibbons, an Irish boy from Baltimore. German and Swiss Catholic immigrants added to the melting-pot nature of their church in the United States before the Civil War—and the Poles and Italians were yet to come.

German and Scandinavian Lutheran immigrants—free of state and ecclesiastical authorities—developed strong local leaders and new, secessionist bodies, like the German-dominated Missouri Synod and the Scandinavian Evangelical Lutheran Augustana Synod. Both of these were theologically conservative groups. On the other side Isaac Mayer Wise, a German immigrant rabbi, became the patriarch of Reform Judaism in America, to save the faith, in his words, from “disappearance” into “Polish-cabalistical … supernaturalism.” All the “immigrant churches” in the United States built their own networks of social service agencies, parochial schools, and ministerial training seminaries without state help, blending the faith of their fathers with an American style of independent congregational activism. In the house of God, too, the American was a “new man.”

Ethnic politics took root in immigrant-crowded city wards. Nowhere was it stronger than among the gregarious Irish, whose neighborhood saloons became political clubhouses. The Society of St. Tammany was an old-stock New York City association founded in 1789 to promote Jeffersonian ideas. Fifty years later the Irish had so infiltrated it that a writer quipped: “Ask an Irishman, and he will probably tell you that St. Tammany was a younger brother of St. Patrick who emigrated to America for the purpose of taking a city contract to drive all Republican reptiles out of New York.” Patronage jobs handed out by the machine made Irish cops a stereotype for the rest of the century.

But the lower-class Irish in particular stung an American elite long steeped in anti-popery. Anti-immigrant feelings began to rise in the 184Os and focused especially on the Irish, who, like poor people before and after them, were denounced for not living better than they could afford. “Our Celtic fellow citizens,” wrote a New York businessman, “are almost as remote from us in temperament and constitution as the Chinese.” Bigotry can always find excuses and weapons. The handiest one in the 184Os was anti-Catholicism.

In 1834 a Boston mob burned a convent. Ten years later there were riots in Philadelphia after a school board ruled that Catholic children might use the Douay version of the Bible in school. “The bloody hand of the Pope,” howled one newspaper, “has stretched itself forth to our destruction.” A few years after that, anti-Catholic and anti-foreign feelings merged in a nativist crusade called the Know-Nothing movement. Its goal was to restrict admission and naturalization of foreigners, and among its adherents was Samuel F. B. Morse, the father of telegraphy, who cried aloud: “To your posts! … Fly to protect the vulnerable places of your Constitution and Laws. Place your guards…. And first, shut your gates.”

Know-Nothings had some brief success but little enduring impact. Their drive got strength from a generalized anxiety about the future of the country on the eve of the Civil War. But KnowNothingism cut across the grain of a venerable commitment to equal rights, and no one put his finger on the issue more squarely than Abraham Lincoln when asked in 1855 whether he was in favor of the Know-Nothing movement: “How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘ all men are created equal .’ We now practically read it, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes .’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners and catholics ’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Three years later, on the Fourth of July, 1858, in debating with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln returned to the theme. What could the Fourth mean, he asked, to those who were not blood descendants of those who had fought in the Revolution? His answer was that in turning back to the Declaration of Independence, they found the sentiment “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” that they “feel … 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 and so they are. That is the electric cord … that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together…”

Lincoln was unambiguous. There was no exclusively American race entitled to claim liberty by heredity. What held the nation together was an idea of equality that every newcomer could claim and defend by free choice.

That concept was soon tested to the limit with Lincoln himself presiding over the fiery trial. Foreign-born soldiers and officers served the Union in such numbers and with such distinction that the war itself should have laid to rest finally the question of whether “non-natives” could be loyal. It didn’t do that. But it paved the way for another wave of economic growth and a new period of ingathering greater than any that had gone before.

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