Immigration and Manifest Destiny

*As more land and better ways to farm it allowed the frontier to expand in the 1840s and 1850s and as new methods of manufacturing created more jobs, America also found new people to fill those jobs and that frontier.  In those decades, America, a nation of immigrants, experienced a new wave of immigration, but one that also led to resentment from the natives of America.

*Ireland had been ruled by Britain for centuries, and during the 1600s, British rulers had tried to redirect conflict within and between England and Scotland against the third British realm, Ireland.  The descendants of those settlers had become powerful politicians and landlords, controlling most of the land and most of the votes in a country where Catholics were disenfranchised based on their religion until 1793 (and prohibited from holding public office until 1829) and, in many cases, Irish were disenfranchised by their poverty for decades after that, due to property qualifications to vote.  Over the years, Irish people came to America seeking religious and political equality.

*Much more important to Irish emigration, though, was the potato famine of 1845-1849 in which two million people starved, in part because the country’s grain surpluses were sold in England for a better price than the starving Irish could pay. 

*In desperation, millions of Irish fled the Great Hunger their homeland for many parts of the world in so-called ‘Coffin Ships,’ but especially for America, which eventually became the home of more Irishmen than Ireland—indeed, over 170 after the famine began, there are fewer people in Ireland in the 21st Century than there were in the early 19th Century.

*In America, Irish immigrants tended to settle in urban areas and tended to maintain tight-knit communities based around their churches and the separate school systems these churches founded in order to protect a Catholic identity at a time when the Common School movement often openly promoted traditional Protestant beliefs and values.  This in turn led some Americans to worry that the Irish would one day seek to impose Popery on America as a whole.

*Ireland was not the only source of immigrants in the mid-1800s.  Another was the central European region of Germany.

*Germany was not a united state in the mid-1800s, but rather a collection of about 40 separate states and regions within other states.  What united them was a shared language.  However, in 1848, a series of revolutions broke out in hopes of creating democratic governments in their own states and perhaps even of uniting all German-speaking peoples under a single government.

*Revolutionaries overthrew their local rulers or forced them to sign new constitutions limiting their power.  They then met to try to unify all these states, eventually offering a crown of an Empire of Germany to the King of Prussia, who refused, seeing that the revolutionaries had spent their strength and popularity in debates while he and other leaders had regrouped and then, under his leadership, repressed the uprisings, causing many revolutionaries to flee to America for their lives.

*German immigrants tended to come with some money and some education, and generally settled on farms in the Midwest and the Great Plains or sometimes entered the professions, becoming, in either case, respected, middle-class members of society.  They supported public education (including the new idea of a kindergarten), opposed slavery, and popularised beer as an American drink.

*These immigrants were not universally welcome in their new homeland, however.  Although this did affect the German immigrants some, it primarily focused on the Irish.  In many places, religious prejudice remained.  Some Protestant Americans questioned whether Catholics were really Christian, and many wondered if Catholics could really be good, independent citizens of a republic, because surely their loyalties would not lie with their new country, but with the Pope, a question that would be publicly asked until at least 1960. 

*Furthermore, most Irish immigrants were poor and unskilled, and few could buy western farmland or set up shops for themselves, so they often ended up seeking factory work, threatening to undercut the wages of native-born American workers—although some businesses (either due to prejudice or to pressure from their employees) posted signs saying ‘No Irish Need Apply.’  Some bars had signs saying ‘No dogs or Irishmen allowed.’  In the South, Irish immigrants, although less common, still became low-wage labourers, and in some cases were hired for jobs too dangerous to risk a valuable slave or mule on.

*Opposition to immigration was known as Nativism, and some Nativists became very politically active.  In 1849, some of them formed the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, which later evolved into the American Party.

*The American Party was better known as the Know-Nothing Party, because it operated sort of like a secret society, and when asked the details of their political positions, were told to simply say ‘I know nothing.’  However, the basis of their philosophy was clear:  to keep America All-American by preventing immigration, especially by Catholics.

*Besides political and economic opposition, there was outright violence against immigrants, particularly the Irish.  Catholic schools, churches, and convents were attacked and sometimes destroyed.  Violence between various ethnic groups was also not unusual, and ethnically-based gangs developed in many cities in self-defence and mutual support.  There were also nativist gangs, such as the Bowery Boys of New York City, who fought with immigrants.

*Some did welcome the Irish, though, especially the increasingly powerful urban political machines, who offered them charity, government jobs, and a voice in politics.  In most cases, this was the work of the Democrats, as the more Protestant-influenced and business-oriented Whigs were suspicious of poor Catholics.  The greatest of these political machines was the Democratic machine of New York City, Tammany Hall.  By 1850, the majority of the members of this political club were Irish.  By 1863 the head of Tammany Hall and one of the most powerful men in New York politics would be Boss William Tweed, thanks in large part to the Irish vote. 

*The Irish vote would help keep anti-British sentiments alive in America until at least the late 1800s, and even support three invasions of Canada in 1866, 1870, and 1871 by the Fenian Brotherhood. 

*In German-speaking areas, German revolutionaries’ support for freedom would increase the power of the anti-slavery movement in the Midwest, especially under the leadership of Carl Schurz.  German opposition to war bred from decades of experience with it would also strengthen the traditional American opposition to international conflict well into the 20th Century (especially if Germany was involved in those conflicts).  German would remain the second most spoken language in America (with many German-language schools and newspapers) until the early 20th Century.

*Western settlement by German and other immigrants was just another step in a long-standing trend of western migration in America.

*American history has always been based on expansion, as America has always been a place that was explored, expanded, and settled in recent historical memory, an idea most famously expressed by one of the most influential American historians, Frederick Jackson Turner.  In 1893, he posited his famous Frontier Thesis in ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History.’

*According to Turner, the Frontier was what made America different and special.  He said ‘The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.’  According to Turner, in America, the frontier was where democracy was created, and where it was born anew every time the frontier advanced.  As the edge of settlement moved westward, people were obliged to start anew, but without the trappings and conveniences of the settled world, they had to work side by side and discovered equality.  These newly democratised men, in turn, came back to the old seats of power and renewed and invigorated them with democratic ideals all over again.

*Furthermore, the Frontier was also a safety valve.  When cities became too crowded or when some people did not fit into civilised society, they could always head west:  there was a place to absorb surplus population (which also helped keep wages relatively high in the East).

*There are some problems with the Frontier Thesis.  It was based on the assumption that there was free land in the West, thus ignoring that the land had belonged to the Indians, who had to be dispossessed before it could be settled.  It also ignored the fact that some other countries also had vast unsettled hinterlands, and that Russia, Canada, Australia, and Brazil did not develop in the same way that America did (although there are some similarity to America in the Canadian, Australian, and Brazilian experiences).

*Still, as Turner observed, American history up to the end of the 19th century was a history of continuous westward expansion, and this expansion did play a large role in the East as well as on the Frontier, even as the Frontier moved ever-further West.

*In 1805, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Coast in the Oregon Country and claimed it for the United States.  American and British fur traders, who had occasionally visited the region already, expanded their operations, with the fur trading post of Astoria, Oregon founded by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur company in 1811. 

*Spain gave up her claims to the region in 1819 with the Adams-Onis Treaty, and Russia did the same in 1824.  The United States and Great Britain, both still retained claims to the land, the US through Lewis and Clark, Robert Gray (captain of the merchant ship Columbia), and John Jacob Astor, while the British laid claims through Sir Francis Drake, Captain James Cook, Captain George Vancouver, and the Hudson’s Bay Company, (which still exists as Canada’s oldest corporation).  However, America and Britain had agreed to share Oregon jointly in 1818.

*Starting in 1818, American missionaries began to settle in the Oregon Country.  Word got back to the east of the rich soil in the Pacific Northwest, especially in the fertile Willamette Valley, and pioneers began to move into the area, especially in the 1840s.  By 1846, over 5,000 Americans had moved into the Willamette Valley along the dangerous Oregon Trail (which supposedly averaged about 17 deaths per mile).  The British could only claim about 700 subjects north of the Columbia River.  With such disparity of numbers, many Americans felt they ought to take control of some or all of the Oregon Country outright. 

*The British were willing to reach a settlement, so the main dispute was simply over how much land each side would receive in the end.  Britain wanted all the land north of the Columbia River but was willing to cede the land south of it; many Americans wanted the land between the Columbia River and the 49th Parallel as well—an extension of the existing border between the USA and Canada.  However, some Americans wanted it all, and would later adopt the slogan of ‘54°40’ or Fight!’ in reference to the northernmost border of the Oregon Country, which some Americans wanted to seize from Great Britain even if it provoked a war.

*This concept, that America ought to stretch from Sea to Shining Sea, was not entirely new:  Thomas Jefferson had proposed to create an Empire of Liberty across North America.  However, as Americans moved west, it became an increasingly plausible idea, and was described in 1845 by the Democratic newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan as America’s ‘Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.’

*Besides the possibility of conflict with Britain over Oregon, the concept of Manifest Destiny also threatened to create war with Mexico, as a few Americans (about a thousand) had moved to California by the 1840s and an even smaller number had followed the Santa Fe Trail down into New Mexico.  Furthermore, many Americans and Texans wanted to unite their two countries, despite Mexico’s repudiation of the Treaties of Velasco, which meant that the annexation of Texas could have provoked a war with Mexico.  Finally, the addition of more land to the Union would re-open the issue of the expansion of slavery, a topic deliberately ignored by the Federal government, which had even created the ‘Gag Rule’ in the House of Representatives, pledging not to discuss slavery whatsoever.

*Despite these risks, Manifest Destiny became the great issue of the 1844 presidential election.

This page last updated Saint Valentine's Day, 2020.
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