The American Reality Faced by Immigrants

One thing you could say with certainty in the middle of the 19th century was that there were a lot more Americans than there were when the century started. The country’s population in 1860 was 31.4 million, four times more than it had been a half-century before. Of the world’s predominantly white nations, only France, Russia, and Austria had larger populations.

Many of the new Americans had been born elsewhere. The number of immigrants to America in 1830 was about 25,000. In 1855, the number was closer to 450,000. They came from as close as Mexico and Canada and as far away as China and Japan. When they got here, they tended to stay with their fellow expatriates, where the language, food, and culture were more familiar, creating mini-nations.

They also increasingly stayed in cities, even if they had come from a farm background. In 1840, there were 10 Americans living on farms to every 1 that lived in a town. By 1850, that ratio was 5 to 1, and many of the new city dwellers were from foreign shores.

The parts of the cities they dwelled in were usually like something from a horror movie: dark, smelly, filthy, and violent. Many of the immigrants were so appalled that reality didn’t match their glittering visions of America that they went back home.

Because of the glut of people wanting any kind of a job when they got here, wages in the largest cities were pitifully low. In 1851, New York newspaperman Horace Greeley estimated it took a minimum of $10.37 a week to support a family of five, and that didn’t include money for medical needs or recreation.

The average factory worker, laboring six days a week for 10 or 11 hours a day, might make $5 a week, which meant everyone in the family had to do something to make ends meet.

Because they were newcomers and because most native-born Americans still lived in smaller towns or on farms, there was little appetite for reforms or cleaning up the cities. That wouldn’t come until the number of immigrants got even larger and middle-class Americans became more affected by it.

And still they came, from 600,000 immigrants in the 1830s to 1.7 million in the 1840s to 2.6 million in the 1850s. More than 70 percent of the immigrants between 1840 and 1860 were from just two areas in Europe: Ireland and the German states.

For the Irish, it was come or starve. A fungus all but wiped out Ireland’s potato crop in 1845, and there was a widespread famine. So more than 1.5 million Irish scraped up the $10 or $12 one-way fare and piled into America-bound ships for an often hellish two-week trip in a cargo hold.

Many of the ships had brought Southern cotton to Britain, and in a way they were bringing back the North’s cash crop — cheap labor to work in factories and build railroads. Many of the Irish settled in New York City or Boston. Politically savvy, they served first as soldiers for the big-city political machines and then as bosses.

Even so, they were harshly discriminated against in many places, and “N.I.N.A.” signs hung in many employers’ windows. It stood for “No Irish Need Apply.”

Almost as many Germans as Irish came during this period, although they were more likely to spread out. The Germans also came because of food shortages or other tough economic conditions. But many decided to come after efforts failed to throw off despotic rule in the various German states in the late 1840s.

Generally better off financially and better educated than other immigrant groups (they brought the idea of “kindergarten,” or “children’s garden,” with them), many Germans pushed away from the Eastern cities to the Midwest, especially Wisconsin.

The rise in immigration also increased anti-immigrant feeling, especially in areas where the newcomers were competing with people born in America for jobs. In 1849, an organization surfaced called the Nativists.

They were better known as the Know-Nothing Party, because members supposedly replied, “I know nothing” when asked by outsiders what was going on at their meetings. The Know-Nothings demanded an end to immigration, a prohibition on non-natives voting or holding office, and restrictions on Roman Catholics.

The Know-Nothings made a lot of noise for a while. Renamed the American Party, they attracted more than 1 million members by 1855 and managed to elect several governors and scores of congressmen. Their 1856 presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, who as a Whig had been vice president under Taylor and served as president from 1850 to 1853 after Taylor died in office, even managed to carry one state, Maryland.

But the Know-Nothings faded away as the Civil War approached, torn apart by differences between the party’s Northern and Southern members over the dividing issue of slavery.

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