Strangers in the Land, by John Higham
John Higham’s book deals with the background of one of the most important decisions in American history—the decision, made thirty-five years ago, to limit immigrants to this country to a relatively small and carefully selected number. Mr. Higham has done an impressive job. He has studied an enormous volume of letters, newspapers, organizational records, monographs, and has extracted from them a clear and convincing account of the major shifts in public opinion which made possible the reversal of an immigration policy that had been in effect for a hundred years. His book is to my mind a major contribution to American history.
The story Mr. Higham relates was not, I think, generally known even to historians before he undertook to tell it. Strangers in the Land opens in the 1860’s, on an America which has been absorbing great numbers of immigrants for decades, and in which the dominant social and economic, as well as intellectual elements take it for granted that this is the natural and proper course for the country. It is a period when economic self-interest and democratic ideology combine to support the historic policy of the open gate. There had been, in the 1850’s, an outbreak of “nativism,” generally based on Protestant resentment of heavy Irish Catholic immigration, but it had never become more than sporadic and local, and left no mark on legislation. In the country as a whole, during the 1870’s and 1880’s, there was hardly any feeling that immigration posed a problem for the nation.
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