Commentary Magazine

The Study of Man: The Immigrant in American History

Historical literature dealing with the immigrant and the “ethnic” group in American life is voluminous. But from the beginning it has been largely the monopoly of the amateur historian, the ethnic jingoist, the minority booster; and it has been designed mainly to please circumscribed ethnic audiences by puffing the merits of their ancestors. In recent years, however, a number of professional historians have begun to show an interest in the immigrant and his descendants, and they have already far outdone the achievement of all the previous decades of amateur effort.

The names of Marcus L. Hansen, Theodore C. Blegen, Oscar Handlin, Caroline Ware, and a few other serious scholars who have combined documentation with tempered judgment to overcome prevailing misconceptions, are comparatively little known. Much more popular is the work of Louis Adamic. It is through his writings that the average reader becomes acquainted with the immigrant’s role. While giving Adamic due credit for reiterating the point that ours is by no means an entirely Anglo-Saxon civilization, it should be recognized that his books constitute virtually a glossary of the errors committed by the amateur investigators of immigrant history.



In his latest book, A Nation of Nations (1945), Adamic waxes indignant at the way in which American historians, generally, have ignored the role played by non-Anglo-Saxons in the making of this country. Indignation is the frame of mind in which the filio-pietists—those latter-day priests of ancestor-worship—have traditionally approached this question. Indignation at what historians either said or omitted to say about the achievements of particular ethnic groups helped motivate the organization of the Huguenot Society of America in 1886; the Scotch-Irish Society of America in 1889; the Pennsylvania-German Society in 1891; the American Jewish Historical Society in 1892; and the American-Irish Historical Society in 1898. These historical societies and others like them voiced the demand of the immigrant and the ethnic bourgeoisie for a recognition that, it was alleged, had been wilfully denied them by American historians of Anglo-Saxon heritage and New England birth and breeding.

Now this was in many respects a legitimate claim, and no less a figure in American historiography than John Fiske admitted that the professional American historian had been remiss in acknowledging what the non-English groups had done. Nevertheless, for all the justice of their case, the various national historical societies did little more than stew in the juice of their own indignation. Constantly on the alert for “Anglo-Saxon distortions” of American history, they invested tremendous energy in the discovery of folk heroes who had stood by the Anglo-Saxon giants during the major trials of the Republic.

The Jews have Haym Salomon; the Poles, Kosciuszko and Pulaski; the Italians, Philip Mazzei and Giuseppe Vigo; the Huguenots, the Faneuils and John Jay; the Dutch, a galaxy of figures clustering about the New Amsterdam settlement; the Swedes, Johan Bjornsson Printz and Johan Campanius; the Russians, Charles Thiel and Prince Dimitri Augustin Gallitzin; the Pennsylvania-Germans, Franz Daniel Pastorius; the Yugoslavs, Baron Ivan Rataj and several soldiers who served in George Washington’s army; and the Irish have various and sundry O’Neills, O’Donnells, Maguires, O’Mahonys, McCarthys, O’Sullivans, and O’Briens.

The Irish and Scotch-Irish are frequently at odds over historic personalities claimed by both, and there is a literature of controversy over whether a certain Major Enholm was a Pole, a German, or a Swede. Actually all three of the groups have some claim on the Major, but none shows any willingness to yield an inch.

Inevitably, the ethnic apologists claimed too much. Even the sympathetic John Fiske could say that: “In reading the memoirs and proceedings of Huguenot societies, Holland societies, Jewish societies, Scotch-Irish societies, etc., one is sometimes inclined to ask whether the people about whom we are reading . . . ever left anything for other people to do. . . . Amid so many claims that of England to further recognition as the mother country seems for the most part overridden.”



The dull volumes that the national historical societies grind out year after year, while rescuing sundry individual non-Anglo-Saxons from obscurity, tell very little about the life itself of the respective groups. Dazzled by the glamorous personality, the amateur historians neglected the folk life of the mass of immigrants. Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, investigating the sources of American culture in the transit of civilization from Europe to America (The Founding of American Civilization: The Middle Colonies, 1938), finds that filio-pietists, despite their careful reckoning of contributions, too often omitted just those things we should most like to know about the various American peoples. Busy in debating the ethnic ancestry of a subaltern of Washington, they would cheerfully omit telling us—“What was life like in the German agricultural village? In what kind of homes did the Swiss peasant live? What was the character of the peasant art of the Rhine Palatinate? What were the cultural influences of Ulster? Whence came the octagonal churches of Long Island and northern New Jersey? What have been the inheritances of religion, education, art, government, of the vast number of Swedes, or Russians, or Italians, who for decades poured through Ellis Island to become bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh?”

Similarly, Marcus L. Hansen accused the amateur historians of compiling too many lists of statesmen, soldiers, poets, novelists, and educators of immigrant origin, while directing entirely too little consideration to group life in the American township, village or city ward—where, as Hansen said, “the leaven in the lump can be detected.” Hansen wrote this in 1927, in an essay entitled “Immigration as a Field for Historical Research” (American Historical Review, Vol xxxii). Another attack upon the jingo approach was made jointly by Joseph S. Roucek, Carleton Qualey, Maurice R. Davie, and Caroline Ware in a book, The Cultural Approach to History, published in 1940 and edited by Miss Ware. These writers struck at the concept in general of ethnic “contribution,” a thesis overworked by the jingoes in their efforts to prove one ethnic group as good as or better than another. Their fundamental error was, they held, in failing to realize that immigrant and native cultures were dynamic and underwent change as a consequence of their interaction with the American environment; it was, therefore, highly inaccurate to conceive of any “contribution” as deriving exclusively from a single ethnic group—particularly after the latter had been in America for many generations and become completely assimilated to the dominant pattern. It was also objected that the individual making a “contribution” might not be truly representative of the culture of the group that claimed him. He might, in fact, have achieved success precisely by casting off his group’s culture and becoming assimilated. Finally, ethnic cultures should be considered, as Davie asserts, as aspects of larger integration in the American scene, rather than as separate entities, and it was therefore a mistake to treat them as distinctive contributions.



By 1940, therefore, the filio-pietistic approach B to immigrant and ethnic history seemed totally discredited. Yet, five years later, Adamic did not hestitate to revive it. Most contemporary American historians being rather fair toward the immigrant groups, Adamic goes back to the 19 th century to kick the old dead bones of John Fiske and Henry Cabot Lodge for their sins against non-Anglo-Saxons. Then, with many a fervent protestation as to the many-stranded character of the American people and our multinational origin—a thesis that no one today seriously challenges—he labors the obvious by recapitulating the glories of ethnic folk heroes. Did you know that “one of Edward R. Stettinius’ grandmothers was a Reilly”? That “George Washington was kin to a branch of the McCarthy family”? And now that you know, do you really care?

Adamic’s performance, in the true tradition of amateurism—and even of jingoism—makes it clear that recent progress in ethnic historiography is the result, not only of the rise of a few trained scholars who have specialized in immigration and ethnic problems, but also of the general advance in the techniques of writing American history.

Most of the history produced in the 9th century was political and narrative history, some of it quite good. But it hardly noticed the immigrant; and on the few occasions when it did, his religious convictions or political behavior generally became the target of adverse comment. (Oscar Handlin has in a perceptive essay, “The Immigrant and American Politics”—one of a collection by different hands, edited by David F. Bowers and published in 1944 under the title Foreign Influences in American Life—pointed out some of the very interesting political aspects of immigration that the 19th-century political historians failed to perceive. This essay makes one realize by how far these historians missed the boat in their accounts of the immigrant in politics.) However, when in the 1880′s John Bach McMaster began turning out his formidable volumes on American social history (A History of the People of the United States, 8 volumes), his wider scope led him inevitably to deal with the immigrant at greater length than had the political historians. The causes of migration, the nature of the immigrants’ voyages, their distribution, and their dwellings and their occupations, came into the picture. There are, of course, many shortcomings in McMaster’s account, particularly when judged by present-day standards, and he retained many of the political historians’ prejudices against immigrants. And yet, in this monumental history of his, the immigrant did abandon his role as a historiographic hangnail and begin to be integrated in our nation’s history.

At about the same time that McMaster was startling the political historians with his unorthodox views of our history, Frederick Jackson Turner, in Wisconsin, introduced a seminar in immigration at the state university. Wisconsin, with its large immigrant and second-generation population, was a good natural laboratory for such a study. Reuben G. Thwaites, mentor of Wisconsin’s State Historical Society, realizing this, had already begun to collect documents on migration into Wisconsin. Turner’s students eagerly turned their attention to the fruits of Thwaite’s industry, and the most ambitious of them, Kate Everest (later Mrs. Levi), turned out some very creditable studies of German immigration into Wisconsin.

Turner himself seemed to grasp better than any historian of the period the significance of immigration in our national development. Much of what America was, he said in 1889, could be explained in terms of the peoples who made it. “The story of the peopling of America has not yet been written. We do not understand ourselves.”

However, neither Turner nor his Wisconsin seminar made much progress in the study of immigration—except for the work of Miss Everest. And Turner’s famous paper on the influence of the frontier upon American historical development (1893) actually stressed the transcendent importance of environmental rather than ethnic influences on our national development. If it were true, as Turner held, that Old World cultures speedily disintegrated in the frontier environment and that the immigrant settler, within the course of a single generation, was transformed into a new man, then it could be reasonably concluded that the study of immigrant cultures was not too important.

(Later an effective critique of this aspect of the frontier hypothesis was framed by Marcus L. Hansen, who felt that the culture-shaping factors of the American frontier were less narrowly environmental than Turner believed and were the result of a synthesis of environmental, seaboard, and European influences. Rather than accept what Turner said about the dominating influence of the frontier as such, Hansen wanted a thorough investigation made of the relative roles of environmental, European, and Eastern influences on the frontier—Hansen’s “Remarks” on the discussion of the Turner thesis; Dixon Ryan Fox, ed., Sources of Culture in the Middle West,1934.)

Apart from Turner and McMaster, the work of Edward Channing forms a highly significant preliminary to the rise of a group of historians specializing in immigration. Channing was the last of the great narrative historians—that is, like McMaster, he tried to cover a rather large segment of American history in a multi-volumed account (A History of the United States, 6 volumes). Again like McMaster, Channing aspired to present a comprehensive view of the American social complex. As it happened, he was better trained for this job than his predecessor. Whereas the data McMaster presented on the immigrant gives the impression of being highly unselective, Channing’s two chapters and more on the same subject suggest a rather definite approach. He was, for example, interested in the Old World culture of the immigrant, realizing that this, too, was a part of American history. And he seemed to sense that the heart of the problem lay in the immigrant community rather than in the careers of those outstanding individuals whom the national historical societies were constantly bringing to the foreground. That Channing’s treatment suffers from limitations is owed less to his failure to understand the problem than to the nature of the sources at his disposal. He had to look for his information in the writings of the filio-pietists—since nothing else was available on the subject.



Deliverance was, however, soonat hand. Channing completed the sixth and final volume of his long narrative history in 1925. Two years later Marcus L. Hansen published, in the American Historical Review, his essay on “The History of American Immigration as a Field for Research.” This trail-blazing piece announced the entrance upon the scene of a trained historian specializing in immigration—even more, a specialist with a master’s touch.

Hansen’s essay demonstrated that immigration could be an engrossing and rewarding field of research. By relating immigration to the general pattern of historical development, he showed it to be a subject of greater importance than the narrative historians had given us to suppose. Hansen’s essay made it apparent that one could be interested in the history of immigration and in the history of ethnic groups without becoming a publicity man for any single ethnic group and without spouting about “contributions.”

Hansen’s eye-opening essay pointed to the fact that “emigration has been connected with as many phases of European life as immigration has of American life.” Hansen wanted scholars to explore “the emigrant trade from the days when the captain journeyed inland to solicit passengers for his spring voyage to the time when no village was without its agency and no day passed without an emigrant ship leaving some European port. . . .” He then compared the depth of historical research into tariff history to the dearth of investigation into “the development of the legal conditions under which the most valuable of all our imports has entered. . . . Castle Garden and Ellis Island are each worthy of a volume; and the administration of laws, the State Labor Bureaus, and the welfare activities at Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans should not be neglected.”

Hansen wanted to have the relation between the flow of immigration and the distribution of immigrants in our continental area investigated; and also their different destinations in periods of prosperity and depression; the reasons for the attraction exerted by individual states or regions at different times; the various highways of immigrant traffic. He noted immigration’s bearing on the material development of our country and “the labor policy of canals and railroads—the hierarchy of contractors and subcontractors, the recruiting of men, labor conditions and the methods of preserving order.”

These do not exhaust Hansen’s suggestions for research. But they are enough to indicate how successful he was in establishing the basis for a new and original approach to an understanding of America, one built on knowledge of the peoples who made our country. And Hansen’s argument for the influence of the immigrant upon national development was a far more persuasive and well-reasoned one than Turner’s in behalf of the frontier. But Hansen did not indulge in extravagant statements such as those that had made Turner’s hypothesis so provocative, and on whose wings that hypothesis won wide circulation.

Thus, two decades after its publication, Hansen’s essay on research into immigration remains little discussed. Very few of Hansen’s suggestions have been made the subject of special studies. The garden Hansen envisioned is, with a few exceptions, barren still. Historical researchers continue to fight shy of problems related to immigration. This might be because of the ill-repute that the filio-pietists have lent this field of inquiry. Or it also might be the result of the habitual readiness with which the bulk of non-Anglo-Saxons in our population turn their backs on their ancestral cultures. On the other hand, the frontier hypothesis has flourished. Is it because it is almost a quarter of a century older, or is it because the frontier has always held the center of the imagination as typifying America, swaying scholars, in this land of immigrants, to write about “American” rather than “immigrant” themes?



Hansen, as pioneer in the field, was mainly concerned with fixing the immigrant’s role in our national life and with bringing him into true perspective in the broader national picture. Both of his books, The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860 (1940) and The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples (1940), present a broad panoramic view that differs markedly from the approach in T.C. Blegen’s two monumental volumes on Norwegian immigration, Norwegian Migration to America, 1825-1860 (1931), and The American Transition (1940). Blegen’s two volumes are built upon the thesis that there are “two creative forces in our national life—the European heritage and the American environment.” The first of his volumes deals with the European background of Norwegian immigration and the second depicts “the American transition of the Norwegian immigrant as the dynamic process it was. . . .”

To begin with the European background and then go on to the American scene, as Blegen did, is undoubtedly the best way of describing the group life of an immigrant people. However, an important aspect of the latter’s fate in America is its adjustment to other groups and to the more general American civilization. This is a complex problem that can be best investigated in microcosm. Blegen, in covering the entire field of Norwegian immigration, of necessity had to spread himself too thin.

Focus on the problem of adjustment requires both a broad and also an intensive approach. Broad in the sense that more than one group must be studied; narrow because the locale of the study must be circumscribed lest tangential aspects of the problem prove too many and elusive for the student. The study of adjustment does not warrant investigation of the continental wanderings of an immigrant people in all their ramifications—as was possible in Blegen’s study of the Norwegians. Nor should the historian concern himself too much with the more general, remoter, long-term effects of immigration upon national development. Investigation of how an immigrant group adjusted to its environment requires the pattern of research to be concentrated upon a sharply defined geographic area and upon a specific period of time. All else becomes background to a study of the “internal constitution of the social milieu” in question, within which, as Emile Durkheim said, the origins of the social process must be sought.

Oscar Handlin, in Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1865 (1940), ingeniously combines the techniques of historian and sociologist. Handlin states, as did Hansen before him, that “the character of the environment—the community in its broadest sense—is particularly important in the study of the contact of dissimilar cultures. It is the field where unfamiliar groups meet, discover each other, and join in a hard relationship that results in either acculturation or conflict. . . .”

But the historian, attempting to explore an immigrant community that exists only in the past, is peculiarly handicapped. “Lacking the sociologist’s or anthropologist’s direct access to the subject by questionnaires or observation, he must piece together his story from widely diversified sources, and, tethered within the limits of that which is known, impale upon a rigid page the intimate lives and deepest feelings of humble men and women who leave behind few formal records.” From the yellowed historical record alone, Handlin reveals “the basic factors influencing their economic, physical, and intellectual adjustment,” and seeks to explore in the character of that adjustment “the forces promoting or discouraging group consciousness and group conflict. . . .”

Handlin admits that this problem places him at the very frontier of his function as historian. This, however, is the inevitable position of an historian who adopts immigration as his special field. Even as the historian of the tariff must, of necessity, understand the economics of the historical problem with which he is dealing, so the historian of immigration must know his way about in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. The very nature of immigration has thus forced Handlin to go outside the confines of historical study proper.

Another important study of an immigrant community is by Hyman Grinstein, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654-1860 (1945). Within the limitations Grinstein set for himself in the preface of his book, he has done a workmanlike job and made an important contribution to American-Jewish history. However, compared to Handlin’s account, it is dull and unimaginative, largely because Grinstein narrowed altogether too arbitrarily the field of inquiry and did not give himself sufficient scope. He is too much concerned with the internal aspects of community life and too little interested in the relationship of the Jewish group to other New Yorkers of the time.



Progress in the historiography of immigration before 1925 is inevitably linked with increased concentration upon social history—as is apparent in McMaster and even more in Channing. The line of progress goes through the works of Hansen, Blegen, and Handlin, respectively typical of three different approaches to the history of immigration. First, there is Hansen, eager to impress upon historians the importance of immigration not only as a field for research but also as a key to the understanding of America. Then Blegen, centering almost exclusively upon the Norwegian element and presenting all the ramified details of their migration, and yet excluding the filio-pietism characteristic of amateur endeavors in this field. Finally, there is Handlin, who is interested mainly in problems of adjustment and accommodation and who, to analyze the adjustment of the Irish group, has concentrated his research inside the geographic area of Boston, as described above.

These three approaches have undoubtedly advanced our understanding of the immigrant’s role in American life, an understanding which will increase when other trained historians turn their attention to the field. Once a sufficient amount of preliminary investigation has been done, perhaps a synthesis will emerge that will present the immigrant in true perspective in the general trend of our development. As yet such a synthesis has not appeared.

Hansen died prematurely in 1938, leaving to others the fulfillment of the master-scheme he outlined a dozen years before his death. Today, there still exists no worthwhile, comprehensive survey of the entire field of immigration to the United States. George M. Stephenson fell far short of the mark when he attempted something of this sort in A History of American Immigration, 1820-1924 (1926); and more recently Carl Wittke has synthesized a mass of material on immigration in his We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant (1940). The latter is in many respects an interesting and useful book, but it does not offer a fresh approach. It travels the well-worn, organizational grooves, presenting an outline history of each immigrant group and then describing the rise of nativism and the movement for the restriction of immigration; also, this book still places considerable stress upon the group “contribution” as exemplified in outstanding individuals. It is to be regretted that the energetic research and compilation that went into Wittke’s book was not projected from the standpoint of Hansen’s master-scheme. Had Wittke written with Hansen’s suggestions for research in mind, we should have been further advanced along the path toward synthesis.

It is to be noted that, despite their general reputation for unscholarliness, at least one of the national historical societies, the Norwegian-American Historical Society, has encouraged such an outstanding scholar as T.C. Blegen, and made the publication of his major work financially possible. This Norwegian organization is exceptional among the national historical societies for the high caliber of the studies it promotes.

The reluctance of the average professional to study immigration and ethnic problems puts an added responsibility upon the shoulders of the national historical societies and at the same time gives them a chance to play a really constructive role. It is not only that they contain at least the germ of an interest that, if intelligently guided, would result in creative achievement. They also have the opportunity of attracting able scholars to their field by financial and other means, and of establishing contacts with universities so that ethnic historiography can be placed upon a more solid basis.

Should the national historical societies persist in their independent way, little of value will come from them. Their errors are not solely filio-pietistic. At least no such accusation can be leveled against the Yiddish Scientific Institute (Yivo) group, which has a reputation for a sound scholarly approach. Yet, its very isolation from the American scene and from American scholars has betrayed it into publishing in Yiddish alone what Solomon F. Bloom in a recent issue of COMMENTARY called a “monumental history of the Jewish working-class in America” (Geshikhte fun der yidisher arbeterbavegung in di Fareynikte Shtatn). This seems to me, as it must inevitably to any student of immigration problems, a sad error in judgment, a kind of minor tragedy. For the small clan of scholars who are eager to read every work on immigration and immigrant peoples, a whole field of knowledge is blocked off by a language barrier.

The work of Yivo, of the American Jewish Historical Society, and of the Conference of Jewish Relations on Jewish immigrants, merits a more extended treatment than can be given here. (There is a good appraisal of the American Jewish Historical Society by Harold Jonas, “Writing American Jewish History,” in the Contemporary Jewish Record, Vol vi.) It seems curious that there has been so little interest on the part of the organized Jewish community in promoting sound research and writing about the role of the immigrant Jewish group in America, considering how much time, energy, and funds have been devoted to promoting understanding in so many fields and through so many mediums. But that is another article.

The above-mentioned and still absent synthesis, as well as separate studies in the field of immigration, would contribute not a little to the revival of history’s prestige as a discipline in the study of man in America. There can be little doubt that the trained historian, in recent years, has lost ground to the “social engineers”—the sociologists, economists, political scientists, psychologists, and anthropologists. The employment by the government, during the war, of the abilities and experience of social scientists has underscored this trend. Historians need not, however, be alarmed by this development if they interpret their function in its broadest rather than in its narrowest, fact-finding, sense. Indeed, the historian can hardly avoid making himself master of the latest developments in the other fields of the social sciences, for these in a real sense belong in his field, from which they are actually off-shoots. To the extent that he does this his function becomes at once more difficult and also more valuable. The historian of immigration is in a strategic position to crucially advance his profession.

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