Closing the Gates
by Nathan Glazer
Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. By John Higham. Rutgers University Press. 431 pp. $6.00.
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.
But, Mr. Higham goes on to show, beginning in the late 1880’s, American opinion, as reflected in organized groups and in regional sentiment, underwent a transformation that was complete by 1914. The labor unions had originally opposed only the immigration of contract laborers, but by 1896 the American Federation of Labor had followed Gompers in his hostility to immigration, and American workers continued to stand against free immigration until the restriction movement finally triumphed.
Even Progressives and Socialists, with their strong democratic orientation, were eventually to support immigration restriction. In 1916, the New Republic declared: “. . . the new democracy of today cannot permit . . . social ills to be aggravated by excessive immigration.” In 1918, a quota scheme which was relatively liberal gained the backing of such people as Norman Hapgood, Robert F. Park, James Har-very Robinson, Oswald Harrison Villard, and Lillian Wald.
Of the various regions in the country, the South and West, because they had always been anxious to increase their population, had consistently favored free immigration. As late as 1903, the representatives of these two sections in Congress voted against the literacy test whose main purpose was to restrict immigration. But in 1907, both sections swung around and came out for restriction.
If we turn to the region that has the best right to be considered the home of a distinctively American culture and intellectual tradition, New England, we find a shift among leading intellectuals around the turn of the century from democratic egalitarianism to an exclusive and restrictive racism. True, a rather benign feeling in favor of the Anglo-Saxon race had long been part of the New England temper. But this was really a romantic regard for one’s ancestors, and was not inconsistent in the minds of those who held it with the belief that one of the virtues of the Anglo-Saxon race was its assimilative power. Toward the end of the century, however, this kind of feeling about race was replaced by “scientific” notions stemming from physical anthropology and biology, and those who now spoke of the Anglo-Saxon race began to suggest the need to exclude “lower” races.
Thus by 1905-6, the South, the West, the native-born working class, and the upper-class intellectuals had become especially strong supporters of immigration restriction. But Mr. Higham tells us that “it also received support in public opinion, and whenever restriction came to a vote in Congress it rolled up overwhelming majorities. . . .” From this point on, it was only “strategically situated minorities” who prevented the sentiment from being translated into law. Two such minorities were particularly influential: big business, which wanted cheap and plentiful labor even more than it feared foreign agitators, and lobbied vigorously through the National Association of Manufacturers and other organizations to maintain free immigration; and the immigrant groups themselves, led mainly by the Jews. The leaders of both parties, also, conscious of the importance of the vote of the foreign-born and their children, were wary about supporting immigration restriction. But in the end the demand for it became too strong for the opposition, and the gates were closed in the early twenties.
This is the main outline of Mr. Higham’s story. He shows us how the gates came to be closed, but what he barely touches on—though he provides all the material to permit us to speculate on our own—is why one section after another, one social and intellectual and economic element after another, should have swung over to restriction. The only large thesis he suggests is that in times of economic crisis the opponents of free immigration waxed strong, while in times of prosperity their strength waned.
Restriction, Mr. Higham intimates, was successful after the First World War in large part because of the severe economic crisis—though an increase in nativist feeling arising from the war also helped. During the war, both parties had joined in denouncing hyphenated Americanism, in proclaiming “100-per-centism,” and in insisting on the forced abandonment of foreign traits; a strong residue of this anti-foreign bias persisted after the war was over. Then came the Bolshevik revolution, and the exaggerated fear of foreign radicals that accompanied it. There was also the racism of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, for a brief moment enjoying some success in American intellectual life. Finally, there was the Ku Klux Klan, capitalizing on the strong suspicion of foreigners, radicals, and Catholics in smalltown America. But one gets the impression from Mr. Higham’s account that dominating this combination of factors, and lending power to each, was the economic crisis.
Yet I do not feel that this goes far enough. My own belief, based on Mr. Higham’s book, is that what we had in the twenties was not only another wave of nativism—even if more persistent, complex, and successful than the others—but one reflection among many of a fundamental change that had taken place in the point of view of the American people.
The defenders of free immigration in the early twenties could argue quite effectively that immigration had greatly aided America economically and politically, and could still do so. This argument was completely in line with that clear and simple pursuit of self-interest, unhampered by traditional considerations (it was always a moot point anyhow what was traditional in America), that had been so striking a characteristic of 19th-century America. Farmers were happy to leave their farms and city-dwellers their houses purely for the sake of commercial advantage. By the same token, to bring in willing workers of other ethnic groups seemed a self-evident benefit: hardly anyone worried over the consequent loss of America’s “traditional” ethnic homogeneity. But other countries, like Australia, with almost as much open land to be developed, had sacrificed a measure of wealth and political power for cultural and ethnic homogeneity.
Around 1900 America too, it seems to me, began to sacrifice economic self-interest for certain of the values that have always been associated with a fixed and stable society, and which involve such matters as status, traditional culture, and the like. It was about this time, for example, that in the South the last efforts to work together politically with the Negroes were abandoned and a policy of strict segregation was adopted, despite the real economic and political disadvantages of Jim Crow. The South had decided that Jim Crow was worth more than wealth and political power.
The rest of the country seems to have made a similar decision. Scarcely aware of what it had done, it tried to explain its feeling against foreigners in whatever terms were available—they were radicals, they were of inferior races, they could not be absorbed, and what not. But these complaints and rationalizations only served to conceal the basic fact that America no longer wanted to endure the violent and uncontrolled change that a full commitment to the principles of liberal capitalism demanded. To my mind, the end of free immigration was a reflection of this change, showing itself as a desire to maintain America as it was, regardless of economic or political advantage.
Any discussion of the “change of mind” of a nation is, of course, perilous. Yet, in effect, the subject of Mr. Higham’s book is such a change of mind. He has done a remarkably good and stimulating job in recording the change. One hopes that, in some future book, he will go further in considering its full meaning.