Throughout the past century, many historians have examined immigration from a wide variety of perspectives. Two of the most common topics discussed by these historians are the reasons for leaving the country of origin and the process of assimilation or Americanization. The first of these topics tends to focus more on situations in Europe, whether they be political, economic, social, religious, or otherwise. On the other hand, the latter topic generally looks at immigrant life in America, often including other aspects of the immigrant experience such as nativism and ethnic communities. Examining the divergent views of prominent immigration historians on these two topics not only illustrates the many ways in which the evidence on immigration can be analyzed, but also allows for a more coherent picture of the many possibilities of the immigrant experience.
In his book, A History of American Immigration, 1820-1924, George M. Stephenson summarizes the “impulses for colonization” as “(1) pressure of population; (2) religious zeal and persecution; (3) economic motives; (4) love of adventure; (5) political ambition.” (Stephenson, p. 10) Philip Taylor, in The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A., lists as key influences “population pressing upon resources, paucity of alternative local opportunities, the growth of the United States and the spread of knowledge about that country, improvements in European and Atlantic transport.” (Taylor, p. 42) While most other authors focus on only one or two of these particular choices, each has been covered by at least one author as the impetus for migration.
Several authors remark on the influence of the above-mentioned reasons for migrations, asserting that no one condition was sufficient to compel people to leave their country of origin. Franklin D. Scott notes that “the causes of migration were located both in the country of origin and in the country of destination. Neither the push nor the pull functioned alone. Reasons there had to be for disappointment and frustration at home, but also reasons for hope in the new country.” (Scott, p. 5) Frank Thistlethwaite agrees with Marcus Lee Hansen, explaining that “there had to be three further conditions which Hansen defines as freedom, desire and means to move; and it is in the operation of these conditions that the ultimate secrets of migration are to be found.” (Thistlethwaite, “Migration,” p. 37) Thus with only one reason to leave, the future emigrants thoughts might be turned in the direction of leaving, but there generally needed to be several reasons and sufficient logistics to allow for departure.
When attempting to determine the most frequent motive for emigration, most authors agree that it was largely the promise of economic betterment. Roger Daniels finds that this was the reasoning in “the vast majority of cases,” (Daniels, p. 28) while Hansen asserts that “to many [emigrants], probably to the majority, economic freedom made an even greater appeal than political freedom.” (Hansen, p. 160) Oscar Handlin looks extensively at the economic occurrences in Europe, explaining that the unprecedented population growth of the late 18th and early 19th centuries destabilized the family economy. In addition, land holdings were rearranged by the landlords, and the peasants were soon forced to grow cash crops, to sell at the market, rather than crops to provide for their own family’s sustenance. Through all of these changes, Handlin asserts that “the pressure of the changing economy had steadily narrowed every person’s range of choices. Year by year, there were fewer alternatives until the critical day when only a single choice remained – to emigrate or to die.” (Handlin, pp. 34-35) John Bodnar examines the situation of the middle-class Germans in a much more positive light: “The chief reason the middle-class Germans emigrated was to retain a secure economic existence. Because they owned property they could turn it into cash and muster the resources to travel abroad.” (Bodnar, p. 15) For the most part then, these authors claim that in order to provide a better lifestyle for themselves and their offspring, many Europeans made the choice to emigrate, based on their beliefs that America would provide better economic opportunities.
In addition to the economic reasons, many of these authors also attribute the impulse to migrate to other things. Handlin attributes some of the reasons for the later immigrants to come to America to the earlier immigrants, those who had already left their native land and were encouraging friends and relatives to do the same. (Handlin, p. 31) Scott, on the other hand, suggests that much of the reasoning behind leaving Europe was a result of the religious freedom known to be held by inhabitants of the United States. Oppressed religions in Europe could be certain of an increase in personal and religious freedom by emigrating. (Scott, p. 6) Maldwyn Allen Jones believes that the increases in knowledge of America among Europeans “must rank as one of the most important influences contributing to the rise of mass immigration.” (Jones, p. 99)
Yet despite whatever other reasons the immigrants found for coming to America, the most important reasons were always the individual reasons. Handlin remarks upon this distinctive break from the nature of the lifestyles found in Europe: “Although entire communities were uprooted at the same time, although the whole life of the Old World had been communal, the act of migration was individual.” (Handlin, p. 35) Scott similarly notes that “each person had to make his own decision even if he came with a group.” (Scott, p. 6) Jones focuses on the “hopes, fears, and dreams of millions of individual immigrants,” (Jones, p. 95) and Taylor astutely observes that “it was people who emigrated, people who moved not as pawns in a game but as individuals who made judgments in the light of their understanding of the world around them.” (Taylor, p. 42) Despite the multitude of reasons for which an emigrant might choose to leave his home, that choice, made by each individual emigrant, was the most important reason.
The topic of assimilation has been covered extensively by immigration historians, all of whom seem to have a different opinion on the positive or negative aspects of the process. While some authors assert that assimilation was a painful and forced experience, others discuss the willingness of the immigrants to adopt new ways. Of all of these authors, Handlin takes the strongest stand on the negative aspects of assimilation. He asserts that as a result of the values and ideals of the immigrants’ native lands being “subjected … to attack, it was necessary aggressively to defend them, to tolerate no change because any change might have the most catastrophic consequences.” (Handlin, p. 104) But since, in Handlin’s view, the immigrants were invariably assimilated, they were forced through the disruptive and damaging change from foreigners to Americans.
Most other authors see at least some of the benefits that came to assimilated immigrants, and focus on the ways in which assimilation was a change for the better. Scott suggests that the immigrants themselves were not entirely adverse to change, since “they saw the need and opportunity to refashion” their old ways. (Scott, p. 61) Immigration and assimilation thus gave the Europeans an opportunity to refine their cultural heritage into something which could represent both cultures. Bodnar seems to agree with Scott’s statement, asserting that the immigrants “accepted change but invariably sought to temper its thrust, to establish something of their own preferences even while adjusting to other ways and organizations, and to resist any attempt at complete transformation.” (Bodnar, pp. 189-90) These interpretations of assimilation both suggest that the immigrants took a more active role in controlling the changes in their life, and also suggest that assimilation was not judged as a bad thing by the immigrants, as long as they were able to have some say in the ways in which they were assimilated.
Nearly all of the authors deal briefly with the ways in which the immigrants controlled their assimilation. Several talk about the voluntary associations which the immigrants created both to maintain their former ways of life while gradually adjusting to American life. Handlin and Jones both discuss the ways in which “spontaneous organization” among the immigrants was one of the first steps towards their Americanization, since “every aggregation of individuals acted so in America.” (Handlin, pp. 165-66) The true effect of the immigrant societies and preservations of culture was thus to teach the immigrants “how to live in the new place and still be themselves.” (Handlin, p. 238) Additionally, Bodnar notes that nearly everything from an immigrant’s past which he tried to retain was changed in some way, yet these things were also what the immigrants had to fall back on when they wished to “facilitate and render intelligible their new life and condition.” (Bodnar, p. 185) Stephenson notes that educated Germans were often critical of the United States, feeling that there was an “absence of high ideals in American life – in politics and religion.” (Stephenson, p. 46) Furthermore, the educated Germans encouraged all German immigrants to retain “the good of their native land, sometimes at the expense of familiarizing themselves with the language, customs, and institutions of the adopted country.” (Stephenson, p. 102) Yet again, the immigrants were not opposed to change as long as they had the ultimate control over just how much they were altered.
Taylor discusses the decline of cultural preservation attempts by the immigrants. He generalizes that “only when reinforcements from the old country ceased, and the immigrants died in large numbers, was assimilation likely to accelerate markedly and the group’s institutional life fall into decline.” (Taylor, p. 258) In ethnic enclaves, immigrants were able to perpetuate much of their former life, until the leadership of the community passed on to the later generations. Members of the second and third generations were much less likely to wish to perpetuate customs and ways of life from a country in which they had never set foot. In this way, assimilation was a necessary aspect of coming to America. Although it may not have affected the early generations, it was certain to have a profound effect on their children and their grandchildren.
Finally, several authors discuss when assimilation began. Handlin, Thistlethwaite, and Scott all share in the opinion that assimilation, to a minor degree, began before the immigrants even left the shores of Europe. It was in their initial decision to leave their native land that they began becoming American. (Handlin, p. 272; Thistlethwaite, “Postscript,” p. 55; Scott, p. 61) As the other authors say little about when assimilation began, it is difficult to determine whether or not the views advocated by these three authors are accepted as the truth. However, it does seem likely that the moment of decision to come to America had an exceptionally profound effect on the lives of the emigrants, and thus could be considered to be the moment at which they began to be assimilated.
Despite the wide variety of beliefs that these authors hold on the topics of the reasons for migrations and the process of assimilation, the frequency with which these themes are discussed is indicative of their importance in immigration history. Whether emigrants left to improve their wealth, acquire new freedoms, or simply because it was the only choice left, their decision was one of the most important decisions they would make in their lifetime. Additionally, the ways in which they were assimilated, whether under their own control or forcibly, were important factors in shaping the unique experience of each immigrant. As the first step in the process of departure and the final step in becoming American, the reasons for emigration and the process of Americanization are clearly two of the key components of the immigrant experience, worthy of the extensive study they have received.
Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.
Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1973.
Hansen, Marcus Lee. The Atlantic Migration, 1607-1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940.
Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Scott, Franklin Daniel. The Peopling of America: Perspectives on Immigration. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1972.
Stephenson, George M. A History of American Immigration, 1820-1924. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926.
Taylor, Philip. The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A.. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1971.
Thistlethwaite, Frank. “Migration from Europe Overseas in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” In A Century of European Migrations, 1830-1930: Macroperspectives and Microanalyses, eds. Rudolph J. Vecoli and Suzanne M. Sinke, 17-49. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Thistlethwaite, Frank. “Postscript.” In A Century of European Migrations, 1830-1930: Macroperspectives and Microanalyses, eds. Rudolph J. Vecoli and Suzanne M. Sinke, 50-57. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.