- Historic Sites
Young Republic, 1815–60
February/March 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 1
Jefferson’s optimistic vision of an always enlightened and open-minded America has survived as a hotly contested influence on the land. But his expectation that the nation would remain permanently agrarian was totally wrong. Half a century after he left the White House, steam power had transformed the country. Inventors and investors proved the truest American radicals. Steamboats and rail lines crisscrossed a Union that spread to the Pacific and boasted more than thirty states. Mills, mines, factories, distilleries, packinghouses, and shipyards yearly churned out millions of dollars’ worth of manufactured goods.
And it was linked to mass immigration. Immigrants furnished much of the labor that made the productive explosion possible and many of the consumers who made it profitable. The same industrializing processes that were at work and opened jobs here uprooted millions in Europe whose handicrafts became obsolete or whose land fell into the hands of those who could farm more “efficiently.” Two decades of Napoleonic warfare, followed by three more of suppressed democratic and nationalist revolution, created a new reservoir of suffering from which emigration offered an escape.
America was a major beneficiary. Europe’s growing cities and new overseas dominions beckoned, but the United States was the special promised land as the nineteenth century took its dynamic course. Fewer than 8,000 immigrants per year landed on American shores between 1783 and 1815, but 2,598,000 came in the next forty-five years: 1,500,000 in the 1840s and 3,000,000 in the 1850s. The pre-Civil War period of immigration belonged predominantly to 1,500,000 Germans and 2,000,000 Irish. It was the Irish whose transplantation was most shadowed in tragedy. Unbelievably, Ireland—only a few hours by water from the very center of the modern world in England—was stricken by the oldest of Biblical scourges, famine.
Irish migration had begun early. The rich English absentee landlords who ruled the country left their peasant tenants to feed themselves on the potatoes grown on tiny plots. A visitor declared that “the most miserable of English paupers” was better off. Irish Catholics and Irish nationalists were equally despised and frustrated. There was little future, and thousands, early in the century, migrated to the United States to find pick-and-shovel jobs on the growing network of turnpikes, canals, and railroads. But in 1845 the stream of opportunity seekers was turned into a flood of refugees. The potato crop, smitten by a fungus, failed in three successive years. Mass starvation was the result. In the hovels inhabited by the “Paddies,” rats gnawed on unburied bodies while others in their death throes looked on, too weak to move. “All with means are emigrating,” wrote one official; “only the utterly destitute are left behind.”
Victims of the “Great Hunger” were not through with their torments when they boarded filthy, overcrowded, and underprovisioned ships, where, said one witness, it was “a daily occurrence to see starving women and children fight for the food which was brought to the dogs and pigs that were kept on deck.” En route 10 to 20 percent of them died of disease. In the United States, lacking capital and prepared only for low-level employment, they were crammed into the new urban slums. Some were housed, according to an investigation committee, nine in a room in windowless and waterless cellars, “huddled together like brutes without regard to age or sex or sense of decency.”
It was a little better for the Germans. Many were professionals and scholars with some capital, political refugees rather than disaster victims. Some came in groups that pooled their money to buy cheap Western lands, and these founded towns like New UIm in Minnesota or New Braunfels in Texas. So many of them became Texans, in fact, that in 1843 the state published a German edition of its laws. An American reporter visited a German farm in Texas in 1857. “You are welcomed,” he told readers, “by a figure in a blue flannel shirt and pendant beard, quoting Tacitus, having in one hand a long pipe, in the other a butcher’s knife; Madonnas upon log-walls; coffee in tin cups upon Dresden saucers; barrels for seats to hear a Beethoven’s symphony on the grand piano.”
German farmers spread through Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. German brewers, bookbinders, butchers, musicians, and other craftspeople settled cohesively and proudly in cities from New York to New Orleans, St. Eouis to Cincinnati. In 1860, 100,000 New York Germans supported twenty churches, fifty German-language schools, ten bookstores, five printing establishments, and a theater, in neighborhoods known collectively as Kleindeutschland (little Germany). To contemporaries the Germans seemed a model minority, the Irish a problem minority—a kind of generalizing that would, in time, be transferred to other peoples.
To their contemporaries, the Germans seemed a model minority, the Irish a problem minority.
Besides these two major groups, there were Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes arriving in increasing numbers from the 185Os onward; French-Canadians moving into New England textile factories to replace Yankee workers of both sexes; Dutch farmers drifting to western Michigan; and in 1849 Chinese who had heard of the California gold strikes and came for their share of the “Golden Mountain,” as they called America—only to be crowded out of the mining camps by mobs and restrictive laws and diverted into railway labor gangs, domestic service, restaurants, and laundries.