The Political Impact of Immigration in the 1800s

Evicted from their homes during the Great Famine, many Irish sought shelter in the U.S.
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No more than 20 years after it had achieved independence from Great Britain, the United States began to experience major waves of immigrants, first from Europe and then from Asia. Although America, by definition, was a country formed by people who had come from elsewhere, these immigrant waves were not always welcome and caused major shifts in American politics.

1 Irish Arrivals

Although there had been numerous early Irish and Scotch-Irish immigrant settlers to the American colonies before the Revolution, the first wave of immigrants to arrive on the shores of the United States in the 1800s were mainly Irish fleeing British repression at home and, after 1845, the devastation of the Great Famine. Unlike the pre-Revolution immigrants, these had two strikes against them: they were Catholic in a largely Protestant country and they were mainly illiterate farmers forced to live in urban centers and take jobs as domestic servants or laborers. (See Reference 1)American workers, who were afraid the Irish would take jobs away from them, made virulent attacks against the Irish, branding them as lazy drunks who were more akin to apes than human beings.

2 The Know-Nothings

This prejudice against the Irish grew into The Know-Nothing Party, one of the first great nativist American political movements. The Know-Nothings arose in the 1840s as an anti-Irish, anti-Catholic group fearful of Irish immigration and convinced that the Irish were more loyal to the pope than to the United States. Capitalizing on fear and prejudice, the Know-Nothings successfully ran Salmon Chase (later a Lincoln cabinet member) for Ohio governor in 1855. They also put up former president Millard Fillmore to run in the 1856 election; although Fillmore came in last, he garnered more than 900,000 votes.

3 Second Immigrant Wave

Although the Know-Nothings declined in influence just before the Civil War, their example caused politicians to understand that those fearful of immigration could unleash waves of passion and anger in the United States. Even as Irish immigrants were gradually being assimilated and rising to positions of political power, the second wave of immigrants, this time from Asia, arrived on America’s shores. These immigrants were mainly Chinese who landed on the West Coast just after the Gold Rush of 1849. Those who did not find gold stayed to work as cooks and laborers and build railroads throughout the burgeoning American West. But, as with the Irish, racial prejudice and fear that the Chinese would steal jobs caused many Americans to organize against them.

4 Chinese Exclusion Act

“The Chinese problem,” as it was called, was such a hot-button political issue that when James Garfield ran for president in 1880, his opponents sought to derail him by making up a story that Garfield supported Chinese immigration. Western congressmen whose constituents hated the Chinese pushed in successive presidential administrations to alter existing trade agreements with China to limit the number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. Finally, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years -- the first such restrictive act in American history. It was not repealed until 1943, showing the power that fear of immigration still held over many Americans.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.