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Chapter 22: more mingled races

When we see in New York city a group of stolid Russian Jews just landed, or notice a newly arrived party of gayly attired Italian women who are being conducted behind a shed by their friends that they may exchange their picturesque attire for second-hand American gowns, we are apt to be thankful that we are not such as they. Or when we hear of an arrival of Finnish stone-cutters at Gloucester, Massachusetts, or of Armenian iron-workers at Worcester, we reflect that the landing of the Pilgrims of 1620 was not just like theirs. But, after all, the Pilgrims landed; that is the essential point. They were not the indigenous race. They were poor; they were sometimes ignorant; some of their women could only make their mark instead of signing their names. At the best it is not very long since they landed, for what is two or three centuries [155] in the history of the human race? Tried by the standard of ancient races, we are all new-comers together; we are still pilgrims and sojourners, as our fathers were. Those of us who are of English blood represent a race so mingled and combined, so swept over by successive invasions and conquests, that it can claim no purity of strain, but only the strength of composite structure. Trace back the origin of the Dutch or the French Huguenot element, and it is much the same. The French Canadians who are now pouring in upon us, or the Jews from whatever quarter, have probably a less mingled descent than most of those who deprecate their arrival. If this be the standard, it is for them to criticise us, not for us to criticise them.

Whatever may be the right policy as to restricting immigration, it is always to be remembered that it is immigration, not natural increase, which has made the material greatness of this country. It is not the seventy persons residing in Chicago in 1830 who were the progenitors of the two million claimed by that city to-day. In a remarkable book, called The New Rome, or the United States of the World, published in New York fifty years ago, the authors, both Germans, described the mission [156] of the United States to be “the fusion of all nations — not of this continent alone, but of all continents-into one people.” But as there can proverbially be no omelet without the breaking of eggs, so there can be no fusing of all nations except by bringing the nations here to be fused. If the patricians of those races will not come-and why should they, since they have more exclusive privileges at home? --we must accept the plebeians, in the knowledge that they may provide us with patricians in their grandchildren a century hence. Inasmuch as the ancestors of most of our present patricians were plebeians, why not? At any given moment the “society” of any American city or town looks like something fixed and permanent; people talk of “getting into it,” as if it were a definite enclosure; but in reality it is about as fixed and definite as the waves of the sea. Any social upheaval sweeps through it as a heavy sea sweeps through the carefully laid seines and stake-nets of the fishermen along our coasts, sending into the nets a great deal which the fishermen never expected to find there. Of all nations this is the last where we can regard new-comers as anything but American in the making — a new supply of eggs, fresh or stale, to be broken for our omelet. [157]

No test, no classification, can do very much to limit this supply. We have already laws to sift out criminals and paupers. But the most dangerous criminals are those who are not yet publicly known as such; and the most perilous paupers are those who arrive with no money of their own, but with some that has been plundered from other people. Moreover, those who are appalled by the aspect of the latest arrivals are apt to forget the looks of some that preceded them. Those early squalid crowds have simply vanished in their descendants. Who that sees the vast and well-dressed congregations that come and go to our Roman Catholic churches can recall the advance-guard of the Irish immigration as it came among us sixty years ago-“poor Paddy, whose country is his wheelbarrow,” as Emerson says, whose first act on arrival was to dig himself an earthen shanty, and live in it? Who that sees the equally prosperous French Canadian congregations pouring out of the great Roman Catholic churches of Fall River, Massachusetts, or Woonsocket, Rhode Island, can recall the Canadian families that used to cross the frontier forty or fifty years ago — a man, a woman, twelve children, and a large bundle? Each of those early migrations was a step in progress; [158] as De Tocqueville pointed out in his day, a log hut in America was not a home, but a halting-place on the way to something better. Each type of new arrivals brought qualities of its own; the French Canadian was less energetic than the Irish, but less turbulent; the Irish more original and aggressive, but less temperate. All our Civil War scarcely brought to light such a phenomenon as an Irish coward; but when it came to the statistics of the guard-house the report was less favorable.

We err in assuming that any one race monopolizes all the virtues, or that the community only suffers with each new importation. The late Rev. Horatio Wood, who was for more than half a century city missionary at Lowell, and who watched the whole change from American to Irish factory girls, told me that in one respect it brought a distinct moral improvement: the ignorant Irish girls were more uniformly chaste than the Protestant farmers' daughters whom they superseded. Now the French Canadians have replaced the Irish; but a Protestant physician of great experience, whose practice included several large manufacturing villages, almost wholly French, told me that he had never known an illegitimate birth to occur there. At the old “North [159] end” of Boston, where Irish superseded Americans, and have now given place to Italians and Russian Jews, a city missionary has testified to a moral improvement from the change; the Italians, though quarrelsome, are temperate, and he says that he never saw a Jew intoxicated. No doubt the prisons show a larger proportion of foreigners than of natives, because the foreigners represent the poorer class and the less befriended class. But the eminent scoundrels, who are rich and shrewd enough to keep out of prison, are rarely foreigners; they are more often the native product, and use the others as their tools; one such successful swindler doing more real harm in the community than twenty men convicted of drunkenness or petty larceny. Even as to crimes of violence, it is not among the vehement Italians that lynchings occur, but in those portions of the Union least touched by foreign immigration. Let us make laws, then, to regulate those landing on our shores; but let us not forget that the ancestors of our lawmakers also landed here.


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