Act to Encourage Immigration

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Act to Encourage Immigration

United States 1864


The United States Congress's Act to Encourage Immigration legalized and bureaucratized a practice similar to indentured servitude. Under this measure, employers could contract with a foreign laborer to come to the United States and pay for his passage in exchange for up to a year's wages. This practice, legally sanctioned by the federal government in 1864 at the prodding of industrialists and President Abraham Lincoln, met with immediate resistance from the embryonic labor movement of the time. Rather than attracting skilled labor for the formation of new industries, third-party recruiting organizations contracted with unskilled laborers to work for wages substandard to those in the United States. Employers often imported contract laborers in efforts to break strikes during labor disputes. Congress technically repealed the law in 1868, but the practice of importing labor already under contract was not made illegal until the 1885 passage of the Foran Act (also known as the Alien Contract Labor Law). Both the repeal and the outright ban, however, served mainly as symbolic gestures rather than enforceable legislation.


  • 1844: Samuel Laing, in a prize-winning essay on Britain's "National Distress," describes conditions in a nation convulsed by the early Industrial Revolution. A third of the population, according to Laing, "hover[s] on the verge of actual starvation"; another third is forced to labor in "crowded factories"; and only the top third "earn[s] high wages, amply sufficient to support them in respectability and comfort."
  • 1849: Elizabeth Blackwell becomes the first woman in the United States to receive a medical degree.
  • 1854: In the United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act calls for decisions on the legality of slavery to be made through local votes. Instead of reducing divisions, this measure will result in widespread rioting and bloodshed and will only further hasten the looming conflict over slavery and states' rights.
  • 1857: Start of the Sepoy Mutiny, an unsuccessful revolt by Indian troops against the British East India Company. As a result of the rebellion, which lasts into 1858, England places India under direct crown rule.
  • 1860: Louis Pasteur pioneers his method of "pasteurizing" milk by heating it to high temperatures in order to kill harmful microbes.
  • 1862: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts injustices in French society, and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons introduces the term nihilism.
  • 1864: General William Tecumseh Sherman conducts his Atlanta campaign and his "march to the sea."
  • 1864: Founding of the International Red Cross in Geneva.
  • 1864: George M. Pullman and Ben Field patent their design for a sleeping car with folding upper berths.
  • 1866: Austrian monk Gregor Mendel presents his theories on the laws of heredity. Though his ideas will be forgotten for a time, they are destined to exert enormous influence on biological study in the twentieth century.
  • 1870: Beginning of Franco-Prussian War. German troops sweep over France, Napoleon III is dethroned, and France's Second Empire gives way to the Third Republic.
  • 1873: The gold standard, adopted by Germany in 1871 and eventually taken on by all major nations, spreads to Italy, Belgium, and Switzerland. Though the United States does not officially base the value of its currency on gold until 1900, an unofficial gold standard dates from this period, even as a debate over "bimetallism" creates sharp divisions in American politics.

Event and Its Context

Throughout the colonial and antebellum periods, the United States experienced various degrees of labor shortages. Indentured servitude, mostly of white Europeans, and the African slave trade provided ready sources of labor until the early nineteenth century, when the United States banned the Atlantic slave trade and the demand for indentured servants dropped significantly. During the Civil War, industrialists searched for a way to eradicate the acute shortage of labor that resulted from both conscription and the movement of settlers to western farmlands after the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. The Republican-controlled Congress favored a measure intended to increase immigration of skilled laborers to northern industrial areas.

Interest groups such as manufacturers, transportation companies, and recruitment agencies sought government support for an increase in immigration from Europe. In 1863 President Lincoln aligned himself with the special interests and asked Congress to stimulate immigration so as to keep war industries afloat. As a result, Congress passed the Act to Encourage Immigration, which Lincoln then signed into law on 4 July 1864. With the blessing of the federal government, middleman organizations such as the American Emigrant Company culled labor markets in European ports to lure laborers to the United States. Recruitment agencies and steamship companies profited wildly from this practice, taking a cut of the laborers' wages for their procurement. In addition, because the foreign laborers often received faulty or outdated information about labor conditions, wage scales, and costs of living, long-term contracts often locked workers into wages that were well below the standards followed in America.

Employers often utilized these imported contract laborers as strikebreakers during times of labor unrest. Because their wages were set before arriving at the job site, these workers could be employed at far lower than the prevailing rates. However, this did not always work out according to the employers' designs. Occasionally, striking workers would reason with, cajole, or threaten the contract laborers to return to their home countries or to join a strike. Industrialists believed that they had few options besides property seizure to compel workers to honor their contracts, and because many workers turned to contract labor out of poverty, prosecution in most cases proved more costly than letting a worker leave. Labor activism also challenged the sanctity of the contracts. Unions took up collections to pay return passage for contract workers. In one example, a group of coal miners imported from northern Britain to West Virginia refused to take up their work and sided with the protesting Americans. Communication among trade unions, particularly between the United States and Great Britain, met with some success in preventing the recruitment of strikebreakers. Yet despite these scattered success stories, the importation of contract labor generally reduced wages and disrupted collective action among striking workers.

Opposition to the contract labor law arose quickly, as workers blamed the practice for unemployment and low wages in the immediate postwar period. Onto this scene arose the reform unionism movement, stressing worker organization across craft divisions instead of more traditional trade unionism. Reform unionism's first nationwide incarnation, the National Labor Union (NLU), solidified during the rapid industrialization surrounding the Civil War. Under pressure from the NLU and trade unions, Congress refused industrialists' pleas to heighten enforcement provisions; they even repealed the law in 1868. However, this law served more as a sop to working-class voters than as an effective tool against the practice of contract labor importation. The law retracted federal support for encouraging immigration but did not explicitly forbid the practice. Employers, steamship companies, and the American Emigrant Company therefore continued to import contract workers throughout the 1870s and 1880s.

Throughout the turbulent boom and bust cycles of the 1870s, many Americans blamed immigrants for troubled economic times and the increasing problems of urban overcrowding. The expanding labor movement furthered its efforts against imported contract labor into the early 1880s, concentrating the blame on Hungarian and Italian peasants, most of whom had emigrated under their own initiative rather than under a prearranged contract. The Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, founded in 1869, replaced the internally divided NLU as the voice of union reform. One assembly of the Knights, the Window Glass Workers, Local Assembly 300, took the initiative to press Congress for a bill that would prohibit contract labor. Imported skilled tradesmen, mostly from Belgium, had been used as strikebreakers against the local in 1879 and 1880. Martin Foran, a congressman from Ohio and a supporter of the Knights of Labor, proposed a bill in 1884 to forbid the importation of contract labor.

Congress received a flood of petitions in support of the bill, mostly from citizen groups, labor organizations such as the Knights, and state legislatures, that pointed out the economic and humanitarian necessity of the measure. The Knights, reaching the apogee of their influence in the mid-1880s, were not the only source of concern over importation of contract labor. Yet despite the actual practices of importation, the main issue in the congressional debates did not revolve around Belgian glass workers or wage cutting. Rather, an all-too-familiar ethnic rhetoric colored the debate. Lawmakers spoke out about the dangers of allowing eastern and southern European peasants to flood the cities of the United States.

Despite the Knights' philosophy of solidarity across racial, ethnic, and gender lines, a definite resistance to immigration emerged. The resistance stressed the dangers of so-called unassimilable foreigners. Some preferred the Foran Act to an outright ban on immigration from Europe, drawing a distinction between workers who voluntarily chose to immigrate (and could therefore join unions) and those who aligned themselves with capitalists before arriving in America. The Knights therefore did not see a conflict between their stated purpose as the voice of all workers and their efforts to keep out specific workers. This matter had been far more clouded three years previously, when the Knights supported the ban on Chinese immigration because they considered the Chinese to be unassimilable racially and culturally.

Business interests did not bother to protest the Foran Act; they claimed that they did not import contract labor. Recruiting organizations and steamer lines, often run by recent immigrants with little political clout, did the dirty work. In addition, the rising levels of overall immigration demonstrated that no labor shortage would result from such meager limitations. Thus, the bill appealed emotionally—if not rationally—to workers and did not damage business interests. Perhaps more important, the law was nearly impossible to enforce. Immigration officials found oral contracts hard to trace, and immigrants quickly learned how to walk the thin line between contract labor stipulations and the "likely to become a public charge" clause. More importantly, the United States still lacked the administrative capacity to regulate immigration on a national level.

Key Players

Carey, Henry C. (1793-1879): Economic theorist who supported protective tariffs and immigration promotion to bolster the industrial economy. During the Civil War, Carey and his colleagues pressed Congress for the Act to Encourage Immigration and to pave the way for organizations such as the American Emigration Company to recruit laborers abroad.

Foran, Martin (1844-1921): U.S. Congressman from Cleveland, Ohio, former president of the Coopers Union, and editor of the labor newspaper, the Coopers' Journal. As a congressman, Foran supported the Knights of Labor in efforts to bring about government-led reform. He introduced a bill in Congress to ban the importation of alien laborers under contract; the bill passed in 1885 with the support of the Knights and many other labor groups.

James, John (1839-1902): James was a miner and trade unionist recruited from Britain as part of a strikebreaking force in West Virginia. When James learned of the strike from the local miners, he and his coworkers refused en masse to take up their work. James acted as spokesman for the group, arguing that their contracts were made under false pretenses and were therefore invalid. James continued to work as a labor activist, writing for the Workingman's Advocate and serving as secretary of the Miners' National Association.

Stephens, Uriah (1821-1882): Originally trained as a minister, in 1869 Stephens became cofounder and first grandmaster workman of the Holy Order of the Knights of Labor. He carried the tradition of reform unionism, with a heavy emphasis on Christianity, from the defunct National Labor Union to the Knights. Stephens advocated open membership for all workers to the union, although he clung to the group's heritage as a secret society fashioned after freemasonry. Membership in the Knights swelled after Terence Powderly replaced Stephens as the organization's leader.

Sylvis, William (1828-1869): Sylvis was president and one of the founders of the National Labor Union. Instrumental in the early development of the first organization of its kind in the United States, Sylvis advocated organization across craft and skill levels, including membership for women and African American workers. Sylvis opposed the Act to Encourage Immigration as part of a postwar surge in labor activism. He died shortly after the repeal of the Act to Encourage Immigration.

See also: Chinese Exclusion Act; Foran Act; Knights of Labor; National Labor Union.



Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. Immigration and American Unionism.Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Erickson, Charlotte. American Industry and the European Immigrant, 1860-1885. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Hutchinson, E. P. Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Rayback, Joseph G. A History of American Labor. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1959.

Steinfeld, Robert J. Coercion, Contract, and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

U.S. House of Representatives. Report on Importation of Contract Laborers. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1889.


"American Labor Portraits No. 4." Workingman's Advocate(29 November 1873): 1.

Grob, Gerald. "Reform Unionism: The National Labor Union." Journal of Economic History 14, no. 2 (1954): 126-142.


"Martin Foran." The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.Case Western Reserve University Web site. 2002 [cited 10 August 2002]. <>.

Additional Resources


Chomsky, Carol. "Unlocking the Mysteries of Holy Trinity:Spirit, Letter, and History in Statutory Interpretation." Columbia Law Review 100, no. 4 (2000): 901-957.

Creamer, Daniel. "Recruiting Contract Laborers for the Amoskeag Mills." Journal of Economic History 1, no. 1 (1941): 42-56.

Orth, Samuel P. "The Alien Contract Law and Labor Law."Political Science Quarterly 22, no. 1 (1907): 49-60.

—Courtney Q. Shah