Immigration and Immigrants: Overview

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Immigration and Immigrants: Overview

"Whence came all these people?" wrote Frenchman Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur about the American population in his Letters from an American Farmer (1782). Crèvecoeur, who immigrated to New York in 1759 and in 1783 became French consul in New York, noted: "They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race, now called Americans, have arisen." As the British American colonies expanded and the new American Republic emerged, individuals and families left the European Continent, coerced by circumstances at home and drawn by opportunities abroad. They sought new homes that offered economic security and nurturing environments for their respective cultures and religions. At the same time, European slave traders forcibly brought thousands of enslaved Africans to serve as the labor force that sustained the colonial economy and contributed to the livelihood of the new American nation. Through these multiple streams of migration, the American Republic took shape.

sources and extent of immigration

Records of immigration to the British colonies and the early American nation are extremely spotty, thus making it difficult to describe accurately the extent of the period's migration. Compared to the mass migrations of the mid– to late nineteenth century, however, relatively few people came to America during the 1700s. From five thousand to ten thousand individuals, including slaves, arrived annually in the colonies and the American nation from the mid-1700s through the early 1800s.

The successes of the colonies and the attractiveness of the new Republic led to increased promotion of immigration. Newspaper advertisements and articles encouraged individuals with enterprising dispositions to settle America's fertile lands and those seeking work to pursue the numerous available labor opportunities. Immigrants responded to new inducements following the founding of the United States, including letters from family and friends, appeals by land companies, and recruiting efforts by manufacturers and state governments. Businesses involved in the emerging "immigrant trade" also played a significant role in stimulating and facilitating the migration of Europeans.

Immigrants of the period originated in northwestern Europe—the British Isles, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France—and were predominantly Protestant. British immigrants settled throughout the colonies, solidifying the crown's hold on its territorial claims in North America, expanding the transatlantic trade, and laying the social and cultural foundations of a future republic. Families constituted a growing portion of the overall immigration stream, while African slaves gradually replaced the indentured servants that had been a critical component of the earlier colonial labor force.

More people (Celtic Irish, English Irish, and Scots-Irish) emigrated from Ireland than from Britain itself during the period. They came in two main waves, around 1754–1755 and 1770–1775, totaling some forty thousand, in response to high population density, subdivision of lands, and growing specialization within the Ulster linen industry. Mostly Presbyterian in religion, they settled in Pennsylvania, the Piedmont of North and South Carolina, and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Germans journeyed to America in reaction to harsh economic, political, and religious conditions. They established themselves as farmers, farm-workers, and artisans in the mid-Atlantic region. Most Germans were members of the Lutheran or Reformed Church, though dissenting groups like Mennonites and Dunkards were also present. The Scots, Dutch, French, and Swedes—groups that had arrived early in the colonial period—maintained distinct settlements in America, though migration streams were small.

The first census of the United States, taken in 1790, illustrated the migration streams that shaped the nation. More than three-quarters of the white population were of English stock.

An estimated 250,000 people arrived in America between 1783 and 1815. The origins of European migrants, however, are more easily defined after 1820 as the sending nations and the receiving nation began to gather more specific information on those making the transatlantic trek. Between 1820 and 1830, over 151,000 people came to the United States, more than two-thirds of whom originated in the British Isles. Of that number, the Irish contributed 54,338 immigrants, or approximately one-third; the English constituted about one-fifth of the migration.

Throughout the late colonial and early national periods, events in both the Old and New Worlds affected the waves of immigration, influencing individuals and families who sought to pursue dreams of freedom and economic opportunity and to follow the encouragements of those who had preceded them to the New World. The Seven Years' War halted immigration from 1756 to 1763. The years surrounding the American Revolution (1775–1783) brought immigration to a literal standstill. The turmoil accompanying the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, lasting from 1789 to 1815, kept yet another generation from migrating. Finally, the political uncertainty surrounding the new American Republic, the War of 1812 (1812–1815), and the Panic of 1819 discouraged immigration to America, thus limiting much of the nation's growth in its formative years to natural increases among the resident population. For nearly half a century, therefore, immigration to the new nation was but a trickle compared to later nineteenth-century migration waves.

attitude toward immigration

The British considered immigration to be the principal means of securing labor for the colonies, which in turn strengthened their territorial claims and control of Atlantic commerce. Americans also possessed a favorable attitude toward immigration, viewing the colonies (and eventually their new nation) as an asylum for the oppressed of the world, open to all those who sought economic opportunities, freedom from persecution at home, or adventure in the American wilderness. There were, however, those who voiced concerns over the increasing diversity of the colonial population, considering regional clustering and resistance to Americanization by the minority non-English-speaking populations as a threat to the British colonies. Benjamin Franklin, writing in his Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind (1751), criticized what he perceived as the growing influence of German immigrants in Pennsylvania:

Why should the Palatinate Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them? (Daniels, Coming to America, pp. 109–110)

Starting in the 1760s, Britain rejected colonial demands for more open immigration policies. Thomas Jefferson, writing in the Declaration of Independence, expressed the Americans' pro-immigration stance by criticizing the king for preventing "the population of these States" by refusing to recognize naturalization acts passed by colonial assemblies. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine acknowledged the importance of immigration on the grounds that America was "the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every Part of Europe…. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America."

With the Revolution behind them and the challenge of forming a new nation ahead, Americans had to confront issues of immigration policy themselves. Members of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 debated the issue. New York's Alexander Hamilton claimed immigrants would contribute to the well-being of the new nation. George Mason of Virginia favored an "open door" policy, but was hesitant about allowing "foreigners … to make laws for us and govern us." Others expressed fears that immigrants would retain the principles of despotic countries, which could undermine the American Republic.

From the founding of the United States, Americans saw their nation as a noble experiment in freedom, a place that would share its benefits, blessings, and opportunities with all who sought freedom. George Washington described the importance of immigrants to the new nation, noting that

the bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment. (LeMay, From Open Door to Dutch Door, pp. 7, 9)

While Americans proclaimed their new Republic to be a symbol of freedom and an asylum for the world's oppressed, there was a growing nativist attitude among certain groups. The belief in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxon institutions and principles and a need to restrict the influence of non-English immigrants led the Federalists and President John Adams to adopt various Alien Acts in 1798. These acts, which targeted recent Irish and French immigrants who supported the Jeffersonian Republicans, extended the time of naturalization and imposed restrictions to monitor and govern the behavior of aliens. Opposition to immigration at this time was based primarily on ideological grounds rather than on the ethnic or religious grounds of later years. Congress repealed or amended the Alien Acts after Jefferson became president.

In the early decades of the American Republic, the federal government did little to supervise, control, or regulate immigration, leaving immigration policy to state authorities. Not until 1820 did the U.S. government begin to record the number of immigrant entrants annually by requiring a complete list of all ships' passengers.

The early immigrants were, on the whole, successful. That fact, and the emergence of shipping and recruiting agencies, laid the foundation for the mass immigrations to the United States that began in the 1830s.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts .


Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Hansen, Marcus Lee. The Atlantic Migration, 1607–1860: A History of the Continuing Settlement of the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940; reprint, New York: Harper Torchbook, 1961.

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

LeMay, Michael C. From Open Door to Dutch Door: An Analysis of U.S. Immigration Policy since 1820. New York: Praeger, 1987.

Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

David G. Vanderstel

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Immigration and Immigrants: Overview

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Immigration and Immigrants: Overview