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Immigration and Nativist Notions in the 19th and 20th Century

The making of America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How was the ethnically diverse populations of North America homogenized to form a unified nation? Was/Is it really possible to homogenize people of different ethnicities? What is the role of education and economic cycles in establishing a unified culture?


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In "Strangers in the Land, Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925," John Higham defines nativism as "an intense opposition to an internal minority on the grounds of its foreign or un-American connections." The nativist believes unassimilated foreign individuals are potentially disloyal citizens and threats to the American nation. Disloyalty is broadly interpreted as anything un-American. Nativism is a response to threats to elements in the foundation of the American Dream, such as individualism, equal opportunity, democracy and unity. The nativist acted on these threats by calling for total americanization of citizens and vigorously campaigning to restrict immigration. Education was a preeminent force in americanizing or assimilating the foreign immigrant into mainstream society. Bernard J. Weiss explores issues of assimilation through education in a compilation of essays entitled "American Education and the European Immigrant: 1840-1940." An important goal of assimilation through education was to create responsible citizens and foster unity in the Anglo Saxon traditions of righteousness, and law and order. Education was also the nativist's vehicle for social control, providing a common experience for the children of immigrants and promoting national loyalty. Homogenizing immigrants through education and suppressing their diverse cultural traditions served the nativist's intent of thwarting un-American loyalties. In doing away with disloyalties the nativist believed all worthy citizens could achieve the promise of the American Dream. However, Higham argues that the nativist's sense of urgency in assimilating immigrants was inconsistent and directly related to fluctuations in the American economy and international stability. Weiss' essays indicate that the systematic view of education as an effective method in assimilating immigrants may have been a response to nativist demands and influence. However, education was not a dependable formula for Americanization or suppression of foreign threats, since immigrants were often active agents in their own destiny.
American nativism followed three themes of anti-Catholicism, anti-radicalism and a racial bias rooted in Anglo-Saxon tradition. Nativism was the vehicle for xenophobic currents of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anti-Catholicism was the oldest anti-foreign tradition originating in the Reformation. The nativist could not reconcile the American concept of individual freedom with the authoritarian traditions of the Catholic Church. Nativism was also in conflict with the Catholic Church's close association with foreign and monarchical governments. Education was not immune to attacks from nativists who feared the influence of the growing number of Catholic schools in the late 19th century. Cartoon images, included in Weiss' essay collection, depicted public school teachers taken to the gallows while children were at risk of being sacrificed to alligator-like representations of Catholic priests. Due to the nature of Catholicism and its non-individualist philosophy, the nativist adhered to a belief that Catholic education could not create an assimilated loyal American. Catholic ...