The Immigrant, Past and Present - Dr. Allan McLaughlin (1904)


AFTER the Peace of Paris in 1783, and the birth of a new nation on the American continent, home-seekers arriving at ports of the United States were called immigrants. Previous to the revolutionary war they were known as colonists. The distinction is one of political allegiance.

The colonist was an immigrant who desired to make a home in the new country, but to retain his allegiance to his native land. On the other hand, the immigrant, in a majority of instances, expected and desired to change his political allegiance. Even
at the present time the government of Italy regards as Italian colonists all Italians in America Who have not been naturalized.

If we except the question of political allegiance there was little difference between the colonist and the early immigrant. There were no large centers of population such as exist today to invite the parasitic class, nor were there large factories, mines or mills, to demand a supply of unskilled laborers. The country, except a narrow strip along the Atlantic seaboard, stretched in an almost unbroken wilderness far to the west.

The type of immigrant willing and able to brave the dangers and hardships of the new country, and hew out a home in the heart of the forest, was necessarily brave of heart, and strong of hand, the very best type of an immigrant—the pioneer. The immigrant of those days was not allured by the promise of high -wages, nor by the desire to better his financial condition, but was actuated chiefly by the desire to create a home, and free himself from the trammels and persecutions of the old world.

He was at once a pioneer, a woodsman and a farmer. He left behind him many evils, coercion, compulsory military service, religious or racial persecution, grinding taxation, wars in which he had no interest, and prohibitive systems of land tenure. He found in this country, land for all, absolute freedom from racial or religious persecution, personal liberty, and respect for the rights of the individual, regardless of social position.

Brief History of Immigration to America

The many advantages offered to the home-seeker who was brave, willing and strong, in the new United States, attracted many thousand immigrants, and it is estimated that one hundred and fifty thousand settled in the country between 1783 and 1810. These early immigrants were mostly from the British Isles, with a few Germans, French and Scandinavians.

The strained relations with England followed by the war of 1812, practically stopped immigration for several years. During 1817, however, twenty thousand immigrants arrived in the United States. This number was unprecedented at that time, and caused considerable criticism of the overcrowding of immigrant ships.

Immigration first assumed large proportions during the decade 1831-1840. It increased progressively, and during the next twenty years was relatively greater in proportion to the native population than at any other period. The great famine in Ireland greatly increased Irish immigration. German immigration was increased at the same time because of industrial depression and the revolt of 1848. The discovery of gold in California, no doubt, also contributed to the increase of immigration at this time.

Irish immigration reached its height in the decade 1841-1850, when it constituted 46 per cent. of the total. It has declined steadily and is now only 4 percent of our total.
The Germans kept coming in increasing numbers and in the early eighties were 30 per cent. of the total. They also have fallen off, and now constitute less than 10 per cent. The Scandinavians became a considerable factor in the decade 1861-1870, and in 1889 furnished 10 per cent. of our immigrants. Their proportion has also declined and at present is about 10 per cent. With the decline in the proportion of immigrants from the United Kingdom, Germany and the Scandinavian countries, a rapid increase in the arrivals from Italy, Austria-Hungary and Russia is noticeable.

This marked change in the complexion of immigration can be appreciated from the fact that in 1875 we received 3,631 from Italy, 7,658 from Austria-Hungary and 8,981 from Russia, while in 1903 we received 230,622 from Italy, 206,001 from Austria-Hungary and 136,093 from Russia. In other words, the immigration from these countries to 1875 was only 9 per cent., while today it constitutes about 67 per cent. of our total immigration.

Immigration of the Past

In general, the immigrant of the past differed greatly from the immigrant of to-day. As has been stated, the first immigrants were pioneers and differed little from the old colonists of pre-revolutionary times. As time went on they spread from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, side by side with pioneers from the New England and Southern states. These immigrants were agricultural in occupation and were invariably home-seekers.

The New Type of Immigrant

The development of our vast natural resources, particularly coal and iron, created a demand for a new type of immigrant, an unskilled laborer, who may be styled an industrial immigrant. The building of the great. transcontinental and other lines of railroads furnished additional work for this industrial immigrant, and opened up vast new fields hitherto inaccessible to agricultural home-seekers.

Of late years, most of the desirable, arable land, profitable and fertile without irrigation, has been taken up, and the advantages offered the agricultural type of immigrant in the west have been materially lessened, but our wonderful industrial growth still demands and attracts the strong willing unskilled laborer, and this demand will probably last for many years to come.

The development of our great manufacturing industries also attracted great numbers of skilled artisans and mechanics. At first these skilled laborers were necessary. The necessity for their coming has now disappeared, and not only are they unnecessary for development or progress along industrial lines, but they enter into direct competition with American mechanics and artisans. These may be classed as competitive immigrants.

The rapid growth of our large cities, the establishment of great centers of population, most marked in the past twenty-five years, attracted another class of immigrants, who can only live in such environment, who are simply human parasites unable to exist by their own effort.

Classes of Immigrants

Thus immigrants of today can be grouped under four heads:

  1. agricultural,
  2. industrial,
  3. competitive,
  4. parasitic.

The agricultural class includes farm laborers and those desiring to take up land for settlement. The industrial class includes the great army of unskilled laborers, who seek employment in the mines, mills, great works of construction and manufacturing concerns.

These two classes are valuable and necessary for the development and industrial progress of the country. The competitive class takes in the skilled laborers, mechanics, artisans and others who come here and enter into competition, in their respective callings, with Americans. This class is not necessary for our advancement and may or may not be of value to the country.

The fourth or parasitic class is, as its name implies, not only valueless, but decidedly detrimental to the body politic. In this class are included the peddlers, fakirs, paupers, etc., who congregate and will live only in the large centers of population and who can not or will not do hard physical labor. This class constitutes a load to be carried, and their deleterious influence on the vigor of the nation is in direct proportion to their numbers.

Factors in Immigration

Social and political conditions in Europe determine to a large extent both the quantity and the quality of our immigration. A country well and justly governed and which is in a prosperous condition is not likely to send us many good immigrants. The type of Englishman who would be welcome here as an immigrant, the sturdy Anglo-Saxon yeoman, of whom we delight to form a mental picture, finds conditions of life so suited to him in England that we rarely see him as an immigrant, and we are much more likely to receive as our English immigrant the degenerate product of the East London slums.

The same has been true of Germany for many years, the prosperity of the country, the growth of national pride and reconciliation to the form of government have cut down the German emigration from the great exodus of the eighties to the comparatively insignificant figures of today; and the German immigrants today do not compare favorably with their countrymen who came here twenty-five years ago.

It will be seen, therefore, that it is unwise to consider an immigrant good because he is of one race, or worthless because he is of another. They must be measured individually irrespective of race or creed, for it is better to receive the robust pastoral or agricultural immigrants from countries where the intellectual status, perhaps, is not high and the school system faulty, than to receive from countries, possessing a high intellectual status and a superior educational system, the urban degenerate, criminal, diseased and defective.


Today we receive the agricultural home-seeker as in the early days of this country. We demand and receive the industrial immigrant, the unskilled laborer who was unknown as a type fifty years ago. And we also receive against our own will the human parasite who remains and can only exist in the great centers of population.

The work which will be done in the next twenty years to reclaim the arid land by irrigation will be genuine empire building and provide thousands of homes for agricultural settlers. No doubt proper care will be exercised by the government to prevent this reclaimed land from falling into the hands of speculators, and the bulk of it will be available for the immigrant of the future.



Return to Top of Page