Turning them away: Shifting views on immigration from Europe


In January of 1893, the satirical magazine Puck published a cartoon by Joseph Keppler dealing with the current intense debate over immigration from Europe. Puck Cartoon on Immigration 1893The cartoon shows five stout, well dressed men repelling a scrawny arriving immigrant carrying all his possessions on his back. Behind the men are shadowy images of their immigrant forebears looking much like the new immigrant. An editorial in the Kansas City Times pointed out the message: “Behind the portly and bediamoned Irish-American there appeared the form of the Tipperary lad, with shillalah and bundle…. Back of the German-American the shade of a Prussian peasant hovered, and behind the well-kept Jew was the outline of a youthful, slender suspender peddler.  The foreign Americans had forgotten their ancestry,” said the editors. “They wanted to burn the bridges over which they had come to freedom and wealth and happiness out of a bondage of penury and misery.” 

The editors went on to criticize those who want to stop “the coming into this roomy, free country of the industrious poor of Europe [who] forget that only the free laws of the American fathers made it possible for us to be here today.” The country needed their labor then, and they are still needed in 1893 as the nation spreads “from one ocean to another.” The editorial criticizes the view of anti-immigrationists that the new arrivals cannot be assimilated into the culture, arguing that a peasant who arrives from Germany or France or Russia “is at work in a week. There is no idleness in his make up. He is just the sort of force that is needed to keep up the face of our energy. In five years the immigrant can not be recognized by one who saw him land at Castle Garden[1] in his queer hat, wooden shoes, tight trousers and jacket.” Within a generation, the new Americans are indistinguishable from those in the “way back line,” who have been in the U.S. only “a little longer.” 

The editors acknowledge a view commonly expressed by anti-immigrationists that newly arrived foreigners are sometimes involved in crime but, they argue in response, so are native born Americans: “So let the oppressed,” they conclude, echoing the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, “whether he be from the land of the Czar or the Kaiser, whether he be Pole or Austrian, Swede or Swiss, put his effects on his back and take ship for America. We want him here to populate the land, to work and produce, to become a part of us according to our American methods,”[2]  including application of the “civilizing influence” of churches and schools. Significantly, the Times invariably omitted Italians when listing those who could benefit from the civilizing influence of American institutions.

The Times, a Democratic paper, tended like most western Democrats to favor more or less unrestricted immigration as a necessity for economic development of the western states, particularly in light of the 1882 act restricting Chinese immigration. The editorial implicitly critiques many of the claims of the anti-immigrationists such as New Hampshire senator William Chandler, who was pushing new laws requiring literacy tests and  significant financial assets of at least $100 for heads of families, as well as bans on those he considered “obviously undesirable:”  southern Italians, and Russian, Polish, and Hungarian Jews. Howard Markel points out that Chandler’s literacy restriction was especially aimed against Russian Jews, who were denied education in Russia.[3]  The Times editorial links Swedish and  Swiss  immigrants, to whom there was little popular objection, to Russian and Polish immigrants, arguing that churches and schools can even “civilize” the latter.

A few days later, the Times reported on a debate sponsored by the Current Event Club on the question “Should Immigration to the United States Be Restricted for One Year?” as William Chandler had proposed. The speakers in favor of restriction echoed Chandler’s argument that the “most undesirable and illiterate classes” of emigrants – those from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, and Russia, “do not make good citizens,” and in addition brought with them the threat of cholera. Speakers against restriction argued, with the Times, that the “new immigrants” would be shaped into good and prosperous citizens like their predecessors from northern and western Europe, and that there was little to fear from cholera as cities improved sanitation.  The Chandler restriction bill was, said one speaker, “arbitrary, unjust and unnecessary.” [4] 

The Times expanded on its argument in an editorial later in the month entitled “We can not have too many,” in which it criticized “immigration cranks” for representing immigrants as “ethically and industrially a different thing from an American.” The migrant is an individual who “is not very different from the rest except in a few externals which he soon begins to modify. He works, becomes a customer of the merchant and a client of the lawyer,” pays taxes, supports schools and churches.

The editorial ends with a comparison that pro-Democratic Times readers in 1893 would probably find perfectly logical though it contradicts the editors’ opening sermon on wrong thinking caused by “considering systems and bodies of men in bulk”:   No European race, they write, “is as hard to assimilate, as little inclined to continuous labor and steady thrift, as the negroes,” yet the south has brought African Americans into the economy and “will settle matters comfortably and bring out increasing good for the nation.” What the south can do with  former slaves the west can certainly “do better with an amount of immigration beyond any that ever has or will come…”[5] This, of course, as Jim Crow laws premised on precisely the opposite of the Times’ assimilationist views on European migrants were being implemented in every southern state.

In a February editorial, the Times sounded a note of urgency, suggesting that emigrants were now going elsewhere to settle – South Africa, Australia and, most oddly, the Congo Free State -- having heard of exclusionary efforts in the U.S.  America’s years as haven of the world’s oppressed may be ending because of “short sighted partisanship.” A public meeting in London is described at which a speaker says that America was fast changing from the land of the free and the home of the brave to a land of cranks and oppressors.” A peculiar example of the descent into oppression was offered by the speaker: “recent state acts against the use of cigarettes.” The editorial concludes on the familiar western-oriented note: “Too much land lies untouched in the west to admit of restricting immigration.”

When a reader, Mr. Smith, took issue with the Times’ defense of unrestricted immigration, believing it was a threat to employment, the editors responded that the immigrant does not come to the U.S. intending to displace American workmen but only to improve his lot: “Sometimes the American workman… turns on the unfortunate newcomer and a battle ensues. If ever a foreign element sought to underbid native workmen, an American was at the bottom of the plot.”[6] Or an Italian American: the Times reprinted a wire service story summarizing a report by the federal Immigrant Inspector attacking the “Padrone” system, which operated in Italian communities, bringing Italian laborers into the country, coaching them on methods of getting past immigration inspectors, and furnishing them to railroad contractors: “They work for small wages, live in a manner that American laborers regard as barbarous, and as  a consequence … they are driving out laborers of other nationalities in railroad building..”[7]

In 1893 there were few legal obstacles to employers firing  workers and replacing them with foreign-born workers, as in the example of a Longshoreman’s strike in New York in August  where strikers were replaced by Italians. Violence flared between the two groups; a police official warned the strikers “it was unlawful for them to intimidate labor or capital,” to which some strikers responded “The Dagos ought be killed.”[8] In another example, 650 workers taking down the exhibits at the end of the Chicago World’s Fair were discharged, their places taken by Italian laborers at lower wages. Again, police forces threatened to intervene if the fired employees tried to prevent the Italians from working. 

The Times’ indirect reference to the American “at the bottom of the plot” is a rare example of a newspaper raising a mild question about the legitimacy of using the foreign born against “native” Americans in labor disputes. Even coal operators’ bringing in African American miners from the south to replace striking miners in Kansas coal mines[9]  called forth no editorial criticism from city papers. The Times’ response would probably have been unconvincing to Mr. Smith. Instead of calling for some legislative control over “property’s” firing workers at will, hiring immigrants to replace them, and calling in the police when workers objected, the editors of the Times returned to their favorite theme of the need for immigrants to develop the “raw land and untouched resources” of the west.Old Union Depot 1895

True, they acknowledge, foreigners have been the source of “what little anarchy this country has seen,” a reference to the argument of anti-immigrationists that anarchism was rife among the new type of immigrants. But “no true American is an anarchist,” they avow, and the immigrant will soon assimilate. Nor is there any truth in the claim of “unthinking objectors” that crime is the result of immigration: “It should make the native born patriot blush to admit it, but he must confess that the penitentiaries of the United States are filled with Americans.” The new migrant seeks to work, not steal; in a few years he becomes an American, his children are “Americans in thought, spirit and action. They seek and get good prices for their labor and time.”[10]

The Kansas City Daily Journal, a Republican paper, advocated limiting immigration, primarily out of objection to what it saw as the unsuitability of some immigrants. Its resident artist, R.S. Winn, visiting the Union depot on a sketching expeditions, drew a group of three immigrants sitting with their bundles. UnionDepotImmigrantsHe entitled the sketch “Just over,” commenting “Ugly and uncouth as they are with their stolid faces, they make up a good group. The boots and the caps and the positions they assume, when rightly handled, make a pretty strong picture, which, if necessary, may be used as a sort of protest against any more foreign immigration.”[11]   This was, in general, the Journal’s view of “the class of immigrants constituting the larger number of recent comers from foreign shores,” as one editorial phrased it, referring indirectly to those from southern and eastern Europe, who had begun to replace the traditional source of immigrants in western and northern Europe. The policy of welcoming the oppressed should be maintained, wrote the editors, but there should be a “qualification” restricting those who present a danger to the country’s institutions. In contrast to America’s founders who advanced the country to “its present proud position as the greatest and best on earth,” these newcomers “have no social or political longing to satisfy because their inheritances and traditions supply them with none.”[12] Unlike the immigrants of twenty years before who put down roots, the new lot are coming for material reasons: “to accumulate sums which shall enable them to return to their own lands in  comparative affluence,” meanwhile taking jobs from “native” laborers. [13]

In one editorial, the Journal used figures from the commissioner of immigration to argue that, despite regulations intended to exclude paupers and those likely to become public charges, eastern Europeans – Poles, Austrians, Hungarians, and Russians continued to be admitted with so little money – averaging $12.31 in the case of Poles, $11.42 for Hungarians, and “Russians by the thousand who brought a few cents each” – that they are virtually paupers. In addition, say the editors, they arrive “ignorant of the language, customs and laws of the country…. They can live only by herding like animals in filth and crime, a menace to the peace of society and to the health of the communities in which they congregate.” Allowing this “accumulation of ignorance and destitution to continue” increases the unemployment problem since the newcomers seek work at wages “that will keep no human being with necessities greater than those of an animal.” [14]

A later editorial drew on statistics from the 1890 census to argue that criminals and paupers came disproportionately from the foreign-born population: “43.19 per cent of the crime committed … by white men and women can be charged to the native white element of the entire population and 58.81 per cent to the foreign element,” which comprises less than 15 per cent of the total population.

Despite the Journal’s position against admission of southern and eastern European immigrants as “a menace to the peace of society,” the largest number of prisoners and paupers was from the “old” western European immigrant groups: Ireland, Germany, and England. Undeterred, the editors used the census numbers to trumpet the “intelligence and law abiding character of the Americans themselves.” [15]

The Journal supported legislation introduced by Democratic Alabama congressman William Oates to prohibit naturalization of aliens who have been convicted of a felony, hold anarchist views, favor polygamy, or have “evaded any immigration law or regulation.” The legislation, argued the editors, will help “raise the character of the voter,” introducing a common anti-immigration theme that the new immigrant populations, ignorant of democracy, became tools of ward heeling politicians known in Kansas City as the “push,” who, in the view of the Journal, had stolen the 1892 city council elections: “If we do not want politicians to become demagogues, and if we do not wish courts, juries and public officials to wink at crime and plunder,” the “criminal vote” by those “ignorant of our form of government, but really ignorant of what they are doing,” must be eliminated.

The real fault, however, say the editors, lies not with the ignorant and manipulable immigrant but with the “great corporations” seeking cheap labor to replace the cheap Chinese labor who had built the railroads, then “in response to sand-lot politicians[16] they were sent back” and in their place the corporations have imported “the worst dregs of Europe that have made the Oates bill a living thing. The immigration preceding these great enterprises was a legitimate one and came to take up land and engage in skilled labor. It added immensely to national growth and prosperity. This later imported labor was with the connivance of the governing powers of Europe to get rid of their dangerous classes. It would have been far better to have continued the Chinese, for, like the Irishman’s steam shovel, John didn’t vote.”[17] [18]

The Kansas City Mail, a generally pro-Populist paper, took an anti-immigration position similar to but perhaps even stronger in tone than that of the Journal.  An editorial blamed the “present hard times” of high unemployment on foreign born, “mostly Russians,” the product of “detestable tyrannies and paternalistic systems of government,” who were an “element of surplus labor which has been introduced by our over estimated capacity and too liberal system of immigration laws,” the “disorderly element” behind the recent riots of the unemployed in New York and Chicago. Meanwhile, “capitalists of this country” benefit from the cheap imported labor.[19]

This was the view of Mary Lease, a prominent orator in the Kansas Populist movement.Mary E. Lease  Lease links the favorite betes noire of the Populists -  monopolies, banks, and railroads  -- with the financial troubles of workers and small farmers: “The American workingman is becoming a slave, the American farmer a peasant,” she writes. Until the coming of the Populist millennium – not as much of a fantasy in February, 1893, as it would shortly become - until “the vampire trusts flee abashed before the sunlight of justice; till capitalists are disarmed, that the laborers may march under the white banners of peace; till the church shall practice as well as preach Christ crucified,” immigration should be suspended: “With the submerged tenth of a darkest New York, a darkest Chicago greeting the gates of eternity with their cry of “Give me bread!” why should we admit the submerged tenth of darkest London?”[20]

In July the Mail printed a story, apparently approvingly, or at least not disapprovingly, on the nativist Junior Order United American Mechanics [21], a “new organization which is beginning to assume somewhat of prominence in the affairs of the country.” The organization’s founders are characterized as Junior Order United American Mechanics logo“supporters of American liberty, upholders of the public school system and defenders of the glorious stars and stripes.” Coded in this phrasing is a reference to Catholicism and the immigration of Catholics, regarded by anti-immigrationists as unpatriotic servants of a foreign power. The order presents itself as aiming to shield Americans “from the depressing effects of foreign competition” – that is, to limit immigration and to “maintain the public school system… and to prevent sectarian interference therewith” – another reference to Catholicism, as is the requirement that members must be “opposed to union of church and state.” There was no requirement that members be actual mechanics or artisans, only that they be white, male, and born in the U.S.

In its “statement of principles,” the Mechanics’ order deplores “the constant landing upon our shores of the hordes of ignorant, vicious and lawless criminals of the old world,” particularly the “anarchist, the socialist and nihilist….” It upholds the reading of the Bible in public schools, but not of any “dogma or creed” taught at the same time. Amidst calls to place “a flag upon every public school in our land and a Bible within,” and for all “good citizens” to join them in their “noble and patriotic work,” the Mechanics’ order evokes the image of a conspiratorial enemy – “great and powerful enemies within our midst” – that must be kept under the “strictest surveillance of all who are at heart, word and in deed, American.”[22] The nature of the powerful enemies didn’t need to be spelled out.

The Mail also published, without comment or criticism, the “statement of principles” of another nativist group, the American Protective Association, which had recently been involved in street fights with what it described as “the lower element of society” trying to break up their meetings. The APA statement, like that of the Mechanics, is coded within patriotic language and indirect references to keeping public schools “unimpaired” and church and state “separate and distinct,”[23] along with the unobjectionable proposal to stop “criminal and pauper immigration….”

The Mail also published two virulently anti-foreign and anti-Catholic opinion pieces by an Ike Gentry, the first in response to a Mail article on the effect of unrestricted immigration on the laborers, which blamed conflicts in New York on “foreigners, mostly Russians, who have not been very long in this country, hardly long enough to shake off the germs of the detestable tyrannies …. in which they were born and bred…,” and who have been introduced by a “too liberal system of immigration laws.” The Gentry article called for a more stringent system of examination of prospective immigrants, specifically to disqualify the “disorderly element.” It echoed Mary Lease’s argument that it is the capitalists who benefit from “cheap imported labor,” and who “own our law makers in congress,” demanding an end to the Sherman silver act “for the benefit of themselves and their brother money bags in Europe.”

Gentry writes that the economic depression is the result of a Catholic plot: “They have poured into the country as the scum and poison element from every nation and country on the globe… every one of whom the Pope of Rome, through his agents, directs and controls in spiritual and temporal affairs. These millions are not free like others and citizens of this country…. The duty to obey the Pope is absolute.” [24]

A second screed by Gentry appeared in the Mail a week later, also given page 1 prominence, denouncing the “scum, poverty and vice from the population of the foreign lands [that] are being poured into our country.” It is these immigrants, “recognizing to little or no extent the laws of any country – who think that mob law and brutality are the quickest ways by which a thing may be accomplished” – whom Gentry regards as being behind not only the labor unrest, demonstrations, strikes and riots in the cities of the East but the political machines of the cities: “It is this very same class who are used to control the primaries of the different political parties and members of the same class who manage to become the ward bosses and boodlers… they are clothed in vice, ignorance and brutality.” Gentry pauses to call for stricter naturalization laws and education of immigrant children in the “sentiments of true patriotism” before returning to his main theme: “the refuse of Europe and Asia flowing like a polluting stream into the sparkling current of America’s hope and prosperity, its true citizens and intelligent workmen. Shut the gates against this influx of pauper pollution.” [25]

As vituperative and dehumanizing as Gentry’s portrayal of the new immigrants is, it seems to reflect broad sentiments developing in 1893. One can cite three Punch cartoons as an index of shifting views of immigration. In the first, a Keppler cartoon from 1880, Uncle Sam welcomes a line of European immigrants on board his “Ark of Refuge.” A sign to his left reads: "Free education, free land, free speech, free ballot, free lunch." A sign near the center of the image reads: "No oppressive taxes, no expensive kings, no compulsory military service, no knouts or dungeons." Overhead, a stormy, contentious Europe watches its citizens depart. 

Welcome to All Puck cartoon 1880

The second Keppler cartoon, mentioned previously, from 1893, critiques the hypocrisy of “native” Americans who attempt to repel an arriving immigrant resembling their forbears a generation earlier. The third, entitled “The Fool Pied Piper,” by Samuel Erhart, appeared in 1909. It shows Uncle Sam as the Pied Piper playing a pipe labeled  "Lax Immigration Laws" and leading a horde of rats labeled “Jail Bird, Murderer, Thief, Criminal, Crook, Kidnapper, Incendiary, Assassin, Convict, Bandit, Fire Brand, White Slaver, and Degenerate” toward America.  Some rats carry signs that read "Black Hand,” referring to the Italian Mafia.  In the background, rulers from France, Russia, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Greece celebrate the departure of the fleeing rats. 

 Puck Magazine Fool Pied Piper 1909 

The dehumanization of immigrants – their equation with animals, floods, refuse and pollution – had already had a fairly long history on the East coast. As Kenneth Davis shows, nativist anti-immigrationists in Philadelphia were referring to the Irish as “scum unloaded on American wharves” in the 1840s. And, as Davis points out, dehumanization of immigrants remains alive today “in the margins of anti-immigrant and other so-called populist movements. And when politicians bait crowds with red-meat lines about speaking English only and being able to recognize immigrants by their shoes, they risk awakening that dangerous strand of nativist fear and loathing that once had churches in flames and blood running in the streets of Philadelphia ”[26] in the “Bible Wars” of 1844. And in the streets of Kansas City in 1893.

[1] Castle Garden was an immigration center at The Battery in Lower Manhattan. It was closed in 1890; Ellis Island took its place in 1892. [http://www.castlegarden.org/]

[2] “Do Not Keep Him Out.” Kansas City Times, January 15, 1893, p. 4.

[3] Howard Markel, Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, p. 77.

[4] “Immigration.” Kansas City Times, January 18, 1893, p. 5

[5] “We can not have too many.” Kansas City Times, January 25, 1893, p. 4.

[6] “Why We Need the Stranger.” Kansas City Times, March 16, 1893, p. 4.

[7] “A Menace to Labor.” Kansas City Times, May 11, 1893, p. 1.

[8] “Riot Act Read.” Kansas City Daily Journal, August 26, 1893, p. 1.

[9] “Awaiting the Result.” Kansas City Star, July 10, 1893, p. 1.

[10] “Why We Need the Stranger.” Kansas City Times, March 16, 1893, p. 4.

[11] Winn, R.S. “Around the Union Depot.” Kansas City Daily Journal, February 12, 1893, p. 14.

[12] “A Grave Question.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 18, 1893, p. 4.

[13] “Restricting Immigration,” Kansas City Daily Journal, October 13, p. 4.

[14] “No Apparent Improvement.” Kansas City Daily Journal, June 14, 1893, p. 4.

[15] “Where the Paupers and Criminals Grow.” Kansas City Daily Journal, July 1, 1893, p. 4.

[16] “Sand lot politicians”: a reference to anti-immigrationists in San Francisco led by Dennis Kearney who gathered in a sand lot next to city hall to demonstrate against Chinese immigration. [http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist2/kearneyism.html]

[17] “Will It Pass?” Kansas City Daily Journal, October 27, 1893, p. 4.

[18] “Irishman’s steam shovel” refers to a steam-powered shovel , or “steam-paddy,” so called because it displaced Irish laborers (http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Harrison_Street_from_Dunes_to_Trains). Indirectly, it is also a reference to Irish voters in Kansas City who did vote, and in the view of the Journal editors, by their complicity with the ward bosses, contributed to “thousands of honest citizens in Kansas City” being “disfranchised by a public official,” with “thousands of fraudulent votes …. given in their stead.” “Will it Pass?” Kansas City Daily Journal, October 27, 1893, p. 4. “John”:  generic term for Chinese immigrants; also “John Chinaman.” Chinese men didn’t vote because under the immigration law they could not be naturalized.

[19] “Hard Times.” Kansas City Mail, August 28, 1893, p. 1.

[20] Mary E. Lease, “Stop Immigration.” Kansas City Mail, February 17, 1893, p. 8.

[21] The Junior Order of United American Mechanics was founded by the Order of United American Mechanics, from which it became independent in 1885. “The J.O.U.A.M. originally wanted to prevent sectarian influence upon the public school system while upholding the reading of the Holy Bible. Its enthusiasm for Bible reading may have stemmed from the fact that Catholics objected strongly to the use of the Vulgate. http://www.stichtingargus.nl/vrijmetselarij/jouam_en.html

[22] “The Home Folks.” Kansas City Mail, July 27, 1893, p. 1.

[23] “A Card to the Public.” September 27, 1893, p. 1.

[24] Ike Gentry, “Hard Times.” Kansas City Mail, September 8, 1893, p. 1.

[25] Ike Gentry, “Voice of the People,” Kansas City Mail, September 15, 1893, p. 1.

[26] Kenneth C. Davis, Anti-Immigrant Rage is Older than the Nation Itself.” May 25, 2010. National Public Radio.  [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126565611]