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article number 447
article date 05-12-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Growing Nation and Immigration, 1820-1920
by Chester Wright


[Civil] War weary, the whole nation welcomed the end of the fratricidal struggle and returned to peacetime activities with their problems of readjustment.

The population continued to grow at a rapid, though somewhat diminished, rate; immigrants poured in in steadily increasing volume; the vast areas of the West, still unsettled, continued to provide economic opportunity for the growing numbers; the task of opening up and developing the nation’s rich resources was again resumed.

Vast as was the expanse of fertile land, it was not unlimited. With the great growth in population this land was taken up more rapidly than ever before until the time came, about the close of the century, when it could be said that the supply of free, fertile land suitable for ordinary methods of cultivation had practically come to an end.

The frontier had disappeared; the preliminary task of settling the land and opening up its resources was finished.

This marked the end of one great epoch in the nation’s economic history and the twentieth century ushered in another with new problems. It was an event of the greatest significance—an event the widespreading reactions of which can be understood only as the full record of the period is unfolded.

The Growth of Population.

The outstanding fact in the history of population growth during the period to which we now turn is the decline in the rate of growth, though it still remained relatively high till the first World War.

Previous to 1860 the rate of increase had been more than a third every decade; in the three decades ending with 1890 it averaged little more than a quarter for each decade; in the two succeeding decades it fell to about one-fifth; during each of the next two decades, though made somewhat abnormal by the war, it was only about 15 per cent.

Chart: The rate of population growth, 1610-1938. (Reproduced from National Industrial Conference Board, “Studies in Enterprise and Social Progress.”)

In short, the rate of increase had fallen to less than half that which prevailed before 1860. After 1930, moreover, another decided drop occurred, the rate of increase during the decade ending in 1940 being only 7.4 per cent.

A consideration of the factors entering into this result may be postponed for the moment; here it must suffice to note that through this increase the total population of continental United States rose to 50 million in 1880 and to over 131 million in 1940.

The chart below shows the United States urban and total growth by decades:

Chart: Total population of the United States and population in places of 8,000 inhabitants or more (urban) at each census, 1790-1940.

The next chart shows the growth in certain other countries. As this chart indicates, the United States had surpassed France in population before 1870 and Germany before 1880.

Chart: Increase Of Population in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France since 1800.

The only countries in the world having a greater population, if we do not count the British Empire as a unit, are China, India, and Russia.

The basic importance and great significance of this growth in the country’s population can scarcely be too strongly emphasized. Speaking about it over 50 years ago when the population was less than half what it is today, an Englishman, Sir Robert Giffen, remarked:

“The phenomenon is also without a precedent in history. There has been no such increase of population anywhere on a similar scale, and above all no such increase of a highly civilized and richly fed population. The increase is not only unprecedented in numbers, but it is an increase of the most expensively living population that has ever been in the world. . . . [It] is perhaps the greatest political and economic fact of the age.

“The fact has altered in the first place the whole idea of the balance of power of the European nations. . . . Now the idea of a new Europe on the other side of the Atlantic affects every speculation, however much the new people keep themselves aloof from European politics . . .

“European governments can no longer have the notion that they are playing the first part on the stage of the world’s political history. And this sense of being dwarfed will probably increase in time.”

Even though the rate of increase declined, subsequent events well justified the great importance attributed to it by this statement.


Even with this increase, the density of population still remained far below that of the more advanced countries of Europe. In 1920 the United States had 35 inhabitants per square mile as compared with 389 in the United Kingdom, 328 in Germany, 184 in France, and 635 in Belgium, the highest in Europe. By 1940 the figure for the United States had risen to 44.

Though it would thus appear that there is still room for an enormous expansion of population before this country approaches a density such as exists in western Europe, it must also be remembered that the large portion of its area comprised by the semiarid section of the West is incapable of supporting a dense population.

However, the portion of the country east of the semiarid section may fairly be compared with western Europe.

If we consider the section included in the tier of states from Louisiana north to Minnesota and eastward to the Atlantic, approximately all east of the 95th meridian, a section that includes little more than a third of the land area but four-fifths of the population, we find that even there the density of population in 1940 was only 90 per square mile.}

The population in this area alone could rise to over 200 million before it reached the density that exists in France, and France, it will be remembered, is predominantly agricultural and relatively self-sufficing, though having a lower standard of living than the United States.

If we consider the still smaller areas of separate states, we find that there are only ten of them where the density rises to over 100 per square mile, all but Illinois and Ohio bordering on the North Atlantic coast; there are only three, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island where it rises to over 500, the highest figure, 667, being reached in the last named.

Though other factors enter into the problem, it is obvious that the possibilities for growth of population are still very great. However, as will subsequently be explained, the likelihood of attaining any such density of population as prevails in western Europe, even in the regions east of the Mississippi, seems very remote.

As the growth of population was a product of the birth rate, the death rate, immigration, and emigration, we now turn to a consideration of these factors in the problem.

Immigration and Emigration.

The annual number of immigrants during this period is shown by the next chart. The fluctuations coincided closely with periods of business boom and depression, but the general trend was steadily upward until, in the decade preceding the outbreak of the first World War, the number of immigrants averaged over 1 million a year.

Chart: Annual immigration into the United States since 1820.

Nearly a third of all the 32 million immigrants who came to the country in the 95 years between 1820 and the outbreak of the war in 1914 came in the last 10 years of this period. The war cut off this influx and the severely restrictive legislation that followed has now reduced the number to a very low figure.

Returns showing the number of emigrants are not available previous to 1908. It is clear, however, that during this period there was a marked increase in the number of immigrants who subsequently returned to Europe. These so-called birds of passage increased in number with the growth of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

A new feature in the emigration movement appeared about the beginning of the twentieth century with a marked increase in the number of Americans—coming chiefly from the Middle West—who, as desirable homestead sites became scarcer, moved across the border to take up land in western Canada.

The statistics that are available since 1908 indicate that the number of aliens who left the country averaged about one-third of the number that entered the country during this period.

Though there were some decades when the net result of these movements was a greater rate of increase in the foreign-born than in the native born population, the final outcome shown by the Census of 1920 was the same proportion of foreign-born in the total population as in 1860, that is, 13 per cent; by 1930, it had dropped to 11.6 per cent.

It has sometimes been asserted that this increase in the foreign-born population has been at the expense of the native-born; that had there been no immigration there would have been just as great an increase in the total population. No positive proof or disproof of such an assertion is possible.

Although it is probable that the influx of immigrants may have had a tendency to check the increase of the native population, it seems highly improbable that under the conditions existing during the nineteenth century this tendency was of sufficient influence to have had an appreciable effect.

An attempt to estimate the amount of the growth in the country’s population that was due immediately to immigration arrivals was made by Thompson and Whelpton; their study led to the conclusion that it was about 5 per cent from 1800 to 1830, was 15 per cent from 1830 to 1840, averaged around one-third from 1840 to 1910, and in the next two decades fell to little over one-fifth.


The “New Immigration.”

The most important feature in the history of immigration during this period was the change that took place in the countries from which these people came.

Previous to 1865 practically all the immigrants had come from northwestern Europe, chiefly from the United Kingdom and Germany; they were of substantially the same origin and stock as those that had settled the, colonies.

From that date down to the first World War there was a steadily increasing proportion of immigrants from the countries of southern and eastern Europe.

This has contributed a type that has been called the “new immigration,” which is sometimes spoken of as really dating from 1883. The reason for choosing this date is that until that year, though marked fluctuations occurred, there was no decline in the absolute number of immigrants coming from northwestern Europe; the largest number on record, over 560,000, came in 1882.

During these years the United Kingdom and Germany continued to send over large numbers and beginning about 1880 there was a considerable influx from the Scandinavian countries. After 1882, however, the number steadily declined, the drop being most marked among those coming from Germany.

Chart: Immigration into the United States from principal countries of origin, 1820-1923. (Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Department of Labor.) EDITOR’S NOTE: Original chart showed more countries.

In the meantime, the number coming from southern and eastern Europe was constantly rising. Only once above 1,000 in any year before 1850 and never above 4,000 until 1869, it was always above 100,000 after 1886 and reached nearly 1,000,000 in 1907.

Italy, Austria-Hungary and Russia contributed by far the greater part of this “new immigration.” The proportion of all immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe, never as high as 3 per cent until after 1870, sas regularly between two-thirds and three-quarters of the total from 1898 until the war.

The proportion coming from the countries of the “old immigration” fell to between a fifth and a quarter of the total. However, the war and subsequent legislation have since completely changed the situation, as will shortly be explained.

The chart below, covering 100 years since regular statistics began to be gathered, shows the total contribution of each of the leading countries to the immigrant stream during that period. The contribution of countries outside of Europe has been slight, less than a tenth of the total.

Chart: Total immigration into the United States by chief countries of origin, 1820-1920.

In the migration of the period since 1860 economic motives have played a part that was even more predominant than ever before; the desire for greater political freedom and the wish to avoid military service or to escape religious persecution still exercised some influence.

In recent years, chiefly from about 1900 down to the war, the proportion of males among the immigrants has risen to 70 per cent as compared with 60 per cent before that date; this reflect the large number that came without their families, often with the expectation of returning as soon as they had accumulated some savings.

The proportion of those who returned to Europe at this period is particularly high, nearly 40 per cent, in the “new immigration.”

This differed from the old in several respects: over 35 per cent were illiterate as compared with less than 3 per cent among the latter; the proportion of unskilled laborers was larger and the proportion of Protestants was much smaller; for the most part they tended to concentrate in the chief industrial or mining centers.

As the number increased with great rapidity, it made the process of assimilating the large foreign colonies so formed particularly difficult.

Combined with other factors, these changes in the character and volume of the immigrant stream finally resulted in a complete change in the policy concerning immigration legislation.


Immigration Restriction Legislation.

The policy underlying such slight legislation as the Federal government enacted up to 1860 had been favorable to immigration; it was not until the seventies that signs of a change in attitude began to appear. Chinese immigrants began coming to California immediately after the gold discoveries and in the following decade much coolie labor was brought over to aid in railroad construction.

Opposition appeared almost from the first and riots took place; but the state legislation passed to check the influx was declared unconstitutional and so an agitation was started to secure action by the Federal government.

Following a treaty with China in 1880, a law was passed in 1882 which excluded all Chinese laborers and in one form or another, this has been continued ever since.

The same year brought the enactment of the first general immigration law which levied a head tax of 50 cents, to be used for meeting expenses connected with the regulation of immigration, and prohibited the admission of convicts, lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become a public charge.

Three years later, in 1885, another law forbade the importation of contract labor.

In 1891, to secure a stricter enforcement of the laws, complete control was taken over by the Federal government. Inspection on the Canadian and Mexican borders was first provided for, and certain other classes were added to the inadmissible list. At this period a literacy test was first proposed, but a bill to impose it was vetoed by President Cleveland in 1897.

Continued agitation led to minor additional restrictions during the next two decades, including an agreement made with Japan in 1907 to exclude Japanese laborers owing to the opposition aroused by the considerable increase in the number of immigrants from that country after 1899.

However, it was not until after the first World War that severely restrictive legislation was enacted. This was preceded by a law, passed in 1917 over the President’s veto, that imposed a literacy test, raised the head tax to $8, and added various minor restrictions.

The legislation that followed the close of the war was due to a variety of causes. Underlying all was the steadily increasing opposition to the large influx of immigrants and the difficulties arising out of the economic, political, and social problems involved in their assimilation.

The fact that the supply of free fertile land was practically exhausted, it was argued, decreased the need for immigrants and increased the difficulties in their assimilation.

Organized labor was more influential politically than ever before and better appreciated the importance of restricting immigration in order to protect the interests of labor.

The war and its aftermath produced added arguments for restriction. It had shown certain difficulties that arose from having a large group in the population of alien birth and interests.

The economic reaction from the war resulted in the appearance of a business depression in 1920 and left a large number of unemployed, and it was feared that the economic difficulties under which Europe suffered would soon lead to a larger influx of immigrants than ever before.

Under these circumstances a law was enacted in May, 1921, that marks the beginning of a new period in our immigration history.


The outstanding feature of this law limited the number of alien immigrants to be admitted in any one year from any nation to 3 per cent of the number of people born in that nation and living in the United States as shown by the Census of 1910.

This did not apply to natives of countries in North or South America nor to those of Asiatic countries already restricted.

This restriction had two main objectives: (1) to cut down the total number of immigrants, (2) greatly to reduce the immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

One result was that the total number of immigrants, natives of the countries to which the law applied, was limited to less than 360,000 a year, or about a third of the number that had been coming in the years of the decade preceding the war.

The second result was an enormous reduction in the number admissible from southern and eastern Europe, for on the basis chosen for fixing the number of admissibles—and it was chosen for this purpose—the proportion of those born in southern and eastern Europe, the countries of the “new immigration,” was little more than half of the total of admissibles from all European countries; just before the war those countries had been contributing over three-quarters of all the European immigrants.

Actually this law reduced the total of those admissible from these countries to about one quarter of the number that had been coming just before the war; the number admissible from countries of the “old immigration” was substantially the same as the number that had been coming before the war.

This law was to remain in force for about a year, but it was subsequently continued with slight changes until superseded by the still more strict law of May, 1924. During this period the countries of the “new immigration” sent over practically their full quota, and there were many instances where those of the “old immigration” also filled their quota.

The act of 1924 cut the percentage figure to 2 per cent. More significant was the provision substituting as a basis the number of foreign-born of each nationality living in the country at the Census of 1890, instead of that of 1910. The lower percentage combined with the smaller number of foreign-born in the country at the earlier date resulted in reducing the number admissible under this law to about 160,000 a year.

Since there were relatively few foreign-born from the countries of southern and eastern Europe living in the United States in 1890, the choice of that year as a basis meant that only about 20,000 of the total number admissible could come from the countries of the “new immigration.”

In short, immigration from Europe was practically confined to the “old immigration,” from countries where so-called Nordic stock predominated. Another provision of the law replaced the previous restrictive agreement and definitely excluded immigrants from Japan.

Evidently the time had come when the nation no longer wished to serve as a “melting pot” and haven of refuge for the nationalities of the world.

Another provision of the act of 1924, which became effective July 1, 1929, substituted a slightly different basis for that first put into effect by this law. This new basis was the national origin of the whole population of the country in 1920.

Each quota country was allowed the proportion of a total of 150,000 which people of that national origin in the population of 1920 bore to the total population; however, the minimum quota for any country was to be 100. With these minimum allowances the total number admissible from all quota countries was fixed at 153,714.

Although the national origins basis only slightly reduced the total, it did shift the quotas somewhat. The chief gains went to Great Britain and north Ireland; the chief losses fell to Germany, the Irish Free State, and the Scandinavian countries.

Following the advent of the depression starting in 1929, the normal tendency for immigration to decline at such a time was augmented by the adoption of a policy of issuing visas only to such as were not likely to become a public charge. As a result the average number of immigrants for the years 1932-1938 fell to less than 40,000 and was exceeded during five of these years by the number of alien emigrants.


The Composition of the Population.

As a result of the immigration movement of the period, the foreign-born made up 11.6 per cent of the total in 1930. Of the foreign-born population less than 40 per cent came from countries of northwestern Europe as compared with over 77 per cent in 1890 and over 90 per cent in 1860.

The number of Negroes was nearly 11,900,000 as compared with nearly 4,500,000 in 1860; but, since this element in the population had increased less rapidly than the whites during every decade, it made up less than 10 per cent of the total in 1930, as compared with over 14 per cent in 1860 and nearly 20 per cent in 1790.

The Indians numbered about 332,000, the Japanese about 139,000 and the Chinese about 75,000, the last having decreased nearly two-fifths from the high point reached in 1890.

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