In the descent into sordid territory and kneejerk partisanship that characterizes much of the electronic media, there have been few meaningful discussions of immigration and its consequences for America.
Most of us are descendants of immigrants who came here between 1880 and the close of unrestricted European immigration in 1921. They were, in the words of Harvard historian Oscar Handlin, “the uprooted,” which was also the title of his seminal work that put flesh and bones on the immigrants that helped make America.
The American social and cultural character was forged as much by these later immigrants, who were largely Eastern Europeans, as our political character was formed by the 18th century descendants of the people from the United Kingdom and Western Europe.
Although it is now fashionable to speak of “white culture,” the idea that a Russian peasant and a British industrialist shared the same culture is simply a display of contemptible ignorance. It shows that those who bandy about such phrases have never tried to understand the diverse roots that nurtured America as a civilization.
For the overwhelming majority of those who crammed their families into the foul-smelling timbers of steerage, they were leaving behind a life without hope.
Whether it was the famine in Ireland, Otto von Bismarck’s attack on the Catholic Church, economic panic, or the anti-Jewish pogroms of Czarist Russia, those who left felt they were leaving a hellhole.
Those who came first nearly always resented those who came after them and feared that they would become strangers in their own land. Many a Boston Brahmin looked with disgust at the Irish-Catholic immigrants that poured into their city as did their elite counterparts in New York and Philadelphia.