Nativism, the act of protecting the interests of American citizens as opposed to immigrants, is a key factor of American history. Nativism has shaped America in many ways since American citizens first felt that their culture was being threatened by immigrants coming into their country in the late 1800s. Throughout much of American history, American citizens have had a belief that they are superior to most other cultures, resulting from a fear of immigrants becoming the majority (Aaronovich Hourwich 1912). Because America has always had significantly more freedoms than other countries and groups of people, Americans began to assume that they had the upper hand, thinking of themselves as superior to others (Higham 1958). This digital exhibition displays how nativism has progressed throughout history, showing how periods of mass immigration into the United States significantly increased nativist ideas in America.
My museum project focuses on nativism in the United States from the late 19th century to the early/mid 20th century as a result of immigration. Through various primary and secondary sources, my theme draws conclusions about the actions and opinions of nativist Americans in reaction to mass amounts of immigrants entering the country. My sources show different topics connected to nativism that can be seen through this time period, showing the effect that nativists’ close-minded opinions had on the way that citizens viewed immigrants. The topics that my sources touch on in regard to my overall theme are the “Gilded Age,” a rise in industry, nativist organizations, Americanism, and discrimination in the 1920’s.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the “Gilded Age” saw a dramatic increase in immigrants from Eastern Europe (Hing 1997). This rise in immigration rates was mostly due to many new advancements in technology and industry, which created thousands of jobs. With immigrants coming in search of better opportunities, most found themselves working for new industries, such as oil, steel, and railroads. This rise in industry and expansion of jobs directly relates to nativism by giving American citizens the idea that because immigrants were doing “dirty work” and getting paid very low wages, they were automatically inferior (Lee 2010). Furthermore, the increase in immigration and the working class created a problem, as Americans began to believe that immigrants were taking their jobs.
Hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the Immigration Restriction League, were direct contributors to nativism. While Klan members preached their white supremacist ideas, more and more people in America began to believe that immigrants and people from different cultures did not deserve what American citizens had (Decker 2014). While the KKK used more violent tactics than other nativist groups to preach it’s hate, they nevertheless contributed greatly to the views of American people, as they promoted ideas that were in support of the American people, advocating for “pure” societies. These ideas, known as reactionary populism, led American nativists to see immigrants and non-white protestants as inferior to them, leading people to side with the Klan and support its ideals (MacLean 1995). The Immigration Restriction League was also a key contributor to nativism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, preaching their beliefs all throughout the country. Where the Klan focused more on people in America who didn’t have the same views and ideals as WASPs, the Immigration Restriction League focused on legislation restricting immigration into the United States. The league’s views of protesting immigrants entering the country spread quickly, exaggerating nativist ideas throughout the United States, eventually resulting in legal action to keep immigrants out. (Decker 2014).
Americanization is the process of making immigrants “American” by teaching them the language and culture. By the end of this process, there are little to no remnants of immigrant’s native culture left. This process became very prominent towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, when Americans tried to Americanize Native Americans and immigrants working in factories in order to get the most for their money (Baron 1990). As industries became more prominent in the 1920s, there was an increased need for immigrants to perform low paying jobs. However, factories were very disorganized, as people were unable to communicate efficiently with immigrants, therefore creating a need for Americanization (Baron 1990). This process is directly related to nativism by showing once again how American people believed that their culture was superior, trying to physically change people in order to make them “better.” By analyzing Americanization in comparison to nativism, we can see many similarities that show how nativism has evolved. While nativism is the basis of Americanism and shows attitudes of prejudice, Americanization is the action of trying to change immigrants to conform to American culture (Baron 1990). The connection here shows the many forms of nativism that are seen throughout history.
By the 1920s, there were nearly 20 million immigrants living in the United States (Hing 2004). The amount of foreign-born people that were coming into Ellis and Angel Islands everyday reached a point that concerned many “natives,” thinking that the immigrants would threaten their livelihood. In response, the government passed many immigration restriction acts to try and limit the number of immigrants coming into the country (Hing 2004). These acts, designed to only allow a certain number of immigrants from each country into America each year, resulted in immigration quotas, showing the effects of nativist beliefs. In addition to restriction, immigrants in this period faced harsh discrimination from native citizens in relation to jobs and living standards. There were many movements purposed to stop businesses from hiring immigrants in the hopes of keeping American companies pure (Higham 1958). Although Americans did not want to do the work that was given to immigrants, they nevertheless felt threatened by immigrants doing jobs that they felt were meant to be for American citizens (Higham 1958). In addition, immigrants were forced to live in tenements, as they couldn’t afford anything more, being pushed into small quarters with other immigrants that had nothing while American citizens thrived off of their fortunes from the companies in which immigrants did all of the work (Riis 1889).
Nativism has stayed consistent throughout American history, continuously proving that American citizens believe they have an advantage over people from other countries and cultures, resulting in a tendency to believe they are superior. This is an important factor of American history, because it sets up background for the way that many people think today. Nativism is still very prominent and has always been connected to white supremacy, as Americans were led to believe they were superior to other cultures from early on. These beliefs have led generations of Americans to assert their dominance over minority groups, creating the vast amount of social issues seen today. There have been many world conflicts, wars, and tensions that all stem from the belief that America is superior to others. This way of thinking has proven consistent and influential over hundreds of years of history, having detrimental effects on everyone involved.