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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Wider Relations of Organized Labor · CHAPTER XXIV·»

Immigration and Americanization

The Problems of Immigration.—From its very inception, the American Federation of Labor, like the Knights of Labor before it, was confronted by numerous questions raised by the ever swelling tide of aliens coming to our shores. In its effort to make each trade union all-inclusive, it had to wrestle with a score or more languages. When it succeeded in thoroughly organizing a craft, it often found its purposes defeated by an influx of foreigners ready to work for lower wages and thus undermine the foundations of the union.

At the same time, persons outside the labor movement began to be apprehensive as they contemplated the undoubted evil, as well as the good, that seemed to be associated with the “alien invasion.” They saw whole sections of great cities occupied by people speaking foreign tongues, reading only foreign newspapers, and looking to the Old World alone for their ideas and their customs. They witnessed an expanding army of total illiterates, men and women who could read and write no language at all; while among those aliens who could read few there were who knew anything of American history, traditions, and ideals. Official reports revealed that over twenty per cent of the men of the draft army during the World War could not read a newspaper or write a letter home. Perhaps most alarming of all was the discovery that thousands of alien men are in the United States only on a temporary sojourn, solely to make money and return home with their savings. These men, willing to work for low wages and live in places unfit for human beings, have no stake in this country and do not care what becomes of it.

The Restriction of Immigration.—In all this there was, strictly speaking, no cause for surprise. Since the foundation of our republic the policy of the government had been to encourage the coming of the alien. For nearly one hundred years no restraining act was passed by Congress, while two important laws positively encouraged it; namely, the homestead act of 1862 and the contract immigration law of 1864. Not until American workingmen came into open collision with cheap Chinese labor on the Pacific Coast did the federal government spread the first measure of limitation on the statute books. After the discovery of gold, and particularly after the opening of the railway construction era, a horde of laborers from China descended upon California. Accustomed to starvation wages and indifferent to the conditions of living, they threatened to cut the American standard to the point of subsistence. By 1876 the protest of American labor was loud and long and both the Republicans and the Democrats gave heed to it. In 1882 Congress enacted a law prohibiting the admission of Chinese laborers to the United States for a term of ten years—later extended by legislation. In a little while the demand arose for the exclusion of the Japanese as well. In this case no exclusion law was passed; but an understanding was reached by which Japan agreed not to issue passports to her laborers authorizing them to come to the United States. By act of Congress in 1907 the President was empowered to exclude any laborers who, having passports to Canada, Hawaii, or Mexico, attempted to enter our country.

These laws and agreements, however, did not remove all grounds for the agitation of the subject. They were difficult to enforce and it was claimed by residents of the Coast that in spite of federal authority Oriental laborers were finding their way into American ports. Moreover, several Western states, anxious to preserve the soil for American ownership, enacted laws making it impossible for Chinese and Japanese to buy land outright; and in other ways they discriminated against Orientals. Such proceedings placed the federal government in an embarrassing position. By treaty it had guaranteed specific rights to Japanese citizens in the United States, and the government at Tokyo contended that the state laws just cited violated the terms of the international agreement. The Western states were fixed in their determination to control Oriental residents; Japan was equally persistent in asking that no badge of inferiority be attached to her citizens. Subjected to pressure on both sides, the federal government sought a way out of the deadlock.

Having embarked upon the policy of restriction in 1882, Congress readily extended it. In that same year it barred paupers, criminals, convicts, and the insane. Three years later, mainly owing to the pressure of the Knights of Labor, it forbade any person, company, or association to import aliens under contract. By an act of 1887, the contract labor restriction was made even more severe. In 1903, anarchists were excluded and the bureau of immigration was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Department of Commerce and Labor, in order to provide for a more rigid execution of the law. In 1907 the classes of persons denied admission were widened to embrace those suffering from physical and mental defects and otherwise unfit for effective citizenship. When the Department of Labor was established in 1913 the enforcement of the law was placed in the hands of the Secretary of Labor, W.B. Wilson, who was a former leader in the American Federation of Labor.

The Literacy Test.—Still the advocates of restriction were not satisfied. Still organized labor protested and demanded more protection against the competition of immigrants. In 1917 it won a thirty-year battle in the passage of a bill excluding “all aliens over sixteen years of age, physically capable of reading, who cannot read the English language or some other language or dialect, including Hebrew or Yiddish.” Even President Wilson could not block it, for a two-thirds vote to overcome his veto was mustered in Congress.

This act, while it served to exclude illiterates, made no drastic cut in the volume of immigration. Indeed a material reduction was resolutely opposed in many quarters. People of certain nationalities already in the United States objected to every barrier that shut out their own kinsmen. Some Americans of the old stock still held to the idea that the United States should continue to be an asylum for “the oppressed of the earth.” Many employers looked upon an increased labor supply as the means of escaping what they called “the domination of trade unions.” In the babel of countless voices, the discussion of these vital matters went on in town and country.

Americanization.—Intimately connected with the subject of immigration was a call for the “Americanization” of the alien already within our gates. The revelation of the illiteracy in the army raised the cry and the demand was intensified when it was found that many of the leaders among the extreme radicals were foreign in birth and citizenship. Innumerable programs for assimilating the alien to American life were drawn up, and in 1919 a national conference on the subject was held in Washington under the auspices of the Department of the Interior. All were agreed that the foreigner should be taught to speak and write the language and understand the government of our country. Congress was urged to lend aid in this vast undertaking. America, as ex-President Roosevelt had said, was to find out “whether it was a nation or a boarding-house.”

General References

J.R. Commons and Associates, History of Labor in the United States (2 vols.).

Samuel Gompers, Labor and the Common Welfare.

W.E. Walling, Socialism as It Is.

W.E. Walling (and Others), The Socialism of Today.

R.T. Ely, The Labor Movement in America.

T.S. Adams and H. Sumner, Labor Problems.

J.G. Brooks, American Syndicalism and Social Unrest.

P.F. Hall, Immigration and Its Effects on the United States.

Research Topics

The Rise of Trade Unionism.—Mary Beard, Short History of the American Labor Movement, pp. 10-18, 47-53, 62-79; Carlton, Organized Labor in American History, pp. 11-44.

Labor and Politics.—Beard, Short History, pp. 33-46, 54-61, 103-112; Carlton, pp. 169-197; Ogg, National Progress (American Nation Series), pp. 76-85.

The Knights of Labor.—Beard, Short History, pp. 116-126; Dewey, National Problems (American Nation Series), pp. 40-49.

The American Federation of Labor—Organization and Policies.—Beard, Short History, pp. 86-112.

Organized Labor and the Socialists.—Beard, Short History, pp. 126-149.

Labor and the Great War.—Carlton, pp. 282-306; Beard, Short History, pp. 150-170.


1. What are the striking features of the new economic age?

2. Give Mr. Rockefeller’s view of industrial democracy.

3. Outline the efforts made by employers to establish closer relations with their employees.

4. Sketch the rise and growth of the American Federation of Labor.

5. How far back in our history does the labor movement extend?

6. Describe the purposes and outcome of the National Labor Union and the Knights of Labor.

7. State the chief policies of the American Federation of Labor.

8. How does organized labor become involved with outside forces?

9. Outline the rise of the socialist movement. How did it come into contact with the American Federation?

10. What was the relation of the Federation to the extreme radicals? To national politics? To the public?

11. Explain the injunction.

12. Why are labor and immigration closely related?

13. Outline the history of restrictions on immigration.

14. What problems arise in connection with the assimilation of the alien to American life?

«·The Wider Relations of Organized Labor · CHAPTER XXIV·»