King’s Survey: Promising Land


Immigrants arrive at Ellis Island, 1904

In which we see how the imperatives of immigration change—and don’t

OK, kids, it’s time to reconsider the question of whether or not to go to Mars. It’s been 250 years now, and I think we should take another look at it.

—At what?

Going to Mars.

—I don’t get it.

—First week of class, remember? The colonists and crossing the ocean?

—Oh yeah. So why are we talking about that again?

A lot has happened since the colonies like Virginia and Massachusetts were founded, Ethan. Europeans have settled the continent, a revolution has been waged and won, the Civil War is over. So it’s a new New World, as it were. On the other hand, there are still a lot of the same issues—beginning with the fact that there are still a lot of people who are being pushed and pulled to these shores. You could say that the world has changed. You could also say that the underlying issues and circumstances haven’t changed. So I thought we could talk about it.

—I don’t get why we’re doing this now.

Well, Jonah, space travel has become big issue here in the late 19th century. This is actually the third big wave. The first was in the colonial era. The second, as we discussed, was the wave led by the Irish in the decades before the Civil War. The war slowed the traffic, but now in the closing decades of the century, it’s up sharply again. The origin of the travelers has shifted, though. Before, it was northern and western Europe. Now, increasingly, it’s southern and eastern Europe: Italians, Russians, the diverse ethnic groups of the Austro-Hungarian empire, many of them Jews.

Sadie, I want to go back to you. When we discussed this subject back in September, you were among those who were pretty sure she wasn’t going to venture across the Atlantic Ocean, which seemed so big and vast, like going to another planet. I want to point out that the technology has improved a lot. There are steamships, not sailboats. You’re less likely to drown in a storm. Or to catch an infection (though we can’t rule out either). The travel conditions are also much better. There’s an infrastructure, from ticket agents to government clerks, who manage the whole process. So do you think you’re ready to take the leap now?

—I dunno, Mr. K. It’s still a big trip.

It is. The journey is still thousands of miles. And it still often takes weeks. And a large proportion of the people who go never come back.

—I mean, I know it’s 250 years later and everything. But I still can’t see wanting to go.

—Why would anyone go?

Well, you know, Kylie, the usual reasonsthose haven’t changed, either. Religious persecution is sometimes a factor. Economic opportunity. Political developments. These are all things that led Puritans, Quakers, and adventurers of all stripes make the trip in the 1600s and 1700s. Now they’re leading Bavarians, Syrians, and Poles—and Jews from all those places—to leave home for America in the late 1800s.

—But slavery is over, right?

Yes, for the most part. Russia abolished serfdom in 1861—or, I should say, the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, did. With the stroke of a pen. Sometimes dictatorship is a more efficient instrument for social justice than democracy. Brazil had slavery until 1888. But there’s no real international slave trade the way there had been. That said, there were some pretty desperate people making their way here in the late 19th century. Many had been subject to pogroms, mob violence directed against Jews, for example. Slavery can often be relative.

—So Sadie might not have a choice.


—I think one of the big differences is that there are a lot more immigrants here now. The United States is much more populated.

That’s true. If Sadie does decide to take a space ship across the ocean, it’s likely that there will be little colonies of family members, religious groups, or networks of like-minded people to help her find a place to live or a job. The odds are that she’ll end up in a big city, like New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago. But it’s also possible that she’ll end up on a farm—in Minnesota, for example, if she’s Scandinavian. Texas, maybe, if she’s German. A smattering of Slavic people on the Great Plains. Once she arrives, there will be any number of mediating institutions to help her make the transition: houses of worship; fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus (which was founded by Italians); foreign-language newspapers, and local political organizations. The Democratic Party was particularly important in this regard; it was the party of the immigrant in northeastern cities, just as it was for farmers in the south and west.

—So were the Republicans the anti-immigrant party?

Basically, yes, Adam. From the very beginning, the Republican Party was that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (and here it’s worth pointing out that a large proportion of immigrants in this period were Roman Catholic, who, as a function of such hostility and their own instinct toward solidarity, often turned inward in form their own institutional infrastructure with schools, hospitals, universities, and the like). Republicans weren’t only WASPs; as the “Party of Lincoln,” African Americans tended to vote with them for a full century after the Civil War. Lincoln was also a factor in reaching out to German immigrants, some of whom flocked to the GOP banner. It’s also worth pointing out that immigrants themselves could be ambivalent about immigration, both of their own kind as well as other ethnic groups.

—Why was that?

Well, for one thing, there was concern that such people could take away good jobs. More commonly, the opposition was cultural; “our” crowd was more serious, respectable, etc. Subsequent waves, the suspicion went, were much less so. To some degree, this was a class conflict—the first wave of an immigrant group often came with professional skills or capital that later waves lacked. Actually, for some immigrants, America was viewed as a place to make an economic windfall and use the proceeds to go home and buy land or start a business. By some estimates, almost half the people who came here ultimately went back. This was especially true of the Chinese, for example, who would eventually be shut out as a result of the Exclusion Act of 1882, the first group of people to be excluded on a racial basis.

—So immigration wasn’t really space travel after all.

Well, it was more like a space shuttle. They don’t run that often. And again, for most, the trip was permanent. So Sadie is right to think hard before she commits to making the trip, assuming, of course, that she has much choice, i.e. that she’s not the victim of a pogrom, is dealing with severe economic privation, has a husband or father who’s making her go, and so on.

—Sadie, I really think you should go for it. I mean, I know it’s hard and everything—hard to leave home, and hard to deal with a foreign country. But this is a good place. You can make a good life here.

—Yeah, Sadie. Maybe you can get a hot American husband.

—And like Mr. K. says, you really can go back if it doesn’t work out.

—Oh all right. I guess you guys have convinced me. I’ll take a chance for a new life.

Thatta girl, Sadie.



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