Historical Overview

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Date: 1999
Publisher: Primary Source Media
Series: American Journey
Document Type: Essay
Length: 2,558 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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Throughout the 20th century, commentators have sought an appropriate metaphor for the unprecedented meeting of peoples and cultures that created the American population. The most enduring image is the melting pot, which suggests that America is a composite to which the various components of its population have contributed proportionately. Few serious observers believe, however, that the melting pot image is accurate or adequate.

Although the language, government, and common culture of the nation overwhelmingly represent the impact of western Europe, most notably the British Isles, the population's ethnic and racial diversity has not disappeared, or "melted," into a homogenous blend. Terms like "melting pot," "stew," and "salad bowl" may stimulate the imagination, but scholars in search of a descriptive phrase have turned to less colorful concepts drawn from the social sciences rather than the kitchen. Some have emphasized the extent to which America has assimilated immigrants. Some have focused on America as a pluralistic society that has neither achieved nor demanded full assimilation. Still others have described America as a multicultural society and have usually supported programs to maintain that diversity.


The territory that now comprises the United States was settled at least 10,000 years ago, probably by people from Asia who crossed the Bering Sea on a sheet of ice called the Land Bridge. Over time, they became separated and developed very different cultures and languages, so that by the end of the 15th century, when European exploration of North America began, there were many "native" cultures in North America.

European exploration and colonization added to that diversity. Spanish culture was introduced from the south—from Mexico and the Caribbean; aspects of French culture and language entered the mix along the Mississippi River and the Saint Lawrence River in Canada; Dutch culture held at least temporary sway in New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania; English culture took firm root on the eastern seaboard, where England established thirteen colonies over the course of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Finally, several different West African cultures were brought to North and South America by slaves, involuntary immigrants to the New World.

All of those cultures—and many others—contributed to the making of something new on two continents. The history of emerging cultures is not finished, neither in the United States nor in the rest of the Americas. But the focus of this disc is immigration to, and the development of a culture in, what is now the United States. The discussion will begin with the groups noted above and continue through the successive waves of immigrants who arrived, and continue to arrive, on America's shores. (That powerful image, somewhat diminished in the imagination by air travel, remains an apt expression of the effect of immigration, for migration to the United States has come mostly in waves—periods of great influx, or crests, followed by troughs, or periods of reduced immigration.)

In the first decades of the 17th century, the flow of immigrants to the new English colonies of North America was, at least relative to later periods, a mere trickle. Despite programs designed to encourage immigration, and despite the introduction of slavery, the number of immigrants in any one decade can be measured in tens of thousands. It never reached more than 100,000 in any ten-year period. Nonetheless, over the course of several decades the European and African population of the East Coast increased, even as the Native American population decreased. By 1776 there were some 2 million people of European and African descent in the English colonies. In 1790 the first census conducted in the new republic showed a reasonably diverse population, of which slightly less than one-half was English, almost 20 percent was African, and the remainder was divided among at least eight other European groups. (This does not count the 600,000 Native Americans then living in the United States.)


The years 1820 to 1860 witnessed the first massive wave of immigration to the United States. Poverty, famine, and political and religious persecution in Europe encouraged many to leave their homelands. The availability of land and the promise of opportunity in America drew them to the United States. Immigration from Ireland and Germany accounted for the greater part of this influx. Millions of immigrants came from those countries to America, where the Irish encountered mostly miserable conditions in the teeming cities of the East, while the Germans fared better outside of the major urban centers.

Importantly, too, the United States expanded in this period, incorporating much of North America and the peoples who lived there (Indians in the Midwest and West, Mexicans in the Southwest). This changed the composition of the American population even as it gave increased impetus to immigration from Europe by opening still more land to settlement.

It was also around this time, in the mid-19th century, that important fissures opened in American society as a result of profound differences among people. The most obvious of these was the split between the North and the South that led to the Civil War (1861-1865). But other fissures were apparent as well. Anti-Catholic sentiment was directed mainly against the large numbers of Irish immigrants; racial animosity was leveled not only at blacks but at Native Americans and Mexicans. It was not only the dominant society that harbored this hostility: Some immigrant groups turned against other immigrants or against the disadvantaged among the native population. It was with difficulty—and the shedding of blood in riots, labor strikes, Indian wars, and other actions—that America began to fashion a sense of itself as a nation of immigrants.


A second wave of immigration produced other strains on the society. In the half century from 1866 to 1914, more than 26 million new immigrants came to the United States. The Irish, Germans, and British continued to immigrate in large numbers, and the Scandinavians joined them. However, the period was most notable for the influx of what were called "new immigrants." They came from Scandinavia, China, Japan, Mexico, and most important, southern and eastern Europe—from Italy, Poland, and the areas controlled by the Austria-Hungary and Russia.

Their presence in American society created grave tensions, and anti-immigrant sentiment quickly led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned immigration by Chinese laborers. The arrival of Italians, Jews, and other groups—different from the larger society not only in language (as the Germans had been) or in religion (like the Irish) but in both language and religion—sparked a movement to "Americanize" all immigrants, a movement endorsed to a greater or lesser degree by immigrant groups that had been in the United States for some time. In some cases—the temperance movement against consumption of alcohol, for example—this movement assumed the characteristics of a campaign against perceived foreign influences in America. In other cases, the Americanization movement took the form of indoctrinating immigrants (and Native Americans) in an American culture rooted in Anglo-Saxon culture, as, for instance, when businesses sponsored mandatory English classes for their employees.

A simultaneous renewal of nativist—or anti-foreign—sentiment emerged around this time as well. The American labor movement grew suspicious of immigrants who, it was believed, were taking jobs from native-born American workers.Many people decried the presence of rabble-rousing radicals among the new immigrants. And the new pseudo-science of race managed to convince many that the intellectual and moral quality of the American population was being undermined by the introduction of "undesirable" people.


The idea of American society as a melting pot gained currency partly as a counter to this nativist sentiment. Critics have attacked the idea of a melting pot since it was first put forward as an ideal. In general, persons belonging to groups distrusted by the majority or afraid of being absorbed into it have been most opposed to the idea. They regard the melting pot as nothing more than a homogenous society in which their own culture would disappear.

At the time of World War I (1914-1918), not long after Israel Zangwill's (1864-1926) play The Melting Pot celebrated the idea, Horace Kallen offered an alternative vision. A Harvard-educated philosopher of Jewish descent, Kallen saw America as a concatenation of cultures rather than an amalgam of them. He believed that cultural pluralism benefited the whole society because different cultures competitively coexisting in a democracy could reach new heights of refinement and enrich each other.

From the 1920s through the mid-1940s, when federal law and World War II (1939-1945) curtailed immigration, Kallen's vision of cultural pluralism fit neither America's social realities nor its political ideology. Commentators found that the most striking aspect of the era was the decline in the importance of ethnic identity. According to historian Marcus Lee Hansen (1892-1938), who at the time was a prominent student of immigration, a unique opportunity was emerging as the major immigrant nationalities entered their third generation in the United States. The groups had achieved a measure of success and education, and hostility to their presence had lessened. Members of the third generation, therefore, had both sufficient connection to the past and the security to tell stories of their groups' contributions to America. The task could not be left to future generations, which were likely to be even more assimilated into the broader society.

By the mid-20th century, ethnic differences seemingly were being subsumed by the three major European religious traditions of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism. The emergence of this "triple melting pot" fell short of the ideal of the original metaphor. For many Americans, however, it represented a substantial step toward homogeneity. Diversity based on religious belief was a form of pluralism that could be tolerated. The major faiths seemed to accept an everyday meaning of the constitutional barrier between affairs of church and state. Beyond that point, the Constitution treated religious belief as a matter of private conscience.

Writing in the early 1960s, Milton M. Gordon, a prominent sociologist of ethnicity, was able to dismiss the idea that cultural pluralism existed in the United States. Gordon argued that throughout American history immigrants and minorities had adopted a common language, dress, and outward forms of social interaction. He claimed, however, that ethnicity and religion could constitute a destructive form of "structural pluralism" to the extent that belonging to particular groups meant that persons were denied access to a full range of economic and educational opportunities.

Midcentury ideas about pluralism became particularly important in the civil rights debate regarding the place of African Americans in United States society. A fundamental premise of racial segregation had been that African Americans were culturally alien to the society. Liberals undercut that premise; indeed, one prominent line of thinking held that the institution of slavery had so completely controlled its victims that African heritage was unable to survive in America. Race, it was argued, constituted an outward difference that was unconnected with internal character or culture. To political leaders like John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), guaranteeing civil rights to African Americans was a logical extension of society's growing acceptance of the completely assimilated descendants of the nation's voluntary immigrants.


However, the civil rights reforms of the 1960s failed to end the structural pluralism in American society, at least insofar as it affected African Americans. This failure undermined the model of assimilation that had been advanced for the past half century, a model based on the experience of Europeans more or less physically indistinguishable from the dominant population and never as subjugated as the African. Blacks could not escape notice by shedding their skins as Europeans had discarded customs and manners that alienated them.

A new generation of black leaders, such as Malcolm X (1925-1965), called for increased black self-consciousness and even for the creation of a separate black nation. In doing so, they revived ideas of self-determination and withdrawal espoused earlier in the century by leaders like Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Even more moderate spokespersons and scholars called attention to the continuing influence of an African-American culture distinguishable from that of the white majority. Alex Haley's powerful novel Roots helped the people of the United States understand that, like the nation's European Americans, its African Americans had a history.

Under the influence of the civil rights movement, Native American groups also began to critique the assimilationist paradigm. They acted to reverse federal policies begun in the 1950s to remove the federal government from Indian affairs. Protests erupted at a number of locations, and in 1969, Indians occupied the abandoned Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay to protest Washington's failure to honor treaties with the native peoples. Through a series of measures, including the Native American Religious Freedom Act of 1978, the United States gradually recognized the right of Native Americans to protect traditional religious and cultural practices and the right of tribes to enjoy some of the prerogatives of sovereign nations.

Chicanos, or Americans of Mexican descent, joined other minority groups in reasserting their traditional identity, which they celebrated as La Raza, or "the race." Some Hispanic groups, such as Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales's Crusade for Justice, set as their goal establishing an independent nation in the Southwest. The Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MECHA) emphasized the development of Chicano cultural consciousness among high school and college students. Groups such as the United Farm Workers and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) emphasized the protection of Latinos' civil rights and the greater involvement of Hispanic peoples in the American political system.

For Latinos and Asians, the reality of renewed immigration gave further impetus to the growing consciousness of ethnicity. It also made issues of foreign-language use especially important. Supporters of bilingual education received support from a 1974 decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Lao v. Nichols. The justices concluded that schools had to ensure that students with limited English-language skills received training on par with students whose primary language is English.

As society's tolerance of diversity increased, some Americans of European origin reasserted their ethnic identities. A growing body of scholarship recognized that, although it did not determine behavior, ethnicity had not disappeared as a factor affecting social interactions and political choices. For some commentators, moreover, the renewed emphasis on European ethnic and cultural ties was a defensive reaction to government programs favoring groups that could claim discrimination. Ethnic identification was, some said, an effort on the part of the "non-minority" population to exert political pressure as a voting bloc.


The seemingly profound changes taking place in American society at the end of the 20th century are remarkably similar to those witnessed throughout the history of immigration in the United States. The emphasis from different quarters on cultural differences and cultural sameness, the debate over whether the United States should be open to immigration or make efforts to reduce or stop the flow of people, the discussions about the use of the English language and about the effect of immigration on wages, working conditions, and the economy in general—all of these things have been important aspects of America's immigration history, just as they are part of its current experience of immigration.

The common heritage of the varied peoples who have come to America in the past several centuries is that they were, and are, searching for a place in a changing society—and trying at the same time to define that society, trying to shape an American culture.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2154000257