German and Irish Immigration, 1840-1859

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Date: 2012
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,047 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1220L

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As a result of the1845 potato famine and the European Revolutions of 1848, a flood of Irish and Germans immigrated to America, affecting the country both socially and economically

Key Figures

Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), an Irish, Capuchin priest known as the "Apostle of Temperance."

Carl Schurz (1829-1906), a German revolutionary and American leader who was a prominent persona among the Forty-Eighters and active in the Republican Party.

William Henry Seward (1801-1872), the governor of New York who was sympathetic to the plight of the immigrants.

Summary of Event

In the era between the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the Civil War in the United States, the population of the United States increased considerably. This was largely due to mass immigration from Germany and Ireland. The census of 1860 recorded thirty-one million Americans, including approximately five million of foreign birth. Specifically, the census showed that over a million immigrants were from Germany while a million and a half were from Ireland. The reasons for mass immigration were threefold. First, most of the immigrants were farmers and the potato famine in 1845 was the impetus for them to leave. The famine, a frequent occurrence, destroyed their fields, motivating them to start over in a new country. Second, there was a rumor circulating that the United States was about to close its borders to immigrants. Many people panicked attempted to immigrate before they feared it would be too late. Third, as a result of a series of uprisings throughout Europe called the European Revolutions of 1848, thousands of people were forced into exile. Many of these political exiles, having nowhere to go, immigrated to America.

Rampant social and economic changes in the early nineteenth century led to migration within Europe and into the United States. The creation of factories during the Industrial Revolution enticed the youth to leave the countryside and settle in cities. However the poor work conditions along with a limited number of job openings caused untold poverty. Having no option, many people traveled across the ocean, aspiring for a better life. In Ireland, the increasing population forced landowners to subdivide the land until a single farmer possessed a small plot yet had to pay rent to a hierarchy of absentee owners. Since the main harvest was potatoes, which normally grew quickly and sold well, the individual farms were able to stay afloat. However, in 1845, potatoes were struck by a disease that ruined crop after crop; farmers could no longer afford to maintain their farms and feed their families, spurring them to migrate to America. In Germany, farmers incurred huge debts from purchasing equipment to improve farming practices: at the same time, they were forced to pay large sums of money to the church as tithes. Many migrated to America because it became impossible for farmers to continue their comfortable lifestyle in their current location.

Since travel between Europe and America was uncomplicated and affordable, many Irish and German families were inspired to make the journey. Regular trade routes already existed between the two continents so it was only a matter of taking along extra passengers for an additional fee. The two main passageways to Europe were via Canada and the Boston/New York ports. Canada regularly shipped mass quantities of timber to Ireland and returned with shiploads of immigrants who dispersed throughout Canada and southward toward New England. Similarly, the southern states frequently shipped cotton from Boston and New York ports to Liverpool and returned with immigrants who settled along the eastern coast of America.

Once they arrived in America, the Irish foreign workers took any job that was available. The former farmers were unprepared for other occupations so they often worked in temporary menial labor, such as in canal and railroad construction, until they secured a more permanent position. On the other hand, the Germans were more diversified. While some stayed on the eastern coast, the majority traveled westward through Buffalo along the Erie Canal and settled near the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Yet others arrived in New Orleans on cotton ships from Le Havre and traveled towards Texas. The Germans brought their crafts and professional skills with them to America, transforming the existing culture of the urban cities. Those who chose to till the land, preferred to take over abandoned Native American property rather than build a farm from scratch.

On the whole, the immigrants were welcomed by the Americans since there was an abundance of land to settle and workers, at least in some areas, were in demand. Furthermore, the Americans were pleased to be able to help foreign refugees who needed a safe haven to turn to. While integration was difficult at first, in time the immigrants not only entered the work force, they contributed their talent and profession skills. In fact, the governor of New York, William H. Seward, publicly recognized and praised the influence the immigrants made on society. On the other hand, the influx of foreigners brought about a slew of other problems as well. The rate of crime, poverty, and unemployment increased as workers were settling into the new culture and living conditions. In addition, there was a proliferation of disease since the immigrants were not immune to the viruses on the other side of the world.

Besides social changes, the immigrants also threatened to change the political and religious agenda of America. The Irish were accustomed to voting in blocs for political representatives instead of individually. The Germans, on the other hand, entered the country with preconceived radical political ideas, attempting to change government policy. In addition, some of their strange customs, such as German beer gardens and Irish wakes, offended the Puritan ideals. In the 1850s a party called the Know-Nothings emerged in an attempt to repress Protestantism, reinstalling the original American values. This party, however, was short-lived since, at the time, Americans were more divided over the slavery issue than concerned with the influence of foreign immigrants. The onset of the Civil War and shifts in thinking began to decrease America's openness to immigrants. Americans felt they could afford to be choosy over who they accepted as citizens. The government began to refuse entry to immigrants they deemed undesirable, established quotas and hurdles for immigration, and lengthened the period necessary for obtaining citizenship following immigration.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359030333