an illustration in blue and gold of two men from the 19th century standing atop the statue of liberty's torch

From the Archive

Immigration and the Traditions of Liberty

Originally published in the summer of 1985, Thomas Kessner proposed an approach to teaching the new history

How do we share the American story? Specifically, how do we account for and incorporate the immigrants who arrive to the nation and add their cultures, experiences, and traditions to the country they find? It’s a question nearly every generation of Americans asks itself, and the conversation isn’t always easy. Racist nativism in the 19th century turned “real” Americans (oftentimes violently) against waves of Irish, German, and Italian immigrants fleeing hunger and subjugation and seeking opportunity and freedom in the New World. And we’re seeing echoes (and outright mimicry) of that era today, as some Americans direct vitriol and violence against those looking for hope and safety in the United States: Mexican and Central American migrants displaced by violence and crumbling economies, and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing terrorism and genocide.

A consequence of the always-evolving America is that how we teach and talk about history is constantly in flux. In the Summer 1985 issue of The College Board Review, author and historian Thomas Kessner marked the centennial anniversary of the Statue of Liberty by confronting the challenges of and suggesting ways to teach “the new history.” The core of his argument: place immigration and the immigrant experience at the center of America’s story. “It is a large, complicated, endlessly fascinating history, and we learn a great deal about our nation’s character from studying the lives of these pinched men and women who, bootless, set out on their path seeking that old American adventure, a better life,” Kessner writes.

Thirty-five years later, the nation is still grappling with the immigrant’s place in American life and the nation’s narrative. And Kessner’s piece, which feels all too relevant in 2020, still speaks to the work that needs to be done to committing to Walt Whitman’s conception of America, as Kessner notes, as “not a Nation, but a teeming Nation of Nations.”

a black and white photo taken in 1910 of a family of hungarian immigrants, four children and their mother, arriving at Ellis Island

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument

LOOK INTO THEIR FACES: A Hungarian family arriving at Ellis Island around 1910. The picture was taken by the superintendent of the island.

Written history, Charles Beard wrote in the 1930s, “is current thought on past actuality.”1 By the mid-1960s, as current thought underwent radical change, written American history was subjected to a thoroughgoing reevaluation. The rather genial interpretation of American history that dominated the fifties and early sixties, the “consensus” approach, made way for a new history. Consensus history minimized the salience of class differences, ethnic variation, and social conflict, presenting an American past characterized by broad agreement and the balancing dynamics of practical politics; a single American history, largely political, with its great men, neat chronologies, and grand themes. But the picture was too clean, too simple. Noted historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., spoke with unease of the “extraordinary precariousness of the historical enterprise,” the impressionistic and imprecise analysis, the preoccupation with literary style and narrative power, instead of analytic rigor.2

By the mid-1960s current thought had been muddied. Ideology, class and social conflict, and ethnic pride suggested an America that was far more fragmented and divided than the consensus approach could explain. A new generation of historians skilled in the tools of the social scientist erected the scaffolding for a new American history that included the poor, women, blacks, Indians, immigrants, workers, and other strands from the common weave. Few people outside the profession realize how completely this effort has affected a new history. Perhaps it was inevitable that an agenda for studying America’s parts would fix attention on a more fragmented American past. But the contribution of the new history is not trivial. American history is no longer the political history of a class of outstanding men. It is a complex, intricately designed tapestry, including the inarticulate, the politically weak, the poor, the dissenters, and the minorities. And it is both richer and truer for this.

Gradually the work of the new historians has trickled down into the classroom. However, given the reality of old textbooks and old curriculums, the new history has often been inelegantly grafted on the old, producing an uneven patchwork. An important example is the field of immigration history where too many teachers still teach the history of American immigration as an afterthought, as a sop to the diverse groups in their districts, and as something clearly outside the central trend of American history.

It is a blend of good intentions and bad history, this creation of a multiracial, multiethnic pantheon of heroes, where all ethnic groups are contributors and all races are equal. After having learned the main themes of American history, the building of the nation, the making of the Revolution, the Civil War, and all the rest, the student is introduced to the concept of unity in diversity and taught about famous songwriters, boxers, military figures, and baseball players whose names are so different from those of Washington, Madison, and Lincoln. What the student is left with is the impression that “real” Americans made the nation, and an assortment of colorful folk made marginal contributions. Moreover, the individuals profiled are generally not typical of the group from which they originated, are often quite assimilated, and reflect very little of the distinctive quality of the ethnic groups they are meant to symbolize. The mode is defensive: these foreigners are also good. In this same vein, much effort has been spent on essentially ahistorical debates about the true ethnicity of Christopher Columbus and the identity of the first European “discoverers” of America. The questions are ahistorical because the process of European settlement in America is sidestepped for the purpose of turf debates about who presided over America’s creation.

Another theme, more appealing and more subtle, has made some headway. It addresses the hardness of the immigration process. Perhaps this can be summarized as follows: the immigrants who peopled America were men and women of modest pasts who, for one reason or a hundred pitched their thoughts beyond the boundaries of their homelands, imagining an elsewhere where life could be freer, easier, better. They came not for gold on the streets, but rather to escape the decaying economies of systems that had spent themselves on war and dogma, and had lost the ability to see the world with a fresh eye. Striking out for adventure and the chance to escape the looping rein of the old world, they huddled together like cattle in an unforgiving steerage passage, standing elbow to elbow with others like them, the rejected and the disaffected, sharing the same fears. Will the new land welcome such as us, ignored in our own homelands for centuries? Will it tolerate our foreign ways, or dictate an unfeeling assimilation? Will it provide the jobs and larger futures that we are seeking? And what of our deeply held beliefs: Will we be able to pass on our religion, our culture, and our language to our children? Or will our children become strangers, a generation without a past? This genre has been responsible for a sensitive treatment of the immigration process and a rich evocation of its historical cost.

But a larger theme for teaching immigration is possible. Here I would like only to suggest some of its contours and the larger questions implied by the topic of American immigration, and to indicate that it is not difficult to integrate the history of American immigration into the history of the nation. We need only to look at the transforming power of immigration, its influence on traditions of American liberty, and its role in creating the type of republic we are.

the summer 1985 cover of the college board review magazine featuring an illustration in blue and gold of two men from the 19th century standing atop the statue of liberty's torch

The modern sensibility is characterized by a comfortable acceptance of change, an ease with impermanence. Tracing back in history one is struck by a contrasting theme, by the rigid stability that governed life: society almost outside the dimension of time, past, present, and future following a fixed pattern. So overwhelming was the sense of permanence that few imagined a different life or conjectured alternatives to the hegemony of the present and the given.

Myth and religion were the available vehicles for escaping a rugged reality. The search for elsewhere focused on an image, call it heaven, which was far more pliable than the real world. If the real world brought poverty and hard work, heaven would reward the poor and punish the evil; if the real world, ordered as it then was, proved inscrutable and beyond human control, then heaven would have fixed rules that followed human logic and justice. Here was the avenue of escape to a better world lived on a different plane. Much time and great intellectual effort went into describing this other world so that it took on a fixed reality. Men and women lived in one world but for another. Poverty brought blessing, martyrdom brought life, and tortured saints were revered as favored heroes. Reality consisted of two parts: the apparent and the true. One could live in a fixed unchanging society and change it nonetheless.

Much later, after philosophy, long the handmaiden of religion, declared its independence by applying logical analysis to the natural and speculative realms, political thinkers defined a politics that spoke of universal individual privileges, of natural rights. These ideas powerfully oriented the minds of the disaffected to a new sense of possibility, a better world, a more just life. This image of elsewhere placed better life not so far away as heaven, but beyond stability; it could only be achieved through revolution and radical political change.

More recently we have become familiar with a more personal image of elsewhere, changing the realities and structures of life by leaving one society to settle in another. The idea was that of a new world where in the course of an ocean passage it would be possible to free the future from the past, creating a fresh destiny.

The men and women who left England for the American colonies beyond the known horizons of their own world did more than that. They set out to build an alternative. In seeking a new world they were prepared to take the responsibility for building it. And, as their preachers repeatedly demanded of them, to accept blame for failure. Awakened minds facing the challenge of creating a better life imbued the new land with a sense of mission. “We shall be,” the Puritan leader John Winthrop instructed his fellow travelers, “a city upon a hill. The eyes of all the people are upon us.” It was a riveting responsibility to be the laboratory for perfection, but Americans viewed theirs as a new departure, a different destiny.

an excerpt from emma lazarus's poem the colossus

Thus the argument can be made for placing immigration at the core of American history. As the historian Oscar Handlin wrote in his Pulitzer Prize−winning book, The Uprooted, in 1951, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America, then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”3 Imagine an America without immigrants. How liberal would be its traditions, how diverse its population, how progressive its politics, how strong its economy, how rich its art, how cosmopolitan its cities, how advanced its science and technology, how spectacular its history, how free swinging its character, how exceptional its cause? Would America be America without its immigrants?

Immigration is a deeply disruptive process, one that appealed to desperate folk in the days when an ocean crossing was a life-threatening adventure. Aside from the dangers, the immigrant had to consider the isolated frontier existence that awaited him, and to recognize that setting on the road forces one to rely on strangers, to lose the familiar comforts of home and friends, to sunder those ties that root a life in its social context. It was a troubled people who urged themselves upon this thorny path. They interest us, because by a formidable act of courage and will, they created new identities for themselves, a new future for their children, and a new nation. And they taught their successors that a people can be guided as much by an interest in the future as by the graven image of its past.

Formed from various strains—a byproduct nation composed of exiles, slaves, adventurers, and dissenters; persecuted, starved, and vulnerable people, grown sick of poverty, bigotry, and kings—it was a nation without a core character, a patchwork nation that developed from a series of separate migrations. This effected a deeper rearrangement than merely the placing of different national strains in close proximity. The process of social remixing eventually yielded a new society, less provincial, less narrowly devoted. “I could point out to you,” French expatriate Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur wrote shortly after the Revolution, “a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman and whose four sons have now four wives of different nations.” The essayist also understood that it was not only the cross-national alliances that formed Americans:

What attachment can a poor European ... have for a country where he had nothing? The knowledge of the language, the love of a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only cords that tied him: his country is now the country which gives him land, bread, protection and consequence: Ubi panis ibi Patria is the motto of all immigrants. ...

Here where the rewards of industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor, his labor is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? Wives and children who before in vain demanded a morsel of bread now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear... fields. ... The American is a new man. ... From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury and useless labor he had passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence—This is an American.4

With a powerful faith in the Enlightenment, Americans believed that they could indeed make new men. Some expressed this as a grim reductionism; “taking” immigrants and “making” them into Americans. They spoke of “melting pots” and quick assimilation. But the deeper meaning of American nationalism was different. Other nations had large homogeneous native populations. They shared a common religion, history, and culture laced by long-standing ties of social convention which fostered a unifying national myth. Whether it was of a Romulus and Remus from whom came all Romans, or of a folkgeist that held Teutons in spiritual bond, the idols of the tribe were sufficiently shared to create an encompassing racial and cultural nationalism. In such nations newcomers were truly foreigners, outsiders who must somehow penetrate thickly interwoven norms, styles, and beliefs before passing into acceptance. But Americans could not delude themselves into a national myth that made one of them all. Their ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity was too plain to be ignored.

The nationalism of the new nation with its very short history, its many separate national strands, and religious persuasions was thinner, less exclusive. The Americans were without a shared history. They lacked religious uniformity. What held them together were the common dangers and opportunities, and the challenge of a new political arrangement. American nationalism was more limited, more political than cultural.

Making a virtue of necessity, Americans embraced a new ideal of tolerance. It was not that they set out with tolerance as a goal. The founding Puritans were no more tolerant than the regime they were leaving, but with so many different types of people, Americans had to learn to live with many cultures, many versions of truth. Narrow as were many immigrants in their religious and cultural provincialism, in mixing with others who were radically different from themselves they would have to learn to get along and respect each other or, as one observer noted, the Indians would be able to sit back and watch centuries-old European antagonisms play themselves out and fill the land with the blood of the white settlers. The multiplicity of religious styles meant that no one religion could dominate. It was not to protect others that Americans were tolerant, it was to protect themselves, and their own right to be different.

This resulted in a series of startling guarantees. Instead of a national church, post-revolutionary America offered the right to be free from forced dogma. Instead of a national social order calibrated by birth and noble attachments, it declared contempt for ascribed social status. Instead of maximizing state-enforced uniformity and authority, the Founding Fathers constructed a limited government, reserving crucial rights to individuals. Instead of the shared ancestry of a national tribe, national identity grew out of a commitment to diversity, freedom, republican government, and democratic forms; the affirmation of faith in unity among distinctly separate peoples.

The propagandist of the American Revolution, Tom Paine, wrote in 1776: “The old world is overrun with oppression,” and it was therefore the obligation of the new nation to “receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.” And in the year that independence was secured, George Washington declared: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of All Nations And Religions.”5

There were other reasons for welcoming immigrants. America’s barely populated lands could be converted into a powerful self-sustaining nation only if it attracted a population that would protect it, claim the forests, establish industries, help fight the wars, and bring in more capital. Southerners also wanted to increase the number of whites sitting atop the powder keg of enslaved blacks.

a black and white archival photo of ellis island

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument

ELLIS ISLAND, THE PRIMARY ENTRY POINT: More than 17 million immigrants came through here looking for a new life in America.

The complex notion of diversity within unity was something with which Americans became familiar. In forming a nation from thirteen independent colonies they created a federal system (indeed the new nation had no real name; its title, the United States, being merely an expression of this federal idea) in which the former colonies retained their strong identities and much of their sovereignty. For their motto they adopted the formula E Pluribus Unum, From the Many, One. Clearly though not a one that eradicated the independent coequal existence of the many. The ambiguity built into this arrangement was not ever clearly resolved, although the issue became critical when diversity produced its discontents and North fought South in a Civil War over such issues as union, secession, and states’ rights. If the Civil War proved anything it was that the many had not become one in too many ways.

By the time of the Civil War it was equally clear that no one had emerged from America’s ethnic diversity. The government, however, remained unconcerned and in fact encouraged immigration. The Republican Party platform, the one upon which Abraham Lincoln ran in 1864, declared:

Foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, resources, and increase in power in this nation —the asylum of the oppressed of all nations—should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.6 (6)

By the 1870s more than 280,000 newcomers a year, mostly from Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries, were entering American ports, continuing to place new layers of folk on the old foundation.

For its first century America’s national symbol had been the Liberty Bell with its Biblical inscription “Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land to the inhabitants thereof.” By its second century Americans were ready for a more ambitious goal, and when the people of France presented the United States with a statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World,” Americans quickly adopted it as their new symbol. Emma Lazarus’s sonnet for the new statue endowed the sculpture with a broad purpose and a meaning the sculptor had not considered. It would call out welcome to the oppressed and displaced masses of the world:

“Keep ancient lands your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. ‘‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door!”

—confident America telling the world that it would take the impoverished masses and with its balm of liberty make them over into useful citizens.

All the more ironic then, that by the time Lazarus’s message adorned the statue, Congress was hard at work to limit immigration. Many reasons account for the change in attitude: the maturing of the nation, the filling out of its frontiers, the overspilling of its cities, the feeling that its period of labor-intensive economy was passing in favor of a technological age. There was something else, difficult to understand at first, but no less real. Aside from blacks who were just now stepping onto the first rung of American freedom and opportunity, so many other immigrants still stood outside the mainstream that it was unrealistic to speak of the American people as a racial concept. And yet just this idea was catching on. At first policy circled around the issue, testing it, becoming comfortable with it, but eventually it was set hard at the center of American immigration policy.

Congress passed its first comprehensive immigration law in 1882. Convicts, mental incompetents, and those likely to become public charges were barred from entry. And for the first time an explicit racial barrier was established. For a period of 10 years and renewable every 10 years thereafter, Chinese immigration would be halted.

Despite these and other restrictive measures, immigration soared, as the United States grew to industrial maturity and brimmed with prosperity. Between 1880 and 1920, 23 million immigrants from Europe, the largest migration in history, on the run from decaying economies and outdated political systems, settled in the United States. As never before immigration came to dominate American thinking.

One of the reasons was simply the numbers. With transportation now easier and news of the American option spreading, there seemed to be no limit to the number of immigrants that would come. Many feared that the economy could not bear the burden. Others complained about the slum ghettos sprouting in the immigrant enclaves of major cities, and about the exotic religious practices and strange cultures that were making their way into America: their America. They were concerned over the dilution of the Anglo-Saxon quality of American society.

These fears were tied to a marked change in the sources of American immigration. By the 1890s the immigrants were no longer largely from Europe’s northern and western countries. The Germans, English, and Irish who had predominated before were now heavily outnumbered by people coming from the southern and eastern regions, Slavs, Jews, Magyars, Sicilians, a vast array of folk, “a wild and motley throng” wrote Thomas Bailey Aldrich, laureate of American nativism, “Men from the Volga and Tartar Steppes ... bringing with them unknown gods and rites.” And with a growing number of restrictionists he asked, “Oh, Liberty, white goddess, is it well to leave thy gate unguarded?”7

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a commission headed by the restrictionist Republican senator from Vermont, William Dillingham, to study the question of immigration and to produce a “plan which would amount to a definite solution to this immigration business.” The widely influential, 41 volume Report of the commission was released in 1911 and it argued that there was a fundamental distinction between the earlier immigrants, the “old immigration” that had helped build the early United States, and the more recent newcomers, the “new immigrants” from the “less progressive and advanced countries of Europe.” The scholar and future President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, wrote in his History of the American People: “The immigrant newcomers of recent years are men of the lowest class from the south of Italy, and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy, nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”8

a black and white photo from 1912 of four immigrants and their belongings, seen from behind, on a dock, looking out over the water

Library of Congress

Four immigrants and their belongings, on a dock, looking out over the water, in 1912.

The outbreak of hostilities in Europe and the ensuing World War dampened emigration fever, but the United States remained committed to a policy of restriction. By 1917 Congress passed a literacy bill over President Wilson’s veto. This bill had been introduced several times since 1897 and in each case, it had been vetoed. Edward Bemis, the man who helped design this bill gave a clear sense of its intended purpose: “The Swedes, Germans, English and Scotch, and most of the Irish” would not be affected by the law, “and we do not want to exclude them, but the Italian, Hungarian, and Polish immigration would fall off by 50 percent.”9 Within the next few years, it was clear that a literacy act alone would not accomplish the change in immigration that the lawmakers had envisioned. In a series of laws passed in the twenties, Congress erected barriers to limit the transforming potential of immigration. The laws put in place an overall quota, eventually limiting immigration to one-fifth of its former volume. More significantly, the law ratified a race-conscious policy that shamelessly limited the influx of non-favored groups. The quota reserved 82%  of available slots for the preferred nations of Western and Northern Europe, slashing immigration from Poland, Italy, Greece, Austria-Hungary, and entirely banning entry from China, Japan, and much of the rest of Asia. The laws also established a preliminary screening process by requiring all applicants for entry to apply for a visa from the local consulate before being considered for immigration to the United States.

The author of the most restrictive of these bills, Senator Albert Johnson from the state of Washington, explained that the American people had been patient about the flood of immigration, but “the myth of the Melting Pot has been discredited. It is no wonder that Americans everywhere are insisting that their land no longer shall offer free and unrestricted asylum to the rest of the world. ...” Differing with the sentiments of Tom Paine and George Washington, the senator went on to say “The United States is our land. If it was not the land of our fathers, at least it may be, and it should be the land of our children. We intend to maintain it so. The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.”10

The era of open immigration was brought to an abrupt end. They had not been merely huddled masses or wretched refuse. They had brought to their new land many gifts and valuable experience, enabling a very young nation to draw on ancient ethical and moral systems, proven political and philosophical traditions, richly textured cultural and economic experiences. Their diversity had contributed to the evolution of American liberty. Over the years they peopled the land, pushed back its frontiers, built its cities, laid its tracks, worked its factories, enriched its culture, and fashioned a remarkable technology. They had also reaped concomitant benefits: liberty, the opportunity to aspire for a better life, for even a poor child to dream ample dreams. But with time and success many Americans who had traveled just this route forgot the awkwardness and the difficulties associated with the process. And now they feared it. And so the doors were closed.

But the story goes on. In the thirties and forties, plagued by economic depression and touched by racial feeling, Americans refused generous welcome to European refugees. In the fifties, a series of ad hoc refugee programs punched huge loopholes into the quota system. And in 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed a more liberal policy into law, inaugurating a fresh era in the history of American immigration. It is a large, complicated, endlessly fascinating history, and we learn a great deal about our nation’s character from studying the lives of these pinched men and women who, bootless, set out on their path seeking that old American adventure, a better life. For, as Walt Whitman reminded us more than a century ago, it is futile to seek a single national history, “We are not a Nation, but a teeming Nation of Nations.”


The single best reference for American immigration history is the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom and Ann Orlov. It includes essays on some 121 immigrant and ethnic groups as well as several penetrating thematic essays. It is also the best single source for bibliographies on the individual groups.

  1. Charles Beard, “Written History as an Act of Faith,” American Historical Review 39, no. 2 (January 1934): 219-29.
  2. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “The Humanist Looks at Empirical Social Research,” American Sociological Review 27 (December 1962): 768-71.
  3. Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1951), 3.
  4. Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, “Letters From an American Farmer,” 103-10 in American Issues: the Social Record, Vol. I, Merle Curti, et al., editors (New York: Litton, 1960).
  5. Arthur Mann, The One & the Many: Reflections on the American Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 73.
  6. William S. Bernard, “A History of U.S. Immigration Policy,” 85 in Immigration, Stephan Thernstrom, et al., editors (Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 1982).
  7. Thomas Kessner, The Golden Door (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 25.
  8. See ref. 7 above, 24-32.
  9. Edward Bemis, “Restriction of Immigration,” Andover Review II (March 1888): 26.
  10. See ref. 6 above, 97.