American/Ethnic History Essay

American/Ethnic History

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1.         The United States has always been a “melting pot” and a “promised land” for all those striving for political, cultural, or religious freedom and economic success. America has been a nation of immigrants since its independence and I believe every new inflow of immigration has enriched its cultural, social, and religious diversity.

            All immigrant groups that came to America in the past tried to preserve their own cultural, social, and religious traditions. But at the same time, they successfully adopted, perhaps to a different extent and at a different pace, American values and customs as well. The arriving immigrant groups who tried to preserve their own culture and language on American soil gave rise to fears of disunity of America and a belief that with more such multicultural immigrants coming, this disunity would continue to grow. Indeed, European Catholics established Catholic churches in a Protestant America and Jews opened Hebrew synagogues and schools to preserve their ethnic identity. Kosher food stores could be found in every place where Jews lived. Foreign language newspapers appeared in most cities. Greeks and Italians opened their restaurants and Italians also established social clubs to attract and unite around them Italian immigrants. Every immigrant community struggled to keep together and, naturally, native-born Americans feared that American society would never be a united nation (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 565).

            However, as time passed the children of immigrants went to American schools where they learned to speak English as well as American history, culture, and traditions. Sooner or later, immigrant descendants stopped fanatically preserving their parents’ customs of the old world and integrated into the mainstream of American society (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 565). Most of them still call themselves German, Irish, Polish, Italian, etc Americans to emphasize the ethnic origin of their ancestors and some of them still can speak the native tongues of their fathers, but all of them consider themselves Americans. This is what I believe is the American phenomenon of a “melting pot” where all cultures, ethnicities, and customs are melted to create and enrich American society.

2.         Native Americans had no options in dealing with whites and they could not have preserved their way of life on their ancestral territories. The tragedy of Native Americans was that they occupied vast territories that white settlers needed for their own economic development. Whatever policies the former would have chosen in dealing with the latter, whites would have removed them from their lands sooner or later.

            Native Americans could not resist endlessly the advancement of an industrializing and technically superior white civilization. They were highly dependent on their natural environment, particularly on the buffalo. The construction of the railroad in the 19th century was perhaps an accelerating factor of the decline of Native Americans as it brought unlimited numbers of white settlers to occupy their lands and troops to fight against them. Tens of thousands of workers that moved westward for the railroad construction and cattlemen and farmers that followed them massacred the entire herds of buffalo for meat depriving thus the Indians of their main food supply. By the end of the Civil War there were approximately fifteen million bison in the West while in 1885 their number did not exceed one thousand beasts (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 590-97).

White settlers also spread several diseases on the territories they conquered and against which Native Americans had no efficient medicines. Cholera, smallpox, or typhoid turned out to have deadly consequences for many tribes (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 591).

            Nor could Native Americans withstand the fire-and-sword policy that the U.S. government used to tame them and confine them to reservations. The government possessed the necessary troops that could be easily dispatched to any region of the West and were replenished by the inflows of new immigrants. Besides, The U.S. Army was much better equipped and armed than Indian warriors whose number shrank drastically within just a few decades due to diseases, wars, and scarce natural resources. Several acts were passed to destroy tribal organization among the Indians and to impose on them white culture, values, and lifestyle (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 592-93).

3.         As a native born American living in the middle of the 19th century, my view of immigrants might have been shaped by their origin, culture, religion, ambitions, political ideology, etc. Taking all these factors into consideration, I think my view of immigrants would have been rather negative. As a Protestant American, I would have been distrusted by the Roman Catholicism of Irish immigrants because of their devotion to the Pope rather than American republicanism. Neither would I have trusted German immigrants as they were attached to the German language, rejected English, and tended to socially and culturally separate themselves from the mainstream population (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 294-95).

My negative view of immigrants would have been exacerbated by the fact that many of them, particularly Asian immigrants, did not require good working conditions and were willing to work for very low wages becoming the favorite workforce for employers. Besides, I immigrants could not be unionized since they spoke different languages and were often used as strikebreakers. Foreign laborers posed a serious menace to native born American workers. I would have been also alarmed by a higher birthrate among immigrants from poor countries compared with that among native born Americans as they could outnumber the latter within a decade or two. These fears and distrust were common among 19th century Americans and gave rise to nativist movements. The consequences of nativism were the adoption of a series of restrictive laws prohibiting several categories of immigrants, particularly criminals and Chinese workers, from entering the United States (1882) (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 568-70).

Given the above mentioned factors, I would have considered placing restrictions on the inflows of immigrants that were hard to integrate culturally and socially into 19th century American society and could potentially undermine the solidarity of American workers. By contrast, I would have supported unrestricted immigration from western European countries with various levels of representative government and whose culture and education could easily fit into American society.

4.         The majority of immigrants that came from Germany, the British Isles, or Scandinavia were literate and accustomed to democratic government in their home countries. Most of them were Protestant, took up farming, and adapted to American society quite easily continuing successfully their previous lifestyles in Europe. Their descendants were even more successful in integrating into society and participated in the government system. These immigrant groups shared more or less the same cultural, social, and religious values as Americans and were viewed positively by them (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 561).

            Irish immigrants, although being devout Catholics, had been experienced in political struggle against English-Anglican domination. This experience helped them get organized into the boss system that helped the newcomers cope with any difficulties in America in exchange for their votes. Soon, as their bosses won the elections, Irish Americans were able to occupy many white-collar government posts (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 295).

            Catholic and Orthodox immigrants that came from eastern and southern European countries such as Croatia, Slovakia, Greece, Poland, Italy, or Russia had not been accustomed to any representative government system and were largely illiterate. They sought industrial jobs and had fewer opportunities for prestigious careers. Some of them, namely Greeks and Italians, succeeded in opening their own restaurants, shops, or social clubs and these small businesses were continued by their children (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 561).

            But perhaps the most unfortunate immigrant groups were Asian workers, particularly the Chinese. Most of the Chinese were single men who took up the most unwanted jobs and worked long hours for low wages. As a cheap workforce, they were hated by other Americans who struggled for higher wages and better working conditions. Half of them had returned home by 1900 and the descendants of those who stayed in America suffered enormously from discrimination (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 512-13).

            Native Americans were cut off from any opportunities in America by a strong attachment to their own culture and government system which differed from those of the mainstream society. Besides, they could not profit from the nation’s development due to the fact that the U.S. government confined them to mediocre life in reservations and did not consider them as American citizens for many decades (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 598).

5.         Despite all the hardships and discrimination that immigrants encountered in America, changes that happened in their families in American cities were on the whole positive as they opened for them the ways of living they could never expect in their home countries. Immigrant families were not persecuted by the government for their religion as they had often been at home. Men were free from compulsory military service. The boss system offered jobs and services to immigrant families in exchange for their loyalty at the polls. This system provided immigrants in need with food and clothes, organized schools and hospitals for them. At a time when central, state, and local governments did not help immigrants integrate into American society, such assistance was extremely valuable (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 565).

            Established by prominent personalities such as Jane Addams, Lillian Wald, or Florence Kelley, settlement houses helped immigrants learn English, provided childcare services, and just counseled the newcomers on various matters. Another important change that happened in immigrant families was new opportunities for women. Immigrant women were far from being highly paid workers, but even what they earned made them economically and socially independent (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 565-68).

Late 19th century inflows of immigrants made an enormous impact on American society both in economical and cultural terms. They contributed greatly to the industrialization of America, built the railroads, pioneered wild lands taking up farming and producing more farm products to feed the nation. They also made America culturally richer and more diverse (Kennedy et al., 2006, p. 564). Of course, immigration was a controversial issue then just like it is today. Like now, in the 19th century many Americans opposed immigration because they believed the newcomers would take their jobs and depress wages. Unfortunately, nowadays these fears are partly reasonable particularly when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration. For many modern Americans illegal immigration is bad for the nation’s economy while others believe that the country needs immigrants as they do the low-paid jobs that most Americans do not want to do. I believe both attitudes have their positive and negative sides.

References

Kennedy D. M., Cohen L., & Bailey T. A. (2006). The American Pageant: A History of the

Republic.

 

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