The Magazine

How America Grows

Immigration, in stages, has refreshed the nation.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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Michael Barone may well have intended his exciting new book to make its appearance precisely when Congress turned its attention to immigration reform. That Congress had its attention turned elsewhere should not surprise him. One of the themes in this lively, entertaining, and informative work is that, when the subject at hand is immigration, it is foolhardy to make predictions.

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Anyone who reads Shaping Our Nation will be hardpressed not to come away with a new perspective on just how much the United States has been shaped—and for the better—by periodic and sufficient influxes of new residents from foreign lands. Barone traces the settlement patterns of various groups of immigrants over the centuries, with an eye toward how each has influenced the political, economic, and cultural development of the nation’s regions and, subsequently, the country as whole. Along the way, Barone provides an insightful and digestible account of the political cultures of the country’s various regions and the forces that have shaped them. 

He picks up largely where David Hackett Fischer—author of the classic Albion’s Seed (1989), to which Barone acknowledges sufficient intellectual debt—left off. Fischer argued that what would become the United States of America had been more “peopled” then “settled.” He demonstrated that the locales from which people emigrated exerted a dominant influence on the regions into which they moved en masse. Fischer’s primary focus was the British settlement of North America up to the year 1760. 

Barone begins his story three years later, when Great Britain, having finally defeated France, became the undisputed ruler of North America, and he carries it to the present day. He is as concerned with internal migration within the United States as he is with foreign immigration. In chronological sequence, Barone discusses influxes of immigrants of all kinds: Scots-Irish; Yankees and Grandees (descendants of Fischer’s Yankees and cavaliers); Irish Catholics and German Protestants and Catholics; those whom Barone terms “Ellis Island immigrants” (Italians, Jews, Poles, Russians, Czechs, Slovaks, and others from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires); white transplants to California; African-American migrants to the North during and after the two world wars; and, finally, latter-day Asian and Latino immigrants. 

In the book’s best chapter, on the Scots-Irish, readers can practically hear the clearing of forests and underbrush, and the clashing of swords and firing of muskets and rifles against the obstacles of any given moment—be they untamed nature, the British, the Spanish, or Native Americans. The Scots-Irish were a strong, determined breed willing to fight for principles and territory, and exhibiting a passion for rugged individualism and independence. Barone offers Andrew Jackson as the prototype of this group, whose own personal hero was William Wallace. Enough said.

General Anthony Wayne’s victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 opened up the Ohio River Valley to settlement by New England Yankees. With them came new civic-minded municipalities, colleges, Yankee philanthropy, religious revivalism, and an abolitionism replete with a certain Puritan rectitude. (The prototype Barone provides for this group is the Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, father of the abolitionist-novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe.) In response, descendants of Fischer’s “cavaliers,” who were confined largely to the South, began developing arguments proclaiming the virtues of their “peculiar institution”: slavery. Barone brilliantly sets the stage for the clash that followed. 

If the Scots-Irish Protestants left their homeland in search of adventure, Irish Catholic peasants were all but pushed out by the potato famine of the 1840s. Once abroad, and in large numbers, they found that group cohesion was an effective means of making their mark: Tammany Hall chieftains were quick to pick up on this as they traded patronage for votes, and Roman Catholic prelates used it to extract concessions from ruling elites—such as promises to leave their religion unmolested and state support for its institutions. “Minority outreach” in the New York Whig governor William Seward’s day meant receptivity to state funding for parochial schools.