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.

As Barone portrays them, German settlers in the Midwest—many of them refugees from the revolutions of 1848—traveled down a reformist path that ran parallel to that of their Yankee counterparts. Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to master the politics of addition. Not wanting to offend either the Irish or the Germans, he kept his 1860 platform free of anti-Prohibition and anti-immigrant language. Ancestors of both groups, along with some of the Midwestern Yankees, provided much of the opposition to American entry into both world wars. (Those of German ancestry opposed fighting the ancestral homeland; the Irish were wary of anything that helped Britain.)

As industrialization picked up after the Civil War, Southerners defied expert predictions and did not migrate out of their region in search of jobs. Whites stayed put, largely out of lingering sectional bitterness. Their attempts to reduce emancipated slaves to peonage, and overt racism in the North, kept African Americans from moving. With the South having “walled itself” off from the rest of the country, Barone says, Ellis Island immigrants began to man the levers of the Northern factories that made the United States an industrial giant.

If the Civil War left sectional isolation and bitterness in its wake, World War II had an “annealing” effect (in Barone’s view) on the entire country. In support of his case, Barone cites the flocking to California of millions in search of work in emerging defense-related industries and bungalows in rapidly developing suburbs. 

Barone recalls the paradox of African Americans winning their struggle for civil rights and protection against mob violence, especially in the South, only to see their hopes for a better life in the North dissipated by urban blight and myriad other maladies in the urban crisis of the 1960s and ’70s. In the decade of 1965-75, welfare rolls tripled, violent crime soared, and state after state enacted income taxes to fund programs intended to ameliorate the effects of poverty. During this same period—and, in part, as a reaction to what was happening—businesses, middle-class residents, and retirees relocated to states with warm climates and cheaper energy costs, no income or estate taxes, weak unions, and reduced regulations. 

Barone offers up two legacies of 1960s liberalism to illustrate his point: the transformations of Texas and Florida in the period between 1970 and 2010. In those 30 years, the population of Texas rose from 11 million to 25 million; Florida’s jumped from 6.8 million to 16 million. For a visible reminder of what these non-immigrant migrants left behind, the author recommends a ride on Amtrak from Washington to Boston. 

Barone is most sympathetic to the plight of Latino immigrants. He finds them hard-working and less likely to attach themselves to the welfare state than reform critics often argue. He attributes their failure to assimilate into American society and acquire fluency in English (in comparison with the rapidity of their Ellis Island antecedents) to four factors: the prevalence of large, predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods; significant numbers of employers who use Spanish in the workplace; the failure of bilingual education and public education generally; and elite policymakers who regard assimilation as oppressive and cultural maintenance as liberating. 

Barone castigates policymakers and bankers for pushing—in the name of “minority home ownership”—non-creditworthy buyers with no W-2 forms into $350,000 homes: He estimates that Latino immigrants accounted for one-third of all foreclosures during the Great Recession.

While he subscribes to the view that Americans are (in Bill Bishop’s term) “sorting themselves out” by political and social views as well as lifestyles, Barone does not see the United States pulling itself apart any time soon. He attributes this to the genius of the Framers in bequeathing us a system that puts a premium on limited government, accommodation, and tolerance. Let us hope he’s right. 

Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author, most recently, of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game