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Growth Through Immigration, Diversity and Assimilation in American Society

ongoing wars, Fugitive Slave Law, Hawaiian people, Japanese immigrants, French colonists

The American victory in the Revolutionary War united 13 of the English-speaking settlements into the largest and most powerful political unit in the territory, even though those first 13 states hugging the eastern coast seem small compared with the country’s eventual size. As a result of the Revolution, approximately 71,500 people out of a populace of some 2.5 million fled the new United States. Some were Loyalists—political or economic refugees whose loyalties to Great Britain remained strong; others were blacks seeking refuge from slavery. Immigration and the commercial slave trade after the war quickly restored the population to its former level. The Revolution also opened up the area west of the Appalachian mountains to settlement, as fur traders and farmers were no longer confined by British settlement restrictions. Pioneering citizens, immigrants, and slaves moved west, displacing Native Americans who had hoped to preserve their cultures undisturbed by the expanding United States.

The 17th and 18th centuries saw a growing importation of Africans into North America. After 1808 U.S. law forbade the importation of slaves from abroad, although some smuggling of slaves continued. Few people from Africa chose to come to the United States voluntarily, where the free African population was small, considered second-class citizens, and confined largely to the northern states. Large numbers of Europeans migrated to the United States in the early national period, drawn by the promise of freedom, cheap land in the West, and jobs in the first factories of the emerging industrial age. The influx of Europeans, the end of the slave trade, and the ongoing wars removing Native Americans meant that some of the racial diversity of the population was diminishing. By the early decades of the 19th century, a greater proportion of Americans were of western European and Protestant heritage than at the time of the Revolution.

Over the course of the 19th century, the United States gradually absorbed the French colonists in the upper Midwest and in New Orleans, Louisiana; the Spanish and Russian colonists in the South, West, and Northwest; and the territories of the Hawaiian people and other indigenous groups. Sometimes these territories were added by diplomacy, sometimes by brute force. European visitors were surprised at the diversity in nationalities and in religious and secular beliefs in early America, as well as the number of intermarriages between people of differing European heritages. There were also cross-racial births, sometimes voluntary and sometimes by force, but rarely within legal marriages. The population continued to grow through migration as well, driven in part by English, Irish, and German settlers who came in large numbers around 1848 to escape political repression and food shortages in Europe.

By 1860, 86 percent of Americans counted in the census were white (72 percent native-born white) and 14 percent black. (Most Native Americans were not included in census figures until the late 19th century.) Although the country had become more uniform, it was not homogeneous enough for some citizens. They sought at various times between the Revolution and the American Civil War (1861-1865) to delay the naturalization of foreign immigrants, to send African Americans to Liberia or elsewhere, or to discriminate against Roman Catholics. But the German and Irish immigrants of the midcentury gradually won acceptance, and free African Americans insisted on an American identity, pushing for an end to slavery and for full citizenship.

The insecure status of even free African Americans in the middle decades of the 19th century caused thousands of blacks to emigrate from the United States to Canada, especially after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850. This law required that slaves who escaped to free states be returned to their masters. Within a year, 10,000 black Americans fled to safety in Canada. By 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, 50,000 African Americans resided in Canada.

The American Civil War briefly interrupted European immigration. At the end of the war some slaveowners moved to Brazil and other places where slavery was still legal. With slavery abolished in the United States and former slaves’ status as American citizens constitutionally guaranteed, 30,000 African Americans returned from Canada to rejoin family and friends. The constitutional promises of the post-Civil War era were soon discarded. Racism in both the North and the South confined African Americans to second-class citizenship in which political and civil rights were ignored. Discrimination by race was declared constitutional in 1896.

The immigrant population changed dramatically after the Civil War. The majority of white immigrants had traditionally come from western Europe, but during the second half of the 19th century, many immigrants came from central, southern, eastern, and northern Europe. This influx brought in larger numbers of Roman Catholics. And for the first time there were substantial communities of Orthodox Christians and Jews. On the West Coast, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, mostly men, arrived to work in agriculture and on the railroads.

From 1880 to 1914, peak years of immigration, more than 22 million people migrated to the United States. As with earlier arrivals, some immigrants returned home after a few years. Some maintained separate ethnic and religious identities in urban neighborhoods as well as in the smaller towns of the West, while others blended into American society through marriage, education, language, employment, politics, and sometimes religion.

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