Famine and political revolution in Europe led millions of Irish and German citizens to immigrate to America in the mid-nineteenth century. 

Overview

  • From the 1820s to the 1840s, Germans and Irish were the two largest groups of immigrants to the United States.
  • The Germans and Irish were frequently subjected to anti-foreign prejudice and discrimination.
  • Ultimately, the Germans and Irish assimilated into US culture and society and became two of the most successful immigrant groups in the country.

An immigrant nation

The United States, as an immigrant nation, has always faced the challenge of incorporating new demographic groups into its society and culture. Throughout the history of the United States, this has resulted in fierce national debates over what it means to be an American. Successive waves of immigration diversified the country from its origins in white, Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, while enlarging and expanding upon the definition of the term American.1^1

Irish immigration

From the 1820s to the 1840s, approximately 90 percent of immigrants to the United States came from Ireland, England, or Germany. Among these groups, the Irish were by far the largest. In the 1820s, nearly 60,000 Irish immigrated to the United States. In the 1830s, the number grew to 235,000, and in the 1840s—due to a potato famine in Ireland—the number of immigrants skyrocketed to 845,000.2^2 The Great Irish Famine, as it became known, resulted from a five-year blight that turned potato crops black. Between 1845 and 1850, one million Irish died of starvation and another two million fled the country.3^3
Engraving shows a grieving Irish family watching a three-masted ship sailing away.
Henry Doyle, Emigrants leaving Ireland, 1868, engraving. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Recent Irish immigrants, especially Irish Catholics, were frequent targets of xenophobic—anti-foreign—prejudice. The arrival of so many Irish Catholics almost doubled the overall number of Catholics living in the United States. Anti-Catholic prejudice was still very common at this time, and many Americans perpetuated stereotypes of Catholics as superstitious and blindly obedient to the Vatican in Rome. Many questioned the loyalty of Catholic immigrants to the United States, fearing that in time of war, their loyalty would be not to their country but to the Pope. Catholicism was viewed as a threat to democracy, and many feared that it would undermine the strength of Protestantism in the United States.4^4
Despite these challenges, the Irish were resilient and assimilated effectively into US culture and society.5^5 They lived in both rural and urban areas, settling the western frontier, working the land as farmers, and establishing a major presence in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. They built powerful political machines in major metropolitan areas, the most famous of which was undoubtedly Tammany Hall in New York City. These political machines, typically run by the Democratic Party, helped recent immigrants assimilate into American society by providing them with training, employment opportunities, and sometimes even cash handouts, in exchange for their votes at election time.6^6
William “Boss” Tweed, fourth-generation Scottish-Irish, was the most infamous of the Tammany Hall political bosses; he dominated the politics of New York City from the mid-1850s until his arrest in 1871 on charges of embezzlement, corruption, and fraud. Though Tweed was certainly guilty of these charges, there is no doubt that Tammany Hall and other political machines like it performed a valuable service in helping recent immigrants, especially the Irish, to assimilate into US culture and society.7^7 By the mid-20th century, the Irish had become one of the most successful, prosperous, and well-educated immigrant groups in the country.8^8
Photograph of Boss Tweed
Boss Tweed, c. 1870. Image credit: Library of Congress

German immigration

From the 1820s to the 1840s, Germans were the second largest group of immigrants to the United States after the Irish. They came to the United States seeking political and religious freedom and greater economic opportunities than could be found in Europe. In 1848, when revolutions erupted in the German states of Europe, Germans became the largest immigrant group to the United States.9^9
Although Germans created settlements in nearly every state of the Union, the so-called German belt stretches from Pennsylvania to Oregon, all along the North and Midwest. Many of the Germans who settled these areas were farmers who developed innovative techniques such as crop rotation and soil conservation. Other Germans settled in metropolitan areas, pursuing education, establishing industrial enterprises, and entering the ranks of the middle and upper classes.10^{10} Today, over 50 million Americans have full or partial German ancestry, making German-Americans the largest white ethnic group in the United States.11^{11}

What do you think?

Why is immigration such a contentious issue in US history?
Do you think Boss Tweed and the Democratic Party political machines did more harm than good? What was the purpose of machine politics?
Why do you think the Germans and Irish were able to overcome anti-foreign prejudice and become two of the largest and most successful immigrant groups in the country?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more, see Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).
  2. James Oakes, et al, Of the People: A History of the United States, Volume I: To 1877 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 414.
  3. For more on the potato famine, see Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).
  4. For more, see Elizabeth Fenton, Religious Liberties: Anti-Catholicism and Liberal Democracy in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature and Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  5. For more on the Irish experience, see Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
  6. For more on Tammany, see Terry Golway, Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014).
  7. For more on Tweed, see Kenneth D. Ackerman, Boss Tweed: The Rise and Fall of the Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York (New York: Avalon, 2005).
  8. Jay P. Dolan, The Irish Americans: A History (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008), preface xi.
  9. See Carl Wittke, Refugees of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1952).
  10. For more, see Don Heinrich Tolzmann, The German-American Experience (New York: Prometheus Books, 2000).
  11. Ancestry (US Census Bureau: 2000), 139.
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