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Irish and German immigration

AP.USH:
KC‑4.2.III.A (KC)
,
SOC (Theme)
,
Unit 4: Learning Objective F
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.start superscript, 1, end superscript

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.squared 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.cubed
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.start superscript, 4, end superscript
Despite these challenges, the Irish were resilient and assimilated effectively into US culture and society.start superscript, 5, end superscript 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.start superscript, 6, end superscript
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.start superscript, 7, end superscript By the mid-20th century, the Irish had become one of the most successful, prosperous, and well-educated immigrant groups in the country.start superscript, 8, end superscript
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.start superscript, 9, end superscript
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.start superscript, 10, end superscript Today, over 50 million Americans have full or partial German ancestry, making German-Americans the largest white ethnic group in the United States.start superscript, 11, end superscript

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?

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Nathan Lopez
    In the section marked German immigration, it did not talk about any persecution the Germans might have experienced. My question is: What type of persecution did the Germans experience upon coming to America?
    (21 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Wolfy
      From what I know, German and Irish people were subjected to indentured servitude on arrival to the U.S. Irish and German men were frequently subjugated to very hard work were often times they were grievously injured or killed by working on railroads. Shortly, Chinese men would join them in this work.

      I do not have intensive knowledge on details in this subject, but these men, who came to the U.S. hungry, usually ill to a degree, and hoping for another chance at life, were treated very poorly.

      I hope this helps!
      (2 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user martinsteve642
    Could America work without slavery?
    (4 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user RJV
      Yes, I think it did. You do not see slavery in any form today in the U.S.? During the period our Teacher was discussing, probably not. America relied on Slavery too much to completely abolish it. Does this answer your question?
      (1 vote)
  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Aarav Shah
    Why were political machines generally part of the Democratic Party only?
    (7 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Pedro Ascorbe Romera
    Why is immigration such a contentious issue in US history?
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user mthe3
    what is Boss Tweed and the Democratic party polotical
    (2 votes)
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    • spunky sam red style avatar for user Adam Y. Soliman
      Boss Tweed was a NYC power broker and political boss. He was a pioneer of machine politics, a corrupt but often helpful organization (for immigrants), that provided services like housing and jobs to new immigrants. In exchange, immigrants would often naturally feel obligated to vote for political machine politicians keeping them in power. Tammany Hall, Tweed's organization, was one of the biggest political machines in the country though when it shut down in 1950s, it was a shell of its former self.
      (11 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Grayson B
    What exactly was the potato famine?
    (4 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The poor of Ireland came to depend on the Potato as basic food. There was a disease that blighted potato harvests. The British who owned much of the farmland of Ireland made no provision to get food from elsewhere for the Irish. Landlords continued to live well, poor farmers began to die. It was a race and social class thing.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Dianne Torres
    What was the purpose of machine politics?
    (3 votes)
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  • primosaur tree style avatar for user Stephen Windisch
    But what about immigration in modern times?
    (1 vote)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jude
    The federalist party collapsed after the war of 1812, right? Does that mean the democrat-republican party was the only major party in most of the 1800s?
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Isaac P
    Isn't it blatantly illegal to pay for votes?
    (1 vote)
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