The Difficulty of Studying “Immigrants” in the Early 19th Century

December 11, 2017
By: Katherine S. Carper

There is one letter I find myself going back to in the course of my dissertation research.

In October 2016, as part of a collection of thank-you notes to then-First Lady Michelle Obama, actor/writer/producer Rashida Jones wrote, “Rarely can someone express their many identities at the same time while seeming authentic…Her individual choices force us to accept that being a woman isn’t just one thing. Or two things. Or three things.” This idea that a person can have many identities and cannot be categorized as “just one thing” is a powerful one, particularly because categorizing people is one of the ways in which historians make sense of the past, and make order out of chaos. Historians of nineteenth century immigration, for example, study the category of the “immigrant.” But what happens if this category did not exist? Is it possible for historians to study “immigrants” as an analytical category before the Civil War?

My dissertation research has shown that the category of the “immigrant,” and the social significance of foreign birthplace, developed historically over the course of the nineteenth century.  When the first dramatic increase in mass migration occurred in the United States in the 1840s, mostly from Ireland to the U.S. through the port of New York, the migration-related businesses and institutions that characterize immigration today did not exist. Migration policy was primarily under state rather than federal control, and as long as slavery existed, there was no national definition of citizenship. It was also a period in which a person’s birthplace, particularly whether they were foreign-born or native-born, lacked the social significance it carries today. As Kunal Parker has shown, nativist movements targeted foreigners, but foreigners simultaneously enjoyed rights and privileges denied to many people born on American soil, including African Americans, Native Americans, and women.

For ship captains, politicians, merchants, and banks, the onset of (primarily Irish) mass migration to the United States posed, more than anything, a logistical problem: how do you cope with the onset of mass migration? How do you process this many people? How do you facilitate the movement of the Irish, and then regulate this movement of people?

My dissertation research has found that the most compelling way in which American society coped with the onset of mass migration was to make a business out of it – a “business of migration,” as I term it, that involved Irish migrants, government policy, charitable organizations, passenger agents, ship captains, and insurance companies. Irish and English passenger agents facilitated the movement of many Famine Irish from Ireland to the U.S. through the port of New York, and a transatlantic network of businesses, institutions, and charitable organizations was developed in New York to receive these migrants and help them become economically useful members of American society.

The commodification of immigrants and the migration process ultimately produced lasting divides between foreign- and native-born Americans and created the figure of the “immigrant” as a meaningful social category. In the antebellum period, while slavery still existed, the business of migration connected merchants/business interests, charitable organizations, migrants, and government policy in a system that benefited all parties involved (to various extents). After slavery was abolished and a federal definition of citizenship was created, however, the business of migration had space to flourish and profit at the expense of migrants. In the long term, the business-driven response to mass migration helped reduce migrants to an economic calculation, and created a social order that rested on the primacy of birthplace.

This social order still divides Americans today. Foreign birthplace continues to have social, political, and civil significance, and tension persists between logistical concerns and larger ideas about the place of migrants in American society. However, this immigrant/native-born dichotomy should not necessarily define the way historians study immigration history in the first half of the nineteenth century. The business of migration calls into question whether historians should study “immigrants” as an analytical category before the Civil War because the very category of “immigrant” was a historically developed concept. By examining foreign-born Americans in this period as people first and not “just one thing,” it is possible to see more clearly the point at which foreign birthplace becomes decisively significant, or whether another category of analysis is more useful.

Katherine S. Carper

Katherine S. Carper is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Boston College. Her dissertation, “The Business of Migration, 1830-1880,” examines how the migration process became a profitable business in the nineteenth century. She received the IEHS’s George E. Pozzetta Dissertation Research Award in 2017.

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