The influence of immigrants on American political thought

With all of the posting on immigrants and immigration over the last few months I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more thoughtful consideration of the political legacy of the historic waves of immigration into this country. Leaping into the gap in this post I plan to touch briefly on two of these waves: the famine Irish and the Scandinavians.

The Famine Irish


There had been Irish immigration into the American colonies from at least the 17th century and, later, into the United States. These immigrants, frequently called the “Scots Irish”, were mostly from counties Antrim and Derry, were ethnic Scots who had been settled in Ireland, and were Presbyterians. Several of our Founding Fathers claimed descent from these immigrants. President Andrew Jackson was the son of Scots Irish immigrants. The Jacksonian tradition in American politics is closely associated with the qualities of these immigrants: individualism, liberty, honor, military virtue.

In 1845 a fungus struck the potato, the primary food source of the Irish peasantry, and during the subsequent five year famine, An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger, more than a half million Irish left Ireland for the United States. By 1850 according to U. S. immigration records the Irish made up 43% of the immigrant population in the United States.

These Irishmen were ethnically, religiously, and politically different from the Scots Irish who had preceded them. They were overwhelmingly ethnically Irish, agrarian, Catholic, and collectivist. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote of these Irish immigrants:

“Instead of letting politics transform them, the Irish transformed politics, establishing a political system […] like the social system of an Irish village writ large.”

(collected in the book Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, New York University Press, ed. J. J. Lee and Marion R. Casey)

Most strongly associated with these Irish immigrants was New York’s Tammany Hall, virtually synonymous with political organization, the patronage system, and political corruption. They were also very important in the union movement of the middle of the 19th century.

Politics (and union organization) was significantly more rough and tumble in those days than today but the new breed of Irish immigrants were not above pursuing their purposes through violence. Consider, for example, the case of the Molly Maguires, a violent labor organization of the 1860’s and 1870’s in Pennsylvania. Kevin Kenny wrote this of the Molly Maguires:

The actions of the “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania, it became clear, would make little sense unless they were placed in an Irish as well as an American context. In Ireland, the socio-economic structure of rural society in general, and of specific regions like the north-western and north-central counties, needed close attention, as did the long history of agrarian violence embodied by such shadowy groups as the “Ribbonmen,” the “Whiteboys”—and, indeed, the “Molly Maguires,” who first emerged in north-central Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s. Making sense of the American phase of the violence, in turn, required a proper understanding of patterns of immigration, labor, and religious devotion, along with the politics of anti-immigrant nativism and the origins and impact of the Civil War. The “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania were a rare transatlantic example of a form of violent protest deeply rooted in the Irish countryside. Bringing the Irish and American strands of their story together in a single narrative resulted in the form of history that I later began to call “transatlantic”.

For an excellent bibliography on the Irish Potato Famine see here.

The Scandinavians

The Emigrants

Although the first Scandinavian immigrants came to the American colonies in 1638 (use of the log cabin in the colonies and the United States is attributed to them), mass immigration of Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes to the United States really took place in the second half of the 19th century, particularly in the 1860’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Lincoln’s Homestead Act of 1862 and the stabilization that followed the Civil War ensured that much of the Scandinavian immigration to this country was to the upper Midwest: Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota.

These Scandinavians brought with them an active tradition of social activism:

The Scandinavian tradition of collective action also led many immigrants to take active roles in American social reform movements. From the 1840s on, Scandinavian immigrants were well represented in the movement for the abolition of slavery, and with the onset of the Civil War volunteered in great numbers to fight, overwhelmingly for the Union.

Many Union companies consisted entirely of Scandinavians, and one company, from the tiny Bishop Hill community in Illinois, was made up solely of Swedes. At the turn of the century, the writer and Danish immigrant Jacob Riis led a journalistic crusade to expose the horrific living conditions endured by the inhabitants of America’s urban slums, which included many new immigrants. Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives, a classic of muckracking literature, brought about a great wave of protest and led to major housing reform in the U.S.

Many Scandinavians also took an active role in the burgeoning U.S. labor movement. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish miners and loggers participated in strikes throughout the Great Lakes states and the mountain West, sometimes as members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World union, also known as the Wobblies. The Swedish immigrant Joe Hill, born Joel Hägglund, was a prominent IWW member and wrote many of the union’s rallying songs. After Hill was executed for murder in 1914, under what his sympathizers claimed were false pretenses, he became the subject of folk songs himself.

The Grange Movement of the 19th century, originally a movement in which farmers organized for political and economic advantage gained its greatest strength in just those areas of the country in which the Scandinavian immigrants settled. The Grange was fundamental to reforms like railway regulation, Education Extension, and Rural Free Delivery.

The Grange Movement is thought to have been the foundation for the Progressive Movement in American politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contributions of the Progressive Movement to the American political scene include the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, women’s suffrage, the popular election of senators, the income tax, and prohibition. Like the Grange, the Progressive Movement had its greatest influence in the upper Midwest. Notable figures in progressivism include Robert La Follette of Wisconsin and Henry Wallace (Iowa). Recent examples of notable progressive politicians include Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellman.

The relationship between 19th century progressivism and the Scandinavian immigrants is something of a “chicken or the egg” question but it’s without question that the Scandinavian immigrants had strong egalitarian beliefs when they arrived here. Additionally, the prohibition movement was strong in Norway and Sweden in the 19th century and remains so to this day.

The New Immigrants

It should be obvious that immigrants arrive here with political beliefs and that these beliefs are informed by those of their country of origin. In my opinion this is neither good nor bad: it is merely a fact. The famine Irish brought with them collectivist values that manifested in this country as the remarked-on Irish “genius for politics”, the pursuit of union organization. and, sadly the willingness to use violence to achieve political ends. The Scandinavian immigrants brought with them a somewhat different collectivist set of beliefs which included labor unionism but also included egalitarian ideals. Not to mention a willingness to interfere in the hard-drinking habits of the previous Americans.

Most of our new immigrants are from Mexico and they will be no different in this respect than their predecessors: they have arrived with political ideas and beliefs they’ve brought from their homeland. I know nothing whatever of Mexican politics and will leave the commentary on that for other more knowledgeable people. But, as Mexican-Americans gain more political influence here, I suspect we’ll be learning a lot more soon.

6 comments… add one
  • Hi everyone! I just wanna say that politics is a favorite subject matter of all people—from youth to elders. When it comes to the topic of Politics, each individual is anxious to speak his mind and so are squabbles that are ready to explode. For all we know, Swiss politics has been silent in the global village; whereas U.S. and Asian politics are so alive. On the contrary, Swiss politics is also an extraordinary hotspot of debate and a favorite past time of each opinionated Swiss inhabitant.

  • Ricardo Link

    me too !

  • amelia moses Link

    I read your story and it really helped me. There was one thing though wich was that it was, a kinda boring!

    Amelia Moses!

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