Huddled Masses in the Melting Pot

This blog entry is part of an ongoing series.
You can best understand the material below by reading it in full context,
starting with the first entry of the series, No Room in the Inn.

meltpot programIsrael Zangwill was a popular British writer, born in 1864 into a family of Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia.


Although he lived in the Jewish community in London, he was fascinated by the immigrant Jewish experience in America, and wrote enthusiastically about it. His most well-known work these days is likely his 1908 play titled The Melting Pot, which promoted an enthusiastic, almost utopian view of the prospects for immigrants in America. The hero of his play, David, was, like himself, Jewish by race but not religiously “orthodox” and “observant.” (Both he and the fictional character ended up marrying gentile women and “assimilating” into the larger society.)

Zangwill put the following words into the mouth of David in the play, words that reflected his perception of the “reality” in America of the period around the turn of the last century.

Understand that America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!

Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, your fifty languages, and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won’t be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you’ve come to – these are fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.

… No… the real American has not yet arrived. He is only in the Crucible, I tell you—he will be the fusion of all races, perhaps the coming superman.

… Reunited with Vera [the gentile woman David marries] and watching the setting sun gilding the Statue of Liberty, David Quixano has a prophetic vision: “It is the Fires of God round His Crucible. There she lies, the great Melting-Pot—Listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth, the harbor where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight”. David foresees how the American melting pot will make the nation’s immigrants transcend their old animosities and differences and will fuse them into one people: “Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God”. [Source]

I remember hearing the term “melting pot” to describe America in social studies classes clear back in my grade school days in the 1950s. It was always presented as an “apt metaphor” for how our American history had progressed. It was a key part of the package that I came to accept as the official American Narrative. I was taught it was the result of the wonderful influx of people from all over the world responding to the open arms and warm invitation of Lady Liberty…

statureGive me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Those words, written in 1883 and engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty in 1903, are part of the poem titled “The New Colossus” by American Jewish poetess Emma Lazarus.

lazarusEmma was not a Jewish immigrant. She was a descendant of an extended family of Sephardic Jews who had been in America since colonial times. Her family was well-to-do, so she didn’t have first-hand experience as part of any group of “huddled masses” of homeless people. But like many prosperous American Jews she did have a keen interest in supporting programs to help poor Jewish immigrants.

welcome jews

And, like Zangwill, she was an optimist about the opportunities that were available to Jews from European lands to make a new life for themselves and their families in the USA.

Zangwill didn’t invent the idea of the “melting pot,” his play just “popularized” it in the first decade of the twentieth century.


The first use in American literature of the concept of immigrants “melting” into the receiving culture are found in the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) Crevecoeur writes, in response to his own question, “What then is the American, this new man?” that the American is one who “leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” [ibid]

“…whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes… What, then, is the American, this new man? He is either an European or the descendant of an European; hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared.” − J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer. [Source]

As you can see from Crevecoeur’s clarification, the so-called “New American” is identified by him as being a mixture not of a hodge-podge of “races” of all kinds (in the sense of very widely diverse human groups–Negroid, Caucasian, Asiatic), nor of ethnic groups from all over Europe. Even though he at first uses the term “all nations,” he qualifies that later on with a description that only includes “northern Europeans.”

And Crevecoeur would not be the last to make that distinction.

Clear up until the mid-19th century, the vast majority of immigrants to the US did happen to be from northern Europe. But a “perfect storm” of circumstances began to change the source of immigrants before the Civil War, increasing greatly in the period leading up to the turn of the century. The quickening pace of industrialization, and the rise of investment capitalism leading to huge monopolies in such enterprises as railroads and steel and mining, created a great demand for cheap labor.


At the same time, turmoil and unrest throughout many parts of Europe, such as the pogroms against Jews in Russia and famines such as in Ireland, left large groups of people from many ethnic groups inclined to abandon their homelands and head for the U.S.. Lured by promises of land and jobs, they came in vast waves.

During the 1870s and 80s, most of these immigrants were from Germany, Ireland, and England.

After the depression of the 1890s, immigration jumped from a low of 3.5 million in that decade to a high of 9 million in the first decade of the new century. Immigrants from Northern and Western Europe continued coming as they had for three centuries, but in decreasing numbers. After the 1880s, immigrants increasingly came from Eastern and Southern European countries, as well as Canada and Latin America. By 1910, Eastern and Southern Europeans made up 70 percent of the immigrants entering the country. [Source]

That 70% included many Jews. Between 1880 and the start of WW1, 2 million Eastern European Jews entered the US.

jewish immigrant(Note the poignant banner under the eagle…it is a biblical reference to God, but is here applied by the Jews to America itself–“Shelter us under the shadow of thy wings.” A plea made in 1939, to no avail, by the Jewish refugees on the doomed liner St. Louis, described in an earlier post in this series…)

They immigrated alongside indigenous eastern and southern European immigrants, which was unlike the historically predominant American demographic from northern and western Europe; Records indicate between 1880 and 1920 that these new immigrants rose from less than five percent of all European immigrants to nearly 50%. This feared change caused renewed nativist sentiment, the birth of the Immigration Restriction League, and congressional studies by the Dillingham Commission from 1907 to 1911. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 established immigration restrictions specifically on these groups, and the Immigration Act of 1924 further tightened and codified these limits. With the ensuing Great Depression, and despite worsening conditions for Jews in Europe, with the rise of Nazi Germany, these quotas remained in place with minor alterations until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. [Source]

Who were the “nativists”?

 Nativism is the political position of demanding a favored status for certain established inhabitants of a nation as compared to claims of newcomers or immigrants. Nativism typically means opposition to immigration and support of efforts to lower the political or legal status of specific ethnic or cultural groups because the groups are considered hostile or alien to the natural culture, and assumptions that they cannot be assimilated. [Source]

And the “established inhabitants” of the US, in the minds of many people whose families had been around since Colonial Days, were essentially … WASPs. White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. (The Anglo-Saxon was often a code-word term for “Northern European.”)

In the late 1800s, much of the complaints about these “new immigrants” were based on dislike and disgust for their looks, their customs, their tendency to be (understandably for new immigrants!) poor and live in shabby neighborhoods.

immigrant cartoon

Established ethnic groups also were often irritated that the newer immigrants would be willing to work for lower wages, and thus were unwanted and “unfair” competition in the workplace.

But shortly after the turn of the century, as mentioned in earlier entries in this series, many of those who were opposed to immigration by these “undesireables” discovered a way to distance themselves from the charge of just being “prejudiced.” They embraced the concepts of Eugenics, and were able to shield their prejudices with the veneer of “scientific racism.” The budding Eugenics movement began providing “proof” that these immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were literally genetically inferior to northern Europeans. Their presence posed an imminent threat of their “inferior” blood mixing (via intermarriage) with the “superior” blood of northern European Americans. And the prevailing Eugenic theory insisted that when inferior blood mixed with superior, the infallible result was a permanent degrading of the species.

By the way, you might think that “northern European” or “Anglo-Saxon” would apply to Ireland, since it is immediately adjacent to England. (The English were thought to have the “highest type” of blood.) But not so. The Irish were believed by most Eugenicists to literally be a totally different “race,” vastly inferior to the Anglo-Saxons…not much above the Negro, as seen in this 1876 magazine cover.


They might live in Northern Europe, but they were not true Northern Europeans. Frequently lampooned in cartoons such as the one above, they were usually depicted with ape-like features…even the women.

woman irish

And thus anti-Irish discrimination was rampant in the US for a century and more.

no irishSo in spite of Emma Lazarus insisting that Lady Liberty was happy to welcome “wretched refuse,” and “huddled masses,” to mix into the “melting pot,” a significant proportion of the American population was adamant that it did NOT want any such thing.

refuse(Note that the bow of one ship and the flag of the other, ships obviously bringing immigrants to America and unceremoniously “dumping” them, are each not-so-subtly labeled “European Garbage Ship.” And Miss Liberty, far from lovingly scooping them up with open arms, proclaims, “Mr. Wisdom, if you are going to make this island a garbage dump, I am going back to France.” The popular artist of this cheery piece was Victor Gillam, widely known for his caustic anti-immigration political cartoons.)

In the early 20th century, the meaning of the recently popularized concept of the melting pot was subject to ongoing debate which centered on the issue of immigration. The debate surrounding the concept of the melting pot centered on how immigration impacted American society and on how immigrants should be approached. The melting pot was equated with either the acculturation or the total assimilation of European immigrants, and the debate centered on the differences between these two ways of approaching immigration: “Was the idea to melt down the immigrants and then pour the resulting, formless liquid into the preexisting cultural and social molds modeled on Anglo-Protestants like Henry Ford and Woodrow Wilson, or was the idea instead that everyone, Mayflower descendants and Sicilians, Ashkenazi and Slovaks, would act chemically upon each other so that all would be changed, and a new compound would emerge?”

Nativists wanted to severely restrict access to the melting pot. They felt that far too many “undesirables,” or in their view, culturally inferior immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe had already arrived. The compromises that were reached in a series of immigration laws in the 1920s established the principle that the number of new arrivals should be small, and, apart from family reunification, the inflow of new immigrants should match the ethnic profile of the nation as it existed at that time. National quotas were established that discouraged immigration from Poland, Italy and Russia, and encouraged immigration from Britain, Ireland and Germany. [Source]

And the introduction of all these laws and quotas was greatly affected and accelerated by the efforts of the Eugenics movement. The superstars of that Movement were particularly irked at the mere mention of The Melting Pot theory of American growth.

Social reformers may have held out hope that America’s melting pot might one day become a reality, but eugenicists such as … Lothrop Stoddard spoke for the whole movement when he declared, “Above all, there is no more absurd fallacy than the shibboleth of ‘the melting pot.’ As a matter of fact, the melting pot may mix but does not melt. Each race-type, formed ages ago, and ‘set’ by millenniums of isolation and inbreeding, is a stubbornly persistent entity. Each type possesses a special set of characters: not merely the physical characters visible to the naked eye, but moral, intellectual and spiritual characters as well. All these characters are transmitted substantially unchanged from generation to generation.” [Source]

Stoddard was author of one of the classic Eugenic diatribe books…The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy published in 1920.

rising tide

And, in fact, the melting pot concept continues to irk many Americans to this day. In 1926, Professor Henry Pratt Fairchild (president of the American Eugenics Society, and chairman of the Department of Sociology at New York University) wrote a book titled The Melting Pot Mistake. It is still being reprinted and enthusiastically promoted and made available today on racist websites. (As is Stoddard’s Rising Tide.)

meltpotmistake book

Here’s how one such site introduces Fairchild’s book:

“The great American Melting Pot is destroying all form and symmetry, all beauty and character, all nobility and usefulness. It is a mistake which left unchecked, will destroy America forever.” [Quote from the book.]

This book, written shortly after the passage of the U.S. 1924 Immigration Act, addresses the fallacies of the “melting pot” by plainly stating the observed facts about race, nationality and what constitutes a nation.

The author, a distinguished American sociologist and chairman of the Department of Sociology in the Graduate School, New York University, shows what social implications are involved in this false symbol of the melting pot and what the essential conditions are of a healthy attitude towards the whole problem of making true citizens out of aliens.

“There can be no doubt that the founders of America expected it and intended it to be a white man’s country . . . The calmness with which they closed their eyes to the presence of the Negroes in this white man’s country did not alter their intentions any more than it provided an escape from the difficulties involved. There can also be no doubt that if America is to remain a stable nation it must continue to be a white man’s country for an indefinite period to come. We have enough grounds of disunion and disruption without adding the irremediable one of deep racial antagonisms. An exclusion policy toward all non-white groups is wholly defensible in theory and practice, however questionable may have been the immediate means by which this policy has been put into effect at successive periods in our history.”

This book answers those questions that persistently arise regarding the effect of immigration on the vigor and permanence of a nation, focusing on the racial underpinnings of society. [Source]

Yes, the eugenists of the early 20th century had a great influence on the Laws of the Land during their own generation, and continue to affect certain…increasingly vocal and militant…segments of the US population up into the 21st century. Not all of them wearing KKK robes.

kkk childGeorgia, 1992

 Continue on in this series with

Teddy and the Tree Huggers

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One Response to Huddled Masses in the Melting Pot

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