Mid 19th Century Irish and German Immigration to America: Compared and Contrasted, Essay Example

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Essay

Nineteenth century German and Irish immigrants to America shared something in common, something they share even today with nearly all immigrants everywhere, regardless of destination: they do not actually want leave home. With relatively few exceptions (such as incoming foreign students or high-level hires) immigration is the last practical option on anyone’s list. They do it because they have to, in order to live well at all. This was particularly true in the 19th Century, where the Germans and the Irish were joined by Russian and Eastern European Jews and Chinese. Had most of these people been able to marginally improve their lives and their futures by staying put, they would have, without hesitation. Instead, they fled.

The Irish and the Germans found what most immigrants want to find: work and plenty of it. But now the shared motivations and resultant experiences of these two distinct groups begins to diverge. That is because there are really four divisions at work. Although some Americans, depending on where they lived, thought of the Irish as simply the Irish (or perhaps the damned Irish) others knew that there also were the Scotch Irish, a distinctly different group. The plain Irish were Celtic Irish, Catholics who tended (see below) to live in the northeastern urban areas, and having no trades or skills from the old country usable in America, at first lived very poorly in high concentrations characterized by dirt and squalor. They drank whiskey heavily, and fought constantly, both individually and in lethal urban riots. They died young of malnutrition, cholera, violence, accidents, and, finally, alcoholism. Most were either laborers or servants. The Scotch Irish, by contrast, first arrived in America in the 18th century, and were non-Catholic with Irish, English, French, and German blood, but hailing from the Irish province of Ulster where they had gone or been sent as Calvinist dissenters. They settled in the Shenandoah Valley (where Benjamin Franklin, referring to them as “white savages” had arranged for them to go after landing in Philadelphia). There they took up independent farming, and during the Civil War opposed slavery, and maintained as bitter an enmity with the Celtic Irish as the Celtic Irish maintained with England. Both sides’ annual holidays and celebrations were cause for battle.

Germans immigrants were divided as well, by political nationality and race (German and German Jew). Germany did not unify into a single nation until 1871, so until that date Germans were not just Germans. They were German speaking immigrants from the German Confederation (from 1815 until its dissolution in 1866). The Confederation was itself a host of smaller very distinct political and cultural/geographic regions that were later forged into Germany by Otto von Bismarck, examples being Prussia, Bavaria, and various free cities, such as Bremen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Lübeck. The social/political causes and consequences of the Revolutions of 1848 were a great force for German (and general European) immigration.

Germany’s Jews were another subset of the immigrant tide, most of them being Ashkenazi, a term that separates them from the Southern European Sephardic Jews, who, although the first Jews in America dating to its earliest years and the most prosperous, did not begin arriving in great numbers until the 1880s. Of course, the Ashkenazi were also divided along the same old country political lines that had divided non-Jewish Germans.

We can now summarize the one quality that the German immigrants, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, had in common: they were not starving to death. That was the fate of the Irish, starting in 1845 with the Great Famine.1 The Irish collectively hated England politically (for its rule over Ireland) and practically (for its indifference to the famine), but it was the starvation itself that drove them to America in waves. This leads to another difference between the Irish and the Germans: in general, the Germans in America did not hold a lasting bitterness towards their former rulers. Although there were certainly individual exceptions, the Germans had nothing like the collective, defining cultural enmity that the Celtic Irish held towards the British. Indeed Germans were later suspected of actually harboring a secret loyalty to the German Kaiser.

Because German and Irish came from different geographic areas in Europe, they landed (by and large) in different geographical regions in the U.S.  The reason was that the immigrants tended to sail in cargo vessels that had landed and discharged their cargo. Those ships would then return to their home port to load and make the same trip back. As it happened, the Irish arrived destitute in vessels that had carried lumber from the northeastern U.S. That is why they ended up populating Boston and New York. Many Germans, by contrast, crossed the Atlantic in ships carrying cotton and northern cargo originally shipped down the Mississippi on steam boats to New Orleans. Debarking at that city, most could also afford to ride those empty steam boats to places like St. Louis and Milwaukee, where they soon put their beer-making skills to good use, and once further into the Midwest, took up the farming skills they had known in the old country.2 But Boston and New York offered far fewer opportunities to the Irish, where they had to make do first with manual labor, then with the Catholic church and  politics, excelling at both.

The Ashkenazi Jews were by and large from the rural parts of Germany, and many carried on their traditions and trades, albeit in necessarily modified form in America, where they initially spread out, avoiding the dense cities favored by the Irish. Many became peddlers, where they were welcomed by isolated settlers seeking goods and news. By the middle of the 19th century, the cultures of German Jews and non-Jews alike were well-established, represented by businesses soon to be famous by their names, such as Guggenheim, Gimbels, Levis, Macy’s, Budweiser, Coors, Blatz, Anheuser, Miller, Schlitz, Weinhard, and Pabst, to name a few.

By 1900, the Germans and Irish collectively had survived and prospered in America, in the process exemplifying the country’s capacity to turn millions of rank foreigners into citizens.

Notes

  1. Assumption College: http://www1.assumption.edu/ahc/irish/overview.html
  2. UShistory.org. Pre-Columbian to the New Millennium. The Rise of American Industry. http://www.ushistory.org/us/25f.asp (2012).
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