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Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America

Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America

by Peter Schrag

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In a book of deep and telling ironies, Peter Schrag provides essential background for understanding the fractious debate over immigration. Covering the earliest days of the Republic to current events, Schrag sets the modern immigration controversy within the context of three centuries of debate over the same questions about who exactly is fit for citizenship. He


In a book of deep and telling ironies, Peter Schrag provides essential background for understanding the fractious debate over immigration. Covering the earliest days of the Republic to current events, Schrag sets the modern immigration controversy within the context of three centuries of debate over the same questions about who exactly is fit for citizenship. He finds that nativism has long colored our national history, and that the fear—and loathing—of newcomers has provided one of the faultlines of American cultural and political life. Schrag describes the eerie similarities between the race-based arguments for restricting Irish, German, Slav, Italian, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants in the past and the arguments for restricting Latinos and others today. He links the terrible history of eugenic "science" to ideas, individuals, and groups now at the forefront of the fight against rational immigration policies. Not Fit for Our Society makes a powerful case for understanding the complex, often paradoxical history of immigration restriction as we work through the issues that inform, and often distort, the debate over who can become a citizen, who decides, and on what basis.

Editorial Reviews


“With an easy, direct writing style, the author has created a noteworthy intellectual rumination on the nature of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US.”
Publishers Weekly
Schrag (Paradise Lost) offers a scholarly history of the political movements that have sought to restrict immigration to the U.S. since its founding—from the 19th-century Know-Nothing Party through the years of American eugenics “research” that vastly influenced the Nazis in the years leading up to WWII. He points out how the same anti-immigration and anti-immigrant arguments have been recycled across generations: most notably the idea that certain groups—be they the Irish, Jews, Chinese, or Mexicans—were “inassimilable.” Though he doesn't provide any especially new insights, Schrag has assembled a fine history of nativist movements and the reasons why their rhetoric has been so seductive at particular points in history. The book would have been well-served had Schrag devoted more time to untangling the provocative idea he concludes with: that rather than “becoming white” and thus acceptable—the path trod by previous generations of European and Jewish immigrants—today's Latino and Asian immigrants may be shifting the paradigm and derailing the very mechanism that keeps the U.S. on a locked pattern of exclusion and race-based fearmongering against new immigrants. (May)
Journal Of American History

“This is a very pleasant book about a very unpleasant subject.”
Journal Of Democracy - Ray Suarez

“Lays out a gripping history . . . . Sets the scene for the new immigration battles about to be staged on Capitol Hill and across the country.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“An exquisite rendition of America's long history of immigration and anti-immigrant backlashes.”
Boston Globe

“Astutely teases out perennial contradictions.”
The Historian - Dorothee Schneider

“This is a remarkably compact survey . . . Not Fit for Our Society is an important addition, even on a crowded bookshelf.”
Contemporary Sociology

“Tells the story of xenophobia in a fresh way and reminds us of how multifaceted it has been.”

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University of California Press
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Not Fit for Our Society

Nativism and Immigration

By Peter Schrag


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94577-7


A City upon a Hill

From the beginning, Americans' perceptions about who they were and their hopes for whom they wanted to be necessarily embodied a deep strain of ambivalence. If this New World "shall be as a Citty upon a Hill," a beacon to the world, as the Puritan John Winthrop devoutly hoped it would become, where the "eies of all people are upon us," how do we judge others of varying degrees of difference who want to come among us? How do we decide who does and does not fit the decreed model, religiously or ethnically or racially, and with what justification? If the Puritans had come for the freedom to practice their religion, could others of different faiths—or those who, like Roger Williams, the religious separatist who professed "soul liberty" not subject to the established authorities—come to practice theirs in the Puritan community as well?

Winthrop's sermon, delivered on the Arabella during, or perhaps before, the long Atlantic crossing in 1630, professed that "when God gives a special commission He looks to have it strictly observed in every article," a hefty self-imposed burden. But it was also Winthrop, as governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, who decided seven years later that Anne Hutchinson was "not fit for our society," not because she was a theologically liberal heretic—far from it—but because, like Williams, she was an anticlerical dissenter who, in Winthrop's judgment at her trial, had "spoken divers things, as we have been informed, very prejudicial to the honour of the churches and ministers thereof."

Hutchinson's crime, if that's what it was, came closer to civic sedition than to religious heresy. Hutchinson, a midwife, had been running weekly meetings of women who, in trusting their own theological reasoning, chafed against the doctrines and laws of what had become an established state church in a society where only church members could vote, where church attendance was compulsory, and where inner religious belief had to bend to the Bible and the ministers officially ordained to interpret it. "As I understand it," she is said to have replied to one of the charges leveled against her, "laws, commands, rules, and edicts are for those who have not the light which makes plain the pathway." So what was her offense? She had the light, it just wasn't theirs. But that statement made it easy for her judges to conclude that she was a "thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God, nor fitting for your sex."

The ambivalence about who belonged was almost inevitable. Americans were creating something out of a wilderness, a vast territory of great natural riches and beauty hidden from European civilization from the beginning of time, and now providentially revealed. Some thought that what the country was or would be was a given, but in fact Americans were making it up as they went along. "The land was ours," as Frost wrote, "before we were the land's." To the west was all that open territory, ready (if you ignored the Indians) for the taking, a gift from God. It wasn't surprising, then, that a lot of Americans believed they were divinely blessed above all others. As early as 1837, in a Phi Beta Kappa address at Yale, the influential Yankee clergyman Horace Bushnell observed that America's God-ordained destiny was no "less sublime than to be opened, at a certain stage of history, to become the theater wherein better principles might have their action and free development. Out of all the inhabitants of the world, too, a select stock, the Saxon, and out of this the British family, the noblest of the stock, was chosen to people our country; that our eagle, like that of the prophet, might have the cedars of Lebanon, and the topmost branches of the cedars, to plant by his great waters."

It soon became clear to people like Bushnell that Providence alone wouldn't take care of that. The chosen people of the New World would have to do a little choosing of their own. While "the free mingling and crossing of races would doubtless be a great benefit to the stock," Bushnell continued, "the constant importation, as now, to this country, of the lowest orders of people from abroad, to dilute the quality of our natural manhood, is a sad and beggarly prostitution of the noblest gift ever conferred on a people. Who shall respect a people, who do not respect their own blood? And how shall a national spirit, or any determinate and proportionate character, arise out of so many low-bred associations and coarse-grained temperaments, imported from every clime?"

Maybe, in fact, the American settlers had been led to a new Garden of Eden, even the original Garden, as the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. regarded Jackson County, Missouri, the place where, in the 1830s, Mormons "planned to build a kingdom of God that would eventually redeem the United States and, finally, the world." But if this was a providentially bestowed Garden, a place of perfection, soon to be narrowed to Anglo-Saxon perfection, as Bushnell already had it, and as generations of subsequent American thought would have it, then it would inevitably also be beset by snakes, demons, and, of course, witches. Principal among the despoilers, depending on the time and place, was an ever-changing list of outsiders. Benjamin Franklin's worries (in 1751) about the effect that "Palatine boors" might have in "Germanizing" Pennsylvania echoed controversies dating back to the first decades of the eighteenth century, when Mennonites, having fled Swiss persecution, first to Alsace, then to London, began, along with a growing number of Germans, to emigrate to the New World. Pennsylvania governor William Keith (in 1723) had at first welcomed German workers from New York who chafed over that colony's defective land titles and what they regarded as abusive treatment. But the resulting spike in immigration to Keith's colony quickly generated fear—what one writer called "a panic"—that "Pennsylvania might cease to be a British province. ... [The] great number of foreigners from Germany, strangers to our language and constitution [Governor Keith told his council], daily dispersed themselves immediately after landing, without procuring certificates from whence they came or what they are [a practice that] might be of very dangerous consequence, since by the same method, any number of foreigners, from any nation whatever, enemies as well as friends, might throw themselves upon us."

The colonial assembly passed a bill prohibiting all foreign immigration, but Keith vetoed it as excessively harsh. In the meantime, "to counteract the German element, every inducement on the part of England was employed to encourage the transportation of English servants to the colonies," which, among other things, meant shipping convicts as indentured servants: seven years' service for ordinary crimes, fourteen years for those sentenced to death. That in turn led to new measures in the colony prohibiting the importation of "Old persons, Infants, Maimed, Lunatics or Vagabonds or Vagrant persons." But by midcentury close to half the colony was of German extraction, and so much German was spoken and read, so much business conducted in German, and so many books published in German—in 1732, Franklin himself printed Philadelphia's first German-language newspaper (which soon failed)—that despite all the attempted restrictions, German probably came as close to being an accepted language as Spanish is in contemporary California or Texas. In 1831, barely a century after Keith vetoed the anti-German immigration bill, the Commonwealth authorized bilingual education in German and English in Pennsylvania's public schools. "I suppose in a few years [Franklin had wryly observed in 1753] it will also be necessary in the Assembly to tell one-half of our legislators what the other half says. In short, unless the stream of importation can be turned from this to the other colonies ... they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will, in my opinion, be not able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious."

The ambivalence about foreign immigrants—often the vacillation from welcome to calls for exclusion in the same generation or even the same decade—bordered on the commonplace. America needed to attract people to work—if not the Palatine German then the East London cutpurse and prostitute. Jefferson's words in the Declaration of Independence indicted King George for trying to "prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands." But six years later, in 1782, Jefferson warned of the dangers of immigrants who knew nothing of democracy. This country, he wrote, "is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason. To these nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies [whose emigrants] will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty." Democracy itself might not be capable of assimilating these alien elements.

What made such doubts most notable was their articulation, even in this case by the author of the Declaration of Independence, on behalf of a nation among whose founding ideals was the belief that all men were born equal and presumably had equal potential. It was the radicalism of the American Revolution and the great ideals in whose name it was fought that resounded around the world, made us that city upon a hill, and gave the New World its special meaning. In revolution we became Americans by choice, no longer Englishmen. From that moment on, becoming an American was far removed from the classic determinants of nationality and citizenship—nativity, ethnicity, religion. It was and would continue to be an affirmative act, something previously unknown in the world and in many places still unknown.

* * *

In loud echoes of the doctrinal battles of the Old World, the most suspect of the immigrant elements were Catholics. The first Americans, in New England as in New York and Virginia, were children of the Reformation and the brutal battles that accompanied it. What nearly all shared, despite their differences, was "the fear and hatred of Rome." In his draft of the first postindependence New York State Constitution (1777), John Jay, one of three authors of The Federalist and later the first chief justice of the United States, included the requirement that, in order to be naturalized, immigrants "shall take an oath of allegiance to this State, and abjure and renounce all allegiance and subjection to all and every foreign king, prince, potentate, and State in all matters, ecclesiastical as well as civil."

Jay, the grandson of French Huguenots persecuted by Catholics, was a firm believer that Catholics couldn't maintain their allegiance to the Church, and hence the pope, and still be loyal American citizens. As a member of the New York provincial congress, Jay wanted to "build a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics" and proposed harsh restrictions in the New York charter but was deterred by his fellow delegate, Gouverneur Morris, among others. The singular American exception was Maryland under Lord Baltimore and the Calvert family, which was founded as a haven for English Catholics. But Maryland quickly became embroiled in religious strife and Puritan persecution of Catholics and Anglicans, which didn't end until the restoration of the fifth Lord Baltimore as colonial governor in 1658. He swore that he was a Protestant.

America's providential destiny, of course, also encompassed the question of slavery and race, which would haunt the nation from its beginnings. Indians, "not taxed" (and fit for removal or worse), and black slaves were not citizens at all. Blacks were officially recognized in one of the Constitution's great compromises—and in the first example in a long history of census tampering and race confusion—as three-fifths of a person. In 1790, Congress passed one of the world's most liberal naturalization laws, requiring only two years of residence in the country —extended to five in 1795—and one year's residence in a particular state, provided that the applicant was a white person of "good moral character." The law allowed any court, state or federal, to grant citizenship, a policy that "led to a motley array of more than five thousand high and low courts exercising such jurisdiction by the turn of the twentieth century." The law's liberality probably wasn't surprising since eight members of the Constitutional Convention were born abroad, as were eight signers of the Declaration of Independence—and who knows how many thousands of other Americans of their time?

Nonetheless, it took only three years for the nation to have second thoughts, not for ethnic or religious reasons but because President John Adams and his Federalist allies in Congress were determined to check the growth of the immigrant vote, most of which went to the Jeffersonian Republicans. Their instrument was the Naturalization Act of 1798, part of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which lengthened the period required for citizenship to fourteen years and authorized the president to deport foreigners considered dangerous. In 1802, after winning the presidency in 1800, the Jeffersonians revised the Naturalization Act to restore the five-year requirement. Again, as in 1790 and 1795, naturalization was limited to "free white persons" of "good moral character," limits that wouldn't change, for blacks, until the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War and, for Asians, until the middle of the twentieth century.

As a practical matter, the question of naturalization wasn't all that important in the antebellum years because citizenship was still primarily a state matter in which the federal government concerned itself very little, if at all. The issue was left, with virtually no guidance, to those hundreds of state and local judges. Nor did the question of citizenship include immigration. Until well after the Civil War, in the words of the official historian of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, "the United States achieved a policy of free and open immigration largely by failing to legislate on the subject."

But the questions, confusion, and controversy about race that began even before the 1787 convention—at first just about the black-white/ north-south dichotomy, then about a growing multiplicity of ethnicities —have long since crept into countless national policy areas, including, for the past 150 years, questions about immigration. Who qualified as white—not just in the one-drop-of-blood sense—but in determining whether Arabians or Armenians or Syrians or Punjabis or Filipinos or Hawaiians were white and thus eligible for naturalization? Was the Mexican white or, as part (or maybe largely) Indian, something else? (Under the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, Mexicans in the territory taken from Mexico after the war in 1848 could choose to become Americans, so essentially they became white.) Was a person who was half white and one-fourth Chinese and one-fourth Japanese white? From the last decade of the nineteenth century to the 1940s, federal courts confronted more than fifty such questions. In the early years of the twentieth century, Congress drew a map with a line around northern Europe to help determine which people from which "nations" should be eligible for naturalization and immigration and which should not. In the case of Mexicans, Latino advocates who "fought to be included on one side or the other of the American racial divide" have alternately played it both ways, first pushing for whiteness to avoid the stigma of being seen as black, then for nonwhiteness when affirmative action seemed to open the way for significant economic or political advantages.


Excerpted from Not Fit for Our Society by Peter Schrag. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"A fine history of nativist movements and the reasons why their rhetoric has been so seductive at particular points in history."—Publishers Weekly: Nonfiction (2)

"An exquisite rendition of America's long history of immigration and anti-immigrant backlashes."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Astutely teases out perennial contradictions."—Boston Globe

"This is a remarkably compact survey . . . Not Fit for Our Society is an important addition, even on a crowded bookshelf."—The Historian

"With an easy, direct writing style, the author has created a noteworthy intellectual rumination on the nature of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US."—Choice

Meet the Author

Peter Schrag, for many years the editorial page editor and later a weekly columnist for the Sacramento Bee, currently contributes to The Nation, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times, and other publications. He is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of several books, including Paradise Lost and California: America's High-Stakes Experiment (both from UC Press) and Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America's Schools. Peter Schrag is the 2010 winner of the Carey McWilliams Award from the California Studies Association.

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