Michael Barone: America a Multicultural Country from Our Colonial Beginnings [INTERVIEW]

tags: immigration



David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network. Follow him on Twitter @davidastinwalsh.


German immigrants in 1874. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Michael Barone is a man who needs no introduction to residents of Washington, D.C. -- he's been a prominent conservative D.C. political writer for decades. Currently senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, Barone has also written numerous works of American history, including Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan and Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval that Inspired America's Founding Fathers. His most recent book is Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics, a history of immigration to and migration within the United States.

I spoke with Mr. Barone over the phone recently about his latest work.

You've had a long and prolific career in journalism – the Washington Post, Readers' Digest, US News and World Report, and now the Examiner. But you've written several works of history. Has alternating between history and contemporary politics proved challenging as an author?

Well, looking back over my history of writing, whether in journalism – which goes back to being on the Harvard Crimson many years ago – and in my books, I'm striving for ways to understand the United States of America in different ways, from the Almanac of American Politics, looking at the country from congressional district to congressional district, to my book Our First Revolution, which is on the events of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, most of which occurred in England, Scotland, and Ireland, but they had an important effect on the British North American colonies and certainly were of great importance to America's Founding Fathers.

Shaping Our Nation originated in my observation of data over the years that the country was peopled in very large part by surges in migration, unexpected movements of large numbers of similarly-minded people, from one place to another – immigration and internal migration. And that those moves, the kinds of Americas they built and shaped, the conflicts that they aroused, help explain a lot about American history and that it might be useful to write a book that takes a look at these major surges of migration, which were hugely important in shaping the country.

I started off with the Scots Irish, who started arriving in America after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, but in large numbers after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After just a baker's dozen of years before the Revolution -- 1763 to 1775 -- they arrived, and as a proportion of the preexisting population it was one of the three largest overseas migrations. In some sense it was both an immigrant migration and an internal migration, because they came across the ocean but they were also moving from one fringe of the British Empire to another.

The two other massive migrations were the Irish and German immigration(s) from 1846 to the Civil War, and the Ellis Island migration, of peoples primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, which crescendoed in the years from 1902 to 1914.

While prepping for this interview, I looked at a map which broke down, on a county-by-county basis, the largest ethnic group in a particular region, and it's a fascinating map when you look at it. You have huge swaths of the country, basically from Philadelphia all the way to Oregon, comprised primarily of German-Americans. Then you have outcroppings of English-Americans in Utah and northern New England, the Irish in Massachusetts, a huge swath, interestingly enough, of people in Kentucky and Tennessee – basically in Appalachia – who identify as “Americans,” even though you primarily see the Scotch-Irish in these regions.


Credit: Wiki Commons.

Let me comment on a couple of those observations. Number one, the Scots Irish didn't call themselves Scots Irish at the time, and haven't often called themselves Scots Irish ever since. It's a label of convenience, if you will. Their emblematic figure, Andrew Jackson, born two years after his parents left Belfast Lough, always referred to himself as American. The idea that he was Scots-Irish or British-descended... let's just say you wouldn't want to bring it up to his face because he'd get awfully angry at you.

You note that there's that large swath of Germans -- people identifying as German. I think one reason for that is if you trace the genetic ancestry of people in the United States the largest category would be from the island of Great Britain -- English, Scots, Welsh, throw in a few Manx from the Isle of Man.. But people don't tend to identify their ethnicity or ancestry as British or English That's why German comes out the top on the census. You have that sort of Germano-Scandinavian America in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas, and those were areas that were settled just before and in the decades after the Civil War, and they were settled in large part by immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia. They have a very distinct politics over the years -- they tend to be more pacifist or isolationist or dovish in foreign policy issues, pretty consistently switching parties in response to their different stands on those issues.

One of the things I noticed about internal migration is that there are tendencies to go straight west. The New England Yankee diaspora goes straight west to upstate New York, then it ducks south of Lake Erie to colonize Ohio -- Connecticut's western reserve -- and goes to southern Michigan and the northern inches of Indiana, they found Chicago on Lake Michigan, and then head west toward Iowa and Kansas.

In those same years, the Southern plantation grantees are taking their slaves from the Atlantic seaboard -- Virginia and the Carolinas -- and taking them west to the Mississippi Valley. There's one major exception to this, and it's the northward migration of one-third of American blacks from the rural South to the urban North in a single generation between 1940 and 1965. Virginians went to Washington, D.C., North and South Carolinians headed to New York and Philadelphia, Alabamians to Detroit, Mississippians to Chicago. It's an interesting pattern -- they're following the U.S. highways, rail routes, and bus lines to their cities of choice. Louisianans and Texans tend to go to California -- former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and former San Francisco state assembly speaker Willie Brown were both born in Texas in the 1930s.

As the U.S. expanded westward and as these groups moved west, they were of course encountering people already in the American West: Native Americans, populations of the French and Spanish colonies, refugees and settlers from the Caribbean, Mexicans north of the Rio Grande. How did all these groups interact with each other?

Well, I think what characterized... two things characterized the interactions between the Native Americans and the European-descended settlers. Number one, disease kill-off. This was of continual importance. Some historians have emphasized a few episodes where the British, as it happens, General Amherst, distributed blankets that had been infected by people who had smallpox to the Indians in an attempt to spread the epidemic among them, but basically the germs spread themselves, and you have terrible disease kill-off. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were coming to a land where disease kill-off had already eliminated a large percentage of the Native American population. They had been previously exposed by fisherman landing for food and supplies. In fact, the language they spoke when they greeted the Pilgrims was English. And that's replicated across the west.

The other thing is that the census didn't count Indians on tribal areas for many years. The Native American populations were also much less dense than those of the white settlers. Yes, they did practice agriculture in many cases, famously in the case of the Cherokee in Georgia and North Carolina, but most tribes tended to have a more hunting-oriented society. Many of these groups did not have a tradition of personal property as the white man did. And the settlers had land hunger. This was a country in which land was plentiful and the opportunity to get rich seemed to be at hand. George Washington was a land speculator. So was Andrew Jackson. And they wanted to settle it with private property rights taken from England.So these settlers tended to prevail. Most famously Andrew Jackson expelled the Creek Indians from Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi in 1814,, and then of course his Indian removal policy as president of the United States, moves a lot of the Indians out of the Southeast, where they seem to have been most densely populated.

What about Chinese immigration to California during the Gold Rush?

Well, the Chinese immigration of the nineteenth century is not one of my major surges of immigration because as a percentage of the total U.S. population, it wasn't very large. It amounted to nine or ten percent of the population of California.

Basically, there was a lot of hostility to the Chinese, perhaps on racist grounds. Congress responded in 1882 with a law that was unsubtly titled the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and it meant what it said.

Most of the Chinese who came over here were men. They had few if any children. White women wouldn't marry or consort with them. The population died out in California. One of the things that fascinates me about today is the apparent total lack of prejudice or animus against people with Asian backgrounds whatsoever. If you back to the 1940s, not only were we very hostile against the Japanese, who were after all an enemy power in a world war, but generally speaking there was a great prejudice against Asians. And that's basically just disappeared. It's just not there. We decry some of the developments in recent times, but this was one of the benign ones.

When you consider the massive influx of European immigrants specifically at the turn of the twentieth century, a significant proportion of Italian immigrants actually returned to Europe...

Well, you have different patterns among different ethnic groups. Total immigration had declined from the level of the 1880s, and then you had a period where immigration switches from Northwestern Europe -- the British Isles, Germany, Scandinavia -- to Southern and Eastern Europe. These new immigrants are mostly second-class ethnics in multi-ethnic empires: Poles, Jews, Serbs, and Slovaks from the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and southern Italians from an Italy dominated by northerners. And they show different patterns. The Jews from the Russian Empire returned in very, very low numbers, because they didn't want to go back to the shtetls in tsarist Russia. The exception were a few people who became communists and went back to build the great Soviet Union ( most of them were liquidated by Stalin). If you look at Italians on the other hand, a large percentage of their immigrants were single young men coming over to earn some money. Perhaps they'd get married and start a family, but many of them intended to return , and many of those who intended to return did. You have periods in the late twentieth century where the main support of some southern Italian villages were the Social Security checks coming in every month from guys who'd worked in diners in New Jersey.

So you get different patterns. We've seen among Latinos a certain amount of sojourner immigration of that sort as well, in the recent decades.

Now when it comes to Americanization, the process of becoming Americans, the melting pot, are there broad trends in the data you can extrapolate across different ethnic groups?

On the whole, we did a better job of Americanization -- of assimilation -- with the Ellis Island generation a hundred years ago than we have done with Latinos now, though I think we're doing pretty well with Asians. One reason is that our elites are less enamored with Americanization -- to some of them it sounds like Nazification, although I think you ought to be able to make many distinctions between twenty-first century America and Nazi Germany.

Some people have said that we're a multicultural country for the first time -- I think that's absolutely wrong. I think we have been in some sense a multicultural country from the colonial beginnings. The colonies were settled, as David Hackett Fisher has told us in Albion's Seed, from different parts of the British Isles. The first European settlers had different political/religious foundations -- Puritan Massachusetts versus Anglican Virginia versus Quaker Pennsylvania versus Dutch Reform New York. The Constitution said that there would be no religious test for federal offices, the Bill of Rights says that Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, which meant among other things they left established state churches alone – the one in Massachusetts lingered on until 1833 – and so we've always been dealing with this situation where we have people with different cultural traditions, behaviors, and attitudes.

I think the Founding Fathers gave us a good template with which to handle this. We have done very well at some times and less well at others. Sometimes you get an event which produces huge assimilation, even if the event is unwelcome, and what I mean there is World War II.

When you put 16 million men (and some women) at one time or another in military uniform at a time when there's a total population of 131 million, you're imposing a lot of cultural uniformity, you're mixing together a lot of different people in a lot of different ways, that had a profound culturally assimilating effect, and you get that sort of homogenous culture in the postwar decades, that many people, the so-called multiculturalists, have taken as the norm throughout American history. I maintain it is more the exception than the rule, and that it was promoted in many ways by the wartime experience and the success we had in winning war and the unexpected postwar prosperity.

There was a book written in the 1970s by Eugen Weber called Peasants into Frenchman...

Oh, that's a great book. He points out in 1914 that a large percentage of the French soldiers didn't speak standard French! Some of them spoke nothing but Breton, which is a Celtic language. We had that experience to some extent in World War I and much more pervasively in World War II. All those wartime movies in which one guy in the unit is from Brooklyn, that's actually demographically correct. In the 1940 census, fully two percent of the population of the entire U.S. lived in Brooklyn.

And is it your belief then that we lack these same kinds of acculturating institutions in modern America?

Well, the equivalent of the size of the military proportionate to population today is about 38 million. Think about that for a minute. What would be the homogenizing effect if we had 38 million men and women in uniform? It would have a profound cultural effect. Of course, the war also had the profound effect of 400,000 to 500,000 Americans dying... but the war opened up new avenues for surges of migration that people had not considered in large numbers before. The surge of northward black migration in 1940 occurs in large part because the defense plants were looking for workers, and they looked for blacks in the South. The war brought many millions of Americans to California for military and defense work, and so forth, and they found a really sort of nice part of America, where unlike America east of the Rockies, where 90 percent of Americans lived in 1940, you didn't have bad weather for large parts of the year. They decided to stay and raise families and start businesses. And that lasted for a little more than a generation into the late '70s and early '80s. Since 1990 of course we've had a domestic outflow out of California, which is part of a volitional migration where people leave high-tax, high-housing-cost states and move to low-tax, low-housing-cost states.

You're describing the migration to the Sunbelt?

Well, it's not just the Sunbelt. I think it's more, in the last two decades, toward low taxes. You know, coastal California has a real nice climate. I think that California lost some of its advantages in climate by the pervasive spread of air conditioning in the South and the rest of the nation. I grew up in Detroit and it gets real hot in the summer there. Also the production of better winter clothing, and my favorite invention in avoiding winter problems, the electric garage door opener.

I just wanted to ask a final question about Latino immigration to the United States. You wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal several months ago that you believe Hispanic migrants will assimilate similar to the Italian model.

People migrate in part in response to economic incentives, and the economists among us seem to assume that's the only certain motive they have. My view is that surges of migration may be responsive to economic incentives, but they're also attempts to pursue dreams and escape nightmares. When you have very large groups of people, they're moving for some other reason.

The Ellis Islanders felt like second-class citizens in their multi-ethnic empires, they wanted to be some place where they'd be civically equal. The Irish came over after the Potato Famine to escape that nightmare -- a million people died in Ireland during the famine. Latino immigration, looking back at it, was very large from 1982 to 2007 -- that's twenty-five years, one generation. Obviously there were economic incentives to migrate, but I think there were also dreams involved. One of those was, encouraged by government policy, to be able to buy a house, often with no money down, no credit, etc.. And that dream was shattered in 2007. When you look at the map of which ethnic groups suffered the most on foreclosures , one-third of them (my estimate) were Hispanic, very surely the majority of them of Mexican origin. The dream was shattered.

Mexico has had faster economic growth recently, and the Pew Hispanic Center tells us that there's been no net migration from Mexico since 2007. I expect that there will be some more in the future but I do not expect we will see a future wave from Mexico of the magnitude that we saw in that one generation.


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