In the spirit of Professor Silbey’s observation that students are “not patient with a historian’s sense of ‘yes, but’ or ‘no, but’…” here’s a juicy information fix, without easy interpretation. So when you get to the end and realize there was a bunch of neat stuff but no punchline, you can’t say you weren’t warned.

On this day in 1913, the New York Times printed a story beginning, “If all the aliens who live in the County of New York became citizens they would outnumber those persons of native birth by more than 200,000.”

Sometimes, historians minimize the impact of immigration on American public life in the early twentieth century by noting that as a percentage of national population, immigration wasn’t very high (maybe 1 percent a year at a peak) or that it wasn’t as high as, say, immigration to Canada (maybe say 7 percent a year).

You know how pâtissiers will sprinkle powdered sugar from a great height, so that it falls evenly over the surface of, say, a lemon tart (mmmm, lemon tart)? That’s not how immigrants arrive in America, or anywhere else. So it kind of doesn’t matter what proportion they are of the total population, it matters what proportion they are of a local population — especially in a country like the U.S., where political representation filters up from small geographical units.

Sometimes, historians will say, “a-ha! But that makes no distinction between someone sixty-five years old who immigrated in 1863, and thus spent vastly more time in America than in the land of her birth, and who might have been indistinguishable in her daily habits or political opinions from native-born Americans, and someone fresh off the boat.”

But the New York Times went on to make such a distinction. In those days, they figured they could show you a table; these days, they’d use a graph; here at Edge of the American West we’ll provide both. They show total fees collected in the county (and, the article points out, by county officials; even though immigration was a federal business they let local governments administer it) for declaring an intent to become a citizen and for actually becoming a citizen.

1912 1913
July $5,500 $5,409
August 4,413 6,728
September 3,930 6,775
October 3,288 6,513
November 3,978 5,939
December 4,317 6,000
Immigrant registration fees

So, lots more new citizens, and odds-on they were relatively recent immigrants, too: “The average age of these new citizens is 35 years.” Moreover, lots more new citizens of all different kinds: “50 per cent. are from Russia, 25 per cent. from Austria,* and 10 per cent. from Italy. The other 15 per cent. covers those from other nations.”

The big question was and is, what did it mean?

County Clerk Schneider…. said if the politicians were as clever as they thought they were they would study these new voters….
“Some of us know how great this steady stream of political influence of these new voters is,” said Mr. Schneider, “but even those who make a close study of the subject often find themselves at their wit’s end to discover some way of influencing it so that it will run in the direction of greater profit and power for them.”

(Does the uptick before the 1912 election mean anything?)

In other words, nobody really knew how the immigrant vote would break, or why. And nobody knows now, either: there’s plenty of inference, both from numbers and anecdotes, but it’s awfully hard to tease the story apart. Districts with lots of immigrants were more likely to vote Republican than not: but did that mean immigrants were voting Republican? (Possibly not.) Districts with a sharp increase in the number of recent immigrants were probably going to support restriction of immigration, unless of course (like New York) they already had a high number of immigrants present. Maybe.

Congressional Democrats (who won majorities in the 1912 election) favored immigration restriction; the Presidential Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, vetoed it — but, he noted privately, he did so pretty much out of what Arthur S. Link called “political expediency” — i.e., consideration for local politics: “Nothing is more distasteful to me than to set my judgment against so many of my friends and associates in public life, but frankly stated the situation is this: I myself personally made the most explicit statements at the time of the presidential election about this subject to groups of our fellow-citizens of foreign extraction…. In view of what I said to them, I do not see how it will be possible for me to give my assent to the bill.”

Of course, restriction passed over Wilson’s veto — which may have cost the Democrats immigrant votes in 1920. Then Republicans got fairly anti-immigrant, with the restriction act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, not to mention the Hoover-Smith campaign of 1928, sending immigrants back into the Democrats’ camp. It’s a complex story.


*Note that immigrants recorded as “from Russia” or “from Austria” were not necessarily, and maybe not even likely, ethnic Russians or Austrians, but perhaps Jews or members of an ethnic minority.
Cited in Arthur S. Link, Wilson: The New Freedom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956), 276.

And finally, note the idea that the 1920s were a “critical period” for the immigrant vote: Jerome M. Clubb and Howard W. Allen, “The Cities and the Election of 1928: Partisan Realignment?” The American Historical Review 74, no. 4. (April 1969): 1205-1220.