An Act Concerning Religion (The Maryland Toleration Act)
Issued in 1649; reprinted on AMDOCS: Documents for the Study of American History (Web site)
A seventeenth-century Maryland law sets the stage for future religious freedoms
"Inforceing of the conscience in matters of Religion hath frequently fallen out to be of dangerous Consequence in those common wealthes where it hath been practiced."
In 1649, in the English colony of Maryland, a law was issued by Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baron of Baltimore (1605–1675; known as Lord Baltimore), the governor of the colony, banning criticism of various forms of Christianity and allowing people to practice their Christian religion freely. It was the first law establishing freedom of religion (or at least, Christianity) in North America. The law, the Maryland Toleration Act, helped set the stage for the freedom of religion that would mark the independent United States 140 years later. The act was issued at a time when England was in the midst of a civil war in which religion was a central issue. The act made Maryland a refuge for English Catholics who were often persecuted for their beliefs during the English civil war (1638–60).
The 1600s were a time of religious and political turmoil in England and throughout...
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Crèvecoeur, Hector St. John de
Excerpt from Letters from an American Farmer
Written in 1782
A French immigrant writes about the advantages of being an American
"The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. — This is an American."
In 1782, a French immigrant to North America, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813), published a series of essays titled Letters from an American Farmer. It was one of the first presentations of the idea that settlers in the newly independent United States would constitute a new nationality based on a shared dream of freedom and equality. The American, he declared, would be distinct from the various European nationalities from which Americans had originated. De Crèvecoeur had no way of knowing when he wrote his essay in 1782 just how complex the question of American nationality would become. But his idea, written midway between the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the adoption of the Constitution of the United States (1788)—milestone documents that established the United States as a nation—laid out an ideal that became popular in the...
(The entire section is 3755 words.)
Treaty of Fort Stanwix
Enacted in 1784
Reprinted on Oneida Indian Nation (Web site)
The United States agrees to give Native Americans control of the western territory
"The Oneida and Tuscarora nations shall be secured in the possession of the lands on which they are settled."
The flow of European emigrants to the United States that started in the early seventeenth century created constant pressure to acquire more land for farming in areas occupied by Native Americans. A long series of treaties, or formal agreements, were negotiated by the Native Americans on one side and the British or American governments on the other in an effort to avoid conflict. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784 is one example of an American promise to protect native lands from further takeovers by Europeans. Likewise, it also stands as an example of yet another treaty that was ignored by European settlers and never enforced by either the British or the U.S. government. For the arriving Europeans, the paper meant nothing compared with the opportunity to own land. Pushing out Native Americans was viewed as simply a necessary part of European migration to North America.
From 1754 to 1763, the British and the British colonists fought a war against France—the French and Indian War (1754–63; known in Europe...
(The entire section is 1842 words.)
Act of March 26, 1790
Enacted by U.S. Congress on March 26, 1790
Excerpt reprinted from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History
Congress passes a law that sets the tone for naturalization laws for over a century
"…any alien, being a free white person … may be admitted to become a citizen…."
Soon after the Constitution was adopted as the basic law of the newly organized United States, Congress passed a law governing the question of how immigrants could become voting citizens with the same rights as people born in the country, a process called naturalization. It was an important issue in one of the first countries ruled by democracy, the will of the citizens as expressed through voting.
The issue of naturalization had not been a problem when the states had been colonies of England. People living in the English colonies had no voice in selecting members of the British legislature, called the Parliament. Even in England, voting for members of Parliament was limited to a relatively few wealthy property owners. In the newly independent United States, political power lay in the hands of citizens (initially, limited to white men). North America seemed destined to be a magnet for people in many different countries who were looking for new...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)
"A Know Nothing" (Anonymous)
Excerpt from the Know Nothing Platform
An upstart political party reveals its platform
"The 'Order of Know Nothings' … are Americans by birth, the descendants of those who laid the foundation of our national greatness, and therefore feel that it is a pious duty devolved upon them to transmit the liberties of our country unimpaired, to the remotest posterity."
In the mid-1840s, the United States witnessed a sudden increase in the number of immigrants from Europe, particularly from Germany and Ireland. Political strife and widespread crop failures in Germany sent tens of thousands of immigrants to the United States. In Ireland, a devastating failure of the potato crop resulted in starvation for thousands; those who could afford a ticket out of Europe sailed to the United States, many virtually penniless.
The Irish immigrants in particular were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the Christian church headed by the pope in Rome, Italy. The arrival of the Irish immigrants in eastern cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia marked the first significant number of Catholics in a country that previously had been primarily Protestant. This sudden inflow of immigrants sparked a sharp reaction among some Americans, who feared that the character of the United...
(The entire section is 5837 words.)
Homestead Act of 1862
Enacted by U.S. Congress, May 20, 1862
Reprinted from Our Documents (Web site)
An act to secure homesteads to settlers in the West
"Upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified…."
In 1862, the U.S. Congress offered to sell public lands to citizens and to immigrants at the cost of $1.25 per acre, or less. The law was designed to attract people to settle vast stretches of territory in the Midwest and West, and it was highly effective. The promise of land at a low price attracted hundreds of thousands of people from the East and from Europe. The offer greatly increased the numbers of people migrating westward.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, owning land was a dream of hundreds of thousands of people, both in the United States and in Europe. Owning land, rather than working on someone else's property, was an ancient sign of wealth and held the promise of future prosperity.
In Europe, farmland was not readily available. Men of high rank still controlled vast tracts, or areas, of land, as they had for hundreds of years. Details of land ownership varied from one country to another, but the idea of owning...
(The entire section is 2423 words.)
Johnson, John A.
Excerpt from Concerning Emigration
Originally published in Billed-Magazin, January through March, 1869; also available on Norwegian-American Historical Association (Web site)
A U.S. businessman from Norway gives immigration suggestions to the natives back home
"In answer to the question as to what prospects an immigrant laborer has in America, we can state briefly and directly: daily wages in Wisconsin are high; employment will not be lacking for those who have the will and ability to work; food and lodging are good; and the labor is not unendurable."
Nearly a million people emigrated from Norway to the United States from 1825 to 1925. For each family that came, the decision was important and often difficult: To leave a familiar country and relatives for a strange country thousands of miles away was one of the most important decisions of their lives. In 1869, John Anders Johnson (1832–1901), a Norwegian emigrant who became a successful businessman in the United States, offered his advice to Norwegians in Billed-Magazin, the first illustrated monthly magazine in the Norwegian language published in America. Johnson's message: If you are prepared to work hard, you can succeed in the United States.
Most of the Norwegians who came to the United...
(The entire section is 3601 words.)
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Enacted by U.S. Congress, May 6, 1882
Reprinted from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History
The United States begins a ban on Chinese immigrants
"In the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities…."
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred any more Chinese workers from coming to the United States for ten years, the beginning of a ban on Chinese immigrants that lasted for sixty years. It was the first time the United States had enacted a law aimed at a specific national or ethnic group.
For much of the 1870s, the United States experienced difficult economic times. Jobs were hard to find. Many businesses failed as a result of a financial crisis that started in New York on September 18, 1873. On that day, a major bank in New York City, Jay Cooke and Company, closed its doors. The bank declared bankruptcy, meaning it could not afford to give depositors their money back. Railroads that had borrowed money from the bank to expand their network of tracks were unable to repay their loans. Consequently, the bank did not have money to give depositors making withdrawals. People with money deposited in other banks, fearing they might...
(The entire section is 4080 words.)
Excerpt from "Concerning the Jews"
Published in Harper's Magazine, March 1898
A well-known writer tries to explain why prejudice against Jews exists
"I am quite sure that … I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being—that is enough for me."
In 1898, Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), writing under the name Mark Twain, wrote an article in which he tried to explain the widespread prejudice against Jews, both in the United States and in Europe. Though he claimed to have no personal prejudices against any group, the attitudes expressed in his article were similar to those of many Americans. But as he demonstrated in his essay, Twain's perceptions of Jews were the very essence of prejudice, even if he kept it hidden from himself. A strong case can be made that Twain's attitudes were a reflection of the attitudes of many Americans, in his time and since: strong prejudice hidden behind a screen of self-deceiving acceptance.
Twain, who gained celebrity as the author of such American classics as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and...
(The entire section is 4229 words.)
Excerpt from Twenty Years at Hull-House
Originally published by the Macmillan Company, 1912
A Chicago woman writes of her experiences as owner of a house primarily designed to help immigrants
"Her mother's whole life had been spent in a secluded spot under the rule of traditional and narrowly localized observances … and then suddenly she was torn from it all and literally put out to sea … and she now walked timidly but with poignant sensibility upon a new and strange shore."
Chicago by 1890 had become the great "melting pot" of the Midwest. People from many different nationalities found themselves mixed together, living in grimy industrial neighborhoods during a period of rapid expansion of factories and meat-processing plants. Immigrants came from Russia, Germany, Italy, Bohemia (later called the Czech Republic), and Greece. They crowded in an urban, or city, environment far removed from the rural, or country, villages from which they had emigrated to live in the United States. For many immigrant families, moving to the United States meant not only moving to a new country but also moving from the countryside to a city, and from an agricultural society to an industrial one.
Jane Addams (1860–1935), an upper-middle-class woman from Cedarville, Illinois,...
(The entire section is 5072 words.)
Excerpt from My Antonia
Published in 1918
A novel accurately relates the difficulties experienced by European immigrants in the United States in the late nineteenth century
"They ain't got but one overcoat among 'em over there, and they take turns wearing it. They seem awful scared of cold, and stick in that hole in the bank like badgers."
My Antonia is a novel about life in Nebraska in the 1880s and 1890s, where author Willa Cather (1872–1947) lived from age nine. The Antonia in the title is fourteen-year-old Antonia Shimerda, whose family moved to Nebraska from Bohemia, in Europe, the land now known as the Czech Republic. Although My Antonia is fiction, it accurately represents how hard life was for European immigrants attracted to the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Arriving with little money and unable to speak English, European immigrants were often attracted by the promise of free or inexpensive farmland made available through the Homestead Act of 1862 (see entry). But the Great Plains of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas offered a difficult, hostile environment. Pioneers dug holes into the earth and heaped bricks made of sod (dirt held together by grass roots) to make low houses that were a...
(The entire section is 4097 words.)
Ozawa v. United States
Excerpt from U.S. Supreme Court trial of 1922
Opinion written by U.S. Supreme Court justice George Sutherland on November 13, 1922
An upstanding twenty-year Japanese immigrant resident of the United States fails in his application to become a U.S. citizen
"The intention was to confer the privilege of citizenship upon that class of persons whom the fathers knew as white, and to deny it to all who could not be so classified."
Takao Ozawa was born in Japan, moved to the territory of Hawaii, and later lived in California. Altogether he had lived in the United States continuously for twenty years when he applied in 1914 for naturalization, the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. At the time, he had graduated from high school in Berkeley, California, and had been a student at the University of California for three years. He had children, all born in the United States. The family spoke English at home and attended American churches. Nevertheless, the U.S. government opposed his application to become a citizen, on grounds that he was not "white." Eight years after his application was filed, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the government: Ozawa was not eligible to become a citizen.
Immigration of Asians to the United States had been an issue long before the U.S....
(The entire section is 4429 words.)
Immigration Act of 1924
Enacted by U.S. Congress; approved May 26, 1924
Excerpt published in United States Statutes at Large, 68th Cong., Sess. I, Chp. 190
An act to limit the migration of aliens into the United States
"The annual quota of any nationality shall be 2 per centum of the number of foreign-born individuals of such nationality resident in continental United States as determined by the United States census of 1890, but the minimum quota of any nationality shall be 100."
In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed a law to limit immigration into the United States. The law—the Immigration Act of 1924 (also called the National Origins Act) —reflected worries that too many immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were flooding into the country. Many of these immigrants were Roman Catholics. Many Americans worried that the newcomers would change the nature of the population, which had long been made up of Protestants, whose ancestors came from northern Europe. The law brought to an end four decades of almost unlimited mass immigration.
The act required immigrants to obtain permission to come to the United States in advance of leaving their native countries. The law also specified how many immigrants would be allowed to come from each country. The effect of the law was to limit...
(The entire section is 3852 words.)
Truman, Harry S.
Excerpt from Message to the House of Representatives on the Veto of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
Presented on June 25, 1952
The president vetoes an immigration bill that would limit the number of immigrants from outside northern Europe
"This idea behind this discriminatory policy was, to put it baldly, that Americans with English or Irish names were better people and better citizens than Americans with Italian or Greek or Polish names…. Such a concept is utterly unworthy of our traditions and our ideals."
In 1952 a debate broke out on the future immigration policy of the United States. On one side were politicians like U.S. senator Patrick McCarran (1876–1954) of Nevada and U.S. representative Francis Walter (1894–1963) of Pennsylvania. McCarran and Walter wanted to continue to impose quotas, or limits, on immigration from different countries in a way that favored immigrants from northern Europe at the expense of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Asia. On the other side were those like President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53), who wanted to admit more immigrants from areas outside northern Europe.
U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952—also called the McCarran-Walter Act—to replace...
(The entire section is 4060 words.)
Plyler v. Doe
Excerpt from U.S. Supreme Court trial of 1982
Opinion written by U.S. Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan on June 15, 1982
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the children of illegal immigrants had the same rights as everyone else, especially the right to an education
"By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation."
In 1977, children of illegal immigrants were not allowed to attend school in Texas without paying tuition, a fee paid to attend a school. Nearly none could afford the tuition. Five years later, in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not deny the children of illegal immigrants a public education. The case, called Plyler v. Doe, found that depriving children of a basic education would mark them for life, through no fault of their own. They were living in Texas, and that fact gave them the right to an education, just as every other child living in the state had a right to attend public school.
Visas are the government documents that give people the right to enter the United States, usually for a temporary period or for a specific...
(The entire section is 2715 words.)
California Proposition 187
Voted into law in 1994 by California voters
Reprinted from Glenn Spencer's American Patrol Report (Web site)
California voters approve a law designed to stop immigrants without visas from receiving public benefits from the state
"The People of California declare their intention … to prevent illegal aliens in the United States from receiving benefits or public services in the State of California."
In 1994, voters in California approved a law designed to stop immigrants without visas, government documents that grant permission for admission to the country, from receiving public benefits from the state, notably medical care and public education. Voters acted through a provision of California's constitution that allows citizens to propose laws and to vote on them, functions normally carried out by the state legislature. The passage of the law reflected widespread anger in California over the issue of "illegal aliens," or people residing in a country without legal authorization. In California, these illegal immigrants were mostly people from Mexico and Central America who entered the state without federal immigration visas to find work on farms. Those in favor of the law argued that such aliens were collecting benefits without paying taxes.
(The entire section is 3412 words.)