While many factors influenced the passage of restrictive immigration policies, the justification for the laws drew from a foundational past that sacralized the memory of the Pilgrims and privileged New England exceptionalism as the source of American greatness. It confirmed an ideal of America that had never existed, but one that had consequences, sometimes fatal consequences, for those who did not share that religious and cultural heritage. Over time, the stories of the Pilgrims and Puritans became the American story and helped shape the nation’s identity. When faced with challenges to their exclusive claim to the national narrative, the descendants of those early settlers enlarged upon the achievements of their ancestors and disregarded the contributions—even the legitimacy—of other groups.
The descendants of those early settlers enlarged upon the achievements of their ancestors and disregarded the contributions—even the legitimacy—of other groups.
This narrative persisted as the nation became more diverse, and in the nineteenth century, as theories of racial hierarchy and immutability gained traction, public discourse increasingly reflected the connection between race and religion. In 1885, Reverend Josiah Strong published Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis, and made explicit the connection between early New England Protestantism, American democracy, and Anglo-Saxon superiority. For Strong, the principles that drove the Pilgrims to New England did not spring solely from religious impulse, but also from their Anglo-Saxon inheritance. “The Anglo-Saxon,” he argued, “is the representation of two great ideas, which are closely related…civil liberty [and] pure spiritual Christianity.” As Strong saw it, the “great reformation of the sixteenth century,” derived from the Anglo-Saxon instinct for liberty, had given birth to all that made America great. The conflation of religion and race created a permanent barrier for those who arrived after the first wave of settlers, and the Pilgrim legacy became a cudgel wielded against those whose race and faith made them incapable of understanding American values.
A few voices emerged to counter the prevailing narrative, highlighting the benefits of immigration and diversity. California’s progressive governor George Pardee envisioned a new America, symbolized by the celebration of Thanksgiving Day. Although the feast originated in “the narrow theocratic community on Massachusetts Bay,” it now belonged “in common possession to Puritan and Cavalier, to Baptist, Quaker, Catholic, and Jew.” As opposition grew to their increasing numbers, Catholics and Jews attempted to legitimize their presence by claiming the mantle of the Pilgrims for their own. Catholic historian Edward Galbally suggested that the “Maryland Pilgrims,” not those who arrived on the Mayflower, had been the true source of “liberty of conscience.” Rabbi Nathan Krass reminded Americans that Jews had given the world Moses, Jesus, Paul, and the Bible. “Imagine,” he mused, “what would have happened if a committee of Indian immigration officers had stood on Plymouth Rock, and after admitting ten Pilgrim Fathers, had said, ‘your quota is full. The rest of you go back to England.’”
A few voices emerged to counter the prevailing narrative, highlighting the benefits of immigration and diversity.
Despite the efforts of some leaders to portray recent arrivals as spiritual descendants of the Pilgrims, throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, New England lawmakers and academics strove to curb the arrival of those whom Francis A. Walker, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called “beaten men from beaten races.” With leadership from Vermont Senator William P. Dillingham, Congress responded by passing a series of increasingly restrictive immigration laws, and in 1930 revised the quota system to “preserve the existing racial composition” of the nation by determining the proportion of the white population descended from that enumerated in the first national census. The new law reduced overall immigration, and by differentiating “colonial stock” from “post-colonial” stock, privileged nations which had provided the highest percentage of early arrivals and stanched the flow of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.
In the face of growing anti-immigrant hostility, Catholic historian John Edward Byrne noted that “Protestantism is essentially nationally nationalistic…Protestants simply assume that this is a Protestant country, and that therefore Protestant ascendancy must be maintained.” Behind restrictionist debates, he declared, “there have ever laid these two perennial bogeys…fear of ‘Romanism,’ and fear of the immigrant.”
Although many nations saw their quotas reduced as a result of the 1930 law, no group felt the impact of the new policies more painfully than the Jews of Germany. Historians have sought to explain America’s reluctance to admit Jews fleeing an increasingly dangerous situation. Ultimately, Americans’ indifference to the plight of the Jews had many causes, but had been influenced by political, religious, and intellectual leaders who justified the passage of increasingly restrictive legislation aimed at reconstituting the country’s colonial population. These laws proved impervious to pleas from the very people lawmakers had intended to exclude.
As it had in the past, the nation acted to restrict the entry of Catholics and Jews, and the idea of America as a white Protestant nation prevailed.
Generations of rhetoric privileging Protestantism above other faiths militated against empathy for those whose race and faith made them undesirable, and helped shape post-war policy as well. As millions of displaced persons awaited refugee status, the 1948 Displaced Persons Bill, denounced by President Harry Truman as “flagrantly discriminatory,” privileged agricultural workers and Baltic Protestants. As it had in the past, the nation acted to restrict the entry of Catholics and Jews, and the idea of America as a white Protestant nation prevailed.
Although the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished the quota system designed to restrict the arrival of Catholics and Jews, the struggle between the appeal of the American narrative and the ownership of that story continues. As the nation confronts its legacy of slavery, some states attempt to ban educators from discussing the country’s painful history of racial, religious, and ethnic conflict, calling instead for “patriotic education.” And so, in the face of reemergent white nationalism, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and attacks against Asian, Jews, and Muslims, while Confederate monuments topple and schools are renamed, Americans continue to debate the future of the house in which they live.
This post is adapted from Christine Arnold-Lourie, “‘Inharmonious Elements’ and ‘Racial Homogeneity’: New England Exceptionalism and Immigration Restriction,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 19, no.3 (2021): 46–54.