American Nativism or Cosmopolitanism?

Changing Perspectives from  Eurocentric Nativism to a Cosmopolitan View

© by Patrick M. Kane Ph.D.

Immigration studies and its history are central to the discussion of the United States and North American history. Immigration, both free and unfree, is also central to the understanding of modern world history and America is a central part of this history.  Immigration studies are also charged with historical claims and narratives that were formerly framed on the centrality of European immigration in the making of the United States.  This older view of history held a central place in the myth making of an ethnocentric Anglo elite who were upheld as the model for nation-building from the arrival of the Pilgrims and their successors in New England, and of English colonists in Virginia.  From the perspective of the 21st century this simplified view would not at first seem so plausible.  Yet, the rhetorical nature of the current US presidential campaign with regards to immigration policies along the Mexican border, or those of the Muslim faith suggest that the claim to a simpler or Nativist view of immigration is still very much at issue.

The politics and history of immigration policy places the history student at the crossroads of the older Eurocentric, or what contemporaries called a Nativist view of entitlement and the development of racial policies that excluded others.  As Peter Schrag has shown, from colonial times, American immigration was subjected to racial and religious prejudices and attempts at exclusionary restrictions (Schrag 2011). Since the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1789 attempts to limit or control the nature of immigration have been political issues.  These laws were somewhat relaxed or left unenforced as the continental system expanded to the West.  But after the West was largely absorbed within the United States, the exclusion of large groups of Asian, East European and most other non-white and non-Western European immigrants became policy beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,  and the preference for white European immigration through the quota system of the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (Daniels 2004). The persistence of racism in American immigration and wider culture forces the historian and history student to confront the problem of the recurring resort to Nativism.  It was the Nativist 19thcentury ideology that gave rise to the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s, the forerunner of the Republican Party, and the revival of Nativists within the Republican party in the 1950s enshrined the last of the preferential Western European immigration quota laws in 1952 during the Eisenhower administration. This movement went hand-in-hand with segregation and Jim Crow laws of the American South in the same period, but it had also allowed for the forced interment into concentration camps and confiscation of property of Japanese Americans in World War II.

We now know and acknowledge that this older view of history, what I refer to as a Nativist or Eurocentric view, needs to be reread and openly discussed in view of the realities of the immigration of prehistorical periods, the movements of the first peoples or Native Americans, the forced immigration of millions of slaves from Africa, and the significance of Asian immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Also integral to the history of American history is the existence of Mexican and Hispanic or Latino populations that preceded their absorption into the United States and what I refer to as a natural economy of movement and immigration that exist in land-based or continental territories and empires, like that found in North America.

In appealing for a cosmopolitan view of immigration, I’d suggest that this approach allows us to give greater weight to the longer trajectories of migration patterns, as in the history of Native American populations and settlements that settled and developed significant population centers and civilizations as at Cahokia near St. Louis (600-1400 AD), and that had long-distance trade networks connected with the central Mexican trading empires.  Such an approach would allow us to carry this forward to study the significance of Mexican populations, town settlements and early state formations underway in Texas and California prior to the aggressive expansion of the United States as it absorbed the Southwest into its continental state-formation.  Another fruitful approach is to study the interaction of Comanche, Apache and Mexican settlers in the 19th century.  The changed realities of these regional towns and settlements differs dramatically from the earlier conquistador model of settlement and conquest that led to altering periods of eradication and rebellion as in the Pueblo Revolts of the 17th century. The history of this is admirably analyzed by Andrés Reséndez who shows that the reliance, cooperation and ultimately rivalry between Anglos and Mexicanos from the 1820s through the 1840s is far more complex than the simple narrative of pioneers and rise of the Republic that dominated the older histories of this period (Reséndez 2004).  The existence of a bilingual English and Spanish newspaper in Monterey, California in the 1850s attests to this as well. The longer history of the American Southwest as a region of considerable flow and movement of populations in a north-south pattern is still understudied, but has received considerable attention in the wake of the extensive Bracero oral history project on the post-World War II Bracero labor program.

The notion of the African Diaspora as a way of reframing the history of slavery as part of immigrant history is necessarily a part of this needed revision.  Edouard Glissant (1928-2011) was a writer from Martinique who examined the phenomenon of African diaspora in the Caribbean islands.  In his series of books, poems and novels he explored the depths of African culture and its adaptation within the Americas.  He advanced the notion of creolization as a paradigm for describing the transformation of African culture in the Americas.   Glissant proposed that creolization, was a process of cultural fusion among slaves who retained key elements of traditions and culture that resonated through religious, social and linguistic formation in the Caribbean and Atlantic colonies (Glissant 1989).  Rather than accept a simple subordination of the entire Atlantic World to the supremacy of European rule, scholars and critics of cultural studies showed how slaves themselves created a new culture of their own.  Slaves from Africa did not remain passive but brought and retained cultural influence and philosophies. The life of Olaudah Equiano (1745-1798), who was captured from the Igbo region of the West African coast and brought as a slave to the Caribbean, but who gained his freedom and became an eloquent spokesman for abolition in late 18th century London, illustrates this capacity (Equiano 1789).  The Trans-Atlantic Slavery Database project is highly recommended for students.

Patrick Manning’s studies of African history and his recent, The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture(2010), situates the influence of Africans throughout the modern world (Manning 2010).  He argues that Africans like Olaudah Equiano, many of them former slaves, became important agents for social change and transformation who influenced efforts to abolish slavery in the 19th century.  The reason we found multiple movements toward the abolition of slavery in the early to mid 19th century in Britain, the US, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, was a product of the diaspora and rise of prominent and articulate Africans to positions of prominence and influence within those countries.  Here, the role of Frederick Douglas as the intellectual of anti-slavery resistance as well as a representative of the new realities of internal migration or internal immigration from the South to the North, may be studied as a new type of intellectual and a new type of internal immigrant.

With an expansive historical consciousness, it is possible to provide greater depth of appreciation for all forms and origins of immigrant experiences.  The many problems of absorbing Swedish and other non-English immigrants into a newly industrialized economy and expansive continental system were given poignant literary form in the late 19th century writer, Stephen Crane’s The Blue Hotel (Crane 1899)[1]. From the classical studies of European and other immigration by Oscar Handlin (Handlin 1951), to digital resources and databases on American immigration, there are numerous outlets for students to pursue in their studies and projects for understanding the making of American society as an ongoing process that was never static or fixed.  In many ways popular culture and society are better ways to find the actual responses and trends in ethnic or immigrant life and society in American history. Amid the racism and prevalent segregation of the 1950s, musicals and films like the suppressed film, Salt of the Earth (1954),  and the highly popular Flower Drum Song (1958) or West Side Story (1961) broke barriers by centering main characters as Mexican-American workers, or Chinese and Puerto Rican established immigrants or children of immigrants.

Yet much more remains to be done and with a philosophy that is cognizant of the pitfalls of Nativism and other forms of historical abuse. The dangerous revival of the older Nativist or Eurocentric approach to immigration studies have been given timely reassessment in a recent study, White Backlash:  Immigration, Race and American Politics (Abrajano, Marisa; Hajnal, Zoltan L. 2015).  As Abrajano and Hajnal note, the number of immigrants to the United States since 2000 is about forty million, when counting both documented and undocumented immigrants, so that fully one in four of all Americans are now immigrants or their children.  This has led to a polarized division in the electorate, that the authors label the white backlash that has realigned itself with the Republican party, while those of the new immigrant affiliate themselves with the Democratic Party.  While I personally, need to read further of this analysis and certainly cannot predict the future, this trend raises familiar but highly worrisome lessons from the Nativist policies of the 19th and 20th century.  Their central thesis and conclusion that immigration will be the overriding issue in American politics for the foreseeable future should also situate the importance of immigration for scholars and students of American history and related fields.


Abrajano, Marisa; Hajnal, Zoltan L. 2015. White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics.Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Crane, Stephen. 1899. “The Blue Hotel.” In Complete Works of Stephen Crane, by Stephen Crane. Delphi Classics.

Daniels, Roger. 2004. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang.

Equiano, Olaudah. 1789. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789). Online edition from University of North Carolina. London.

Glissant, Eduoard. 1989. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Charlottesvile, VA: University of Virginia Press.

Handlin, Oscar. 1951. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People. Boston: Little, Brown.

Manning, Patrick. 2010. The African Diaspora: A History Through Culture . New York: Columbia University Press.

Reséndez, Andrés. 2004. Changing National Identities at the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schrag, Peter. 2011. Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.


[1] After a reading of The Blue Hotel, a student of American history may note the ironic arrogance in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, who in his autobiography claims some Swedish heritage.

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