Between 1830 and 1850 nearly four million people from Europe crossed the Atlantic to seek the opportunities the United States offered. Irish and German immigrants traveled the long journey to receive the “American Dream”, however, their high hopes were far from the reality of how they were received in the United States. The Irish and German’s immigration had differences and similarities in the aspects of motives for leaving Europe, patterns of settlement in the US, political effects, and reception by native-born Americans.
Motivation for Immigration
The Irish and Germans both were motivated to travel to America due to the hopes of a promising dream-like society full of prosperity and equality. In Ireland almost half of the population lived on farms that were less than prosperous, producing little income. Because of their poverty, most Irish people depended on potatoes for food. When this crop failed three years in a row, it led to a great famine with horrendous consequences. Over 750,000 people starved to death. Over two million Irish eventually moved to the United States seeking relief from their desolated country.
On the contrary, more than a million Germans fled to the United States to escape political hardship. They sought to escape the political unrest caused by riots, rebellion and eventually a revolution in 1848. The Germans had little choice as few countries allowed German immigration. Both sought the American dream, however, the Irish sought to escape famine and economic hardship while the Germans sought to escape riots and political hardships.
There was a significant difference in the patterns of settlement once in the United States between the Irish and German immigrants. Irish immigrants, after the consequences of the potato famine had little to no means of life. They were so impoverished they could not buy property or own land to start their own farms. As a result, most Irish immigrants congregated and settled into Irish immigrant communities. These communities were located right where they landed on the northeastern American coast.
Unlike the Irish, many Germans had enough money to journey to the Midwest in search of farmland and work. The largest settlements of Germans were in New York City, Baltimore, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee. Both, however, created the first signs of segregation between natural-born American society and immigrant society by settling in immigrant communities rather than distributing into their new country among the natives.
The Irish and German immigrants both had a lasting political effect on American society. As the Irish and German were faced with little to no opportunity in America they entered local politics. Searching for mutual support in other immigrants, this society of people organized together and became a strong facet of the Democratic Party. The DemocraticParty had a long standing anti-British political stance in America.
The immigrants were initially excluded from joining New York City’s Democratic organization; however, by 1850 they gained such political influence that they controlled this party organization. Many nativist Americans such as Samuel Morse fought against immigrant voting rights until they had been citizens for 21 years in America. In reaction to Irish and German immigrants, a new anti-immigrant political party formed: ‘The Know-Nothing Party.’
Irish and German immigrants had many similarities and differences in their assimilation into natural American society. The Irish assimilation into society was not as they hoped for upon leaving Ireland. The Irish were immediately forced to the bottom of society and faced strong discrimination. Living conditions were horrid as they inhabited the filthy and overcrowded northeastern American slums. Irish were put on the same level as free blacks and forced to compete for labor in the harsh conditions of factories. On the front of many buildings natural-born Americans put signs up that said “Irish need not apply.” Irish discrimination was largely due to their religious standpoint of Roman Catholicism.
Unlike the Irish, German immigrants were skilled craftsmen and farmers coming to America with at least modest economic means. They were able to move towards the west and sought out cheap, fertile farm land. Initially they may have received some limited political influence. However, their skills along with their activity in public life such as supporting public education and opposing slavery led to their assimilation into society being slightly less rough than Irish immigrants.
Irish and German immigrants had significant similarities in their dream in America and their lasting political effect in America. They also had monumental differences in the location of their patterns of settlement and their assimilation and reception into American society from natural-born American society. Both Irish and German immigrants faced many challenges when they sought American opportunity.