December 18, 2014 2:51PM

The Failure of the Americanization Movement


Last week I was on an immigration panel discussing my new booklet Open Immigration: Yea & Nay, coauthored with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.  The other panelists were Michael Barone, George Will, Andrew McCarthy, and John Fonte.  They all had interesting comments about the booklet and the issue of immigration broadly.  However, I do want to take issue with some comments by John Fonte about the assimilation of immigrants and his view that the United States needs a modern version of the Americanization movement – an early 20th century initiative that sought to assimilate newcomers rapidly into American civic life.  Fonte claims that modern immigrants just aren’t assimilating as well as previous waves of immigrants, especially in their patriotism, because there is no modern equivalent of the Americanization movement to help them. 

During the event, I challenged Fonte’s claims about both the assimilation rates of today’s immigrants as well as the effectiveness of the Americanization Movement.  On the former point, research by Jacob Vigdor and others shows solid and sustained assimilation of immigrants over the generations that is comparable to the assimilation rates of previous immigrant groups.  On the latter point about the effectiveness of the Americanization movement, I mentioned that there were no data available from the early 20th century to confirm or disconfirm that it was responsible for the assimilation of immigrants in those groups.  Fonte countered by saying [2:44:15]: “It’s true we don’t have data on how well assimilation worked, but I think we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that Americanization did help.”  Elsewhere Fonte writes “assimilation of the Ellis Island generation succeeded only because American elites (progressive at the time) insisted upon ‘Americanization.’”  The success of the Americanization movement is an empirical question but there is precious little data from that time period.  There may be some anecdotes available that support his position so I will list some others below that question the effectiveness of the Americanization movement.    

Fonte and I clearly disagree over how successful current immigrant assimilation is in the United States, but this blog will focus on the little-researched and less understood Americanization movement of last century.  Contrary to Fonte’s claims, the Americanization movement had no discernible impacts on immigrant assimilation at best and, at worst, it may have slowed down assimilation.  The Americanization movement was not a benevolent government program that sought to assimilate immigrants into American society so much as it was an avenue for American opponents of immigration to vent their frustrations about immigrants.  Such an atmosphere of hostility could not produce greater assimilation.  The Americanization movement, however, did create an air of government-forced homogeneity similar to the government policies of Russia, Hungary, and Germany that tried to forcibly assimilate ethnic and linguistic minorities with tragic consequences – an experience many immigrants came to America to avoid.  The Americanization movement replaced the tolerant cosmopolitanism (for the most part) that defined America’s experience with immigration up to that point, and represented a low-water mark of American confidence in the assimilationist power of her institutions.  Below I will lay out the history of the Americanization movement, how it worked, and why it was likely ineffective.

History of the Americanization Movement  

The Americanization Movement was a concerted effort during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to help new immigrants settle and assimilate into America’s civic culture with the intent of promoting patriotism and productivity. These efforts primarily took the form of English language classes and courses in American civics but suffered from vague definitions of what “Americanization” meant besides learning the language, being loyal to the United States, and accepting our republican form of government.[i]  The Americanization movement was originally started by non-profit organizations with business support but it eventually grew to include government subsidies, public educational policy changes, and the creation of national holidays.

The arrival of the so-called “new immigrants” in the late nineteenth century prompted the Americanization movement.  As Chart 1 shows, “old immigrants” to the republic had come from the British Isles and northern Europe.  As Chart 2 show, immigrants arriving after 1890 came from Southern and Eastern Europe and were more likely to be Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish – religions that were not as common in late nineteenth-century America.

Chart 1

Immigrants by Region of Origin (1820-1889)

Media Name: demographics_1.jpg

Source: Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2011.


Chart 2

Immigrants by Region of Origin (1890-1920)


Media Name: demographics_2.jpg

Source: Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2011.


The perception among many Americans at this time was that these old immigrants were quick to assimilate and adopt the values of longer-settled Americans because of their religious, cultural, and racial similarities with native-born Americans.  Catholic Irish and German immigrants prompted the first Nativist movement in the mid-19th century but for the most part the slow but steady assimilation of these old immigrants was still accepted by Americans prior to 1890.  Perceptions of new immigrants started to change as they began to come from more southern, eastern, Catholic, and Jewish parts of Europe.  The rural-settling protestant Swedes and Germans who were out of sight were not a major cause for concern but the urban-settling Catholic Italians, Orthodox Russians, and Jewish Poles were. 

The First-Phase

The early Americanization movement was born out of the movement to restrict lawful immigration.  The first such group was the American Protective Association (APA), started in 1887.  It was quickly followed by the more successful Immigration Restriction League (IRL), which was founded in 1894 by New England nativists.  Its goal was to restrict future immigration and aid new immigrants in assimilating.[ii]  For decades IRL lobbied for restrictions, and the IRL’s Prescott Hall blamed the lobby of “Jews, Jesuits, and Steamships” for delaying the IRL’s legislative agenda.[iii]   The IRL did not teach many immigrants English or civics because lobbying to restrict immigration was a fulltime job.  In this first-phase, calls for assimilation or Americanization were just smokescreens to soften the anti-immigration message of these groups.

The Second-Phase

The second-phase of the Americanization movement was led by civil society, non-profits, and American firms.  After proponents of immigration restrictions started the Americanization movement, better-intentioned non-profits entered the fray and began to focus on actual immigrant assimilation. The Educational Alliance of New York City (EANYC) was founded in 1890 by American Jews to provide night classes and day-time programs in American history, English, biology, preparation for public schools, and practical economic skills like dress-making to newly-arrived Jewish immigrants who settled in New York’s lower East Side.[iv]  In 1906, the Society for Italian Immigrants copied the EANYC’s idea but expanded it to far-flung worksites populated by Italian immigrants.[v]

The North American Civic League for Immigrants (NACLI), created in Boston in 1907, provided rudimentary English courses for immigrants.  Boston had the added benefit of being smaller and logistically cheaper than New York City, and therefore a space for easier experimentation with Americanization programs for immigrants.  NACLI’s founders were conservatives who wanted to protect the status quo by aiding assimilation without resorting to immigration restrictions.[vi]  Unlike other organizations, the NACLI franchised its methods and expanded into New York City and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.  NACLI’s methods were copied and applied by local groups across the nation. The most notable of these ersatz organizations was the Chicago-based Immigrants Protective League (IPL) formed in 1908.

In 1907 the New York chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) began offering evening classes for immigrants in English, naturalization, and civics.[vii] By 1912, 300 branches of the YMCA had taught over 55,000 immigrants in topics as varied as English, personal hygiene, sanitation, geography, industrial safety, and American government.[viii]  55,000 students was less than 1 percent of the total number of new immigrants who came during those years and an even smaller percent of the total stock of the foreign born living in the United States at the time so it is hard to see how the YMCA’s efforts had much impact on wider assimilation trends.    

After working more closely with the YMCA, the NACLI changed names to the Committee for Immigrants in America (CIA) and began to fund local Americanization programs across the country and develop a curriculum for smaller groups.[ix]  The CIA’s funding was so important for the movement that without it, the Federal Bureau of Education and other government agencies would have been unable to aid immigrants at all – and indeed once they ceased their funding of other groups, the movement died. 

Industrialists like Henry Ford and the numerous Chambers of Commerce also participated in the Americanization movement under the belief that it would increase worker productivity and halt the growing influence of socialism.  Many employers were concerned that significant portions of their workforce were unable to understand basic workplace instructions in English, and to this extent industry’s support of Americanization was purely pragmatic and almost entirely devoted to English language instruction.  Civics education was an afterthought to worker training and would remain so until the wave of socialist and anarchist activity in Europe culminated with the February and October Revolutions in Russia.

Union violence was another major reason why businesses supported immigrant assimilation.  A violent strike broke out in 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a major manufacturing city with immigrants from 51 countries.  The strike occurred because worker income decreased in the city after the state of Massachusetts limited working hours, but many Americans and Progressives decided to blame supposedly dysfunctional immigrant assimilation instead of the misguided economic regulations.[x]  Indications that some of the workers had socialist and extreme left-wing political ties further spooked many Americans, prompting support for assimilation programs[xi] despite indications that most were not politically radical.[xii]

The Third-Phase

The Third-Phase of the Americanization movement was dominated by the local, state, and federal governments.  New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island set up state organizations to study immigration and aid in assimilation.  The first goal of the bureaus was to subsidize immigrant assimilation through language and civics classes.  The second goal was to educate immigrants on how to use American institutions like the courts and police. These state bureaus encouraged immigrants to trust American legal institutions – a goal eagerly sought by local and state governments.[xiii]

Public schools at the state and local level also joined the Americanization effort by mandating civics classes for all students and English classes for immigrants.  In the first decade of the twentieth century, the cities of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Rochester, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Boston began offering special night classes for immigrants.[xiv]  In 1907, New Jersey was the first state government to support night classes in English and civics for immigrants, a program followed by other states.[xv]  Around this time, compulsory civics classes, display of the American flag, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance became mandatory in virtually all schools in the United States with the exceptions of the states of Vermont, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Wyoming.  Naturalization celebrations accompanied with public ceremonies began to be held in Philadelphia in 1915, and July 4th of that year was known as Americanization Day in many communities across the country.[xvi] 

The United States military also got involved in the Americanization movement as it mobilized for World War I.  When the United States entered World War I in 1917 and enacted the draft, it became clear that the immigrant service members needed instruction in the English language to ensure that they could follow basic military commands.  The military was also worried that German and Austrian immigrants might have sympathy for their home countries in any military conflict, presumably presenting a national defense issue.  The military created groups like the National Security League and the Council on National Defense to provide immigrants with English instruction – primarily in the form of military commands – during the First World War. 

The military’s efforts were paralleled by civilian government agencies like the Foreign Language Information Bureau, the National Committee of Patriotic Literature, the National Security League, the American Defense Society, and others that stuffed the mailboxes of immigrant households and filled the airwaves with patriotic pro-assimilation programs.[xvii]  Women’s clubs associated with those groups took it upon themselves to travel to immigrant homes and, in a friendly tone, try to educate the inhabitants about the benefits of Americanizing.  One popular and possibly apocryphal story illustrated how these societies were mostly pushing against an open door.  On one such trip, the women’s club knocked on the door of a tenement occupied by a Bohemian immigrant who asked that the women come back next week. They protested by saying, “What!  You mean that you . . . want to put off your entrance into American life?”  “No, no!,” the Bohemian replied.”  We’re perfectly willing to be Americanized.  Why, we never turn any of them away.  But there’s nobody home but me.  The boys volunteered, my man’s working on munitions, and all the rest are out selling Liberty bonds.  I don’t want you to get mad, but can’t you come back next week?”[xviii]  

The National Americanization Committee (NAC) looked toward German-Americans as the face of its Americanization efforts, promoting the son of U.S. Civil War Union general Franz Sigel to the president of the Friends of German Democracy – a group devoted to spreading patriotic ideals amongst German-Americans.[xix]   The military scaled back its Americanization program after World War I ended, but the non-military government agencies were not dissolved.

The Federal Bureau of Education (FBE) was the chief civil government agency involved with the Americanization movement during the 1910s.  FBE developed civics and English curriculum from those provided by the NAC, the CIA, and other key groups in civil society.  The Bureau of Naturalization (BN) provided similar services by coordinating with the public school system.  Despite lobbying by the BN, no additional agencies were created to oversee immigrant assimilation.  Although the BN was a government agency, almost all of its material was borrowed from private groups and much of its funding came from donations.  The failure to create an additional agency doomed the BN to failure when the non-profits removed their funding.

The Effects of the Americanization Movement and Its End

Shortly after the end of World War I, BN’s position in the Americanization movement faded along with the rest of the movement.  The public had become apathetic toward Americanization of immigrants while the immigrants themselves, the supposed beneficiaries of these efforts, had begun to more openly express resentment over mistreatment and insults by Americanizers – even to the point that some Americanizers were worried that their efforts were backfiring and delaying assimilation.[xx]  The patronizing attitudes of many Americanizers, who were often overtly nationalistic and hostile to immigration, turned many immigrants off to Americanization – often stunting what would have been a natural assimilation process.  Instead of Americanization relying on the “attractive power and the sweet reasonableness of the thing itself,” as commissioner of education P.P. Claxton said, it took a tone of forcefulness.[xxi]  That tone commanded and cajoled immigrants to abandon entirely their Old World loyalties, customs, and memories by using high-pressure steamroller tactics.[xxii]     

Many Americanization programs existed to serve American immigration restrictionists and were backfiring in their efforts to assimilate immigrants.  As historian John Higham explained, the Americanization movement had two aspects to it.  The first drew its support from folks who genuinely wanted to aid in the assimilation of immigrants by catering to their needs.  The second was often an imperious demand for total national conformity that appealed greatly to one segment of the American public but produced small results when it came to assimilation.[xxiii]

Immigrant writers from many different ethnic groups claimed that Americanization programs disrupted the natural assimilation process and bred resentment against patriotism in immigrant communities.[xxiv]  In the years 1919-1920, the height of the Americanization movement, editorials in many foreign-language presses in the United States expressed their disapproval.  These editorials almost always acknowledged the importance of assimilation, of learning English, and of learning about American civics, but they objected to the harsh tone of national superiority that was prevalent among the most extreme Americanizers.[xxv] 

As one Polish-language newspaper expressed in 1919, “Under the present conditions foreigners are likely to take out naturalization papers simply in order to be left unmolested [by Americanizers].  This is a foolish movement which creates hypocrisy.”[xxvi]  A publication in the same paper wrote that Americanization “smacks decidedly of Prussianism, and it is not at all in accordance with American ideals of freedom.”[xxvii]  A Russian newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1919 wrote:

Many Americanization Committees only exist on paper.  They make much noise, get themselves in newspapers, but do not do much good.  They mostly laugh at the poor foreigners.  If Americans want to help the immigrants, they must meet them with love.  The immigrant is by no means stupid.  He feels the patronizing attitude the American [Americanizers] adopts towards him, and therefore never opens his soul.[xxviii]

Another Russian newspaper in New York in the same year complained that “Americanization expects no contribution from those who are to be assimilated.  It is based on the certitude that America is rich in everything and is in need of nothing new.”[xxix] An Italian newspaper in Pennsylvania in 1920 wrote, “Americanization is an ugly word.  Today it means to proselytize by making the foreign-born forget his mother country and mother tongue.”[xxx]  In the same year, a Slovak periodical in Pittsburgh complained that “[t]here is a mistaken notion among some well-meaning people that the foreign-born would be better Americans if they understood the Constitution of the United States . . . the average American native does not know it either, and yet he has some very clear conceptions of right and wrong.” 

Americanizers also became worried that their efforts were backfiring.  Carol Aronovici of the California State Commission of Immigration and Housing wrote that “the spectacle of the rabid and ignorant Americanization efforts was disheartening” to immigrants and reminded many of them of the negative experiences they had with homogenizing and discriminatory policies in their home countries. [xxxi]   Magyarization in Hungary and the persecution of Poles and Jews in the Russian Empire were particularly vivid examples.[xxxii]  Americanizer Frances Kellor, whom Higham described as “half reformer, half nationalist”[xxxiii] wrote that “alien baiting” and “repressive measures” by many in the Americanization movement blunted its effectiveness.  In 1920, she summarized the situation thusly:

Now that the war is over we are discovering that while it has cemented new friendships among races, and has promoted cooperation between some natives and foreign-born Americans, it has just as definitely created new racial antagonisms and brought about new misunderstandings between individuals.  The American, influenced as he is by the spread of Bolshevism and by the prevalence of unrest, as well as by some spectacular evidences of disloyalty among some aliens during the war, leans more and more toward repression and intolerance of differences.  The immigrant is sensitive to this change and, as he is constantly receiving messages from abroad urging him to return home, he is becoming less friendly toward America.  For this reason, assimilation measures, which might have been undertaken with ease and success before the war, now yield but little result, even with greater effort.[xxxiv] 

By the early 1920s, a revived Ku Klux Klan became popular and began to clamor for immigration restrictions.  They began to use “Americanization” as an argument to keep out Eastern and Southern European immigrants – claiming that Americanization meant turning over power to the “not de-Americanized average citizens of the old stock,” according to Imperial Wizard Hiram Wesley Evans.[xxxv]  Reducing the new stock of immigrants was essential to the KKK’s Americanization platform.  The word “Americanization” had become tainted. 

In the midst of this change and worries over the failings of Americanization, the NAC and other organizations disbanded, depriving the BN and other government agencies of funds that Congress did not replace.  Compared to the joyful fanfare that came with the birth of the Americanization movement, its death was silent and not mourned.    

Some Americanization successor groups continued after the larger movement subsided. The Immigrants Protective League (IPL), still based in Chicago, reorganized itself several times over the following century and is currently known as the Heartland Alliance.  Some smaller groups like the International Institute of Los Angeles, founded by the Young Christian Women’s Association (YCWA) in 1914, have managed to weather the years, but their goals have changed.  These new groups are general immigrant aid groups and concern themselves more with providing charity to low-income immigrant households and offering pro bono or cheap legal services.

The more lasting effects of the Americanization movement were reforms in educational curricula on the state and local levels, the creation of new American holidays, and the adoption of citizenship ceremonies meant to inspire patriotism.  Part of the push to celebrate Columbus Day during the 1890s, around the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the New World, was to provide a nationalistic holiday that would appeal to new immigrant groups from Southern Europe, particularly Italy, while providing an opportunity to teach civics to immigrants.  Colorado was the first state to make Columbus Day a holiday in 1905, followed by the federal government in 1934.  Interestingly, Columbus Day was in direct competition with another proto-holiday in the 1890s that was intended to celebrate Leif Erikson as the first European discoverer of the New World.  Columbus Day won out in part because “Leif Erikson Day” was intended to exclude Catholics and other groups that the holiday’s proponents thought were un-American.


The Americanization movement was brief, its efforts unevenly applied, and there is no actual evidence that it sped up civic and political assimilation.  As John J. Miller wrote: “[t]here is no way to judge with any precision the effect that the Americanization movement has on immigrant assimilation, or what would have happened in its absence.”  In the absence of empirical evidence supporting the effectiveness of the Americanization movement, its supporters should be agnostic instead of calling for its revival.  There are plenty of anecdotes that the Americanization Movement slowed assimilation by creating resentment among the immigrants who were the intended beneficiaries.  Given the brief history of the Americanization movement and its small long-term reforms like mandatory recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms, it is unlikely that it was responsible for the civic and political assimilation of immigrants 100 years ago. 

The Americanization movement served the interests of those who used it as a platform to complain about immigrants.  If such an Americanization program were recreated today, it would be captured by either similar opponents of immigration or by left-wing groups who support a leftist multicultural vison of America – certainly an outcome that would horrify John Fonte and other modern proponents of Americanization.  There is little basis to assume that a revived program similar to it would speed up the civic and political assimilation of immigrants today and, rather, would likely slow it down. 

The Americanization and assimilation of immigrants and their descendants is very important.  So important, in fact, that we should not trust this vital task to incompetent government agencies but rather to the assimilationist culture and institutions of civil society that have successfully assimilated every previous group of immigrants and continue to do so today.  The Americanization and assimilation machine is not broken so let's not break it with an ill-considered "fix" by reviving an ineffective 100-year old model.  

div[i] John J. Miller, The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America’s Assimilation Ethic,” The Free Press, New York, NY 1998, p. 52.  

div[ii] Edward George Hartmann, The Movement to Americanize the Immigrant, Columbia University Press, New York, NY 1948, p. 23.

div[iii] Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation By Design, Russell Sage Foundation, New York, NY 2006, p. 216.

div[iv] Edward George Hartmann, The Movement to Americanize the Immigrant, Columbia University Press, New York, NY 1948, pp. 25-26.

div[v] Ibid., p. 27.

div[vi] John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey 1955, p. 240.

div[vii] Miller, pp. 54-55.  

div[viii] Hartmann, p. 29 and Miller, p. 55.  

div[ix] Hartmann, p. 97.

div[x] Miller, p. 43.  

div[xi] Ibid., p. 44.  

div[xii] Miller, pp. 49-50.  

div[xiii] Hartmann, p. 70.

div[xiv] Ibid., p. 24. 

div[xv] Ibid., p. 36.

div[xvi] Ibid., p. 111.

div[xvii] Higham, p. 245.

div[xviii] Ibid., p. 246.

div[xix] Hartmann, pp. 205-206.

div[xx] Ibid., pp. 252-253.

div[xxi] Miller, p. 86. 

div[xxii] Higham, p. 247.

div[xxiii] Ibid., pp. 237-238.

div[xxiv] Hartmann, pp. 255-256.

div[xxv] Ibid., p. 258.

div[xxvi] Ibid., p. 256.

div[xxvii] Ibid.

div[xxviii] Ibid., p. 258.

div[xxix] Ibid., p. 257.

div[xxx] Ibid.

div[xxxi] Ibid., pp. 254-255.

div[xxxii] Ibid.

div[xxxiii] Higham, p. 239.

div[xxxiv] Hartmann, pp. 259-260.

div[xxxv] Miller, pp. 78-79.