Beyond "Voting with Their Feet": Toward a Conceptual History of "America" in European Migrant Sending Communities, 1860S to 1914

By Friedman, Max Paul | Journal of Social History, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Beyond "Voting with Their Feet": Toward a Conceptual History of "America" in European Migrant Sending Communities, 1860S to 1914


Friedman, Max Paul, Journal of Social History


The old chestnut that most European immigrants "voted with their feet" by fleeing oppressive Old World societies for the political and religious freedom of the United States endures despite the contrary findings of years of migration research. The double metaphor seems irresistible to scholars writing about the image of the United States abroad. "Tens of millions of immigrants have voted with their feet to slough off prior allegiances and join the boisterous experiment that makes 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' its official goal," claims Daniel Pipes. (1) "Immigrants have consistently voted with their feet by flooding our shores," agrees Victor Davis Hanson. (2) Paul Hollander describes anti-American sentiment as an affliction of foreign elites, in stark contrast to "the spectacle of millions of people voting with their feet to become members of this much maligned society." (3) How accurately does the familiar phrase convey the meaning of America in the minds of non-elite Europeans? This article calls the cliche into question in two ways: first, by pointing to some of the main elements of immigration research that complicate the picture of the United States as primarily a haven for freedom-seeking Europeans, and second, by pointing to promising sources that might allow us to develop a richer understanding of the conceptual meanings of "America" in the minds of those who left few written records of their views.

If yearning for freedom as the cause of large-scale nineteenth-century European immigration has become an idee fixe of American exceptionalism, few immigration historians today would subscribe to it. Roger Daniels calls the misconception that most immigrants were escaping persecution "the myth of Plymouth Rock," untrue even of the Puritans themselves, most of whom sought economic betterment in New England. (4) George Pozzetta introduced his major overview of the field, American Immigration and Ethnicity, with the consensus view that "most immigrants entered America in quest of work, and after the 1860s, usually industrial work." (5) Wolfgang Helbich estimates that at least 90 percent of German-speaking immigrants to the United States came for socioeconomic reasons; even of the wave of emigrants who left after the failed liberal revolutions of 1848-9, Helbich observes, "no historian believes any longer that there were more than 3,000 to 4,000" political refugees among them. (6) If many Europeans arriving before the mid-nineteenth century experienced life in the United States as a welcome respite from the servitude and absolutism they left behind, some were uncomfortable with the paradox that the land of the free permitted chattel slavery. (7) Labor, rather than liberty, remained the overriding concern in the decision to move to the United States, especially in the peak immigration years of the industrial era. In place of the freedom paradigm, scholars have come to understand that migration is "a normal and structural element of human societies throughout history," and European movement to the Americas is best understood "in terms of the fundamental structures of European economic life." (8)

By sheer numbers, of course, most Europeans did not decide to leave for the United States or anywhere else. During the long nineteenth century from 1815-1914, for every European who left Europe, nine moved within Europe. From 1861 to 1910, emigrants to the Americas were a tiny percentage of the whole population: from as high as 6.6 out of 1,000 annually from Norway to as low as 0.2 out of 1,000 from France. (9) On a statistical basis, then, it would be more accurate, remaining faithful to the terms of the cliche, to say that most Europeans voted with their sitzfleisch by staying right where they were. Furthermore, the notion of emigrants "voting with their feet" for the United States ignores the high rate of return migration, an outbound mass movement that might lead metaphor enthusiasts to say that the large proportion of European immigrants to the United States who returned to Europe were changing their vote after a closer look. …

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