Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Greatest Migration of All

Eric B. Schultz

Ask an American historian to define the Great Migration and you’ll hear one of several answers.  Most will describe the movement of 6 million African Americans from the rural South who headed north and west, from
A Jack Delano photo of migrants
heading north from Florida, 1940.
World War I through 1970, seeking economic opportunity and relief from Jim Crow laws. This is the story so beautifully told in Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns.

There’s another group of historians who might describe the Great Migration as the 20,000 English men, women, and children who crossed the Atlantic between 1620 and 1640, seeking opportunity and relief in New England. These are the Mayflower names, the families that delight and provide such rich insights for genealogists.  Since 1988 the New England Historic Genealogical Society has sponsored the Great Migration Study Project, scheduled for completion in 2016.

In his monumental What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 Daniel Walker Howe describes “one of the greatest migrations in America,” when Andrew Jackson encouraged white squatters from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Tennessee to move onto 14 million acres expropriated from the Creeks. By 1819 this flood of humanity had established Mississippi and Alabama. “The Alabama fever rages here with great violence,” one North Carolina farmer moaned, “and has carried off vast numbers of our citizens.” Never, Howe remarks, had so large a territory been settled so rapidly—though the peopling of the Old Northwest Territory was not far behind.

Still, there has been another kind of Great Migration in America, less dramatic, but in some ways the steadiest and perhaps most influential. It also has great bearing upon one of today’s hottest political issues, immigration policy, and helps explain why Silicon Valley is so vested in the bill currently making its way through Congress.

"The Puritan Migration to America, 1620-1640."
From Bedford/St. Martin's MapCentral.
Brooke Hindle (1918-2001) was the historian emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History when he, along with (current) Brown University’s Steven Lubar, authored Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution 1790-1860. It’s a beautiful book that emphasizes the material aspects of innovation (later reinforced in Hindle’s excellent Emulation and Innovation). It also answers in a very simple way a very profound question: How did a nation of farmers stage their own Industrial Revolution and by 1851 stun the world with their technological prowess at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition?

One answer, of course, is theft and industrial espionage. If good ideas can be stolen and copied, from Samuel Slater’s work in duplicating an Arkwright-type spinning factory at Pawtucket, to Francis Cabot Lowell’s study of English power looms, then revolution is possible. Indeed, even Eli Whitney—who all good Americans know invented the cotton gin—relied upon a millennium of global cotton gin technology (and not very well, Angela Lakwete’s Inventing the Cotton Gin tells us). One wonders if the talk in 19th-century Parliament about Americans wasn’t roughly akin to that of today’s U.S government and its recent indictment of China’s military for stealing industrial technology.

A second answer is that Jefferson’s virtuous farmer also just happened to be conversant with machines of all kinds; a healthy farm required that cams, ratchets, escapements, pistons, and even (or especially!) whiskey stills be in good working order. Lubar and Hindle quote one New Jersey farmer-tavern keeper, who told an astounded visitor not long after the Revolution, “I am a mover, a shoemaker, furrier, wheelwright, farmer, gardener, and when it can’t be helped, a soldier. I make my bread, brew my beer, kill my pigs; I grind my axes and knives; I built those stalls and that shed there; I am barber, leech, and doctor.” 

Finally—and here’s the Great Migration aspect—America (with a few notable decades excepted) has long been a welcome destination for skilled artisans. Dutch and Polish glassworkers, Italian silk reelers, and German sawyers arrived in Jamestown, the authors tell us, at the invitation of the Virginia Company. England, itself a destination for German miners, Flemish weavers, and French glassworkers and horologists, in turn transferred those technologies to America as skilled artisans crossed the Atlantic.

As early as 1754, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had a pumped and piped water supply courtesy of Moravian Germans. The famous Pennsylvania rifle and Conestoga wagon evolved from German prototypes. The sawmill, so important to America’s growth, was brought by artisans from Hamburg. England passed along navigational and mathematical instruments, clockmaking, gunnery, and coal-fuel industries. In the 1830s and 1840s when the steam engine pushed the geographic center of industry from New England to Pennsylvania, it was English, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish miners and ironworkers who brought their skills to bear. “The leading cities—Philadelphia, Boston, and New York—received a continuing stream of artisans,” Hindle and Lubar write, “most of them from London, quickly making available the skills and newer developments of the British metropolis.”
Occupational portrait of a skilled worker,
ca. 1850. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There seems more than a casual relationship between the fact that, from 1824 to 1831, more than 1,000 Englishmen classifying themselves as “machinists” immigrated to the United States, and by 1860 American machinists were among the best in the world.

Like a modern CEO warning his engineers that they will surely fail if they adopt a “not invented here” mentality, George Washington told his countryman in his first address to Congress that “the introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad” could be as valuable as those created by the “skill and genius” of Americans. Those kinds of “foreign entanglements” were ones that the Commander in Chief appeared to welcome.

While Hindle and Lubar focus on cutting edge technology, we also know that sometimes the sort of “artisan talent” that migrated to America came in the form of incredible persistence and sheer ambition. In The Maritime History of Massachusetts, Samuel Eliot Morison tells us that conditions on whaling vessels became so abysmal that American citizens refused to serve; this left opportunity for “Kanakas, Tongatabooras, Filipinos, and even Fiji cannibals like Melville’s hero Queequeg” to make their way in America. By taking jobs that Americans would not, these hearty immigrants supported an enormously profitable global trade and enriched their adopted country.

It’s a powerful historical reminder that this Great Migration of skills that advanced America’s innovation economy over the last 300 years sprang from both the most advantaged and the least advantaged immigrant groups.

Once again we are embroiled in a great debate about immigration. (For two sides of the coin, see Howie Carr’s piece here and David Brooks’ here.) I don’t pretend to know the best policy, nor do I suggest that three centuries of this Great Migration of talent and technology should be the only thing considered in the debate. I just hope, given the impact of this extraordinary gift, that it is at least one of the factors considered by those who might otherwise close our borders.


hcr said...

A lovely piece, Eric.

One of the things that fascinates me about immigration is that, until the late 19th c, it was considered imperative to build a strong nation. Not until the immigrations acts of 1882 did America take the position that more workers were a bad thing. Times and conditions change, of course, but many people seem to have forgotten that the anti-immigration thought so prevalent in the 20th (and 21st) centuries is a new phenomenon. (Perhaps attributable in part to longer lifespans, come to think of it.)

Jeff Vanke said...

Don't forget the Dutch during the same time, to ueber-entrepreneurial NA/NYC!