European Peasants as Immigrants

THE question as to the limit which, in the interests of our States, may be set to the free commingling of various races cannot safely be dealt with by men who are moved by philanthropy alone. The unguided humanitarian gratifies himself by free giving to the street beggar, and fancies that his dole is true alms. The well-informed lover of his kind, perhaps with quite as much of the Christian spirit, gives nothing in ignorance, and helps only where he has made sure that his bounty will be so well bestowed that it will not lower the conditions of society. It is said of a distinguished English divine, a wise and beneficent man, that, when he came to die, he thanked God he had never given money to a street beggar. It seems to me that, in the larger work of the state, we are bound by the same limitations which should affect our personal charities. The commonwealth has no more right to do deeds of charity or hospitality in an unreasoning way than has the individual man. Even more than an individual, it is the keeper of a trust; for while an individual may hope that his misdeeds of this nature may die with him, the evil done by society, or its product, the state, is inevitably propagated from generation to generation.

We have suffered grievously from the folly of our predecessors in recklessly admitting an essentially alien folk into this land. In their greed for gain, they peopled half the continent with Africans, thus giving us a heritage of evil and perplexity the burden of which we are just beginning to appreciate. It may in the end turn out that through this insensate act they have imperiled the future of their own race in the land best fitted for its nurture. If the negroes, in certain parts of the United States, increase more rapidly than do the whites, the people of our own blood will be expelled from such districts. Where the black population becomes dominant, only the semblance of a democracy can survive ; the body of the people will, as in Hayti, shape their society and their government to fit their inherited qualities. The alternative of such a condition is that the whites may, by their intellectual superiority and their coöperation with the abler negroes, maintain their authority in a forcible way. But what a wretched shadow of our ideal state this authority will be ! In place of an association of true freemen, all by divine right equal heritors in the duties and the privileges of the citizen, we shall have the most vicious and persistent form of despotism, a race oligarchy.

History makes it plain that a race oligarchy almost inevitably arises wherever a superior and an inferior variety of people are brought together. We have a living example of these conditions in several of the Latin countries of the Americas. The peoples of these states, by a common and evident necessity, tend to the oligarchic system. They are made up of masters and servants. The forms of a democracy seem, indeed, to be well suited to such a despotism of race. Every part of the machinery may appear to operate substantially as it does in the best of our commonwealths, and yet the spirit and theory of our system have no more real place in such governments than in the Czar’s dominions.

There are many things which go to show that the oligarchic form of society in our Southern States, brought about by the essential diversities of the white and black races, is already affecting the system of their government. The negro has little or no more place in the body politic than he has in the social system. One third of the population in that part of the country is excluded from the most educative duties of the citizen, those which should come to him through the trusts which his neighbors confide to his care. I am far from blaming the Southern whites for their action in summarily excluding the enfranchised race from political advancement. The ignorance of these Africans, their general lack of all the instincts of a freeman, have made this course, it seems to me, for the time at least, imperatively necessary. It is a very grave misfortune for us all that any part of our people have been thus separated from the ideals of a democratic government. On the other hand, it was a more desperate and immediate evil to have the Southern commonwealths converted into mere engines of plunder, as was the case during the so-called period of reconstruction, when the blacks controlled these States.

My reason for noting the facts above mentioned is that we may derive from them some sense of the vast body of evidence which goes to show that the presence of any considerable mass of alien people (alien, though they may have been born upon the soil) is, to a democratic state, a danger of the most serious sort. It inevitably leads to changes in the essentials of such a government. Under these conditions, the ideal commonwealth is impossible, and the spirit of the people inevitably trends towards despotic forms of administration.

Accepting the view that a true democracy cannot be maintained in the presence of a large alien class, we perceive that the main question which underlies the problem of immigration concerns the extent to which the foreign people we receive are already fit, or may readily be prepared, for incorporation into the body of American citizens. It is unreasonable to suppose that the foreigner can in any way be made a true citizen until he is in some measure engrafted on the social system from which the government springs. He must acquire the necessary motives through a natural process of enfranchisement; the mere forms of the court are idle mummery unless this work has been done. The novice must be made free to the current thought of the realm, which does not pass as easily as its coin.

To determine the difficulty of this naturalizing process necessary to give the stranger a sympathy with our institutions, we must consider the origin and nurture of the masses of people who come to us from the Old World. This is a very large task, for these immigrants are derived from many different countries, and represent the products of a great diversity of social conditions which have bred in them a singular variety of motives. To make even a general estimate of final value, it would be necessary for the observer to spend many years in assiduous travel, with the subject matter of this inquiry foremost in his mind. I am not aware that any investigator has deliberately undertaken this task. I therefore venture to set forth the results of some of my own studies, which appear to me to have a certain, though, I must confess, only a limited value.

As the considerations which I am about to present are important only in the measure of my opportunities of inquiry, it is fit that I should state what these chances have been. Within the last twenty-seven years, I have spent between four and five years in Europe, and have devoted a large part of that time to journeys afoot in Great Britain and on the Continent, through the regions which furnish the greater part of the immigrants who are now coming, and are likely in the future to come, to this country. As my wanderings have usually been made alone, they have naturally afforded a much more intimate acquaintance with the people of the land than is ordinarily obtained by travelers. All human beings interest me much, and especially those native to the soil ; and I have always found it easy to secure at least a superficial relation with my neighbors in other lands.

The most striking impression which is gained by such opportunities of acquiring a knowledge of European folk concerns the nature of the peasant class. To an American who knows his own people by long and familiar contact, the European son of the soil, in his natural habitat, seems at once to be a very singular creature. The truly naturalized American, even of the lower grade, thinks and acts in a manner which is essentially common to all his kind, however far apart they may be in station or employment. We feel at once there are no essential or permanent differences of motive in the ranks of our society. We note peculiarities due to schooling or to occupation, and something of variety due to local conditions and to the inheritances which come therewith; but the fundamental motives of our men and women, be they rich or poor, from town or country, from North or South, are the same. They never have a sense of inferiority ; never a grudge against those who, by one chance or another, occupy a place above them. Every American, born to the manner of his kind, feels the world to be open to him. He looks and wins his way upward ; the dominant passion of his soul is to secure a better estate, if not for himself, at least for his children. Everywhere we find a great deal of talent among Americans in the lowest condition of life. All these well-endowed individuals have no sense of social restraint ; they feel that they are free to go the way which their capacities may open to them. The whole of the social system in which they dwell is recognized as their own as soon as they can lay just claim to it. They are given to criticising this system, but they do so in a manner which shows that they do not regard it as something in its nature foreign.

The characteristic European peasant differs from the American laboring man in the motives which are of first importance in the composition of the citizen of a democracy. The peasant knows himself to be by birthright a member of an inferior class, from which there is practically no chance of escaping. He is in essentially the same state as the Southern negro. There is a wall between him and the higher realms of life. The imprisonment is so complete that he rarely thinks about the chances of escaping. Centuries of experience have bred in him the understanding that he is by nature a peasant, and that, save in rare instances, he can acquire no other station in the land of his birth. His only chance of considerable betterment is through the army or the Church ; and even by these gates he can rarely pass beyond the limits of his class. It is characteristic of peasants that they have accepted this inferior lot. For generations they have regarded themselves as separated from their fellowcitizens of higher estate. They have no large sense of citizenly motives ; they feel no sense of responsibility for any part of the public life save that which lies within their own narrow round of action. Within these limits they are controlled by habits and traditions of an excellent sort; they have indeed contrived for themselves a separate lower estate, divided from the rest of the people with whom they dwell as completely as though parted by centuries or by wide seas.

The isolation of the folk of the peasant class makes it impossible for them to develop any political quality whatsoever. They do not learn to associate their actions ; they do not feel the province of individual effort in the control of common interests. They appear never to have that keen sense of what is going on beyond their vision which is the foundation of citizenly duty. The only relation with the ruling orders of society which they hold is either that of a blind respect or an equally blind antagonism. In general, the peasant not only exhibits no longing for preferment; he exhibits a perfect acquiescence in the lot which has been assigned him. To his mind, the head of the state is hardly further away than the lowest member of the superior class. Centuries of such breeding have, of course, checked the development of all those motives and aspirations which are the foundations of our democracy, and which are the life-breath of a true commonwealth. There are, however, other influences at work which tend still further to limit the grade of peasant life. Certain of these we shall have to note in some detail.

It is the most noteworthy, if not the most noticeable peculiarity of the laboring classes in Europe that they exhibit relatively little difference between man and man. Rarely, indeed, do we find any one born in the peasant caste who shows much individuality of mind. At first, the uniformity in the character of these people was a puzzle to me; to any one who had become accustomed to the ongoing spirit of a democratic state, the fact that such folk in no wise chafe against their narrow bounds must be a matter for surprise. The only distinct desire which seems to exist among these people is for more opportunities for gain. Political preferment, a better social station, enlarged fields of action, are not, as with us, the mainsprings of endeavor. The gainful motive, like many others which animate the peasant class, is singularly limited. Money is desired for its own sake. The peasant who attains fortune rarely alters his scheme of living. If the money be inherited, the family may continue to live the ancestral life, frowning on any effort of the children to turn from the laborious paths of their forefathers. A man of this kind becomes a true miser, in a way which is practically unknown, we may indeed say impossible, in a democracy. Such an instance of this vice as is pictured in Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet may naturally develop in the peasant class.

It must be confessed that in the immediate view the plan of life of the peasant is more pleasing than that so often followed by the new-made rich of the democratic society. With us, the accession of wealth is nearly always valued for the chance it affords the possessor to lift his mode of living to what seems to him a better social level, which is most often a position he is not in a natural manner fitted to occupy. Yet the essential difference between a democratic and an aristocratic society is indicated by the conduct of the men who have come by money while they were members of the laboring class. The peasant has no social or political longings to satisfy, for the simple reason that his inheritances and the traditions of his class supply him with none. The ordinary man of our democratic community, in his imagination, sees himself among the powers of the land. If he gains the means, he makes haste to assail the social leadership, and perhaps aims for a place in the federal Senate.

While the oftentimes absurd pretensions of the people who have suddenly gained wealth may amuse or distress us, we have to recognize their behavior as evidence of the sympathetic bond which is the strength of our state. To be strong, a democratic society such as ours needs to have its members aspiring for the fullest measure of life, eager for all the advantages of contact and influence which can be achieved. Only in this way can the preferment of the best men be secured. Where, as among peasant folk, there is no upward striving, the mass of the people is hardly more profitable to the best interests of the commonwealth than the cattle of the fields. It may swell the census and fill the ranks of armies, but its aid is lacking in all forms of social endeavor.

The absence of diversity in the intellectual quality of peasants is doubtless in part to be explained by the singular uniformity in their habitudes of existence, and by the fixed and secure conditions of their routine labor, and the caste distinctions which part them from the superior classes. There is, however, another series of influences which have long and effectively operated to lower and make uniform the mental and social qualities of this class in nearly all European countries. These conditions must be clearly understood before we can adequately account for the state of these people, or judge as to their fitness for the uses of American citizenship.

The most important group of causes which have stamped, in an indelible manner, the sign of inferiority on the laboring classes of the Old World may be briefly stated as follows. While the greater part of the hand laborers of the ancient societies of Europe have been denied community with the ruling folk, there have been two ways open by which the abler youths of both sexes, who were born in this class, could pass forth from it, never to return. These ways led to military service and to the orders of the Catholic Church. Entering the army, the man, particularly if he had in him the stuff to make a good soldier, found a permanent occupation. He commonly died in arms, or returned to his people only when too old to rear a family. If his ability was distinguished, he might win a rank which would remove him from the class whence he sprung. His descendants would retain his acquired station, and, despite all reverses of fortune, would seldom return to the order of peasants. Thus, every person of capacity who adopted the career of arms was likely to be lost to his people. In this way, for perhaps twenty generations, the lower classes of European people have been robbed of much of their strength.

Great in amount as has been this withdrawal of talent from the people on account of military pursuits, the Church has, at least during the last twelve or fifteen centuries, been a far more efficient means of impoverishing the peasant blood. While the army of the sword enlisted its hosts only from the men, and permitted them occasionally to leave descendants among their people, the army of the cross gathered its recruits from both sexes, and doomed them alike to sterility. On its altars were sacrificed not only the talents of the individual, but all the expectation of good progress which the able man or woman offers to society. It is not easy to conceive how efficient this system of selecting the able youth from the body of the people has been, or how effectively it is still carried on in certain parts of Europe.

Since the Church first possessed the lands of Europe, and organized its clerical system, more than twelve hundred years have elapsed. During this time the population within its control has probably averaged at least fifty million. Allowing that there has been a priest to each five hundred of these people, we have about a hundred thousand of the abler men of each generation withdrawn from the body of the people, the greater portion of them from the lower ranks of society. Each of these men searched among the children of his parishioners for the boys and girls of promise who might be taken into the ranks of the priesthood or into the various religious orders. We may fairly estimate that the persons who were thus withdrawn from the life of their time, and whose inheritances were lost to their people, numbered as much as one per cent of the population. Although a part of this promise of the people was taken from the upper classes, the greater part of it was probably always, as at present, derived from the lower orders of society. Among the prosperous folk, there have ever been many classes of occupations tempting the abler youths, while among the laborers the Church has afforded the easiest way to rise, and that which is most tempting to the intelligent. The result has been, that while the priesthood and monastic orders have systematically debilitated all the populations of Catholic Europe, their influence has been most efficient in destroying the original talent in the peasant class.

The doctrine of inheritance is so little understood, and its application to the development of peoples so novel, that the full bearing of these influences exerted by the great celibate organizations of European states is not commonly appreciated. The researches of Mr. Francis Galton, and of the other investigators who have followed his admirable methods of inquiry, have clearly shown that the inheritance of qualities in man is as certain as among the lower animals. The cases are indeed rare where persons of conspicuous ability have been born of parents of inferior capacity. In practically all cases, it appears that talent of any kind does not suddenly originate among the lower orders of men. It rises gradually through generational development. At first the living spring of power is weak ; it gathers volume in several fortunate successions of parent and child ; and finally it appears in the strong tide of talent or genius. The first and noblest object of society should be to favor these beginnings of a higher life, and to preserve the inheritance, in the confident hope that it may gain strength with time. But the system of the two great organizations, the army and the Church, has operated in diverse measure, but with the same effect, to destroy these beginnings of capacity by the sword or by celibacy.

We are all familiar with the results obtained by the process of selection as it is exercised by the breeder on the cattle of our fields. By this simple means, the speed of the horse, as well as its size, has been greatly increased; the original rough and scanty wool of the sheep has been changed to the merino fleece ; and the few savage instincts of the dog have been overlaid by a marvelous development of sagacity and affection, which has given a really human quality to the mind of that creature. Let us suppose, however, that the breeder had taken pains to select all the most powerful horses, and had devoted them to the carnage of the battlefield ; that he had carefully destroyed all the lambs which possessed fine fleeces; that he had tolerated only the savage curs, or bred them alone for drawing burdens, disregarding all the intelligence and sympathy which they might exhibit. What would the condition of these domesticated animals now be ? Certainly they would exhibit none of the qualities which give them value ; they would, indeed, still be in their primitive state. Yet this is substantially the evil work which has been done by the most permanent of our social organizations. If they had been designed for the purpose, they could not have been more efficiently contrived to prevent the advance of the lower ranks of mankind.

It must not be supposed that this criticism of the army and the Church takes no account of the collateral advantages which have arisen from the selection which these establishments have made of the abler youth of each generation. The process has led to gains of great and permanent value. The art of war has much educational importance : it teaches men the principles of orderly association, and inculcates the motives of discipline. Through the development of the military art, the folk of our race gradually rose from savagery to feudalism, and thence to the higher ideals of the modern state. War is an evil arising from the nature of man, and its ills have diminished with every stage in the advance from the rude work of antiquity to the science of today. The Church needed all the forces it could command for the long combat which conquered paganism, and established the higher religious ideal of Christianity. The millions who have been in its active priesthood have been, as a whole, an army fighting in the cause of human advance. It is possible that these men could not have done their work so well save as celibates. The service demanded the fullest measure of devotion, which perhaps could not have been obtained from men who were influenced by domestic ties. If the sacrifice of the people’s strength had been limited to those who entered the calling of the priest, the question of the balance of good and ill might be regarded as doubtful; but when we consider the hosts of able men and women in each generation withdrawn from the body of the people by the religious orders, we feel that there have been no adequate compensations for the sacrifice. The only sound apology for the system is to be found in the ignorance of its founders concerning the nature of man,—a plea which, in time, our descendants will, it may be, have to make for ourselves.

The extent to which this process of destroying the talent of the peasant class has affected the quality of the population in different parts of Europe varies greatly. It has doubtless been most effective in those regions where the Roman Church has had the most uninterrupted sway. The Latin countries, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France, have felt the influence of the conditions imposed hy the Roman Church, down to the present day. In the northern part of Europe, owing to the development of those forms of Christianity in which the clergy is not celibate, and in which the monastic order finds no important place, the greater part of the population has been, for many generations, exempt from this destructive influence.

The observant foot traveler in Europe may, at many points, observe differences in the conditions of the peasant class which are due to diversities in their history : thus, on the line between the western cantons of Switzerland and the neighboring parts of France. The difference in the quality of the laboring classes in these two fields is surprisingly great, and coincides exactly with the political line. On the east we have a vigorous and varied body of people, in their essential qualities like our own folk ; on the west, characteristic peasants, such as give the economic strength of France, laborious, dull, substantially immobile people. So far as my experience goes, the peasantry of Germany and the Scandinavian countries is in a much higher state than that of southern Europe ; there is, indeed, a distinct improvement visible as we go northward. In England there is but a remnant of the peasant folk, and this is vanishing before the process of advance on the lines of democratic culture.

It seems to me that where the abovedescribed processes which have lowered the intellectual tone of the peasant class have done their full work, we cannot expect to find among the laboring people good material from which to make the citizens of a democracy. For that purpose we need not only a sound basis of moral character, — which, thanks to the Church, is often an admirable feature in the lower classes of Europe, — but also a considerable measure of native ability. A democratic society which has not the power to supply men of capacity from its lower ranks will soon cease to be a true democracy, and decline to the oligarchic state. It is the peculiar feature of our American population that ability is as well developed among the lower as among the higher grades of the people. This feature is shown in many ways; among others, by the endless religious movements. The condition where there are “ fifty religions and but one sauce,” though in some respects disagreeable, affords excellent proof of the intellectual quickness of the folk, even if it shows a strange defect in taste in other matters. The same inventive quality of the mind is also noticeable in the incessant stream of mechanical contrivances which comes from our laboring men of native blood. Neither of these indications of ability is discernible among the characteristic peasants of Europe. They have no desire to change the faith or the tools of their forefathers. The Italian of to-day uses substantially the implements which served the Roman of the same calling in the first century of our era. I have seen, within view of a main railway in Tuscany, in actual use, ploughs which contained not a particle of metal, and retained the classic form. It is not necessary that every American citizen should be a patentee, but the general existence of this inventive motive shows the wide distribution of the foreseeing and planning power which makes good citizens. Those who are inquirers in the matter of machines and creeds will, when called on, be ready for statecraft.

If the form of our government were such as permitted us to create or maintain a peasant class, the European people of this grade might be a valuable contribution to our population. Such folk are generally laborious, patient, and home-loving. In them the simpler virtues of men are very firmly implanted. They make an admirable foundation for any state which is ruled by a distinct upper class ; which, in a word, has an aristocratic organization, whatever may be the name by which it designates its government. Thus, in France, where the political system is still, though founded on universal suffrage, aristocratic in essence, where there is little trace of an upward movement out of the peasant class, the orderly, laborious people of this grade constitute the strength of the state, restoring by their ceaseless toil and economy the vast waste of capital which that unfortunate country has suffered during the last twenty years. But our fathers did not, and we do not as yet, declaredly propose to found a state on such a purely laboring class. The only social order consistent with our commonwealth is one in which all men are not only equal before the law, but have an essential unity in their motives and aspirations. Just so far as we admit these peasant people to a place with us, we inflict on our life the impoverishment of citizenly talent which their own unfortunate history has laid upon them.

But I hear the optimist cry: “ These people are essentially like ourselves ; they will quickly respond to the stimulus of our free air. In one generation they will become thoroughly Americanized.” I would ask the hopeful man to consider how long it would require to change himself or his descendants into the characteristic mould of body and mind of the peasant. Backward steps in the generations are always more easily taken than are those of advance, but all who have considered such changes will, I think, agree with me that it would take some centuries of sore trial to bring the characteristic American to the lower estate, and the chance is that the breed would perish on the way. Our country affords excellent instances to show how indelible longinherited characteristics may become. The bodily characteristics, and to a great extent the motives, of our African folk have withstood the greatest climatic and social changes which any race has ever experienced within the historic period. Much of the peasant quality stays in the Germans of Pennsylvania, though they are from an excellent and relatively advanced original stock. Even if we take slight social peculiarities, we find them amazingly persistent among our eminently plastic people. At least one instance bearing on this point I may be permitted to give.

Much has been said concerning the unhappy spirit of battle which leads to so many homicides in certain parts of the South. It is a fair matter for wonder how a people, in general so like others of their time and race, should have this barbaric habit of killing their neighbors on slight provocation. The explanation seems to be that, in the Southern States, the social conditions induced by slavery have served to perpetuate in the white people the peculiar notions of personal honor which marked, and were indeed an essential concomitant of, the feudal system. The strong commands of the Christian faith, vigorous legislation, the pressure of public opinion brought to bear by their more advanced neighbors, have not served to stamp out this evil. So far, indeed, they seem to have made no distinct impression upon it. It remains a most striking example to show the singular permanence of motives among men. A like endurance of ancestral quality could, if space admitted, readily be shown in other parts of this country, among folk who have been thoroughly Americanized, who have been exempt from the bondage of tradition in a measure which we cannot expect in the descendants of a peasant class.

Whoever will take care, in a dispassionate way, to consider the conditions of a peasant class will be led to doubt the profit of our present experiments which tend toward a reconstruction of our society on the new foundations which such people afford.

We should remember that our English race had won its way to the independent and vigorous social motives which are the characteristics of our democracy before they were transplanted to this country. The circumstances of that migration prevented the importation of a peasantry, and insured that the laboring class, except the Africans, should be formed of people who had already risen above the state of serfdom. The social conditions of the land tended to prevent the institution of a very distinct peasant class in the mother country, and they had made a development of such an estate quite impossible here. The result was that our original population retained, and in a way restored, the primitive social form of the Germanic race, or perhaps we had better say the Aryan variety of mankind. They were men who had never been slaves. Their stock had been but little pauperized by the army or the Church, or ground down by centuries of life in the conditions of a lower caste. Compare the origin and nurture of these freemen with those of the ordinary laborers of Europe, and we see at once the gravity of the danger which the mass of European immigration brings to us. The American commonwealth could never have been founded if the first European colonists had been of peasant stock. It is doubtful whether it can be maintained if its preservation comes to depend upon such men.

N. S. Shaler.