Prompt: “As the century drew to a close, the explosion of cities paradoxically made Americans more diverse and more similar at the same time.” Assess the validity of this statement.
As the 19th century drew to a close, the rapid development of cities served as both a uniting and diving factor in American social, economic, and political life. Cities attracted a rich cross-section of the world’s population, creating a diverse, metropolitan atmosphere. At the same time, cities forced people from entirely different backgrounds to live and work together in close proximity for the first time, which served as a uniting factor. The never-ending influx of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Britain, and Scandinavia created an ethnically diverse population united by their common financial plight, social oppression, and shared American Dream.
Cities attracted a diverse population composed of hundreds of ethnicities from around the globe. German and Scandinavian immigrants poured into America during the late 19th century, attracted by extravagant stories of the wonderful American lifestyle: three meals a day, freedom, and social equality. Sadly, none of these “American creeds” ever became a reality for German and Scandinavian immigrants. Rich industrial giants exaggerated the luxuries of American life in a deliberate attempt to attract cheap labor. Desperate people from every country in the world flocked to the United States to escape their dire political, social, and economic situations bringing with them cultural traditions and languages. One foreign observer noted on a visit to America, “You could hear over one-hundred different languages being spoken just by walking down the street in New York City”. Not only did immigrants come from Germany and Scandinavia, but immigrants continued to pour in from Ireland and Britain, bringing with them their diverse political beliefs, social customs, and religious traditions. The diversity found in the cities extended to political thought as well. Many German and Irish Catholic immigrants became democrats immediately because they identified with the worker’s struggle, the vast majority of them being wage-laborers themselves. However, other immigrants, especially those from Britain and Scandinavia, became conservative Republicans. In many other instances, the immigrants had their political preference chosen for them by powerful political machines. The immigrant would agree to vote for a certain candidate in exchange for a stable job. The density and the concentration of such diverse political beliefs in such a small locale was a worldwide first—something never seen anywhere before. The mixing and blending of so many distinct and diverse cultures was truly a dividing factor during this time period. Many minority groups tended to congregate in certain area of the city giving rise to nicknames like “Chinatown” in San Francisco and “Little Italy” in New York City. Yet, the immigrants’ common financial plight and social oppression proved to be a powerful unifying factor as the 19th century drew to a close.
As desperate people immigrated to the United States for the chance to live a better life often discovering upon arrival, however, that their situation was as bad, if not worse that it was before. New Immigrants, the majority of which did not speak English, were viewed as socially inferior to the other American residents. Rich “robber barons” or industrial giants paid the immigrants ridiculously low wages, knowing that they were forced to take the low-paying jobs or face starvation. As New Immigrants became a larger part of the workforce in America, industrial leaders began to realize that they could increase profits if they fired their existing workers and hired New Immigrants who would accept even the lowest of wages. Native-born Americans became upset with the immigrants taking their jobs and lowering wages so anti-immigration groups like the Nativists and the Know-Nothings materialized. These groups fought against immigrants in every conceivable way. Nativists drafted laws to make immigrants lives difficult through high taxes, poor living conditions, and exclusion acts. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred all Chinese from entering the country in response to their “overpopulation” of the California region. In addition to sharing the same dire financial situation, immigrants were the victims of the same powerful and corrupt political machines. Immigrants more and more were beginning to realize that despite their ethnic differences they had a lot in common and they should unite to fight for their rights. Immigrants took part in movements like Progressivism to effect change and address the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization.
Although cities were filled with a diverse mix of ethnicities, languages, and religions, immigrants shared a lot in common. They shared the same financial, political, and social plights caused by the rapid growth of metropolitan cities and the tyranny of groups like the Nativists, “robber barons”, and political machines. It was the immigrants’ common dilemma that caused them to unify and fight for their rights despite their diverse backgrounds and seemingly hopeless circumstances.
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