Breeders, Workers, and Mothers: Gender and the Congressional Literacy Test Debate, 1896–1897
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 November 2010
In May of 1896, Richard Bartholdt, a Republican from Missouri and a German immigrant, stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and introduced a bill that would set off months of debate in the Fifty-Fourth Congress. The bill was H.R. 7864, which required all male immigrants between the ages of sixteen and sixty to prove they were literate in either English or some other language. While congressmen on all sides of the issue made passionate arguments for and against this bill, they nevertheless found some areas of agreement. The supporters and opponents of restriction all regarded southern and eastern European immigrants as racially different than those of northwestern European descent. Further, all congressmen understood the purpose of the bill to be as much about improving the United States citizenry racially as intellectually. Richard Bartholdt clearly stated the racial reasoning behind the literacy test when he introduced the bill to the House.
- The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era , Volume 3 , Issue 1 , January 2004 , pp. 35 - 58
- Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2004
1 In the 1890s, the issue of classifying European races had started to become a heated issue in academic and scientific circles. No popular language existed to demarcate European “races,” except for the vague Anglo-Saxon and “Hebrew.” Others were referred to by nationality. This changed in 1899 when Harvard Professor Alexander Ripley published The Races of Europe, in which Ripley divided Europeans into three races — Teutonic, Alpine and Mediterranean. See Ripley, Alexander, The Races of Europe: A Sociological Study (New York, 1899).Google Scholar See also Higham, John, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New Brunswick, NJ,  1988), 154–56Google Scholar and Guterl, Matthew Pratt, The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940 (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 16–22.Google Scholar
2 Some in Congress did declare that the nation needed an educated electorate, and indeed the need for an educated citizenry had been a theme in American political rhetoric since the time of the nation's founding. See Brown, Richard D., The Strength of A People: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry in America, 1650–1870 (Chapel Hill, 1996).Google Scholar However, the dominant theme of the literacy test debate in the Fifty-Fourth Congress centered on how the bill would exclude southeastern European immigrants and whether this was desirable.
3 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5418.
4 Ibid. Here are some of the illiteracy rates of immigrants from specific nations listed on the chart: Italy, 52.93 percent; Poland, 39.82 percent; Russia, 36.42 percent; England, 3.5 percent; The Netherlands, 3.38 percent; Germany, 2.49 percent; Sweden, 74 percent.
6 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 6:5433.
7 King, Desmond, Making Americans: Immigration, Race and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy (Cambridge, MA, 2000).Google Scholar Recent scholarship has also tied immigration restriction to ideologies about whiteness, particularly Jacobson, Matthew Frye, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA, 1998)Google Scholar and Guterl's The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940.
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28 The bill Lodge introduced (S. 2147) was not the literacy test bill that ultimately passed through both houses of Congress. Lodge's bill, however, was essentially the same as H.R. 7864, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in May of 1896.
29 Many accused the supporters of the so-called Lodge Force Bill of trying to limit the power of Southern Democrats in Congress, which was no doubt partly true. But the supporters of election reform also did want to help enfranchise African Americans, who did subsequently have their voting rights severely curtailed in southern states. Welch, Richard E. Jr, “The Federal Elections Bill of 1890: Postscripts and Prelude,” The Journal of American History 52 (December 1965): 511–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
30 A record of the strong connection between Lodge and the Immigration Restriction League can be found in a scrapbook titled “Records of the Executive Committee of the Immigration Restriction League and the Meetings of the League, May 1894-December 1902, Volume 1,” Box 2, Records of the Immigration Restriction League, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. See also, Charles Warren, “Immigration Restriction League Annual Report of the Executive Committee for 1895,” submitted January 13, 1896, Box 7, Records of the Immigration Restriction League. See also Solomon, Barbara Miller, Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition (Cambridge, MA, 1956).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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35 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 3:2819.
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38 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., First sess., 1896, 28, pt. 3:2819.
53 Louisiana had a high percentage of Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans in their population, particularly in New Orleans, so it would make sense that Louisiana congressmen would stand up and defend Italian migration. Daniels, , Coming to America, 192–93.Google Scholar However, by the 1890s, Italians in Louisiana were facing more hostility. See Cunningham, George E., “The Italian, a Hinderance to White Solidarity in Louisiana, 1890–1898,” The Journal of Negro History 50 (January 1965): 22–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
54 Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 2:1926.
61 Lodge's contention that immigrant women posed a racial threat by their breeding foreshadowed eugenic arguments against immigrant women in the early twentieth century. See Irving, Katrina, Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and Maternity, 1890–1925 (Urbana, 2000)Google Scholar and Nicolosi, Ann Marie, “‘We Do Not Want Our Girls to Marry Foreigners’: Gender, Race and American Citizenship,” NWSA Journal 13 (Fall 2003): 1–21.Google Scholar
62 Another interesting change was made in the conference that ended up being taken out. Some advocates of restriction also maneuvered to exclude a particular race they saw as undesirable — “Hebrews.” While the original House bill made literacy in “the English language or some other language,” after the bill had gone through the conference committee, it reemerged with the stipulation that immigrants read in English or the language of their “native country.” Lorenzo Danford, a representative from Ohio, admitted that the reason for this was to reach Russian Jews, many of whom could read Yiddish or Hebrew, but not Russian. Representative Henry Johnson of Indiana believed the change in language was necessary, for even though many Jewish immigrants could read, they were “utterly unable to discharge the duties of American citizenship. They add to our burdens and responsibilities without adding anything whatever to our energies and resources.” See Congressional Record, Fifty-Fourth Cong., Second sess., 1897, 29, pt. 2:1219, 1227.
70 Eugenicist Harry Laughlin, when testifying in favor of immigration restriction in the early 1920s, epitomized the change in attitude about immigration restriction when he said in his testimony, “the economic policy…is giving way in the United States to the biological, which weighs primarily the future basic or family stock welfare of the whole nation.” Ludmerer, Kenneth M., “Genetics, Eugenics and the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 46 (Spring 1972): 68, 76–78.Google ScholarPubMed
72 Congressional Record, Sixty-Eighth Cong., Second sess., 1924, 65, pt. 6:5902.