Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Illegal Immigration in the 1920s: French North Americans and the Myth of the Master Race

Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

This familiar saying leaps to mind while reading a page one story from The Gazette of Montréal, April 2, 1929. The article reports that, pursuant to the Immigration Act of 1924, significant numbers of the French-Canadian element in the USA could face deportation.

The Canadian-born resident who came to the States prior to July 1924 had no worries. Those who arrived after that date sans proper documentation must leave the country and go through proper immigration channels or face deportation with no possibility of readmission to the USA.

The article reports that among those who were sent back to Canada to obtain proper documentation was an 18-month-old baby girl born in Montréal and adopted by a family in New Hampshire. 

Canadians Face Deportation as Illegal Aliens:
The Gazette of Montréal, April 2, 1929
Since no dangerous 18-month-old must slip through the net, the article reports that, “Federal officers throughout New England are now receiving their preliminary instructions, and within another two months the machinery for the investigation of every Canadian in the country will be perfected.”

The article also states that, “The Washington authorities make it plain that French-Canadians are not alone involved. Canadians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario will be subjected to as rigid an examination as those from Quebec.” 

Evidently there were suspicions that French Canadians were being singled-out for possible deportation. The considerations that led to the 1924 Immigration Act justify these suspicions.

The purpose and effect of this legislation was to exclude “undesirable” aliens from immigrating to the USA. Alarmed by the growth of Jewish immigrants as well as those from Southern and Eastern Europe, Congress moved to forbid certain groups from entering the country legally and to impose quotas on others. Canadians were not subject to the quota system, as the 1929 article in The Gazette mentions, but were required to file papers.

The debates surrounding the 1924 act strike the modern reader as both shockingly frank and uneasily familiar. In a time when reticence or self-deception regarding one’s racism was less prevalent than today, Senator Ellison DuRant Smith of South Carolina, for example, permitted himself this utterance:
Who is an American? Is he an immigrant from Italy? Is he an immigrant from Germany? If you were to go abroad and some one were to meet you and say, ‘I met a typical American,’ what would flash into your mind as a typical American… Would it be the son of an Italian immigrant, the son of a German immigrant, the son of any of the breeds from the Orient, the son of the denizens of Africa?… I would like for the Members of the Senate to read that book just recently published by Madison Grant, The Passing of a Great Race. Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power…1
The Senator recommends Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History, published in 1916. The alarm regarding the immigration of supposedly inferior “stock” into the USA was the wellspring of Grant’s book. The author provided statistics to Congress which contributed to setting the 1924 law's immigration quotas.

Jonathan Spiro, a professor of history at Castleton State College in Vermont, finds that Grant “popularized the infamous notions that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordics were the ‘master race’ and that the state should eliminate members of inferior races who were of no value to the community.” Translated into German in 1925, Grant’s book was welcomed by the Nazis. According to Spiro, Adolph Hitler referred to it as his “bible.” 

In light of his pseudo-scientific theory of blond, “Nordic” dominance, the following excerpt from Grant’s meisterwerke comes as no surprise.
The Dominion [of Canada] is as a whole handicapped by the presence of an indigestible mass of French Canadians largely from Brittany and of Alpine origin although the habitant patois is an archaic Norman of the time of Louis XIV. These Frenchmen were granted freedom of language and religion by their conquerors and are now using those privileges to form separatist groups in antagonism to the English population. The Quebec Frenchmen will succeed in seriously impeding the progress of Canada and will succeed even better in keeping themselves a poor and ignorant community of little more importance to the world at large than are the Negroes in the South. 2
Thus spake Hitler's Bible. However, the “mass of French Canadians” were not “largely from Brittany,” although some of their ancestors were Breton. Even by Grant’s specious definitions the Canadiens were not generally of “Alpine” origin. He was neither the first nor the last to draw a comparison between the Canadiens and African-Americans, a move that, in his racist scheme, was a means of killing two birds with one stone.

Nor did the large-scale immigration of this “indigestible” French Canadian community into New England escape Grant’s notice. On the contrary, in his first chapter, where he sets out the alleged danger facing his imaginary master race from the immigration of their “inferiors,”  Grant writes:
During the last century the New England manufacturer imported the Irish and French Canadians and the resultant fall in the New England birthrate at once became ominous. The refusal of the native American (sic) to work with his hands when he can hire or import serfs to do manual labor for him is the prelude to his extinction and the immigrant laborers are now breeding out their masters and killing by filth and by crowding as effectively as by the sword. Thus the American sold his birthright in a continent to solve a labor problem. Instead of retaining political control and making citizenship an honorable and valued privilege he intrusted (sic) the government of his country and the maintenance of his ideals to races who have never yet succeeded in governing themselves much less any one else. 3
Grant’s master race theory assumes, of course, that the measure of mastery is not only governing oneself but also lording over others. This revealing remark is but one draught from his witch’s brew of half-baked science, Social Darwinism, and old-fashioned Anglo-American jingoism.

Through such rancid reasoning is legislation passed that would require federal agents to hunt out every undocumented 18-month-old Canadien baby.

After WWII when the consequences of Grant’s theories are well known, some Americans have learned to be embarrassed about their sensitivities regarding Anglo-Saxon racial and cultural “purity.” Modified, modernized versions of Grant’s naked racism are clothed with fig leaves about national unity as well as by economic arguments.

I’m not sure that I prefer these latter-day versions to the overt stance of Anglo-Saxon supremacy held by Grant and his acolytes. At least they were honest.

1.  Speech by Ellison DuRant Smith, April 9, 1924, Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st Session (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1924), vol. 65, 5961–5962.

2.  Grant, Madison. The Passing of the Great Race or The Racial Basis of European History. 4th Ed. New York: Scribner’s, 1921, 81.

3.  Grant, 11-12


  1. Thanks ... America's history is stained with racism. In theory, no. In practice, abominable.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Yes, there's always been that racist strain and when its flared up it has been abominable. To be fair, there have also been some others who opposed racism and recognized its evils. It seems to me that there's a tension in the country that goes back to its earliest days between those who hold that the USA is an Anglo-Saxon Protestant country held together by that culture and those who hold that it is a multicultural society held together by laws. We're still arguing that point.

  2. On the Nov 15 Daily Show, Jon Stewart responded to a Fox News Bill O'Reilly rant over the "end of traditional America". Stewart pointed out that there was a time in American history when Irish immigrants (ahem, O'Reilly) were regarded as an inferior race who were a threat to .. traditional America. The great denouement of Stewart's riff was pointing out that waves of immigrants of new and different backgrounds, coming here for a better life for themselves and their children, is itself an American tradition; and so is the side effect of an established generation grumbling and feeling threatened and fighting their own displacement from perceived exclusive right to power.

  3. It feels bad to be singled out. And racism really is one of the roots of it.