The Debate in Congress

This reading comes from the Facing History and Ourselves resource Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement


In his testimony before the House Committee on Immigration, John Trevor, a New York attorney and member of a group called the Allied Patriotic Societies, proposed that Congress limit immigration country by country to two percent of the immigrants from that country living in the United States in 1890. The date was critical, because most immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived after 1890. The House of Representatives debated Trevor’s plan in March and April of 1924. Excerpts from the debate reveal how strongly members felt about immigration. It also reveals the extent of influence American eugenicist Harry Laughlin had on public policy. 

Representative Clarence F. Lea of California told his fellow lawmakers:

What is that assimilation that we demand of a naturalized citizen? Assimilation requires adaptability, a compatibility to our Government, its institutions, and its customs; an assumption of the duties and an acceptance of the rights of an American citizen; a merger of alienism into Americanism. True assimilation requires racial compatibility. Nature’s God has given the world a brown man, a yellow man, and a black man.

Whether given to us by the wisdom of a Divine Ruler or by our own prejudices or wisdom we have a deep-seated aversion against racial amalgamation or general social equality with these races. Members of these races may have all the moral and intellectual qualities that adorn a man of the white race.

Many individuals of any race may be superior, by every just standard of measurement, to many individuals of the white race. Yet there is an irreconcilable resistance to amalgamation and social equality that cannot be ignored. The fact is it forms an enduring barrier against complete assimilation. The brown man, the yellow man, or the black man who is an American citizen seeks the opportunities of this country with a handicap. It may be humiliating or unjust to him. You may contend it is not creditable to us, but it does exist. It causes irritation, racial prejudice, and animosities. It detracts from the harmony, unity, and solidarity of our citizenship. But to avoid further racial antipathies and incompatibility is the duty and opportunity of this Congress. The first great rule of exclusion should prohibit those non-assimilable. Our own interests, as well as the ultimate welfare of those we admit, justify us in prescribing a strict rule as to whom shall be assimilable. We should require physical, moral, and mental qualities, capable of contributing to the welfare and advancement of our citizenship. Without these qualities it would be better for America that they should not come.

Representative Adolph J. Sabath of Illinois saw assimilation from a different perspective.

He argued:

What is meant by assimilation is difficult of definition. The mere fact that an immigrant, when he arrives or even after he has lived here for a number of years, still speaks his native language does not indicate that he is not being assimilated. Every day that he lives here he imbibes American ideas. . . .

Whatever his garb may have been when he came, the first suit of clothes that he purchases with his honestly acquired earnings, which represent his creative efforts from which the country profits, is made according to the American model. His work is performed in accordance with the methods adopted in our industrial centers. He becomes familiar with our form of government. His acquaintance with our laws equals that of the average inhabitant of our country, and his obedience to them measures up to that of the average native. It is true that he reads books and newspapers printed in foreign languages, but it is by means of them that he acquires a fund of information relative to the true spirit of America. Anybody familiar with the foreign language press, and with what it has done in the direction of educating the immigrant into an appreciation of what America stands for, can testify to this fact. The children of these foreign parents brought up in American public schools grow up without even an ability to read the foreign press.

The majority in its report . . . unjustifiably charged and contended that there is in this country an undigested mass of alien thought, alien sympathy, and alien purpose which creates alarm and apprehension and breeds racial hatreds. This, like most figures of speech, can not bear analysis. What is meant by alien thought and alien purpose as applied to immigrants? Does it mean that they are opposed to the land in which they live, in which they earn their livelihood, where they have established a permanent home for themselves and their children? Does it mean that they would invite conquest by foreign nations, and having to a great extent left the lands of their birth because deprived of liberty and that freedom which they enjoy in this country, that they would be willing to forego the blessings that have come to them under our benign institutions? Have they not by coming here severed their political relations with foreign lands? Does any considerable portion of them ever expect to leave our shores? Have the thought and purpose of that Europe which they left behind been such as to attract instead of increase the repulsion which drove those immigrants to America? Are men apt to choose misery and unhappiness when they are enjoying contentment and comparative prosperity and are looked upon not as cannon fodder but as men? As well might it be said that the Puritans of New England, the Cavaliers of

Virginia and Maryland, the Knickerbockers of New York, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, and the Scandinavians of the Middle West brought with them undigested masses of alien thought, alien sympathy, and alien purpose, which made of them a menace to this country. It is not the immigrants who are breeding racial hatreds. They are not the inventors of the new anthropology. Nor do they stimulate controversy. It would rather appear, in fact is clearly shown, to be those who are seeking to restrict or to prohibit immigration who entertain such sentiments and who are now attempting to formulate a policy which is, indeed, alien to the thought, the sympathy, and the purpose of the founders of the Republic and of that America which has become the greatest power for good on earth.

Representative Grant M. Hudson of Michigan countered and took issue with the idea that immigrants change their customs and their attitudes. He told Congress:

The “melting pot” has proved to be a myth. We are slowly awakening to the consciousness that education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values.

Today we face the serious problem of the maintenance of our historic republican institutions. Now, what do we find in all our large cities? Entire sections containing a population incapable of understanding our institutions, with no comprehension of our national ideals, and for the most part incapable of speaking the English language. Foreign language information service gives evidence that many southern Europeans resent as an unjust discrimination the quota laws and represent America as showing race hatred and unmindful of its mission to the world. The reverse is true. America’s first duty is to those already within her own shores. An unrestricted immigration policy would work an injustice to all, which would fall hardest on those least able to combat it.

George Washington in his Farewell Address said: Citizens bybirth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affection. . . . [W]ith slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. Washington observed—slight shades of difference. But today we see huge masses of non-American-minded individuals, living in colonies or ghettoes, or even cities and counties of their own. Here they perpetuate their racial mindedness, their racial character, and their racial habits. Here they speak their own tongue, read their own newspapers, maintain their separate educational system.

Ira Hersey of Maine offered his view of the nation’s history:

Mr. Chairman, the New World was settled by the white race. True, we found here when the Pilgrim Fathers landed the red race. The Indian was never adapted to civilization. His home was the forest. He knew no government. He cared nothing for civilization. He gave freely of his land to the white man for trinkets to adorn his person; and this race of people, the first Americans, were pushed back as the forests receded until to-day he occupies here and there small portions of the United States, living the primitive life, wards of this Government, and in a few years they will be known no more forever.

They never were a menace to the Government. They have never been known in politics. On account of race and blood they have never been able to assimilate with our people and have kept their own place and have caused very little trouble in the progress of civilization in this country.

America! The United States! Bounded on the north by an English colony, on the south by the Tropics, and on the east and west by two great oceans, was, God-intended, I believe, to be the home of a great people. English speaking—a white race with great ideals, the Christian religion, one race, one country, and one destiny.

[Applause.] It was a mighty land settled by northern Europe from the United Kingdom, the Norsemen, and the Saxon, the peoples of a mixed blood. The African, the Orientals, the Mongolians, and all the yellow races of Europe, Asia and Africa should never have been allowed to people this great land.


Meyer Jacobstein of New York had a more expansive view of citizenship. He insisted:

Perhaps the chief argument expressed or implied by those favoring the Johnson bill [the National Origins Act] is that the new immigrant is not of a type that can be assimilated or that he will not carry on the best traditions of the founders of our Nation, but, on the contrary, is likely to fill our jails, our almshouses, and other institutions that impose a great tax burden on the Nation.

Based on this prejudice and dislike, there has grown up an almost fanatical anti-immigration sentiment. But this charge against the newcomers is denied, and substantial evidence has been brought to prove that they do not furnish a disproportionate share of the inmates of these institutions.

One of the purposes in shifting to the 1890 census is to reduce the number of undesirables and defectives in our institutions. In fact, this aspect of the question must have made a very deep impression on the committee because it crops out on every occasion. The committee has unquestionably been influenced by the conclusions drawn from a study made by Dr. Laughlin.

This is not the first time in American history that such an anti-foreign hysteria has swept the country. Reread your American histories. Go back and glance through McMaster’s History of the United States covering the years from 1820 to 1850. You will find there many pages devoted to the “100 per centers” of that time. So strange was the movement against the foreigner in those decades before the Civil War that a national political party, the “Know-Nothing Party,” sought to ride into power on the crest of this fanatical wave.

In those early days, however, the anti-foreign movement, strangely enough, was directed against the very people whom we now seek to prefer—the English, the Irish, and the Germans. The calamity howlers of a century ago prophesied that these foreigners would drag our Nation to destruction.

The trouble is that the committee is suffering from a delusion. It is carried away with the belief that there is such a thing as a Nordic race which possesses all the virtues, and in like manner creates the fiction of an inferior group of peoples, for which no name has been invented.

Nothing is more un-American. Nothing could be more dangerous, in a land the Constitution of which says that all men are created equal, than to write into our law a theory which puts one race above another, which stamps one group of people as superior and another as inferior. The fact that it is camouflaged in a maze of statistics will not protect this Nation from the evil consequences of such an unscientific, un-American, wicked philosophy.1

In the end, the bill passed by an overwhelming majority in both the House of Representatives (373 to 71) and the Senate (62 to 6). In May 1925, President Calvin Coolidge signed the National Origins Act into law.

Audio Version

The House debated John Trevor’s immigration plan in March and April of 1924. Excerpts from the debate reveal how strongly members felt about immigration and reveal the extent of the influence of Harry Laughlin, a leading American eugenicist.

Connection Questions

  1. A number of Congressmen quoted in this reading try to define the word assimilate. How do dictionaries define the word? What does the word mean to you? Why is the word so central to the debate?
  2. Which representatives argue for immigration restriction? What do they fear? What do their speeches suggest about racial attitudes in the 1920s? About the influence of eugenics?
  3. What points do Meyer Jacobstein and Adolph Sabath emphasize in their opposition to the bill? What do they fear? What do their speeches suggest about their racial attitudes? How does each representative define the word American? What do all five definitions have in common? On what points do they differ?
  4. .According to Sabath, who is breeding racial hatred? Why does he see their efforts as “alien to the thought, the sympathy, and the purpose of the founders of the Republic and of that America which has become the greatest power for good on earth”? How might a eugenicist respond to his attack?
  5. The full text of the debates appears in the Congressional Record for March and April 1924, along with charts and graphs from Laughlin’s exhibits. They can be used to prepare a report on regional voting patterns. Which regions of the country show the strongest support for the bill? Which show the least support? How do you explain the geographic division?

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