“What is Americanization?” Future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Brandeis posed the question to a packed audience at Faneuil Hall in Boston marking the country’s first Americanization Day on July 4, 1915.
The attempt to crowd out Independence Day with Americanization Day was launched in 1915 in response to nearly two decades of increasing immigration. The influx of immigrants, largely from southern and eastern Europe, had been a sore spot for many Americans.
Laborers perceived that wages were being held down by the influx of non-Americans. Businesses feared immigrants might help increase acceptance of socialism, and they worried that factory production was suffering because immigrant workers were not fluent in English.
This stew of issues and ideas was manifesting itself in a number of ways. In 1894, a group of Harvard graduates formed the Immigration Restriction League. This group lobbied for restrictions on immigrants in terms of raw numbers, and in terms of who could enter the country. It wanted literacy tests as a condition of admission.
The Boston-based group blamed “Jews, Jesuits, and Steamships” for thwarting its efforts to slow immigration.
Later, the North American Civic League for Immigrants was organized as an outgrowth of the Young Men’s Christian Association in 1907 and it rapidly expanded outside New England to New York and other growing industrial cities. It morphed into the Committee for Immigrants in America, which found support from business leaders.
Rather than focusing on limiting immigration, the CIA focused its efforts on training and educating immigrants and assimilating them. In 1912, the issues of immigrant assimilation got a boost from the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass.
The textile mills reduced salaries, driving the largely immigrant workforce into the welcoming arms of the labor movement while highlighting the plight of immigrant workers.
Against this backdrop, the CIA in 1915 decided it needed to establish a campaign to unify new and old Americans, and they chose the July 4 celebrations as a venue. Long a raucous celebration, the Americanization Day movement set about to reshape the day’s image around themes of immigrants embracing American culture.
Across the country, immigrants and nonimmigrants gathered to sing patriotic songs, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and listen to speeches.
In Boston, it was Brandeis who was called on for the keynote speech, explaining what Americanization Day meant. Immigrants, Brandeis insisted, needed more than just freedom afforded Americans, but also access to education, good wages and leisure time.
He also took the opportunity to argue for immigrants’ right to retain some of their cultural independence from their home countries, a nod to his personal affection and support for Zionism.
Americanization Day did not take hold, though the sponsoring organizations and industrialists carried on their work with English classes and citizenship classes designed to make immigrants more Americanized. The debate over immigration, meanwhile, took new shapes, both peaceful and not peaceful.