THE LITERACY TEST FOR IMMIGRANTS: A QUESTION OF PROGRESS

ROBERT FREDRIC ZEIDEL, Marquette University

Abstract

Historians generally refer to the years between 1890 and 1917 as the Progressive Era. They describe it as a time when Americans began to identify the problems of their increasingly urbanized and industrialized nation, tried to determine their causes, and attempted to work out acceptable solutions. Called reforms, the latter included an income tax, government regulation, referendum and recall, and prohibition. A movement for greater restriction of immigration occurred at the same time, yet only a few historians consider it a progressive reform. Most associate it with either late-nineteenth century reaction or First World War nationalism. The activities of those engaged in the struggle to enact legislation to restrict immigration defy easy attachment to either trend. In the early 1890s, they decided a literacy test, requiring each adult immigrant to demonstrate his or her ability to read and write, was the most practical method of reducing the number of annual arrivals. Its proponents first used clearly reactionary arguments. They contended the literacy test would reduce the migration of southern and eastern Europeans. When this assertion failed to convince enough lawmakers to vote for the measure, supporters changed tactics. They identified foreign newcomers with America's social and economic maladies. The literacy test, therefore, would help provide a solution. It took restrictionists, those who supported greater statutory exclusion, many years to achieve success. They had to overcome numerous obstacles including four presidential vetoes. In 1917, Congress passed a literacy test bill over the last of these. Through the use of progressive arguments and efficient organization, test supporters attained their goal.

Recommended Citation

ROBERT FREDRIC ZEIDEL, "THE LITERACY TEST FOR IMMIGRANTS: A QUESTION OF PROGRESS" (January 1, 1986). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. Paper AAI8708749.
http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI8708749

Share

COinS