Modern history

Conclusion: A Nation of Cities

Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who came to the United States between the 1880s and 1914 survived numerous hardships as they strove to create a better life for their families. Like industrialists, workers, and farmers, they organized to advance collective interests. Immigrants joined together in neighborhood groups—houses of worship, fraternal organizations, burial societies, political machines, and settlement houses—to promote their own welfare. Some achieved success and returned to their homelands to live in relative splendor. Most of those who remained in the United States, like Mary Vik and Ben Lassin, struggled to earn a living but managed to pave the way for their children and grandchildren to obtain better education and jobs. Mary’s granddaughter, Nancy A. Hewitt, earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of Pennsylvania, and Ben’s grandson, Steven F. Lawson, earned a doctorate in history from Columbia University. They became university professors and in writing this book have tried to preserve their grandparents’ legacy.

Immigrants were not the only group on the move in the late nineteenth century. African Americans migrated in search of political freedom and economic opportunity. They relocated from the rural South to the urban South and North, where they continued to encounter discrimination. Yet cities gave them more leeway to develop their own political, economic, cultural, and social institutions than they had before. Although they encountered segregation, African Americans in the North were allowed to vote, a tool they would use to gain equality in the future. Because of long-standing patterns of racism, supported by law, African Americans would struggle much longer than did white immigrants to obtain equality and justice.

Few public institutions attempted to aid immigrants or racial minorities as they made the difficult transition to urban and industrial life. Yet immigrants did participate in urban politics through the efforts of political bosses and their machines who sought immigrant votes. In return, political machines provided immigrants with rudimentary social and political services that they could rarely find anywhere else. Political machines, however, bred corruption, along with higher taxes to fund their extravagances. Dishonest government prompted middle- and upper-class urban dwellers to take up reform in order to sweep the political bosses out of office and diminish the power of their immigrant supporters, as we will see in the next chapter.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

ghettos (p. 463)

mutual aid societies (p. 463)

nativism (p. 466)

eugenics (p. 467)

melting pot (p. 467)

skyscrapers (p. 472)

tenements (p. 473)

sweatshops (p. 474)

Triangle Shirtwaist Company (p. 474)

political machine (p. 476)

boss (p. 477)

pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (p. 478)

settlement houses (p. 478)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

1. what challenges did new immigrants to the United states face?

2. what steps did immigrants take to meet these challenges?

3. what factors contributed to rapid urban growth in the late nineteenth century?

4. How did the American cities of 1850 differ from those of 1900? what factors account for these differences?

5. what role did political machines play in late-nineteenth-century cities?

6. who led the opposition to machine control of city politics, and what solutions and alternatives did they offer?



• Period of significant immigration to United States


• Chinese Exclusion Act passed


• Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act requires that federal jobs be awarded on the basis of merit

• Brooklyn Bridge opens


• Statue of Liberty opens in New York City


• American Protective Association formed to restrict immigration


• U.S. schools adopt pledge of allegiance


• Immigration Restriction League founded


• Boston opens first subway system in the United States


• W. E. B. Du Bois publishes The Souls of Black Folk


• San Francisco earthquake


• Israel Zangwill publishes The Melting-Pot


• Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City

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