The best books about US immigration in the nineteenth century

Why am I passionate about this?

I write and teach about nineteenth-century US history, and I am interested in immigration for both personal and professional reasons. A native of Dublin, Ireland, I did my undergraduate work in Edinburgh, Scotland, completed my graduate degree in New York City, moved to Austin, Texas for my first academic job and to Boston for my second job, and then returned to New City York to take up my current position at NYU, where I teach US immigration history and run Glucksman Ireland House. The key themes in my work—migration, diaspora, and empire—have been as central to my life journey as to my research and teaching. 

I wrote...

The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic: Policing Mobility in the Nineteenth-Century United States

By Kevin Kenny,

Book cover of The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic: Policing Mobility in the Nineteenth-Century United States

What is my book about?

Today the United States considers immigration a federal matter. Yet, despite America's reputation as a "nation of immigrants," the Constitution is silent on the admission, exclusion, and expulsion of foreigners. Before the Civil War, the federal government played virtually no role in regulating immigration, and states set their own terms for regulating the movement of immigrants, free blacks, and enslaved people.

Offering an original interpretation of nineteenth-century America, The Problem of Immigration in a Slaveholding Republic argues that the existence, abolition, and legacies of slavery were central to the emergence of a national immigration policy. In the century after the American Revolution, states controlled mobility within and across their borders and set their own rules for community membership.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

Thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and deeply humane, Expelling the Poor shows how poverty—and Irish poverty in particular—shaped American immigration policy.

Until the late nineteenth century, Hidetaka Hirota demonstrates, individual states and cities controlled their own borders. They regulated, taxed, excluded, and removed the Irish poor, thereby laying the groundwork for the national policy that emerged in the 1880s.

By examining the impact of nativist sentiment, Hirota reveals how policies directed at the Irish-born poor, alongside the exclusion of Chinese laborers, explain the origins of immigration policy in the United States.

By Hidetaka Hirota,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Expelling the Poor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Expelling the Poor examines the origins of immigration restriction in the United States, especially deportation policy. Based on an analysis of immigration policies in major American coastal states, including New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Louisiana, and California, it provides the first sustained study of immigration control conducted by states prior to the introduction of federal immigration law in the late nineteenth century. The influx
of impoverished Irish immigrants over the first half of the nineteenth century led nativists in New York and Massachusetts to develop policies for prohibiting the landing of destitute foreigners and deporting those already resident in the…

Book cover of Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

Moral Contagion tells the shocking story of the Seamen Acts, under which free Black sailors were imprisoned during their stay in southern ports during the antebellum era.

At least 20,000 free Black maritime workers, mostly from Britain and northern US states, were confined—and an unknown number, abandoned by their captains, were sold into slavery. The presence of free Black people in the South—widely feared as a source of “moral contagion”—contradicted the logic of slavery and threatened the very survival of that institution.

Why do I include this book on a list about US immigration history in the nineteenth century? Because, as Michael Schoeppner powerfully demonstrates, that history cannot be understood without considering the laws and policies controlling the movement of Black people in a slaveholding republic.

By Michael A. Schoeppner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Moral Contagion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1822 and 1857, eight Southern states barred the ingress of all free black maritime workers. According to lawmakers, they carried a 'moral contagion' of abolitionism and black autonomy that could be transmitted to local slaves. Those seamen who arrived in Southern ports in violation of the laws faced incarceration, corporal punishment, an incipient form of convict leasing, and even punitive enslavement. The sailors, their captains, abolitionists, and British diplomatic agents protested this treatment. They wrote letters, published tracts, cajoled elected officials, pleaded with Southern officials, and litigated in state and federal courts. By deploying a progressive and sweeping notion…

Book cover of The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

Why did anti-Chinese violence continue to rise even after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, reaching a terrible peak in 1885 and 1886?

In a powerful reinterpretation of Chinese exclusion, Beth Lew-Williams reveals how the 1882 act was deliberately limited in scope, poorly funded, and loosely enforced—because immigration policy at this time was still governed by diplomacy. Only in the late 1880s, with China perceived as weak, did the US unilaterally abrogate its treaty obligations and move toward outright exclusion.

The chronology really matters here: for Chinese immigrants it was a question not just of entry or exclusion, but of life and death. Deftly situating anti-Chinese violence in overlapping regional, national, and international contexts, Lew Williams shows how the idea of the immigrant “alien” emerged in tandem with national citizenship during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. 

By Beth Lew-Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Chinese Must Go as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Ray Allen Billington Prize
Winner of the Ellis W. Hawley Prize
Winner of the Sally and Ken Owens Award
Winner of the Vincent P. DeSantis Book Prize
Winner of the Caroline Bancroft History Prize

"A powerful argument about racial violence that could not be more timely."
-Richard White

"A riveting, beautifully written account...that foregrounds Chinese voices and experiences. A timely and important contribution to our understanding of immigration and the border."
-Karl Jacoby, author of Shadows at Dawn

In 1885, following the massacre of Chinese miners in Wyoming Territory, communities throughout California and the Pacific Northwest harassed,…

Book cover of Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

Located in Lower Manhattan, the Five Points district was notorious for its poverty, squalor, alcoholism, violence, prostitution, and corruption.

Populated by African Americans and Irish immigrants in the early nineteenth century, it later attracted German, Chinese, Jewish, and Italian immigrants as well. As gangs like the Dead Rabbits did battle with the Bowery Boys, Charles Dickens and other outraged visitors denounced the neighborhood as a den of iniquity.

Yet, beyond this sensationalist rhetoric, Tyler Anbinder reveals a vibrant world of working-class culture, popular theaters, dance halls, boxing matches, and politicians on the make. Drawing on a remarkable array of primary sources and embedding historical analysis in vivid storytelling, he shows how poor people built their lives in nineteenth-century America, always against the odds and often at the expense of one another.

By Tyler Anbinder,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Five Points as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All but forgotten today, the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan was once renowned the world over. From Jacob Riis to Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett to Charles Dickens, Five Points both horrified and inspired everyone who saw it. While it comprised only a handful of streets, many of America’s most impoverished African Americans and Irish, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants sweated out their existence there. Located in today’s Chinatown, Five Points witnessed more riots, scams, prostitution, and drunkenness than any other neighborhood in America. But at the same time it was a font of creative energy, crammed full of cheap…

Book cover of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II

Kevin Kenny Why did I love this book?

Bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a sweeping, transnational history, Alien Nation provides a compelling account of Chinese migration to the Americas from the 1840s through World War II.

In vivid prose, Young tells the story of how Chinese laborers mined gold, built railroads, and harvested sugar cane; how anti-Chinese restrictionists demonized these workers as “coolies”; and how nationalist movements throughout the Americas enflamed anti-Chinese sentiment.

Alien Nation explains how different national governments borrowed from one other in crafting policies regulating and controlling Chinese immigration, but also how these policies clashed and diverged. Within this transnational framework, Elliott Young recovers the agency of Chinese migrants, facing exclusion, deportation, and segregation, who circumvented government policies to form vibrant communities that transcended national borders.

By Elliott Young,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Alien Nation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this sweeping work, Elliott Young traces the pivotal century of Chinese migration to the Americas, beginning with the 1840s at the start of the "coolie" trade and ending during World War II. The Chinese came as laborers, streaming across borders legally and illegally and working jobs few others wanted, from constructing railroads in California to harvesting sugar cane in Cuba. Though nations were built in part from their labor, Young argues that they were the first group of migrants to bear the stigma of being "alien." Being neither black nor white and existing outside of the nineteenth century Western…

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American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

Book cover of American Flygirl

Susan Tate Ankeny Author Of The Girl and the Bombardier: A True Story of Resistance and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied France

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Susan Tate Ankeny left a career in teaching to write the story of her father’s escape from Nazi-occupied France. In 2011, after being led on his path through France by the same Resistance fighters who guided him in 1944, she felt inspired to tell the story of these brave French patriots, especially the 17-year-old- girl who risked her own life to save her father’s. Susan is a member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society, the Air Force Escape and Evasion Society, and the Association des Sauveteurs d’Aviateurs Alliés. 

Susan's book list on women during WW2

What is my book about?

The first and only full-length biography of Hazel Ying Lee, an unrecognized pioneer and unsung World War II hero who fought for a country that actively discriminated against her gender, race, and ambition.

This unique hidden figure defied countless stereotypes to become the first Asian American woman in United States history to earn a pilot's license, and the first female Asian American pilot to fly for the military.

Her achievements, passionate drive, and resistance in the face of oppression as a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a female aviator changed the course of history. Now the remarkable story of a fearless underdog finally surfaces to inspire anyone to reach toward the sky.

American Flygirl

By Susan Tate Ankeny,

What is this book about?

One of WWII’s most uniquely hidden figures, Hazel Ying Lee was the first Asian American woman to earn a pilot’s license, join the WASPs, and fly for the United States military amid widespread anti-Asian sentiment and policies.

Her singular story of patriotism, barrier breaking, and fearless sacrifice is told for the first time in full for readers of The Women with Silver Wings by Katherine Sharp Landdeck, A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, The Last Boat Out of Shanghai by Helen Zia, Facing the Mountain by Daniel James Brown and all Asian American, women’s and WWII history books.…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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