In the years from 1880 to the beginning of the First World War, the United States radically expanded into the world’s leading economy. Eventually, it was producing thirty percent of the world’s manufactured goods, and those employed in manufacturing, mining, construction and services had risen from four million to eighteen million. The USA had become the centre of commercial and industrial inventiveness. Many argue that mass immigration was the cause of this, although it is definitely not the only factor involved.
The rapid influx of immigrants and its consequent population growth ensured a never-ending supply of cheap labour. Immigrants were often desperate for work and often came from a rural background, with little to no idea of employment law, or working rights. They were easily exploited with contractors, and were extremely well-motivated and flexible workers; the belief in the ‘American Dream’ that had brought them to the States in the first place drove them to work long hours for not very much pay. Immigrants were the sole reason for the expansion in the amount of labour the USA supplied. Labour is an indispensable source of economic production, and all other things being equal, more labour contributes to more economic production. One of the most fundamental effects of immigration is an increase in the number of workers relative to dependents in the population. Immigrants were generally concentrated in the younger working ages, and were more likely to work in low-paid, unskilled jobs than natives were, making them an integral factor of rapid expansion of the American economy.
Mass immigration led to expanding markets and dynamic growth in urban cities – cities adopted different cultures and began to thrive independently. As different demographics of immigrants tended to migrate to specific concentrated areas , areas like ‘Little Italy’ in New York, and the ‘Polish Triangle’ cropped up – the sights, sounds and smells of the areas took on the special character of their migrants, and fuelled economic growth and cultural richness.
However, the expansion of the American economy wasn’t solely down to mass immigration - the USA was extremely rich in natural resources – it was almost self-sufficient. There was no reliance on imported goods from Europe, which had fallen into economic depression in the 1870s, so the USA didn’t fall in the way the rest of the world did at the time, allowing it to expand economically. Large deposits of coal, iron, lead, copper and timber were later supplemented by oil – and abundance of these natural resources provided the materials for expansion. America possessed resources within its borders, which allowed them to raise tariffs, protecting industry without raising the costs of raw materials. The richness of the land’s resources, which allowed the economy to expand had nothing to do with mass immigration.
Economic liberalism (often referred to as the ‘Jefferson ideal’) was vital to the American ethos, and aided big capitalists to thrive unhindered by rules imposed by large institutions or organisations. Entrepreneurialism was favoured as an ideal, as was ‘Yankee ingenuity’ – the belief that people (especially in the North-East) had the ability to invent and develop industrial and manufacturing processes. The belief in hard-work, thrift, and individualism was taken up by nearly all American citizens, immigrant or non-immigrant; people believed that hard work at the bottom of society would one day see them, like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, as dollar millionaires. Support for economic liberalism and entrepreneurism could be seen in the governments, at both a federal and a local level – they instinctively favoured management in labour disputes, and mass support was garnered for tariffs and banking. The rise of economic liberalism and entrepreneurship was vital, as it allowed individuals to thrive economically, which obviously added to the overall economic expansion of the country. Although this factor wasn’t due to the influx of immigrants, the attitudes of the immigrants chasing the ‘American Dream’ certainly helped perpetuate the new ideals. It could therefore be argued that mass immigration indirectly helped perpetuate the ideology that led to economic expansion. However, most people argue that the philosophies would’ve occurred anyway, with or without mass immigration.
The development of new technology is fundamental to any age that deems itself ‘Industrial’, and the period between 1880 and 1914 is no exception. The developments of the transport and communications systems were arguably the most central factors of economic expansion at this period in time. They provided the links that allowed the creation of a national market, and access to the raw materials that were so essential to keeping the USA self-sufficient, and also provided stimulus for industrial development itself. Railroads created a national market that allowed mass production to develop – this meant that industries like steel manufacture could easily get access to both iron and coal – previously, steel could only really be manufactured in areas that had easy access to both of these. Production costs were also significantly lowered, as rail transport was approximately ten percent cheaper than transportation by road. Railroads were also essential in the expansion of cities – major urban areas needed to be able to rely on fresh food being brought in by surrounding rural farms (which were also thriving at this point). Communications developments were also integral to economic expansion during this period – developments like the fax machine, and the telephone allowed large-scale management to crop up across the states. Companies could establish operations across the country and could coordinate industrial development, sales and purchases. These developments also led to wide-scale marketing and advertising across the States; big business, as we know it today, was beginning to root itself in American culture, due to developments in technology. This business on a larger scale, and the developments that allowed it to happen was undoubtedly a major factor in the expansion of the American economy.
In conclusion, although a large factor, mass immigration was definitely not the sole reason for economic expansion in America from 1880 to 1914. Mass immigration was both a cause and a symptom of economic expansion; if other factors hadn’t already been expanding America’s economy, there wouldn’t have been a large influx of immigrants to America, because the attraction wouldn’t have been there in the first place.