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Publikationen > Schriftenreihe USA-Studien

Before the Great Tidal Waves

Before the Great Tidal Waves is the first large-scale study of the influx of Europeans to America during the early national period. The book endeavors to build a bridge between recent scholarship on the "Atlantic World" and research on nineteenth-century mass migration. Most scholars of immigration to the United States have focused on the years after 1820 on the assumption that the scarcity of data for the young republic and the low contemporary estimates of immigration warranted only cursory treatment of the post-revolutionary era. Scholars of early American history, on the other hand, have rarely ventured beyond the revolutionary period. Marianne Wokeck's recent monograph Trade in Strangers: The Beginnings of Mass Migration to North America ends in 1775 but looks at migration and its economic underpinnings from the American and the European perspectives.

One aim pursued in my work was to provide reliable statistics for European immigrants entering Philadelphia during the entire period under examination and for other major ports during the crucial years after the War of 1812. This data base was augmented by scattered contemporary emigration and immigration data pertaining to the United States, the British maritime colonies, and Canada to allow for an estimate that sets the number of immigrants to the U.S. from 1783 to 1820 at 366,000, some 46 percent larger than the traditional figure of 250,000. Since the period under consideration was one of almost continuous strife in Europe, of naval warfare and blockades, and of sharp economic up- and downswings, migration flowed more or less freely only for short periods. Then, however, contemporaries thought they witnessed a "torrent" of newcomers.

Their point of reference was colonial immigration and not modern mass migration. My study shows that patterns of emigrant transportation and immigration to British North America and the United States which had developed during the eighteenth century persisted until about 1820. By this time, it had become clear to prospective emigrants, merchants engaged in the transportation business, and would-be employers of immigrant labor that the traditional destinations of ships carrying European passengers-above all Philadelphia and, to a lesser extent, Baltimore-were no longer the most desirable ports of entry. The seminal shift to New York in trade and in passenger traffic has been attributed to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1824, but it was foreshadowed by the shifting of the linseed trade from Philadelphia to New York, which began bringing passengers from Ireland into the northern port as a return cargo.

This brings me to the second major aim pursued in Before the Great Tidal Waves. I have utilized hitherto largely untapped archival sources on both sides of the Atlantic in an integrative study of economic, social, political, and human conditions pertaining to the so-called push and pull forces and to the actual process of migration. Several methodological approaches have been employed: The book contains a quantitative examination of transatlantic migration, an economic analysis of transatlantic trade and of market forces in Europe and America, a study of the maritime carrying trade down to the microeconomic level, an examination of legislative and governmental parameters bearing upon the movement of people, and, finally, a study of the decision-making process and of the actual migration process based on the accounts of individuals.

What emerges is a picture of a transitional period between premodern and modern times. The transitional character is clearly evident in the disappearance of the redemptioner system and of immigrant indentured servitude in the United States. Here, my findings go beyond those of economic historians. In addition to market forces, I attribute importance to the revisions of state insolvency laws which after 1790 increasingly favored debtors. The pivotal factor, however, was the growing reluctance of Americans, particularly German-Americans, to accept white bound labor and the equally growing determination of immigrants to avoid servitude even though they had entered the country on a redemptioner loan agreement. Sources show that by about 1815 immigrants to the United States managed to rid themselves of an old world deferential mentality which up to this time had been one of the foundations of white servitude.

My overall conclusion is that from the vantage point of immigration history the eighteenth century ended around 1820. On the other hand, I maintain that developments attributed by historians to the mid nineteenth-century were foreshadowed if not anticipated earlier in the century. This is the case, for example, regarding Oliver MacDonagh's observation that social legislation and administrative action in Great Britain during the 1830s and 1840s amounted to a "revolution in government," preparing the way for the modern interventionist state. My research shows that already the British and American passenger acts and the Pennsylvania and New York health and poor laws passed at the beginning of the nineteenth century were remarkably effective both in curbing the flow of people across the Atlantic, in maintaining decent conditions of ocean travel, and, when this was deemed desirable, in opening the flood valves.

Hans-Jürgen Grabbe


Hans Jürgen Grabbe: Vor der großen Flut
Hans-Jürgen Grabbe, Vor der großen Flut: Die europäische Migration in die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika 1783–1820, USA-Studien 10 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2001). 458pp.

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