The American founding fathers wanted to establish a national state which, like Great Britain, would be held together by a national language and characterized by a national culture. Of course, they kept the country open to immigrants, but they did not view ethnic pluralism as a goal worthy of support. Open borders for them was not analogous to splintering the population into a mosaic of ethnic groups.

Mass immigration from Ireland and the German-speaking countries, beginning in the 1840s and continuing in the following decades, unleashed a fear that the traditional character of the Euro-American society, its Anglo-conformity and its Protestantism would be endangered by the uncontrolled mass influx of poor, uneducated, and for the most part Catholic immigrants who were presumed to be incapable of democratic principles. Of the 23 million U. S. population in 1850, almost 10% had been born abroad. This low average figure, however, in no way expresses the threat perceived from the dense centers of foreigners in the immigrant districts of some large cities.

The 4.9 million immigrants who arrived from Europe between 1830 and 1860, among them 1.36 million German-speakers, met head-on with a well-defined "Americanism." The conflict was accentuated when several Midwest states started to grant voting privileges well before the five year waiting period for citizenship had transpired. In Minnesota, a male adult got the right to vote practically upon arrival. Only four months had to elapse after he declared his intention to become an American citizen. Using all available xenophobic arguments, the immigrant-bashing nativist American Party, popularly called the Know-Nothings, tried to extend the waiting period for naturalization and for voting to 21 years instead of the five required by law. In addition, immigrants were to be permanently excluded from holding public office; and the poor, those with criminal records, and the loyal subjects of a "foreign power" -- above all members of the Roman Catholic Church -- were not to be admitted into the country at all.

The unsettling result of nativism in Massachusetts -- nativists were often also pro-temperance and pro-slavery -- motivated Carl Schurz in 1859 to deliver his oft-quoted patriotic sermon on "True Americanism." At the time, the Massachusetts legislature was proposing an amendment that would have barred immigrants from voting for two years after naturalization. Schurz attacked this distrust as irreconcilable with basic American values: "True Americanism, tolerance and equal rights will peacefully overcome all that is not reconcilable with the irresistible strength of our institutions." Like dozens of German-American publicists of his generation and his political persuasion, Schurz tried to couple a realistic recognition of the forces of assimilation, especially the Anglo-American political culture, with a defense of the intrinsic values of his own ethnic group. Reacting to the nativists, the Forty-eighters made a substantial contribution to the "invention" of a pluralistic model for a more gentle integration of the immigrants.

Only in the face of the nation's divisive North-South conflict over the expansion of slavery west of the Mississippi after 1856, did the nativist American Party lose political influence without having achieved its objective. However, if anti-immigration agitation at this time had not been overshadowed by the growing North-South controversy, then the first federal laws curtailing immigration from Europe would probably have been promulgated long before the literacy tests of 1917 acted as a retardant.

Following the War of Secession, and especially after the 1877 reintegration of the South, American nationalism grew stronger than ever before. In the following decades the United States identified with Anglo-Saxon racist and superiority attitudes, with a strategy of naval supremacy in the Pacific, and with Protestant missionary zeal in order to justify its participation in the great power rivalry for colonial possessions. Before America's entry into the First World War, therefore, the public activities of pro-Kaiser German-Americans and of other large polyglot immigrant groups in many big cities reminded President Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and other vocal American "preparedness" supporters of certain signs of malfunction in the "melting pot." Meanwhile, the orgies of European nationalism also aroused America's nationalism with the result that in 1916 a massive Anglo-Americanization campaign was launched. The resulting "loyalty" hysteria that accompanied the United States entry into the War led to an accelerated end of organized German-American culture.