“What is Americanization?” Future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis posed the question to a packed audience at Faneuil Hall in Boston marking the country’s first Americanization Day on July 4, 1915.
Nearly two decades of increasing immigration caused the attempt to crowd out Independence Day with Americanization Day starting in 1915. The influx of immigrants, largely from southern and eastern Europe, had been a sore spot for many Americans.
Laborers perceived that wages were being held down by the influx of non-Americans. Businesses feared immigrants might help increase acceptance of socialism, and they worried that factory production was suffering because immigrant workers were not fluent in English.
This stew of issues and ideas was manifesting itself in a number of ways. In 1894, a group of Harvard graduates formed the Immigration Restriction League. This group lobbied for restrictions on immigrants in terms of raw numbers, and in terms of who could enter the country. It wanted literacy tests as a condition of admission.
The Boston-based group blamed “Jews, Jesuits, and Steamships” for thwarting its efforts to slow immigration.
Later, the North American Civic League for Immigrants grew out of the Young Men’s Christian Association in 1907. It rapidly expanded outside New England to New York and other growing industrial cities. The group morphed into the Committee for Immigrants in America, which found support from business leaders.
Rather than focusing on limiting immigration, the CIA focused its efforts on training and educating immigrants and assimilating them. In 1912, the issues of immigrant assimilation got a boost from the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence, Mass.
The textile mills reduced salaries, driving the largely immigrant workforce into the welcoming arms of the labor movement while highlighting the plight of immigrant workers.
Against this backdrop, the CIA in 1915 decided to establish a campaign to unify new and old Americans. So it chose the Fourth of July celebrations as a venue. Long a raucous celebration, the Americanization Day movement set about to reshape the day around themes of immigrants embracing American culture.
Across the country, immigrants and nonimmigrants gathered to sing patriotic songs, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and listen to speeches.
Louis Brandeis in 1915 was then well-known as a reformist lawyer and the son of immigrants. He delivered the keynote speech. on Americanization in Boston, explaining what Americanization Day meant. Immigrants, Brandeis insisted, needed more than just the freedom afforded Americans. They also needed access to education, good wages and leisure time.
He also took the opportunity to argue for immigrants’ right to retain some of their cultural independence from their home countries. By saying so, he gave a nod to his personal affection and support for Zionism.
Americanization Day did not take hold, though the sponsoring organizations and industrialists carried on their work. In some places, it morphed into Loyalty Day, still celebrated in Rutland, Vt.
Efforts continued in other ways to Americanize immigrants, such as English and citizenship classes. The debate over immigration, meanwhile, took new shapes, both peaceful and not peaceful.
This story was updated in 2021.