Leaving Europe: A New Life in America

Motivations and Aspirations


All immigrants had their own unique mix of motivations underpinning their decision to take the big step of emigrating. And a big step it was: leaving their country of birth, and their family and friends behind to build a new life overseas, spending much - or all - of their saved money on the journey by sail boat or steamship. What were the reasons for more than 30 million people to leave their loved ones behind? Why is it that so many chose to leave the 19th century European continent, and what magnetic forces attracted them to that land of opportunities at the other side of the Atlantic? Although every person had their own mix of motivations, there are some clear patterns that pushed and pulled them.

Land of Hope and Dreams

In 19th century Europe, hundreds of stories circulated about the possibilities offered by the young country that went by the name of the United States of America. Over there, so the stories went, even common people could become wealthy, own a piece of land or start their own companies in that ‘promised land’. And in a way it was, although for many of the emigrants, reality was less bright than the dreams they had in mind. However, large parts of Europe were still peasant societies in which climbing the social ladder was practically impossible.
When the construction of railway tracks grew at a fast rate, and highly competitive railway companies fought for a good market position, it became easier and cheaper for settlers to move inland and populate the newly opened territories. Moving the frontier westward opened new agricultural areas, which gave lots of people the opportunity to buy farmland at low prices. On the other hand, the new industrial sector grew rapidly, resulting in a great demand for labour. Not only could immigrants work in the country’s flourishing factories, but also in other booming industries, like mining, the timber trade or the railways.

Leaving Europe

As well as the forces attracting Europeans to America, there were also factors that pushed people to make the final decision to leave. In most European countries, the Industrial Revolution had not only changed economic life, it had also changed social relations and society itself. In the countryside, scaled-up mechanisation and better production processes resulted in more and cheaper products, while at the same time the demand for workers drastically declined. Lots of farming families could no longer make a living. People left the countryside for the rapidly expanding urban areas, where they hoped to find employment in newly established factories. The cheap production lines in factories meant that craftsmen and artisans like tailors or blacksmiths couldn’t keep up anymore and became unemployed.
Another problem was the sheer number of people in Europe. From 140 million Europeans in 1750, the population swelled to over 450 million at the start of the 20th century. In a situation with expanding populations but fewer job opportunities, emigration was seen as a solution. Major events on a national or regional level also affected people’s decisions and could result in high migration peaks. The most well-known example is that of the Irish Famine, which resulted in massive migration from Ireland. Another disaster, the worldwide agricultural depression of 1880, caused so much unemployment in Europe that it also led to an increase in emigration to the United States.

From Repression to Freedom

Although economic motivations played a key role in an individual’s decision to leave for the United States other motivations could also be involved. For some, migration was merely an urge for freedom. In many European countries, governments were becoming more and more involved in their peoples’ daily lives, forming state organised churches, introducing compulsory military service and demanding higher taxes. This sometimes led to protests, and social upheaval. In the turbulent 19th century, revolutionary winds swept across Europe. Many of those revolutionaries were inspired by the liberal ideals and values of the American system. When some of these revolutions failed, many escaped Europe, seeking their much-desired freedom in America.
The pressure of governments did not only lead to political tensions, but also to religious or ethnic conflicts. For some minorities, life became harder and harder, resulting in harassment and discrimination. Some groups, like Dutch protestant denominations, Catholics in Ireland or Danish Mormons, were attracted to the freedom of religion offered in America, so they left. Other minorities were treated even more harshly, with violence, repression and persecution. This was the case with the millions of Eastern European Jews, who tried to escape the anti-Semitism and the violence of the pogroms. The United States, with its religious tolerance, was their main destination.

A country open to immigrants

Millions of European emigrants wished to build a new life in America but without the necessary conditions, immigration to the United States would never even have been possible. One of the most important factors causing mass migration in the 19th century was the improvement in transport, which will be dealt with in the next section of this exhibition. The other crucial condition was the openness of the United States to immigrants of European descent. For decades, immigrants were welcomed to populate the newly acquired lands and to work in factories to solve a labour shortage. At the same time, some European countries relaxed laws that forbade emigration as an attempt to solve demographic problems.
Despite stricter immigration rules being implemented in the United States towards the turn of the century, migration continued. Until the outbreak of the First World War, hundreds of thousands of immigrants were welcomed every year. It was not until 1921, with the Emergency Quota Act, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924 that America tightened its borders and ended the era of unrestricted European immigration.