During the antebellum period, the new nation wrestled with what it meant to be American. Visitors described an eager young nation with greater freedom and equality than existed in Europe, while the realities of slavery continued to offer a stark contrast to these ideals.
As immigration increased, many native-born white citizens declared that they were the only residents of the United States who were worthy of the rights of full citizenship. They struggled to define what made them uniquely American, and often pointed to contrasts between themselves and those who, because of racial or ethnic differences, were a perceived threat to the new American identity. Their fiery speeches sought to differentiate native-born citizens, themselves the acknowledged descendants of immigrants, from what was vividly described in one speech as “the outcast and offal of society.” They argued that cheap travel allowed criminals and paupers to immigrate, whereas their ancestors had had to amass considerable resources to make the voyage. Nativist associations worried that the influence of lesser cultures, and their desire to maintain separate communities, would degrade the character of the new nation, and sought to strictly limit immigration.
By contrast, many immigrant groups sought to prove that they deserved all the rights and privileges of the new nation, and argued strongly against their presumed inferiority. At times, ethnic groups jockeyed for position by arguing that they were nearer to being white than another group. The promise of individual liberty and equality upon which the United States was founded, and which seemed to visitors to be the defining character of the nation, provided a strong incentive for those who wished to leave their home nations to seek greater opportunity. The immigrant experience is described in poignant detail by those who came to work, and both success and struggle are noted in their narratives. The nativist perception of the dregs of other nations coming to America to benefit from the labors of her hard-working citizens is countered by the descriptions of new immigrants struggling to make their way to America, and once there, working hard and participating in civic life.
Another key element of the new American identity was expansion, particularly to the western half of the country. Families undertook harrowing overland journeys, and their stories provide a glimpse into a wilderness that would soon disappear as more settlers arrived. They also stand as a testament to courage and resolve, and provided a glimpse into the experience of women and children whose struggles during these journeys were both particularly poignant and well-documented. It is no accident that these western territories were among the first to allow women to participate fully in civic life.