Migration and Reform in Early America: An Interview with J.T. Jamieson

JT Jamieson

What role did American social and moral reformers play in managing human migrations? J.T. Jamieson, a Phd Candidate in UC Berkeley’s History Department, examines how social reformers in the first half of the 19th century sought to control migration and insert their own understandings of morality, social benevolence, and humanitarianism into the lives and experiences of migrants. In so doing, he argues, their reforms frequently perpetuated racial supremacy, religious supremacy, and Christian expansionism. In other words, they sought to determine who belongs in America — and who doesn’t.

Jamieson’s dissertation, “A Mere Change of Location: Migration and Reform in America, 1787-1857,” integrates the histories of religion, immigration, slavery, Indigenous dispossession, and Western expansion to argue that 19th-century social and moral reformers attempted to control the mass migrations of various peoples: African Americans, Indigenous peoples, European immigrants, and American settlers. A forthcoming journal article, “Home Work: Religious Nationalism and the American Home Missionary Society,” will appear in Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal in 2023.

Matrix Content Curator Julia Sizek spoke with Jamieson about his research. Listen to the interview below, or on Apple Podcasts. (A transcript of the conversation is included below.)



Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello, and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m your host, Julia Sizek, and today, our guest at the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Studio is J.T. Jamieson, a historian of the late 18th century and 19th century United States and a PhD candidate in UC Berkeley’s history department. J.T.’s dissertation, “A Mere Change in Location: Migration and Reform in America, 1787 through 1857,” integrates together the histories of religion, immigration, slavery, Indigenous dispossession, and Western expansion.

It argues that 19th-century social and moral reformers attempted to control the mass migrations of African-Americans, Indigenous peoples, European migrants and American settlers. He examines how reformers inserted themselves into the lives and experience of migrants and how they justified doing so based on their understandings of morality, social benevolence, and humanitarianism.

These reformers emerged around the early 19th century from a broad and burgeoning culture that emphasized self-improvement, social improvement, and moral uplift. They were often White, middle class and Protestant In a JT story, their understanding of social improvement, social benevolence, and humanitarian sympathy frequently perpetuated racial supremacy, religious supremacy, and Christian expansionism.

By examining their attitudes towards migrants and migrations, JT asserts that reformers fought to direct, regulate, promote, and impede human movement in order to craft their ideal world and determine which racial, political, religious, and socioeconomic groups belonged in the United States and which ones did not. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

J.T. Jamieson: Thank you very much for having me.

Sizek: So today, we’re really familiar with migration as being a very hotly contested moral and political debate, but your research investigates this topic in a time period that we’re less familiar. What were the big debates about migration during the 18th century.

Jamieson: Yeah, so definitely you’re right that it is a major hot button topic in political discourse and cultural politics today, and it has been for most of United States history. And in the late 18th century and throughout the first half of the 19th century, there are many different political debates about citizenship, about migration, about different ways to control migration, usually on a local, municipal, or state level.

But the debates that I’m most interested in, in my research, have less to do with policy and law and more to do with cultural and social debates about morality and migration, the moral character of different kinds of people in motion, and what the consequences of different kinds of people moving from one place to another, either within the United States or beyond its borders, what those consequences were for the moral character of American society in general.

So I look at how different kinds of moral and social reformers from the late 18th century up to the Civil war, the way that they debated whether or not they should control mobility of different kinds of people in different ways, and how they thought that one’s moral character could be influenced by a change of location.

So I look at how reformers who were interested in European immigration, reformers interested in expelling and removing and deporting Black and Indigenous peoples, reformers who were interested in the movements and the fate of European and anglo-Americans who were settling in the American west.

How, in all these different kinds of contexts and all these different kinds of people moving from one place to another, how different moral and social reformers developed ideas about moral character, and again, what they thought it meant for one big group of people to move from one place to another, and how that became a kind of mechanism for them to manage inclusion and exclusion in the body politic?

Sizek: Yeah. So just to get a better understanding of the big migrations that are happening at this time, obviously we have a lot of folks who are coming to the US from Europe. There are a large number of people who are coming to the US as enslaved peoples from different parts of Africa. What’s the big setup of who is coming to the US during this time?

Jamieson: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, the enslaved people coming to North America is obviously the big thing for the 18th century. The beginning of the 19th century, the International slave trade technically stops, though it goes on illegally, a little bit. And then, a lot of the people coming are Europeans, later in the century, like gold rush era, you get a trans-pacific migrations or migrations from other parts of North America, Central America, South America.

But I’m interested in not only moving into America, into the United states, but also moving within it and moving out of it. So if we’re going to take the example of slavery, one of my main case studies in my dissertation is the American Colonization Society, or ACS, we’ll call it. And the ACS was a national organization, voluntary organization, that advocated for the, basically, deportation of enslaved and free Black Americans to Africa.

And it was a really wide-ranging, really big movement with lots of different splinter organizations, and attracted lots and lots of different people with various degrees of racism and various motivations for wanting to expel free and enslaved Black people.

And I look at that organization from the perspective of moral and social reform, and the people who thought of themselves as humanitarians and argued that the right humanitarian moral thing to do was to expel Black people and keep the United States as basically a white Republic.

And they thought this was moral for a couple of reasons. They thought it will help Black people achieve a sense of moral uplift or improvement in their moral character if they’re removed from White people. They thought that they could utilize colonies of Black Americans in Africa to serve as missionaries and evangelists to Indigenous Africans.

So there’s all these different kinds of ways that they were like, if we basically deport and expel and uphold a racially exclusionary population, we’re actually doing something good and humane and humanitarian. And so there’s this logic that social benevolence is good, that they’re doing something good for these people, but the effect is that they are claiming that they do not belong in the United states, right?

So there’s this weird logic in this social benevolence that ultimately upholds racism and upholds racial exclusion, but in their minds, they are drawing on arguments about moral uplift, evangelical regeneration, exporting Christianity through the world.

Sizek: I think one of the things that’s really interesting about this case where this group of presumably mostly White people are proposing that Black Americans should be moving back to Africa, is that there’s both this idea that segregation is good. This is something that we’ve heard a lot in history.

But there’s also this idea that they have learned something in the US that they can take back with them in the forms of a Missionary Society and that they’re also performing uplift in that way. How did they portray sort of that aspect or element of their supposedly moral work?

Jamieson: Yeah, well, I mean, it comes down to propaganda a lot of the time, and often is a fiction, especially when other White missionaries are actually seeing these colonies in action and how mismanaged they are, and really, how much these Black colonists are suffering and the conflicts that they endure with Indigenous Africans.

So it’s falls on colonizationists, and especially colonizationists, who think of themselves as reformers and as humanitarians, to create this image in the United States of Black people who are willing to do these things that they may not be actually willing to do, and that they’re ready to embrace their new life as a voluntary emigrant in some other kind of land.

So they do a lot of propagandistic work to create what is, in many cases, this fiction of the excited, willing emigrant, who is in reality often more or less forced into being removed from the United States. So there’s one image on a membership card for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society that depicts this scene of White men delivering Black colonists to Liberia. And it’s a scene of total jubilation of, they have found their true, proper home, and that White people can take some kind of pleasure in having affected this, this transatlantic migration, in their minds, back to Africa.

So in many cases, it is a total fiction and it depends on the propagandistic work of colonizationists in their publications, sermonizing to their congregations about how good and right that this actually is, without recognizing the inherent racism and violence, in this form of what they think of as social benevolence.

Sizek: Yeah, so you bring up the key role that propaganda and brochures about colonization play in this role. Obviously, as a historian now, some of the things that we have left are all of these brochures. Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to sift through the archives and sort out propaganda from fact as it were?

Jamieson: Yeah, that’s, well, that’s a really good question. I mean, it’s definitely hard to distinguish the two often. And it is a challenge to try to figure out when people are speaking genuinely as something that they genuinely feel, or if it’s something that was intended to cover up their true motives.

And I don’t know, I mean, for historians, I think a lot of times it comes down to judgment calls and trying to fill out the worldviews of the people that you are examining, to try to figure out if they’re both public and, say, private writings seem to align and if they seem to be genuinely thinking, like, I’m doing some kind of humanitarian work here, or if they’re really just using this idea of charity, benevolence, philanthropy as a cover for more sinister motives.

So, I mean, it depends a lot on taking lots of different sources, public sources meant for public consumption that are published, as well as private writings, taking all these into account and trying to reconstruct a worldview that, in many cases, seems alien and weird to us today, but try to situate that within the logic of the historical moment that it existed in.

Sizek: I think that’s really interesting because it is such a challenge to figure out, when you’re in the archives like, well, what does this person actually believe? And it’s not like, obviously, we can interview them today. What were some of the archives that you went to? Where did you go?

Jamieson: I have some archival collections from right here at Berkeley, the graduate, well, not at Berkeley, but in Berkeley, the Graduate Theological Union, which I used a lot for one chapter I have about domestic missionaries who are concerned with the migration of settlers to the American West.

Concerned, in part, because some missionaries and missionary organizations fear the de-population of their congregations, as people move West and they try to complain and do something to stop it and control it. And then other people who are celebrating the migration of people to the American West as a means to expand Christianity.

And the papers of this organization, the American Home Missionary Society, is in the Graduate Theological Union with lots of other great stuff and great people who work there. Some stuff from Kansas. I also look at some Kansas settlers and people who are involved in also trying to remove Indigenous people from the East across the Mississippi. Other archives in the Northeast were a lot of these organizations and this culture of social reform and benevolence was rooted, mainly rooted in the North and the Northeast, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, places like that.

Sizek: Yeah, so one of the points that you raise is that a lot of these organizations or groups are associated or somehow affiliated with religious groups. So what was the structure of these societies at this time? Where did they fall in relation to the major religious movements in the US?

Jamieson: Yeah, well, so the sort of reform culture that I’m speaking about in vague terms, that is concerned with all sorts of different peoples moving and in different organizations and stuff, I mean, it comes out of what is a very, very broad culture of philanthropy and charity and social benevolence that emerged in the first half of the 19th century.

As lots of more wealthy people and also an emerging middle class, becomes interested in having sympathy for other people and trying to develop some kind of humanitarian attitude. It’s a very big, it’s very wide-ranging, and there’s lots of conflicts within it. And people are interested in prisons and education, in all the stuff that I’ve been talking about as well, in slavery, but a lot of people are also interested in missions.

So many people who ascribe to this culture of benevolence and reform in the 19th century tend to be Protestants and have this cultural Protestant ethic that inspires their views on social benevolence. But the really overtly religious stuff comes in the forms of missions or Sunday school, movements to found and organize Sunday schools, arguments about the Sabbath and things like that.

And some of the major missionary organizations that I look at include the American Home Missionary Society, which is often concerned with White and American and European settlers moving to the American West. And then there’s also the foreign counterpart to that, which is the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, or ABCFM, which is also one of these other very big national societies that’s working beyond the borders of the United States and also with Indigenous peoples.

In some cases, some of these missionaries associated with this organization or organizations of other religious denominations, either support or try to argue against the deportation of Indigenous peoples. And they make all these kinds of various moral arguments, much like in the way that people made arguments about the removal of Black Americans to Africa or elsewhere.

So religion plays a big role as both an undercurrent for a lot of these movements and these attitudes about benevolence and reform, and also a much more explicit way, in that there are missionary organizations that turn into very big national missionary organizations tend to be either Presbyterian or congregationalist, but then also Baptists have some, Episcopalians have some. But these missionary organizations are very visible in this culture of benevolence and reform.

Sizek: Yeah, so one of the things that you mentioned is that these missionaries are both working domestically within the United States and outside of the United States. The boundaries of the US are rapidly changing during this time. Can you help us understand when they’re working outside of the US, per se, where they’re working or if they’re working in what we now consider the territorial boundaries of the US?

Jamieson: Yeah, in both. I mean, as I said, the, the ABCFM working amongst Indigenous peoples and what we would now consider the boundaries of the United States, as well as going to places like Hawaii or Burma or Africa, places all over the world.

But it’s interesting that it’s really, I think, the domestic missionaries who are much more concerned with ideas about migration, more so than the foreign missionaries who actually, themselves, moving much farther from the United States because the home missionaries, home as in domestic missionaries, as I said, they’re concerned with the migration of European and Anglo-Americans throughout the West. They’re concerned at other times with the de-population of Eastern churches and stuff like that.

They’re also concerned with immigration, and they often view the world as collapsing in upon the United States. And they have a couple of different ideas about that. In part, they have very they have ideas that are very rooted in nativism, specifically in anti-Catholic nativism, where there’s a fear of mainly European immigrants coming into the United States. There’s lots of conspiracies about Catholic European immigrants are coming under the thumb of insidious papal forces that will then destroy American democracy or something.

So there’s a lot of nativistic fear of immigrants, and especially of Catholics, but there’s also the sense that they kind of come to think in other ways that God is purposefully designed the world and has, himself, inspired migrations from abroad to come into the United states, whether from China in the later antebellum period or from Europe. And they think like, well, we see a great, almost like millennialist promise in the migration of other people into the United states, because God, we think, is bringing them to us to convert them, right?

So there is this kind of pessimism and this fear and anxiety about immigrants coming into the United States from the perspective of domestic missionaries. There’s also a great hope and optimism about it because they think that God is making the world collapse into the United States and it’s in the religious theater of the United States that they will be converted. And it’s almost they think of it like converting the world, doing foreign missionary work within the territorial boundaries of the United States.

So it’s interestingly, I found that it’s really these domestic missionaries who are working within the bounds of the United states, who argue and are much more concerned with migratory flows of various kinds, whether that’s within the United States or coming into the United States from other countries. It’s the domestic missionaries that seem to really be thinking about the meaning of migration more so than the foreign missionaries.

Sizek: Yeah, that’s really fascinating because in some ways, I think one of the things that gets lost in contemporary immigration debates is the US often appears very homogenous, right? That there are, immigrants coming from Mexico and Central America and they’re just coming to America and it’s like, they could be going anywhere in America. And that’s not differentiated in the news.

But here it seems like the location of immigrants in the US is really a central part of this debate. And one of the cases that you look at is the famous case of Bleeding Kansas, which I think is something that we may not recall other than remembering as a term from high school history. So can you walk us through what Bleeding Kansas was and how it was significant for migration debates?

Jamieson: Yeah, so Bleeding Kansas, yeah, as probably many Americans know from APUSH or high school or whatever, refers to a series of violent episodes in Kansas territory in the mid 1850s. It’s one of these big things that sort of precipitates the sectionalism of the Civil War. And the violence is erupting over debates about whether or not when Kansas becomes a state, it will be a free state or a slave state. And it’s sort of up to the residents to vote about whether or not they want their state to be a free state or not.

And so the effect that has is that a lot of pro and anti-slavery people start talking about sending or supporting migrants who are going to Kansas, with the presumption that those populations who are sympathetic to either slavery or anti-slavery will then vote to make Kansas a free state or a slave state and that will have major political repercussions at this time. And so there’s lots of violence and political and cultural debate about the destiny of Kansas.

And I look at it through the lens of emigrant aid, emigrant aid societies. And the big one is something called the New England Emigrant Aid Society, or NEEAC, which was formed by a bunch of people in Massachusetts, both more, sort of, religious reformers as well as very wealthy philanthropists who are supporting this. And the idea is that they will help free-soil or anti-slavery settlers on their journey to Kansas, and will help them get settled by pumping capital into settlements in Kansas.

And this is important to my story in two ways. And one is that the NEEAC and other organizations that want to support Kansas settlers, and specifically free-soil and anti-slavery Kansas settlers, on the one hand, these organizations and these emigrant aiders, they view the migration as a kind of tool to solve the problem of slavery in the United States.

They think, well, if we can just support the migration of a large amount of peopl, they turn out to actually not support that many people, but, which is the case with a lot of my case studies. They have very grandiose grand ideas and they actually don’t work out a lot of the time.

But anyway, the idea of the NEEAC is that by moving a certain population with particular religious or economic or political affiliations from one place to another, they can influence the destiny of slavery in the United States and they hope help to end slavery in the United states. Not in any kind of radical abolitionist way, they’re all pretty conservative, but they are anti-slavery.

So they think of it as a tool to solve a major social problem. And they also think about how migration to the West has been, in their view, a humanitarian problem for White and American and European settlers. And they say, often when people migrate to the west as settlers, they face innumerable challenges, and tend to suffer a lot and have lots of destitution and suffering of various kinds.

And they say, but if we organize this migration and support their settlements economically, if we help transplant communities of similar people, that will go a very long way to ease what they say is the suffering or abuse of Western migrants.

So they’re thinking about supporting and helping migrants, both to address this larger social problem, the problem of slavery, and they’re also thinking about migration itself as a problem that requires some kind of benevolent intervention. So they say, these settlers, in our view, have been suffering, but if we support and organize their migration, they won’t suffer anymore.

So I think of it as both helping immigrants as both a tool to solve a problem, and they think of it as, they think of migration as a problem in and of itself, that they need to intervene in and in some way regulate or control. And those two things are really where the bulk of my argument throughout my dissertation hinges around those two, those two views of migration.

Sizek: Yeah, so that’s very fascinating as well because one of the big figures in the history of the American West is that of the land speculator who is often accused of being both this person who promotes disorganized settlement and who sends someone off with their little parcel of land in a somewhat amoral way or perhaps entirely immoral way. So how did they view themselves relative to these land speculators, and how did they differentiate themselves from land speculators?

Jamieson: Yeah, so land speculation is a big part of my story, sort of, at the beginning of my story when I talk about European immigrants coming in the late 18th century, to the end of my story when I talk about immigrants going to the west, into Kansas in the 1850s.

And I don’t really look so much at speculation activities, but more the idea of the land speculator as, as you say, a sort of, amoral, evil person intent on deceiving poor people to come settle their lands. But they don’t actually care about them at all and these people end up suffering in all kinds of ways and the speculator just wants to make a dollar.

So the beginning of my story, when I look at European immigration, there’s a whole transatlantic fear about American land speculators in the late 18th century. So you have people in England and people in France really vocally trying to demonize American land speculators because they say our people will– we both lose our population, which in the late 18th century, they think is not a good idea. They say we’ll lose our people and they will also end up suffering. And it’s our job to tell people, to warn people about these kind of speculative projects.

When you have land speculators saying like, great things wait for you if you come to America, Europeans think it’s our job to tell people the truth. And in telling them the truth about how they will suffer at the hands of these land speculators, amoral land speculators, then they won’t migrate as a kind of tool, an informal tool to regulate migration. And that same kind of thing happens again, in the West now in Kansas.

There’s a long history throughout the 19th century of this same kind of fear of the figure of the speculator who’s only interested in deceiving people, and these reformers are people interested in social benevolence, kind think it’s their job to tell people the truth, right? And say, don’t trust these land speculators. Believe the information that we give you, and in doing that, we will in some way have a hand in controlling or regulating the movements of migrants and of settlers.

With the NEEAC, the New England Emigrant Aid Company in Kansas, they’re very aware of this. And so they go to great lengths to say, we’re really only interested in giving out correct information, as big emphasis on trustworthy correct advice being given to prospective settlers and migrants.

And then they also come under attack by pro-slavery enemies of the NEEAC, NEEAC who say, no, actually, you are deceptive land speculators only interested in yourselves. This kind of debate reaches into Congress as congressmen from the North and the South are debating emigrant aid companies to Kansas, and saying that, no, you are guilty of doing these sort of inhumane abuses of settlers.

So the land speculator, again, figures in my story in all these kinds of ways, and it’s more, again, the idea of the land speculator, as someone who is intent on abusing or creating suffering for migrants and settlers. And lots of people take it upon themselves to, say, accuse someone else of being a speculator, but with the interest of wanting to influence whether or not a person is going to move to a particular place.

So in so far as it figures into my story about reform and benevolence, as calling out land speculators as a tool to regulate or limit or control whether or not people are going to make a decision to migrate, that kind of stuff plays an important part.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s so fascinating because it shows us the 19th century version of what people today might call misinformation or debates about facts and what is real and what’s not real, because instead of playing out over the internet today, it’s playing out through newspapers in Congress, and then also particularly around this one figure, this one highly demonized figure of the land speculator.

So what ends up– wrap up the story on Bleeding Kansas for us. What ends up happening? We have all of these disputes, right? There’s actual violence, people are attacking each other in Kansas. What happens during these debates about migration?

Jamieson: Yeah, well, so ultimately, Kansas does become a free state right as the Civil War is about to happen. But the people related to the emigrant aid charitable organizations that I talk about, they have a, I don’t know, not the best track record. there’s lots of people in Kansas, settlers in Kansas, who say, actually, this organization ended up not doing very much for us, practically.

Certainly, they figured into the political debate about migration to the West in the 1850s. But a lot of these guys, and they were mostly guys, after the end of the 1850s, they start to look beyond Kansas. And they try to take this sort of ideology of what they call organized emigration and apply it to other places. So some people associated with it are now looking at developing some kind of migration project to Texas or to Oregon or to Florida or even to Nicaragua.

And none of these actually really work out in any kind of real way. They all, kind of, fail or just don’t work out in different ways for different reasons. But I think what it shows is, right up to the end of the pre-civil war period, is the belief that it’s possible to colonize and organize the migration of people through these avenues of philanthropy and moral reform.

And that the outcome will be that we’re making the world a better place for whatever reason, whether we’re spreading some kind of what they would think of as an anglo-american civilization or supporting migrants who they think might otherwise be suffering if they were to settle somewhere else on their own without some kind of charitable support. I think what it shows, that despite their failures, that they believe this is still possible. It’s within the realm of possibility to regulate and control and support, in theory, large movements of people from one place to another.

So, again, in many of my case studies, not that many people actually end up moving under the auspices of these different organizations, but what it does is it cultivates this middle class social politics of humanitarianism, where supporting people moving, all kinds of different people moving, becomes significant and people start to think that, make some connection between large groups of people moving from one place to the other and a social transformation on both an individual level and a larger national or community level.

So again, even though, in many cases, these projects don’t work out, I think it– I think it demonstrates the way that people were thinking about migration, and trying to embed some kind of humanitarian language into debates about migration, and trying to use philanthropy and social benevolence as a kind of, again, as a kind of tool to control or regulate where different people are moving. And ultimately, in their minds, that determines who belongs in the United States and who doesn’t. What religious, national, ethno-national, racial, economic, political group belongs here, and which don’t.

And relying on philanthropy and social benevolence as a means to determine that, I think, is something that emerges in this period and is something that has generally been understudied by historians who are otherwise interested in looking at ideas about citizenship and policy and the work of the state in controlling and regulating migration. I’m arguing that there’s other ways that Americans thought that they could influence and regulate migratory flows of people, and one of those ways was through participating in philanthropy and charity and social benevolence.

Sizek: Yeah, well, I think that’s just such a fascinating way to view and think about immigration policy beyond the national level. And so, yeah, I’d like to just thank you for coming on and telling us all about these aid societies.

Jamieson: Thank you for having me.


Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science matrix, please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

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