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 Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts. (A transcript of the conversation is included below, edited for length and clarity.)


Q: We’re familiar with migration as being a very hotly contested moral and political debate, but your research investigates this topic during a time period that is less familiar. What were the big debates about migration during the 18th century?

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

I look at different kinds of moral and social reformers from the late 18th century up to the Civil War, and the way that they debated whether or not they should control the 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. I look at how reformers who are interested in European immigration, reformers interested in expelling and removing and deporting Black and Indigenous peoples, and reformers who were interested in the movements and the fate of European and Anglo-Americans who were settling in the American West. I look at how, in all these different contexts, different moral and social reformers developed ideas about moral character, and 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.

Who were the migrants coming to the United States during this time? 

That’s a good question. There was a large number of enslaved people coming to North America during the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century; the international slave trade technically then stopped, but it went on illegally. And then a lot of the people coming later were Europeans. During the Gold Rush era, you saw transpacific migrations, from other parts of North America, Central America, and South America. 

But I’m interested in not only people moving into the United States, but also moving within it and moving out of it. To take the example of slavery, one of the main case studies in my dissertation is the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS was a national voluntary organization that advocated for the deportation of enslaved and free Black Americans to Africa. And it was really a wide-ranging movement with lots of different splinter organizations, and attracted lots of different people with various degrees of racism and various motivations for wanting to expel free and enslaved Black people. 

I look at that organization from the from the perspective of moral and social reform and the people who thought of themselves as humanitarians, and argued that the moral thing to do was to expel Black people and keep the United States as basically a White republic. They thought this was moral for a couple of reasons. They thought it would help Black people achieve a sense of moral uplift or improvement in their moral character if they were 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. There were different ways that they said, “If we deport and expel and uphold a racially exclusionary population, we’re actually doing something good and humane and humanitarian.”

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 [Black Americans] did not belong in the United States. There was this weird logic in the social benevolence that ultimately upheld racism and racial exclusion. But in their minds, they were drawing on arguments about moral uplift, evangelical regeneration, and exporting Christianity through the world.

Q: One of the things that’s interesting about this group of White people proposing that Black Americans should move back to Africa is that it contained the idea that segregation is good, and that they had learned something in the US that they could take back with them as missionaries. How did they portray that aspect of this supposedly moral work?

It came down to a lot of propaganda. Often it was a fiction, especially when other White missionaries are seeing these colonies in action and how mismanaged they were, and how much these Black colonists were suffering and the conflicts that they endured with Indigenous Africans.

It fell on a colonizationists, and especially colonists, to think of themselves as reformers and as humanitarians, and to create this image in the United States of Black people who are willing to do these things that they may not actually be willing to do, and saying they were ready to embrace their new life as voluntary emigrants in some other land. They did a lot of propagandistic work to create this fiction of the excited, willing emigrant who is, in reality, often being forcefully removed from the United States. 

There’s an image on a membership card for the Pennsylvania Colonization Society that depicts a scene of White men delivering Black colonists to Liberia. And it’s a scene of total jubilation, as if they have found their true proper home, and White people can take some kind of pleasure in having effected this transatlantic migration back to Africa.

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

Q: As a historian, how did you approach the archives of printed materials and separate propaganda from fact?

It’s definitely hard to distinguish the two; often it is a challenge to try to figure out when people were speaking genuinely or it was intended to cover up their true motives. For historians, it often comes down to judgment calls and trying to fill out the worldviews of the of the people that you are examining, to try to figure out if their public and private writing seem to align, or if they seem to be genuinely thinking, I’m doing some kind of humanitarian work here, or if they’re really just using this idea of charity, benevolence, and philanthropy as a cover for more sinister motives. It depends on taking lots of different sources into account — public sources that were published and meant for public consumption, as well as private writings — and trying to reconstruct a worldview that in many cases seems alien and weird to us today. It’s about trying to situate that within the logic of the historical moment that it existed in.

Q: What were some of the archives you used for this research?

I used some archival collections from here in Berkeley from the Graduate Theological Union, particularly for a chapter about domestic missionaries who were concerned with the migration of settlers to the American West. Some missionaries or missionary organizations feared the depopulation of their congregations as people moved west, and they tried to complain and do something to stop and control it. Meanwhile, others were celebrating the migration of people to the American West as a means to expand Christianity. The papers of this organization, the American Home Missionary Society, are in the Graduate Theological Union, with lots of other great stuff. I also looked at materials in Kansas related to Kansas settlers, and people who were involved in trying to remove Indigenous people from east of the Mississippi. There were also archives in the Northeast, where a lot of these organizations and this culture of social reform and benevolence was mainly rooted — in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and places like that.

Q: One of the points you raised is that a lot of these organizations or groups were associated with religious groups. What was the structure of these societies at this time, and where did they fall in relation to the major religious movements in the US?

The sort of reform culture that I’m speaking about came out of what was a very broad culture of philanthropy and charity and social benevolence that emerged in the first half of the 19th century, as more wealthy people and an emerging middle class developed a kind of humanitarian attitude. It was very wide ranging, and there were lots of conflicts within it. People were interested in prisons and education as well as slavery, but a lot of people were also interested in missions. Many people who subscribed to this culture of benevolence and reform in the 19th century tended to be Protestants and have a cultural Protestant ethic that inspired their views on social benevolence. But the really overtly religious stuff came in the form of missions or movements to found and organize Sunday schools.

Some of the major missionary organizations that I looked at include the American Home Missionary Society, which was often concerned with White and American and European settlers moving to the American West. There was also a foreign counterpart to that, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), which was a large national society working beyond the borders of the United States, and also with Indigenous people in some cases. Some of these of the missionaries associated with this organization, or organizations of other religious denominations, either supported or tried to argue against the deportation of Indigenous peoples, and they made various moral arguments, similar to how people made arguments about the removal of Black Americans to Africa or elsewhere. But religion played a big role as an undercurrent for a lot of these movements and these attitudes about benevolence and reform. There were also missionary organizations that turned into like very big national missionary organizations, which tended to be either Presbyterian or Congregationalists, though the Baptists have some and the Episcopalians have some. These missionary organizations were very visible in this culture of benevolence and and reform.

Q: You noted that the missionaries were working domestically within the United States and also outside of the United States. Where were they operating primarily?

The ABCFM was working among Indigenous peoples in what we would now consider the boundaries of the United States, as well as places like Hawaii, Burma, or Africa — places all over all over the world. But the domestic missionaries were much more concerned with ideas about migration, more so than the foreign missionaries, who were actually moving farther from the United States. The domestic missionaries were concerned with the migration of European and Anglo-Americans throughout the West, and with the depopulation of churches in the U.S. They were also concerned with immigration. 

They often viewed the world as collapsing in upon the United States. In part, they had ideas that were very rooted in nativism, specifically in anti-Catholic nativism, where there’s a fear of mainly European immigrants coming into the United States. There were lots of conspiracies about Catholic European immigrants coming under the thumb of insidious papal forces that would then destroy American democracy. There was a lot of nativistic fear of immigrants, and especially of Catholics. 

They had come to think that God had purposefully designed the world and had himself inspired migrations from abroad to come into the United States, whether from China or from Europe. They saw an almost millennialist promise in the migration of other people into the United States, because God is bringing them to us to convert them. 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. It’s almost like they were converting the world with foreign missionary work, but within the territorial boundaries of the United States. Interestingly, it was really these domestic missionaries, working within the bounds of the United States, who were much more concerned with migratory flows of various kinds, whether within the United States or coming into the United States from other countries. It’s the domestic missionaries that that seem to really be thinking about the meaning of migration, more so than the foreign missionaries.

Q: One of the cases that you look at is sort of the famous case of Bleeding Kansas. What was Bleeding Kansas, and how was it significant for the migration debate?

Bleeding Kansas, as probably many Americans know, refers to a series of violent episodes in Kansas Territory in the mid-1850s. It’s one of these things that precipitated the sectionalism of the Civil War. The violence erupted over debates about whether or not Kansas would be established as a free state or a slave state. It was up to the residents to vote about whether or not they wanted their state to be a free state or not. The effect this had is that a lot of pro- and anti-slavery people started talking about sending or supporting migrants who were going to Kansas with this 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. That would have major political repercussions at this time, and so there was lots of violence and political and cultural debate about the destiny of Kansas.

I look at it through the lens of of emigrant aid societies. The big one is something called the New England Emigrant Aid Company, or NEEAC, which was a formed by a bunch of people in Massachusetts, both religious reformers as well as wealthy philanthropists, who supported this. Their idea is that they would help “Free-Soil” (or anti-slavery) settlers on their journey to Kansas, by pumping capital into settlements in Kansas. 

This is important to my story in two ways. One is that these organizations — the NEEAC and other other organizations that wanted to support Free-Soil and anti-slavery Kansas settlers — viewed migration as a kind of tool to solve the problem of slavery in the United States. They thought they could just support the migration of a large number of people, but they turned out to actually not support that many people, which was the case with a lot of my case studies. They have very grandiose ideas, and they actually don’t work out all the time. 

But anyway, the idea of the 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 hoped to help end slavery in the United States, not in any kind of radical abolitionist way. They’re all pretty conservative, but they were anti-slavery. So they think of it as a tool to solve a major social problem. 

They also think about how migration to the West has been, in their view, a humanitarian problem for White and American European settlers. They say, often when people migrate to the West as settlers, they face innumerable challenges, and tend to suffer a lot and  experience destitution and suffering of various kinds. But, they say, 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 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 as a problem that requires some kind of benevolent intervention. They say, “the settlers, in our view, have been suffering. But if we support and organize them migrate, they won’t suffer anymore.” They saw emigration as a tool to solve a problem, and they think of migration as a problem in and of itself that they need to intervene in, and in some way regulate or control. Those two views of migration are really where the bulk of my argument throughout my dissertation hinges around.

Q: One of the big figures in the history of the American West was the “land speculator,” who was often accused of promoting disorganized settlement by sending someone off with their little parcel of land in a somewhat amoral, or perhaps entirely immoral way. How did they view themselves relative to these land speculators?

Land speculation is a big part of my story, from the beginning , when I talk about European immigrants coming in the late 18th century, to the end, when I talk about immigrants going to the west and to Kansas in the 1850s. I don’t really look so much at speculation activities, but more the idea of the land speculator, as you say, as a sort of amoral person intent on deceiving poor people to come settle their lands, when they don’t actually care about them at all. These people end up suffering in all kinds of ways. And the speculator just wants to make their dollar.

At the beginning of my story, when I look at European immigration, there was a transatlantic fear about American land speculators in the late 18th century. You had people in England and in France vocally trying to demonize American land speculators, because they said, we will both lose our population and we will end up suffering. It’s our job to warn people about these kind of speculative projects. You had land speculators saying, “Oh, 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, then they won’t migrate. It’s a kind of informal tool to regulate migration. 

The same thing happened in the West. In Kansas, there was a long history throughout the 19th century. They have this same kind of fear of the figure of the speculator who’s only interested in deceiving people. And these reformers, people interested in social benevolence, think it’s their job to tell people the truth, 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, “Oh, we’re really only interested in giving out correct information.” There’s a 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, who say, “Actually, you are deceptive land speculators only interested in yourselves.” 

This kind of debate reached into Congress, as Congressman from the North and the South were debating emigrant aid companies to Kansas, saying, “you are guilty of this inhumane abuse of settlers.” The land speculator again figures in my story in all these kinds of ways. It’s more against 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 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. Insofar as it figures into my story about reform and benevolence, 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 plays an important part.

Q: That’s interesting because it suggests a 19th-century version of what people today might call the spreading of misinformation. So what ended up happening around Bleeding Kansas and the debates about emigration?

Ultimately, Kansas did become a free state as the Civil War was about to happen. But the people related to emigrant aid, the charitable organizations that I talked about, did not have the best track record. There were lots of settlers in Kansas who said, “Actually, this organization ended up not doing very much for us.” Practically, they figured into the political debate about migration to the West in the 1850s. But after the end of the 1850s, a lot of these guys — and they were mostly guys — started to look beyond Kansas, and they tried to take ideology of what they called “organized immigration” and apply it to other places. Some people associated with it were now looking at developing some kind of migration project to Texas, to Oregon, to Florida, or even to Nicaragua. And none of these really works out in any kind of real way. They all fail or don’t work out in different ways and for different reasons. 

But what it shows, 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 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. It shows that, despite their failures, [migration supporters] believed this is still possible. In theory, it’s within the realm of possibility to regulate and control and support large movements of people from one place to another. 

In many of my case studies, not that many people actually ended up moving under the auspices of these different organizations, but what it did is cultivate this middle-class social politics of humanitarianism, where supporting all kinds of different people moving becomes significant, and people start to make a connection between large groups of people moving from one place to the other, and a sort of social transformation on both an individual level and a larger national or community level. Even though in many cases, these projects don’t work out, 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 tool to control or regulate where different people are moving.

Ultimately, in their minds, that determines who belongs in the United States and who doesn’t; what religious, national, ethnonational, racial, or economic political groups belong here, and which don’t. Relying on philanthropy and social benevolence as a means to determine that is something that emerged 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 were other ways that Americans thought they could influence and regulate migratory flows of people. And one of those ways was through participating in philanthropy and charity and social benevolence.

You May Like

Authors Meet Critics


Published October 12, 2022

Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley

Recorded on September 30, 2022, this Matrix “Author Meets Critics” panel focused on the book "Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley," by Carolyn Chen, Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies. Professor Chen was joined in conversation by Arlie Hochschild, Professor Emerita in the UC Berkeley Department of Sociology, and Morgan Ames, Assistant Professor of Practice in the UC Berkeley School of Information and Associate Director of Research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society. The conversation was moderated by Marion Fourcade, Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley and Director of Social Science Matrix. The event was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion and the Berkeley Culture Center.

Learn More >

Matrix On Point


Published October 12, 2022

Humanitarian Technologies

Recorded on September 26, 2022, this "Matrix on Point" panel featured a group of scholars — including Daragh Murrah, Fleur Johns, and Wendy H. Wong — examining how technology raises new questions about the efficacy of humanitarian interventions, the human rights of recipients, and the broader power relations between donors and recipients. Moderated by Berkeley Law's Laurel E. Fletcher.

Learn More >



Published October 11, 2022

Reconsidering the Achievement Gap: An Interview with Monica Ellwood-Lowe

For this episode of the Matrix podcast, Matrix Content Curator Julia Sizek spoke with Monica Ellwood-Lowe, a PhD Candidate in the UC Berkeley Department of Psychology, about her research on children’s cognitive performance, and how we might think about removing barriers to children’s success. 

Learn More >