Related Texts
Unguarded Gates -- annotated text

Aldrich and the Immigration Restriction League

Texts Related to the Works of Sarah Orne Jewett

An Interpretation of T. B. Aldrich's "Unguarded Gates"
  by Terry Heller
Coe College

Barbara Solomon in Ancestors and Immigrants reads Thomas Bailey Aldrich's 1892 poem, "Unguarded Gates," as expressing "a racial venom, prophetic of things to come" (88)  Joining Solomon is every other interpreter of this poem that I have encountered.  Solomon's emphasis on prophecy is not typical, but most readers agree about the racial venom in the poem.  All paint Aldrich as in sympathy with the new manifestation of American nativism that began to emerge near the end of the 19th century in response to the "new immigration," in which patterns of immigration to the United States shifted from dominance by northern and western Europeans, to dominance by southern and eastern Europeans.  This new nativism sought to distinguish among European "races," and to argue that the southern and eastern races were not amenable to assimilation as Americans.  "Unguarded Gates" is a main piece of evidence supporting the general agreement that Aldrich spoke for these new nativists.  With trepidation, then, I will argue that all of these interpreters have mistaken Aldrich's thesis.

    Aldrich opens with a description of the United States as:

A later Eden planted in the wilds,   
With not an inch of earth within its bound   
But if a slave’s foot press it sets him free!   
Here, it is written, Toil shall have its wage,   
And Honor honor, and the humblest man
Stand level with the highest in the law.

In the second stanza he notes that the gates of this Eden stand wide open to all, welcoming those who share in the ideals of freedom, hard work, recognition of the good, and equality. He then specifies the many peoples who have responded to this welcome:

Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes,   
Featureless figures of the Hoang-Ho,   
Malayan, Scythian, Teuton, Kelt, and Slav,   
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn;
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,—   
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.

The consensus reading is that this is Aldrich's list of undesirable immigrants, of peoples he wishes to exclude from the United States.  It may be significant that he does not mention Africans, but this may cut more ways than one.  He includes groups, such Celts and Chinese, already on popular lists of undesirable immigrants, and such as Russians and Slavs, who would begin to appear among the undesirables as the Immigration Restriction League (founded in 1894) began to develop and bring forward legislative proposals. 
    However, Aldrich also includes Teutons on his list, the one group virtually every New Englander and many other Americans agreed was the foundational American race.  Teutons comprise all speakers of Teutonic languages, including English. Tim Prchal recognizes that this is a problem.  If Aldrich is offering a list of races to be excluded from future immigration because at least some of them have unknown gods and rites and tiger passions that are destructive of American ideals, why does he include Teutons on this list?  Prchal's solution is that Aldrich must want to end all immigration, to close the United States to all but the native born (41-2).  While this conclusion is possible, the more reasonable explanation is that Aldrich means that representatives of all of these peoples have flown from "the Old World's poverty and scorn" and have sought out "the later Eden." Therefore, he counsels the "white Goddess" to take in all of them: "On thy breast / Fold Sorrow’s children, soothe the hurts of fate, / Lift the down-trodden."  His grammar seems to make clear that he means literally what he says, that all immigrants, whatever their origins, who share these American ideals should be taken into the arms of the white goddess.  Even though many readers contrast Aldrich's poem with the famous Emma Lazarus sonnet that appears on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, when it comes to welcoming and comforting "your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," the two poems are in basic agreement.
    Still, it is clear that Aldrich must want someone to be excluded from the United States.  If not the peoples on his list, then whom?  After he lists those races and nationalities who have come to America to participate in its ideals, he then turns to those he wishes the goddess to hold back "with hand of steel":  "In street and alley what strange tongues are these, / Accents of menace alien to our air, …"  These he says, "to thy sacred portals come / To waste the gifts of freedom." Aldrich says that he wants to restrict immigration, but he does not specify any group for exclusion except those who fail to value America's unique gifts.  What is he talking about?  Who are these people?
    A minor point provides an introduction to dealing with this question.  Between the Atlantic Monthly publication of this poem (July 1892: 57) and collecting it in his 1895 volume, Unguarded Gates and Other Poems, Aldrich changed one word:  "what strange tongues are these" became "what strange tongues are loud."  Between these two publications, Aldrich wrote to his friend George E. Woodberry, clarifying the identities of those whom he would bar from citizenship.  This clarification suggests that the anger that motivated the poem grew between the two publications, spurring him to add emphasis to his condemnation of strange tongues of menace that would advocate the building of a new tower of Babel and that would trample what is sacred in America as did the Goths and Vandals in the Roman Empire.
    In the letter of May 14, 1892 to George E. Woodberry, Aldrich elaborates his motivations and intentions for "Unguarded Gates."  Though he jokingly says that he was moved to write the poem by his failure to bid successfully for a rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane (1827), his more important motivation appears when he reports recently attending an anarchist meeting, where he heard speakers who seemed to want to destroy American democratic institutions for purely selfish reasons:

I went home and wrote a misanthropic poem called "Unguarded Gates" …, in which I mildly protest against America becoming the cesspool of Europe. I'm much too late,  however. I looked in on an anarchist meeting the other night, as I told you, and heard such things spoken by our "feller citizens" as made my cheek burn. These brutes are the spawn and natural result of the French Revolution; they don't want any government at all, they "want the earth" (like a man in a balloon) and chaos. My Americanism goes clean beyond yours. I believe in America for the Americans; …, and I hold that jail-birds, professional murderers, amateur lepers…, and human gorillas generally should be closely questioned at our Gates.

He says nothing about excluding immigrants on the bases of religion or race or nationality.  Those who would "waste the gifts of freedom" include anarchists, whom he sees as espousing an anti-American ideology.  He also wants to filter out criminals and two other groups.  By "amateur lepers," he may mean beggars.  By "human gorillas," he may mean people who, for some reason, function at a subhuman level, perhaps the mentally incompetent.  When he says he believes in "America for the Americans," he echoes a rallying cry of nativists throughout the nineteenth century, but Aldrich does not seem to mean that only the American-born and the easily assimilated should form the population of the future.  Rather, as the poem says, he is willing to welcome all honest and reasonably competent immigrants who desire to become Americans ideologically.  He wants to filter out those individuals who cannot or will not become good citizens.  Of course, excluding individuals because of their political beliefs or even because they have a criminal record is deeply problematic, but it is far different from excluding groups of people on the basis of race or nationality, as new nativists began to advocate in the mid-1890s.  This may seem like a minor distinction, but it is important. 

Whatever Aldrich thought about dividing humanity into races and hierarchizing racial groups, in neither the poem nor the letter does he offer race as a rationale for restricting immigration.  Aldrich goes on in his letter to express his characteristic pessimism.  He shares his fear that a tipping point has passed, and he goes on to prophecy despairingly that America is destined to become, in words he attributes humorously to a "certain Arabian writer," Rudyard Kipling, "a despotism of the alien, by the alien, for the alien, tempered with occasional insurrections of decent folk."  Presumably he was somewhat gratified by the Immigration Act of 1901, which attempted to filter out potential immigrants on the grounds of anarchist ideology and criminality, along with other restrictions.  It is somewhat odd that Aldrich does not mention in his letters to Woodberry, the Immigration Act of 1891, which had set up immigration inspection stations and authorized turning back certain undesirable candidates on the basis of morality, or the Geary Act to extend the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was discussed in Congress in the spring and passed in May of 1892.  Such omissions may lead one to wonder whether Aldrich kept up with legislation about immigration.

    Though Aldrich includes no Africans on his list of immigrant groups who have realized their dreams of freedom and equality in America, peoples of Africa still appear in the poem.  When his speaker notes that there is no slavery in the United States, he implies that African-Americans are to be included as American citizens, and this entails that future voluntary Black African immigrants would have reason to expect the benefits of citizenship as long as they accept the values he has listed.  It is not clear in the poem or letter that Aldrich has given this aspect of his poem any thought.  His view of African Americans may be glimpsed in an 1889 essay, "Odd Sticks," which was revised for inclusion in An Old Town By the Sea (1893).  There he recalls fondly the African American barber, Sol Holmes, who was one of the few "exotics" in the Portsmouth, NH of his boyhood.  While the portrait he offers draws upon stereotypes -- e.g. in his noting that the man "possessed his race's sweet temper, simplicity, and vanity," --  there is nothing here to suggest that Black Africans should be excluded from future immigration.  Also missing from this text and the poem is any awareness of the true position of African Americans in the decade leading up to Plessy vs. Ferguson (1898), the Supreme Court decision that established legal racial apartheid in the United States.

    Another people Aldrich mentions in the poem is Arabs, when he names the date-palm as a characteristic Arab tree, which marks one extreme in the various American climate.  This at least suggests that Arabs who come from where date palms grow would find a familiar landscape in America.  There seems to be nothing in the poem to suggest that he meant to exclude either Africans or Arabs from America, even though they are not included on a list that is meant to suggest the variety of successful American immigrants, without naming every actual immigrant group.

    A reader may wonder about Aldrich's handling of Teutons.  They make a somewhat surprising second appearance at the end of the poem, when Aldrich compares the danger America faces from hostile immigrants to the catastrophe Rome experienced as the Goths and Vandals invaded and desecrated the empire.  The Goths and Vandals were Teutonic peoples, and when the Vandals sacked Rome in the fifth century, their kingdom was based in North Africa.  Did Aldrich intend the ironies that arise from considering that the same Teutonic peoples who supposedly established the American institutions Aldrich admires were once the barbarians who overthrew the most successful empire in the western world?  How does this idea comment upon his main argument?  In his Woodberry letter, he uses a quite different comparison, asserting that the anarchists who inspired his poem want to bring about a French Revolution in America, which seems mad, given what the American system offers to anyone who understands its institutions and is willing to toil for his or her wage.  What Aldrich means in his comparison of the fall of Rome with his foretold decline of America seems unclear, but these complexities and ironies lend support to the view that Aldrich's main concern in the poem is that America find ways of filtering out individuals who cannot or will not make reasonable use of the gifts of freedom.  Teutons destroyed a great nation before reaching what Aldrich sees as even higher levels of civilization themselves.  As a race, then, they were not doomed to inferiority or barbarism.  But fomenting a French Revolution in America, which in Aldrich's mind, already has realized the best ideals of that revolution, provides evidence that allowing anarchists to immigrate to America is a mistake.

    This new interpretation of "Unguarded Gates" challenges more than a century of consensus about the poem's meaning and its significance. The poem presents an apparent contradiction between its intentions and the cultural work which it has accomplished. While I believe that readers have been mistaken about the meaning of "Unguarded Gates," this may not greatly alter its significance.  I argue that Aldrich's thesis is not that groups of peoples or nations should be prevented from immigrating, but that individuals who are seriously incompetent, criminal, or ideologically opposed to core American values should be excluded from immigrating.  There is, in my view, no obvious racial venom in the poem, and it does not prophecy the racist projects of the new nativism.  However, this reading of the poem focuses upon Aldrich's apparent intentions as expressed in the poem and in his letter to Woodberry.  Accepting this reading has important consequences, for it requires that we do greater justice to Aldrich, instead of condescending to him, as we long have, as benighted on the topics of race and immigration.  While his degree of enlightenment may not match that of twenty-first century literary figures and editors, in his own time, he was a thoughtful and largely generous moralist

    Still, the significance of this poem may change only a little as a result of this new reading.  The fact remains that everyone to date seems to have read the poem as advocating racial exclusions.  It has been used as an example of this point of view by those who deplore it, but it also has served those who thought they saw in Aldrich a prominent supporter of their racist programs for restricting immigration.  For one example, the first legislative proposal by the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) was to exclude people who were not literate in their native language.  According to John Higham, this bill passed through Congress for the first time in 1896, but was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland (99-101).  Solomon points out that this legislation was not successful until 1917, when Congress passed it over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson (202).  Even if the IRL interpreted "Unguarded Gates" as I have, the organization could have used the poem as evidence that a widely respected American literary figure would support their effort to exclude people who lacked a competence that may indicate their ability to assimilate and earn a living.  Furthermore, it is possible that, if Aldrich was aware of this proposal, he might well have supported it. 

    Aldrich's 1880 novel, The Stillwater Tragedy, presents a New England village with a large population of immigrant laborers, in which all of the immigrant nationalities are represented with considerable respect, though he also is critical of them, mainly because they are so easily led to strike by an immigrant socialist demagogue. "Unguarded Gates" was Aldrich's only direct public statement on the topic of immigration.  His letter to Woodberry seems to be the only posthumously published document in which he elaborates on the poem and on immigration.  If Aldrich was a new nativist or even an old-fashioned descendant of the Know-Nothings, there seems to be no direct evidence in his writings to support this view.  Still, this does not mean that he harbored no sympathies for nativism.  No search, no matter how diligent, is assuredly exhaustive.  Furthermore, what may be inferred from Aldrich's literary work may yet yield indications that he shared at least some ideas with American nativists of the 19th century.  By itself, though, "Unguarded Gates" provides no apparent evidence for connecting Aldrich with contemporary nativists.


Barbara Solomon, Ancestors and Immigrants. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956.  [ Back ]

Solomon offers a summary history of late nineteenth-century Teutonism in England and the United States (60-69).  For more detail, see Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in America. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1963, 84-122.  [ Back ]

Tim Prchal, "Reimagining the Melting Pot and the Golden Door: National Identity in Gilded Age and Progressive Era Literature," MELUS 32:1 (Spring 2007), 29-51.  [ Back ]

Ferris Greenslet, The Life of Thomas Bailey Aldrich.  Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1908, 167-70. [ Back ]

Immigration Act of 1891.  US immigration legislation online.   Shanna Elder summarizes those to be excluded: "Those classes included idiots, insane persons, and paupers. Any person who could become a public charge on society was also not allowed to enter. The immigrants who came to the United States carrying a contagious disease were also not permitted entry. Anyone who had been convicted of a felony, misdemeanor, or any other crime such as any activity deemed contrary to the beliefs and standards of society such as polygamy were not granted citizenship. Any person whose ticket was paid for by another was not allowed to enter into the country as well. The United States wanted only those who could care for themselves without the assistance of others."  [ Back ]

The Geary Act.  US immigration legislation online.  [ Back ]

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, "Old Sticks," Scribner's Magazine 5,1 (January 1889): 124-128.  [ Back ]

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, An Old Town By the Sea. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1893. [ Back ]

See for example, Rebecca Walsh, "Sugar, Sex, and Empire: Sarah Orne Jewett’s 'The Foreigner' and the Spanish–American War," in A Concise Companion to American Studies, edited by John Carlos Rowe (Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 303-319.  Walsh recounts Aldrich's support of the Anti-Imperialism League and his angry reaction to American suppression of democratic revolution in the Philippines (311).
John Higham, Strangers in the Land. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1955.  [ Back ]

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, The Stillwater Tragedy.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1880.  [ Back ]

There is at least one other letter to Woodberry related to the poem, dated April 21, 1892, in which Aldrich says: "I dropt into an anarchist meeting for a moment the other night, and I have written some verses in which I don't take a rose-colored view of 'the grand-republic of the [foam?].'"Thomas Bailey Aldrich to George E. Woodberry, 21 April 1892.  The Houghton Library, Harvard University,  bMS Am 1587, Folder 4. [ Back ]

Copyright, November 2014 by Terry Heller, Coe College

Related Texts