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Ellison DuRant Smith, “Shut the Door,” 1924

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, floods of hopeful immigrants arrived at the shores of the United States. While groups from western and northern Europe such as the Irish and Germans continued to emigrate to the United States as they had during the 1800s, new groups of people from southern and eastern Europe began to arrive in large numbers. Some Americans feared that this influx of immigrants would take jobs, bring violent ideologies like anarchism and communism, and fail to assimilate into American culture. These fears continued to grow after World War I, leading to efforts to limit the number of immigrants who could move to the United States. South Carolina senator Ellison Smith gave the following speech in support of the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted the number of immigrants that could enter the United States each year, especially from southern and eastern Europe.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who gave this speech?
  2. Why did some Americans want to restrict the number of people who could emigrate to the United States?

Vocabulary Text
It seems to me the point as to this measure—and I have been so impressed for several years—is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door. We have been called the melting pot of the world. We had an experience just a few years ago, during the great World War, when it looked as though we had allowed influences to enter our borders that were about to melt the pot in place of us being the melting pot.
I think that we have sufficient stock in America now for us to shut the door, Americanize what we have, and save the resources of America for the natural increase of our population. We all know that one of the most prolific causes of war is the desire for increased land ownership for the overflow of a congested population. We are increasing at such a rate that in the natural course of things in a comparatively few years the landed resources, the natural resources of the country, shall be taken up by the natural increase of our population. It seems to me the part of wisdom now that we have throughout the length and breadth of continental America a population which is beginning to encroach upon the reserve and virgin resources of the country to keep it in trust for the multiplying population of the country.
inertia (n): the tendency to remain unchanged

savage (n): a term for Native Americans that is outdated and offensive
I do not believe that political reasons should enter into the discussion of this very vital question. It is of greater concern to us to maintain the institutions of America, to maintain the principles upon which this Government is founded, than to develop and exploit the underdeveloped resources of the country. There are some things that are dearer to us, fraught with more benefit to us, than the immediate development of the undeveloped resources of the country. I believe that our particular ideas, social, moral, religious, and political, have demonstrated, by virtue of the progress we have made and the character of people that we are, that we have the highest ideals of any member of the human family or any nation. We have demonstrated the fact that the human family, certainly the predominant breed in America, can govern themselves by a direct government of the people. If this Government shall fail, it shall fail by virtue of the terrible law of inherited tendency. Those who come from the nations which from time immemorial have been under the dictation of a master fall more easily by the law of inheritance and the inertia of habit into a condition of political servitude than the descendants of those who cleared the forests, conquered the savage, stood at arms and won their liberty from their mother country, England.
unadulterated (adj): not mixed I think we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship. I recognize that there is a dangerous lack of distinction between people of a certain nationality and the breed of the dog. Who is an American? Is he an immigrant from Italy? Is he an immigrant from Germany? If you were to go abroad and someone were to meet you and say, “I met a typical American,” what would flash into your mind as a typical American, the typical representative of that new Nation? Would it be the son of an Italian immigrant, the son of a German immigrant, the son of any of the breeds from the Orient, the son of the denizens of Africa?
ethnological (adj): relating to a branch of anthropology that compares the characteristics of different peoples

anthropological (adj): studying past human and societal behavior

The Passing of a Great Race: Madison Grant was a proponent of a eugenics program to keep the United States primarily of a Nordic makeup.

unadulterated (adj): untainted or pure
We must not get our ethnological distinctions mixed up with our anthropological distinctions. It is the breed of the dog in which I am interested. I would like for the Members of the Senate to read that book just recently published by Madison Grant, The Passing of a Great Race. Thank God we have in America perhaps the largest percentage of any country in the world of the pure, unadulterated Anglo-Saxon stock; certainly, the greatest of any nation in the Nordic breed. It is for the preservation of that splendid stock that has characterized us that I would make this not an asylum for the oppressed of all countries, but a country to assimilate and perfect that splendid type of manhood that has made America the foremost Nation in her progress and in her power, and yet the youngest of all the nations. I myself believe that the preservation of her institutions depends upon us now taking counsel with our condition and our experience during the last World War.
approbation (n): approval or praise Without offense, but with regard to the salvation of our own, let us shut the door and assimilate what we have, and let us breed pure American citizens and develop our own American resources. I am more in favor of that than I am of our quota proposition. Of course, it may not meet the approbation of the Senate that we shall shut the door—which I unqualifiedly and unreservedly believe to be our duty—and develop what we have, assimilate and digest what we have into pure Americans, with American aspirations, and thoroughly familiar with the love of American institutions, rather than the importation of any number of men from other countries. If we may not have that, then I am in favor of putting the quota down to the lowest possible point, with every selective element in it that may be.. . .
We ought to Americanize not only our population but our forces. We ought to Americanize our factories and our vast material resources, so that we can make each contribute to the other and have an abundance for us under the form of the government laid down by our fathers.
The Senator from Georgia [Mr. Harris] has introduced an amendment to shut the door. It is not a question of politics. It is a question of maintaining that which has made you and me the beneficiaries of the greatest hope that ever burned in the human breast for the most splendid future that ever stood before mankind, where the boy in the gutter can look with confidence to the seat of the Presidency of the United States; where the boy in the gutter can look forward to the time when, paying the price of a proper citizen, he may fill a seat in this hall; where the boy to-day poverty-stricken, standing in the midst of all the splendid opportunities of America, should have and, please God, if we do our duty, will have an opportunity to enjoy the marvelous wealth that the genius and brain of our country is making possible for us all.
skein (n): a ball of yarn We do not want to tangle the skein of America’s progress by those who imperfectly understand the genius of our Government and the opportunities that lie about us. Let up keep what we have, protect what we have, make what we have the realization of the dream of those who wrote the Constitution.
refined (adj): in industrial terms, a process that results in having impurities and undesirable elements removed, as in refinement of gold for jewelry I am more concerned about that than I am about whether a new railroad shall be built or whether there shall be diversified farming next year or whether a certain coal mine shall be mined. I would rather see American citizenship refined to the last degree in all that makes America what we hope it will be than to develop the resources of America at the expense of the citizenship of our country. The time has come when we should shut the door and keep what we have for what we hope our own people to be.

Comprehension Questions

  1. Why did Smith no longer want the United States to be a melting pot?
  2. What did Smith argue is one of the most frequent causes of war?
  3. How did Smith believe Americans compared to other nationalities?
  4. How do you think Smith would answer his own question regarding a “typical American”?
  5. What clue is available in this paragraph to reveal what ethnicity Smith thinks makes up the ideal American heritage?
  6. What did Smith think we should consider to allow the United States to progress and prosper?
  7. If an immigration quota was to be passed, what did Smith think it should be?
  8. According to Smith, what can a boy in the gutter achieve in the United States?
  9. What did Smith think was necessary to keep and protect the United States?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Throughout his speech, Smith uses the term “breed” and “stock” to discuss nationalities. What does this reveal about his point of view?
  2. Consider the history of immigration to the United States. Do you believe there will be controversy around immigration no matter what group of people is arriving in the United States? Use examples to defend your argument.

“Shut the Door”