In the decade between 1846 and 1855, more than three million immigrants came to the United States, with a vast majority of them settling in the free states of the North. By 1855, foreign-born residents were becoming a majority group; immigrants approached or exceeeded half the total population of several Northern cities.
The new Americans arriving in this burst of immigration were nothing like those who had come before. Before 1840, three-quarters of all immigrants had been Protestants. Most were single men from the British Isles. Of those, a fifth became unskilled laborers or servants, and the remainder worked as farmers, skilled workers, or in professional occupations. But in the two decades after 1840, the typical immigrant's profile would radically change. More than half of all immigrants in these years were Catholics. Two-thirds were from Ireland, with the remainder from German-speaking countries. And the percentage of them who worked as unskilled laborers doubled.
The growing industrial economy of the North swallowed these new workers into its factories, employing them for long hours at low wages. These manufacturing jobs were repetitious and sometimes hazardous. And from their meager earnings, Northern laborers had to pay for every one of life's necessities.
For some Southerners, the situation of Northern workers looked a lot worse than slavery. In fact, they argued, unlike the "wage slavery" of the North, the slavery system in the South provided food, clothing, medical care, and leisure to slaves, caring for them throughout their lives. Prominent defenders of slavery, including George Fitzhugh, based their pro-slavery attitudes on a racist assessment of African Americans as inferior to whites.
On top of its fundamentally racist outlook, this Southern justification of slavery ignored the central issue of self-determination: Northern workers could make their own choices, leaving their jobs or possibly heading West to the frontier, while slaves could not.
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