Immigrants were faced with material poverty, true, but they were not wretched. There was a certain moral order in everyday life, which began in the home and spread to the outside community.That basic fact — that a free political system is premised on the presence of a virtuous populace — can never be emphasized too much. The great debate today, of course, is between competing ethical systems.
Baltimore’s Polish immigrants provide a good example. Like other immigrants, they arrived with virtually nothing except the desire to work hard and to live in a free country. Their ethos of liberty and responsibility is evident in a 1907 housing report describing the Polish community in Fells Point:
"A remembered Saturday evening inspection of five apartments in a house [on] Thames Street, with their whitened floors and shining cook stoves, with the dishes gleaming on the neatly ordered shelves, the piles of clean clothing laid out for Sunday, and the general atmosphere of preparation for the Sabbath, suggested standards that would not have disgraced a Puritan housekeeper.
Yet, according to the report, a typical Polish home consisted “of a crowded one- or two-room apartment, occupied by six or eight people, and located two floors above the common water supply.”
Even though wages were low, Polish Americans sacrificed to save and pooled their resources to help each other by founding building and loan associations, as Linda Shopes noted in The Baltimore Book. By 1929, 60 percent of Polish families were homeowners—without any government assistance.
History gives us a guide and points to a time when Americans embraced self-reliance, self-responsibility, and self-confidence. The great open question is how to once again make those virtues the norm, especially in the face of an educational system working fiercely against them.