The notion that most European immigrants "voted with their feet" by fleeing oppression for the political and religious freedom of the United States endures despite the contrary findings of years of migration research. This article calls the cliché into question in two ways. First, it presents some of the main findings of immigration scholarship that emphasize the role of labor and land, rather than freedom, as the principal factors drawing migrants from Europe. Second, the article applies methodologies from Begriffsgeschichte (the history of concepts) to interpret linguistic and folkloric sources from across Europe, discovering very different perceptions of America among ordinary nineteenth-century migrant sending communities. While some images were positive, others ranged from metaphorical associations of America with sleep, loss, and imprisonment, to satires of the myth of unlimited abundance, and resentment of the transformation U. S. society produced in many of the emigrants who went there. Rather than celebrating American exceptionalist credos by repeating platitudes about mass popular enthusiasm for American freedoms, this article calls for a more nuanced and deeper appreciation of the wide range of symbolic meanings America held in the minds of people who often left few written records of their views.


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pp. 557-575
Launched on MUSE
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