"Denounce Literacy Test," The New York Times, January 25, 1915


Political cartoon objecting to the Burnett Bill
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Burnett bill included the provision of literacy test, which the bill's framers believed would provide a good indication of the immigrant's potential for productive employment and responsible citizenship. In addition, the literacy test offered a way for officials to exclude uneducated or unskilled workers, whom many feared would become a burden on the public. American labor unions in particular supported immigration regulation based on the literacy test, as they feared that unrestricted immigration would saturate the job market with unskilled laborers, undercutting wages and jeopardizing the well-being of American workers.

American Catholics, on the other hand, opposed the literacy test as a measure of immigrants' potential. They suspected that the desire to restrict immigration was a manifestation of anti-Catholic sentiment, and that the literacy test would be used to exclude all Catholic immigration to the United States. 

In 1914, when the Burnett bill was proposed, about three-quarters of all immigrants to the U.S. were from southern and eastern Europe, and most of these were illiterate. Catholic opponents to the literacy test argued that it was not an adequate measure for judging the potential contributions of immigrants to their new society. President Wilson vetoed the Burnett bill after it passed Congress, but the idea of a literacy test for immigration restriction lived on. In 1915, a rally was held in Baltimore which condemned the literacy test. The article reproduced here reports on the rally, and quotes from a letter by Cardinal Gibbons on the subject of immigration.


"Denounce Literacy Test"


As you read the document, reflect on the following questions:

  • What public leaders attended the rally in Baltimore?
  • Was this rally a display just of Catholic opposition to the literacy test?
  • What historical examples does Cardinal Gibbons point to as proof that the literacy test would not be an adequate measure of immigrants' potential?