Is Immigration Really an “All American” Idea?


By: Warner Todd Huston

The plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty sums up the general assumption most people have about where immigration fits into American principles. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” the famously inscribed tablet goes. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

For most people that about settles it. We are a “nation of immigrants.” It’s as American as baseball and apple pie. Not very long ago, I made this very claim in a discussion about the anchor baby issue. It seemed to me that since this was a nation of immigrants, we couldn’t be intellectually honest and exclude people of foreign birth from having their children born on US soil being given automatic citizenship as set forth under the 14th Amendment. It was a natural assumption to make, but not one entirely informed. It was a matter that several letter writers quickly took me to school for seeking to disabuse me of my naive notions.

Since then, and after further study, I have reassessed my view on the matter. I have seen that the issue of immigration is not as cut-and-dried as it might seem, either currently or historically.

Now comes Thomas E. Woods, Jr. to try to simplify the anti-immigration point even further in a new book titled 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask (Crown Forum, 2007, $25.95). One of the “33 Questions” Woods asks and then answers is that of the immigration issue as far as the Founding Fathers were concerned with it. Fittingly, since it’s one of today’s most pressing issues, the immigration question starts the book off with chapter one; “Did the Founding Fathers Support Immigration?”

About immigration, Woods says, “… many people still assume that the right of immigration is a hallowed American principle that no loyal citizen can consistently oppose.” He claims, though, that “this assumption is false.” He also says, “The Founding Fathers were generally wary of immigrants, and many of them warned about the consequences for the United States if immigration levels were not limited.”

So, that’s basically a “no” as far as Woods is concerned. The Founders were not for untrammeled immigration and wanted limits to it. Woods focuses on the Founders anti-immigration points and clearly wishes the reader to feel they were generally against it.

For proof, he cites several Founders like Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and several others. His quotes tend to point out that the Founders imagined their new country to be one homogenous in principle and intent. Ben Franklin even warned against Pennsylvania becoming a “colony of aliens” as too many German immigrants had been entering the state for his tastes. The essence of Franklin’s warning was that the Germans would “Germanize” his Anglified Pennsylvania with their foreign language and customs — a very familiar argument with today’s worries.

In a recent article in Human Events, Woods repeats his claims.

Contrary to what most Americans may believe, in fact, the Founding Fathers were by and large skeptical of immigration.

I would like to agree with Woods in part. It is, in fact, indisputable that the Founders had certain concerns about immigration. Jefferson did, indeed, write in section VIII (The Number of its Inhabitants) in his book “Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781 – 1785,” that he felt foreigners, who were sure to have very different principles (like support for Monarchy) instilled in them from birth, would come here in numbers that would eventually give them political power. Like Franklin, he worried that once here they would not shed their principles and language to take on ours if they were allowed to come here in too great numbers and congregate together in enclosed communities. “They will infuse into it [any new legislation] their spirit, warp and bias its directions, and render it heterogenious, incoherent, distracted mass.” With this Jefferson was saying he thought that they would destroy our political system with their foreign ideas once they had enough numbers to have a say in politics. Jefferson’s worries mirror that of those today who are alarmed over illegal immigration from south of the border and it is hard to argue against such a fear.

Woods also quotes George Washington to the effect that he thought America didn’t need to encourage immigration. As Washington’s thinking ran along the same lines as Jefferson’s, he wrote, “…there is no need of encouragement [of immigration]… for by doing so, they retain the language, habits, and principles… which they bring with them.”

OK, Mr. Woods, point taken. The Founders did say those things but even at that I feel Woods comes dangerously close to overstating his case. Woods clearly wants to lead the reader to imagine that the Founders were either severely wary of immigration (Jefferson) or even against it (Washington). Yet, a perusal of some more of the Founder’s statements clearly shows that the Founders were quite keen to enlarge the population of the country with immigrants… at least, with the right kind of immigrants.

Woods’ point is dead-on that the Founders expected all immigrants to take on the principles and observe the letter of the laws of the United States of America — as would only be natural. Who would, after all, want immigrants to come in and alter their traditions and turn a country into a mirror of a foreign system? This being true they certainly worried about the caliber of immigrants that they would find in those “huddled masses.”

In the Federalist Papers Number 33, Alexander Hamilton addressed the issue of a society of laws and clearly states that all must observe the law or there would be no society in the long run.

If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct. If a number of political societies enter into a larger political society, the laws which the latter may enact, pursuant to the powers intrusted to it by its constitution, must necessarily be supreme over those societies, and the individuals of whom they are composed, it would otherwise be a mere treaty, dependent on the good faith of the parties, and not a government.

In other words, those who enter into a society are required to observe the ideals of that society, and if they don’t do so a stable society could not long exist before falling apart from the internal pressures. Of course, Hamilton’s argument was directed at the melding of the various states and not directed specifically at immigration, but the principle is exactly the same. Hamilton was assuring the various states that the new government didn’t mean to supersede and replace their own constitutions, that the new union would augment them, not change them. Such should be true for an immigrant. They should come into a new society to participate within the spirit of that society, not to alter or destroy it, either consciously or unconsciously.

So, we are for sure on Woods’ side with this point. But, this point he should have taken greater pains to elaborate upon instead of flavoring his argument as if the Founders were against immigration. Woods overstates his case because any number of Founders can also be quoted to being highly interested in furthering immigration because they wanted to quickly populate this expansive country.

James Madison, no slouch as a political thinker himself, addressed the advantages of immigration for America several times. Here is one of his thoughts on the issue:

It is no doubt very desirable that we should hold out as many inducements as possible for the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us, and throw their fortunes into a common lot with ours. but why is this desirable? Not merely to swell the catalogue of people. No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, are not the people we are in want of.

Madison clearly wants just the right kind of immigrant, but he is not expressing any wariness (in Woods’ words) about immigration itself. It isn’t immigration he is “wary” of here, but what types of immigrants we get is what he focuses upon. Obviously, Madison clearly thought immigration wwould “increase the wealth” of this country. There is no reason to think his principle would be any different if put into use today.

In his “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (August, 1774) Jefferson even used the word “right” connected with immigration. Woods denied that the Founders thought of immigration connected with any such concept as a “right,” yet Jefferson sure did at least early in the Founding.

As Jefferson wrote to the King:

To remind him that our ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions of Europe, and possessed a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as, to them, shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.

(Important note: Before the preceding quote is read to mean Jefferson thought that one could legitimately immigrate to another place with the express idea to change it to a “new” society, he followed up the noted quote with a section saying that the “right” to immigrate and start that new society extended only to sparsely settled lands, or in his words one “less charged with inhabitants.” Jefferson was not suggesting any “right” to immigrate to lands already settled or to meddle in previously created countries. His view was that both pre-Saxon England and Early America were wildernesses with no society previously in existence, lands ripe for settlement and open for a creation of “new” societies. Jefferson was not looking for a filibustering expedition here, but writing to justify the rights of his fellow countrymen.)

Immigration of all sorts, from straight immigration to the more murky one of indentured servitude, was a hot topic in the Founders era and they were very interested in fostering it within reason, with certain restrictions, but quickly and urgently. Of course, they never imagined that a country had no right to put limits or qualifications on immigrants. They never thought just anyone had a “right” to enter a country unbidden. But they weren’t as “wary” of immigration as Woods tries to make us believe.

Then as now, immigration was a far more complicated issue, far more complicated and nuanced than Woods seems to want to present to us. Woods wasted an opportunity to clarify this complicated issue in his desire to “shock” us on a contemporary hot-button theme.

In light of that, though, at the very end of Woods’ immigration chapter, one almost gets the feeling that he knows he was taking his point a tad too far. Woods closes his chapter on immigration with this:

The Founding Fathers’ views on immigration do not by themselves settle the modern debate, of course. But they remain one of the best-kept secrets of American history.

It sure seems Woods realized he might be charged with demagoguery of the issue and thought to make something of a disclaimer at the very end of his presentation. I feel it was too little, too a late.

So, no, the Founders were not against immigration. In fact, they were heartily in favor of it. But, as in nearly every other area, they were sensible enough to know that there could be too much of a good thing and warned for reasonable caution and limits put to it.

Now that is a lesson we can learn well from the Founders.

It also might have behooved the reader if Woods were to have ranged a bit farther afield than the Founders era to frame the current immigration issue if he wanted to help elucidate the problems of immigration in America. Immigration, as it occurs, was far more troublesome during the era of Andrew Jackson’s “Democratic Man” than it ever was during the Founders’.

According to Edward Pessen’s book “Jacksonian America,” during the Founders era and until the 1820s, immigration from Europe was rarely higher than 15,000 persons annually. But in the 1830s a Great Migration commenced where no less than 50,000 Europeans arrived here annually, with some years topping out at over 100,000.

The most despised of these immigrants were the Irish who were often indigent, poor, unschooled and unskilled. As Pessen puts it, “Poverty, overcrowding, backwardness, and sharp landlord practices turned their housing into slums marked by filth, the absence of windows and toilet facilities, crime, prostitution, disease, and a high mortality rate.”

It didn’t help that the native Protestant population leveled an inflammatory anti-Catholic sentiment against these Irish immigrants, either. “Paddy” was thought a drunken, sex crazed Papist out to destroy the country and was shunned and mistreated the country over.

It was from this era that anti-immigrant fevers began to spread throughout the USA and during this time nativist sentiment grew. The recent movie “The Gangs of New York” depicts this theme well as the hate and violence promulgated against Catholics and Irish was quite virulent in the 19th century. Many cases of Irish bigotry can be found in those days with the burning down of the Urseline Convent outside of Boston in 1834 being just one of the violent actions perpetrated by fearful natives. As Pessen states, “The bigotry was usually as much anti-Irish as it was anti-Catholic, for in the popular mind the two went together.”

In any case, it would have been easier to show Americans against immigration by reviewing the next century after the Founder’s if one wanted to investigate immigration problems and how they were confronted in America. This would, of course, had revealed a far messier time than the earlier era, for sure.

Now, I am not suggesting that Americans today are treating Mexican immigrants with anything near the ferocity that the Irish were confronted with by our ancestors nor am I suggesting that they should be, certainly. But the era of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment is surely more instructive for learning about what happened before with what we are dealing with today; an overwhelming number of immigrants that seem unable or unwilling to integrate into our American society.

How we dealt with it then is a cautionary tale. That, coupled with how the Founders viewed immigration as something to reasonably control and limit would give the reader a far better view of what we might be able to do today with this obscene influx of unassimilated immigrants we now face. Instead of inflaming the passions we need to arrive at sensible, logical solutions. If we are to use our history to inform us of what to do today, it needs to be as full an investigation as we can have.

So, as I said, immigration and how we have confronted it is a far more complex issue than Woods presented it as. It is a shame he took the easy and way out.

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