America’s Long Love-Hate Relationship with Immigration

The ideological conflict between “one world” and “one nation under God” is heating up. Images of illegal aliens marching with foreign flags condemning America and burning Old Glory have enflamed patriotic passions.  But so have political declarations.   Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindall declared, “Immigration without assimilation is invasion”. President Obama opined that restricting immigration in favor of national security is “offensive and contrary to American values.”  

Such statements highlight the enormity of the debate over immigration that has escalated under President Trump.  The “Wall”, the “Trump Travel Ban” and Syrian refugees are only the latest chapters in a long debate.  The debate has engendered a good deal of obfuscation, evidenced by the conflating of terms with differing meanings.  Often, immigrant, refugee, illegal immigrant, visa holders, green card holders are now indistinguishable.

Is there a global right to come to the US to become a citizen?  Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) said a few years ago in a Senate debate: “It is well settled that applicants don’t have the constitutional right or civil right to demand entry to the United States. . . .”  Is a slowdown on the rate of immigration “un-American”?  After all, isn’t America a “nation of immigrants”?  Well maybe yes and maybe no. Eighty-five percent of people now in the US were born here. Nevertheless, most are descendants of immigrants.  

So what did our Founders’ intend for their new nation?  Did they recognize the benefits of immigration or warn about the dangers of immigration?  Actually, they did both.

American Founders’ Commitment to Immigration

The Founders were pro-immigration.   The Constitution guarantees a “uniform rule of naturalization”, implying an immigrant nation.  In fact, the Constitution established a twenty-year prohibition on the Congressional limitation of immigration.   The Declaration of Independence censured the king for “prevent[ing] the population of these states” by “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” Before Independence, William Penn gave vast tracks of land in his proprietary colony to the persecuted and oppressed of Europe so that they would help populate his lands.  After independence, the states sold land at reduced rates to immigrants and provided a pathway to citizenship.  

Even early American political opponents could agree on this.  Thomas Jefferson explained, “The present desire of America is to produce rapid population by as great importations of foreigners as possible.”  Alexander Hamilton agreed even though they held a deep mutual distrust and disdain: “Immigrants exhibit a large proportion of ingenious and valuable workmen, who by expatriating from Europe improved their own condition, and added to the industry and wealth of the United States.”  President George Washington and Thomas Paine who developed substantial contempt for each other both spoke of America as an “asylum” for persecuted peoples from the Old World.  Benjamin Franklin, sometimes an opponent of immigration, grudgingly admitted that immigrants “contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country.”

The Founders were initially remarkably inclusive.  Yet, they also were cautiously concerned about immigration.  This is implied by the Constitution’s restriction on Congress’s power to legislate immigration for only twenty years.  While a substantial amount of time, twenty years was much shorter when travel was slow, expensive, restrictive and mass communication was essentially non-existent, especially across a vast ocean.  In an age of aviation and instant communication, it might be seen as a mere two year window.   

The Founders’ Concerns about Immigration

What was the immigration policy of the Founders?  In four words, it was selectivity, competition, assimilation and wariness toward mass immigration.  

Selectivity

President George Washington favored a selective immigration policy.  In a letter to John Adams in 1794, Washington wrote:

“My opinion, with respect to emigration, is that except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions, there is no need of encouragement, while the policy or advantage of its taking place in a body…may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the Language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them.”

Madison asserted, “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, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community are not the people we are in want of.”

Competition

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin recognized that immigrants would potentially displace the native population.  “The importation of foreigners into a country that has as many inhabitants as the present employments and provisions for subsistence will bear, will be in the end no increase of people, unless the new comers have more industry and frugality than the natives, and then they will provide more subsistence, and increase in the country; but they will gradually eat the natives out. Nor is it necessary to bring in foreigners to fill up any occasional vacancy in a country for such vacancy will soon be filled by natural generation.”  Years later, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass would later express the same concern regarding the impact of immigrants on the employment of minorities.

Assimilation

Washington desired a policy of assimilation of immigrants into the American nation.  In a letter to John Adams, he stated that immigrants should be absorbed into American life so that “by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, laws: in a word soon become one people.”

James Madison stated that America should welcome the immigrant who could assimilate, but exclude the immigrant who could not readily “incorporate himself into our society.”

Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1802:

“The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education and family.”

In a 1790 House debate on naturalization, James Madison opined: “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.”

Madison insisted that the immigrant America sought to exclude was the immigrant who could not readily “incorporate himself into our society.”

George Washington, in a letter to John Adams, similarly emphasized that immigrants should be absorbed into American life so that, “by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, laws: in a word soon become one people.”

Wariness

Thomas Jefferson explained,

“Yet from such [absolute monarchies], we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants. They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. Their principles with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us in the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”  (“Notes on Virginia,” 1782)

Alexander Hamilton, again agreeing with Thomas Jefferson, recognized the danger of immigrants bringing political opinions inconsistent with American values.  

“The opinion advanced [by Jefferson,] is undoubtedly correct, that foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners. They will also entertain opinions on government congenial with those under which they have lived; or, if they should be led hither from a preference to ours, how extremely unlikely is it that they will bring with them that temperate love of liberty, [italics in original] so essential to real republicanism? There may, as to particular individuals, and at particular times, be occasional exceptions to these remarks, yet such is the general rule. The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities. In the composition of society, the harmony of the ingredients is all-important, and whatever tends to a discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.”
(“Examinations of Jefferson’s Message to Congress of December 7th, 1801,” Jan. 12, 1802)

Alexander Hamilton, relevant as ever today, wrote in 1802: “The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.”

Hamilton further warned that “the United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others, it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils. It has been often likely to compromise the interests of our own country in favor of another.”

He predicted, correctly, that “the permanent effect of such a policy will be, that in times of great public danger there will be always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone will weaken the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader.”

The survival of the American republic, Hamilton maintained, depends upon “the preservation of a national spirit and a national character.” He asserted: “To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens the moment they put foot in our country would be nothing less than to admit the Grecian horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty.”

Hamilton further warned that “The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others, it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils. It has been often likely to compromise the interests of our own country in favor of another. The permanent effect of such a policy will be, that in times of great public danger there will be always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone will weaken the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader.”

The survival of the American republic, Hamilton maintained, depends upon “the preservation of a national spirit and a national character.” “To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens the moment they put foot in our country would be nothing less than to admit the Grecian horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty.”

Conclusion:

The Founders did not exude an emotional idealism for immigration that often characterizes contemporary advocacy for open borders. The Founders’ vision for welcoming immigrants to the new nation was not to add new voters for partisan politics. It was to strengthen a new nation that was seeking to take its legitimate place in a world of conflicting international political interests.

The point is perhaps less about what our founders did or did not say about immigration, (as they all seemed to acknowledge its value but recognized its costs) but what they did say regarding the rule of law.  Clearly none of the Founders endorsed illegal and unbridled immigration.  They sought an intelligent immigration control that furthered the national interest.  

Years later, Teddy Roosevelt well captured the Founders’ concerns, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. [Lest it become] … a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”  (Address to Knights of Columbus, Oct. 12, 1915).  If America doesn’t value its own boundaries by carefully welcoming desired immigrants, it not only doesn’t reflect the genius of the Founders, it won’t likely endure as the nation that they sought to establish.

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