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Did the Founding Fathers Support Immigration?
Though polls consistently find that a majority of Americans believe immigration levels need to be reduced, many people still assume that the right of immigration is a hallowed American principle that no loyal citizen can consistently oppose.
This assumption is false.
Actually, the Founding Fathers were generally wary of immigration. They did not wish to exclude it altogether, but they saw no particular need to encourage it, especially among migrants whose cultural backgrounds were significantly different from their own.
Consider Benjamin Franklin, that well-known cosmopolite and child of the Enlightenment. Franklin, it turns out, said quite a few politically incorrect things about non-British humanity (a category that includes the present writer). On one occasion he asked, "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs any more than they can acquire our complexion?" Thus immigrants of sufficient number and concentration could radically change the cultural landscape in ways that the native population might not want.
We can already hear the modern liberal laughing at Franklin, pointing triumphantly to German assimilation in America as proof that the Pennsylvanian's concerns were without merit. But the point here is simply this: if unrestricted immigration had really been a traditional American principle, someone must have forgotten to tell Benjamin Franklin. And he was speaking of people who, as fellow heirs and architects of Western civilization, shared a great deal in common with the original settlers of British America. One can only imagine what Franklin would have had to say about current immigration policy.
JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON ON IMMIGRATION
Franklin was not alone. Thomas Jefferson's warning about mass immigration in his Notes on Virginia would doubtless come as a surprise to most Americans, since most American history textbooks for some reason choose not to highlight it. Jefferson asked suggestively, "Are there no inconveniences to be thrown into the scale against the advantage expected by a multiplication of numbers by the importation of foreigners?"
"It is for the happiness of those united in society," the sage of Monticello went on to explain, "to harmonize as much as possible, in matters which they must of necessity transact together. Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent." Our government was "a composition of the freest principles of the English Constitution, with others, derived from natural right and reason." Nothing could be more opposed to the principles of our government than those of absolute monarchies, said Jefferson. But it was from such regimes that we could expect the most immigrants.
Such immigrants, Jefferson feared, would "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." A large influx of immigrants from places without any experience with our kind of government and society could only introduce confusion and discord. "These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass."
Jefferson concluded that it was "safer" to wait patiently for the natural increase of the American population rather than achieve such increase by mass immigration, and that our government would, as a result, be more peaceable and more durable. He left readers with a useful thought experiment: "Suppose 20 millions of republican Americans [were] thrown all of a sudden into France, what would be the condition of that kingdom? If it would be more turbulent, less happy, less strong, we may believe that the addition of half a million of foreigners to our present numbers would produce a similar effect here."
Jefferson was joined in his wariness by Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first secretary of the treasury. In his draft of a speech for George Washington, Hamilton wrote: "To render the people of this country as homogenous as possible, must tend as much as any other circumstance to the permanence of their union and posterity."
Several years later, when Jefferson called for liberalizing the naturalization laws in his December 1801 message to Congress, Hamilton recalled Jefferson's earlier sentiments from Notes on Virginia. (This change of heart appears to have been of partisan origin: Jefferson himself, along with several of his prominent opponents, believed that the foreign vote had won him the election of 1800.) He agreed with Jefferson that it was praiseworthy for the United States to permit the entry of those experiencing genuine hardship and seeking asylum, though even here Hamilton would have reminded his fellow citizens that generosity has its limits if the welfare of the country is to be protected. What he objected to was the suggestion that all such people were necessarily entitled to the privileges of citizenship. He concluded by pointing out that even granting for the sake of argument that American Indians had extended nothing but friendship as the colonists arrived on these shores, it was important to consider the fate of a people whose policy was so magnanimous. "Prudence requires us," Hamilton wrote, "to trace the history further and ask what has become of the nations of savages who exercised this policy, and who now occupies the territory which they then inhabited? Perhaps a lesson is here taught which ought not to be despised." (The American Indians, in short, had a severe immigration problem.)
Hamilton described the safety of a republic as depending "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." He then drew out the implications of this point:
The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; 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.
For Hamilton, immigration policy was a matter of prudence and good sense, not a moral imperative. He observed at the turn of the nineteenth century that "in the infancy of the country, with a boundless waste to people, it was politic to give a facility to naturalization; but our situation is now changed. It appears from the last census that we have increased about one third in ten years; after allowing for what we have gained from abroad, it will be quite apparent that the natural progress of our own population is sufficiently rapid for strength, security, and settlement."
THE RIGHT TO EXCLUDE
Still others echoed these sentiments. Writing to John Adams in 1794, George Washington contended that the United States had no real reason to encourage immigration. Washington said that "except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions, there is no need of encouragement [of immigration], while the policy or advantage of its taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them 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."
Rufus King, who had attended the Constitutional Convention as a delegate from Massachusetts, was concerned about the character of the immigrants whom America might attract. He wrote in a 1798 letter, "It was the practice of the Emigrants from Scotland to bring with them Certificates from the religious Societies to which they belonged, of their honesty, sobriety, and generally of their good Character! Why should we not require some such Document from all Emigrants, and it would be well to add to the Testimonial that the person to whom it was granted was not expelled from his Country and had not been convicted of any crime." King wondered, "If from the emigrations of past time we have suffered inconvenience and our true national character has been disfigured, what are we to expect from the Emigrants of the present Day?"
John Jay, who would become the first chief justice of the United States, in Federalist No. 2 positively celebrated the fact that for all its "diversity," the United States consisted essentially of people whose religious and cultural traits were broadly similar and compatible, rather than widely divergent and a potential threat to social comity. "Providence," he wrote, "has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united peoplea people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs."
According to Thomas G. West, a professor at the University of Dallas, "None of the Founders gave a theoretical account of the right of a political community to exclude would-be immigrants. That is because such a right was obvious to all as an inference from the general principles they all shared. No one in the early debates in Congress on the naturalization laws doubted the government's right to determine exclusionary criteria for citizenship."
At the Constitutional Convention, for example, New York's Gouverneur Morris warned of being "polite at the expense of prudence." He noted that the privileges that immigrants enjoyed in the United States were considerably greater than in the rest of the world, but he concluded by reminding his listeners that "every Society from a great Nation down to a Club had the right of declaring the conditions on which new members should be admitted."
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.
Did Martin Luther King Jr. oppose affirmative action?
Here's a case in which liberals have it right and at least some conservatives have it wrong: the philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr.
The way some conservatives tell it, King believed in an absolutely color-blind approach to racial issues and policy in America. Instead of calling for massive government programs and preferential policies in favor of blacks, King simply demanded of white America that it view individuals on their merits rather than in light of racial prejudice. After all, he envisioned a society in which, as he said so memorably in his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington in 1963, "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Thus, this line of reasoning goes, King was demanding only basic libertarian rights of equal treatment before the law. Compensatory programs on behalf of blacks, to say nothing of quota systems and other special privileges, were anathema to him, since they, just as much as segregation, violated his color-blind principles.
For years, the Left has complained that this interpretation of King's thought grossly distorts the man's views, rendering his truly radical message toothless and tame. And in this case the Left is absolutely right. No one interested in the truth and familiar with King's thought could portray it so inaccurately.
A GIGANTIC "BILL OF RIGHTS FOR THE DISADVANTAGED"
The main problem with the conservative claim upon King is that absolutely nothing in King's economic thought supports it. King wanted immediate improvement in the material condition of blacks, and he was prepared to resort to radical measures in order to achieve that goal. He was manifestly not in favor of the free market, which he indicted with the same series of cliches evident throughout the political Left.
King condemned the suggestion that "if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself." Rather, King taught, "the roots of racism are very deep in our country, and there must be something positive and massive in order to get rid of all the effects of racism and the tragedies of injustice." It was not enough that the nation leave behind racial prejudice. The United States "must not only radically readjust its attitude toward the Negro in the compelling present, but must incorporate in its planning some compensatory consideration for the handicaps he has inherited from the past."
Some conservatives have tried to claim that King and the civil rights movement in general sought only equality of basic rights and little, if anything, that would involve real coercion. But in fact King sought an immediate, palpable improvement in blacks' material condition. Especially revealing is his insistence that the black man in his day was "not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for a concrete and prompt improvement in his way of life."
How, exactly, did King propose that this "concrete and prompt improvement" be achieved? For one thing, he most certainly believed in preferential policies for blacks, particularly in management positions. And in Why We Can't Wait, King spelled out the nature of a compensatory package for blacks that he considered fair:
No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest. I am proposing, therefore, that just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.
King grew more and more radical toward the end of his life, occasionally repudiating milder positions he had held earlier. "I am sorry to have to say," he remarked in 1967, "that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously." Reflecting on the state of American society, he said: "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of the society, a little change here, a little change there. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."