A Forgetful Nation: On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States / Edition 1

by Ali Behdad
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ISBN-13: 9780822336198
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/18/2005
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ali Behdad is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Belated Travelers: Orientalism in the Age of Colonial Dissolution, also published by Duke University Press.

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A Forgetful Nation

On Immigration and Cultural Identity in the United States
By Ali Behdad

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3606-8

Chapter One

Imagining America

Forgetful Fathers and the Founding Myths of the Nation

In his seminal lecture "What Is a Nation?," delivered on 11 March 1882 at the Sorbonne, Ernest Renan spoke of the importance of amnesia in the act of founding a nation. "Forgetting," he remarked, "is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality" (11). Renan argued that the political project of founding a nation often entails forgetting the originary violence, forgetting that the sense of national unity was achieved initially by means of brutality. To create a homogeneous community, dissidence and dissent must be eliminated, but such a violent eradication is never remembered: "every French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, or the massacres that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century" (11). Though made in the context of France, Renan's argument offers powerful insight into how Americans have historically defined their nationalidentity. The United States, I want to argue in this chapter, is an amnesiac nation that disremembers its violent beginnings to fashion itself as a unified imagined community. More particularly, my critical aim here is to consider the specific historical acts of forgetting that mark the ambivalent form of nation building in the United States. In the first part of my discussion, I will consider how the founding fathers' debate about immigration brings to the fore the nation's constitutive amnesia, while in the second part I will elaborate the theoretical and historical implications of forgetting by reading Crèvecoeur's Letters From an American Farmer (1782) as a foundational account of the nation's ambivalent civic identity.

The Benevolent Father and the Forgetting of Violence

A historically revealing example of how amnesia is paramount to the founding of the nation is the debate over immigration between two of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, in the beginning of the nineteenth century. In his First Annual Message to Congress in 1801, Jefferson wrote, "I cannot omit recommending a revisal of the laws on the subject of naturalization. Considering the ordinary chances of human life, a denial of citizenship under a residence of fourteen years is a denial to a great proportion of those who ask it, and controls a policy pursued from their first settlement by many of these States, and still believed of consequence to their prosperity. And shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?"1 Jefferson's benevolent attitude toward new immigrants, as expressed in his rhetorical questions, is forgetful of many things. But before we recover these, let us first look at what his political rival, Alexander Hamilton, remembered by way of exposing the president's amnesia in his policy recommendation. The misrepresentation of the encounter between Native Americans and pilgrims as one of hospitality gave Hamilton ample ammunition to attack the president's deceptive benevolence toward immigrants. During the winter of 1801-2 he published a series of eighteen articles entitled "The Examination" in the New York Evening Post to refute Jefferson's annual message. In the seventh of these articles, he remembered Jefferson's own Notes on Virginia, in which he had claimed that populating the nation with immigrants would compromise the nation's homogeneity. There Jefferson had argued that immigrants would "bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw it 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. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its directions, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass" (108).

In his presidential address Jefferson seems peculiarly forgetful of this earlier statement against lax immigration. In the Notes he had advocated a narrow, nationalist idea of homogeneity that rejected the naturalization of immigrant and indentured workers (that is, the Virginia model of immigration); in his speech, he calls for a humanist notion of a heterogeneous community that is accepting of all oppressed masses of humanity (the Pennsylvania model of immigration). To critique Jefferson's contradictory position toward immigration, Hamilton reminded him of the moment of the pilgrims' arrival. I quote at length from Hamilton's seventh article to reach the broader implications of Jefferson's amnesia:

It might be asked in return, does the right to asylum or hospitality carry with it the right to suffrage and sovereignty? And what indeed was the courteous reception which was given to our forefathers, by the savages of the wilderness? When did these humane and philanthropic savages exercise the policy of incorporating strangers among themselves, on their first arrival in the country? When did they admit them into their huts, to make them part of their families, and when did they distinguish them by making them their sachems? Our histories and traditions have been more than apocryphal, if any thing like this kind, and gentle treatment was really lavished by the much-belied savages upon our thankless forefathers. But the remark occurs, had it all been true, prudence inclines to trace the history farther, and ask what has become of the nations of savages who exercised this policy? And who now occupies the territory which they had inhabited? Perhaps a useful lesson might be drawn from this very reflection.

Hamilton is of course right about Jefferson's having misrepresented the reception accorded to the pilgrims as one of acceptance and hospitality. Jefferson recast the violent encounter between Native Americans and early British colonizers as a convivial occasion, disregarding both the pilgrims' sense of alienation in the New World and the genocide of Native Americans in various Indian wars, not to mention his own earlier characterization of Native Americans in the Declaration of Independence as "merciless ... savages, whose rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes & conditions." Ignoring all these facts helped Jefferson rhetorically in arguing for a pro-immigration position. Hamilton was quite perceptive to have critiqued Jefferson's rhetoric, for even if Jefferson's narrative of friendly reception had been true, the outcome could hardly have justified his stance toward immigration. The dislocation of Native Americans speaks to the failure of a liberal immigration policy, not to its success.

What Jefferson's rhetoric also obscures is the economic dimension of immigration, since he discusses the issue of naturalization in purely political terms. The desire for a more prosperous life in America that pulled European immigrants here is represented as a desire for political freedom, while the need for cheap immigrant labor that fueled the pro-immigration stance is couched as national hospitality. Such a misrepresentation reaffirms America's ideology of exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is a free country, free of political oppression and religious persecution. The buried reference to the "prosperity" that states enjoy by accepting immigrants is the only acknowledgment that immigrants economically enabled the nation. It is worth remembering that Jefferson had in fact made the issue of immigration a charge against George III by accusing him in the Declaration of Independence of having prevented the growth of the colonies by "obstructing the laws of naturalization of foreigners; [and] refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither; & raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands." In the nation's official discourse, the question of immigration gradually loses its economic dimension as it is recast in humanitarian terms-we claim to be a democratic and hospitable community helping the oppressed masses of humanity, instead of acknowledging that immigrants are helping the nation's territorial expansion and economic growth.

Jefferson's forgetfulness was not so much contradictory, which is what Hamilton thought, as politically expedient. Jefferson's failure to discuss the economics of immigration reflects his desire to disavow, in the Freudian sense that I described in the Introduction, two important issues: the actual condition of immigrants at the time and the political utility of unrestricted European immigration to expand the nation territorially. The myth of immigrant America and the idea of American exceptionalism have made us think of early immigrants as adventurers and heroes in search of an ideal life of liberty and religious freedom, forgetting that most immigrants well into the nineteenth century were economic refugees. To pay for their passage to America, many immigrants had to enter into exploitative contracts with ship captains or agencies as "indentured servants" or "redemptioners," which deprived them of their basic freedom as human subjects for at least four years, until they were able to pay off the cost of their passage to America. The horrendous conditions of indentured labor, vividly described by the English traveler Henry Bradshaw Fearon in his Sketches of America (1818), offer many examples of how, contrary to what Jefferson claimed, immigration to America for many poor Europeans meant servitude, not freedom. Indeed the working conditions of many immigrants were so harsh that some states, such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, passed laws to protect newcomers from "cruel and oppressive impositions by masters of the vessels in which they arrive and likewise by those to whom they become servants."

Jefferson's humanist picture of America as an asylum for the oppressed also draws attention to the political expediency of encouraging immigration to populate the ever-expanding nation with white European settlers who also, as Smith points out, "felt more affinity for the partisans of small farmers and democratization than for mercantile and financial elites" (Civic Ideals, 139). Jefferson's amnesia is a convenient move to justify pushing Native Americans westward and populating new territories with white European immigrants who embraced the Jeffersonian Republican vision of an agrarian society. The narrative of the Native Americans' warm welcome to pilgrims provides the benevolent president with a rhetorical tool: the expansionist interest of the nation in attracting immigrants who can claim land and increase capital is represented as hospitality toward the oppressed of the globe. Here benevolence toward one community means brutality and violence toward another. In Jefferson's narrative, however, European immigrants are the beneficiaries of American liberty and freedom, not the unwitting enablers of the nation's expansion and participants in the slow destruction of the indigenous population.

Of course Jefferson had good reasons to sidestep his earlier argument: since he wrote the Notes, the burgeoning nation's expansion westward through the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the forthcoming Louisiana Purchase of 1803 necessitated a faster population growth than he had predicted earlier. The annexation of new territories taken and purchased from Native Americans and European countries made a constant flow of immigration from Europe indispensable to building a powerful nation. But the nation's need for labor was, and as I will show later is, often couched as a desire for liberty and prosperity. It is significant that Jefferson focused solely on the "push" factor of immigration in his speech (political and religious oppression in Europe was, according to him, the force behind immigration), marginalizing the "pull" factor at work in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth. By "pull" I do not mean the mythologized attractions of America as a haven of liberty and prosperity, but rather the deliberate practice of boosterism that the original colonies and later the western states pursued in Europe. Since the late eighteenth century, immigration agents were employed by ship owners, land speculators, and state agents throughout European cities to stimulate a desire to come to America. These agents told workers of an abundance of well-paying jobs and advertised the country as a prosperous and free land, disseminating handbills and posting placards in every public place.

In addition to these methods of recruitment, a substantial body of literature promoted the virtues of the New World. Crèvecoeur's Letters and Morris Birkbeck's less famous Letters from Illinois (1818), for example, were instrumental in generating the myth of America as a promised land of economic opportunity. These texts, as I will discuss below, mediated the immigrant's desire for America, a desire born of the need for labor and economic necessity, and not just the love of liberty. Enthusiastic immigration success stories translated the economic need for labor into a political desire for liberty and an individual ambition for prosperity. In its representations of the pioneer life, this literature emphasized the "pull" factors of immigration and thus obscured the colonialist drive to populate the continent with white settlers and the expansionist tendency of the country's immigration policy. Far from benevolently accepting the oppressed, the nation, through its chauvinistic literature and practices, produced a desire for immigration in Europe by actively pursuing a policy of "pull." But the creation of this desire is always masked by the mythical discourse of immigration in the United States. In the nation's official history, immigration is always cloaked in the garb of national hospitality, an altruistic act to help the oppressed that covers what was surely a politically motivated project of territorial and economic expansion.

The Conservative Father and the Forgetting of National Trauma

While Jefferson's annual message offers an example of political disavowal to build a nation, Hamilton's response demonstrates a personal form of negation to imagine a patriotic American identity. Ironically, Hamilton, who was able to remember the colonial occupation of America, was forgetful of the pilgrims' dislocation, that they were once a community of strangers and exiles in a new land. Hamilton viewed the early colonists as the true native population, constructing them as a superior race in danger of extinction by the arrival of new immigrants from Europe whom he viewed as the "Grecian horse," corrupting and invading the democratic polity of New England Puritans. Hamilton's rhetoric disavows not only the fact that the "natives" were once immigrants themselves, but also his own immigrant history: Hamilton was a naturalized alien, and to cast himself as a native he had to mask his original status as a foreigner.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Nation and Immigration1
1Imagining America: Forgetful Fathers and the Founding Myths of the Nation23
2Historicizing America: Tocqueville and the Ideology of Exceptionalism48
3Immigrant America: Liberal Discourse of Immigration and the Ritual of Self-Renewal76
4Discourses of Exclusion: Nativism and the Imagining of a "White Nation"111
5Practices of Exclusion: National Borders and the Disciplining of Aliens143
Conclusion: Remembering 9/11169

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