Frederick Douglass on immigration

April 10

In the course of some recent research, I came across this 1869 speech by Frederick Douglass arguing against restrictions Chinese immigration. Immigration from China and Japan was the main target of restrictionists in the 19th century, much like Hispanic immigration is today. And many of the arguments raised against today’s immigrants were also raised against Chinese and other immigration back then. For that reason, much of what Douglass said is still strikingly relevant. Here is Douglass on the right to free migration. As he points out, the arguments restrictionists would raise against the Chinese would also have justified barring them or their ancestors who came from Europe:

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.

Here he is on the claim that Chinese immigration will “swamp” American culture:

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons.

As Douglass predicted, ultimately Chinese and other 19th century immigrants assimilated to American society much more than the reverse, largely for the very reasons he suggested. The same is currently true of Hispanic immigrants, despite claims that they are uniquely unassimilable. For example, even in the most heavily Hispanic parts of California, Hispanic immigrants are learning English at the same rate as past generations of migrants.

Douglass also pointed out that the very fact that immigrants were willing to make a long journey and adjust to a new culture and society itself suggests that they are likely to make valuable contributions in their new home:

Not the least among the arguments whose consideration should dispose to welcome among us the peoples of all countries, nationalities and color, is the fact that all races and varieties of men are improvable. This is the grand distinguishing attribute of humanity and separates man from all other animals. If it could be shown that any particular race of men are literally incapable of improvement, we might hesitate to welcome them here. But no such men are anywhere to be found, and if there were, it is not likely that they would ever trouble us with their presence.

The fact that the Chinese and other nations desire to come and do come, is a proof of their capacity for improvement and of their fitness to come…

Let the Chinaman come; he will help to augment the national wealth. He will help to develop our boundless resources; he will help to pay off our national debt. He will help to lighten the burden of national taxation. He will give us the benefit of his skill as a manufacturer and tiller of the soil, in which he is unsurpassed.

Some of the material in Douglass’ speech is necessarily dated, and some reflects the prejudices of his time, which even he was not entirely free of. At one point, he states that the Chinese suffer from a “total absence” of “imagination,” and at at another he could not resist making a gratuitous disparaging remark about the French. But his main points are still compelling.

I do not claim that immigration can never be restricted for any reason. There are rare extreme circumstances where restriction is the only way to prevent a great evil that cannot be forestalled by less draconian means. But as a general rule, we would do well to follow Douglass’ admonition that ” a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United states, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.”

For another insightful, but relatively little-known Douglass speech, see this post about his views on how we should remember the Civil War.

UPDATE: Some immigration restrictionists like to cite Douglass’ statements decrying many employers’ preferences for white immigrant labor over black labor, and state governments’ giving white immigrants voting rights that were denied to blacks. Neither of these positions, however, is equivalent to supporting legal restrictions on immigration, which Douglass opposed for the reasons noted above.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2013), and coauthor of A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Somin has been a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of Hamburg, Germany, and the University of Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Before joining the faculty at George Mason, Somin was the John M. Olin Fellow in Law at Northwestern University Law School in 2002-2003. In 2001-2002, he clerked for the Hon. Judge Jerry E. Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Professor Somin earned his B.A., Summa Cum Laude, at Amherst College, M.A. in Political Science from Harvard University, and J.D. from Yale Law School.
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David Bernstein | April 10