In a chapter of her new book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” historian Jill Lepore writes about the day in November 1783 when the last British ship left New York harbor, ending the Revolutionary War. Soon after, Gen. George Washington rode back into town, a victorious return to a city he’d hastily abandoned seven years earlier. He and his troops celebrated in Fraunces Tavern on Broadway, where, as the Independent New-York Gazette recounted, Washington made 13 toasts. One of them was:
“May America be an Asylum to the persecuted of the earth!”
On Thursday, the Trump administration sought new measures to deny asylum to those who enter the country illegally, reversing decades of protection for people who express fear of persecution in their home countries.
It comes after President Trump ordered more than 5,000 U.S. troops to the border to repel a caravan of thousands of asylum seekers from Central America, which he has denounced as "an invasion of our country.”
But our first president offered asylum as one of America’s assets. Repeatedly.
In April 1788, as the Constitution was being debated and ratified by the states, Washington sent a letter to a persecuted Dutch preacher, inviting him to emigrate with his flock, saying, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe & agreeable Asylum to the virtuous & persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong,” to “settle themselves in comfort, freedom and ease in some corner of the vast regions of America.”
Washington repeated this hope a month later in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, describing how their new nation “promises to afford a capacious asylum for the poor & persecuted of the Earth.”
His talk of asylum continued during his presidency. In a 1795 proclamation, Washington asked Americans to pray to the Almighty to “render this Country more and more a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other Countries.”
So would Washington be repulsed by Trump’s moves to seal the border from legal asylum seekers? Should liberals be scrawling his words on their placards at the next protest?
New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani invoked Washington in a tweet over the summer, at the height of the child separation controversy.
George Washington: "I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable Asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong."— Michiko Kakutani (@michikokakutani) July 7, 2018
But while Washington said the offer of asylum was extended to people from “whatever nation,” a Fox News op-ed suggests his intent was narrower, directed at wealthy, educated people who were being persecuted in Europe for touting American-style democracy, and who would help the country’s fledgling economy.
And to be sure, when defeated British ships sailed out of Charleston at the end of the Revolutionary War, scores of runaway slaves jumped into the water and swam after them, terrified of being forced back into servitude and begging for asylum from America.
Lepore, for her part, doesn’t recommend invoking Washington in the current debate. There were no federal laws restricting immigration until 1881, she notes.
There was no one checking passports at the docks. Asylum was not a formal process in which one submitted documentation of political oppression on an I-589 form.
“So what Washington is doing [in offering asylum to the Dutch preacher], he’s not restricting asylum to a particular person or people from a particular part of the world, there is no restriction. He’s just offering the flourish of his rhetoric to offer this particular invitation and welcome,” she says.
The word asylum may have had a less specific meaning than it does today, but, even as a “mere” concept, it was key to Washington and his contemporaries, she says.
“The colonies were understood as an asylum of all kinds from the very beginning, principally as a debtors’ asylum,” she says. “I mean, you were in debt in Europe, and you went to the colonies, your debt would be forgiven. So it was an asylum for the poor.”
She also points to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, over which Washington presided.
“There is some discussion about whether qualification for elected office should be native born. And there’s a very weird thing, where at the end of it, they’re like, ‘Well, for the president, maybe.’ But for no other office is there any requirement. You could just have landed,” she says.
Still, she warns against tweeting the Founders.
“Historians don’t just [tweet] quotes that come out of a Google search, right?” she says. “But is it wrong in some kind of deep unethical way, in terms of how politicians work? No. Does it advance our political conversation? Probably not.”
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