The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Founding Fathers, trashing immigrants

John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson around table. (Augustus Tholey)

My column Friday noted that despite our heritage as a “nation of immigrants,” the United States has a long and ugly history of hostility toward immigrants that dates all the way back to pre-revolutionary times. Here are some of my favorite examples.

First here’s Benjamin Franklin, in 1751, referring to the Swedes, French and other Europeans as insufficiently white, and expressing his growing annoyance at the German immigration boom:

[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements and, by herding together, establish their Language and Manners, to the Exclusion of ours? 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?
Which leads me to add one Remark, that the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny; Asia chiefly tawny; America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who, with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we, in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? Why increase the Sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.

The much younger Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the nation’s most famous and politically influential immigrant (he was born in the Danish West Indies and came to New York as a teen), also went on to express anti-immigrant tendencies. He supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, which helped consolidate power for his own political party. And in a series of pseudonymously-written essays, he warned of the dangers of absorbing and especially naturalizing too many foreigners.

In one essay, he explained the risks of giving political rights to foreign elements who might be insufficiently committed to American ideals:

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.
…[F]oreigners 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, 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 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 discord ant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.

Now, you might think nativism is a bit hypocritical not only for Hamilton, since he himself was an immigrant, but also really for anyone aware that there were actual native Americans who used to live in what had recently very become the United States.

Follow Catherine Rampell's opinionsFollow

In fact, in this vein, Hamilton’s rival Thomas Jefferson argued that the country should not “refuse to the unhappy fugitives from distress, that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land.” (It was no coincidence of course that the foreigners in question at the time were generally more sympathetic to Jefferson’s political philosophy than Hamilton’s; before this turn of events, Jefferson had expressed far more skepticism about immigration.)

Hamilton responded that he remembered the European settlers’ welcome to the New World a bit differently, and that even if it had been as friendly as Jefferson described, the natives’ hospitality didn’t serve them so well in the end:

Had it all been true, prudence requires us 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.