Talking Points

May 11, 2006

What kind of Immigration Policy would the Founders have had?

Filed under: Talking Points memo — talkingpoints @ 3:19 am

How the Founders of the United State may have looked at Immigration – that's the subject of today's Talking Points memo.

The founders accepted the old ethnic communities in their midst – Dutch in New York, Germans in Pennsylvania.  Several of the founders belonged to them: the First Congress contained two Muhlenbergs, a Schuyler, and a Van Rensselaer.

Founders welcomed new immigrants that met their business needs.  In 1784 George Washington was in the market for a carpenter and a bricklayer.  He asked Tench Tilghman, one of his wartime aids, to scour a boatload of Germans that was due to land in Baltimore for the proper workmen.  “I would not confine you to” Germans, he added.  “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe.  They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christian of any sect – or they may be atheists.”  Washington was laying it on for comic effect; he is saying, hire anybody who can put boards or bricks together.  But there is no reason to think that if Tilghman had found a Muslim bricklayer, Washington wouldn’t have hired him.

New arrivals always raised the question of assimilation, however.  A proxy discussion of assimilation occurred at the Constitutional Convention when Governor Morris moved to raise the citizenship requirement for senators from four years to fourteen.   George Mason supported the motion, even toying with the idea of restricting the Senate to the native born.  Benjamin Franklin opposed the motion, calling immigration “a proof of attachment” to America that “ought to excite our confidence and affection.”  (Early in his career, Franklin had scoffed at Pennsylvania Germans as “boors” and had lost an election to the colonial assembly because of it; he seemed to have learned his lesson.)

Two immigrants spoke to Morris’s motion.  Pierce Butler, who had come from Ireland, wanted a long residence requirement for senators.  Foreigners “bring with them, not only attachments to other countries, but ideas of government so distinct from ours that in every point of view they are dangerous.”  James Wilson, who had come from Scotland, defended the sensibilities of immigrants. “To be appointed to a place may be [a] matter of indifference.  To be incapable of being appointed is a circumstance granting and mortifying.”  Morris defended his motion in high style:

We should not be polite at the expense of prudence . . . It is said that some tribes of Indians carried their hospitality so far as to offer to strangers their wives and daughters.  Was this a proper model of us?  He would admit them to his house, he would invite them to his table, would provide for them comfortable lodgings, but would not carry the complaisance so far as to bed them with his wife.

The Constitution fixed the citizenship requirement for representatives at seven years, and for senators at nine.  The president had to be a native, or “a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution” (so James Wilson would be spared the mortification of not being eligible).  Congress was given the power to establish a “uniform Rule of Naturalization.” 

Fear of foreigners increased after the French Revolution.  French diplomats meddled in American politics, attacking President Washington, and taking sides in the election of 1796; perhaps ordinary Frenchmen, caught up in the ferment of their native land, or Irishmen, fleeing their own political troubles, might do the same.  Harrison Gray Otis, a Massachusetts Federalist, said he did “not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.”  Federalists mocked Representative Albert Gallatin’s thick French accent, the heritage of his birth in Geneva (Abigail Adams called him “the Swiss incendiary”).  The Naturalization Act of 1798 raised the residency requirement for citizenship from five years to fourteen.  After the Louisiana Purchase, Fisher Ames wrote that “the otters would as soon obey” our laws as the French and Spanish “savages and adventurers” who lived there.

The Revolution profited from Federalist alarm by courting the ethnic vote.  In the same New York election in which Robert Livingston sent his carriage for an old black voter, Aaron Burr sent German-speaking orators to the city’s Seventh Ward, the German neighborhood. Burr’s maneuver worked better than Livingston’s.  The ethic vote helped boost the Republicans to power in New York and Pennsylvania, and ultimately nationwide.  Thomas Jefferson understood Gallatin well enough to make him his treasury secretary.

The eternal themes of immigration politics – anxiety over assimilation, and flattery of immigration – were set by the founders.

And that's the memo.

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