Also from Anne:

*July 3, 2007*

*Op-Ed Contributor***

The Founding Immigrants


Dorset, Vt.

A PROMINENT American once said, about immigrants, “Few of their children in the country learn English… The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages … Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.”

This sentiment did not emerge from the rancorous debate over the immigration bill defeated last week in the Senate. It was not the lament of some guest of Lou Dobbs or a Republican candidate intent on wooing bedrock conservative votes. Guess again.

Voicing this grievance was Benjamin Franklin. And the language so vexing to him was the German spoken by new arrivals to Pennsylvania in the 1750s, a wave of immigrants whom Franklin viewed as the “most stupid of their nation.”

About the same time, a Lutheran minister named Henry Muhlenberg, himself a recent arrival from Germany, worried that “the whole country is being flooded with ordinary, extraordinary and unprecedented wickedness and crimes. … Oh, what a fearful thing it is to have so many thousands of unruly and brazen sinners come into this free air and unfenced country.”

These German masses yearning to breathe free were not the only targets of colonial fear and loathing. Echoing the opinions of colonial editors and legislators, Ben Franklin was also troubled by the British practice of dumping its felons on America. With typical Franklin wit, he proposed sending rattlesnakes to Britain in return. (This did not, however, preclude numerous colonists from purchasing these convicts as indentured

And still earlier in Pennsylvania, the Scotch-Irish had bred discontent, as their penchant for squatting on choice real estate ran headlong against the colony’s founders, the Penn family, and their genteel notions about who should own what.

Often, the disdain for the foreign was inflamed by religion. Boston’s Puritans hanged several Friends after a Bay Colony ban on Quakerism. In Virginia, the Anglicans arrested Baptists.

But the greatest scorn was generally reserved for Catholics — usually meaning Irish, French, Spanish and Italians. Generations of white American Protestants resented newly arriving “Papists,” and even in colonial Maryland, a supposed haven for them, Roman Catholics were nonetheless forbidden to vote and hold public office.

Once independent, the new nation began to carve its views on immigrants into law. In considering New York’s Constitution, for instance, John Jay — later to become the first chief justice of the Supreme Court — suggested erecting “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics.”

By 1790, with the United States Constitution firmly in place, the first federal citizenship law restricted naturalization to “free white persons” who had been in the country for two years. That requirement was later pushed back to five years and, in 1798, to 14 years.

Then, as now, politics was key. Federalists feared that too many immigrants were joining the opposition. Under the 1798 Alien Act — with the threat of war in the air over French attacks on American shipping — President John Adams had license to deport anyone he considered “dangerous.” Although his secretary of state favored mass deportations, Adams never actually put anybody on a boat.

Back then, the French warranted the most suspicion, but there were other worrisome “aliens.” A wave of “wild Irish” refugees was thought to harbor dangerous radicals. Harsh “anti-coolie” laws later singled out the Chinese. And, of course, the millions of “involuntary” immigrants from Africa and their offspring were regarded merely as persons “held to service.”

Scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the “huddled masses” emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.

As we celebrate another Fourth of July, this picture of American intolerance clashes sharply with tidy schoolbook images of the great melting pot. Why has the land of “all men are created equal” forged countless ghettoes and intricate networks of social exclusion? Why the signs reading “No Irish Need Apply”? And why has each new generation of immigrants had to face down a rich glossary of now unmentionable epithets? Disdain for what is foreign is, sad to say, as American as apple pie, slavery and lynching.

That fence along the Mexican border now being contemplated by Congress is just the latest vestige of a venerable tradition, at least as old as John Jay’s “wall of brass.” “Don’t fence me in” might be America’s unofficial anthem of unfettered freedom, but too often the subtext is, “Fence everyone else out.”

/Kenneth C. Davis is the author of “Don’t Know Much About History:
Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned.”/


2 responses

  1. Jenny Perry

    Intolerance? Perhaps that is your greed speaking.

    It isn’t intolerant for poor and lower middle class Americans to speak out, per their constitutionally protected right to do so, about the long term, serious un and underemployment problem. We are at a time where there is a sharply declining job pool in the US. Prices haven’t gone down, Americans are still required to pay first world prices, but illegal aliens (and their corporate sponsers) are being subsidized, and the burden of that fall on those same working poor and lower middle class Americans.

    We have hunger among poor American citizens. The numbers for anemia, are rising sharply, among poor American women. They can not afford to purchase dark green leafy vegetables, let alone other produce and adequate protein sources. We have a health care crisis and public schools in poor areas are terribly over burdened.

    What McCain/Kennedy and the Bush/Reid/Kennedy/US Chamber of Commerce/La Raza legislation were in aid of was legalized slavery. Destroying American wage standards and workplace protections for once and for all. The racism, the bigotry and hatred and ignorance are on the part of people like yourself, who want to pit one group of poor people against another. You sir, are no different than the KKK, because while it’s not a sheet you hide behind while you seek to destroy lives, what you do hide behind is little different.

    July 8, 2007 at 6:53 pm

  2. Courtney

    Hard to say exactly where you stand here, though in other forums you’ve described yourseld as a “liberal democrat.” What’s puzzling is your pulling out the “economic populism vs. immigrant” argument. What they’re really afraid of is NOT having their job taken away – but of people who don’t look or speak exactly like them moving into their neighborhoods.

    You seem to cloak other arguments usually made by conservative sources – such as “illegal immigrants are a drain on society’s resources,” “illegal aliens are being subsidized,” etc. – in thinly veiled “liberal” arguments.

    You’d have been a lot more effective if you hadn’t accused the author, who was simply pointing out that often, issues of immigration do have undercurrents of racism and politically beneficial fear, of being greedy and worse than a member of the KKK. I find it difficult to believe that the KKK would ever have anything to do with this guy.

    Too bad, because your points about lack of attention to poverty in this country and the difficulty of finding a job that pays decently would be good issues to discuss in other contexts. But given the amount of money devoted to the military – which isn’t even getting to the troops – the cost of immigrants receiving health care pales in comparison to other ventures where we’re simply throwing money down the drain to subsidize corporate America. Another point which would have been good to explore, instead of simply calling the author names.

    July 8, 2007 at 10:31 pm

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