There has been much debate over the years regarding the view of immigration and border control that was shared among the founding fathers of our nation. Historians on both sides of the argument have attempted to co-opt the founders into their camp, and there is so much misinformation on the subject that it is difficult to ascertain anything about the actual view of our founders without abandoning modern research and returning to the original source documents from those great men who formed our nation.
When we return to the original writings of the founders, we can see two extremely important points about immigration that are often overlooked by modern scholarship on both sides of the debate.
1. There is a huge difference between immigration and naturalization.
Most of the quotations floating around the internet and purporting to reveal the founders’ views of immigration are actually statements about naturalization. For example, when Alexander Hamilton wrote that: “the influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to … change and corrupt the national spirit,” he was not writing about immigration (the act of moving to a new land) but rather about naturalization (the process of becoming a citizen). This statement was part of Hamilton’s argument for requiring foreigners to live in America for five years before they could apply for citizenship and gain the right to vote. He concluded his argument with this statement:
“Some reasonable term ought to be allowed to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments; to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government; and to admit of at least a probability of their feeling a real interest in our affairs. A residence of at least five years ought to be required.”
Hamilton was not arguing for limits on immigration; he was arguing for delayed naturalization.
Similarly, James Madison said that we should invite “the worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us,” that the goal of this invitation was “to increase the wealth and strength of the community,” and that those not adding to the wealth and strength of the community “are not the people we are in want of.” In all of these statements, Madison was speaking of naturalization and not of immigration. In fact, Madison introduced these statements with the explanation that:
“When we are considering the advantages that may result from an easy mode of naturalization, we ought also to consider the cautions necessary to guard against abuses.”
He closed his address with the statement that:
“I should be exceeding sorry, sir, that our rule of naturalization excluded a single person of good fame, that really meant to incorporate himself into our society; on the other hand, I do not wish that any man should acquire the privilege, but who, in fact, is a real addition to the wealth or strength of the United States. It may be a question of some nicety, how far we can make our law to admit an alien to the right of citizenship, step by step; but there was no doubt, but we may, and ought to require residence as an essential.”
Once again, Madison, just like Hamilton, was arguing for delayed naturalization and not for any kind of limit on immigration.
In regards to naturalization, our founding fathers were adamant that assimilation into the American language and culture should be a requirement for citizenship. In regards to immigration, however, the founders never once argued for a limit on the number or type of people allowed to enter our borders.
2. Immigration was not just about improving America.
Throughout the writings of the founders, there are many references to the benefits of immigration, and some of those benefits have been forgotten in the flurry of debates. Both sides seem to be focused on the benefits of immigration to America, and the founders spoke of such benefits as well. More often than not, however, the founders were just as focused on the benefits to the immigrants themselves and even on the benefits that were enjoyed by the nation being left.
Jefferson, for example, explained that America’s immigration system was not based “on the selfish principle of increasing our own population at the expense of other nations” but rather on a desire “to consecrate a sanctuary for those whom the misrule of Europe may compel to seek happiness in other climes.” He then went on to explain how America’s open immigration system actually provided a benefit for other nations. He wrote that:
“This refuge once known will produce reaction on the happiness even of those who remain there, by warning their task-masters that when the evils of Egyptian oppression become heavier than those of the abandonment of country, another Canaan is open where their subjects will be received as brothers.”
Washington also expressed his desire for America to be a safe haven for those oppressed in other countries. He explained that:
“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”
Madison’s 1791 article on immigration lists several benefits that America’s open immigration policy would bring to other nations. According to Madison, one of those benefits was that allowing immigrants to come to America would help the economy of the nation that they were leaving. He pointed out that many nations were “permitting, and even promoting emigrations to this country” in order to boost their own economy, and he praised them for their efforts.
Madison then proceeded to endorse open immigration in order to provide relief for the poor and the beggars of other nations. He wrote that:
“Freedom of emigration is due to the general interests of humanity. The course of emigrations being always, from places where living is more difficult, to places where it is less difficult, the happiness of the emigrant is promoted by the change: and as a more numerous progeny is another effect of the same cause, human life is at once made a greater blessing, and more individuals are created to partake of it.”
He even argued that increased immigration would improve the declining morals of other nations.
“It may not be superfluous to add, that freedom of emigration is favorable to morals. A great proportion of the vices which distinguish crowded from thin settlements, are known to have their rise in the facility of illicit intercourse between the sexes, on one hand, and the difficulty of maintaining a family, on the other. Provide an outlet for the surplus of population, and marriages will be increased in proportion. Every four or five emigrants will be the fruit of a legitimate union which would not otherwise have taken place.”
Over and over again throughout the writings of the founding fathers, we find them praising what Madison termed “the character of liberality” which formed the foundation of our immigration system. They realized that “America was indebted to emigration for her settlement and prosperity,” and they recognized that the “part of America which had encouraged [immigrants] the most had advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture, and the arts.” At the same time, the founders were also very careful to ensure that immigrants did not become citizens until after they had been properly assimilated into the American culture. We would be wise to remember both the founders’ desire for open immigration and their caution against rapid naturalization.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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