Founding Fathers Were Immigration Skeptics

The American people continue to be involved in a long-overdue national discussion of immigration.  And yet, during the debate over the immigration bill that recently died in the Senate, I do not recall hearing the views of the Founding Fathers — even if only out of curiosity — considered, pursued or even raised.

Contrary to what most Americans may believe, in fact, the Founding Fathers were by and large skeptical of immigration.  If the United States lacked people with particular skills, then the Founders had no objection to attracting them from abroad.  But they were convinced that mass immigration would bring social turmoil and political confusion in its wake.

In one of the most neglected sections of his Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson posed the question, “Are there no inconveniences to be thrown into the scale against the advantage expected by a multiplication of numbers by the importation of foreigners?”

What was likely to happen, according to Jefferson, was that immigrants would come to America from countries that would have given them no experience living in a free society.  They would bring with them the ideas and principles of the governments they left behind –ideas and principles that were often at odds with American liberty.

“Suppose 20 millions of republican Americans thrown all of a sudden into France, what would be the condition of that kingdom?” Jefferson asked.  “If it would be more turbulent, less happy, less strong, we may believe that the addition of half a million of foreigners to our present numbers would produce a similar effect here.”

Alexander Hamilton was even more blunt.  He invited his fellow Americans to consider the example of another people who had been more generous with their immigration policy than prudence dictated: the American Indians.  Hamilton wrote, “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.”

Hamilton was likewise unconvinced that diversity was a strength.  The safety of a republic, according to him, depended “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.”  He then drew out the implications of this point: “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 discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.”

George Washington contended in a 1794 letter to John Adams that there was no particular need for the U.S. to encourage immigration, “except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions.”  He continued: “The policy or advantage of its taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for by so doing, they retain the language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them.”

Rufus King, a Massachusetts delegate to the Constitutional Convention, wrote in 1798 that emigrants from Scotland had typically brought with them certificates from “the religious societies to which they belonged” that testified to their good character.  King proposed that something similar be required of all those wishing to settle here.

And the list goes on.

The problem here is not that the question — “Did the Founding Fathers support immigration?” — is usually answered incorrectly or badly.  The problem is that it is never raised in the first place.  (That’s why it’s the very first entry in my new book, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask.)

The Founding Fathers were not infallible, of course, and they were sometimes wrong.  But on a matter as critical as this one, shouldn’t we at least be aware of what they thought?