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Di Leo: The Founding Fathers and the Immigration Debate




By John F. Di Leo - 

As we debate the ongoing question of immigration – not just who and how many to allow in, but also when, if ever, to allow them to vote – it might be helpful to remember the thoughts of our Founders on the issue.

It is now common for one side of the debate to say “we’re a nation of immigrants,” giving rise to the assumption that we always believed in open borders in the past, so this current concern about a wave of cultural invaders is something new… but in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

215 years ago today, in fact, one year into the Jefferson administration, this very issue was in the headlines, as Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton assailed the President in a published op-ed, known as “The Examination, Number VIII,” for Jefferson’s political flip-flop on the matter. 

The People of the Founding Era

Our Founding Fathers were indeed a mixture of people. We had politicians whose families had been in the Colonies for generations, like the Washingtons, Jeffersons, and Adamses.  Many were scions of families that had been in their respective colonies for a century or more; many Founders traced their roots back 150 years to the Mayflower and other early settlements.

Similarly, some of the Founders were politicians who were themselves relatively new arrivals from abroad, like Thomas Paine from England, James Wilson from Scotland, and Alexander Hamilton from the Caribbean.

These statesmen all participated in the Revolutionary Era, in support of what was then known as The Glorious Cause of Independence, with fervent devotion to the principles of liberty. They built our nation to be a combination of the freedom philosophy of the Enlightenment and the incarnation of the ethics of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition… their very ambitious goal was indeed to make our new country the culmination of Western Civilization, a City on a Hill.

They knew that this would be a challenge, not only to design but to maintain. Virtually 100% of the Founders were united in their belief that government should be severely limited, only big enough to protect the people’s liberty. There were disagreements on how best to get there, but no disagreement about the goal.  Hence the split between federalists (the supporters of the Constitution) and anti-federalists (the Constitution’s opponents) during the ratification debate… a divide that soon materialized into two separate parties, first known simply as the Federalists (the ancestors of today’s Republicans) and the Jeffersonians (the ancestors of today’s Democrats).

On immigration, then as now, one of the divides was between those whose immigrant roots were recent and those whose roots were distant.   People who were recently arrived might better remember how incredibly different things are in other countries – how different the thinking, how different the culture, how different the people’s expectations from government and the government’s expectations from the people.  

People whose ancestors fled England, Holland, France or Ireland a century ago might have forgotten their grandparents’ stories (if ever they’d heard them at all) about how hard life was in the country their ancestors left.

As we forget our roots, perhaps, we forget that our ancestors had to learn a new worldview when they arrived on these shores.   That, at least, is the heart of today’s debate.  Not every immigrant is a fully-minted Hamilton, Paine or Wilson, the day they arrive. 

In the late Phyllis Schlafly’s last major project – her scrupulously-researched study on the voting patterns of immigrant groups – she demonstrated that immigrants tend to be so pre-disposed to the governmental philosophy of their homelands that it takes a century before their descendants begin to vote majority-Republican. The statist impulse is that difficult to shake.

Yes, even in people who fled that foreign country for America.

It’s not really much different from our intrastate and interstate migrations today… those of people who flee the city for the safer and more honest suburbs, or who flee Illinois and California for better-managed Texas and Florida, arrive in their new homes and tend to vote for the very policies that wrecked the places they left behind. And this pattern is all the more embedded in people who arrive from another country.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia

In 1781, during the War of Independence, Thomas Jefferson received a set of questions about Virginia from a foreign acquaintance, and the questions so intrigued him that he wrote much more extensive answers than expected; enough in fact to fill a book.

Here’s a selection of comments that Thomas Jefferson wrote about the risks to a republic of a substantial influx of new immigrants, in 1781, as quoted by Mr. Hamilton:

“Here I will beg leave to propose a doubt. The present desire of America, is to produce rapid population, by as great importations of foreigners as possible. But is this founded in good policy?”…

“Are there no inconveniences to be thrown into the scale, against the advantage expected from a multiplication of numbers, by the importation of foreigners? It is for the happiness of those united in society, to harmonize as much as possible, in matters which they must of necessity transact together. Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent. Every species of government has its specific principles: Ours, perhaps, are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English Constitution, with others, derived from natural right and reason. To these, nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies. Yet from such, we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants. They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. Their principles with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us in the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass. I may appeal to experience, during the present contest, for a verification of these conjectures: but if they be not certain in event, are they not possible, are they not probable? Is it not safer to wait with patience for the attainment of any degree of population desired or expected? May not our government be more homogeneous, more peaceable, more durable? Suppose 20 millions of republican Americans, thrown all of a sudden into France, what would be the condition of that kingdom? 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.”

  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1781

(my apologies for the lengthy paragraph without a break; that’s how Mr. Jefferson wrote.)

Now, this is clearly a logical, accurate presentation of the nature of immigrants, entering a republic from the monarchies of Europe. Today, we can take this argument and expand it, since Mr Jefferson was at least talking about people arriving from European Christian nations in Western civilization, with similarities at least in history, language, and culture.  But even so, their different backgrounds would clearly cause them to think differently, especially on election day, than an American would, having been raised in the principles of liberty.

Consider people newly arrived from muslim North African villages or pantheist West Africa hamlets, the desperate poverty of so many Central American and Caribbean origins. It is no insult to the people to honestly recognize that they arrive with different experiences, habits and behaviors, and are therefore guaranteed to judge political issues differently on election day.

Jefferson’s Message and Hamilton's Response

On December 7, 1801, in lieu of a State of the Union Address as we would expect today, President Jefferson transmitted a “Message” – a written speech, for circulation and publication.

Alexander Hamilton, as practical leader of the opposition in those days, analyzed that address in a series of op-eds that, together, form what is now known as The Examination. As was usual for those days, Mr. Hamilton wrote under a pseudonym, in this case, Lucius Crassus, and took apart what he held to be Mr. Jefferson’s errors in separate articles.  His articles numbers VII and VIII directly took on the issue of immigration.

In the President’s Message, Jefferson called for a change to our naturalization process, to more easily admit foreigners and grant them citizenship. He even attacked waiting periods of ten or fourteen years as being unkind, and proposed shorter waits or even no waits at all.

In his analysis, Hamilton reminded the public of the old Jefferson, and pointed out the wisdom in the former position… and called him out for this policy reversal. Consider this extract… this is actually the entirety of The Examination, Number VIII (my apologies, but I find it very difficult to cut the work of Secretary Hamilton):

“Resuming the subject of our last paper we proceed to trace still farther, the consequences that must result from a too unqualified admission of foreigners, to an equal participation in our civil, and political rights.”

“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.”

“The opinion advanced in the Notes on Virginia is undoubtedly correct, that foreigners 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 discordant intermixture must have an injurious tendency.”

“The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils, by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others. It has been often likely to compromise the interests of our own country in favor of another. In times of great public danger there is always a numerous body of men, of whom there may be just grounds of distrust; the suspicion alone weakens the strength of the nation, but their force may be actually employed in assisting an invader.”

“In the infancy of the country, with a boundless waste to people, it was politic to give a facility to naturalization; but our situation is now changed. It appears from the last census, that we have increased about one third in ten years; after allowing for what we have gained from abroad, it will be quite apparent that the natural progress of our own population is sufficiently rapid for strength, security and settlement. By what has been said, it is not meant to contend for a total prohibition of the right of citizenship to strangers, nor even for the very long residence which is now a prerequisite to naturalization, and which of itself, goes far towards a denial of that privilege. The present law was merely a temporary measure adopted under peculiar circumstances and perhaps demands revision. But there is a wide difference between closing the door altogether and throwing it entirely open; between a postponement of fourteen years and an immediate admission to all the rights of citizenship. 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.”

“If the rights of Naturalization may be communicated by parts, and it is not perceived why they may not, those peculiar to the conducting of business and the acquisition of property, might with propriety be at once conferred, upon receiving proof, by certain prescribed solemnities, of their intention to become citizens; postponing all political privileges to the ultimate term. To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they put foot in our country, as recommended in the Message, would be nothing less, than to admit the Grecian Horse into the Citadel of our Liberty and Sovereignty.”

  • Alexander Hamilton, as Lucius Crassus, January 12, 1802

There you have it. It was 215 years ago today that Alexander Hamilton, founder of the Federalist Party, the forerunner to the Republican Party and the conservative movement of today, enunciated the very issues that resonate in our current debates.

When Jefferson became a politician, he forgot the very philosophy that he had so eloquently espoused just twenty years earlier; he advocated easing the entry of new arrivals, not just into our economy, but into our voting booths as well. It took the immigrant from Nevis, Alexander Hamilton, to remind America of the risks in such and error.  It took the man who had grown up in the Caribbean to remind the public that new arrivals in a voting booth cannot be counted on to safeguard liberties hard-won by others, that they may not even fully understand.

Our Challenge Today

Those of us who call for border enforcement, punishment of border-jumping, and a resistance to the dilution of our body politic are not guilty of the bigotry, racism, or other offenses of which we are charged by the Left.

We just recognize reality: that for the republic to succeed and prosper for all its inhabitants, it must be populated by people who understand and appreciate the culture, economy, and philosophy of that republic.   People raised in socialist countries, in kingdoms, in lands ruled by clans, tribes, military dictators, kings, mafia kingpins or warlords, simply do not arrive with the underpinnings of the freedom philosophy.

But can they ever be assimilated? Certainly, if the circumstances are right for it… If they arrive with an attitude close to our own, perhaps they can assimilate quickly; Thomas Paine wrote “Common Sense” after having only been on our soil for a single year!

But if they arrive with attitudes a world away from our own – accustomed to dependency on government, accustomed to having one’s job assigned by government, accustomed to disobeying the law because life is all about what you can get away with, so accustomed to poverty that miserable free welfare-state life is a welcome step up, so they’re satisfied with it and never work harder to improve their lot – then the work of assimilation will indeed be a challenging endeavor, taking years of effort and the support of our society.

And this is our problem; our society has not really encouraged rapid assimilation in recent decades. We speak a hundred languages in our schools and our government documents; we have ethnic neighborhoods in which immigrants choose to remain, to avoid mixing with others; we have foreign language radio and television stations to minimize the need to ever learn English.

Tom Paine understood America after being year a single year; today, millions of immigrant families who have been here for generations still don’t understand America at all.

What have we learned from our Founding Fathers? That they knew the problem, even then… that they knew that one day, drawing from nations that lacked the five-hundred-year history of the fight for liberty that Englishmen had been through, our electorate would gradually lose an understanding of its critical role in  protecting our liberties on election day.

For no matter what the open borders advocates tell you – that this is for the children, or for the poor, or for the entrepreneurial, or for the families – the fact is, they support open borders in order to get more Democrat voters. If immigrants voted Republican, Democrat politicians and talking heads would be building the wall themselves, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

As our Founders knew, a government does not exist to provide favors or charity to the starving masses of foreign lands. A government exists to protect the liberties of its own citizens.

And anything that contributes to weakening those liberties is not only a crime against our citizens today, it is treason against the millions of courageous patriots who risked everything – their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor – to win us the opportunity to enjoy this nation, this City on a Hill, as Americans today.

Copyright 2018 John F. Di Leo

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international trade compliance trainer, writer, and actor. A descendent of late 19th century and early 20th century Irish, Austrian, German and Italian immigrants, he is honored to enjoy the legacy of the Founding Fathers who were here long before.

Permission is hereby granted to forward freely, provided it is uncut and the IR URL and byline are included.


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  1. This is a really good article, and one that deserves print-out and keeping.
    Examples of people moving away from “repression,” yet bringing it with them and transplanting it to their new homes, are;
    Californians who move to Colorado and contaminate that state with their own crackpot ideas;
    Chicagoans who move to the suburbs to flee Crook County taxes, but demand all the expensive services they left behind, thus raising the tax costs they fled Chicago from, now to be levied on their new neighbors. Then these newcomers flee again, sticking their neighbors with continual tax bills for these unneeded or unwanted “services.”
    Example of the latter; “We want sidewalks by our new homes in this subdivision, like we had in Chicago!”
    When sidewalks are provided, it is soon noted that NO ONE ever uses them, because there is no place to walk to (all mobility is by AUTOMOBILE.)

  2. Excellent article, John. People forget that all immigration was stopped in this nation in the 19th century until the flood of earlier immigrants could learn to become Americans. Also, those who used to come to this nation wanted to become Americans. Now days this isn’t the case, and many of the illegal aliens actually believe that this nations owes them their keep to function as their nanny government.