Saturday, January 28, 2017

When Thomas Jefferson Was Anti-immigrant

Last summer I wrote as post titled, "This Blog is Pro-Immigration*". The * denoted four caveats or further considerations including law and order, the complications introduced by state provided "welfare", problems created by hostile governments or parties and the threat of dangerous or hostile ideologies such as Islam.

So, for example, based on some of those considerations, I support Trump's policy on "the wall." I also support the recent freeze on refugees and travel from some Muslim countries.

I don't think it's unreasonable to disagree, either with my "liberal" general position, or my more "conservative" particular position on Trump's actions.

But I do think it's unreasonable to assert that Trump's actions are "un-American." This is usually simply asserted as a conversation stopper, though it's sometimes coupled with another conversation stopper - "we are a nation of Immigrants."

Now there's plenty of historical precedent for Trump's actions. For that matter, there's also historical precedent for pretty much any action anyone could conceivably take regarding immigration, pro or con. Immigration policy has constantly been a subject of debate throughout American history and virtually every philosophical or political permutation has been advocated or tried.

Perhaps realizing this, some pro-immigrant advocates go back to the Founding Fathers. They were resoundingly pro-immigrant (it is claimed). Among other things, they were all immigrants or quasi-immigrants themselves. If there have been anti-immigration arguments, movements or policies in American history, they have been deviations from the clear beliefs and intentions of the Founding Fathers.

This is manifestly false.

Curiously, one of the most famous (or it should be the most famous) "anti-immigration" arguments was given by Thomas Jefferson in Chapter VIII of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Here Jefferson makes two sorts of claims. One is the quasi-mathematical claim (complete with tables) that the unrestricted growth of the country's population (abetted by immigration) would not be economically supportable. The second is the claim that importing people with differing ideological beliefs or habits - e.g. "Monarchists" - would not be conducive to civic order or liberty. Here he contrasts "internal" growth of population (which would take, according to his calculations, "27 years and three months" longer to achieve a stipulated population benchmark) with internal growth plus immigration. 
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 natural 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. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us 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 27 years and three months longer, for the attainment of any degree of population desired, or expected? May not our government be more homogeneous, more peaceable, more durable?
Now, do not misunderstand. I actually don't completely agree with Jefferson's first claim. Nor am I a big fan, in general, of Jefferson the man (though, like virtually all Americans I am a fan of at least a few of his ideas). But here's one of the most prominent Founding Fathers making an essentially anti-immigration argument in one of the primary philosophical-political works of the Founding Era. If it doesn't count as an important "American" influence or idea, nothing does. 

And, as it happens, I do think his second argument is sound, although it obviously requires careful interpretation in particular cases. These days we don't fear Monarchists. But we do fear Muslims. And I, like many if not most Americans, think that fear is well-grounded - for even stronger reasons than Jefferson gives concerning the (then Monarchist) French. So, for example, I'd much rather live under a French King than a Muslim Caliph. For what it's worth, I'm confident that Jefferson would have agreed, especially against the background of Jefferson's own later dealings with Islam in the Barbary Wars.

Next: Alexander Hamilton on Immigration as a Trojan Horse.

(He's the hip Hispanic guy in that musical.)

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