An argument that has been made by our friends over at VDare is that the entire idea of America being a nation of immigrants is misguided, at least immigrants of the multi-racial variety. After all, the constitution enshrined slavery (certain heterodox methods of interpreting the document not-withstanding) and the Naturalization Act of 1790 only allowed for citizenship for “free white persons”. Occasionally this argument veers off into strange directions. For instance when Peter Brimelow attempts to minimize the importance of immigration to American history:
It’s also true the intellectual elite tends to think America was Built By Immigrants because they live in New York or Los Angeles or somewhere like that—which are heavily immigrant cities, entirely immigrant cities.
But the last estimate that I saw, when I was researching Alien Nation, was that if there had been no immigration at all after 1790—none at all—the population of the US would still be about half of what it is now, through natural increase.
Having only half the population we currently have doesn’t seem like a way to ensure prosperity and minimizing the importance of cities like New York or LA (which make up a disproportionately large part of the American economy, these two cities alone accounting for about $2 trillion out of a total American economy of $15 trillion, or about one seventh , while combined of the only about 4% of the population, ~12 million people in the cities out of 300 million Americans) is even worse in that regard. But the primary focus of this critique of immigration is of the non-white variety. So, did the founders want only whites in this country (beyond perhaps slaves), and if so should we care?
Now the first and most obvious point is that the Naturalization Act of 1790 was an act about citizenship not immigration. We here at open borders have talked at length about the importance of disentangling these two concepts. But a modern understanding of the difference doesn’t mean that the Founders intended for this to be different. Perhaps they simply assumed that a path to citizenship was a necessary prerequisite for permanent residency in the United States. That’s what VDare would apparently like to argue anyways.
However, the Naturalization Act of 1790 could not have possibly been meant as an immigration restriction. After all article 1 section 9 of the United States Constitution states:
The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
While this was primarily to prevent a blocking of the slave trade before 1808, the addition of “migration” as well as importation of “persons” seems to imply more than just slaves. Furthermore, the act which banned that trade did not attempt to ban voluntary non-white immigration. The text only bans importing “any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, in any ship or vessel, for the purpose of selling them in any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States as slaves, or to be held to service or labour.” If the founder’s intent was to deny non-whites entry or the right to migrate to the United States they seem to have left enormous loop holes.
Also while writers at VDare are quick to cite Federalist No. 2 to support the idea of the white American ethnic identity, whether John Jay is truly encapsulating the ideas of his fellow founders, or is even accurate in his description of the United States at the time, is questionable. The relevant quote from Jay being:
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs
With religion for instance, allow me to quote Thomas Jefferson in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom:
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
And over at the Huffington Post, David Bier present us with a number of quotes in favor of immigration generally and at least one quote from Thomas Paine directly in opposition to Jay’s view of the United States:
If there is a country in the world where concord… would be least expected, it is America…made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable.
And yet Paine still argues the country works as a propositional nation (the very thing VDare is attempting to deny). What this demonstrates is not the Founders were unambiguously denying that America had a particular ethnic origin, but that they were divided on the issue. Their ultimate actions however look a lot more similar to keyhole solutions we here at Open Borders: The Case might support than the close the border solutions of VDare. If the United States was meant by some of the Founders to be for whites only, it’s equally not clear that the men who warned against the dangers to liberty of standing armies would have supported militarizing a border against peaceful immigrants.
But this leads us to the question of whether in the modern world we should even care what the founders thought? The founders also failed to end the immense injustice of slavery or give women voting rights, things even conservative admirers of the founders should find to be major failings. Franklin’s own position on Germans in the United States would seem to be rather problematic now that Germans are the single largest ancestry for Americans to claim. Losing 17% of the US population that is almost entirely white probably would not be a preferred outcome for the VDare writers.
But ultimately the founder’s views can only be a proxy. They were certainly intelligent men and the opinions of intelligent people are generally worth at least considering. But in the modern world we have far more data and experience on how economics, politics, and just the way the world in general works. Thus both people asserting the founders supported immigration and those saying they opposed it are discussing a point of view that should carry very little if any weight in modern debates. The founders may have intended a propositional nation or may not have (or more likely some believed in one position and others in the other). But they no longer have to live with the consequences of such a choice and those who do should decide the issue.