The US really is a Nation of Immigrants – and Peter Brimelow is wrong

Some time back, I got into a discussion with some commenters on Open Borders. The starting point was a claim by Peter Brimelow who is the editor of the restrictionist website VDARE. In an address to the Philadelphia Society, delivered in 2006, he stated it this way:

„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.“

This is part of an argument that it is misleading to call the US a “nation of immigrants.”

I was baffled by the claim, and my first reaction was to point out that American population would have grown by a factor of 40 since 1790, while the population of Germany grew only by a factor of less than 4, and world population by a factor of 7. A commenter then supplied an argument that very high fertility in the early US was behind it. This seemed to be an explanation, and so I retracted my criticism, but was still amazed how that could be.

Turns out I gave in too fast because:

The US really is a nation of immigrants, and overwhelmingly so.

I will go into more detail in another post because there are further aspects that are interesting (hint: it’s the momentum effect again). Here I will confine myself to a simple argument that shows why something has to be wrong with Peter Brimelow’s claim. I will also derive a more realistic estimate for the counterfactual.

Let’s first look at where the US population in 1790 had come from: Of the slightly more than 3.9 million inhabitants, about 760,000 were African Americans, mostly slaves. Native Americans were not counted at the time. The rest were of European descent, some 3.2 million people. More than 2.5 million of those of European descent or 78.6% traced their ancestry to Britain (59.7% English, 10.1% Scots-Irish, 5.0% Scottish, and 3.8% Welsh).

The reference year for Peter Brimelow’s claim is 1990, and he asserts that about half of the American population would have been there at that time without any immigration after 1790: 122 million in the counterfactual versus an actual population of 249 million (cf. “Alien Nation – Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster”, page 48).

There were 30 million African Americans in 1990. It is certainly an overestimate that all of them would have been there without any immigration after 1790 where this would have to include also forced “immigration.” That’s so because about half of all new slaves were brought to the US after the founding of the Republic.

Let’s be generous and concede 20 million African Americans in the counterfactual. There were also almost 9 million Native Americans who would have been there in 1990. So the number of all those of European descent in the counterfactual works out as 122-20-9 = 93 million people in 1990.

It is reasonable to assume that 78.6% of those 93 million would have been of British descent in the counterfactual, or about 73 million people. Otherwise you would have to explain why other groups (mostly Germans, Dutch, French, and Irish) had vastly diverging fertility over 200 years. I don’t see how you can make that case.

Now, since the counterfactual is just a part of what really happened with immigration, there should have been also at least 73 million actual people of British descent in 1990, or about 29% of the population. Of course, those would only be the same people as in the counterfactual if there had been complete segregation of later immigrants, which was not the case.

What counts here are surnames which anchor a claim to ancestry. Since half of someone’s descendents (usually sons) keep the surname, and half of them (usually daughters) lose it, the shares do not change a lot across generations. That is barring strongly differential fertility or systematic name changes that I find implausible. So the shares for ancestries should be roughly stable.

But then 29% has to be an underestimate because there were another 3.5 million immigrants from the UK between 1820 and 1930 alone. You can get a rough idea from German immigration for the effect of that later immigration in 1990.

There were only 280,000 Americans of German descent in 1790. They should have grown to about 7 million people in 1990 with the same rate as for those of British decent. But there were another 5 million German immigrants between 1850 and 1930. In 1990, there were 58 million Americans of German descent. So the 5 million later German immigrants should have grown to about 51 million people.

Hence it seems reasonable that the 3.5 million later British immigrants from 1820 to 1930 should have grown to some 35 million people. But that means that the share of those of British descent in 1990 would have been about 43% of the total population (108 million out of 249 million).

However, there were only 18.8% in 1990 who claimed to be of British descent or much less than half of what it should have been if Peter Brimelow were right.

There is one objection, though. There were also 6.2% who declared “American”, “US”, “European”, or “white” ancestry in the 1990 census. Probably some of them should be counted as of British descent, too. But even if you include all of them, you only get to 25%, or somewhat more than half of what is required. So the numbers simply don’t add up for Peter Brimelow’s claim, and that is so by a wide margin.

Now let’s derive a more realistic estimate (which has its limitations, but should be much closer to the truth):

If you take the high estimate of 25% for those of British descent (including all those who checked “American” ancestry, “US” ancestry, and so forth), there were about 62 million people in 1990 that belonged to that group. Subtracting the 35 million resulting from immigration after 1790, yields 27 million people, or only somewhat more than a third of the 73 million in the counterfactual.

But that can only mean that also the number of those of European descent in the counterfactual has to be much lower, not 93 million, but only 34 million people. Add in the 20 million African Americans (probably an overestimate) and the 9 million Native Americans, and you arrive at an estimate for the American population in the counterfactual of 34+20+9 = 63 million people.

Hey, that’s not bad, that’s almost the population of France! It is well below that for Germany, though, and only half the Japanese population. But relax, the US would still be more populous than Canada, admittedly not by a lot.

And a population of 63 million people would have been only 25%, and not almost 50% of actual population in 1990. Or in other words: Roughly 75% of the American population were there because of immigration after 1790!

But there is also a silver lining for Peter Brimelow here: The US was taken over by immigrants long ago, and it worked out so well that he is now defending the result as the status quo. Just imagine: No one would have noticed this massive swamping if I hadn’t written my post. And it is a fine example of how a nation of immigrants could become a great country. Make America great again!

Bureaucracy and Domination: An Indirect Argument for Open Borders

People support open borders from very different – and possibly conflicting – philosophical and ideological perspectives. Anarchists such as David Graeber and libertarians such as Bryan Caplan tend not to cite each other. Readers of economist Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come or Michael Clemens’ “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?”  usually do not read geographer Reece Jones’ Violent Borders or activist Natasha King’s No Borders. There are even schisms within disciplines so that liberal philosophers such as Joseph Carens operating in very different idioms from philosophers inspired by continent figures such as Thomas Nail.

The lack of dialogue among open border camps is unfortunate as it isolates potential allies behind disciplinary silos and impoverishes debate. Moreover, there are strong reasons to support open borders – or at least much more open borders – even if we are not convinced by philosophical arguments about freedom of movement or equality. Even a superficial glance at the violence used to enforce border controls should give conscientious people pause.

Border walls and barriers have proliferated in recent years around the world, often with lethal consequences. Border controls have forced migrants to hire smugglers to take increasingly risky journeys to flee violence or seek opportunities. In 2016, nearly 5000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean and hundreds perish each year attempting to cross the US border.

The Obama administration deported over 2.4 million people and, as Stephanie Silverman has recently noted, immigrant detentions in the United States have grown from 70,000 people in 1996 to around 400,000 people today with a 34,000 “bed mandate” for detainees – which include asylum seekers and children.

My article “Immigration Enforcement and Domination: An Indirect Argument for Much More Open Borders” calls attention to one particular problem with immigration enforcement: bureaucratic domination. Immigration bureaucrats have enormous power to reject applications to immigrate (often giving no explanation at all for their decisions), denying opportunities and separating families. They can deport and detain, often at their discretion with little accountability to migrants or to anyone else.

“Immigration Enforcement and Domination” brings together ideas from political philosophy and from critical border studies.  From political philosophy, I draw attention to the problem of bureaucratic domination and analyze it using neo-Republican theories of freedom developed by philosophers such as Philip Pettit and Frank Lovett (and applied to immigration by scholars such as Iseult Honohan, Sara Fine, and Meghan Benton). Neo-republicans understand domination in terms of arbitrary interference and argue that interference with people’s lives can only be justified if those affected have a genuine opportunity to shape and contest decisions and policies. Typical mechanisms to shape and contest decision include participation in democratic politics through voting, lobbying, and public demonstration and using the legal system.

Bureaucratic domination is a problem for everyone living in complex societies and it can never be entirely overcome. One reason for this is that bureaucrats require considerable discretion to do their jobs and this is often beneficial to the people they serve then they are professional, well-trained, and committed to fulfilling legitimate public goals. Nonetheless, domination can often be mitigated by civil society, legal recourse, and democratic politics to ensure that bureaucracies are accountable to the people they serve.

The more power bureaucracies have over people’s lives, the more important these mechanisms to contest and shape policies become. Bureaucrats enforcing immigration policy have extraordinary power: they can send refugees back to torture or to death. They can separate young children and parents for months or years. They can indefinitely incarcerate people who have committed no crime. To avoid bureaucratic domination, it would be necessary to have strong means for migrants to contest decisions.

Unfortunately, migrants do not have resources that would allow them to adequately protect themselves from bureaucratic domination. In most jurisdictions, immigrants do not have political rights such as the right to vote, allowing most politicians to ignore their plight. Furthermore, they are vulnerable to deportation if they do not have legal status or to non-renewal of their visas. Immigrant populations are often racialized and suffer discrimination, exacerbating their vulnerability.

Moreover, the very nature of immigration enforcement makes it highly unlikely that these avenues could be created. Critical migration scholars such as Ruben Andersson, Josiah Heyman, Sandro Mezzadra, William Walters, and many others have examined how immigration policy is implemented. In popular imagination, borders are thought of as natural lines demarcating pre-existing national territories. In reality, they are not simply barriers preventing entry, but rather shape migration flows (often violent results) and create classes of people with different juridical and social statuses (“illegal immigrants”, temporary workers, family-class migrants, refugees, etc.). Borders are the result of political decisions and actively shape reality.

Critical migration studies draws attention to three aspects of border controls: dispersion, externalization, and privatization. First, immigration enforcement is dispersed, i.e., carried out by multiple actors around the world including airline carriers, private security companies, employers, schools, universities, and NGOs – along with national and foreign governments.

Second, enforcement is externalized, taking place outside of states national territories. In one of the most notorious examples, Australia has sought to deter asylum seekers through mandatory detention in offshore facilities which have been repeated condemned for human rights violations. Europe cooperates with third countries such as Libya to stem migration despite well-documented violence including torture and sexual abuse.

Third, much enforcement is carried out by private organizations such as for-profit prisons. One mechanism for preventing people from claiming asylum is the practice of fining airlines through carrier sanctions  if they allow people without visas to board their flights, forcing asylum-seekers to resort to smugglers.

Together, dispersion, externalization, and privatization make it impossible to overcome bureaucratic domination for immigration enforcement. Not only are the many agents engaged in preventing immigration unaccountable to any democratic republic, but it is often impossible to determine who they are. Despite daily reports around the world of appalling abuse against migrants, abusers are almost never held responsible or sanctioned. Indeed, the dispersion, externalization, and privatization of immigration controls is a strategy allowing governments to abjure responsibility for the brutality of their practices – in many case, they are adopted in order to flout their own laws and to avoid democratic oversight.

The result is that even if there are philosophical reasons for why states are not obligated to open their borders, the nature of enforcement makes most border controls morally repugnant. The only way to avoid the injustice of bureaucratic domination – and a great deal of human suffering – is much more open borders.

Enoch Powell’s Secret Formula

In 2009, the American journalist Christopher Caldwell published his book “Reflections on the Revolution In Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.” The title is, of course, an allusion to Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, a founding text of modern Conservatism and a classical critique of the French Revolution that first appeared in 1790.

Caldwell’s book is well-written and might seem persuasive to a casual reader.  But as I will show in this and further posts, once you start to look into them more closely, many central claims fall apart. The main technique that Caldwell employs is framing the story early on. If you buy into his grand vista of what is going on in Europe, you hardly need arguments, just illustrations that reinforce what you already think you know.

The framing technique starts right in the very first chapter which is entitled “Rivers of Blood.” Readers from the UK will immediately understand the reference. On April 20, 1968, the Conservative politician Enoch Powell delivered a speech which became known as his “Rivers of Blood” speech. I am German, and I have to admit that I had never heard of it until I read Caldwell’s book. But then I would have recognized April 20 as Hitler’s birthday, you have to give me that.

Enoch Powell describes a dark future for the United Kingdom, with burning ghettos, whole cities taken over by nonwhite immigrants, or as Powell put it:

“It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”

Towards the end, Powell quotes the Roman poet Virgil to express his pessimistic outlook, and this quote has given the speech its colloquial name:

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”

Christopher Caldwell, of course, taps into this sentiment. But then this was just a prediction in 1968 that at first glance turned out to be totally wrong. Maybe I missed something, but I am not aware of burning ghettos, cities being taken over, or the Thames foaming with blood, much of it. So why would Caldwell want to start off with something like this?

Well, as I said, this is about framing. Once you have absorbed Powell’s gloomy view, you don’t need an argument that the UK really is in a state of civil war, or that there are burning ghettos and massacres. All you need are a few tidbits that show you that something was not perfect over the past 40 years. But still, why should you buy into such a deluded vision?

The main argument is that Powell made one prediction that turned out to be very accurate, and that has baffled a lot of people ever since. So if he could make one astonishing forecast that was right on, he probably had some deep insight into the situation. Maybe “Rivers of Blood” and all the rest have not yet materialized, but then Powell might have been just a little off, and it is still in store, perhaps in a few years or so.

Now my point is that Enoch Powell did not have any deep insight into anything to make his famed prediction. Here is the relevant part in Christopher Caldwell’s words:

 “Although at the time Powell’s demographic projections were much snickered at, they have turned out not just roughly accurate but as close to perfectly accurate as it is possible for any such projections to be: In his Rotary Club speech, Powell shocked his audience by stating that the nonwhite population of Britain, barely over a million at the time, would rise to 4.5 million by 2002. (According to the national census, the actual “ethnic minority” population of Britain in 2001 was 4,635,296.)”

At first glance, this is impressive and comes out of nowhere. But Enoch Powell was no clairvoyant. He, or whoever he relied on for his prediction, simply did his homework. Maybe this was somewhat harder to do in 1968 when computations still mostly meant paper and pencil. But then I will explain how I could obtain exactly the same forecast in Excel, which goes to show that there is no rocket science behind it.

What are the assumptions that Enoch Powell starts from?

Christopher Caldwell writes that there were “barely over a million” nonwhites in Britain at the time. In the respective footnote, he gives the exact number as 1.25 million. As is also clear from another quote from Enoch Powell, he assumed net immigration of nonwhites at a level of 50,000 a year. I have no idea where the non-metric horizon of 34 years from 1968 to 2002 comes from. But anyway, how many nonwhites would you expect in 2002 with those assumptions?

If you tried a naïve forecast, you would arrive at 1.25 million + 34 * 50,000 = 2.95 million, which is, of course, too low. And maybe that was also Christopher Caldwell’s and many other people’s first guess. So against this benchmark, Powell’s forecast was remarkably good. It looks like magic. Enoch Powell must have known something that is not obvious, a deep insight that let him come up with such an accurate figure.

However, you don’t have to have any special insight. The reason is that the naïve analysis is false for a reason. If you have read my previous posts (cf. “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations” and “Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible”), you might guess what it is: It’s the momentum effect, stupid.

The momentum effect means that if you have 1,000 immigrants, they are usually young people who will start families soon. So after only a few years, there will be 1,000 children or a doubling of the population even if you assume only replacement fertility. After some time there will be another 1,000 grandchildren. But since some of the initial immigrants will have died by then, the population comes out somewhere below 3,000, or with the assumptions in my other posts: at about 2,760. And after that, it levels off. So a population of 1,000 immigrants grows to about 2,760 descendants (and to stress it: this is assuming replacement fertility!).

Now, this growth from 1,000 initial immigrants to 2,760 descendants is the case for one-time immigration in a single year. However, Enoch Powell assumed immigration of a fixed number each year. I have done the calculations for this in my post “Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible” (assuming stylized mortality and birth patterns, immigration at age 25). The result is that with 1,000 adult immigrants each year, the whole population including descendants will grow to about 65,000 people after 34 years. There are 34,000 (= 34 * 1,000) immigrants, and the momentum effect almost doubles this number.

And now I take my magic wand, and make my forecast: Since there were 1.25 million nonwhites already in 1968, and assuming 50,000 immigrants a year, my prediction for 2002 is: 1.25 million + 50,000 * 65 = 4.5 million. That’s exactly what Enoch Powell had, and my prediction would have been just as accurate as his.

But then I could have delivered my own “Rivers of Champagne” speech in 1968. Only I would have combined my forecast with the prediction of a peaceful, prosperous, and vibrant country that’s powering ahead. And if the argument is correct that someone who can get the figure for 2002 right must have very deep insight into what’s going on, you would have to believe my other predictions just as much as those Enoch Powell made. That can’t be right, so the claim is false for both of us.

What’s interesting: there are some inaccuracies in the above calculation. The actual figure should be higher at least  for the following reasons:

  • There has to be a momentum effect also for the initial 1.25 million nonwhites because most of them immigrated in the 1960s.
  • Probably fertility was above replacement as it also was for the native population at the time. This might have gone on for some time afterwards.
  • Actual immigration from the relevant countries was somewhat higher than the 50,000 in the calculation.

 Or it could also be lower:

  • There was perhaps also emigration: some went back home and others moved on to other countries.
  • Over two or three generations, there must have been some mixing with the general population. So maybe some people could not find the racial checkbox for “Caribbean-Irish-Pakistani-Welsh” or “Nigerian-Scottish-Indian-French” on the census form and just lied about it and claimed they were “British.”

The interesting thing is that those other effects mostly cancelled out, and so the forecast was pretty accurate. As I claimed in my post “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations”, the momentum effect is almost all it takes to explain such developments, and common explanations (chain immigration, brides from back home, extreme fertility, diaspora dynamics, etc.) are at best second-order effects, or often simply besides the point.

There is only one thing that truly baffles me, namely how close I come: the exact figure I got was 4499,9757 which is off by only 243!

Bonus track

Enoch Powell’s speech made history also in another way. The Beatles recorded “Commonwealth” on January 9, 1969, which poked fun on Powell. The song morphed into “Get Back” over the following sessions which originally had some rather different lyrics.

Help American Manufacturing With Open Borders

A major theme of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was decrying the loss of American manufacturing jobs to other countries and pledging to bring them back. He plans to accomplish this by changing U.S. trade policy. Ironically, open borders, which is anathema to Trump, could be the best way to increase manufacturing in the U.S.

Few Americans work in manufacturing today, mostly because automation obviates the need for large numbers of workers. (See here and here.) However, according to the Economic Policy Institute, manufacturing is a vital component of the American economy: “Manufacturing provides a significant source of demand for goods and services in other sectors of the economy… The manufacturing sector supported approximately 17.1 million indirect jobs in the United States, in addition to the 12.0 million persons directly employed in manufacturing, for a total of 29.1 million jobs directly and indirectly supported, more than one-fifth (21.3 percent) of total U.S. employment in 2013.”

Some argue that the key to bring more manufacturing back to the U.S. is the availability of a skilled workforce in the U.S., given the high tech nature of manufacturing today. However, there apparently aren’t enough American workers with the necessary skills for manufacturers to relocate to the U.S. A Brookings Institution report stated that “employers in the manufacturing sector report difficulty filling available high-skilled positions. Even at the height of the Great Recession in 2010, companies reported 227,000 open jobs. Factory owners note that is difficult to bring manufacturing jobs back when they cannot find the talent they need to expand.”

One of the recommendations of the Brooking Institution report is to have skilled workers from other countries fill these positions.  An open borders policy would make it much easier for American manufacturers to find workers for their vacant positions. Manufacturers would literally have a world of workers from which to choose. By helping to fill manufacturing positions, open borders both would encourage manufacturers to return production to the U.S. and discourage them from moving current production abroad. As previously mentioned, the expansion of manufacturing in the U.S. would ripple throughout the economy, creating more jobs for both citizens and immigrants.

In addition to manufacturing, the Brookings Institution report identifies other areas of the American economy which have a shortage of workers. (CNN also notes that there are millions of unfilled jobs in the economy, indicating that often employers can’t find people with the right skills.) These sectors are agriculture, health care, and technology. Finding workers for vacancies in all of these areas would enable companies “to better compete, grow, and create more jobs for American workers.” Again, open borders would facilitate this dynamic.

Filling vacancies through the current restrictive immigration system is difficult. The Brookings Institution notes that the American immigration system “is not designed for today’s economy” and admits immigrants on employment visas at a rate much too low to meet America’s needs. Their report states that “regardless of whether the field requires low or high skill levels, industry officials say the process doesn’t work well and is overly bureaucratic.” For example, “surveys have found that three-quarters of foreign graduates of American universities with degrees in
science, technology, engineering, and math would like to stay in the United States but have few opportunities to do so. They have the skills required to fill the job vacancies noted above, but can’t get timely visas. The result is that many of them return to their native countries, where they innovate, build businesses, and create
jobs that otherwise might have taken place in the United States.”

For those concerned that open borders would harm American workers, the Brookings report argues that immigrants should be seen as complementing rather than competing with American workers. However, there isn’t agreement on this point among economists. Pia Orrenius of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank states that while many citizens benefit from immigration, including complementary workers, some workers do compete with immigrants and experience falling wages, at least initially. These negative effects mostly impact low-skilled workers. However, other economists contend that immigration has little or no effect on workers without high school degrees. And should some workers be negatively impacted by immigration under open borders, they could be compensated by the government, such as through taxes on immigrants.

The Brookings report on worker shortages states that “a smart immigration system can help prevent (worker shortages) by filling needs so companies can expand operations in the U.S. and don’t have to move them overseas.” Such a system also would encourage some manufacturing in other countries to return to the U.S. Open borders would be a smart way to address U.S. worker shortages, which would strengthen manufacturing and the overall economy while benefitting immigrants themselves.

The Right to Asylum in the 19th Century


If you have open borders, does that mean that a right to asylum is superfluous? It would seem that way because for the most part the right to asylum now signifies that someone has the right to stay in a country, and under open borders practically everyone has such a right anyway. Perhaps someone would receive more support as an asylee than otherwise. But that seems secondary and would probably follow from general humanitarian considerations alone, not from some right to asylum.

Most countries in the 19th century had open borders or something that at least came close. And many countries also had some right to asylum. But the meaning of the latter was much narrower and quite different from how the term is understood today: An asylee could not be extradited. First, some other country had to demand extradition. And only then did it become important whether someone had to be considered an asylee or not.

Extradition was possible for common criminals according to a system of bilateral treaties that regulated when someone had to be delivered up. Usually, there were some restrictions, e.g. a country would not extradite someone if the „crime“ was not a crime according to its own legal system or the expected penalty appeared excessive. But in general, there was the perception that it was in the common interest of all countries to cooperate when it came to fighting crime. Basically, this has not changed since then.

However, the exception were crimes that were „political“. Again, the word had a much more definite meaning than today. In current parlance, the adjective „political“ goes with „politics,“ a rather vague concept. But in the older usage, something was called „political“ if it referred to the „polity,“ or in other words that part of society organized on coercive terms: the state. Hence In the 19th century (and in a strict sense also today), „political crimes“ denoted acts that were directed against the state and the political order. Examples would be treason, high treason, an attempt to usurp the throne, participating in a coup d’etat, revolution, or an insurrection, and also acts of terrorism, such as assassinating or attempting to assassinate a head of state.

Here are a few examples for what was considered a political crime and made someone eligible for asylum. I take them from Franz von Holtzendorff’s book, published in 1881 (I have republished an annotated edition): „Die Auslieferung der Verbrecher und das Asylrecht“ (The Extradition of Criminals and the Right to Asylum):

  • Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-1873), later the French Emperor Napoleon III, grew up in Switzerland where he served in the army and became a citizen of the Canton of Thurgau. In 1836, he attempted a coup d‘etat in France which failed. He was imprisoned, but released on the condition that he went into exile in the US. He did that and moved to New York. But the following year, Louis-Napoléon returned to Switzerland when his mother was on her deathbed. France demanded his extradition, but the Swiss refused to comply. To put pressure on Switzerland, the French army mobilized, and a war was only averted when Louis-Napoléon went into exile in London.
  • The Hungarian Revolution was surpressed by Austrian, Croatian, and Russian troops in mid-1849. The last insurrectionists under Józef Zachariasz Bem (1794-1850) fled to Turkey, where Bem, his officers and generals, as well as 6,000 Hungarian and Polish soldiers converted to Islam. Austria demanded their extradition. But the Sultan refused, backed by British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. As Franz von Holtzendorff notes: „Also today it should not be forgotten that it was a Muslim government that protected persecuted Christians from the wrath of a Christian government.“ Giving in to further pressure, the Sultan transferred Bem, now a commander in the Ottoman army, to far-away Aleppo where he suppressed a pogrom against the Christian population in 1850.
  • In 1854, Jules Jacquin, a French manufacturer and one of his workers, Célestin Jacquin, who both lived in Belgium, tried to blow up the train of Emperor Napoleon III with an „infernal machine,“ a load of dynamite triggered when the train moved over it. France demanded the extradition of the two assassins, but Belgium eventually declined. However, France pressured Belgium into changing its legislation in 1856, so that assassination of a foreign head of state was reclassified as a common crime and hence the perpetrator could be extradited. But this change was not applied retroactively to the Jacquins.
  • In 1879, Leo Hartmann (1850-1913), associated with the „Narodnaya Volya“ (People’s Will), tried to blow up the train of Tsar Alexander II near Moscow. He fled to France which refused to extradite him to Russia. Hartmann was later expelled from France and went to the US, but eventually returned to France where he died in 1913 (Russian Wikipedia claims he died in New York in 1908).
  • The backdrop to Franz von Holtzendorff’s book was the tense situation in 1881. After two assassination attempts on the German Emperor Wilhelm I in 1878, Bismarck had pushed his Socialist Law through which outlawed the Social Democratic Party and its organizations although the Social Democrats were not responsible for the attacks. The party moved their headquarters and press to Switzerland. When in early 1881 members of the „Narodnaya Volya“ finally succeeded in assassinating Tsar Alexander II, his son and successor Alexander III called on other countries to join Russia in its fight against terrorism. Interested in improving relations with an ally, Bismarck supported this move, and started to threaten Switzerland wíth an invasion if the Swiss did not extradite the German Social Democrats. But the Swiss did not cave in. On a rally in Zurich in support of the right to asylum, one militia captain named Bürgi even suggested that Switzerland become the 40th state of the United States of America. Only after a decade of further pressure, Switzerland eventually made concessions, but still did not extradite the German Social Democrats who just had to move on to Great Britain. The above caricature is from 1881 and appeared in the German satirical weekly „Berliner Wespen“ (Berlin Wasps): „Rothkäppchen“ (Little Red Riding Hood, „Schweiz“ (Switzerland) written on her skirt) carries a basket „Asylrecht“ (Right to Asylum). She taunts the wolves with: „Bangemachen gilt nicht!“ (Scaremongering doesn’t count!).

Why were political crimes considered as in a different class so that extradition was ruled out? The main explanation that Franz von Holtzendorff gives goes something like this: Common crimes are crimes against common standards. Murder is always wrong. Different countries may have different definitions and different sentences for common crimes, but there is a major overlap. And so in most cases, a murderer in one country is also a murderer in another country. That’s why countries can work together and should do so.

Political crimes, though, are different because they refer to a specific political order. And political orders can and do change. E.g. whether someone has committed a political crime during a revolution depends on which side wins. As the saying goes: „One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist.“ And since there is no common standard, there is also no common ground for different states to work together as in the case of common crimes. There is rather a common interest in not cooperating. You could be on the losing side the next time, and then it would be good if other countries granted you asylum. And that’s why political crimes should be treated differently, and extradition should not be an option.

There were vast differences between countries in the 19th century. The various states of the German Confederation (1815-1866)—with some exceptions like Hamburg or Frankfurt—often extradited those wanted in another state for political crimes because they had a common interest in suppressing the liberal opposition. As far as I can tell, also later Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia did not practice a right to asylum.

In most countries, there was no explicit right to asylum. The decision was discretionary and made by the administration without recourse to the courts. The one exception was Belgium which codified a right to asylum already in 1833, and where the courts made the decision and not the administration. In other countries, as far as I understand it e.g. in France, granting asylum was for some time not so much a matter of principle, but more or less opportunistic depending on general considerations. In other countries, like Switzerland, the UK, and the US, asylum was a strong customary institution.

As the above examples show, the right to asylum in the 19th century had some rather astonishing consequences:

  • Asylum cases were few, but very high-profile. Sometimes they could have extensive repercussions, especially for smaller countries like Switzerland or Belgium, and even create a situation where a war became likely.
  • The right to asylum was only important if some other country demanded an extradition for political crimes, which probably is just as rare an event today as it was in the 19th century.
  • Most reasons for granting asylum nowadays did not fall under a right to asylum at all. Religious or ethnic persecution, e.g. a series of pogroms in Southern Russia (now mostly in Ukraine) after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, meant that many Jews tried to emigrate. They could immigrate freely to countries like the UK or the US, and this had nothing to do with a right to asylum.
  • Terrorists had a right to asylum, at least as long as their deeds could be interpreted as trying to affect a change of the political system. Killing a head of state would qualify, killing people on the street would not. Terrorism in the 19th century was mostly of the first type although there were some exceptions. E.g. Irish terrorists, mostly operating out of Brooklyn, at one point tried to sabotage the transatlantic traffic between the UK and the US with „infernal machines“ (bombs with a timer). And during the Fenian Dynamite Campaign, subway and train stations in London were bombed in 1883 and 1884. The „Narodnaya Volya“ (1879-1884) had a narrow focus on high ranking officials and the Tsar, but later terrorists in Russia (Socialists-Revolutionaries, Anarchists, and Social Democrats, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) were less discriminating.
  • Former heads of states, even if they might have been responsible for common crimes could not be extradited with a right to asylum. If an extradition was for a common crime, but there was a suspicion that this was a pretext to get hold of someone for a political crime, as a general rule, there could be no extradition. The most famous example was perhaps the German Emperor Wilhelm II who fled to the Netherlands at the end of WWI. The Allies demanded his extradition, but the Netherlands refused to comply.
  • The right to asylum was not about being allowed into the country or being allowed to stay. That followed from other principles that were unrelated. Actually, it was possible that someone could obtain asylum and also be told to leave if he posed a risk (e.g. because the country wanted to avoid a war with a strong neighbor). An asylee was only safe from extradition to a country that wanted him for political crimes (or common crimes as a pretext).
  • The right to asylum did not entail any support from the receiving country other than perhaps what anybody would have gotten. Since most of the asylees were well-heeled or had some organization behind them, there was probably no support at all for them. So what is now viewed as a central part of asylum was absent, namely humanitarian assistence. This would have been an entirely different issue in the 19th century, not part of a right to asylum.
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