Well, that was 229 years ago and that was George Washington. He was addressing the Jews of Newport Rhode Island, but, in a sense, he was addressing the world.
What an audacious statement. This was not simply the expressed opinion of one man, it was a founding principle of the new upstart nation. Yes, it would take another seventy-five years to rid the new nation of its original sin, slavery, and generations thereafter would be devoted to erasing the remaining vestiges of this stain on the American story. But it is worth remembering that America was cobbled together, and has grown (and prospered) from the very beginning through immigration. The founders all understood that. They even enshrined that reality in the crafting of the new nation’s de facto motto, E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.”
In the earliest days of the republic, America consisted mostly of families of English, German, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, French and Swedish descent and, most of all, of Africans, none of whom aspired to be here.
Immigration has always been a conundrum for America. While the founding generation understood the vital importance of immigration, anti-immigrant sentiment flourished even then. It is a historic irony that the three men who came up with E. Pluribus Unum as the logical motto for the United States, each harbored their own prejudices. Franklin was no fan of German arrivals. Neither was Jefferson, for that matter, and Hamilton supported John Adams 1798 Alien and Sedition Act which increased the US residency requirement for citizenship from five to fourteen years (it’s now back to five years).
Washington, in so many ways, set the course America would follow throughout its history. He could have been king or enjoyed any title of royalty, but he chose only to be Mister President. He also could have remained in office for the balance of his life, but he knew that limiting his tenure to two terms would establish a citizen presidency for the new republic. With the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, every President has adhered to the two-term limit until it was enshrined into law following the Roosevelt presidency.
So, it was not surprising when in November 1783 George Washington rode triumphantly into New York shortly after the British sailed out, and he and his fellow officers celebrated at Fraunces Tavern down at 54 Pearl Street at the corner of Broad. The tavern still stands there today in the shadow of the Goldman Sachs building. It is recorded that Washington made thirteen toasts that night. One of them was: “May America be an Asylum to the persecuted of the earth.”
And just a week later, when addressing the Volunteer Association of Ireland, Washington said, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respected Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges…”
Now, this is remarkable stuff. It speaks volumes about Washington. He knew immigration was a touchy subject. His most trusted compatriots, some of the most revered men in the pantheon of America’s greats, trod carefully around the subject of immigration. They knew immigration was vital to America’s growth, yet they were as wary of “the other” as all men have been for all of time. At no time in America’s history has it been smart for a politician to praise immigration or the immigrant. America being the proverbial “nation of immigrants” was good political rhetoric when politicians addressed various ethnic groups, but extolling the virtues of immigration has always been a dicey proposition in American politics.
No ethnic group has been spared from the excesses of anti-immigration activists. The Irish, the Germans, the Italians, the Jews, the Greeks the Chinese and the Japanese have all been targets of anti-immigration fervor.
There has always been a healthy dose of schizophrenia in American attitudes toward immigration. In 1776 Thomas Paine wrote in his appropriately renowned pamphlet, “Common Sense,” America hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe,” America, fourteen years later, passed the nation’s first immigration law known as the Naturalization Act of 1790. The new law allowed “any free white person of good character who has been living in the United States for two years or longer to apply for citizenship. This resulted in legal battles over what constituted “white.”
Up until the Civil War, the Irish—many of them Catholic—accounted for an estimated one-third of all immigrants to the United States. During this period an estimated five million German immigrants also made their way to this country. A reaction to this great wave of immigration was the formation of America’s first anti-immigration party, The American Party also known as the Know Nothing Party. The No Nothing sobriquet was not a reference to the intelligence of its members, but rather what the members were to say if questioned about the Party.
When Britain’s King George the Third heard that America’s President Washington (the first) planned to retire to his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, after “ruling” only eight years, he is reported to have said, “if he does that, he will be remembered as the greatest leader who ever lived.” We think old King George got that one right.