Asheville Daily Planet, July 2020
Our Founding Fathers had names like Adams, Franklin, Washington, Madison, – English one and all. The First Congress in 1789 had two Smiths, two Lees, two Carolls.
They were aware they had started something the world wanted – a place where they could be free to worship and to start over, whatever that meant. And the world was welcome. Their basic values were clear: They wanted immigration.
In that First Congress, the one with multiple Lees and Carrolls, the Speaker of the House of Representative, our first Speaker, was a second-generation German-American named Frederick Muhlenberg.
The Founders didn’t worry about immigration. The United States had open borders until 1875. They worried about citizenship and, specifically, the assimilation of immigrants.
Speaker Muhlenberg cast the deciding vote against translating U.S. laws into German, and he is said to have kept German from being an official national language.
He put into words this hugely important guiding principle: “The faster the Germans become Americans, the better.”
George Washington wrote: “By an intermixture with our people, [immigrants], or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, manners and laws: in a word, soon become one people.”
And that’s what happened. Immigrants and their descendants stopped being what they used to be and became Americans.
Citizenship was another matter. In the Naturalization Act of 1790, terms were very generous – to “free white persons of good character.” Our early leaders were at ease with the Germans and other Protestants who had come in large numbers from the beginning.
James Madison gave the Foundering Fathers’ vision: “I should be exceedingly sorry, sir, that our rule of naturalization excluded a single person of good fame that really meant to incorporate himself into our society.”
The future of America, they believed, included foreigners, people “of good fame,” who “would be a real addition to the wealth or strength of the United States.”
But their vision didn’t see beyond the immigrants who had already come, people like them – white and Protestant. When the flow turned Catholic, that was different. To many Americans, Madison – who was still alive – was out of date.
Things got uneasy when newcomers were German Catholics and Irish. These were not the immigrants our Founders had in mind for their country. Protestant Scots-Irish immigrants had been welcomed, not these desperate newcomers. Irish miners and railroad workers were considered disposable.
The American Party (Know-Nothings) gained support in the 1840s and 1850s with their anti-immigrant positions. Their slogan was “Americans must rule America.”
Abraham Lincoln spoke out in those days: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘All men are created equal.’ We now practically read it, ‘All men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, ‘All men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’”
While whites puzzled over the immigrant dilemma, the immigrants set about becoming American. Ethnic units were common in the Union army in the Civil War, with officers giving commands in native languages. And second-generation Irish entered the middle class.
America had to choose then – just as we have to choose today. Are we a melting pot, where strangers come seeking a better life and, as Washington put it, “soon become one people”? Or is America just for “us”?
A Pew Research Center survey a year ago found that “a majority of Americans (62%) continue to say the country’s openness to people from around the world is ‘essential to who we are as a nation.’”
The immigrant himself might be suspect, but there’s no denying that the children of immigrants make us stronger and wealthier. They speak flawless English and, in every way, really are American. Most of the doctors on TV speaking on Covid-19 are immigrant descendants. South Asians dominate spelling bees. Kavanaugh is Caomhánach in Irish Gaelic.
However, the Pew study I cited above continues with this: “But the share expressing this [favorable] view is 6 percentage points lower than it was in September  – a result of a shift in opinion among Republicans.”
Donald Trump, thank you very much.