The Statue of Liberty Is Accustomed to Crying
Protesters and Democratic politicians said President Donald Trump rejected bedrock American values when on Jan. 27 he issued his controversial and now temporarily court-blocked executive order that attempted to close the door to the U.S. to travelers from seven majority Muslim countries and to at least temporarily stop the arrival of all refugees.
“Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight as a grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded, has been stomped upon,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Schumer should crack some history books.
The Statue of Liberty must have had a crying jag in 1882 when President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Lady Liberty must have bawled like a baby when President Calvin Coolidge signed the severely restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which tipped U.S. immigration policy pronouncedly to the side of northern and western Europeans to the detriment of everybody else.
Yes, the United States is a country of immigrants. But it is also true that the U.S. is, and has always been, a nation of anti-immigration fever, most often barely registering at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit but sometimes reaching the boil-the-brain level.
Our country’s multicultural ideal goes back to at least 1782 when J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur invented the idea of the melting pot. “Here,” he wrote of the new country, “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
But there had been anti-immigration, fever-causing microbes in the U.S. even before there was a United States.
“Why should the Palatine Boors (Germans) be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together to establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
That was written in 1753 by a person I’m sure you’re more familiar with than Crevecoeur, a gentleman named Benjamin Franklin.
I must pause to give credit to Holy Cross Professor Edward O’Donnell for my discovering such a centuries-long dichotomy in the way Americans view immigration. I must also give credit to – and highly recommend – C-SPAN3.
C-SPAN3 normally covers the dry, if important, daily workings of the U.S. Senate. But on weekends it turns its programming over to “American History TV”: hour after hour of shows about our nation’s past including lengthy interviews with historians and biographers, numerous programs about the Civil War, extensive oral histories, visits to cities exploring their rich past, etc. The show that introduced me to O’Donnell is called “Lectures in History,” a weekly feature that travels to colleges and universities across the country to record the classroom lectures of history professors. O’Donnell’s lecture was originally broadcast on Oct. 1, 2014, long before the rise of Trump. It was titled “19th Century Anti-Immigrant Movements,” and I found it fascinating. Luckily, C-SPAN has an online archive of thousands of its shows, so I was able to pull it up to refresh my memory before writing this column.
The good (truly excellent in classroom manner!) professor’s lecture came from a course called the “Irish American Experience,” but, as you have already seen, in part he discussed other immigration waves such as the German flood in the 18th century, the Italian, Jewish and Eastern European tidal wave in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and today’s seeming downpour of Latinos, Muslims, Africans, Caribbean Islanders and Asians. They all had one thing in common – earlier immigrants who had been accused, as Franklin said of the Germans, of not assimilating, of clustering together, of not wanting to learn English and driving down working men’s wages, turned around after becoming established in the New World to accuse their successors from other parts of the globe of the very same things.
“We pride ourselves,” O’Donnell told his class, “on being a nation of immigrants, we are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation that is always questioning that tradition. … Ellis Island is probably the great example of how much Americans love immigration. This may seem strange given the politics today, the headlines today, but Americans, millions of Americans – I would venture to say probably most Americans, today, in the 21st century – absolutely love immigration. As strange as that may sound, hold that thought.
“But we know, from headlines, from politics, from debates in Congress and so forth, that Americans also hate immigration, and the thing is we’ve always hated it, and we’ll get to the explaining how that’s possible, to love and hate something at the same time. And we’re not saying half of Americans love it and half of them hate it; it’s that millions of Americans at the same time love it and hate it, and there’s a good reason for that, and it’s been the same reason for a long, long time.
“Two kinds of immigration, this is one way to look at it. … Past immigration, immigration from a generation or two or three or four ago, always seems pleasing, it always seems to be a welcome thing, a positive thing, a contributing thing to the greater good of the United States. And what kind of immigration do you imagine Americans hate, even some of the same people, like when people push back against immigration, denounce immigration whether illegal or legal, what kind do they dislike?”
“New immigration?” one of the prof’s students ventured.
“Right … so it has to do with timing. What we’ve basically done as a society for generations, even centuries over time, we have compartmentalized our understanding of immigration. We tend to think of it in very, very positive terms in its museum setting, which is why millions of people go to the Statue of Liberty and to Ellis Island and do their genealogy. Millions of Americans will proudly tell you about when their grandfather came over from Greece or from Ireland or wherever and how he became part of the great American dream. But when it is happening around us, whether it’s us in 2014, us in 1944 or us in 1894 or 1844, it seems alarming; it seems alien and quite dangerous.”
The case of Irish immigration in the mid-19th century was especially alarming because of its size and because of the added element of religion. The “Know Nothings,” officially the American Party, accused the Irish and especially their priests and bishops of attempting to subjugate the American government to the whims of the pope. Sound familiar? Today’s nativists warn that Muslims want to force Sharia law upon all of us.
In the 1840s and the early 1850s, the Whig Party disintegrated thanks to inter-party divisions over the issue of slavery. It seemed for a time that the American Party, with its strong anti-immigration platform, would take its place as a stalwart in our two-party system. In the elections of 1854 and 1855, the American Party won control of the state governments of Massachusetts, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Kentucky. It also ran very strongly in New York and California and saw 75 congressmen elected. It was only when the Republican Party coalesced that the American Party disappeared from view.
Is “Trumpism,” with its “Make America Great Again” slogan and its anti-immigration stance, the new American Party? It could very well be. Remember that pundits, when they thought last autumn that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election, were forecasting the demise of the GOP; now many are wondering if the Democratic Party is dying. It is entirely possible to imagine a realignment of centrist Democrats and Republicans – the “establishment,” NATO-loving, free trade and cheap labor National Chamber of Commerce types – getting together to form a new party, leaving Trumpists and radical leftists to fight it out on the fringes. Or, perhaps, given that Arthur and Coolidge were both Republicans, the GOP is the natural home of nativists.
But I am not here, nor am I wise enough, to predict the future. I can, though, definitively say that the hatred of immigrants fills as much of the American experience as the love of immigrants.
Sorry, Chuck, but if you don’t have time to read, at least turn on C-SPAN3 when you’re stuck in your office on weekends.