Politics & Policy

Britain’s Declaration of Independence

Alexander Hamilton, detail of portrait by John Trumbull (1806)
Brexit voters want control over their nation’s borders, just as the American Founders did.

As we confront political upheaval at home and abroad, the Fourth of July is an opportune time to ground ourselves in America’s founding principles. In an article in last week’s Washington Post, Steve Pincus, a history professor at Yale University, seeks to do just that in light of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. But with all due respect to Pincus, the history does not support the open-border stance he advocates in the essay.

Pincus chastises those who liken Brexit to the United States’ Declaration of Independence. America’s “founders called for a government that would allow for free movement of goods and peoples,” while Britain’s Leave campaign, he says, was fueled by the desire to control immigration. He characterizes the Founders as championing open borders to welcome all. But that is historically inaccurate.  

It is imperative that we keep our facts straight. The stakes are high. The courts rely on such history as precedent that shapes modern law.

The Founders saw immigration as beneficial — assuming that the country could draw the “right” people to populate the vast American acreage. The Declaration of Independence indeed condemns King George III for “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners,” but the point was not that the Founding Fathers wanted unfettered immigration: It was that they did not want a remote, unrepresentative government controlling it.

They faulted the British government for forbidding the Americans’ settlement of western lands, for refusing to permit family members to join them on the sparsely populated continent, and for denying the colonies a say on who else might emigrate. This is not the same as calling for an open-door policy, as Pincus suggests.

The founding generation was quite concerned about admitting the “wrong” people into the ranks of the new nation.

Immigration policy was secondary to more pressing grievances during the struggle for independence, but no sooner was the Republic founded than immigration came front and center in national policy debates. George Washington proclaimed, “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.” Washington did not stop there, however, adding the following condition: “if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.” This was an important qualification.

The founding generation was quite concerned about admitting the “wrong” people into the ranks of the new nation. James Madison noted the importance of adding only the “worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us.” The goal, is “not merely to swell the catalogue of people,” he continued. “No, sir, it is to increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community are not the people we are in want of.”

The founding generation was not in perfect agreement over the appropriate qualifications, of course, but they generally sought to draw people who would both assimilate and contribute.

#share#An immigrant himself, Alexander Hamilton warned that “the influx of foreigners . . . tend[s] to change and corrupt the national spirit.” His remedy was not to slam the door shut on immigration, but to control it so the new arrivals could assimilate:

The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of the citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on that love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.

Toward this end, Hamilton recommended a period during which the new entrants could prove themselves:

Some reasonable term ought to be allowed to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments; to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government; and to admit of a probability at least, of their feeling a real interest in our affairs.

The blatantly racist Naturalization Act of 1790 excluded American Indians, African Americans, and Asians from acquiring citizenship, and it also required two years of residency before free white persons would even be considered. The Naturalization Act of 1798 soon raised the residency requirement to a whopping 14 years. During this time, immigrants could show their assimilation by learning English, obeying laws, and contributing to the economy.

Hamilton was particularly interested in recruiting immigrants with knowledge of British industrial practices. Trailing her estranged motherland in industrialization, America saw the potential of skilled immigrants as a means of closing that gap. Like a sports team drafting the best picks, the Founders put America first.

#related#This is a far cry from the “open lanes” of migration that Pincus references. While there might be other reasons to disagree with Britain’s exit from the EU (and reasons to applaud it — I take no position here on the broader Brexit debate), Pincus’s argument is undercut by his mischaracterization of early U.S. immigration policy. He has written excellent pieces in the past and I look forward to reading his forthcoming book, but on this topic, he missed the mark.

In saying so, I do not mean to advocate for a return to the immigration policies of the 18th century. The modern United States and Britain have their own unique needs and sensibilities, but we must nevertheless avoid twisting the history to fit our modern agendas.

As we celebrate our Independence Day this year, we might learn from our past to build a better future. As James Madison said, “A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

— Logan Beirne is an ISP Fellow and Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and the author of the book Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency.



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