America’s Founders Supported Immigration

As Americans celebrated the 225th anniversary of the Constitution’s signing this Monday, thousands of new citizens at naturalization ceremonies across the country celebrated being Americans for the first time. Naturalization is among the Constitution’s greatest contributions to the idea of “America.” This simple clause upheld a radical new understanding of citizenship, one that was not to be based on race or birth-it was something you could become.

By guaranteeing a “uniform rule of naturalization,” the Constitution presupposes an immigrant nation. In the original conception, the Constitution protected a society of immigrants and citizens living side-by-side. While reserving the right to vote and hold office for citizens, the document protects the rights of “life, liberty, and property” for “any person,” not just any citizen.

The Constitution’s principal framer, James Madison, argued that the freedoms the Constitution guaranteed actually depended upon this pluralism. “This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects which pervades America,” he said at the Virginia ratifying convention, “for where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.” Madison repeated this point in Federalist #10: in America, diversity would defend freedom.

Thomas Paine echoed this view in The Rights of Man. “If there is a country in the world where concord… would be least expected, it is America,” he wrote. “Made up as it is of people from different nations, accustomed to different forms and habits of government, speaking different languages, and more different in their modes of worship, it would appear that the union of such a people was impracticable.” But he argued that if the government protects the equal rights of all, “there is nothing to engender riots and tumults,” and “all the parts are brought into cordial unison.”

The Constitution’s 20-year prohibition on any Congressional limitation on immigration reflects the importance they placed on immigrants. The Declaration of Independence had denounced the king for “prevent[ing] the population of these states” by “obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners” and “refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” In this spirit, states after independence sold land at discounts to those who emigrated from abroad and granted citizenship in as little as two years.

Thomas Jefferson , reflecting the general sentiment, said, “The present desire of America is to produce rapid population by as great importations of foreigners as possible.” On this point, Jefferson’s archrival, Alexander Hamilton, agreed. “Immigrants exhibit a large proportion of ingenious and valuable workmen,” he wrote, “who by expatriating from Europe improved their own condition, and added to the industry and wealth of the United States.”

The Founders repeatedly emphasized the benefits to the immigrants themselves. In Common Sense, Paine upheld “this new world” as “the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.” Jefferson argued for “a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them.” Madison defended immigration on the grounds that it is “always from places where living is more difficult to places where it is less difficult,” so “the happiness of the emigrant is promoted by the change.”

That the Founders were pro-immigration is often obscured by how dutifully they attended to its difficulties. Jefferson and Franklin discussed at length the political and social costs of immigration, yet nativists throughout history have often repeated their fears while ignoring their conclusions. Even Franklin by far the most vociferous critic of immigrants among the Founders ultimately concluded that “they contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country.”

For almost 150 years, America was the most inclusive society the world had ever seen. Restrictions to entry were exceptions to the general rule of openness. Today, exclusion is the rule–inclusion the exception. Although the segregationist mentality is slowly being rejected, much work is left before America represents the Founders’ original vision. As Americans reflect on the Constitution’s significance this week, they should celebrate its pluralist vision and reject calls for renewed isolation.