Feature 09.01.2022 7 minutes

A Nation of Settlers

Beck & Stone Carl – A Nation of Settlers

Whom does perpetual immigration serve?

Editors’ Note

The following transcript is from a speech at an event entitled “Lies of the Ruling Class,” hosted in May 2022 by the Claremont Institute’s DC Center for the American Way of Life.

When we consider the lie that America is a nation of immigrants, the really important question to ask is: how does this lie serve the regime? What’s the instrumental purpose of this lie? And I think, that, if we inquire a bit, it’s political purpose is clear. If we’re a nation of immigrants, fundamentally, then we are wrong not to just throw open the door. We’d be violating our most sacred and eternal traditions not to do that. If you don’t want to do that, you’re not just a bigot, you’re not just a racist, but you’re fundamentally anti-American in some way. That is the narrative that this lie serves.

By contrast, David Azerrad said in a recent speech: “There is simply no precedent in human history for sovereign states voluntarily importing into their homelands untold millions of people of different colors, creeds, and cultures for decades on end. This is what tyrants do to conquer a broken people, to pacify them. It is not something that the natives willfully do to themselves.” And I think that that is pretty much right on the money.

To begin with, it’s important to note that immigrants have never been the dominant force in American society. Even during the last century, when we have had very historically high levels of immigration, we’ve never had higher than about a 15% immigrant population. Indeed in my own lifetime, Immigrants have been as little as 4.7% of the population, as they were in the 1970 census, which was the one taken just a little bit before I was born. When more than 95% of people, even in modern times, are not immigrants, your nation is not inherently defined by the other less-than-5%.

The 1970 census most closely reflects the demographics of the population just before Hart-Celler, the 1965 Immigration Act, took full effect on America. Essentially, the overwhelming majority of people in America 1970 were white or African-American. We had some Hispanics as well (about 3.5% of the population, but many of them had been here for a long time, 80% of them had actually been born in the United States, as opposed to a little more than 60% today. That’s how my mother grew up in Phoenix, around this sort of community. Less than 1% of our population were Asian Americans, and most of those were recent arrivals. Then, obviously, you had Native Americans, who had been here before the United States even existed as a political entity.

On an absolute basis, we now have more than three times the number of immigrants that we had at any previous time in American history. So, that’s just kind of the naïve empirics. But let’s talk about something a little bit deeper. And interestingly, some of the best arguments for my thesis, that we’re not a nation of immigrants, quite unintentionally come from the far Left.

There’s a leftist scholar, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who wrote a bestselling book using the currently fashionable framework, called Not a Nation of Immigrants. This came out last year. And though Dunbar-Ortiz deplores what she describes, while I’m generally, favorably disposed to it, I think that on the factual matter, we agree on a number of fundamental points. And that is because at first we did not begin as a nation of immigrants. We began as a nation of settlers. And I that’s, I think, a critically important distinction.

The pilgrims, when they showed up at Plymouth Rock, were not looking to join the existing Native American society. They were looking to build their own city upon a hill. Now, of course, that led to inevitable conflicts. There were plenty of atrocities on both sides, and those have been documented extensively. But that doesn’t erase the fundamental, empirical point about what was going on here. And it isn’t just radical historians that are saying this. This is a commentary that goes back to the early days of America.

One of the most interesting things about de Tocqueville, for instance, is that he does not mention immigrants or immigration at all in Democracy in America, written in 1830. The word immigrant or immigration does not appear even once. And that does not mean that there were no immigrants to the United States at that point—of course not. They did exist. But I think it’s important that de Tocqueville was touring the country before the first really great wave of immigration—and it really was immigration in this case—of non-British people to the United States after the failed revolutions of 1848 and the Irish Potato Famine, also of 1848. But there was nothing like that in the years before de Tocqueville’s period of time, and it’s important to note that this was the first 210 years plus of European settlement in the United States. We are closer in time to de Tocqueville today, than de Tocqueville was to the founding colonies of America.

At independence, as best as the demographers have been able to determine, excluding enslaved people, our society was 85% British, 9% German, 4% Dutch, and a tiny bit anything else. And it really was, as some of the radical historians say, in many ways a colonial settler society. One commentator on de Tocqueville notes, “The initial groups that had come to America two centuries before were conceived of as pilgrims, colonists or settlers, but not as immigrants, per se.”

This is most fundamental. They came to build as pioneers of a new society, not to adapt to an existing one. And more or less, this theme continues, though it gets more and more mixed, until about 1890.

And obviously, you began to have people at this point, in those intervening years between De Tocqueville and 1890, who really were coming to a settled society. But in 1890, the Census Bureau declares that the frontier of America is closed. Essentially, there’s settlements more or less everywhere in the United States at that point. And the great historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, famously declared in his 1893 speech, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”: “The frontier is gone, and with its going, it has closed the first period of American history.”

Until 1890, we were still defined as much by exploration, by settling out on the frontier, as we were by immigrations. We weren’t a nation of immigrants. We were a nation with immigrants. And that, I think, is a very crucial distinction.

Meanwhile, In 1886, about the same time that the frontier is closing, the Statute of Liberty is rising. And that’s kind of really the great visual symbol of American immigration. But actually immigration played no role in the statue’s conception or opening. It was about Franco-American friendship, democracy, liberty, and in particular a celebration of the emancipation of slaves. But it was not about immigration. The way that it came to be identified with immigration is through Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” which is one of many things that were written to raise money for the statue’s base, in 1883. At which point it was promptly forgotten.

But interestingly, what happened subsequently is that Emma Lazarus died in 1887, right after the statue was dedicated. And her friend, Georgina Schuyler—of the Schuyler sisters, by the way, a direct descendant of Alexander Hamilton—decides to memorialize her friend, Lazarus. And she starts an ultimately successful campaign in 1900 to have Lazarus’ poem put on the statue’s base. At which point the statue, in line with a great wave of new immigration coming into New York, takes on this new public meaning.

Cui Bono?

Lazarus was Jewish, and in some ways her poem was inspired by the persecution of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe, and in Russia. But Lazarus herself has a really interesting and unique background. She was not fresh off the boat. She was an old New Yorker. Her family had come over as part of the first group of Jews to settle in the American colonies, the Jewish equivalent of the Mayflower, in 1654. And she was really old money herself, from a very affluent and socially established family, in a way that was extremely unusual for a Jewish family in America at that time. That’s how she was hanging out with the Schuylers and these other people at the top of New York society.

And as I began to research into this, I realized basically, neither Lazarus nor Schuyler married or had children. They’re affluent female liberals with a penchant for so-called social reform—sort of a prototype for the AWFL. It is interesting that if Schuyler had lived into the modern day, she would have seen her great-grandmother, from one of the oldest, original Dutch families in New York, transformed on Broadway into an Asian American.

But now let’s get into that little phrase, which is the last thing that I want to touch on: “a nation of immigrants.” The phrase originates with a title of a John F. Kennedy book in 1958. And this is kind of a sensitive point, but I think it’s important to be true to the historical record here. It’s really in this entire frisson of this book, this kind of conception we have of immigration, is really primarily a product of 20th-century Jewish ethnic activism, essentially, supplemented by Italian and Irish Catholic ethnic activism, and supplemented by some key, old-money WASPs at some really critical points…and those of course, are the Schuylers of the world.

And I think it’s totally understandable. I think Catholics wanted to be accepted as fully American. If you know the Kennedy family background, even as a so-called lace curtain Irish family, the upper crust Irish, they were not fully accepted among the Boston Brahmin crowd. Jews, of course, lived in constant fear of a united ethnic state in which they were not welcome. They had lots of really unpleasant experiences, even before World War II, and then, obviously, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that sensitivity became really heightened. But I think that really informed what became this project to create this nation of immigrants ideology, kind of out of whole cloth in the 1950s.

So, we had the book written in 1958, that was republished in 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination, with the express purpose of trying to pass what became Hart-Celler. And it was written in an outline form by a historian provided by the Anti-Defamation League…which is the most important Jewish civil rights umbrella organization. And it was written by a Jewish protégé of Oscar Handlin, who was actually a very distinguished historian at Harvard, who ended up becoming a founder of the conservative National Association of Scholars, but who was, in the mid-20th century, America’s foremost scholar of immigration, and who was also descended from Jewish immigrants. And it was put into a book, not by Kennedy, but by his staffer, Meyer Friedman, whose Jewish parents had arrived from Ukraine just three years before his birth.

And Friedman said, “Kennedy’s participation was minimal.” And that’s not to say that Kennedy wasn’t serious, or that he didn’t believe in this. He actually said of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which was kind of the last significant restrictionist act we had in America, “That it was the most blatant piece of discrimination in Americans’ history.” So, he really did believe it quite sincerely. But Kennedy, with an eye toward winning the presidency 1960, had really targeted, to a lesser extent Jewish, but particularly Catholic ethnics in some of these big cities and swing states as a key constituency.

And so that becomes the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which is sort of the regime we live in right now. It was put forth in congress by Senator Philip Hart, the grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants, and Emmanuel Celler, the grandson of German Jewish immigrants. And Celler had been working on this issue for 40-plus years. He was one of the only people in congress who had spoken out against the original immigration restrictionist act of 1924. When Hart-Celler came to legislative realization, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Committee on Italian Migration did huge lobbying campaigns. They weren’t the only ones, but they were really principal motivating forces for the legislation. That’s how we got from there to here.

So, just to conclude, for our first 200 or so years, we were primarily a nation of settlers. Then, from the mid-to-late 19th century, we were a mix of settlers and immigrants, depending on who was coming to where at what time—some people who were settlers, and some people who were immigrants. But we didn’t really become, “a nation of immigrants,” until the Democrats needed us to be for their electoral strategy.

And now we see that it is, unfortunately, a classic leftist tactic. Because actually the whole conception of a nation of immigrants is quite a patriotic one. It’s sort of saying, “You belong. Everybody belongs.” Which, I think we have to believe in a certain sense in America, whether you became a citizen yesterday, or your family’s been here since the Mayflower.

But we have to watch out for what comes next. Because what’s coming down the pike is actually these radical historians, who turn around and say, “Well, actually, now that you’re in the door, we’re not a nation of immigrants. These white guys are a bunch of bigoted, colonial settlers, and we need to destroy this whole structure that they have built.” That is the political evolution of the Left right now.

So, they’ve used the idea of “a nation of immigrants” to justify seizing power. And now they have that power, they are using it to remove the statues, the memorials, our history, and invent their own history of America, a false and simplistic tale of oppressors and oppressees. And at the end of the day, I don’t blame immigrants for any of this. It’s the leftists, not the immigrants themselves, who are the snake of Trump’s fable. We have let them seize power and promote this myth that we are “a nation of immigrants.” And everything that the Left has done subsequently has followed from that lie. And if we believe the lies the snake tells us—we can’t be surprised when it decides to bite us.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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