The “nation of immigrants” trope is relatively new in American history, appearing not until the late 19th century. Its first appearance in print was most likely The Daily State Journal of Alexandria, Virginia, in 1874. In praising a state bill that encouraged European immigration, the editors wrote: “We are a nation of immigrants and immigrants’ children.” In 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to the Daughters of the American Revolution: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” John F. Kennedy would later use the term as the title of a book, written as part of an Anti-Defamation League series, so it is undoubtedly objective, quality scholarship.
But in 1874, as in 1938, and even in 1958 when JFK’s book was written, America was not a nation of immigrants. The women Roosevelt was addressing were not the daughters of immigrants but rather the descendants of settlers—those Americans who founded the society that immigrants in 1874 came to be a part of.
Concerning immigration patterns, from 1820 through 1924, 34 million new arrivals entered the United States, mostly from Europe. Throughout this period, intermittent waves of immigration were punctuated by pauses and lulls. These respites provided immigrants time to Americanize. By contrast, from 1965 through 2000, 24 million new arrivals entered the United States, mostly from Latin America and Asia, and with few if any pauses between waves. In just 35 years, America experienced nearly as much immigration as it did over a century. Nevertheless, from 1820 through 2000, the foreign-born averaged just over 10 percent of the total American population.
To claim that America is a “nation of immigrants” is to stretch a truth—that America historically has experienced intermittent waves of immigration—into a total falsehood, that America is a nation of immigrants. For the truth of the first thing to equal the truth of the other, every nation that experiences immigration may just as well be considered a “nation of immigrants.” Germans have lived along the Rhine since before Christ, yet Germany has also been swarmed by foreigners from the Middle East and North Africa. Is Germany, therefore, a nation of immigrants? A resounding nein is the answer we are hearing from Germans.
Before America was a nation, it had to be settled and founded. As Michael Anton reiterated in response to New York Times columnist Bret Stephens: America is a nation of settlers, not a nation of immigrants. In that, Anton is echoing Samuel Huntington, who showed that America is a society of settlers. Those settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries—more than anyone else after—had the most profound and lasting impact on American culture, institutions, historical development, and identity. American began in the 1600s—not 1874—and what followed in the 1770s and 1780s was rooted in the founded society of those settlers.
Settlers, Anton explains, travel from an existing society into the wilderness to build a society ex nihilo. Settlers travel in groups that either implicitly or explicitly agree to a social compact. Settlers, unlike immigrants, go abroad with the intention of creating a new community away from the mother country. Immigrants, on the other hand, travel from one existing society to another, either as individuals or as families, and are motivated by different reasons; and not always good ones. Immigrants come later to be part of the society already built by settlers, who, as Higham wrote, establish the polity, language, customs, and habits of the society immigrants seek to join and in joining must embrace and adopt.
Justice Louis Brandeis would later echo Jay, declaring that the immigrant is Americanized when he “adopts the clothes, the manners, and the customs generally prevailing here…substitutes for his mother tongue the English language,” ensures that “his interests and affections have become deeply rooted here,” and comes “into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations.” Only when the immigrant has done this will he have “the national consciousness of an American.”
Remember, Brandeis was a Progressive leading light back then. In light of the above statement, the raving madmen of our present-day Loonie Left wouldn’t for a moment consider him an acceptable SC nominee now. But then, if Trump nominated Che Guevara to the Court the NYT, WaPo, and all the rest would doubtless denounce even him as a “right-wing extremist,” too.
That’s progress, see.