Orestes Brownson’s view is that America is the prudent compromise between two idealistic extremes.
In his sane and thought-provoking Liberty Forum essay about immigration, Richard Samuelson argues that “America’s very essence” may well be “at risk” because of “two challenges to our status as a nation of immigrants.” They are “the rise of the mega-state” favored by Progressives, and “the rise of a post-national ideal” that “threatens to undermine the understandings that have made assimilation a duty and an obligation.”
By assimilation, Samuelson means Americanization (rather than assimilation to some WASP cultural model), so the problem here is essentially that “we have created an elite that rejects classic American patriotism.”
In their responses to this essay, Alex Nowrasteh and Peter Skerry each assert (from different points of view) that Samuelson has too rosy a conception of the past history of Americans’ attitudes to immigrants, whose presence and legal rights have often been rejected, and who in any case have often not sought to replace their previous cultures with the American way of life. Meanwhile, Nowrasteh and a third respondent, Vincent Cannato, see Samuelson as too pessimistic about the prospects for assimilation today.
Even more than Peter Skerry does in his criticism of Samuelson, we would emphasize the inherent and permanent difficulties of integrating immigrants into the American polity, whether in the past or today. It is important to remember that it was the Founders’ view of human nature that led to their doubts about immigration. Simply put, men are dangerous, in many different ways. James Madison was getting at this when he wrote of liberty as one of the causes of faction. Neither individuals nor governments are angels, he famously said. Even fellow Americans can be dangerous to one another—precisely on account of their liberty—and so can immigrants.
The Founding generation were quite explicit about potential dangers to the new republican government from newcomers arriving with the political habits of various monarchies and despotisms. Jefferson and Hamilton, for all their disagreements, were clear on this point: even if immigrants reject such oppressive Old World regimes, they might well remain ignorant of how to use their natural liberty for the sake of justice and the common good.
What is often carelessly cited as a leading example of 20th century political oppression, the treatment of ethnic Japanese in America during World War II, is a case in point. Even a nation that lived with segregation by race had its doubts, even after Pearl Harbor, about relocating 110,000 ethnic Japanese, two-thirds of whom had birthright citizenship, from the West Coast to inland centers. Nevertheless, Franklin Roosevelt acted on the basis of what we today call “racial profiling.”
For the fact was that, regardless of birthplace, fervid Japanese nationalism was widespread among ethnic Japanese. Immigrant parents sent their children to Japan for education. The Japanese community in the United States strongly supported Imperial expansion in Eastern Asia and the Pacific, including the Japanese army’s brutal occupation of Manchuria, a province of China. And why not? After all, they were dual citizens, in the eyes of Imperial Japan.
Japanese military planners assumed the loyalty of immigrants to Hawaii, and their progeny, in an anticipated occupation of that then-territory of the United States. Might they not have the same expectations for those on the West Coast of the mainland? After all, that strategy worked elsewhere. Why should the Japanese in America be any different?
The facts show conflicted loyalty and identity in “Japanese Americans.” Under agreement after Pearl Harbor, some 5,000 ethnic Japanese were shipped to Japan. Hundreds of others, in the relocation centers, militantly expressed their loyalty to Japan, threatened those who affirmed loyalty to America, and were eventually segregated in the Tule Lake relocation center. Fortunately, other Japanese Americans accepted military duty and served with distinction in special units in Europe or as interpreters in the Pacific. Yet today some commentators, such as law professor Eric Muller, would hail the pro-Japan dissidents as more American than those who served and died for their true country.
We would also strengthen Skerry’s discerning account of the disloyalty charge against Catholics, by noting that George Washington himself, although he suppressed anti-Catholic demonstrations and on occasion attended Catholic Mass, fully appreciated the political difference between Catholics and, say, Jews. Contrast his stance in his famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport (“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”) with his much cooler Letter to Catholics five months before:
And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.
American Catholics might not be free of the Old World habits that led to plots, persecutions, and violence in the name of religion; only if they proved they were, ought they to “enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity” of American life.
Such facts about our past may be deeply disturbing, and not only to those on the multicultural Left. But recognizing the unvarnished truth of human equality is important. Like native-born Americans, immigrants are dangerous, and the dangers they pose include the traits they bear from their non-American past. Paradoxically, failing to recognize nature and history in the ways they actually manifest themselves is to deny human equality to immigrants—a condescending denial that will be met with contempt and ultimately by disloyalty.
Samuelson rightly points out that there is a second great difficulty in assimilating immigrants today: the widespread denial that they, or at least their children, should be expected and helped to “align themselves with the principles of the American regime.” He sees that this denial is often based on a “progressive” move away from “the principles of 1776,” and on the ideology of multiculturalism.
We would go further. First, by pointing out that even many American citizens and historians who have rejected disuniting appeals for multiculturalism, and rightly so, fail to ground that rejection in an acknowledgment that the rights of individual human beings are natural and self-evident for everyone, everywhere. Instead, they argue for unity merely on the grounds that these individualistic “values” are historically “our own,” and that they “work for us.” (See Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America, 1992).
We are forced to wonder whether (and if so, why) there is some kind of epistemological ratchet effect at work here: Why do historians see themselves as compelled to assert that Americans’ “individualistic values” are not based on natural facts and rights, and see as forbidden the assertion that they are so based?
Only with a more robust understanding of equal individual (but civil-society-friendly) rights as true natural rights, will we be able to repulse the group-centered mentality that has afflicted American policies not only in immigration but also in “affirmative action” and “bilingual” education. Or will we be able to turn the tide against a “progressivism” that is explicitly based on denying the truth of equal natural rights, and on that basis has played a large role in advancing the mega-state and the embrace of a “post-American world.”
Samuelson argues that for assimilation to work better, America’s Founding principles will again need to be thought of “patriotically,” or “nationalistically.” They must again be proudly seen as good principles, even if that pride is actually based on some “prejudice.” The same is needed for a better regulation of immigration: “If one thinks, as Jefferson and the rest of the Founders did, . . . that American principles are good, then it makes sense to ponder whether mass migration into America might, in time, ruin America.”
But are those “good” principles also true principles? Are they accurate observations about human nature? If not, then their felt goodness is likely to be fleeting.
We Americans need more clarity about the reality and the meaning of natural human equality. What are you thinking when you say that all men are created equal? The letter that Douglass Adair called Jefferson’s “dying speech” put it most pithily: you are making a natural, scientific (if commonsense) observation of a “palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.” Jefferson’s phrase (in fact an elegant rephrasing of Richard Rumbold’s dying speech in 1685) is more than a metaphor. It is an observation of a natural fact, with political and ethical implications.
Samuelson quotes from Abraham Lincoln’s 1858 Chicago speech (which we also discussed on this site), where he called the recognition that “all men are created equal” the “father of all moral principle” in those who behold it. This anticipates not only Samuelson’s reference to “the classic American values of thrift, hard work, and cooperation,” but Skerry’s contention that what counts in being an American is not just subscribing to the more narrowly political “creed” of the Declaration of Independence, but adopting a culture, a way of life.
And it points to what is so difficult about really becoming American. Skerry adopts Wilfred McClay’s suggestion that America’s is a “living creed”; a “distillation and codification of beliefs that are grounded elsewhere—embodied in the habits and mores and institutions of the people.” That is almost exactly Lincoln’s view. But Lincoln also maintains that recognizing the truth of human equality is the necessary first principle here, the sheet anchor in which American opinion and culture are grounded.
One of Harry Jaffa’s favorite Lincoln stories nicely illustrates the “habits and mores” that follow from our recognition of the principle:
A visitor came into his office in the White House one day to find him blacking his boots. “Why, Mr. President,” the astonished man exclaimed, “do you black your own boots?“ ‘Whose boots do you think I black?” growled Lincoln.
The Chicago speech went to the ethical heart of the matter when Lincoln explained that the denial of human equality—“whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race”—is “all the same old serpent.” That is, the same age-old, tempting but “tyrannical principle” that “says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” The natural human equality in the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor is part of the natural fact that no human being is by nature either master or slave. No one is the natural ruler of anyone else; that is why all legitimate government must be by consent, and why equality should reign in morals and manners. We need to exclaim with Lincoln:
If that Declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! . . . [cries of ‘no, no’] let us stick to it then, [cheers] let us stand firmly by it then. [Applause]
Finally, when thinking and teaching about America’s political and ethical principles, we need to emphasize that they are not just American. Those principles (contrary to Skerry’s assertion that they do not transcend the context of America’s “Judeo-Christian ethic”) are recognized in ancient and modern political philosophy. In 1775, John Adams (writing as “Novanglus”) observed that the principles of the American Revolution were “the principles of nature and eternal reason”; they were “the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sydney, Harrington and Locke.” Fifty years later, Thomas Jefferson confirmed that the reasoning in the Declaration of Independence had been widely expressed in America, inter alia “in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”
Our nation, at the same time, is exceptional. How so? In the place that we Americans give to these principles in our written law, our politics, and our society. They now risk losing that central place, Samuelson is right—for in effect, if not literally, the Declaration of Independence is being “torn out of the statute book.”