Franklin bonkers on immigration? That’s right. Back in the 1750s, before the U.S. was even a country, thoughtful, reasonable, wise old Ben—normally so prudent in his public utterances—was denouncing the influx of German immigrants to his native Pennsylvania in terms so excessive as to make Donald Trump appear a milksop by comparison. Franklin called the German newcomers “Palatine Boors,” and warned that if English-speaking Pennsylvanians did not take drastic steps to preserve their language and culture, they would soon find themselves submerged by a Teutonic tide.
“Why,” fulminated Franklin, “should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or our Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
Does that sound familiar? Wait, there’s more.
Franklin endorsed a series of proposals designed to keep Pennsylvania safe from German domination. It particular, he demanded that no one should be appointed to public office who could not speak English properly, and that all deeds, contracts and legal documents be drawn up in English only. He didn’t say with Donald Trump, “They must go,” but he did propose that German immigrants be “encouraged” to settle in other colonies than Pennsylvania.
Franklin did not succeed in his efforts to keep the Germans out of Pennsylvania—or, for that matter, out of the rest of America. According to an article in the February 7 issue of the Economist, German-Americans are now the largest single ethnic group in this country. In the last census, some 46 million American claimed German ancestry.
And yet have any of Franklin’s dire predictions come true? Has America become “Germanized”? On the contrary, as the Economist article noted, the Germans have assimilated so well that few would guess that they are our largest ethnic group.
The German experience set the pattern for the waves of immigration that would follow: hysteria, nativism, revulsion and, finally, assimilation. After the “Palatine Boors,” came the Irish—lazy, ignorant, drunken louts who were going to burn down Protestant churches and turn America Catholic. Then came the Italians—Mafiosi every one of them. Then came the Eastern Europeans—blood-sucking Jews and bomb-throwing anarchists. And when Chinese immigrants entered the U.S. in significant numbers to help build America’s railroads, fear of the “Yellow Peril” caused Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Now it’s the people from south of the border whom Donald Trump libels as drug traffickers and rapists.
Each new wave of immigrants provoked the same grotesque and exaggerated fears that native-born Americans would be overwhelmed by people unlike ourselves—people who would refuse to assimilate; who would not respect our laws, our language and our democratic way of life. Instead, America has proved time and again that it is capable of assimilating even the most dissimilar immigrants. Can’t we appreciate the magnificence of this achievement—unique in all the world? Can’t we see that our rich cultural diversity is one of our greatest strengths as a nation?
Sadly, some people—like the blinkered and paranoid who cheer Donald Trump’s current immigrant bashing—cannot and never will. Their conception of America is too small. They see being American as a matter of race, religion, ethnicity or some other narrow qualification. But America is bigger than that.
Some countries, like Japan, are based on racial or ethnic homogeneity. Some, like Britain, are based on devotion to a monarchy. Others are based on a common religion or belonging to the same tribe. But America is different. America has no throne, no national church, no common gene pool. The English writer G.K. Chesterton once said that America is the only country ever founded on a creed.
What is that creed? Look at our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”
Immigrants have always been drawn to this country by the promise of freedom and the opportunity to work hard and build a better life for themselves and their children. In effect, they have added their own signatures to the Declaration of Independence as they arrived. America is a successful nation today precisely because of the enthusiasm with which our newcomers have embraced our creed.
It has been so from the beginning. And if good sense and good will prevail over Donald Trump’s wild posturings and cynical demagoguery on this issue, the American genius for assimilation will triumph yet again.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.