The Jeff Sessions of His Day: Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Immigration Restriction

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has distinguished himself by being one of the Trump administration’s foremost proponents of xenophobia and immigration restriction. This is not a new position of his. Ever since he became an Alabama Senator in 1996, Sessions has opposed legal and undocumented immigration and worked to reduce it, make life harder for immigrants, and exclude as many people as possible. He praised the incredibly racist 1924 Immigration Act, and even cited the Bible to justify separating children from their families at the border with Mexico.

However, he is not the first xenophobic Senator. Sessions is following in very distinguished footsteps. From 1890 to 1924, a powerful Senator opposed immigration because he felt the wrong kind of immigrants were entering the United States, they were not assimilating and instead were hurting the country, and they were undercutting American wages and workers. This Senator — the Jeff Sessions of his day — was Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and his efforts eventually led to a very xenophobic and racist system that blocked many immigrants and harmed many more.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1916.

And Henry Cabot Lodge was no poorly educated demagogue. He came from a distinguished family, graduated from Harvard College, and in 1876 became one of the first recipients of a Ph.D. in history and government from the university. Near the end of his life, he became the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Majority Leader. Lodge’s career is a good example of how xenophobia can be expressed by even the most erudite and well-spoken of people, and it bears a striking resemblance to our modern day.

To begin with, Lodge only denounced certain immigrants. For example, from 1820 to 1860, almost two million Irish immigrants came to the United States, and a great many of them settled in Massachusetts, especially Boston. People looked down on and discriminated against the Irish, who were fleeing poverty, oppression, and famine under the British and arrived with very little money or skills. Nevertheless, they managed to form communities and worked hard, slowly climbing up the economic ladder and gaining political clout. Irish became members of political organizations, then state representatives, then representatives in Congress and alderman and mayors and Senators. And they fought back against discrimination and racism and worked to defeat politicians who were anti-Irish.

By 1890, when Lodge became a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, his state had lots of Irish immigrants and their Irish-American descendants. He refrained from attacking them, probably out of concern for his political career, and included them in immigration from the United Kingdom when he mentioned them. Instead, he focused his attacks on newer arrivals. Lodge did not mention who were not coming from the traditional countries in Europe like Britain, Ireland, or Germany. Instead, he attacked the new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe — Portuguese, Italians, Czechs, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, Serbians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Bosnians, Croatians, Georgians, Greeks, Armenians, and Syrians.

Second, Lodge claimed that immigrants were hurting the economy. In an 1896 article titled “the Problem of Immigration” he wrote that “if we have any regard for the welfare, the wages, or the standard life of American working men, we should take immediate steps to restrict foreign immigration…There is an appalling danger to the American wage-earner from the flood of low, unskilled, ignorant foreign labor which has poured into the countries for some years past, and which not only takes lower wages, but accepts a standard of life and living so low that the American workingman cannot compete with it.” Supposedly these new migrants were not going to raise their living standards and become more like Americans, but instead drive Americans out of the labor market because of their willingness to work for lower wages and live in squalor. Lodge was taking a grain of truth — many unskilled immigrants were willing to work for lower wages because of lower wages and increased poverty back in the countries they came from — and jumping to the conclusion that they would ruin America’s economy and workers.

But lower wages and undercutting American workers were secondary concerns. Lodge really opposed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe and the Middle East because of racism. In an early 1891 articlehe wrote for the North American Review, Lodge complained that “in the last ten years…new and wholly different elements have been introduced into our immigration, and — what is more important still — the rate of immigration of these new elements has risen with much greater rapidity than that of those which previously had furnished the bulk of the population of the country”(pg.30). He stated that British, Irish, and Germans founded and built America, not Italians, Poles, or Russians. Lodge also remarked that the immigration from the United Kingdom and Germany was generally good but had nothing but harsh words for immigrants farther east. He quoted several American consuls on how most of the emigrants were illiterate, shifty, and lacked ambition and virtue, so they would hurt American labor just like the Chinese did.

Lodge further made distinctions between people from different regions. He compared what he called “the finer population of northern Italy” with central and southern Italians, who were less fine and emigrating to the United States in much greater numbers. The very racist conclusion: “immigration to this country is increasing, and second, that it is making its great relative increase from races most alien to the body of the American people from the lowest and most illiterate classes among those races.” Lodge than approvingly cited the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and called for similar measures to reduce the number of undesirable immigrants, including an illiteracy test to reject immigrants who could not read and who “tend to lower the quality of American citizenship, and in many cases gather in dangerous masses in the slums of our great cities.”

Immigrants and their advocates pushed back against Lodge, but he kept up a long fight for more xenophobic laws and painted a dark picture of incoming immigrant hordes from “inferior races.” In 1896 Lodge delivered a speechin favor of a literacy test that would exclude all immigrants who could not read or write. He declared that “there can be no doubt that there is a very earnest desire on the part of the American people to restrict further, and much more extensively than has yet been done, foreign immigration to the United States” and the literacy test was the best way of doing this. Lodge was unabashedly racist; he was pleased that “the illiteracy test will bear most heavily upon the Italians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, and Asiatics [meaning Syrians, Lebanese, and Armenians], and very lightly, or not at all, upon English-speaking emigrants, or Germans, Scandinavians, and French.” The races most hurt by this law would be “races with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and who are most alien to the great body of the people of the United States.” This rhetoric is amazingly similar to Donald Trump’s desire to favor immigrants who speak English or are ethnically related to people already here, and to his administration’s claims that recent immigrants don’t assimilate well.

And in the speech, Lodge was just getting started. He repeatedly stated that this was not some irrational prejudice; his nativism was based on cold hard facts. The Senator cited statistics prepared by a committee to show that the immigrants who would be excluded under the illiteracy test were the people who dwelled in slums, who disproportionately were criminals, paupers, or unable to support themselves and reliant on public charity. Lodge furiously lashed at migrants who came to America for a season to work and then went back to their original countries with their money, saying “there is no more hurtful and undesirable class of immigrants from every point of view than these ‘birds of passage.’”

Then, after briefly claiming immigration hurt workers, Lodge told the Senate that “the danger which this immigration threatens to the quality of our citizenship is far worse.” He delivered a short, racist, and inaccurate history of the English race, saying that they were conquerors and great achievers because of their blood and characteristics, and praised earlier immigrants to America, implying that Germans and Irish were good immigrants, not like the riff-raff coming in today. Lodge then boomed that the English-speaking race was in danger, and “if a lower race mixes with a higher in sufficient numbers, history teaches us that the lower race will prevail.” He made it quite clear that Southern and Eastern Europeans were this lower race and that “the lowering of a great race means not only its own decline, but the decline of civilization.” Lodge ended his speech with a poem about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire at the hands of the Goths and Vandals, implying that these recent immigrants could do the same to America if immigration were not reduced.

Some of Lodge’s speeches were even more appalling. In an 1891 article called “Lynch Law and Unrestricted Immigration”Lodge offered excuses for the recent lynching of eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans who were accused of complicity in the murder of New Orleans’s police chief. He wrote that while the lynching was bad, it was a kind of rough justice, and the Italians were killed not because they were Italian but “because they were believed to be members of a secret-assassination society responsible for a brutal murder.”

What is more, Lodge continued, there was good reason to be afraid, and the underlying cause of the lynching was “the utter carelessness with which we treat immigration in this country.” He blamed criminal immigrants for the “Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania, the Anarchists in Chicago, the Mafia in New Orleans, and, according to a recent statement in the New York Times, there is a similar organization among some of the Poles” (which he claimed was called the Secret Polish Avengers, dedicated to protecting its members from the law, and located in Shenandoah, Virginia). The Secret Polish Avengers sounds utterly ridiculous, but Lodge and many other people really believed it existed.

What was the solution to prevent further lynchings? Reduce immigration. Lodge predicted “if we permit the classes which furnish material for these societies to come freely to this country, we shall have these outrages to deal with, and such scenes as that of the 14thof Mai’ch will be repeated.” Effectively, Lodge blamed the victims for their lynching, and then tried to use this crime as evidence that immigration should be cut.

Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Jeff Sessions were in the Senate almost a century apart, but they shared a lot in common. They both declared that certain immigrants were undesirable on racial grounds and fought to exclude, they whipped up fear that immigrants were forming secret societies and committing violent crimes, they claimed that immigrants were lowering the quality of citizenship, not assimilating, and undercutting American workers by lowering wages, and they showed no consideration or empathy for the immigration point of view. Instead they endorsed cruel, heartless, and racist policies.

However, there is one big difference, at least for the moment. Lodge managed to win a great xenophobic victory; he helped pass the 1924 Immigration Act which greatly reduced immigration and got him most of his nativist goals. It took forty years before the 1965 Immigration Act was enacted and these racist policies and quotas were repealed. Jeff Sessions, despite his terrorizing of many undocumented immigrants as Trump’s Attorney General, has not managed to do that. The Trump administration has introduced bills that would cut family reunification and slash legal immigration in half, but they have not made it through either house of Congress.

Two hundred and thirty five years ago George Washington welcomed recent Irish immigrants and wrotethat “the bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions.” It is our task to heed these words and make certain Jeff Sessions fails to follow in Henry Cabot Lodge’s footsteps. It is our task to welcome immigrants through the golden door regardless of their ethnic, religious, or racial backgrounds, and to ensure they have the opportunities to achieve the American Dream.