America’s Long History Of Immigrants Bashing Immigrants

Alexander Hamilton and Ted Cruz/Wikimedia Commons
To be an American, Hamilton demonstrates, is to be an immigrant — and also to draw borders, and build walls.

Build a wall! Keep out all Muslims! Immigrants are dangerous moochers who will take our jobs and bomb our cities! The United States of America is for America, not for interlopers like that sneaky Canadian-born outsider Ted Cruz!

When Donald Trump and other conservatives bloviate about the dangers of immigration, what they fail to recognize is that without a sneaky foreign interloper, there would probably be no United States as we know it. After all, Alexander Hamilton, the one man most responsible for the United States government, wasn’t from here.

As recounted in Robert Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (the inspiration for the pop culture phenom musical Hamilton), the future author of The Federalist Papers was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis. His parents weren’t married; his father left the family when Hamilton was young, and his mother died when he was 13. He was a downwardly mobile, illegitimate orphan — just the sort of person you’d expect to drain our country’s resources and mooch off government largesse. Build a wall around the Caribbean!

There was no wall around the Caribbean at the time, though, so Hamilton was able to emigrate to New York when he was 17. He went to college, agitated for resistance to Great Britain, became chief of staff to General Washington, and fought for ratification of the Constitution. Then he capped his career by becoming first Treasury Secretary of the United States, establishing a central bank, a taxation system, and much of the financial infrastructure of our government. “Today we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton’s America,” Chernow argues, “and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.” Damn foreigners, building the modern world. The cheek.

Alexander Hamilton, the one man most responsible for the United States government, wasn’t from here.

Nowadays, we see the author of the Federalist Papers as quintessentially American; most people who haven’t seen the musical don’t even know that he wasn’t born in the 13 colonies. But at the time, Hamilton’s foreignness was such a significant political issue, Trump himself would have fit right in. John Adams, one of Hamilton’s bitterest political enemies, liked to refer to him sneeringly as a “Creole bastard,” branding him as foreign, illegitimate, and possibly black all at once (there’s no evidence that Hamilton had African heritage; Chernow’s research on the matter has been inconclusive). To Adams, Hamilton’s foreignness meant that the Revolutionary War hero and the most important Constitutional theorist in history “could scarcely acquire the opinions, feelings, or principles of the American people.” He might as well have called Hamilton a Kenyan socialist.

Hamilton himself was a remarkably enlightened man in many ways; he was firmly opposed to slavery, for example, and even mocked Thomas Jefferson in print for suggesting that black people were intellectually inferior to whites. Nonetheless, the West Indies immigrant wasn’t above a little nativism himself. He expressed support for the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts passed during Adams’ presidency. Fearing that Irish immigrants would support the rival Republican party with their pro-French agenda, Hamilton cravenly declared, a la Trump, “My opinion is that the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country.” In another instance, he attacked his political rival and successor as Treasury Secretary, the Swiss-born Albert Gallatin. “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country?” Hamilton fulminated. “A foreigner!”

Hamilton, then, wasn’t just one of the first immigrants to help build and nurture the United States. He was one of the first immigrants to get to the U.S., turn around, and start bashing all the immigrants trying to follow in his footsteps. Trump’s mother was an immigrant from Scotland; Ted Cruz’s father was an immigrant from Cuba, as were both of Marco Rubio’s parents. Rubio tried for a while to push against Republican orthodoxy and give undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, but when he faced political opposition, he chucked courage, sentiment, and principle, and reversed himself. Now he’s joined his fellow children of foreign-born parents in talking incessantly about border security. My immigration was good and inspiring; everybody else better stay out, though.

The story of Alexander Hamilton is the familiar story of America as a land of promise; as a place where a nobody, with no family, can come and succeed by sheer force of genius and hard work. Anyone can be, if not President, then at least Treasury Secretary.

But Hamilton’s story is also about how, even before the United States existed, the logic of nativism and prejudice was already in place. Before there was anything to belong to, some people didn’t belong. Some people in the new nation weren’t part of the new nation: the Indians whose land the colonies had expropriated; the slaves who couldn’t vote; people like Hamilton, who were never quite allowed to forget where they came from, no matter how fervently they devoted their lives to their adopted country.

Hamilton “took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into administrative realities.” The union, that idea that sprang in large part from Hamilton’s head, was a dream of liberty and prosperity. But it was also an engine for separating us from them — an engine that’s still running a couple of centuries on. To be an American, Hamilton demonstrates, is to be an immigrant — and also to draw borders, and build walls.

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