Fear of Immigrants Is as Old as America Itself

Benjamin Franklin Warned Against Letting In German Immigrants

May 14, 2013, 3:23 PM

May 14, 2013 — -- Benjamin Franklin is generally revered as one of the most brilliant of our Founding Fathers -- the inventor of the lighting rod and bifocals, an accomplished musician, and a political theorist who helped shape the U.S. Constitution. But his thoughts on one immigrant group seem at odds with America's identity as a "nation of immigrants."

Franklin was deeply worried that immigrants of German ancestry would overwhelm America and change its most basic virtues, possibly bringing an end to the fledgling republic. Many of his arguments regarding this community directly mirror those used in today's immigration debate against Latinos.

"Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious," Franklin wrote in 1753.

He said in the same letter that he wasn't opposed to the immigration of a small number of Germans because they "have their virtues." Nonetheless, he fretted that the ones who had arrived here were "generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation," and would therefore bring the country down as a whole if they continued to immigrate.

Although a great number of Franklin's ideas have stood the test of time, other notions, like his fear of German immigrants, seem almost comical two and a half centuries later. Franklin suggested, for example, that the turkey was a more fitting national icon because the eagle was a "bird of bad moral character." He also conducted an alphabetic re-design to make the English language more phonetic, resulting in a new language (you can read it here) which is not dissimilar to that used by the internet's favorite LOLcats.

But Franklin was by no means alone in his fear of a German immigrant takeover. Xenophobia was widespread during the period. An outspoken Lutheran minister of the time, Henry Muhlenberg, claimed Germans would flood the nation with "unprecedented wickedness and crimes."

As it turns out, the wave of German immigrants didn't destroy us. In the 1800's, hundreds of thousands of German immigrants became the "backbone of the nation's agriculture" in the Midwest and played an integral role in pushing West, settling in Texas, the Dakotas, and California ,according to the Library of Congress. German immigrants are also the reason many Americans decorate a tree during Christmas and paint eggs during Easter. Today, more Americans say their ancestry traces back to Germany than to any other foriegn nation.

And yet history continues to repeat itself. Last week, it was discovered that Jason Richwine, a former senior policy analyst of the Heritage Foundation, wrote his Harvard dissertation on how immigrants of Latino descent had lower IQ's than those of European ancestry. The gist: They will bring down the nation as a whole with all their intellectually inferior offspring.

When he was called a racist and a eugenicist by political commentators on TV and around the internet, he said the news was a shock to him, because simply put -- he is smart.

"It still amazes me that it would be me who is portrayed this way," Richwine said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. "I have a pretty good educational background, I have a good background in doing very good quantitative work. The idea that I am some sort of foaming-at-the-mouth extremist never even crossed my mind."

But as Franklin is evidence, one doesn't have to be dumb to find reason to fear new waves of immigrants. Despite the many studies that show that Latinos are now integrating into society like waves of immigrants before them, even surpassing whites in college enrollment this month, fear persists (even in those with PhDs from Harvard).

American historian Kenneth C. Davis said in a New York Times Op-Ed that Franklin's worry about German immigrants is evidence that as long as we have thought of ourselves as a "melting pot" or a "nation of immigrants," we have also harbored a strong strain of xenophobia.

"Scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret," he wrote. "Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself."

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