We often hear about the glory days of immigration when America threw open her arms to the huddled masses, but one thing you don’t hear about is how those people had to make it on their own without a government safety net. There was plenty of private charity, which was highly encouraged, but health care, a minimum-wage job, college entrance, housing, legal representation, and education certainly weren’t promised—not like today.
In 1819, John Quincy Adams wrote a letter as secretary of State under President James Monroe to a man named von Fiirstenwarther, who had written a report about emigration in Germany and wanted the U.S. government to give him a job if he immigrated to the United States from his native country. The letter gives great insight into attitudes about immigration at a time when it was becoming a serious issue; the nation was in a financial crisis because banks were printing too much money, and the country was expanding at an overwhelming rate. Jobs weren’t as easy to come by as they had been in the past (sound familiar?). The idea of immigrants receiving government subsistence was nonsensical. The borders were open, but it was up to each individual to make his or her own way in the New World. Americans then valued personal responsibility and liberty more highly than security and public welfare.
Adam’s letter reveals this fact like nothing else. It is difficult to find (it was printed in Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 18, in 1820), and it would be a surprise if most politicians today have even read it—but they should.
Here it is, in full (italics added). Let its wisdom be a lesson for today as we throw open our borders to the poor in an age of government largesse.
The Letter from John Quincy Adams
Sir—I had the honor of receiving your letter of the 22nd April, enclosing one from your kinsman, the Baron de Gagern, and a copy of your printed report, which I hope and have no doubt will be useful to those of your countrymen in Germany, who may have entertained erroneous ideas, with regard to the results of emigration from Europe to this country.
It was explicitly stated to you, and your report has taken just notice of the statement, that the government of the United States has never adopted any measure to encourage or invite emigrants from any part of Europe. It has never held out any incitements to induce the subjects of any other sovereign to abandon their own country, to become inhabitants of this. From motives of humanity it has occasionally furnished facilities to emigrants who, having arrived here with views of forming settlements, have specially needed such assistance to carry them into effect. Neither the general government of the union, nor those of the individual states, are ignorant or unobservant of the additional strength and wealth, which accrues to the nation, by the accession of a mass of healthy, industrious, and frugal laborers, nor are they in any manner insensible to the great benefits which this country has derived, and continues to derive, from the influx of such adoptive children from Germany.
But there is one principle which pervades all the institutions of this country, and which must always operate as an obstacle to the granting of favors to new comers. This is a land, not of privileges, but of equal rights. Privileges are granted by European sovereigns to particular classes of individuals, for purposes of general policy; but the general impression here is that privileges granted to one denomination of people, can very seldom be discriminated from erosions of the rights of others.
Emigrants from Germany, therefore, or from elsewhere, coming here, are not to expect favors from the governments. They are to expect, if they choose to become citizens, equal rights with those of the natives of the country. They are to expect, if affluent, to possess the means of making their property productive, with moderation, and with safety;—if indigent, but industrious, honest and frugal, the means of obtaining easy and comfortable subsistence for themselves and their families.
They come to a life of independence, but to a life of labor—and, if they cannot accommodate themselves to the character, moral, political, and physical, of this country, with all its compensating balances of good and evil, the Atlantic is always open to them, to return to the land of their nativity and their fathers.
To one thing they must make up their minds, or, they will be disappointed in every expectation of happiness as Americans. They must cast off the European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity, rather than backward to their ancestors; they must be sure that whatever their own feelings may be, those of their children will cling to the prejudices of this country, and will partake of that proud spirit, not unmingled with disdain, which you have observed is remarkable in the general character of this people, and as perhaps belonging peculiarly to those of German descent, born in this country.
That feeling of superiority over other nations which you have noticed, and which has been so offensive to other strangers, who have visited these shores, arises from the consciousness of every individual that, as a member of society, no man in the country is above him; and, exulting in this sentiment, he looks down upon those nations where the mass of the people feel themselves the inferiors of privileged classes, and where men are high or low, according to the accidents of their birth.
But hence it is that no government in the world possesses so few means of bestowing favors, as the government of the United States. The governments are the servants of the people, and are so considered by the people, who place and displace them at their pleasure. They are chosen to manage for short periods the common concerns, and when they cease to give satisfaction, they cease to be employed. If the powers, however, of the government to do good are restricted, those of doing harm are still more limited. The dependence, in affairs of government, is the reverse of the practice in Europe, instead of the people depending upon their rulers, the rulers, as such, are always dependent upon the good will of the people.
We understand perfectly, that of the multitude of foreigners who yearly flock to our shores, to take up here their abode, none come from affection or regard to a land to which they are total strangers, and with the very language of which, those of them who are Germans are generally unacquainted. We know that they come with views, not to our benefit, but to their own—not to promote our welfare, but to better their own condition.
We expect therefore very few, if any transplanted countrymen from classes of people who enjoy happiness, ease, or even comfort, in their native climes. The happy and contented remain at home, and it requires an impulse, at least as keen as that of urgent want, to drive a man from the soil of his nativity and the land of his father’s sepulchres. Of the very few emigrants of more fortunate classes, who ever make the attempt of settling in this country, a principal proportion sicken at the strangeness of our manners, and after a residence, more or less protracted, return to the countries whence they came.
There are, doubtless, exceptions, and among the most opulent and the most distinguished of our citizens, we are happy to number individuals who might have enjoyed or acquired wealth and consideration, without resorting to a new country and another hemisphere. We should take great satisfaction in finding you included in this number, if it should suit your own inclinations, and the prospects of your future life, upon your calculations of your own interests.
I regret that it is not in my power to add the inducement which you might perceive in the situation of an officer under the government. All the places in the department to which I belong, allowed by the laws, are filled, nor is there a prospect of an early vacancy in any of them. Whenever such vacancies occur, the applications from natives of the country to fill them, are far more numerous than the offices, and the recommendations in behalf of the candidates so strong and so earnest, that it would seldom be possible, if it would ever be just, to give a preference over them to foreigners.
Although, therefore, it would give me a sincere pleasure to consider you as one of our future and permanent fellow citizens, I should not do either an act of kindness or of justice to you, in dissuading you from the offers of employment and of honorable services, to which you are called in your native country. With the sincerest wish that you may find them equal and superior to every expectation of advantage that you have formed, or can indulge, in looking to them, I have the honor to be, sir, your very obedient and humble servant,
John Quincy Adams