There is little evidence that the founders advocated for a free-for-all, open-door immigration policy.
From the very beginning, even in the absence of immigration law, the founders knew America had to set boundaries. Their top three concerns were the qualifications, assimilation, and allegiance of newcomers. The founders emphasized the moral character and contributions newcomers would bring.
Not only should new migrants have good moral character, but they should also place “high importance to the respectability and character of the American name” and do their best to “preserve its good fame from injury,” as Rep. James Jackson, a Democratic-Republican from Georgia, said in 1790. The founding generation didn’t want convicts and criminals as new immigrants.
George Washington preferred skilled new immigrants, such as “useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions.” James Madison wanted the “worthy part of mankind to come and settle amongst us,” so they can “increase the wealth and strength of the community; and those who acquire the rights of citizenship, without adding to the strength or wealth of the community are not the people we are in want of.”
How can a new immigrant increase the wealth and strength of a community? Rep. John Laurance clarified:
Every person who comes among us must do one or the other; if he brings money, or other property with him, he evidently increases the general mass of wealth, and if he brings an able body, his labor will be productive of national wealth, and an addition to our domestic strength. Consequently, every person, rich or poor, must add to our wealth and strength, in a greater or less degree.
Assimilation Strengthens and Protects
The United States was founded upon specific ideas and moral principles, as expressed by the eloquent words of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson believed that “it is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together.”
He feared that if new immigrants believed different ideas, then “with their language, they will transmit [them] to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”
Benjamin Franklin shared Jefferson’s concerns. Some people today accuse Benjamin Franklin of being anti-immigration because of the disparaging words he said about German immigrants. In fact, Franklin was anything but opposed to immigration. He published the first German newspaper in America, the Philadelphische Zeitung, in 1732. Franklin was not against immigration; he was concerned that a lack of assimilation would be harmful to immigrants’ happiness and damning to the unity and longevity of the republic.
George Washington expressed a similar concern: that immigration does not benefit America when immigrants congregate and “retain their language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them.”
Instead, he firmly believed that new immigrants or their descendants should, “by an intermixture with our people … get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws: in a word, soon become one people.”
Immigrants Must Pledge Allegiance
No matter what drives them to America, some immigrants retain residual loyalty to their countries and cultures of birth. To become Americans, the founders believed immigrants needed to give up prior allegiances and pledge an oath of fidelity to the U.S. In Alexander Hamilton’s words:
The safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits; on the exemption of citizens from foreign bias and prejudice; and on the love of country which will almost invariably be found to be closely connected with birth, education, and family.
John Quincy Adams, in an 1819 letter to Moritz von Furstenwarther, a German citizen who was considering moving to the U.S. and had asked Adams for a job, stated that the U.S. is a land “not of privileges, but of equal rights.” Thus, Adams warned Furstenwarther that new immigrants like him:
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.
Citizenship Isn’t Cheap
While some founders believed an oath of allegiance and a declaration to stay in America were sufficient for citizenship, others did not want to give out citizenship too cheaply.
They pointed out that some foreign sailors had voted in Philadelphia’s assembly elections after taking oaths of allegiance and then left America, having never intended to stay. This kind of practice not only results in election fraud but also threatens the “safety of a republic” because a foreigner who rejects American principles and ideas would vote against them.
Therefore, some founders thought “some security for their [immigrants’] fidelity and allegiance was requisite besides the bare oath.” The additional security the founders sought was property ownership or residency.
Property ownership has been used to distinguish citizens from aliens since the Roman Empire. Some founders wanted to “see the title of a citizen of America as highly venerated and respected as was that of a citizen of old Rome.”
During the House of Representatives debate on immigration law in Philadelphia in 1790, the majority of the founders regarded it as essential that an individual have a period of residency in the U.S. prior to gaining citizenship. Residency achieved two purposes, according to Rep. Michael Stone:
First, that he should have an opportunity of knowing the circumstances of our Government, and in consequence thereof, shall have admitted the truth of the principles we hold. Second, that he shall have acquired a taste for this kind of Government. And in order that both these things may take place, in such a full manner as to make him worthy of admission into our society.
Founders extensively debated how long residency should be. Some suggested two years, while others suggested five years or even longer. But all agreed the residency requirement should be long enough to “give a man an opportunity of esteeming the Government from knowing its intrinsic value,” which “was essentially necessary to assure us of a man’s becoming a good citizen.”
Hamilton, the most famous immigrant to America, opposed limiting any congressional office to either native-born Americans or immigrants who met the residency requirement. People suspected later that he was trying to make himself eligible for the U.S. presidency.
Hamilton’s actual argument at the Constitutional Convention showed he was more concerned about ordinary immigrants. He pointed out, “Persons in Europe of moderate fortunes will be fond of coming here, where they will be on a level with the first citizens. I move that the section be so altered as to require merely citizenship and inhabitancy.”
The majority overruled Hamilton’s proposal by requiring future U.S. House Representatives to meet a seven-year residency requirement, U.S. senators a nine-year residency, and presidents a 14-year residency.