From the draft of an unpublished paper that I have recently presented at a Conference on immigration:
1.1 Classical Liberalism, Feasible Freedom, and Immigration Politics in the US (1776 – 1900)
While the classical liberal tradition from Locke to Hayek is united by an emphasis on the self-organising features of free societies, it entirely fails to account for politics and the state as a spontaneous order, thus missing the political nature of liberty. Hayek correctly describes economic competition as a discovery procedure, yet neglects to appreciate that politics too is a discovery procedure, in the absence of which freedom is impossible. Thus, owing to an inability to understand that political practices and institutions lie at the heart of freedom, classical liberalism suffers from nothing less than a misconception of her central value, its normative vision of liberty being blind to the conditions of feasible freedom.
In this paper we wish to highlight some of the pivotal features of freedom overlooked by classical liberalism and sketch the contours of a theory of feasible freedom. To this purpose, we are drawing upon evidence from immigration politics as it was to unfold during the first 120 years after the founding of the United States of America. The history of the new American republic, which was strongly inspired by the ideas of classical liberalism, promises to yield interesting insights into the advancement of feasible freedom.
2.0 Trend Finding (1776 - 1800) – Political Competition as a Discovery Process
“Americans have been ambivalent about immigration since the earliest days of their republic. The founding generation grew up in British North American colonies that had contrasting traditions of governing European immigration. Some colonies were routinely hostile to outsiders; some granted entry and equal membership to immigrants who shared their ecclesiastical goals; some recruited immigrant labor but limited the rights newcomers enjoyed; and still others extended generous terms of immigration and membership to all white male settlers […]” (p.49f.)
This and all subsequent page references in the present selective draft paper refer to Tichenor, D.J. (2002), Dividing Lines. The Politics of Immigration Control in America, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton Paperbacks.
In 1781, Thomas Jefferson expressed apprehension about European immigration doubting that newcomers would be able to renounce their Old World loyalties to “absolute monarchy.” He did not believe that new waves of immigrants were capable of honouring republican principles, individual liberty and self-government. In order to avert the danger, he advocated constraints on future admissions.
By contrast, Thomas Paine urged “the nation to adopt the cosmopolitan individualism of Pennsylvania, where the equal membership of English, Dutch, Germans and Swedes showed that <we surmount the force of local prejudice as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world>.” (p.51). Paine’s universalist cosmopolitanism was echoed in George Washington’s pronouncement of 1783 that “America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions.” (p.51)
In a summer of closed meetings in Philadelphia, when America’s leading statesmen were deliberating the Constitution which they finally published in the same year on September 17, 1787, the debate revealed significant differences of opinion and among them also rather ambiguous positions. George Mason, for instance, hailed the economic benefits of alien labour, while opposing broad political rights to “foreigners and adventurers.” (p.52) By contrast, James Madison was worried that denial of public office to immigrants would “give a tincture of illiberality to the Constitution.” (p.52). In the end, the delegates to the convention struck a compromise by determining the foreign-born to be ineligible only for the presidency, while resolving on modest residency requirements for congressional office. (p.52)
The framers did not touch on the subject of immigration in the text of the Constitution (except indirectly, as noted above). It was wise of them not to prejudge the issue, as, we conjecture, their restraint kept the political discovery process open, a condition vital to political stability in the early years of the new republic. At the time, however, the founding fathers had tactical options to consider. To all intents and purposes, practical immigration issues were handled by the states, which the framers did not wish to alienate by pre-emptive constitutional determinations. Also, it appears, in remaining seemingly neutral, they effectively relied on the expectation that the states would continue to pursue policies of pragmatic leniency toward immigrants. Only a few years later, the first Congress in 1790 enacted a uniform rule of naturalization that made citizenship very easy to acquire for European men. It provided that <free white persons> who resided in the United States for as little as two years could be naturalized by <any common law court of record in any of the States.> (p.53)
At once, the restrictionists prepared to strike back. During the 1790s, the atmosphere for immigration grew inclement. The Anglo-French conflict fuelled support for restrictionist demands. One of the two leading parties at the time, the Federalists denounced French and Irish immigrants for putatively aligning themselves with the ideals of the French Revolution and fostering factionalism by participating in democratic clubs. What is more, the Federalists were alerted by the fact that in large cities, Irish and other immigrants would tend to cast their votes in favour of the other large party: the Democratic Republicans. Thus, taking advantage of congressional majorities, the Federalists enacted laws curbing access of European aliens to citizenship and enfranchisement. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which increased the residency requirement for eligibility to citizenship to 14 years, and allowed the president to imprison or deport aliens considered "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" at any time. An effort at forestalling the political decline of the Federalists, the Acts did not have the intended effect, and strengthened the bond between foreign-born voters and the Democratic-Republican party. With their help, Jefferson won the presidential election in 1800, and proceeded quickly to rescind the restrictionist legislation of the Federalists. He presided over the return of control of alien admissions to the states and the restoration of generous conditions of naturalisation. Once a man of nativist inclinations, Jefferson emerged as a staunch defender of the rights of white male immigrants, cementing the pro-immigration trend of the 18th century and handing a structure of expansionist path dependency on to the new century.
The political search for a dominant trend was accompanied by uncertainty and erratic turns. By the late-eighteenth century, however, compelling circumstances and pragmatic considerations predisposed a preponderance of political forces to embrace European immigration: (1) a paucity of labour, (2) abundant territory and (3) a vibrant desire for rapid settlement and economic development along the advancing frontiers of the United States.
Jefferson and other leading political figures, such as Benjamin Franklin, betrayed duplicity, opportunism and even full reversal of opinion in the matter of immigration. Why? The political discovery process of a free society confronted them with new evidence, forcing them to learn and adjust their public-facing agendas.