Benjamin Franklin on immigration

My friend Bill Elwell e-mailed me this quote from a letter by Benjamin Franklin on German immigration into Pennsylvania:

franklin-benjaminThose who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation . . . and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. . . . Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it. . . . I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties. . . . In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

Benjamin Franklin was a great man and in most respects a wise man, but he badly misjudged my Ebersole, Doub, Snyder and Secrist forebears, including Johann Ebersole, my direct ancestor in the male line who, according to family tradition, came to the British colonies from the Palatinate in Germany and served in the Continental Army under George Washington.

Franklin’s view of immigration was a minority view.  Americans of his day welcomed hardworking newcomers.  One of the complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was that he “…has endeavored to prevent the Population of these States for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migration hither…”   There were no restrictions on immigration into the United States until 1882.

Immigration legislation is a complicated issue about which reasonable people can differ, but I can’t feel anything but sympathy for people who come to this country seeking refuge from tyrants and an opportunity to better themselves.

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2 Responses to “Benjamin Franklin on immigration”

  1. Atticus Says:

    Hi Phil,

    I have recently been reading the book “It can’t happen here” by Sinclair Lewis and (this is random), but you remind me of the main character Doremus Jessup. If you haven’t read it I suggest it. I’d like to hear your thoughts (and see if you relate to the main character).


  2. philebersole Says:

    Hi, Atticus

    I read It Can’t Happen Here a long time ago, and liked it. Comparing me to the Doremus Jessup character is a high compliment. I can relate to his small-town newspaper background and the fact that he is no longer young. I’m not sure whether I would be as brave under the same circumstances.

    The Walt Trowbridge character, who leads the New Underground, has the same background as Alfred E. Landon, the Republican candidate for President in 1936, and the Buzz Windrip character is said to be modeled on Huey Long, the radical governor of Louisiana, who was a kind of American version of Hugo Chavez.

    Huey Long had a large national following and, unlike the Windrip character, was not a fool or a tool, although he could behave in a crude way for his own purposes. He was a serious candidate for President in 1936 until he was assassinated.

    Sinclair Lewis, like many writers in the 1930s, saw the danger to freedom and democracy in demagogues exploiting popular discontent, rather than in misuse of existing government authority. The situation today is very different, I think. What is the same is how easy it is to come to accept abridgements of basic liberties is something normal.

    Phil Ebersole


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