What Hamilton, an immigrant, thought of immigration

For a person as ignorant of American history as I am, reading the biography of Alexander Hamilton is like reading a thriller. I turn the page in rapt attention, unsure of what might happen next.

I was shocked, for example, when I read about the Founding Fathers' vicious personal attacks in the press; the passing of outrageous infringements on free speech (“the Sedition Act”); the jockeying for power and influence in the government from the very beginning, when whole departments might consist of only one man and his desk.

One of the most surprising things was Hamilton’s view on immigration, and how that view changed over time.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

In favor of immigration…

Alexander Hamilton was one of America’s most famous immigrants. He was born in Nevis, in the British West Indies, in 1755. Looking back, America was unimaginably small.

In 1790, there were only 32,000 people living in Manhattan. Today it’s about 500 times that. Two centuries later, over 50,000 people worked in the World Trade Center towers alone, with another 200,000 passing through as visitors. From 1790 to 1890, America’s population soared from 4 million to 63 millionClearly, America was and is a land of immigrants.

So it's no surprise that Hamilton, both as an immigrant himself and someone who foresaw the growth of America, fought for immigration. For example, in 1776, at the Constitutional Convention, there was a debate on limiting membership to Congress to native-born Americans. Hamilton opposed it - “The advantage of encouraging foreigners is obvious…” - and a residency requirement was put in place as a compromise.

In 1790, Hamilton foresaw the need to shift from agriculture to manufacturing, and how Britain in particular had experts and expertise that the US did not. It was clear to him that the best way to achieve industrial parity with England was “to procure from Europe skillful workmen,” and as Treasury secretary he successfully commissioned plans to do so.

…until he wasn’t

Yet as America grew, and as Hamilton's circumstances changed, his views on immigration shifted. And he wasn’t alone.

In 1798, as Hamilton’s Federalist felt it was losing power, the debates shifted to trying to preserve the current order. Once congressman declared America should no longer “wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.”

Hamilton went even further, and his biographer points out the striking irony.

“‘My opinion is that the mass [of aliens] ought to be obliged to leave the country’ - a disappointing stance from America’s most famous foreign-born citizen and once an influential voice for immigration…

He predicted that “the influx of foreigners” would “change and corrupt the national spirit.” Most amazing of all, this native West Indian published a diatribe against the Swiss-born treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. “Who rules the councils of our own ill-fated, unhappy country? A foreigner!” Throughout his career, Hamilton had been an unusually tolerant man with enlightened views on slavery, native Americans, and Jews. His whole vision of American manufacturing had been predicated on immigration. Now, embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature."

It’s that last sentence that has stayed with me. Hamilton never forgot that he was an immigrant. (He was repeatedly reminded of the fact in scathing articles in the press.) He saw the value and necessity of bringing in people from other places to help America develop and grow. Yet, “embittered by his personal setbacks, he sometimes betrayed his own best nature.”

Knowing a bit of history makes me view current events with a different lens than I might have otherwise.