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.

The story of Oney Judge

If I hadn’t looked up, I never would have known about her.

This past week, I was in Philadelphia and was waiting to meet someone near the Liberty Bell. I noticed a few posters hanging on a wall outside, and something about one caught my eye.

It was about Oney Judge.

Oney Judge

Her story

She was one of George Washington’s slaves, and she had escaped from his home in Philadelphia while he was President. Here’s the quote that was on the poster.

"Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn't know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I should never get my liberty. I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there beforehand, and left Washington's house while they were eating dinner.”

I decided to read more. I learned that Pennsylvania became the first state to establish a process to emancipate its slaves. That was in 1780. Part of this “Gradual Abolition Act” was that slaves held in Pennsylvania for more than six months could free themselves.

I learned that Washington purposefully rotated his slaves while he was President in Philadelphia, sending them back to Mount Vernon or to New Jersey for a few days so they would remain enslaved. This violated a 1788 law that had been passed, but Washington continued to do it until 1797 when he returned to Virginia and was no longer President.

Newspaper ads were placed offering a bounty for her kidnapping. “Ten dollars will be paid to any person who will bring her home.”  But there were fears such an abduction would cause a riot among abolitionists.

When she was spotted in New Hampshire, the customs officer sent a message to Washington that she would return if the President would free her upon his death. He declined, saying he would not “reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom].” A year later, in 1798, Washington’s nephew met with her and planned to kidnap her himself, but she was alerted and went into hiding.

Read the entire Wikipedia entry if you can. There are much longer accounts too listed in the notes. It brings to life how human beings were treated as pets or objects. The language is chilling.

“At about age 10, Oney was brought to live at the Mansion House at Mount Vernon, likely as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter Nelly Custis. She eventually became the personal attendant or body servant to Martha Washington.”

“Following Judge's 1796 escape, her younger sister, Delphy, became the wedding present to Martha Washington's granddaughter.”

What else have I missed?

Simply by looking up from my phone for a minute, I saw something that changed my perspective.

Until then, I had an almost cartoonish image of George Washington. I would think of him stoically crossing the Delaware in that famous painting. Or admitting to chopping down the apple tree as a boy (“I cannot tell a lie.”).

Of course he must have been more complicated than that, his ethics and values not nearly as lofty or even consistent as I had believed. Even just a few minutes of paying attention brought me closer to the truth, and to an appreciation for all the shades of gray in a world increasingly seeking black and white.

What else have I missed?

“Beginner’s mind” in everyday life

I was at the top of our narrow sloping driveway, sitting on my bike, after my father had just removed my training wheels. I was five, and my older brother was there too. “Ready?” my father said, and let go. Gravity took over, and I squeezed the handlebars as I went faster, quickly veering too far right until I crashed into the building next door. I lay there stunned, with my ego and my knee badly bruised.

“You didn’t hit the brake!” my brother scolded, and I felt stupid on top of everything else. I vowed not to try again any time soon.

That was one way to begin. Afraid and without proper preparation, I was focused solely on the outcome. I took the failure personally and gave up instead of persisting. It was a mistake I was to repeat.

There are, of course, better ways to approach something new.

Beginner’s mind

A phrase that captures the more positive aspects of a fresh perspective is “beginner’s mind” (or Shoshin 初心), a concept in Zen Buddhism.

“It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

I had seen the phrase before, but it was only as I began learning to play the piano recently that I could appreciate the meaning

Playing with two hands

I approached learning the piano differently from learning to ride a bike. I was without fear of judgment and without expectation. In my second lesson this past week, my teacher showed me a version of “Ode to Joy” that required playing with two hands.

“Are you crazy?” I joked. “This is only the second lesson!”

In my head, the coordination required for playing with two hands was beyond me. But despite my trepidation at taking the next step, my teacher guided me and I got it after a few attempts. My playing was lacking grace and tempo, and was filled with mistakes, but I knew that practice would be my ally. I smiled with the fulfillment that comes with getting better at something.

Biking to work

The next morning, I practiced playing with two hands before work and could see more improvement. Alone in the apartment, I even applauded myself after a minor breakthrough.

I was experiencing the “openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions” of beginner’s mind.

It was while I was biking to work shortly after practice that I remembered the story of my first attempt to ride on two wheels. I also remembered the freedom I felt when I eventually did learn to ride. The feel of independence, the feel of the wind.

I pedaled slowly along the Hudson River. I paid attention to the breeze and the smell of the water, and to the shapes of the clouds. To the tourists strolling and consulting maps in different languages. I nodded good morning to the Statue of Liberty.

Beginner’s mind, I thought, doesn’t just apply to “studying a subject.” It can apply to each and every day.

Beginner's mind on the way to work