The Question Hamilton & Jefferson Never Answered: Who Can Be an American?

Email a Friend
Leaders of the Continental Congress, from left to right: John Adams, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. From a drawing by Augustus Tholey, 1894
From and

The following essay is by Takeaway Host John Hockenberry. Follow him on Twitter: @JHockenberry

Each year on the 4th of July, a somber, joyous naturalization ceremony takes place in front of the impressive neoclassical pillars of the building that was once the home of the third President of the United States — Thomas Jefferson — the man who wrote these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Jefferson, it is well known, owned African slaves whose labor undoubtedly contributed to this Virginia plantation owner’s pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Jefferson’s slaves did also not expect to be consulted about the conditions of their governance.

Yet, Jefferson in his first message to the nation in 1801 called for a sizable boost in immigration by reducing the time it took to process naturalization papers. In 1801, the path to citizenship was 14 years, on average. Jefferson proposed reducing it to less than five years or eliminating the delay entirely to allow skilled foreign workers to help fuel the fledgling U.S. economy.

Opposed to opening the floodgates were former U.S. Treasury secretary and powerful member of the Federalist Party, Alexander Hamilton. This seems odd when you realize Hamilton was himself an orphaned immigrant from the Caribbean, something that has only been well known with the success of the Broadway hit “Hamilton.”

Jefferson, his rival, never tired of pointing out Hamilton’s questionable birth origins when they argued, which was often. In the play, their arguments come in the form of a very entertaining battle of rappers. But the real story is a little more complicated than the Broadway version of history.

Concerning Jefferson’s call for aggressive immigration, Hamilton writes: “The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.” It is immigrant and abolitionist Hamilton who mistrusts foreigners, while Jefferson, who benefits from African slaves bought and sold with no chance of citizenship, wants more cheap if not free labor to stimulate the young economy.

This argument is full of surprises and tells a much more nuanced story of immigration in America than you hear in the typical campaign ad in 2016. The Broadway show “Hamilton” has underscored just how unresolved the question of “who can be an American?” was in the early 19th century, and how little progress has been made in clarifying that issue in two centuries.

We are taught in school all about Jefferson’s contributions to the language of freedom without being told much about his support of slavery. We are told almost nothing about Alexander Hamilton’s bitter differences with Jefferson, but when we do learn about those debates suddenly the group of new immigrants standing in the rain at Monticello taking the oath of citizenship takes on a new significance.

These people from dozens of nations all have individual stories of escaping oppression or uniting their families, or starting a new life. They also represent how much the United States is the national idealization of freedom in an imperfect world. These immigrants will also learn how imperfect and unresolved America’s own immigration policy remains.

I was particularly struck by a woman from Iraq and Russia who told the crowd she was looking forward to escaping from all the labels: Muslim, Arab, Iraqi, Russian. We can only wonder her chances of avoiding the new labels — low wage worker, immigrant, radical Muslim. If the government doesn’t create a credible path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants all people who come here will be stuck with the labels that Americans taught to be suspicious of foreigners see fit to give them, true or false.