• Keene Short

A Lineage of American Exclusion

Recent policy developments within the Trump administration signal a change in how the U.S. will treat immigration. First, the president indicated his intention to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, then passed an executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. If we take Trump at his word (ill-advised as that is), these changes reflect a policy putting “America first,” a thinly veiled declaration of the new administration’s generally racist, specifically anti-immigration agenda.

Coming out of the Obama administration (which only bombed Muslims and very quietly deported immigrants), Trump’s policies might look like a major ideological shift. But the administration derives its ideology from longstanding nativist discourse that has been embedded in American legislation, culture, and politics from as early as the Jacksonian era, culminating most visibly in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but popularly present at almost every turn in U.S. history.

Nativism, the idea that the nation exists only for and by those born in it, has periodically entered mainstream American discourse, as either a political movement or legal policy. A self-consciously nativist political party, the Know Nothings, emerged in the 1850s, but nativist discourse stems from an even older historical moment.

Andrew Jackson’s 1830 speech to Congress regarding Indian removal most clearly articulated nativism’s foundations in expansionist terms. Jackson declared that the “benevolent policy of the government” to remove “the Indians beyond the white settlements” would benefit both white Americans and Native American Indians [1]. Indian removal, he contended, would benefit “the settled, civilized Christian[s]” looking to expand westward at the expense of those outside the boundaries of Jacksonian nationality. Howard Zinn notes a moment in 1829 when gold was found in Cherokee regions of Georgia: “Thousands of whites invaded,” writes Zinn, and destroyed Cherokee land and property. Jackson sent troops to remove the settlers, as well as to prevent Indians from mining the gold until settlers returned, at which point Jackson claimed he had no authority over the matter [2]. Two decades later, a similar scenario would unfold after the discovery of gold in California.

Jackson portrayed America as an expanding polity for and of white Christian men, allowing for a “working class ideology” that would motivate northern Democrats to appeal to white Southern interests, thereby embracing Southern racist ideologies [3]. In Jackson’s speech lay the groundwork for nativist ideology that colonial settlers carried with them to the western frontier, a place peopled by non-Americans who settlers saw as easily removable, regardless of what treaties might be in place.

By 1850, when California was granted statehood in the wake of the gold rush, nativist discourse permeated the United States at a national level, such that anti-immigration parties tried to influence federal elections. In 1856, The Know Nothings endorsed Millard Filmore for president, but he lost to James Buchanan. In the next presidential election, slavery dominated national discourse, but ant-immigration sentiments continued to grow locally. The gold rush sparked immigration from across the globe, including China and Japan, to California. U.S. colonization of the west through military conquest and sporadic white settlement changed the shape of America, but with every new state came the same logic: America is for Americans, and Americans are white and Christian. This logic went into the carving of the United States.

As California became a large voting state, Republicans and Democrats alike paid greater attention to white Californian interests. White settlers in the 1840s and 1850s grew discontent with what they saw as competition from a foreign group, manifesting in anti-Chinese sentiments across the state. Nativist movements were often violently opposed to new immigrants, and many “nativist fraternities had at least paramilitary organization, and many actually established ‘military’ units’” related to local militias [5]. It should be no surprise, then, that Chinese immigrants were often the victims of violence as well as regular discrimination, especially in the west. California senator Augustine Roach brought Chinese immigration into the 1876 presidential election, doing what the Know Nothings had failed to do. During this period, anti-Chinese “Yellow Scare” literature proliferated, telling unfounded, racist narratives of the consequences for white Americans of immigration from China, Japan, and Korea.

Nativism went hand in hand with “Manifest Destiny,” another nineteenth century phrase used as propaganda by staunch Democrat John L. O’Sullivan, to motivate Congress to annex Texas from Mexico in the 1840s. The phrase did not alter the trajectory of Jacksonian ideology, but rather added to it, treating America as an ongoing project of settlement and resettlement. This settlement-resettlement project played out in the Southwest as well, following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, for which Mexico ceded Texas, California, and New Mexico (including Arizona, Nevada, and Colorado) to the U.S. Though the treaty stipulated that Mexican citizens of the ceded territories would have full American citizenship, white settlers transplanted Jacksonian notions of American identity to the Southwest, creating de facto segregation and nativist anti-Catholic atmospheres [4].

Finally, in 1882, as a response to populist anti-Chinese paranoia, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. The Act put in place a legal manifestation of pre-existing nativist violence. In the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre, for instance, rioters attacked Chinese immigrants, killing twenty-eight, in revenge against Union Pacific for hiring Chinese laborers [4]. In many cases, the Exclusion Act mobilized nativist violence instead of placating it, but, of course, the commonplace status of violence against Mexicans, Native Americans, and immigrants in the state-by-state invention of America allowed white settlers to elevate themselves above the inconvenience of laws and treaties. Popular nativism was ingrained in everyday speech and action.

Twenty-first century Americans have inherited nineteenth century nativism/Jacksonian Democracy/Manifest Destiny. It’s called American Exceptionalism. The patronizing tone Jackson used in 1830 appears again and again throughout American history: when Vice President Dick Cheney proclaimed that the U.S. military would be greeted in Iraq as liberators, or when Obama ordered drone strikes to fight terrorists regardless of how many children died as collateral. It may not always be exclusionary legislation, but all of it has been a form of America for Americans at the expense of someone else, because no colonial project is ever without victims.

One week into his presidency, Trump has brought back nativism to its greatest extent. His policies are pointedly nineteenth century in their implications: fear of immigrants because of who they are, what religion they practice, where they come from, what language they speak.

It would be foolish to think that these policies are new. Nativist discourse in the U.S. has been almost ever-present, making its way into mining camps and ranches and the floor of Congress, and now it resides fiercely in the White House, its zealous adherents working quickly to create a more overtly nativist state, a Jacksonian state, an America for white Christian Americans.

In Trump, we may not be seeing a return to nativism, because nativism never really perished. Instead, we see him simply borrowing from the worst moments of U.S. history, plagiarizing the past in the absence of an original ideology. Trump is the logical conclusion of the lie of American Exceptionalism and the regime of Jacksonian Democracy. His administration is the culmination of violent scaffolding that has propped up the illusory narrative of Manifest Destiny: the fear that someone other than white Christians might share America’s bounty, whether that bounty is land, resources, opportunity, or security.

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[1] Jackson, Andrew. “Speech to Congress on Indian Removal” December 6, 1830.

[2] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. HarperPerennial, 1995.

[3] Gorey, Andrew. Closing the Gate. University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

[4] Hine, Robert, John Faragher. Frontiers. Yale University Press, 2007.

[5] Knobel, Dale. America for the Americans: The Nativist Movement in the United States. Twayne Publishers, 1996.

Image source: Gray, Ormando W. "United States of America," from National Atlas with Descriptions (Philadelphia, O. W. Gray and Sons, 1876).

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