August 13: Can Foreigners Become Citizens and Govern?

On August 13th, they took up a debate about whether to require four years or seven years of citizenship before someone was eligible to serve in the House of Representatives. Ultimately, they settle on seven years and the Constitution still requires seven years of citizenship before being eligible. But their debate on this question is interesting for what it reveals about the founders’ varying conception of citizenship. Elbridge Gerry voices what we might call the “nativist” worry: “Persons having foreign attachments will be sent among us & insinuated into our councils, in order to be made instruments for their purposes.” Gerry is focused more concretely on European “secret services” who would insidiously work to govern the United States in a way that serves their true allegiance to some European power.

But Gerry’s worry seems more susceptible to generalization than that. Gerry and others at the Convention worried about the influence of “foreigners” on this government. If representation isn’t restricted to long-time citizens than it would be possible for the government to take a different turn foreign to the United States, its people and its interests.

Illustrating this worry, Hugh Williamson now proposes nine years instead of seven because “he wished this Country to acquire as fast as possible national habits.” That is, Williamson wants this to become a national people who govern themselves by themselves with a set of habits and disposition unique to America. Those “wealthy emigrants” who come to the United States “do more harm by their luxurious examples, than good, by the money, they bring with them.” Williamson articulates an exclusionary principle of citizenship. There are the real Americans who have been here and then there are the “wealthy emigrants” who come here with their money but aren’t part of the national character.

To this concern, both Hamilton and Madison respond with the spirit of liberality that is often found in their political thought. Hamilton, a foreigner himself, says: “the advantage of encouraging foreigners was obvious & admitted. Persons in Europe of moderate fortunes will be fond of coming here where they will be on a level with the first Citizens.” The United States, Hamilton suggests, will thrive more if it encourages immigration. Unlike so many places where immigrants cannot be the same as those who have been here for a long time, we will embody a new principle of integration.

James Madison now echoes and amplifies Hamilton’s argument. Not only is it good for the foreigners who would like to come, it’s also good for us. “He wished to invite foreigners of merit & republican principles among us. America was indebted to emigrations for her settlement & Prosperity. That part of America which had encouraged them most had advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture & the arts.” Those coming would believe in the American republican experiment at least as much if not more than the people already here. Moreover they bring new energy and activity with them.

Although Madison admits that Gerry’s worries are possible, “it was by no means probable that it would happen in any dangerous degree.”

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