In the July 2nd broadcast of Radio Derb, John Derbyshire delivers a beautiful cliche-by-cliche refutation of open-borders appeals delivered by President Obama earlier in the same week. Responding to the "nation of immigrants" bromide, the Derb remarks:
Barack Obama's assertion that, quote: "We've always defined ourselves as a nation of immigrants," is just false. No we haven't. The phrase "nation of immigrants" was thought up by John F. Kennedy in 1958. To my knowledge, nobody in the previous 180 years of the republic's existence ever uttered that phrase. It certainly wasn't commonplace. Funny use of the word "always" there, Mr. President.Harry Truman had actually made use of it six years earlier, in a speech commemerating "Citizenship Day" and celebrating the alleged beating communism had taken within the US:
These are the ideals to which this Nation of immigrants dedicated itself 165 years ago when our Constitution was signed. These are the ideals which we are still striving-imperfectly at times, but with increasing success--to carry out in this wonderful country of ours.I wasn't sure if Truman was the orginator of the phrase or not, but assumed he wasn't, since it's unlikely that a durable cliche like that would originate from the top of the executive branch. I wanted certainty so decided to turn to the New York Times online archive, which extends back all the way to 1851. Granted, that only gets us two-thirds of the way to our nation's founding, but if it traces that far back in time, I'm willing to give Obama credit for his assertion.
The following graph shows the number of articles containing the phrase "nation of immigrants" as a percentage of the total number of articles published by the gray lady over the same time period:
Turns out the Derb was on the money in noting that the phrase certainly has not been commonplace throughout most of the country's history and Obama is simply incorrect. It makes its first appearance in the NYT in 1923 ahead of the Immigration Act of 1924 that was followed by a four-decade long lull in immigration into the US, and pops up a few more times throughout the latter half of the twenties. So if the graph were to extend back to the nation's founding, the trendline would slide along at zero for the first two-thirds of the US' history as an indepedent country.
For the duration of the Great Depression, it does not make a single appearance--it's difficult to get people to support admitting more competition for work into the country when one-in-four current residents are unemployed. "Nation of immigrants" returns in 1940 at the behest of immigrant leaders concerned about perceived injustices facing the foreign-born as the US moved towards entry into WWII.
It wasn't until the late sixties, when the massive demographic transition we're still experiencing today had begun, that the phrase might be deemed recognizable (in large part, as the Derb mentions, because of John F. Kennedy's regular usage of it--at the time of his assassanation, a book with exactly the cliche's title was being worked on in his name).
As a third-generation immigrant on the maternal side and of founding stock on the paternal side, I've never taken seriously claims to right of settlement based on historical trends. From my perspective, those who are now here legitimately get to decide who may come and who must stay out. I haven't owned my house since it was built, but now that I have title to it, I get to decide who is welcome and who isn't.
But the Derb makes a valid point regarding the large proportion of Americans who trace their ancestry back to the nation's founding. The four waves of settlers chronicled in David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed and their cohorts who found their way onto American soil prior to 1776--constituting the ancestry of close to half of all US citizens today--were settlers, not immigrants. One might ask Native Americans how that turned out for them. I sure as hell don't want Mexican settlers staking out territory in my country.