Saturday, July 10, 2010

Americans have always thought of their own as nation of immigrants?

++Addition++Patrick Cleburne makes note over at VDare.


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.


John Derbyshire said...

Thanks, Audacious. If it's a chore to listen, I post
transcripts a day or two later. The July 2 broadcast is the second transcript listed there.

OneSTDV said...

Can someone explain how the hell The National Review still employs Derb?

[Not that I'm encouraging them to stop!]

Jokah Macpherson said...

I had no idea before listening to the Derb's broadcast that ~50% of modern Americans can trace their ancestry back to pre-1776 settlers. In Obama's defense, the "nation of immigrants" thing is kind of pounded into you in grade school, or at least it was when I was there, so I had always assumed the percentage was lower. Is Albion's Seed a good read?

I would never read a Radio Derb transcript. There is no font that can capture the effect of a droll British accent.

Chris said...

A few years back I looked into my family's ancestry and found to my surprise that my mom's branch goes almost entirely back to pre-Revolutionary War days. None of my immediate family or cousins apparently knew. To the advantage of con men like Obama, there are probably huge numbers of people like this who have no idea how deep their American roots go.

dearieme said...

"None of my immediate family or cousins apparently knew." Which is another reason to snort in derision at those ludicrous figures that get published from time to time about what proportion of Americans report themselves as being descended from what European group.

Steve Sailer said...

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty _to ourselves and our Posterity_, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Patrick Cleburne said...

Valuable piece. Thanks.


Audacious Epigone said...


To hazard a couple of guesses, he's an immigrant and he points out with some regularity that Israelis are objectively more sympathetic, industrious, and civilized than are the populations of Islamic countries surrounding their nation. But please, keep your mouth shut and be thankful for the blessing!

Chris and Dearieme,

A large number (a majority, I'd guess) of those who self-describe themselves as ethnically "American" are founding stock.


Glad it could be of some value to VDare readers. It's an honor.

OneSTDV said...

I'd like to note it's pretty cool that Derb reads all the HBD sites besides iSteve (I've seen comments from him on OneSTDV, AE, and GuyWhite).

Derb is definitely well known in the media (Olbermann bashed him once and one of my uber-liberal friends immediately knew who Derb was when I once mentioned him).

I wonder how many other well-known old media types are perusing through the Steveosphere regularly.

pzed said...

why does anyone take derbyshire seriously when he opines against illegal immigration when he was one? i don't understand. no really.

OneSTDV said...

@ pzed:

is an ILLEGAL? i know he's an immigrant; i didnt' realize he was illegal.

but no matter, hypocrisy doesn't undermine reasonable moral claims. just because i kill someone doesn't mean my admonishment of murder should be automatically dismissed.

Audacious Epigone said...


I've heard that charge thrown around, but I've not seen the evidence for it. If a charge like that is leveled, it needs to be backed up.


Well put. Further, as a self-described HBD-realist, legality is part of the issue, but certainly not all of it. A Derb who settles illegal is still an asset.

as said...

Re: Derb was an illegal.

Indeed he was.

He discusses it in one of his columns. He worked as a dishwasher.

as said...

Here is the article:

I Was an Illegal Alien

For 5 years!

pzed said...

"just because i kill someone doesn't mean my admonishment of murder should be automatically dismissed."

there's some truth to that. on the other hand, it doesn't automatically make you an honorable, trustworthy, upstanding model for the community either. just because you have some sage advice doesn't mean you're not a despicable person.

silly girl said...

"there's some truth to that. on the other hand, it doesn't automatically make you an honorable, trustworthy, upstanding model for the community either. just because you have some sage advice doesn't mean you're not a despicable person."

Yeah, but the point of a discussion of a given topic is the topic not the folks discussing. If we want ad hom arguments, those sites outnumber thoughtful topic oriented ones by at least 1000 to 1.

OneSTDV said...

Further, as a self-described HBD-realist, legality is part of the issue, but certainly not all of it.

Yea amongst mainstream conservatives, it seems they'll let anyone in just along as they go through legally.

[My word verification (I swear): 'efingsad'.]

Chris said...

Regarding John Derbyshire having previously resided in the U.S. illegally...

Every single year, the U.S. gets on the order of 350,000 legal immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean and another 300,000 from Africa, China, India and the Philippines. Of all those legal immigrants, how many are there that were as well-suited for and well-disposed to the U.S. as John Derbyshire?

He's probably earned his place here as much as any of those 5-6 million legals who've come here in the past decade.

Audacious Epigone said...

pzed and as,

Thanks, and please forgive my laziness. I could've (and should've) easily looked that up myself.

Anonymous said...

I would love to get your reaction to my blog... I think we would have a lot in common.

Founder and Editor-in-Chief,

Joseph said...

It looks like the phrase "nation of immigrants" was almost non-existent back during the "liberal fascist" era.

I don't think that era should be used as a model.

Mon said...

Hmm... well... if Americans have never always thought of us as a "Nation of Immigrants", maybe they just weren't thinking. We aren't all Native Americans are we? I think you just like to pick on Obama :P

Audacious Epigone said...


This nation's English founders were not immigrants, they were settlers. How'd that work out for the Native Americans? The current wave of Latin Americans into the country constitutes a wave of settlers wishing to bring the culture of their home countries here, not immigrants eager to assimilate towards US norms.