Appeals to history that address issues in the present are often aspirational and unsupported, and for good reason. If one can foreclose discussion of a current topic by citing an abridged version of the past, the argument is won in the short term by forcing adversaries to scurry off to check original sources.
Such is the power of the “That’s not who we are” gambit. Cherry-pick an idyllic fruit from the nation’s history tree, and the counterargument is made to appear not just wrong, but heartless.
The “that’s not who we are” riposte has been used to push the notion that the United States shouldn’t defend its borders with walls because we are a nation of immigrants. A little research reveals that there’s nothing more American than a wall, and with Thanksgiving approaching, it’s a good time to recall the nation’s first wall, built by the nation’s first immigrants.
In December 1621, the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, who had survived their first terrible winter here were made fearful of attack by an ominous message received from the Narragansett tribe—a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snakeskin.
Myles Standish, the military leader of the colony who had been trained in engineering at the University of Leiden, designed and organized the construction of an eight-foot-high wooden palisade wall to protect the Pilgrims’ settlement. The task wouldn’t be easy; the wall would need to be more than half a mile in length, and hundreds of trees had to be chopped down, stripped of branches, and set deep into the ground to build it. There were fewer than 50 men to do the work, and they had been living on starvation rations.
Still, they got it done, as we say today. The Pilgrims—who came to America for religious reasons—counterintuitively worked to build the wall on Christmas Day, while more recently-arrived “strangers,” who didn’t share the fiercely-held religious beliefs of the first settlers, celebrated by playing a cricket-like game in the streets, the colonial equivalent of males who play intra-family touch football games on Thanksgiving Day while the womenfolk do all the work.
The wall the Pilgrims built wasn’t a simple us-versus-them measure designed to protect English settlers from indigenous peoples. The Pilgrims had previously formed an alliance with the Pokanokets; and Squanto, who served as their interpreter and ambassador without portfolio to the natives, was a member of the Patuxet tribe. The political landscape of the New World thus resembled the Balkans or the current-day Middle East more than the Great Wall of China, and there was no binary animus based on color involved in the Pilgrims’ decision to exercise every people’s right to self-defense, self-preservation, and perpetuation.
But, the rebuttal comes, what about the inspirational words of Emma Lazarus’s 1883 work “The New Colossus” that appear on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty? America, the poem asserts, invites the world to send it “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
It is not churlish to point out that Lazarus was a poet, not an elected representative of anyone. More importantly, the scheme of American immigration laws at the time she wrote was vastly different from today’s: Black immigrants couldn’t become naturalized citizens until 1870, and Asians were ineligible for naturalization until 1943, so reforms were in order. But even if those racial taints were corrected, there remains a core set of principles that the United States isn’t alone in enforcing as conditions of entry; those with poor health, low levels of education, mental health problems, and infectious diseases were excluded by federal law.
Moreover, the specific inspiration for Lazarus’s poem was the plight of Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, not immigrants generally, or those who wanted to leave their countries of origin because of poor economic conditions. Would the same progressives who invoke her to support open borders drop her if they knew that she was a Zionist avant la lettre, arguing for the creation of a Jewish homeland 13 years before Theodor Herzl?
It is also fair to note that Lazarus could be wrong about public policy issues that she addressed in less stirring fashion. She was a sucker for Henry George’s land value tax, a panacea that attracted monomaniacal followers but failed to gain wide acceptance around the world, even though it was touted by supporters as “the perfect tax” that would eliminate the need for all others. Lazarus wrote a poem about it named after George’s book “Progress and Poverty,” surely the only instance of a tax proposal that inspired iambic pentameter.
A healthy skepticism is thus in order when the words “That’s not who we are” are heard. It may be that the speaker doesn’t really know who we are.
Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press).