By Joe Craig, Park Ranger
This July 4th marks the tenth anniversary of naturalization ceremonies at Saratoga National Historical Park. Through those years we have seen people from practically every continent swear the Oath of Allegiance overlooking the battlefield that helped the United States to become an independent entity.
Immigration is not a new phenomenon: North America has been a destination for immigrants dating back to prehistoric hunters crossing the Bering Sea. Several centuries’ worth of European people has included refugees from religious persecutions and intolerance, and many who simply hoped for a decent life. Sadly, some immigration was involuntary: those who were forced into the New World as slaves or indentured servants.
It has always been a mixture of ethnic groups, but throughout our nation’s history, there have arisen questions as to who should be allowed in, and what should be demanded, not merely expected, of them. At times there have been backlashes of varying intensity against immigrants, or of particular groups. Mostly these backlashes are associated with 19th and 20th century waves of immigration, but some even show up in the 1700’s.
In a letter dated (9 May 1753) to Peter Collinson (botanist and Fellow of the Royal Society) we find Benjamin Franklin expressing deep reservations about one group of immigrants to the colony of Pennsylvania. That it should happen in Pennsylvania is somewhat ironic, as that colony had a history of different ethnic and religious groups settling it from its early days even Catholics were (somewhat) tolerated.
Franklin’s concerns centered upon the German population of Pennsylvania. Since 1683, Germans had regularly settled there, but retained much of their culture and language.
Some of Franklin’s statements border on the outright xenophobic or prejudicial. The Germans:
“…who come hither are generally the most Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it…” Certainly not the sort of people he’d like living next door.
Worse still when it came to the storied “virtue” that the 18th Century expected of those deserving Liberty, the Germans obviously lacked it:
“…Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it; and as Kolbern says of the young Hottentots, that they are not esteemed men till they have shewn their manhood by beating their mothers, so they seem to think themselves not free, till they feel their liberty in abusing and insulting their Teachers….”
This probably surprised no one, least of all Franklin, who noted how many were recruited for immigration by “sweeping the Gaols[jails] to make up the number of their Passengers”.
No, the Germans simply were not entirely to Franklin’s liking. Most of all, they didn’t speak English:
“…few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ‘tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain….”
“…Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many books from Germany…”
The language barrier worried Franklin who foresaw problems, if the Germans remained, well, Germans:
“…Advertisements intended to be general are now printed in Dutch and English; the Signs in the Streets have inscriptions in both languages and in some places only German; They begin of late to make all their Bonds and other legal Writings in their own Language, which (although I think it ought not to be) are allowed good in our Courts, where the German Business so encreases that there is continual need of Interpreters; and I suppose in a few years they will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say…”
Franklin also began to fear that the English speakers would lose its influence in the colony:
“…In short unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other Colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so out number us, that all the advantages we have will not in My Opinion be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious….”
Things were okay when the Germans didn’t participate in the governing of the colony:
“…They behave, however, submissively enough at present to the City Government which I wish they may continue to do: For I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections…”
But then the Germans discovered the joys of politics:
“…but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two counties…”
Perhaps had the Germans played the game to Franklin’s satisfaction, the situation might be tolerable. However, the purposes and agendas of the German population were sometimes very much at odds with the English speakers, as shown during King George’s War:
“…the Germans except a very few in proportion to their numbers refused to engage in it, giving out one among another, and even in print, that if they were quiet the French should the French take the Country would not molest them; at the same time abusing the Philadelphians for fitting out Privateers against the Enemy; and representing the trouble hazard and Expence of defending the Province, as a greater inconvenience than any that might be expected from a change of Government…”
Horror of horrors, they also might become something of an 18th Century Sleeper Cell:
“…The French who watch all advantages, are now themselves making a German settlement back of us in the Ilinoes Country, and by means of those Germans they may in time come to an understanding with ours, and indeed in the last war our Germans shewed a general disposition that seems to bode us no good…”
Franklin was not for complete cessation of German immigration, in the same letter he admitted: “…their industry and frugality is exemplary; They are excellent husbandmen and contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country…” He just wanted them to stop being Germans:
“…all that seems to be necessary is, to distribute them more equally, mix them with the English, establish English Schools where they are now too thick settled…”
As the record shows, Franklin’s worries were groundless. The Germans assimilated, and were considered good citizen stock, until at least 1917 when the US entered the Great War and everyone freaked out (c.f. “liberty cabbage”).
But change a little of Franklin’s letter, and we find some of the debate over immigration that has been part of US history and is a long way from being resolved: speaking English and, of course, fear of sinister doings in immigrant communities. We, like Franklin, welcome certain immigrants, but want them all to become as “American as Apple Pie”. The question is just how “American” is apple pie?
First (and most obviously) there are apples. Apples are not native to the Americas, they originated in Central Asia. Apple trees were brought along by some of the earliest European settlers. The spices cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves are all products of Asia. Sugar? That originated in New Guinea, and made its way clear around the world via Asia and Europe before being cultivated in the Caribbean islands. Holding it together is the crust made from wheat which was never cultivated in the Americas before European contact.
Thus, the great American icon, apple pie is the summation of products from all parts of the world. Just like us.
In 1908, Israel Zangwill referred to American society as “The Melting Pot”, inferring that all ethnic identities are subsumed in American society, which isn’t quite true. Others have called the US a “crazy quilt”, like the 19th century quilts made of snippets of a variety of cloth from here and there. It’s a homey analogy, but one that lacks life.
But let’s take a second look at apples, as the main ingredient in apple pie. Should you take an apple seed, and plant it, and if it grows to be a tree, the fruit quite possibly will be different from the apple that provided the seed. You might get a wonderful variety of apple, but the question is how do you replicate it?
It’s done by taking buds of the tree whose fruit you want to replicate. A wonderful characteristic of apple trees is that you can graft several varieties to the same tree. The different varieties of apples remain unique: they blossom at different times and produce differing fruits, but are part of a single, growing, living entity.
Our new citizens on July 4th are new buds grafted to the “American Apple Tree”, and they will be as American as apple pie, bratwurst, vindaloo, Carne assado, falafel and more.