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They Who Knock at Our Gates By Mary Antin Characters: 24617

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children. . . . And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Deut. vi, 6, 7, 9.

If I ask an American what is the fundamental American law, and he does not answer me promptly, "That which is contained in the Declaration of Independence," I put him down for a poor citizen. He who is ignorant of the law is likely to disobey it. And there cannot be two minds about the position of the Declaration among our documents of state. What the Mosaic Law is to the Jews, the Declaration is to the American people. It affords us a starting-point in history and defines our mission among the nations. Without it, we should not differ greatly from other nations who have achieved a constitutional form of government and various democratic institutions. What marks us out from other advanced nations is the origin of our liberties in one supreme act of political innovation, prompted by a conscious sense of the dignity of manhood. In other countries advances have been made by favor of hereditary rulers and aristocratic parliaments, each successive reform being grudgingly handed down to the people from above. Not so in America. At one bold stroke we shattered the monarchical tradition, and installed the people in the seats of government, substituting the gospel of the sovereignty of the masses for the superstition of the divine right of kings.

And even more notable than the boldness of the act was the dignity with which it was entered upon. In terms befitting a philosophical discourse, we gave notice to the world that what we were about to do, we would do in the name of humanity, in the conviction that as justice is the end of government so should manhood be its source.

It is this insistence on the philosophic sanction of our revolt that gives the sublime touch to our political performance. Up to the moment of our declaration of independence, our struggle with our English rulers did not differ from other popular struggles against despotic governments. Again and again we respectfully petitioned for redress of specific grievances, as the governed, from time immemorial, have petitioned their governors. But one day we abandoned our suit for petty damages, and instituted a suit for the recovery of our entire human heritage of freedom; and by basing our claim on the fundamental principles of the brotherhood of man and the sovereignty of the masses, we assumed the championship of the oppressed against their oppressors, wherever found.

It was thus, by sinking our particular quarrel with George of England in the universal quarrel of humanity with injustice, that we emerged a distinct nation, with a unique mission in the world. And we revealed ourselves to the world in the Declaration of Independence, even as the Israelites revealed themselves in the Law of Moses. From the Declaration flows our race consciousness, our sense of what is and what is not American. Our laws, our policies, the successive steps of our progress-all must conform to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the source of our national being.

The American confession of faith, therefore, is a recital of the doctrines of liberty and equality. A faithful American is one who understands these doctrines and applies them in his life.

It should be easy to pick out the true Americans-the spiritual heirs of the founders of our Republic-by this simple test of loyalty to the principles of the Declaration. To such a test we are put, both as a nation and as individuals, every time we are asked to define our attitude on immigration. Having set up a government on a declaration of the rights of man, it should be our first business to reaffirm that declaration every time we meet a case involving human rights. Now every immigrant who emerges from the steerage presents such a case. For the alien, whatever ethnic or geographic label he carries, in a primary classification of the creatures of the earth, falls in the human family. The fundamental fact of his humanity established, we need only rehearse the articles of our political faith to know what to do with the immigrant. It is written in our basic law that he is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There is nothing left for us to do but to open wide our gates and set him on his way to happiness.

That is what we did for a while, when our simple law was fresh in our minds, and the habit of applying it instinctive. Then there arose a fashion of spelling immigration with a capital initial, which so confused the national eye that we began to see a Problem where formerly we had seen a familiar phenomenon of American life; and as a problem requires skillful handling, we called an army of experts in consultation, and the din of their elaborate discussions has filled our ears ever since.

The effect on the nation has been disastrous. In a matter involving our faith as Americans, we have ceased to consult our fundamental law, and have suffered ourselves to be guided by the conflicting reports of commissions and committees, anthropologists, economists, and statisticians, policy-mongers, calamity-howlers, and self-announced prophets. Matters irrelevant to the interests of liberty have taken the first place in the discussion; lobbyists, not patriots, have had the last word. Our American sensibility has become dulled, so that sometimes the cries of the oppressed have not reached our ears unless carried by formal deputations. In a department of government which brings us into daily touch with the nations of the world, we have failed to live up to our national gospel and have not been aware of our backsliding.

What have the experts and statisticians done so to pervert our minds? They have filled volumes with facts and figures, comparing the immigrants of to-day with the immigrants of other days, classifying them as to race, nationality, and culture, tabulating their occupations, analyzing their savings, probing their motives, prophesying their ultimate destiny. But what is there in all this that bears on the right of free men to choose their place of residence? Granted that Sicilians are not Scotchmen, how does that affect the right of a Sicilian to travel in pursuit of happiness? Strip the alien down to his anatomy, you still find a man, a creature made in the image of God; and concerning such a one we have definite instructions from the founders of the Republic. And what purpose was served by the bloody tide of the Civil War if it did not wash away the last lingering doubts as to the brotherhood of men of different races?

There is no impropriety in gathering together a mass of scientific and sociological data concerning the newcomers, as long as we understand that the knowledge so gained is merely the technical answer to a number of technical questions. Where we have gone wrong is in applying the testimony of our experts to the moral side of the question. By all means register the cephalic index of the alien,-the anthropologist will make something of it at his leisure,-but do not let it determine his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I do not ask that we remove all restrictions and let the flood of immigration sweep in unchecked. I do ask that such restrictions as we impose shall accord with the loftiest interpretation of our duty as Americans. Now our first duty is to live up to the gospel of liberty, through the political practices devised by our forefathers and modified by their successors, as democratic ideas developed. But political practices require a territory wherein to operate-democracy must have standing-room-so it becomes our next duty to guard our frontiers. For that purpose we maintain two forms of defense: the barbaric devices of army and navy, to ward off hostile mass invasions; and the humane devices of the immigration service, to regulate the influx of peaceable individuals.

We have plenty of examples to copy in our military defenses, but when it comes to the civil branch of our national guard, we dare not borrow foreign models. What our neighbors are doing in the matter of regulating immigration may or may not be right for us. Other nations may be guided chiefly by economic considerations, while we are under spiritual bonds to give first consideration to the moral principles involved. For this, our peculiar American problem, we must seek a characteristically American solution.

What terms of entry may we impose on the immigrant without infringing on his inalienable rights, as defined in our national charter? Just such as we would impose on our own citizens if they proposed to move about the country in companies numbering thousands, with their families and portable belongings. And what would these conditions be? They would be such as are required by public safety, public health, public order. Whatever limits to our personal liberty we are ourselves willing to endure for the sake of the public welfare, we have a right to impose on the stranger from abroad; these, and no others.

Has, then, the newest arrival the same rights as the established citizen? According to the Declaration, yes; the same right to live, to move, to try his luck. More than this he does not claim at the gate of entrance; with less than this we are not authorized to put him off. We do not question the right of an individual foreigner to enter our country on any peaceable errand; why, then, question the rights of a shipload of foreigners? Lumping a thousand men together under the title of immigrants does not deprive them of their humanity and the rights inherent in humanity; or can it be demonstrated that the sum of the rights of a million men is less than the rights of one individual?

The Declaration of Independence, like the Ten Commandments, must be taken literally and applied universally. What would have been the civilizing power of the Mosaic Code if the Children of Israel had repudiated it after a few generations? As little virtue is there in the Declaration of Independence if we limit its operation to any geographical sphere or historical period or material situation. How do we belittle the works of our Fathers when we talk as though they wrought for their contemporaries only! It was no great matter to shake off the rule of an absent tyrant, if that is all that the War of the Revolution did. So much had been done many times over, long before the first tree fell under the axe of a New England settler. Emmaus was fought before Yorktown, and Thermopyl? before Emmaus. It is only as we dwell on the words of Jefferson and Franklin that the deeds of Washington shine out among the deeds of heroes. In the chronicles of the Jews, Moses has a far higher place than the Maccab?an brothers. And notice that Moses owes his immortality to the unbroken succession of generations who were willing to rule their lives by the Law that fell from his lips. The glory of the Jews is not that they received the Law, but that they kept the Law. The glory of the American people must be that the vision vouchsafed to their fathers they in their turn hold up undimmed to the eyes of successive generations.

To maintain our own independence is only to hug that vision to our own bosoms. If we sincerely believe in the elevating power of liberty, we should hasten to extend the reign of liberty over all mankind. The disciples of Jesus did not sit down in Jerusalem and congratulate each other on having found the Saviour. They scattered over the world to spread the tidings far and wide. We Americans, disciples of the goddess Liberty, are saved the trouble of carrying our gospel to the nations, because the nations come to us.

Right royally have we welcomed them, and lavishly entertained them at the feast of freedom, whenever our genuine national impulses have shaped our immigration policy. But from time to time the national impulse has been clogged by selfish fears and foolish alarms parading under the guise of civic prudence. Ignoring entirely the rights of the case, the immigration debate has raged about questions of expediency, as if convenience and not justice were our first concern. At times the debate has been led by men on wh

om the responsibilities of American citizenship sat lightly, who treated immigration as a question of the division of spoils.

A little attention to the principles involved would have convinced us long ago that an American citizen who preaches wholesale restriction of immigration is guilty of political heresy. The Declaration of Independence accords to all men an equal share in the inherent rights of humanity. When we go contrary to that principle, we are not acting as Americans; for, by definition, an American is one who lives by the principles of the Declaration. And we surely violate the Declaration when we attempt to exclude aliens on account of race, nationality, or economic status. "All men" means yellow men as well as white men, men from the South of Europe as well as men from the North of Europe, men who hold kingdoms in pawn, and men who owe for their dinner. We shall have to recall officially the Declaration of Independence before we can lawfully limit the application of its principles to this or that group of men.

Americans of refined civic conscience have always accepted our national gospel in its literal sense. "What becomes of the rights of the excluded?" demanded the younger Garrison, in a noble scolding administered to the restrictionists in 1896.

If a nation has a right to keep out aliens, tell us how many people constitute a nation, and what geographical area they have a right to claim. In the United States, where a thousand millions can live in peace and plenty under just conditions, who gives to seventy millions the right to monopolize the territory? How few can justly own the earth, and deprive those who are landless of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And what becomes of the rights of the excluded?

If we took our mission seriously,-as seriously, say, as the Jews take theirs,-we should live with a copy of our law at our side, and oblige every man who opened his mouth to teach us, to square his doctrine with the gospel of liberty; and him should we follow to the end who spoke to us in the name of our duties, rather than in the name of our privileges.

The sins we have been guilty of in our conduct of the immigration debate have had their roots in a misconception of our own position in the land. We have argued the matter as though we owned the land, and were, therefore, at liberty to receive or reject the unbidden guests who came to us by thousands. Let any man who lays claim to any portion of the territory of the United States produce his title deed. Are not most of us squatters here, and squatters of recent date at that? The rights of a squatter are limited to the plot he actually occupies and cultivates. The portion of the United States territory that is covered by squatters' claims is only a fraction, albeit a respectable fraction, of the land we govern. In the name of what moral law do we wield a watchman's club over the vast regions that are still waiting to be staked out? The number of American citizens who can boast of ancestral acres is not sufficient to swing a presidential election. For that matter, those whose claims are founded on ancestral tenure should be the very ones to dread an examination of titles. For it would be shown that these few got their lands by stepping into dead men's shoes, while the majority wrenched their estates from the wilderness by the labor of their own hands. In the face of the sturdy American preference for an aristocracy of brain and brawn, the wisest thing the man with a pedigree can do is to scrape the lichens off his family tree. Think of having it shown that he owes the ancestral farmhouse to the deathbed favoritism of some grouchy uncle! Or, worse still, think of tracing the family title to some canny deal with a band of unsophisticated Indians!

No, it will not do to lay claim to the land on the ground of priority of occupation, as long as there is a red man left on the Indian reservations. If it comes to calling names, usurper is an uglier name than alien. And a squatter is a tenant who doesn't pay any rent, while an immigrant who occupies a tenement in the slums pays his rent regularly or gets out.

We may soothe our pride with the reflection that our title to the land does not depend on the moral validity of individual claims, but on the collective right of the nation to control the land we govern. We came into our land as other nations came into theirs: we took it as a prize of war. Until humanity has devised a less brutal method of political acquisition, we must pass our national claim as entirely sound. We own the land because we were strong enough to take it from England. But the moment we hark back to the War of the Revolution, our sense of possession is profoundly modified. We did not quarrel with the English about the possession of the colonies, but about their treatment of the colonists. It was not a land-grab that was plotted in Independence Hall in 1776, but a pattern of human freedom. We entered upon the war in pursuit of ideals, not in pursuit of homesteads. We had to take the homesteads, too, because, as we have already noted, a political ideal has to have territory wherein to operate. But we must never forget that the shining prize of that war was an immaterial thing,-the triumph of an idea. Not the Treaty of Paris, but the Declaration of Independence, converted the thirteen colonies into a nation.

Having taken half a continent in the name of humanity, shall we hold it in the name of a few millions? Not as jealous lords of a rich domain, but as priests of a noble cult shall we best acquit ourselves of the task our Fathers set us. And it is the duty of a priest to minister to as many souls as he can reach. The most revered of our living teachers has passed this word:-

It is the mission of the United States to spread freedom throughout the world by teaching as many men and women as possible in freedom's largest home how to use freedom rightly through practice in liberty under law.

And our ardor shall not be dampened by the reflection that perhaps the Fathers builded better than they knew. "Do you really think they looked so far ahead?" it is often asked. "Did the founders of the Republic foresee the time when foreign hordes would alight on our shores, demanding a share in this goodly land that was ransomed with the blood of heroes?" Fearful questions, these, to make us pause in the work of redeeming mankind! If our Fathers did not foresee the whole future, shall we therefore be blind to the light of our own day? If they had left us a mere sketch of their idea, could we do less than fill in the outlines? Since they left us not a sketch, but a finished model, the least we can do is to go on copying it on an ever larger scale. Neither shall we falter because the execution of the enlarged copy entails much labor on us and on our children. When Moses told the Egyptian exiles that they should have no god but the One God, he may not have guessed that their children would be brought to the stake for refusing other gods; and yet nineteen centuries of Jewish martyrdom go to show that the followers of Moses did not make his lack of foresight an excuse for abandoning his Law.

Let the children be brought up to know that we are a people with a mission, and that mission, in the words of Dr. Eliot, to teach the uses of freedom to as many men as possible "in freedom's largest home." Let it be taught in the public schools that the most precious piece of real estate in the whole United States is that which supports the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty; that we need not greatly care how the three million square miles remaining is divided among the people of the earth, as long as we retain that little island. Let it further be repeated in the schools that the Liberty at our gates is the handiwork of a Frenchman; that the mountain-weight of copper in her sides and the granite mass beneath her feet were bought with the pennies of the poor; that the verses graven on a tablet within the base are the inspiration of a poetess descended from Portuguese Jews; and all these things shall be interpreted to mean that the love of liberty unites all races and all classes of men into one close brotherhood, and that we Americans, therefore, who have the utmost of liberty that has yet been attained, owe the alien a brother's share.

* * *

To this position we are brought by a construction of the Declaration of Independence which makes of it the law of the land, binding on American citizens individually and collectively, and in all circumstances whatever. Out of this position there is one avenue of escape, and only one. We may refuse to read in the Declaration a sincere expression of the faith of 1776, and construe it instead as a bombastic political manifesto, advanced by the leaders of the rebellion as an excuse for a gigantic land-grab.

Let the descendants of the Puritans take their choice of these two interpretations. For my part, I have chosen. I have chosen to read the story of '76 as a chapter in sacred history; to set Thomas Jefferson in a class with Moses, and Washington with Joshua; to regard the American nation as the custodian of a sacred trust, and American citizenship as a holy order, with laws and duties derived from the Declaration.

For very pride in my country I must choose thus, for the alternate view takes the meaning out of American history, reduces the War of Independence to a war of plunder, and the Colonial heroes to a band of pious hypocrites. What, indeed, shall we teach our children to be proud of if we reject the higher interpretation of the deeds of the Fathers? The American Revolution as a campaign of conquest is not unique in history; on the contrary, it has been more than once surpassed, both in respect to the prowess of the conquerors and to the magnificence of the prize. Outside the physical realm, where our inventions and discoveries and the material development of a continent belong, this country has contributed nothing of moment to the world's progress, unless it is that political adaptation of the Golden Rule which is indicated in the Declaration and elaborated in the Constitution. In the arts and sciences we sit, for the most part, at the feet of foreign masters; in jurisprudence we have borrowed from the Romans, and the elements of liberal government we have from our next of kin, the English. The notion of the dignity of man, which is the foundation of the gospel of democracy, is derived from Hebrew sources, as the Psalm-singing founders of New England would be the first to acknowledge. It was not entirely due to accident nor to the exigencies of pioneer life that the meeting-house and the town hall were one in the New England settlements. The influence of the Bible is plainly stamped on the works of the Puritans. What, then, shall we claim as the great American achievement, our peculiar treasure in the midst of so much borrowed glory? A magnificent espousal of humanity-that or nothing can we call our own.

Seeing that they brought nothing into the world that was all their own, our glorious dead are not glorious unless we make them so, by imputing to them the noblest motives that their case will permit, and rating their works at not less than face value. Pride demands it, and, fortunately for our country's honor, justice supports the claims of pride. Neither the cynics nor the enthusiasts shall have the last word in the matter. In the writings of their contemporaries, in the casual sayings of their intimates, in the critical comments of those who came next after them, we find convincing evidence that in the minds of the leaders of '76 the most advanced political thought of the age crystallized into a mighty conviction-the conviction of the inherent nobility of humankind, which makes it treason for any man to enslave his neighbor.

That is the thought that was sent out into the world on July 4, 1776, and because that thought has shaped our history, we call it the basic law of our land, and the Declaration of Independence our final authority. If under that authority the immigrant appears to have rights in our land parallel to our own rights, we shall not lightly deny his claims, lest we forfeit our only title to national glory.

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