Warning: No poker content.
Last night I started reading this book:
I bought it, after it had sat on my Amazon wish list for a long time, because I was reminded about Douglass by Donald Trump's embarrassing reference to him yesterday.
I'll mostly read it in order, but I first turned to an 1869 speech Douglass gave about immigration, since that's a hot topic these days. He was specifically reacting to the anti-Chinese fervor that was then in the news. The US had signed some sort of agreement with China to let workers in temporarily, but not permanently, and would not let them become citizens.
I'm quite radically in favor of immigration, viewing a right to roam freely about the globe as one of the natural rights of man; the movement of people should be as unrestrained as the movement of goods and ideas. With a few pragmatic qualifications, I am, therefore, an advocate for open borders. I was delighted to find that Douglass basically shared that viewpoint.
His speech here is very long; the few things I've read from him, while rhetorically impressive, reveal a tendency to be hugely verbose, at least by modern standards. So I've done a Reader's Digest job on the speech, cutting it down to maybe 10% of its original length. You get the essence of his message, and all the best bits, in a fraction of the reading time.
Douglass also, kind of embarrassingly, peppered this speech with racial, ethnic, and national stereotyping: the Chinese share these characteristics, the Germans these, etc. A man can be ahead of his time, yet still limited by it. I've quietly omitted most of those parts, as I suspect Douglass himself would if he could rewrite the speech today.
Here we go:
“Our Composite Nationality,” a speech delivered on December 7, 1869 in Boston, Massachusetts and published in Boston Daily Advertiser, December 8, 1869.
A government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for its existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.
Of errors and defects we certainly have not less than our full share, enough to keep the reformer awake, the statesman busy, and the country in a pretty lively state of agitation for some time to come.
We have for a long time hesitated to adopt and carry out the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality.
We are a country of all extremes, ends and opposites; the most conspicuous example of composite nationality in the world. Our people defy all the ethnological and logical classifications. In races we range all the way from black to white, with intermediate shades which, as in the apocalyptic vision, no man can name or number.
We stand between the populous shores of two great oceans. Our land is capable of supporting one-fifth of all the globe. Here, labor is abundant and better remunerated than anywhere else. All moral, social and geographical causes conspire to bring to us the peoples of all other over-populated countries.
Europe and Africa are already here, and the Indian was here before either. He stands today between the two extremes of black and white, too proud to claim fraternity with either, and yet too weak to withstand the power of either. Heretofore, the policy of our government has been governed by race pride, rather than by wisdom.
Until recently, neither the Indian nor the Negro has been treated as a part of the body politic. No attempt has been made to inspire either with a sentiment of patriotism, but the hearts of both races have been diligently sown with the dangerous seeds of discontent and hatred.
The policy of keeping the Indians to themselves, has kept the tomahawk and scalping knife busy upon our borders, and has cost us largely in blood and treasure.
Our treatment of the Negro has lacked humanity and filled the country with agitation and ill-feeling, and brought the nation to the verge of ruin.
Before the relations of those two races are satisfactorily settled, and in spite of all opposition, a new race is making its appearance within our borders, and claiming attention.
America is no longer an obscure and inaccessible country. Our ships are in every sea, our commerce is in every port, our language is heard all around the globe, steam and lightning have revolutionized the whole domain of human thought, changed all geographical relations, make a day of the present seem equal to a thousand years of the past, and the continent that Columbus only conjectured four centuries ago is now the center of the world.
The same mighty forces which have swept to our shores the overflowing population of Europe; which have reduced the people of Ireland three millions below its normal standard; will operate in a similar manner upon the hungry population of China and other parts of Asia. Home has its charms, and native land has its charms, but hunger, oppression and destitution will dissolve these charms and send men in search of new countries and new homes.
The conclusion of the whole will be that they will want to come to us, and, as we become more liberal, we shall want them to come, and what we want done will naturally be done.
They will no longer halt upon the shores of California. They will burrow no longer in her exhausted and deserted gold mines, where they have gathered wealth from barrenness, taking what others left. They will turn their backs not only upon the Celestial Empire but upon the golden shores of the Pacific, and the wide waste of waters whose majestic waves spoke to them of home and country. They will withdraw their eyes from the glowing West and fix them upon the rising sun. They will cross the mountains, cross the plains, descend our rivers, penetrate to the heart of the country and fix their home with us forever.
Assuming then that immigration already has a foothold and will combine for many years to come, we have a new element in our national composition which is likely to exercise a large influence upon the thought and the action of the whole nation.
Already has the matter taken shape in California and on the Pacific coast generally. Already has California assumed a bitterly unfriendly attitude toward the Chinaman. Already has she driven them from her altars of justice. Already has she stamped them as outcasts and handed them over to popular contempts and vulgar jest. Already are they the constant victims of cruel harshness and brutal violence. Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenseless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shilalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.
In all this there is, of course, nothing strange. Repugnance to the presence and influence of foreigners is an ancient feeling among men. It is peculiar to no particular race or nation. To the Greek, every man not speaking Greek is a barbarian. To the Jew, every one not circumcised is a gentile. To the Mohametan, every one not believing in the prophet is a kaffer.
Nature has two voices, the one high, the other low; one is in sweet accord with reason and justice, and the other apparently at war with both. The more men know of the essential nature of things, and of the true relation of mankind, the freer they are from prejudice of every kind. The child is afraid of the giant form of his own shadow. This is natural, but he will part with his fears when he is older and wiser. So ignorance is full of prejudice, but it will disappear with enlightenment.
I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask if I would favor such immigrations? I answer, I would. Would you admit them as witnesses in our courts of law? I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.
But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?
To all this and more I have one among many answers, altogether satisfactory to me, though I cannot promise it will be entirely so to you.
I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are eternal, universal and indestructible.
Among these is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and the Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.
I want a home here not only for the Negro, the mulatto and the Latin races, but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man.
And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.
It has been thoughtfully observed that every nation, owing to its peculiar character and composition, has a definite mission in the world. What that mission is, and what policy is best adapted to assist in its fulfillment, is the business of its people and its statesmen to know, and knowing, to make a noble use of this knowledge.
I need not stop here to name or describe the missions of other or more ancient nationalities. Ours seems plain and unmistakable. Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of government, world-embracing in their scope and character, our vast resources, requiring all manner of labor to develop them, and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is, to make us the perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family that the world has ever seen.
In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds. We are not only bound to this position by our organic structure and by our revolutionary antecedents, but by the genius of our people. Gathered here from all quarters of the globe, by a common aspiration for national liberty as against caste, divine right govern and privileged classes, it would be unwise to be found fighting against ourselves and among ourselves, it would be unadvised to attempt to set up any one race above another, or one religion above another, or prescribe any on account of race, color or creed.
The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be all the stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever-increasing stream of immigration from Europe, and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers. We are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco. None of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons. Contact with these yellow children of the Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice.
It is said that it is not good for man to be alone. This is true, not only in the sense in which our women’s rights friends so zealously and wisely teach, but it is true as to nations.
All great qualities are never found in any one man or in any one race. The whole of humanity, like the whole of everything else, is ever greater than a part.
When the architect intends a grand structure, he makes the foundation broad and strong. We should imitate this prudence in laying the foundations of the future republic.
If we would reach a degree of civilization higher and grander than any yet attained, we should welcome to our ample continent all the nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples, and as fast as they learn our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should incorporate them into the American body politic. The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come.
The great right of migration and the great wisdom of incorporating foreign elements into our body politic, are founded not upon any genealogical or ethnological theory, however learned, but upon the broad fact of a common nature.
Man is man the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity. A smile or a tear has no nationality. Joy and sorrow speak alike in all nations, and they above all the confusion of tongues proclaim the brotherhood of man.
Let the Chinaman come; he will help to augment the national wealth; he will help to develop our boundless resources; he will help to pay off our national debt; he will help to lighten the burden of our national taxation; he will give us the benefit of his skill as manufacturer and as a tiller of the soil, in which he is unsurpassed.
Even the matter of religious liberty, which has cost the world more tears, more blood and more agony, than any other interest, will be helped by his presence. I know of no church, however tolerant; of no priesthood, however enlightened, which could be safely trusted with the tremendous power which universal conformity would confer. We should welcome all men of every shade of religious opinion, as among the best means of checking the arrogance and intolerance which are the almost inevitable concomitants of general conformity. Religious liberty always flourishes best amid the clash of competition of rival religious creeds.
To the mind of superficial men the future of different races has already brought disaster and ruin upon the country. The poor Negro has been charged with all our woes. In the haste of these men they forget that our trouble was not ethnological, but moral, that it was not difference of complexion, but difference of conviction. It was not the Ethiopian as a man, but the Ethiopian as a slave and a coveted article of merchandise, that gave us trouble.
I close these remarks as I began. If our action shall be in accordance with the principles of justice, liberty, and perfect human equality, no eloquence can adequately portray the greatness and grandeur of the future of the republic.
We shall spread the network of our science and our civilization over all who seek their shelter, whether from Asia, Africa, or the isles of the sea. We shall mold them all, each after his kind, into Americans; Indian and Celt, Negro and Saxon, Latin and Teuton, Mongolian and Caucasian, Jew and gentile, all shall here bow to the same law, speak the same language, support the same government, enjoy the same liberty, vibrate with the same national enthusiasm, and seek the same national ends.
Douglass, Frederick. The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings and Speeches. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
(I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to speculate as to what Douglass would advise 21st-century America to do with refugees seeking asylum on our shores from war and persecution. Let them in, or turn them away?)