Van Ens: Borders were closed to non-whites at our nation’s founding (column) |

Van Ens: Borders were closed to non-whites at our nation’s founding (column)

Jack Van Ens

Immigrants leaving land-locked European nations envied vast territories in the United States. Speculators invested in huge land parcels. White citizens hailed America’s greatness because they earned fortunes in real estate.

Prior to taking office, our president capitalized on huge investments in land. He repeatedly increased his real estate portfolio. Although this president lacked elegant rhetoric, he compensated for it by mastering the art of lucrative land deals.

His investments didn’t slow him down, but speechifying scripts did. Although reading scripted speeches jarred his verbal rhythm, it didn’t deter his ability to gamble and profit from real estate acquisitions.

Have I forgotten to identity President George Washington as this real estate speculator who struck it rich?

“That Washington was not a scholar is certain,” John Adams disdainfully wrote. “That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation is equally past dispute.”

Harvard historian Jill Lepore tells how aides James Madison and Alexander Hamilton edited Washington’s starchy-sounding manuscripts. “Washington was poorly educated,” writes historian Lepore, “and, at least compared to writers like Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Madison, a charming fluency on the page was not among his talents. On paper, he could be clumsy and awkward, exactly the opposite of what he was in person” (“The Story of America: Essays on Origins,” Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 139).

His clumsiness disappeared when Washington invested in land. He worried the “wrong” kinds of immigrants might leap across the Atlantic Ocean and drive up land prices.

Washington wrote a two-page letter on Jan. 17, 1795, from Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital. He expressed concern about great waves of immigrants flooding western territories. Washington disclosed a strategy to sell at huge profits land he owned before borders closed to immigrants who weren’t white or Christian.

Washington referred to “the number of immigrants that are pouring into this country from all quarters owing to the disturbed state of Europe (i.e. the bloody French Revolution) and the quality of money brought by them …”

The President approved of the first U.S. Immigration Act in 1790, which limited foreigners arriving to white persons of “good character.” It closed U.S. borders to groups seeking citizenship, such as Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks, Muslims and, later, Asians. Sound familiar?

White speculators detested immigrants who fled the French Revolution and intended to invest in U.S. land. The notorious 1798 Alien and Sedition Laws erected “paper border walls” that blocked French immigration. These legal “border walls” required immigrants to wait 14 years, enduring grueling court proceedings, before becoming citizens.

After citizenship was conferred, most foreigners voted for Jefferson’s political party, not Washington’s. Jefferson opposed these border closings, scorning them as “a most detestable thing,” something “worthy of the eighth or ninth century” (“Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson,” Gordon S. Wood, Penguin Press, 2017, p. 309).

Recent polls report a large majority of Americans reject building border walls to keep out non-white immigrants who don’t support President Donald Trump. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released late in September asked: “Do you support or oppose a program that allows undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States if they arrived here as a child, completed high school or military service and have not been convicted of a serious crime?”

A resounding “yes” came from 86 percent of registered voters, including 97 percent of Democrats, 86 percent of Independents and 75 percent of Republicans in the Sept. 25, 2017, poll.

A Jeffersonian immigration policy is emerging for young people dubbed “Dreamers” who were brought to the United States as children and live here illegally. Has our nation learned lessons from unfair, racist anti-immigration policies of the past?

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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