At a meeting discussing possible immigration reform policies, it is reported that President Donald Trump asked why they allowed so many people from “shithole countries,” including Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations. “Why do we need more Haitians?” he asked. Instead, Trump insisted that America increase immigration from Norway.
The racial dimensions of Trump’s remarks are clear, and they immediately drew broad backlash from both parties. But this ideological tether between whiteness and the nation is far from new in American history.
Race has always been a central part of America’s national imagination. Despite oft-cited cultural ideals referencing universal rights, citizens and politicians alike have frequently framed those rights around one’s lineage and ethnic background. These tensions were brought to the forefront when the country was founded due to the democratic promise of self-government: could people from different backgrounds truly mix within a representative government? Ever since then, there has been a dominant strain of citizens who believed American democracy could only persist with a white majority.
This anxiety was only bolstered after the Haitian Revolution shocked the western world in the 1790s. The idea of a free black republic only miles away from America’s borders terrified early Americans. There was a fear that the “contagion” of revolt would spread to American slaves and cause an uprising. As a result, many states implemented stricter race laws to prevent free blacks from being part of the body politic. It also cemented an already-prevalent idea that America was a white man’s nation.
Yet the Haitian Revolution also galvanized America’s black population, as it signaled the possibility of racial equality. Decades later, Frederick Douglass heralded Haiti as the beacon of truth that guided the abolitionist movement. After Haiti, some could begin to see a racially inclusive nation.
A poignant example of these competing racial nationalisms can be found in the debate between Thomas Branagan and James Forten in the early 1800s. At first glance, these two individuals had a lot in common: both resided in Philadelphia, both acquired national reputations for their powerful arguments, and both were outspoken anti-slavery activists. Yet while they agreed on the drastic need to abolish the slave institution, they had fundamentally different ideas of what to do next: Branagan, a white man, desired to relocate all freed blacks to their own region; Forten, a black man, argued that African Americans had a right to remain in the land they helped build.
Branagan’s path to the antislavery cause was a quixotic one. Born in Ireland, he left home at a young age to become a sailor and travel the world. He soon became part of the African slave trade, including shipping enslaved individuals across the Atlantic and overseeing a plantation in the Caribbean. After converting to Methodism, however, he concluded slavery was evil and set out to become one of its most ardent opponents. He moved to Philadelphia and, in a span of a little over a decade, published at least eighteen volumes, nearly all of them containing at least two hundred pages, and many of which directly attacked the slave institution. Slavery, he reasoned, was a “deadly wound” for democracy, and “national crimes require national punishments.”
But there were limits to his anti-slavery message. Like many other whites during the period, Branagan could not conceive of a mixed-race society. Nations, according to popular understanding at the time, could only be made up with people of the same ethnic background. On the one hand, national ideas of universal freedom led people like Branagan to denounce slavery as antithetical to America’s character; on the other, a trenchant belief in nations being constructed through ethnic homogeneity meant that racial exclusion was necessary. Colonization, or the removal of freed blacks from the nation, was the only solution.
Yet unlike other colonizationists, however, Branagan did not support returning blacks to Africa, a move that he thought was “both unjust and cruel.” “Cruel” because the journey was treacherous, and “unjust” because, as many African Americans were born on American soil, they were rightful inheritors of America’s promises and America’s land. Instead, Branagan proposed blacks be relocated to the newly acquired Louisiana Territory.
This move would accomplish two purposes: first, it provided freed blacks the land with which they could cultivate their own community under the umbrella of American Freedom, and second, it halted the extension of slavery into western territories. Such an outcome would simultaneously abolish slavery while also preventing a mixed-race society.
Branagan’s idea received early traction. A decade later, the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery proposed Branagan’s idea to the government. Yet while Congress considered the bill, a House committee feared that, if the black colony would “increase as to become a nation,” it would eventually lead to “civil wars.” The same reasoning was given when whites rejected a plan for free blacks to migrate to Haiti because, as one southerner wrote, no American would want “a nation of negroes” that lived “within a few days sail of our southern states.”
If blacks were to be moved, they had to be moved further away. Therefore, when the American Colonization Society was formed the next year, Africa became the primary destination for those who wished to remove free blacks. The stability of white culture required drastic measures.
But Branagan’s was not the only anti-slavery influential voice in Philadelphia during the first decades of the nineteenth century. By 1810, the city claimed around ten thousand African Americans. Some of these residents were freed through the state’s Gradual Abolition Act from 1780—those born after that date were freed upon their twenty-eighth birthday—but a sizeable number had escaped slavery in the South. In the face of constant oppression, these black residents learned to fight for their right to remain part of the national body. It is from these communities that America’s first examples of an inclusive nationalism originally appeared.
Few proponents were as powerful as James Forten. A successful sail-maker and veteran of the American Revolution, Forten was quick to respond to policies of racial oppression. He once wrote to a congressman that “though our faces are black, yet we are men, and…[we] have the feelings and the passions of men [and] are as anxious to enjoy the birthright of the human race.” When the state considered the forcible removal of black residents from the state, Forten declared the proposal “in direct violation of the letter and the spirit of our Constitution” and not fit for the American character. The principles upon which the nation was founded were much more inclusive.
Though Forten was originally curious about the colonization proposals, primarily due to the potential of black sovereignty and self-government, he soon rejected it as another affront against America’s national character. He even helped craft the black community’s formal response to the American Colonization Society. “Whereas our ancestors (not of choice) were the first successful cultivators of America,” it pronounced, we “feel ourselves entitled to participate in the blessings of her luxuriant soil, which their blood and sweat manured.” All African Americans, both enslaved and free, were owed the blessing of American freedom, and they deserved to experience those blessings on American soil.
Though an increasing number of Americans were converted to Forten’s nationalism over the following decades, it did not become a real possibility until the Civil War. And even following immediate, universal, and uncompensated emancipation, many in both the South and North implemented policies of racial segregation and oppression. The vision of a racially-integrated nation has always been more of an ideal than a reality.
At the heart of this debate has always been, and continues to be, a disagreement over how one defines a “nation.” Is it a homogeneous body of people of similar backgrounds and who hold the same priorities, values, and culture in common? Those who hold that view will naturally oppose immigration from countries different from their own. Trump’s degradation of non-white immigration is just the latest example of a long and unfortunate tradition.
Or is a nation a heterogeneous conglomerate of individuals united solely to a national ideal of equal rights and national belonging? For those in that camp, the American promise of citizenship is open to a much broader cast of characters.
These competing traditions have been rooted in American politics since its founding, but their implications seem especially demanding in the present.
Benjamin E. Park (@BenjaminEPark) is an assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University. He is author of the new book, American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833.