The Nativist Tradition

The Nativist Tradition

Two recent books put the reemergence of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Trump era into historical relief.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. (Corbis/Getty Images)

America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States
by Erika Lee
Basic Books, 2019, 432 pp.

All-American Nativism: How the Bipartisan War on Immigrants Explains Politics as We Know It
by Daniel Denvir
Verso, 2020, 352 pp.

In 1774, just two years before he helped pen the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote a preamble to his more famous denunciation of British rule of North America. In “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson stressed that his

ancestors possessed a right, which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness.

Migration, he thundered, was the right of all. It was the foundation for the freedom he would fight for just a few years later.

The political language of those revolutionary years struck universal notes. Rights were “natural,” “inalienable,” possessed by all. Much of this rhetoric seemed to transcend both history and geography. Indeed, centuries later echoes of it could be heard in the words of revolutionaries the world over as they struggled to forge a postcolonial order. But Jefferson’s writings also betray the racial ideology of his particular time and place. The Declaration’s grievances against King George III famously denounced the incitement of “domestic insurrections” of Native Americans and slaves. The right to roam where one willed and to live free was circumscribed by various markers of difference. If the ultimate end—freedom from monarchical domination—could only be realized through migration, that implied conquest and the subordination and unfreedom of others—native, black, propertyless.

Two new books, one by renowned historian Erika Lee and the other by writer and Jacobin podcaster Daniel Denvir, explore immigration politics through the histories of xenophobia and nativism. Both authors take us from the colonial era to the present. Denvir and Lee have written profoundly different books in both style and structure, but they share a mission: to correct the misperception that Trump’s nativism is a profound departure from our political norms. His politics, they insist, tap into a political tradition that has shaped every stage of U.S. history.

As far back as the early eighteenth century, panic over an influx of European migrants led colonies like Pennsylvania to institute an immigration registry, a specific tax on immigrants, and a requirement that Catholic migrants disavow the Pope. In America for Americans, Lee traces the vitriol that greeted each set of ne...