An American story, from Ben Franklin to Donald Trump

An American story, from Ben Franklin to Donald Trump
Caleb Walsh illustration

Given that national outrage now operates on pace with the heartbeat of a hummingbird, it already feels like a lifetime ago that President Donald Trump dismissed immigrants from places like Haiti as infectants from "shithole countries." The crassness of his remarks notwithstanding — it was hard to miss the barely contained glee with which expertly coiffed TV news people deadpanned the word "shithole" for the better part of 72 hours — Trump's dismissal is less shocking in the context of early American history.

Anglo-American journalism has been grappling (uncomfortably) with a central question since long before Trump: Who should, or shouldn't, be allowed to join the "the public" and why? It's safe to say not a lot has changed rhetorically in 309 years.

Consider the "shithole country" of the early 18th century: Germany. Of course, there was no such thing then as "Germany" in the way we'd conceive of it. Rather, it was a collection of princely states ruled by regional grandees. One such region was the Palatinate, destroyed by war with Catholic France and a run of harsh winters.

Lured by promises of sanctuary from the Protestant English Queen Anne, about 13,000 Palatines pulled up stakes and made their way via Rotterdam to London, where their refugee shanty camps were the cause of much dismay among already-overcrowded Londoners.

Daniel Defoe — the guy who wrote Robinson Crusoe — was then publishing his Review of the State of the British Nation, which historians have referred to as one of the first true newspapers. As such, Defoe has been regarded as "the first journalist." Among his first subjects was what to do about "the poor Palatines," a moniker he came up with over the course of many articles supporting their amnesty in the Empire. Defoe's unpopular argument was that making the Palatines British would both add to the labor force and provide a bulwark against the Catholic threat looming from French Canada. (Shrewd bit of messaging, there.)

Paraphrasing his opponents' argument, Defoe wrote on June 23, 1709, that the immigrants would "starve our poor, rob the manufacturers of their bread, and help impoverish us. ... [I]n Time we shall drain all Germany of their poor." Britain, the anti's said, should take care of Britons first.

Queen Anne ultimately sided with the party in Parliament that agreed with Defoe, and paid to send more than 1,000 Palatines to the colonies.

Public reception wasn't much better on the other side of the Atlantic. By the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin, an ink-stained wretch, put the Palatines on blast in prose that evokes the unabashed nativism of Breitbart (Benbart?).

"Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours?" he wrote in the essay "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, People of Countries, etc.," published in 1755. "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs ..."

These "boors" from the "shithole" of Germany included a Rockefeller who served as co-lieutenant in a New York regiment during the Revolution with a Hagedorn. I can't speak for the Rockefellers, nor even the Hagedorns, but #shitholers before The Founding had much to give to "the public." The same is true today. Franklin and Trump — though one trembles to put the two in the same sentence — were on the wrong side of history. ♦

Zach Hagadone is a former co-publisher/owner of the Sandpoint Reader, former editor of Boise Weekly and current grad student at Washington State University.