With the border wall becoming the Holy Grail for the Trump administration, there has been much debate about immigration in the United States. As before, I am not writing about modern immigration policy, but I want to comment on the often repeated phrase that America has always been open to immigrants and so what Trump is doing is un-American. Yes, America is a nation of immigrants, but that does not mean they were always welcomed. This piece is not meant to condone or condemn current immigration policy, only to clear up any misconceptions and give the historical truth.

In the nation’s first century, immigration was open and encouraged, not for any high multicultural ideals, but as human capital to increase American’s growing industrialization. But even then, not everyone was happy about the open immigration policy. Between the fall of the Whig Party and the creation of the Republicans in the 1840s and 1850s, one of the largest political parties in the nation was the American Party, better known as the Know-Nothing Party, which opposed immigration, especially from Catholics. The party received its name because it started as a secret society and, when asked about their organization, said, “I know nothing.” 

Congress got involved in restricting immigration in 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.  Chinese labor was replaced by Japanese and other Asian workers until 1917, when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, barring all Asians from entering the country. The Act also prevented Asians from obtaining citizenship. The 1917 Act officially banned the Japanese, but in 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt had already practically banned many Japanese with an executive order restricting any immigration from Hawaii. Yes, Obama and Trump were not the first to use executive orders for immigration. 

The 1917 Act was the most restrictive act to date. On top of preventing Asian immigrants, it also created literacy requirements as a way of excluding those from less educated areas of Eastern and Southern Europe. Lastly, it gave a list of those deemed undesirable, including criminals, diseased, and anarchists. It may seem natural to restrict categories like criminals, but surprisingly we had not been doing it before. The change by 1917 was that the nation no longer needed as many immigrants. Technological advances were more important than human capital. Henry Ford and the assembly line made it so we did not need as many workers. 

By 1924, the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act brought even more restrictive measures. Johnson-Reed established numerical limits on immigration based on race and nationality. It then ranked the immigrants based on desirability. The quota system was based on national and ethnic origins of those already in America and deemed that immigrants from those areas would better integrate into American culture. So countries like Great Britain received a quota of 65,721 and Germany 25,957 based on the census, while most nations received only 100 possible immigrants. However, while the 1924 Act allowed nations like China and Japan 100 each, Asians were not allowed citizenship so were denied entrance. 

With new immigration restrictions, the idea of illegal aliens was born, which gave rise to new deportation laws. Many critics felt that deportation laws were immoral, especially when it separated families. As I have said in previous columns, I am not condoning separating families, only that this is an argument that goes as far back as the 1920s.It did not start with the Trump presidency. 

Interestingly, not all nations fell under quota restrictions, including, most notably, Mexico and the Philippines. The 1924 Act did give quotas to countries in North America, meaning Mexicans were exempt. Many Mexicans already lived in the U.S. and under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, conquered Mexicans were given citizenship. Also under the 1924 Act, Mexicans were excluded from immigration based on race because they were officially considered white at the time. However, the real reason for Mexican immigration was that American farmers needed laborers.

As for Filipinos, they were colonial subjects and so were also exempt from immigration restrictions. Americans justified colonizing the Philippines as a part of Manifest Destiny. We thought we could give them a better life if they copied us, but changed our tune when they immigrated to the U.S. and demanded better wages and danced with our women.

Mexican labor proved much more acceptable, with the idea that most would return home after growing seasons. It was not until the depression, when jobs became scarce, that problems arose between whites and Mexicans. With growing resentment, whites created labor contracts with Mexicans, called bracero programs, as well as Jim Crow type restrictions. 

Immigration arguments are as old as America. The John Adams’ administration saw restrictions in citizenship. When we needed the labor, we have always been open to immigration, but shut it down when it was seen as taking jobs from Americans. The arguments we are hearing now are not new, but immigrants are being used in our current political climate as political pawns. As always the answer is studying the past to see what has worked or not and then to make arguments about immigration, but being sure to make them accurately. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.

14th Amendment

With immigration being one of the hottest topics of the year, it is no surprise that President Trump made it an issue during the midterm elections.  However, his latest push for immigration reform has taken a much different twist as he is considering the use of an executive order to define the 14th Amendment and strip away birthright citizenship.  There are two separate controversies here, the use of executive orders and the meaning of the 14th Amendment.  To help understand these issues, some historical information may be helpful.

I don’t want to spend much time on executive orders.  I wrote an entire column on the subject back in June, which can be read on my Historically Speaking page.  It is enough to say that, even though I try not to give opinion here, just historical information, there are no situations I can see that allow the president the legal ability to change or interpret the Amendment.  Even if you completely agree with President Trump’s interpretation of the law, and some legal scholars do, it still needs to be handled correctly.

The other issue is the 14th Amendment and the issue of birthright citizenship.  The debated part of the 14th Amendment states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”  It seems easy enough, but the problem is it is not.  What is tripping everyone up is the clause, “and subject to the jurisdiction therof.”  What does that mean?  Well, it’s open to interpretation.  The problem and the brilliance of the Constitution is that it is vague.  It has to be.  If the Constitution was packed full of specifics, it would have been scrapped years ago.  True, a few things are specified: the president must be thirty-five to be elected, but it also says the president must be compensated, without giving a figure.  So how much does the president make?  Congress has determined that along the way.

When it comes to citizenship, the original Constitution is silent.  The requirements of citizenship have been determined by the courts and Congress.  In other words, citizenship requirements have changed many times.  Some examples are the Alien and Sedition Acts, passed in 1789 during John Adam’s administration, which changed the length of time one must live in America from five years to fourteen years before applying for citizenship.  In the 1857 Dred Scott case the courts basically said that slaves were not citizens.  A few years later in 1868, we get the 14th Amendment, which changed the earlier legal precedent on citizenship.  In other words, citizenship laws have been fluid.  Even with the acceptance of the 14th Amendment, later cases were still required to understand exactly what the amendment meant.  In 1898, in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the courts said a child born to immigrant parents was a citizen.  What I am trying to say is that whether or not you agree with the President on birthright citizenship, history shows us that the laws are subject to change. 

Back to the difficult clause, “and subject to the jurisdiction therof.”  Historically, this was always seen as addressing two main groups.  The first were diplomats.  If children of diplomats were born in America, they were not granted citizenship because they were subjects of a different jurisdiction (country).  The second group were Native Americans for the same reasons.  In 1868, Indians were subjects of sovereign tribes, not the United States, and so their children were not given citizenship by being born in America.  Note that today diplomat’s children are still not granted citizenship, but Native American children are.  Citizenship laws have changed.

Intent does not seem to matter as much as legal precedent, and intent is often difficult to ascertain, but it is worth noting the intent of the 14th Amendment.  The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are considered the Civil War or Reconstruction amendments because they all came at the end of or right after the War.  The intent of these amendments seems clear.  The Republican–controlled congress was trying to protect the newly freed slave population and fix the lack of official citizenship requirements in the Constitution.  The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery, the 14th defined citizenship, and the 15th protected the freedmen’s right to vote.  The Congress wanted to make sure freedmen could not lose their rights because they were once slaves or because of their color.  The mere fact that they were born in America meant they were citizens with all the rights that go with citizenship. 

What is impossible to know is if those members of Congress ever intended that to apply to a baby of an illegal alien.  An argument can be made that illegal aliens are not subject to the jurisdiction therof and so their offspring are not covered under the 14th Amendment.  The other issue of intent is if the writers of the Amendment intended it for use to skirt immigration laws.  They probably never foresaw thousands of people swarming across our southern border when they created this new rule.

What is important to take away is that our citizenship requirements and our immigration laws have changed many times during our history.  It also seems believable that the Congress did not write the 14th Amendment with illegal immigration in mind.  I am not calling for the birthright citizenship to end, but I do think it is worth examining, and history has shown that is the precedent.  However, that conversation needs to happen in the halls of congress and not done by the stroke of a pen from the President. 


I am amazed at the images I have been seeing on my TV and social media this week.  It is heart breaking seeing kids taken from parents and the pictures of conditions in which “migrants” are living in.  Yet at the same time there are contradictory reports that not all the images are authentic; some are from other times or events and used to sway public sympathy.  Like so many articles I have written, I am not going to argue the legality, morality or blame of the immigration debate; I am not qualified.  I want to comment on the history of propaganda. 

In class this week we discussed the Boston Massacre of 1770.  I began the lecture by first showing them an engraving by Paul Revere that he entitled “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street.”  It is an iconic image of an orderly row of British soldiers mercilessly shooting down peaceful colonists.  The officer, standing behind his men, is ordering this attack, while the colonists are caught by surprise from the looks on their faces.  When I asked the class to interpret the picture, they replied with what I expected, the British soldiers were the aggressors killing innocent men and women. 

I always enjoy starting this lecture this way, because it shows the power of propaganda.  This rendition, made three weeks after the shooting, is false.  However, it was published in colonial newspapers and so seen by the public as accurate.  It is important to understand that often in history reality does not mean as much as perception.  It does not matter what is true, only what is perceived as true.  The engraving was false, but it became the colonist’s truth.

In reality what became known as the Boston Massacre began with colonists protesting the Townsend Acts and a growing frustration with British soldiers in Boston.  The Townsend Acts went against the colonist’s British right of “no taxation without representation” and the soldier against the British custom of no standing army during peacetime.  These conflicts came to head on March 5th as a crowd of protesters began harassing a group of soldiers with snowballs (note: there was no snow in the image).  Eventually the snowballs turned into rocks and bricks as the soldiers came under attack.  When one of the soldiers was struck by a rock, he fired and other soldiers followed suit, killing five.  In the trial, it came out that the officer was, in fact, in front of his men and had not ordered his men to fire as he was accused of and some reports claimed it was, in fact, the crowd yelling fire. 

A jury of their peers found the officer and six soldiers not guilty and two of the soldiers guilty of manslaughter.  Yet even with the acquittals, Revere’s image would have the lasting effect and help push colonists towards revolution six years later.  The point is a picture on the news or even worse social media does not always tell the truth.  It is a powerful tool to give a perceived reality.  The reports show that when families are picked up they are brought into a detention center where the family is then processed and separated.  Again, I am not trying to argue for or against separation, what I am showing is that pictures that show children being pulled from their parents upon contact in the desert or seeing a picture of a baby cry, may not be as accurate as much as they are emotional.   

Another powerful weapon are the words themselves.  Revere named his engraving “The Bloody Massacre in King-Street” and it is today known as the Boston Massacre.  Had he named it “The Mob Scene” it would have completely changed how we see the picture.  Instead he described it a massacre.  I am not sure how many people it takes to become a massacre, maybe five is enough, but massacre tends to insinuate the victims are innocent.  Rocks verses guns may make them innocent, but I am sure Revere knew what he was doing when he named his work.  This applies to words used in recent news stories.  As you watch and read, notice that the people being contained are referred to as “migrants” and rarely as illegal aliens.  If reports refuse to call them illegal, you have to question what perceptions they are trying to avoid, and ultimately what their motives are.

I know this is a complicated issue; it is dealing with real human beings, most of whom are looking for a better life for their families.  I lived in McAllen, Texas, for five years and know some of this first hand.   I hope our government can find a fair and humane solution to this growing crisis.  However, solutions can only come from real discourse that is not being influenced by propaganda from both sides.  The Boston Massacre is only one such example of images and words used as propaganda to promote agendas.  So in this case, make your arguments, but beware of the way these events are presented.

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.   

Trump and Twitter

I hope those who take my classes or read my articles will quickly learn that I do not believe my job is to convince anyone that my political beliefs are correct.  I do have strong political beliefs, but those are mine.  I hope to give students information they need to make their own political choices.  However, what I do expect is for students to make informed decisions.  There is so much false information today, especially about history, that I am trying to clear some of it up. 

A quick example is Trump’s so called “Muslim ban.”   I am not arguing for or against this ban.  That is your decision, but I have heard too many say this ban is wrong because it is not American, or this is not what America does, or we are a country of immigrants.  Yes, we are a country of immigrants; however, we are also a country that since its founding has banned immigrants.  Not all immigrants, but over the 300 years of American history we have put restrictions on many.  We did not allow Chinese in our country for more than 40 years, and that is only one example.  So make your arguments (I myself am against the ban) but make your arguments correctly. 

                This brings me to my point for this article.  Many are rightfully concerned about the President’s tweet towards North Korea that basically said, my nuclear button is bigger than yours.  The President’s sanity and ability to lead the nation are being challenged because of the strong brinksmanship being displayed from Mr. Trump.  Several talking heads have argued that Trump is not acting presidential enough.  He is too hawkish and does not have the temperament to control the nuclear arsenal.  Again, like the earlier example, formulate your beliefs over his stance to taunt the North Koreans, but do not for a second believe he is the first to use such brinksmanship.  The real issue here is how he does it-by Twitter. 

The problem is he is only the second president to serve since the scourge of Twitter, and the first to use it as a principle platform.  Do not think that if other presidents had social media they would not have used it.  I can only imagine James Polk tweeting “54-40 or fight” to the British when he was taunting them with war or Andrew Jackson tweeting out “Our federal union, it must be preserved” in reference to John C. Calhoun trying to nullify a federal law.  Jackson was letting Calhoun know he planned to march on South Carolina if they did not back down.  No, do not say Trump is not acting presidential; he is only doing it with 140 characters when most presidents had to say it in an entire speech.

                Diplomacy usually is the answer in most diplomatic instances, but do not think our long list of presidents all avoided presidential brinksmanship.  Much of the media has decided to criticize anything that Mr. Trumps says or does, but some of this is just having to get used to his platform.  I personally do not tweet, but I seem to be one of the last.  Most celebrities and companies have Twitter accounts.  In fact, Twitter is how many communicate and get information.  I wish the president would not use Twitter, but it seem the way of the future.  So we can claim we don’t agree with the president’s stance towards North Korea, or you don’t like the fact that he is using Twitter, but please don’t say that’s not how presidents act.  They just used different technology.

                Let’s just think of a few examples and what it would have been like if they had had Twitter.  President Teddy Roosevelt is a favorite of many.  Talk about someone who would have loved Twitter.  You think Trump is bad?  Roosevelt gave a famous speech as vice-president, two weeks before becoming president, called the Big Stick Speech.  From this speech, we receive Teddy’s foreign policy position of “Speak Softly but Carry a Big Stick,” a not so veiled threat to the rest of the world.   That would have made an excellent tweet.  I can only imagine after TR sent the Great White Fleet to Japan to show them the size of the U.S. Navy to warn them away from our positions in the Pacific that he would have sent a great tweet somewhere along the lines of “Hey Japan, my navy is bigger than yours.”

                On the Democratic side, there are some good examples as well.  First, there was Harry Truman who told Japan to “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Unlike others so far, Truman followed through.  I think that quote would fit into 140 characters.  JFK, a man who worked towards peace when possible, also ran as one of his planks that the U.S. needed to make up a missile gap with the Russians.  He said we were falling behind and if we wanted to compete with the Russians, we would need more nuclear weapons.  In his speech during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he said “The 1930s taught us a clear lesson: aggressive conduct, if allowed to go unchecked and unchallenged ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word…But now further action is required–and it is under way; and these actions may only be the beginning. We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the costs of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth–but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced.”  This is more than 140 characters, but you get the point.  JFK was hoping to avoid war, but this is still brinksmanship.

                Later Ronald Reagan, another man who would have liked Twitter, referred to the Evil Empire when discussing Russia.  George W. Bush called Iran, South Korea, and Iran the “Axis of Evil.”  Using “Rocket Man” is a bit more childish, but Bush and Trump are doing the same thing.  What these presidents all had in common was two things: they all used brinksmanship when dealing with their enemies and none of them had Twitter.

 I could go on.  Many more gauntlets were thrown and I have not even covered the 19th century, but, like Twitter, my editor wants this in less than 14,000 words.  Therefore, here is the moral.  Hate Trump or love him.  Make any argument you want about him on Twitter, Facebook, or whatever you use, but make your agreements correctly. 

Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha