Sunday, September 17, 2017

Foreign-Born Framers

John Mikhail

On this Constitution Day, it is worth recalling that seven of the thirty-nine delegates to the Philadelphia convention whose names are affixed to the Constitution were foreign-born, i.e., born outside of the territories that became the United States.  These original dreamers who “got the job done” were:

Alexander Hamilton (NY) – born in the West Indies
Thomas Fitzsimmons (PA) – born in Ireland
Robert Morris (PA) – born in England
James Wilson (PA) – born in Scotland
William Paterson (NJ) – born in Ireland
James McHenry (MD) – born in Ireland
Pierce Butler (SC) – born in Ireland

Thanks to the amazing success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” Hamilton’s story as a hardworking immigrant who made exceptional contributions to the founding is well-known.  But Hamilton was hardly alone in this respect.  The same could be said of others on this list.

Fitzsimmons was a significant politician in his day, who served in the Continental Congress, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and the first U.S. Congress, where he was a strong supporter of Hamilton’s financial programs and an opponent of slavery.  It was Fitzsimmons, in fact, who presented the first Quaker petition to abolish the slave trade in Congress on February 11, 1790.  Fitzsimmons helped found the Bank of North America and the Insurance Company of North America, and he also advised Hamilton on the creation of the Bank of New York.  Along with Maryland’s Daniel Carroll, he was one of two Catholics to sign the Constitution. 

Morris was a supremely influential figure, who kept the revolutionary war effort afloat during a critical period and contributed so much to its financial management that he is sometimes called the "Financier of the American Revolution."  He was Superintendent of Finance from 1781 to 1784, a role in which he spearheaded the creation of America’s first national bank.  Along with George Washington, he probably was one of the two or three most powerful men at the Philadelphia convention, exerting a critical behind-the-scenes influence.  After the Constitution was ratified, he represented Pennsylvania in the first U.S. Senate.

Wilson is the only founder to sign both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and to serve as a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  He wrote the first complete draft of the Constitution, and in that capacity he was primarily responsible for the precise language of many of its most significant clauses and phrases, including the Vesting Clauses, the Necessary and Proper Clause, the Supremacy Clause, and the majestic opening words of the Preamble: “We the People.”  One of the best lawyers and legal minds of his generation, Wilson also has been called the "most democratic" founder because of his unwavering support for popular sovereignty and the principle of one person, one vote.  As a Supreme Court Justice, he participated in several important cases, including Hayburn’s Case, Chisholm v. Georgia, and Ware v. Hylton.

Paterson also played an important role at the Philadelphia convention, where he was as a champion of small state interests and authored the New Jersey Plan, the leading alternative to the nationalist’s Virginia Plan.  He was the first Attorney General of New Jersey and served in the first U.S. Senate, where he helped to draft the Judiciary Act of 1789.  Paterson also was the Governor of New Jersey for two years before being appointed by George Washington to the U.S. Supreme Court.  During his nearly fourteen years on the Court, he wrote or joined many key decisions, including Van Horne’s Lessee v. Dorrance, Calder v. BullStuart v. Laird, and Marbury v. Madison.

McHenry came to America as a teenager and trained as a physician under Benjamin Rush.  After supporting the war effort as an army surgeon and aide to General Washington, he served in the Maryland Senate and then represented Maryland in the Continental Congress.  In 1788, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates, and in 1791, he returned to the Maryland Senate, where he sat for five additional years.  President Washington appointed him Secretary of War in 1796, a position he held in both the Washington and Adams administrations.  Fort McHenry of “Star Spangled Banner” fame was named after him.

Butler’s contributions to the Constitution are no cause for celebration, since many of them (e.g., the Fugitive Slave Clause) grew out of his interest in protecting slavery.  Still, he was an important member of the South Carolina delegation and an influential figure in the founding generation.  Butler was a Revolutionary War hero and represented South Carolina in the first U.S. Senate.  He holds the dubious distinction of both hounding Wilson to his death on account of the latter’s unpaid debts and hosting Aaron Burr at his home after Burr shot and killed Hamilton.

7/39 is an ugly ratio. Rounded to the fifth decimal place, it comes to 17.94872%.  Yet happily there was another immigrant who put his name to the Constitution: the young secretary of the convention, William Jackson.

Born in England in 1759, Jackson came to America as an orphan and joined the continental army as a teenager.  He served on General Washington’s staff and later became an assistant to the first U.S. Secretary of War, Benjamin Lincoln.   On May 25, 1787, the first day of the Philadelphia convention, Hamilton nominated Jackson to be its secretary, and the delegates chose him for that position over Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, William Temple Franklin.  Jackson’s official journal of the convention has often been criticized, but the criticism is probably unfair, as Professor Mary Sarah Bilder patiently explains in this illuminating article.

Because people often mistakenly assume that 39 men signed the Constitution (including John Dickinson, who was not actually present on September 17, but whose signature was added at his direction by another delegate from Delaware, George Read), the fact that Jackson also put his name to the document makes for a nice bit of trivia.  In the present context, it also means that 8/40, or exactly 20 percent, of those individuals who signed the Constitution were foreign-born.

There is much truth to the idea that the United States was “built by immigrants.”  This familiar observation does not tell the whole story, of course, because the country was also built by others, including slaves and the native-born (many of whom were also enslaved).  What Americans do not commonly realize is that even the original Constitution itself would not be what it is without the vital contributions of immigrants.  “We the People of the United States” has always included many individuals who were born somewhere else.

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