As we approach July 4th, we often think back to the founders of this country and the framers of our Constitution for inspiration and guidance. They were, in many people’s minds, the quintessential Americans. We read books on the Founding Generation by the millions.
Yet we don’t usually think of them as immigrants. A look at who actually founded America tells us that the immigrant contribution to starting this country was much greater than is usually imagined.
Seven of the 39 men who signed the Constitution were immigrants. In fact, two of the three men most associated with its passage, Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, were foreign-born. One of the three men who wrote the Federalist Papers explaining the Constitution was born abroad.
When George Washington chose Justices of the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution, three of his choices were immigrants. James Wilson of Scotland, James Iredell of England, and William Patterson from Ireland made up the immigrant third of the original of the Supreme Court.
Four of the first six Secretaries of the Treasury were immigrants, one each from Switzerland and Scotland, and two from the West Indies. President Washington appointed an Irish immigrant, James McHenry, as Secretary of War in 1796.
Immigrants did not have to rely on Presidential appointment to hold important offices. Of the 81 Congressmen in the first Congress, eight were immigrants.
Immigrants were among the most important writers of the Founding Generation, crafting American ideas of democracy and freedom. The most famous of all, Tom Paine, came from England.
When civil liberties were threatened during John Adams’ administration, Irish-born editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, William Duane risked arrest to take on the president and his Alien and Sedition Acts. Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon, also an Irish immigrant, was jailed under the Alien and Sedition Acts and he became the only Congressman to be reelected while in jail.
When Americans say that this country was “built by immigrants,” they rarely realize that, from the very beginnings, America’s system of government depended on those who came here from somewhere else.