Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

State of New York State History

State of American History, Civics, and Politics

Immigrants and July 4

On July 2, the Lower Manhattan Historical Association (LMHA) held its second annual Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Awards Ceremony at Federal Hall, the National Park service site at Wall and Broad Streets in Lower Manhattan. Following the ceremony a parade was held (an edited video will be available at the LMHA website in the near future.
As a board member of the organization, I was asked to say a few words immediately prior to the handing out the awards. A slightly longer version of my remarks are presented below.

 

Today we honor four Americans at the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Awards Ceremony. If I had said these words – say – 5, certainly 10 years ago, people would have been befuddled and looked at me in bewilderment.

Sure Alexander Hamilton was a founding father.

Sure he helped establish this country.

Sure he has a long list of achievements which I could recite until you are bored.

But immigrant!?

Recognizing Alexander Hamilton for having been an immigrant!

What’s going on here?

When Hamilton and others constituted this country, no one knew that it would last.

No one knew it would have a centennial.

No one knew it would have a bicentennial.

No one knew it would celebrate its 241st birthday.

But even as those first Americans sang Yankee Doodle Dandy, they called America an experiment.

And as we know, not all experiments succeed.

A journey had begun but would it endure?

With round two, the War of 1812, it looked like the experiment might end in failure. As a new generation of Americans was baptized by blood into the American covenant experience, things looked grim for the fledgling country. But we sang the Star Spangled Banner and endured. The journey continued.

On July 4, 1817, in Rome, New York, a hole in the ground was dug on what became the Erie Canal, a wonder of wonders of technological achievement and political vision. The journey continued and their were canal songs to sing as you can hear from the Hudson River Ramblers outside on the steps of Federal Hall.

By July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of our birthday, the experiment seemed a success. We had overcome the threats to our existence and were ready to fulfill a manifest destiny. On that very day two of the authors of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, died within hours of each other. For the people of times there could only be one explanation for such a coincidence: Divine Providence blessed this country. The journey continued.

On July 4, 1827, New York freed its slaves. The unfinished business that stained the very fabric of this country ceased in at least one more part of it. The journey continued.

At the beginning of July in 1863, the two halves that had been rendered asunder fought at Gettysburg. Months later, Abraham Lincoln in an address that would redefine the country, said these words which Americans still recall to this very day: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Lincoln knew that not all the people in the audience were sons and daughters of the American Revolution.

Lincoln knew that many of the people in the audience and who had voted for him were immigrants.

Lincoln also knew that Americans native-born or naturalized who had been baptized by blood in the war to preserve the Union stood as one with those who had created the country 77 years earlier. Lincoln heard a new song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a song that combined the words of a Congregationalist and the music of a Methodist camp song, the leading religions of the colonial past and the Civil War present joined together. The journey continued.

When the “War to end all Wars” was fought, once again immigrants joined with the native-born on behalf of the country they loved. Irishman George M. Cohan revived Yankee Doodle Dandy on behalf of the effort to win the war Over There, Over There and America sang his songs as another generation and new immigrants were baptized by blood into the American covenant community. The journey continued.

World War II confronted America with the face of pure evil. This time it was a Russian-born Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin, who composed the song America sang on its way to victory. With “God Bless America” another generation of Americans, native born and from Ellis Island rose to the occasion. The journey continued.

Have we run out of new songs to sing about the country we love? Have we stopped producing people who express their love of country through music? Sure there is Born in the USA by the Boss, a beloved song to the Gipper, who said it was morning in America and we are a city on a hill that the eyes of the world are upon. We don’t hear those sentiments coming from the White House anymore.

But what about “Hamilton.” Not a song to sing but a musical to experience. Not simply a Hamilton for academics to study, but Hamilton as a story for all Americans to tell, a soundtrack for Americans to buy, a musical for high school students to perform, a message for all Americans to hear.

Yes, he is still the same Hamilton who did all those things that helped build this country, but he has become something more than an academic figure, he has become a symbol, a metaphor, an example. He has done so not only though himself but through the cast that shares his story. When Hamilton lived there was no such thing as a white race in America. There were Scotch-Irish, Dutch, Palatines, French Huguenot, Puritan English, Cavalier English and woe to the person in New York who didn’t recognize the difference among the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. Now we have new names and more peoples but the issue remains the same – are we all part of We the People?

Hamilton answers in the affirmative.

Hamilton affirms that July 4 is the birthday of the country for all Americans.

Hamilton asserts that we are all part of the American narrative.

The journey continues

Who will tell the story ends the musical.

We will tell the story.

Right here.

Right now.

With the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Awards

Thank you and congratulations to the awardees for continuing the journey.

20 thoughts on “Immigrants and July 4

  1. You gave an excelent speech. One would hope it will find its way into the history/civics classes of not only NYS high schools , but across the country as well. We need as much emphasis as possible on the value of all immigrants to the building of the U.S.A., especially at this time given the current Administration misinformation.
    Again, congratulations

    1. Thank you Jim and thank you for the invitation to speak. I do send my posts to John Warren at New York History Blog but he does not repost them on his blog. He does often ping them meaning a reader of his blog can link to mine if they notice the title.

  2. Peter,

    Terrific presentation. The written version has a few more elements than your oral presentation, but I thought your oral presentation was the perfect length.

    As an historical note, my organization was not formed until 1876, and was incorporated in 1883. The DAR and SAR started in 1890. The premise of all the organizations was that our history was being forgotten.

    I would leave your presentation as it is, however. I make the same about the American Revolution, that it was not just the native born who carried on the Cause. I recently read a fascinating book about the role of German immigrants in electing Lincoln.

    AMR

    1. Thanks Ambrose. You did a close reading of the text and noticed the differences. After I wrote the original draft I noticed it was for around 7 minutes and I only had 4 hence the cutting back for the oral presentation. I kept the long version and decided to post it. I even learned you are descended from immigrants if we go back to the 1600s. I sometimes wonder how long it takes before one becomes native.

      Peter

    1. Time for a little social calculus. Project into the future from the moment of Barack Obama’s election. Now project into the future from the present right now. See the difference in views. Things do change. Keep on mind that at some point we will be looking back on this. Imagine being an 8th grade teacher in American history based on the current k-12 guidelines and having to explain to your students how America elected a 7th grader president…and an immature one at that.

  3. I’M A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH, A SHINY PIECE OF COAL
    TRYING TO REACH MY GOAL.
    ONLY 19 BUT MY MIND IS OLDER
    THESE NYC STREETS GET COLDER, I SHOULDER
    EVERY BURDEN
    I’M JUST LIKE MY COUNTRY, I’M YOUNG SCRAPPY AND HUNGRY
    AND I’M NOT GIVING AWAY MY SHOT!!!

  4. Good to hear from you again Dr. Feinman,

    One could make a strong case that Hamilton was not an immigrant as an immigrant moves to a foreign country. Nevis, like Colonial America, was a part of the British Empire and thus not a foreign country.

    This argument comes up all the time in regard to the Pilgrims whom many try to call immigrants as well. Many try to call the Pilgrims illegal immigrants when in fact they had a charter and were not immigrants.

    Are you still doing your history tours?

    Sincerely,

    John Bradford Towle

    1. Hi John,

      You are right. In an earlier post I wrote about presentism, the retrojecting of present values into the past often with the goal of judging peoples in the past negatively. To some extent colonists is a better term for people who leave the mother country but it is inadequate when people leave not as agents of the mother country but because of differences. Then there is the second issue of leaving one part of the empire for another. Maybe we need some new terms to apply to these specific conditions.

      No, I am not doing the history tours now. In my posts I advocate on behalf of such tours but have had little success in getting the tourist industrial complex to actively support history tourism or education department to encourage such programs. I will keep trying. How about in Connecticut?

      Peter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *