It would be helpful, of course, if all Americans knew their history better than they do. It would be especially helpful if our elected leaders knew it better. And it seems it would be most helpful if the congressman who represents Virginia’s 5th Congressional District — a district once home to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Patrick Henry and some of the nation’s most consequential historical events — understood it best of all. However, one of the candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the 5th District congressional seat appears to have missed out on those history lessons. We refer to Bob Good, the former Campbell County supervisor who is challenging incumbent Denver Riggleman for his party’s nomination at a convention this Saturday.
In a story Sunday, Roanoke Times political reporter Amy Friedenberger detailed the differences between the two candidates, with Good staking out a restrictive view on immigration Here’s a line about Good that jumped out at us: He wants to make English the official national language and “stop accommodating immigrants and their native tongues, because it’s our unity that’s our strength.”
Here’s why that caught our eye: This runs directly counter to American history. Now, Good is under no obligation to honor American history and certainly not everything in American history is praiseworthy. However, when Good says we should “stop accommodating immigrants and their native tongues,” he should be clear — in whatever tongue he wishes to speak — just how much at odds that position is with the historical American experience.
To be fair, perhaps Good doesn’t understand that himself. He was born in 1965, which means that for most of his life he’s lived in a distinctly unusual part of American history — a time of low immigration, brought about by the racist anti-immigrant laws of the 1920s, the Great Depression, and the global disruptions of World War II and the Cold War. In 1970, when Good turned 5, immigrants constituted the smallest share of the U.S. population since records first started being kept before the Civil War — 4.75%. It’s not until the past decade that we’ve seen immigration return to levels that were the norm through much of our history.
Good may think he grew up in a normal time and the immigration levels we’re seeing now are abnormal, but it’s actually just the opposite. In 2018, the last year for which figures are available, immigrants constituted 13.7% of the American population. That may seem high to him, but that’s about what it was from 1860 to 1920, when the percentage of immigrants consistently ranged between 13% and just over 14%. For most of those 60 years, the United States saw more immigration, in percentage terms, than it has in the 2000s. In 1870, 14.4% of the American population were immigrants. In 1890, 14.8% were. In 1910, 14.7% were. Not until 2000 did the U.S. return to double-digit levels of immigration and even then that 11.1% was still lower than anything the U.S. saw between 1860 and 1930. Even the 12.9% in 2010 was lower than anything between 1860 and 1920. So even before Donald Trump made immigration harder, we weren’t seeing “unprecedented” levels of immigration — we were seeing historically normal levels that seemed unusual only because we grew up in a period unaccustomed to that. When Good says we should “stop accommodating immigrants and their native tongues,” he’s also departing from the American tradition — because the American tradition has been to accommodate those “native tongues” in ways we find hard to imagine today. By some accounts at least 18 different languages were spoken by white settlers in colonial America — and that doesn’t count what enslaved African-Americans or Native Americans might have spoken. When our founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776 to declare independence, they would have heard many different languages spoken on the streets of Philadelphia. The first U.S. census a few decades later in 1790 found that 38% of Pennsylvania’s white population was German, and some of them spoke only or primarily German. The first newspaper to report the Declaration of Independence was a German-language newspaper — Der Pennsylvanische Staatsbote on July 5, 1776. It was a day later before anyone could read the text in English, in the Pennsylvania Evening Post. If Good is bothered by hearing foreign languages spoken, he wouldn’t like going back in time to the nation’s founding.
Today’s immigrants also learn English far more quickly than immigrants back then did. We have an example right here in Virginia: The Shenandoah Valley was settled by two waves of immigrants beginning in the 1720s — English-speaking Scots-Irish and German-speaking Germans. More than a century later, many of their descendants still spoke German as their primary or only language. The German language didn’t just survive, it flourished. Between 1789 and 1854, at least five printing companies in the Shenandoah Valley were producing German-language materials. Hymnals. Books. And at least four German-language newspapers. When Der Virginishe Volksberichter was founded in New Market in 1807, its publisher was a fifth-generation German-speaker. The language had lasted that long in the Henkel family. A language other than English didn’t seem to bother politicians in those days, because back then all parties competing in the Shenandoah Valley routinely published campaign materials in both English and German. As late as 1938, a Dayton printer produced a German hymnal for Mennonites who still clung to their forefathers’ tongue two centuries later.
Today, schools routinely have English as a Second Language classes. That wasn’t the case back then. In 1839 Ohio and Pennsylvania declared German an official language in the schools so that German-speaking children could be taught in their own language. In 1847, Louisiana decided to teach some students in French. Through the 1800s, the states of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oregon all passed laws allowing schools to teach in languages other than English. Good’s call to “stop accommodating immigrants and their native tongues” is one we heard in the 19th century from the Know-Nothing Party, but those views did not gain currency even then. In fact, they were decisively rejected.
So when Good says today we should “stop accommodating immigrants and their native tongues,” he’s not calling for historic American values to be upheld, he’s calling for them to be replaced.
— The Roanoke Times
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