I try not to be overtly political. Anyone who reads this blog, or my Twitter, knows that I’m a liberal and I have no great fondness for the current administration. Anyone who talks to me knows that I had high hopes the orange-tinted blowhard – who has been systematically rejected by the New York society he wished so desperately to join – would not be welcomed into the White House on a tide of nationalistic, protectionist, and isolationist sentiment. Those who know me know that I sighed the night of the election, and I have sighed every day since.
However, despite all of that, I smile and say “I hope he does well, and I hope his presidency is a successful and prosperous one.” Because despite political or ideological affiliations, I’m an American first and foremost, and despite my misgivings about Mr. Trump I certainly do want good things to happen to this nation that I love.
Unfortunately, I’ve failed to realize that what I think of as “good things” are not the same things others think of as good. Like welcoming all those to our shores who seek a better life, a will to work, and the desire to become as American as you or I. I think that’s the bedrock of this great experiment, the “city on the hill” that Reagan spoke of, the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty that overlooks the entryway into the very city that bred our current President: all those who wish to become a part of this dream, who wish to be a part of our country, who wish to make us smart and strong and profitable are welcome.
Apparently, Mr. Trump does not agree with me.
Which is okay, because we are Americans, and we are allowed to disagree with each other and with our government. But it’s not okay as well, because Mr. Trump, unlike me, is not a native to this country.
My great-grandfather was a full blood Cherokee. Mr. Trump’s grandfather was a German immigrant. My family’s European stock, on both sides, can trace our history back to the Revolutionary War, including a distant relation to a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Trump is a second-generation American. Until relatively recently, my family was a collection of dirt-poor Southerners who lived hard-scrabble and hard-working existences. Mr. Trump profited from the ability of his forefathers to build an empire in this country despite their recent relationship.
If anyone has a right to complain about immigrants, to demand their restriction from this country and the opportunities available, it’s me. Mr. Trump, however, is a product of our welcoming and acceptance of immigrants, and of the ability of a person to join in this nation’s manifest dream of what we are and what we can be. And yet, he is the one barring people from entry into that dream, while I am the one wondering what generations of my family fought and died for throughout this country’s history if one man can strip away that tenet of America with a stroke of a pen.
Later this week, I anticipate Habeas Porpoise, the Aquatic Attorney, will speak on this same topic much more eloquently than I will. He has a much larger personal stake in this, and is much more knowledgable about the impact of turning away refugees that seek freedom and comfort on our shores than I do. So if you want to close out this post and wait for his take on matters, please feel free to do so. This isn’t going to be a funny post, and it isn’t going to impart a lesson. This is going to be me, talking, and when I talk I ramble, and when I ramble I tend to piss people off. But I need to talk.
Today I want to just talk about one specific immigrant, a refugee, who created this nation.
I live not too far from Valley Forge. For those of you who don’t know about Valley Forge, it’s where the Continental Army wintered from 1777-1778. In harsh conditions, undersupplied and underprepared, under constant threat of attack from the British, the Continental Army, led by our first President, made its winter camp there. Over 2,000 soldiers died there of exposure, of illness, and of malnutrition. It is, in American history, perhaps one of our most hallowed grounds as it is the place where the American Revolution was nearly undone. Not by bullets or bayonets, but by the weather, by unrest, and by circumstances.
When I have a question in my mind, I find myself, not infrequently, wandering around the fields of Valley Forge, sitting and looking out at the landscape and thinking about the men that died there, shivering in the cold. It gives me perspective on our nation, and on its place in the world. It makes me wonder what those men who died there would think about what we have done with the country they fought to create. And not only the country they fought to create, but the country that immigrants fought to create.
In the winter of 1778, Baron von Stueben arrived at Valley Forge. Von Stueben was a Prussian military officer. Prior to arriving at Valley Forge, he had held a high position in the court and army of the Prussian king, but had been refused by the Continental Congress in the past because of issues with “promoting foreign” soldiers over American soldiers. Instead, he came to America and offered to serve without pay and without rank until they felt he had earned both. He presented himself to General Washington as a volunteer, and he then became a leading cause of our victory.
Whatever the opinion of Von Stueben was among the troops, Von Stueben said the following of them upon viewing the Continental Army: “These are not troops. They are skeletons.”
Von Stueben re-arranged the outlay of the camp at Valley Forge. Disease and exposure had been the result of haphazard arrangements, soldiers without cover, and poor sanitation. Von Stueben designed a new layout for the camp, reducing these threats. While 2,500 soldiers died, Von Stueben’s planning prevented the death of others.
Von Stueben drilled the troops, training them in the ways of war and of military discipline. He discarded the notion that he should remain separate from the troops, instead adopting the habit of individually training soldiers in the military arts and order. He trained them progressively, each part of the training a stepping stone for the next. Until then, military training in the Continental Army had been a haphazard affair, with volunteers sneered upon and regarded as likely to break and run in battle. It was Von Stueben’s training that taught the volunteers the bayonet charge, the benefits of unarmed combat, and military tactics. In the words of one soldier, it was Von Stueben who turned “volunteers into a great army.”
What went into Valley Forge as a rag-tag collection of under-provisioned and untrained volunteers left Valley Forge as an army. A foreigner who came to America without rank or pay and volunteered left Valley Forge as a major general. He would serve with honor and distinction throughout the remainder of the war, being a crucial commander at Monmouth and Yorktown. His training protocol and order would remain employed by the armed forces of the United States for over 100 years after he devised them. He, the same as General Washington or the founding fathers, is responsible for the creation of this nation, and he was an immigrant.
Baron von Stueben, in addition to being a brilliant military mind and an effective trainer of men, in addition to being exactly what the Continental Army needed to create our country, was also a refugee who possessed qualities that some people in this nation find deplorable, and indeed, may even find un-American.
For instance, Baron von Stueben spoke little English. He gave orders and wrote mainly in French and German. Today we complain that there is an option to “Press 2 for Spanish” on our phones and insist that people coming here should do so only if they know English. Baron von Stueben would certainly not have met this criteria.
Baron von Stueben was a refugee. Circumstances had made it so he would never advance, and indeed may face trial, in his homelands if he remained. This is because Baron von Stueben was likely homosexual, something that we fight today over to determine whether people should be allowed to exercise the same rights won for all Americans by Baron von Stueben.
And yet, Baron von Stueben, a gay refugee facing political and legal persecution in his homeland, who spoke little English, was instrumental in winning America’s right to stand as a free and independent nation.
So, this weekend I found myself at Valley Forge, looking out over the fields and wondering what Baron von Stueben would have thought about the Executive Order which excluded immigrants we had deemed “undesirable,” and what he would think about the “Wall.” It was cold, and it was windy, but I sat on a log smoking a cigarette and thought, and I wondered if we would welcome Baron von Stueben with open arms today. The truth is, I’m not sure we would.
I’m not sure we would say “This non-English speaking, gay, criminal who is fleeing charges in his homeland should be allowed in. More than that, we should allow him in to lead our troops into battle.”
The sad thing is, Von Stueben is not an outlier. America is a nation built on the backs immigrants. The railroads that span this country were built by the Chinese. The mines of Pennsylvania that produced the coal which fueled our nation’s rise was dug out by the Irish. We went to the moon with the intelligence of German scientists. Everyday we search on the internet using a search engine created by a Russian. Immigrants are the backbone of our country, and have always been the backbone of our country. As stated above, our current President is the son of an immigrant, and the grandson of an immigrant.
And yet we have cheered the limiting of immigrants – legal immigrants, as the Executive Order has no effect on illegal immigrants – that are trying to enter this country legally. We have said to them, in effect, “This country is closed to you for the time being. We want to make sure you’re the type of immigrant we want. We want to be certain you’re the right kind of immigrant.”
The point of my diatribe about Von Stueben is this: Had we found it necessary to engage in this review in 1777, to only allow those that we found “acceptable” based on fear or ignorance into this country, there is a very real possibility we would not have a country. Because we owe the existence of our nation, in a large part, to a non-English speaking, gay, criminal.
That is why, this weekend, looking out over the place where our nation was molded in the midst of snow and starvation, I felt a tinge of fear. Not fear that this nation will cease to exist, or the alarmist fear that our nation will be destroyed in fire, but fear for our future. Fear because what will we lose when we send a message to the world that says “America is closed to you. We do not want you. You are not welcome.” Will we lose the doctor who can cure cancer or AIDS, now a small Syrian child living in Aleppo? Will we lose a great legal mind whose father tried to come in from Iran on a student visa? Will we lose a great military mind to an enemy because his mother was turned away at our gates?
Or will we simply lose the respect of the world?
Anyhow, at the end of the day, I’m just a simple lawyer. I’m an American mutt. I’m not a politician or a political analyst. So the bigger picture stuff, that’s out of my grasp.
But I know when something feels wrong.
I like to think I know when something is wrong.
And frankly, I hope I’m wrong.