Immigrants are told that, because they’re not from this country, they have neither the right nor the knowledge to comment on its goings-on. Nativists would have us believe there’s something about the air in the United States that endows a special understanding to the person who has been incorporating its molecules since the womb. Even “anchor babies” aren’t benefitted, owing perhaps to the composition of their parents’ molecules. So it seems clear that, according to President-elect Trump and the rabble he leads, a person shouldn’t criticize Yanquidom unless he or her was conceived on yanqui soil by yanqui parents.
History, as always, proves otherwise. As a Latino, I automatically think of Martí living and criticizing in New York — “from the belly of the beast,” the American Gotham — in the decade before his silly demise at the start of the Cuban war for independence. As a human being, however, and specifically as part yanqui myself, the words which resound in my mind belong to the preeminent immigrant of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine.
He was a relatively obscure English pamphleteer in his late thirties when he happened to make the acquaintance of the world famous Philadelphia scientist and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who was in London negotiating on behalf of the still British colonies of the Atlantic coast. Impressed by the young man’s sharpness of mind, Dr. Franklin bring Paine with him on his return voyage to Philadelphia and give him a letter of recommendation, an offer which Paine accepted.
When Paine arrived at the end of November in 1774, the revolution was beginning to loom over the horizon. The previous winter a group calling itself the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 chest of British tea totaling over 1.5 million in current dollars into Boston Harbor in protest of the Crown’s trade and taxation policies toward its American subjects. As a result, King George tightened his grip on the thirteen colonies, closing Boston Harbor until the city paid for the tea destroyed, and rescinding the colony’s right to self-government. “The shot heard round the world” would be fired at the North Bridge in Concord a few months after Paine’s arrival, sparking the armed conflict.
Still, many colonials hoped for a quick reconciliation with their king. As Paine himself would describe in The Crisis, a series of pamphlets written during the grimmest period of the struggle:
I happened to come to America a few months before the breaking out of hostilities. I found the disposition of the people such, that they might have been led by a thread and governed by a reed. Their suspicion was quick and penetrating, but their attachment to Britain was obstinate, and it was at that time a kind of treason to speak against it.
Paine would do something far more dangerous than speak against the relationship between London and its Atlantic colonies: he would write against it. When Common Sense was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, Paine became, in the words of a National Constitution Center headline, “the original publishing viral superstar.”
“Common Sense sold 120,000 copies in its first three months,” writes one of the center’s staff writers, “and by the end of the Revolution, 500,000 copies were sold. The estimated population of the Colonies (excluding its African-American and Native American populations) was 2.5 million.”
An estimated 20 percent of colonists owned a copy of the revolutionary booklet. In current-day sales, that would amount to sales of 60 million, not including overseas sales. Only a handful of books have sold more than 60 million copies in the past two centuries, and those books had the benefit of modern publishing outlets and promotion.
I invoke Paine’s example because, as the son of a Honduran immigrant, I grew up under the impression that this isn’t really my country, that I really only just got here and so I should keep quiet and observe. But that, as Paine would say, is sheer bollocks. Paine’s influence on the American Revolution, of which he’s quite rightly considered the intellectual father, shows how it’s often outsiders who offer fresh perspectives and vigor to issues that have ground the natives into inaction. Here, too, I can relate, since as a member of the Puerto Rican Diaspora I’m often asked what business I have in speaking on insular matters. You’re not from here, goes the refrain, so you have no clue about what’s right or wrong for the people who are from here.
Paine probably caught the same hell back in the 1770s. “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom,” he writes in his introduction to Common Sense. “But tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” Here I’ll have to disagree slightly with Paine, because the revolution was long overdue. It was his reasoning, more than time, that converted Loyalists into Patriots.
Not bad for an outsider.
Featured image: A replica of the Dutch cargo ship Hector, Nova Scotia, Canada (Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)