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President Cleveland Vetoes a Law Restricting Immigration

In 1897 President Grover Cleveland vetoed legislation requiring a literacy test for would-be immigrants proposed by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, declaring, "I cannot believe that we would be protected against these [alleged evils of unrestricted immigration] by limiting immigration to those who can read and write in any language twenty-five words..." In his response to Congress, excerpted below, Cleveland outlined and refuted some of the arguments of those who favored restrictions on turn-of-the-century immigration. Twenty years after Cleveland's veto, a literacy requirement would be included as part of the Immigration Act of 1917.

A radical departure from our national policy relating to immigration is here presented. Heretofore we have welcomed all who came to us from other lands except those whose moral or physical conditions or history threatened danger to our national welfare and safety....we have encouraged those coming from foreign countries to cast their lot with us and join in the development of our vast domains, securing in return a share in the blessings of American citizenship.

A century's stupendous growth, largely due to the assimilation and thrift of millions of sturdy and patriotic adopted citizens, attests the success of this generous and free-handed policy which, while guarding the people's interests, exacts from our immigrants only physical and moral soundness and a willingness and ability to work.

… It is said, however, that the quality of recent immigration is undesirable. The time is quite within recent memory when the same thing was said of immigrants who, with their descendants, are now numbered among our best citizens.

The best reason that could be given for this radical restriction of immigration is the necessity of protecting our population against degeneration and saving our national peace and quiet from imported turbulence and disorder.

I cannot believe that we would be protected against these evils by limiting immigration to those who can read and write in any language twenty-five words of our Constitution.

Source | John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, University of California, Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=70845.
Creator | Grover Cleveland
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | Grover Cleveland, “President Cleveland Vetoes a Law Restricting Immigration,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/781.

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