House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created quite a stir Wednesday, when she said that President Donald Trump should delay his Jan. 29 State of the Union address if the government remains shut down — or perhaps deliver it in writing. But her proposal was not as radical as it might sound. For more than a century, it was the norm for presidents to fulfill their constitutional responsibility to “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union” by sending a letter to Capitol Hill.
President Thomas Jefferson set that precedent in 1801. Not until Woodrow Wilson ventured to Capitol Hill in 1913 would a president appear before Congress in person. Historians give different reasons for Jefferson’s reluctance to give a speech in person: that he thought it made him look too much like a king, that he didn’t want to navigate the then-muddy thoroughfare of Pennsylvania Avenue; and possibly that he was just a lousy public speaker.
But Jefferson’s 1801 message to Congress was a powerful one. Near the end, he addressed a question that remains a devilish topic today: Who gets to be an American? Our third president was elected in part as a populist backlash to the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, a package of laws aimed to keep out foreigners and tamp down those who dared to speak out against the government. One of the laws increased the amount of time that immigrants would have to wait for citizenship from five years to 14 years.
In his first State of the Union message, Jefferson argued — albeit in some words that wouldn’t be tolerated today — that welcoming good people who aspire to be Americans is the most fundamental of this country’s values:
“I can not omit recommending a revisal of the laws on the subject of naturalization. Considering the ordinary chances of human life, a denial of citizenship under a residence of 14 years is a denial to a great proportion of those who ask it, and controls a policy pursued from their 1st settlement by many of these States, and still believed of consequence to their prosperity; and shall we refuse to the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe? The Constitution indeed has wisely provided that for admission to certain offices of important trust a residence shall be required sufficient to develop character and design. But might not the general character and capabilities of a citizen be safely communicated to everyone manifesting a bona fide purpose of embarking his life and fortunes permanently with us, with restrictions, perhaps, to guard against the fraudulent usurpation of our flag, an abuse which brings so much embarrassment and loss on the genuine citizen and so much danger to the nation of being involved in war that no endeavor should be spared to detect and suppress it?”
The following year, Jefferson signed the Naturalization Law of 1802, which once again allowed immigrants to become citizens after being in this country for five years.
Of course, it was far from perfect. It kept in place a requirement that is a blot on our history: that only those who were free, white and male could fully share in the rights that go with the rights of citizenship. But as part of our government has ground to a halt over the question of building a wall, Jefferson nonetheless reminded us of something important. With the exception of Native Americans, every one of us who enjoys the blessing of being an American does so because someone who was here first opened up a door.
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. She joined the Post from Time magazine and has worked at the Los Angeles Times.