Long before President Donald Trump, there was another American love affair with China’s Great Wall. Naturally, it was none other than Benjamin Franklin, the chief disciple of Confucius and chinoiserie among the Founding Fathers of the United States.
After commissioning him as a military commander, Governor Robert Morris of the Pennsylvania Colony dispatched Franklin to defend the British colonists against the encroaching French and their Native Indian allies by building a “line of forts” in the French and Indian War (1754–1763).
Envisioning a China Wall, Franklin wrote:
You cannot protect the country from Indians on the warpath by forts. They can pass between them through the forests, burn and pillage and massacre the people of the scattered villages, and return again in perfect safety. Only a Chinese wall the whole length of the Western frontier would be a sufficient protection against these savages.
Outbreak of war
When the war broke out in the Ohio River Valley in 1754, Pennsylvania was divided on a provincial security strategy.
While some argued for carrying the war to the enemy in the disputed area between New France territory in Canada and the colonies of British America, supporters of Governor Morris and Franklin advocated a defensive strategy with forts that “were connected by a wall like that of China.”
After initially building Fort Allen, Franklin supervised the construction of three other fortifications—Forts Franklin, Hamilton, and Norris — over the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania between the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers.
To galvanize public opinion to unite the colonies and defend against France, Franklin published a now-famous political cartoon in 1754, “Join or Die,” and wrote to support the construction of forts on “the back of our settlements in all our colonies.”
In his letter to Franklin in 1776, the Chevalier de Kermorvan, a French engineer in the Continental Army under George Washington, disagreed, arguing that “this work would be as useless here as the great wall of China, which has not preserved this empire from being conquered by the Tartars.”
Likewise, General John Kelly, former chief of staff to Trump, had concluded, “If you want to stop illegal immigration, stop U.S. demand for drugs, and expand economic opportunity in Central America.”
A two thousand year construction
Unlike the American experience, the Great Wall of China was built by laborers with human tragedies over a period of two millennia, beginning roughly with the years of Confucius (551-479 BC).
But, the ruthless Emperor Qin Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty (221-207 BC) and the first emperor of the unified Imperial China connected a number of remaining network of fortifications into a single defensive system against the invading Mongol, Turkic, and other nomadic tribes.
In the ensuing centuries, various dynasties continued to construct a strong defensive border-wall to safeguard against foreign invasion, regulate immigration and manage trade until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD).
While it hardly prevented the non-Chinese nomadic intruders like the Mongols and Manchu from establishing the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) and the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) respectively, the Great Wall has indeed played a historic role in unifying the Chinese nation and its civilizational identity.
Nationalism shrouded as immigration policy
President Trump’s “immoral” campaign to build a “Great Wall” of concrete and steel across the US-Mexican border, on the other hand, has more to do with the white nationalism shrouded in the White House’s immigration policy.
The president’s descriptions of invading “caravans” of migrants and “criminals” coming through the Mexican border and the arriving war refugees from Muslim countries seem to resonate with yet another “wall” sentiment of the young republic.
In considering the New York Constitution, John Jay, who later became the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, suggested that “we must erect a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics,” which generally meant French, Irish, Italians and Spanish as opposed to white Protestants.
The New York Constitution in 1777 adopted that freedom from “spiritual oppression and intolerance wherewith the bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priest and princes have scourged mankind” and then declared “the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed, with this State, to all mankind.”
The polemics of a physical “wall” is still in the public discourse as it has always been with Thomas Jefferson’s original phrase of “a wall of (eternal) separation between church and state.”
The American experiment born out of the Jeffersonian ideal that “all men are created equal” was meant to eventually make the new republic into a great melting pot.
Unlike China’s rising and falling empires that have evolved into a civilizational identity, the United States was created by the enlightened men envisioning a “philosophic empire” as a work-in-progress for the posterity to build a “more perfect union.”
Ironically, while President Trump continues to advocate a “beautiful” wall, his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping has delivered a clear message to the White House that “the wise man builds bridges, the fool builds walls.”
Similarly, while visiting Panama last week, Pope Francis also remarked, obliquely referring to Trump that “we know that the father of lies, the devil, prefers a community divided and bickering by building walls, not bridges.”
Shining city on a hill
In his farewell address, President Ronald Reagan invoked John Winthrop’s famous “Model of Christian Charity” phrase “shining city on a hill” to define authentic Americanism when he said, “if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
Surely, the American experience that progressed through the French and Indian War has made this Reaganite idea — elevated from a union of British “colonies” to the united “states” — into a global nation, not a politically opportunistic slogan of “America First” with shameful “isolationism.”
As Congress contemplates the very idea of a wall and the cost of another government shutdown, the representatives of the people ought to remember that we are simply an assortment of transitory guardians with diverse faith traditions. T The American experiment born out of the Jeffersonian ideal that “all men are created equal” was meant to eventually make the new republic into a great melting pot.
They must restore the enlightened vision of the founding republic to make American democracy safe for global diversity.
The Reagan-like Republican leaders should then have the courage to educate Trump with that of their inspired leader President Reagan who said in 1987 to his Soviet counterpart at the Berlin Wall, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
That is the authentic Americanism embedded in the founding DNA of this enduring nation of immigrants.
This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together. Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And sign up for our highlights email here.