Today’s preferred way to think about immigration and the nation-state is exemplified in the title of a 1964 pamphlet that the Anti-Defamation League published posthumously under the name of John F. Kennedy: A Nation of Immigrants.  The next year, the martyred President’s brother Teddy had his name put on the 1965 immigration act of such large and unforeseen consequence.

The pages of JFK’s little book are seldom read anymore, but its mantra of a title has proved wildly successful at sacralizing mass immigration as some kind of hereditary national onus.  “My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. . . . That’s the tradition we must uphold.  That’s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come,” orated President Barack Obama as justification for his November 2014 demand that, when it comes to immigration, America must have a government of men and not of laws.

While the Preamble states that the Constitution is ordained so that “We the People of the United States” can “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” the concept of posterity has vanished from respectable immigration discourse.  The Obama amnesty invokes a civil right to be here that illegal aliens inherit, but not from their ancestors: Like insanity, amnesty is hereditary; you get it from your children.  After all, we live in an age of globalism and minoritarianism: The 300 million American citizens are the majority, while the 7 billion foreigners are the minority.

This slogan of a Nation of Immigrants has not proved terribly productive intellectually, fostering not unsentimental scholarship but schmaltzy ancestor worship.  For example, when it was revealed in the press last year that Dr. Jason Richwine had earned his Harvard Ph.D. by quantitatively analyzing the achievements of Hispanics over multiple generations, finding that today’s illegal-alien “Dreamers” and their children were unlikely to live up to the fond hopes so casually invested in them, he was immediately shoved out of his job at a conservative think tank.

In sharp contrast to this dead end for scholarship, Benjamin Franklin’s arguments in favor of immigration restrictions were influential on the central avenue of Anglo-American thought in the human sciences.

Franklin’s 1751 pamphlet Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind offered a workable strategy for America’s future.  These 24 numbered paragraphs were the cogent cornerstone of Franklin’s audacious scientific-strategic theory for the peopling of America, an interlocking series of arguments about how the world would work.  Sociologist Dennis Hodgson observes that, in Observations, “Policy did not flow from theory[;] theory flowed from policy.”  But the policy Franklin advocated was so fruitful over the next two centuries that the theory deserves respect.

Hodgson explains Ben Franklin’s American Dream:

Living in the mid-eighteenth century, [Franklin] had a vision of a middle-class society that was necessarily one in which the majority owned and worked their own lands. . . . His dream was of a prosperous and middle-class America, peopled largely by the English, that spanned a continent and confidently assumed a preeminent place among nations.

In 1964, four decades after mass immigration had been shut down, the country looked rather like Franklin’s vision.  But the mechanisms Franklin had identified as crucial to American happiness have been increasingly forgotten during the ensuing Nation of Immigrants nostalgiafest.

This Founding Father’s insights on population and immigration are so out of fashion as to make his entire perspective almost incomprehensible to mainstream minds.  For example, in his bestselling 2003 biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, the intelligent establishmentarian Walter Isaacson (the authorized biographer of Steve Jobs) issues a few baffled apologies for this epoch-making essay, then quickly moves on to more congenial matters.

Franklin can be a hard figure for 21st-century Americans to appreciate because we like victims and comeback kids, but he always won.  He was the greatest team player of his age.  His allegiances flowed outward in roughly concentric circles, running from his huge extended family (he had 16 siblings), to his adopted city of Philadelphia, to Pennsylvania, America, the British Empire, the West, and the world.

Franklin did not possess the leapfrogging loyalties of a modern liberal.  For instance, he became an active abolitionist, but not until after he had returned from France in his 80’s as the diplomatic architect of victory in the War of Independence.  He had argued against slavery in Observations, but from the standpoint of the opportunity cost to his people, the English.  Today, we are shocked, shocked by his English chauvinism: “I could wish their numbers were increased. . . . But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my country, for such kind of partiality is natural to mankind.”

If Franklin, a master publicist, were writing today, he’d likely play the victim card harder to appeal to current prejudices.  In his own day, he didn’t see much reason to apologize for wanting his own people to thrive.

Franklin had become interested in immigration reduction because of two abuses that may seem familiar today.  First, the British government was dumping convicts on the colonies, and these poor-quality immigrants raised the crime rate.

The institutional background of the second is more abstruse, but the injustice Franklin perceived is even more familiar at the moment.  Just as the current government is attempting to elect a new people, so, too, were Franklin’s political adversaries.  By 1751, the Province of Pennsylvania had become an uneasy hybrid of ownership by the absentee landlords resident in England (the heirs of William Penn) and middle-class self-government.  The hereditary proprietors attempted to tip the balance against Franklin’s local-rule party by recruiting immigrants in Germany, who upon arrival in Pennsylvania voted en bloc for the owners.

Franklin found this unfair.  He set out to prove to His Majesty’s Government in Westminster that it was in their interest to let the English masses populate America without outside assistance.  He pointed out that the population of the American colonies was already doubling about every quarter of a century, largely by natural increase.  This first-ever estimate of American population growth provided an uncanny forecast, remaining accurate up through the closing of the frontier in 1890.

It also caused a sensation among European intellectuals, who feared a withering away of humans on their own crowded continent.  Britain, for instance, had grown only ten percent from 1651 to 1751.  As Franklin noted of Europe, the workings of supply and demand suggested that,

In countries full settled . . . all lands being occupied and improved to the height: those who cannot get land must labor for others that have it; when laborers are plenty, their wages will be low; by low wages a family is supported with difficulty; this difficulty deters many from marriage, who therefore long continue servants and single.

On the other hand, lightly populated America was more favorable for human happiness:

Land being thus plenty in America, and so cheap as that a laboring man that understands husbandry can in a short time save money enough to purchase a piece of new land sufficient for a plantation whereon he may subsist a family; such are not afraid to marry . . . Hence, marriages in America are more general, and more generally early, than in Europe.

A half-century later, Franklin’s growth estimate inspired Thomas Malthus’s famously gloomy conclusion that population naturally grows to the limits of the land.  (Of course, Malthus published this just as technological progress was making the Malthusian ceiling less ironclad.)

Interestingly, Franklin may have grasped that Europeans had already long been doing what Malthus would hector them to try: delaying or forgoing marriage and children when their prospects are poor.  In this manner, England had avoided mass famine for centuries.  Franklin began Observations in his usual glass-half-full manner: “When families can be easily supported, more persons marry, and earlier in life.”

Decades later, Charles Darwin read Malthus’s book and was inspired to generalize this “struggle for existence” to all species.  In the copy of Malthus’s Essay in Darwin’s personal library, the scientist has underlined the economist’s reference to Franklin’s Observations:

It is observed by Dr. Franklin, that there is no bound to the prolific nature of plants or animals but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each other’s means of subsistence.  Were the face of the earth, he says, . . . empty of other inhabitants, it might in a few ages be replenished from one nation only, as, for instance, with Englishmen.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin cites America’s 25-year period for doubling, and notes,

The primary or fundamental check to the continued increase of man is the difficulty of gaining subsistence, and of living in comfort.  We may infer that this is the case from what we see, for instance, in the United States, where subsistence is easy, and there is plenty of room.

Anticipating the famous logic of Malthus and Darwin, Franklin had hypothesized,

The importation of foreigners into a country that has as many inhabitants as the present employments and provisions for subsistence will bear will be in the end no increase of people; . . . Nor is it necessary to bring in foreigners to fill up any occasional vacancy in a country; for such vacancy . . . will soon be filled by natural generation.

Thanks to immense increases in productivity, we no longer live in a Malthusian era when population growth in a settled country threatens imminent famine.  Yet Franklin’s logic that affordability of family formation depends on the ratio of wages to land prices is still seen today.  To be middle class, Americans need to be able to afford a home with a yard in a decent school district.  (And, more and more, only the middle class and above marry.)  It doesn’t sound like too much ask, but it increasingly is.  This is most noticeable in the state that once was the promised land of the average American, but now has the highest percentage of immigrants.  Although California’s total population grew from 1990 to 2010 by over eight million, the number of non-Hispanic whites fell by two million.

Franklin’s science was less dismal than Malthus’s because he looked westward across the Appalachians to a continent only thinly populated by hunters and voyageurs, hopefully exclaiming, “so vast is the Territory of North America that it will require many ages to settle it fully; and till it is fully settled, labour will never be cheap here.”

The problem, though, was that the French claimed the great Ohio River Valley and had access to it via the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers.  With peace reigning, Franklin could only tactfully plead for some sort of diplomatic coup: “How important an affair then to Britain is the present treaty for settling the bounds between her colonies and the French, and how careful should she be to secure room enough, since on the room depends so much the increase of her people?”

In an era when skepticism about immigration is heresy, Franklin’s 1751 objections are often excused because, as time went on, he less insistently pointed out the long-term rationale of restrictionism.  But there’s a disturbing reason for this trend.  Franklin’s opposition to inviting the world lessened as opportunities for invading the world increased.  Who needs immigration limits when you have military conquest?

In mid-1754, a Virginia militia unit under the command of 22-year-old George Washington ambushed a French contingent near the headwaters of the Ohio.  Eventually, this French and Indian War in North America became the Seven Years War in Europe, Asia, and Africa—a World War Zero which determined that the global language of the 21st century would be English rather than French.

Late in 1754, Franklin wrote A Plan for Settling Two Western Colonies.  It began, “Our people, being confined to the country between the sea and the mountains, cannot much more increase in number; people increasing in proportion to their room and means of subsistence.”  He called for a demographic surge into French-controlled territory, including building a town where Cleveland now stands.

In 1759 British troops made Franklin’s plans militarily possible by conquering the walled city of Quebec guarding the St. Lawrence River.  When a British pundit then suggested trading cold Canada back to the French for a rich Caribbean sugar island, Franklin published his Canada Pamphlet (with an edited version of Observations appended for scientific justification).  He argued that if the French regained the St. Lawrence, which empties the Great Lakes, they and their Indian allies could plague the Midwest and prevent its settlement, even though the Midwest could ultimately nourish “a hundred millions of souls.”

Franklin seemed to assume that whichever country ruled the Midwest would eventually rule the world.  But the Midwest was also crucial in consolidating the middle-class America of Franklin’s plans.  Sounding like Dave Brat defeating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Franklin accused those wanting to trade Canada back to the French of being oligarchs hoping to profit from cheap labor and expensive lands in America: “[Y]ou want to have the people confined within your present limits, that in a few years the lands you are possessed of may increase tenfold in value!  [Y]ou want to reduce the price of labor by increasing numbers on the same territory . . . ”

The 1763 peace treaty was satisfactory to Franklin.  Britain kept Canada, took control of the Midwest east of the Mississippi, and saw the less-formidable Spanish acquire New Orleans from the French.  But His Majesty’s Government displeased colonists with its Proclamation of 1763, which slowed settlement of the booty, and by insisting on taxing Americans to pay for the war.

This all led eventually to Franklin’s stupendous career in his 70’s as his new nation-state’s foremost ambassador.  He somehow talked the French dynasty into bankrupting itself to win independence for America.  He then struck a peace treaty with Britain, acquiring the vast trans-Appalachian territories that he had long lusted after in return for not much more than no hard feelings on the part of the Americans.

In 2014, though, the elder Franklin’s political arithmetic seems less relevant: America hasn’t conquered any new territory in a long time.  Granted, the spread of automobiles in the middle of the 20th century opened up new suburban lands for settlement within the United States, keeping housing affordable for a while.  But there’s no new technological leap forward—no flying cars, no teleporters—in the offing.  Twenty years ago, we were assured that the information superhighway meant we could live anywhere and work from home, but the people who get rich off that hope crowd themselves into Silicon Valley.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to Franklin’s original peaceful conception of 1751: Instead of invading the world, let’s just stop inviting the world.