Beyond  /  Comparison

The Right to Leave

Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of open migration. But who qualified as a refugee?

Jefferson was radical in many ways. For him nationality and citizenship were voluntary choices rather than innate identities. In 1774 he sent a draft to the Virginia delegates of the first Continental Congress arguing that the American colonies had a natural right to separate from Great Britain. In a republished version, Jefferson spoke of “a right which nature has given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance, not choice, has placed them.” Later, in his autobiography, he would recall that nobody at the time supported his emigration doctrine because it strongly undermined the right of the British government to determine the nature of allegiance in the colonies. Even other Enlightenment thinkers sympathetic to the idea of open migration, such as the political philosopher John Locke and the legal theorist Emmerich de Vattel, did not hold such radically individualistic views on the subject.

After the American Revolution, Jefferson continued to push reforms in favor of free immigration within the colonies and across the Atlantic. As a leader of the opposition, he was a staunch critic of the Alien and Sedition Acts, a set of laws Congress passed in 1798 aimed at suppressing French and Irish immigrants believed to be faithful to France. His “Kentucky Resolution,” which is today remembered for its controversial articulation of the importance of states’ rights, was written as a critique of the unconstitutionality of the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Most radically, Jefferson believed emigration was a right that America should protect even if it meant losing its own citizens. In 1806 Jefferson wrote to Albert Gallatin, the treasury secretary, to defend the right of American citizens to abandon their nationality. Congress, he wrote, “cannot take from a citizen his natural right of divesting himself of the character of a citizen by expatriation.”

When Jefferson became president in 1801, he used his first Annual Message to Congress to remind fellow citizens of America’s lasting importance as an asylum. America came into existence because emigrants exercised their freedom to form a country of their own. The fight for this freedom was not only a convenient origin story—it was America’s perpetual purpose. “Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our fathers arriving in this land?” Jefferson asked. “Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?” In 1817 he wrote a letter to the explorer George Flower referring to America as “another Canaan” where people could always be “received as brothers.”

Yet Jefferson’s views on emigration were formed in a dramatically different context from our own, in a nation seeking ideological justification to pry itself free from the clutches of Great Britain and establish itself as a sovereign country. It was convenient for an architect of the American revolution to hold the view that emigration was an unlimited right. Jefferson could argue that even though the American colonists had once given their consent to the British king and had adopted English common law as their own law, they never irrevocably gave up their freedom to leave British political society. When the British king violated the trust of the American colonists by pursuing parliamentary actions against them, the colonists were within their natural rights to break ties with their mother country.