Dear Ann Coulter: Ben Franklin didn’t think you or Trump are White, Either

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Many of the anxieties that have roiled this year’s election have had an underlying theme, of the decline of white America. Now, as the word “white” is used in common American parlance, it is certainly true that that demographic is declining rapidly as a proportion of the general population. It is already a minority in California and New Mexico. It has fallen from 72% in 2012 to 69% nationally since the 2012 election (which has implications for this year’s race).

Ann Coulter, whom I once called the “bearded lady of the carnival Right” back before the carnival Right took over the whole GOP, exemplified that anxiety on Monday:

People pointed out that Trump couldn’t even vote if that were his criterion, since his mother was an immigrant. Ivanka Trump and the other older Trump children would be doubly disenfranchised, since they have two grandparents from Czechia and one from Scotland. They’re only 1/4 American according to Coulter’s nativism.

But actually, anxieties about white dominance are a perennial in American history. Benjamin Franklin was extremely worried about whites being overwhelmed. He said in “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.” (1751):

“Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased.”

So get this. Some of the eighteenth century founding fathers only thought English and Danish people were white. Even Swedes and Germans were “swarthy.” French certainly were. So Franklin would not have considered me white, since my family is French and German. We’re swarthy. We do have some Scottish, but if the Swedish are swarthy I suspect he thought the Scottish were, too. Since Coulter is in part Irish and German, Ben Franklin wouldn’t have accepted her as white, either, and was worried about the German part of her family acting like barbarians and interfering in elections. You can only imagine what he would have thought of German grifters like Donald Trump’s grandfather.

Franklin also worried about the swarthy non-white Germans swamping the white people in Pennsylvania, and meddling in elections even though they didn’t understand liberty (Some of my family is Pennsylvania Dutch who settled in Chambersburg, so I can’t sympathize).

“I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us; Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it, and with Suspicion when Honesty would set it right; and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. Their own Clergy have very little influence over the people; who seem to take an uncommon pleasure in abusing and discharging the Minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it; and as Kolben says of the young Hottentots, that they are not esteemed men till they have shewn their manhood by beating their mothers, so these seem to think themselves not free, till they can feel their liberty in abusing and insulting their Teachers . . . For I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties; Few of their children in the Country learn English; they import many Books from Germany . . .”

Some of the anxiety is about the percentage of recent immigrants, the foreign born, in the population. But the foreign-born make up a smaller percentage of the US population today than was the norm in 1860-1920–a heroic age, the age of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Did they whine about all those foreigners coming in? No. That group declined as a percentage of the population artificially, and only because in 1924 the US put in Nazi-style immigration laws essentially based on racial hierarchies (all Asians were excluded, even though the US had a large Asian colony in the Philippines).


For those who maintain that the wave of immigration in 1860-1924 was “white” don’t know anything about the history of whiteness. Most of them were not in fact considered white (see below).

And, really, it is crazy to use “white” as though it were a natural category. There are no natural categories. We should have learned from the excesses of Aryan racial theory (adopted by the Nazis but not only by them) that categorizing people by “races” is dangerous. Most people still have a 19th century romantic view of race, but it is just a fantasy. People are all mixed up. The Catholic working-class immigrants of the wave that came in 1880-1924 were not initially accepted as white by the propertied Protestants who got to decide these things. You should go back and look what they said about “Slavic” Poles or about the Irish.

Note that 3.5% of people who categorize themselves as white actually have some recent African ancestry. That’s 5% in the Deep South. By the stupid “one drop rule” of the South itself, they’re actually black. (1 in 8 white Louisianans actually has some recent African ancestry, 12.5%). So that national proportion is already actually 65.5%. But if six million people are wrong about their racial category, how reliable can the category be in the first place? (By the way, we’re all from Africa, however welcome that news might be to some “white” people.)

Take Italians, many of whom emigrated to Latin America. Those who immigrated straight to New York and Rhode Island are now considered “white” (and make up nearly 16% of that category). Those who went to Mexico first and then came to the US more recently are “Latinos.” So is what is being said is that the Italian-American families who came in 1895 are threatened by the ones who came from Latin America in the 1990s? Well, that is apparently part of what is being said.

Moreover, what in the world is the difference between Catalans in northeast Spain and Provencale people in southern France? Yet Catalans who went to Colombia and recently came to the US are Latinos. Provencales people who emigrated directly to New Jersey in the 19th century are white. Why?

American history is written from a Massachusetts point of view, with the English at the center of it. But the Portuguese preceded them in North Carolina (are they Latinos?) And what is now California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas etc. were originally Spain and then Mexico before the US snarfed them up, and they also preceded the English as settlements from the old world in the new. Tim Kaine has pointed out that Spanish was spoken in North America before English. So why not write American history starting with the Southwest and moving east? By the way, in New Mexico the old hidalgo landed class (who are still there) calls themselves Hispanics, doesn’t like to be mixed up with recent Mexican immigrants, and views “white” immigrants to New Mexico as recent arrivals and perhaps not the most cultured, either. Hispanics are often viewed as “immigrants” by the ignorant. But they were there in New Mexico, and the Californios were in California, way before the Irish or Italians or most Germans came to North America. They didn’t immigrate, the US kidnapped them and made them citizens. If the US wanted to be “white” and wanted to categorize Spanish-speakers as non-white (why?), then it shouldn’t have stolen half of Mexico and added it to itself in the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo.

So, white people anxious about the fate of white people in America should relax. Franklin was wrong, and German-Americans did just fine (they are one of the the biggest ethnic groups in the country and I think we needed Ike Eisenhower during WW II). Americans expanded the groups that are “white” way beyond what Franklin allowed. But I think we should go back to his definition. That way only the English and the Danish would be white, and all the rest of us would be swarthy or tawny. In fact, we need those as census categories.

Sorry, Ann. You’re also in the swarthy category, according to old Ben.

33 Responses

    • Wait one, we can now have grandparent(s) who birthed the parents with someone else’s eggs/sperm. (Or both). And then there’s the “biological” mom and the surrogate mom. And the joining of the eggs and parts from various parents to avoid inherited disease…… You can figure this out from here. No telling how many grandparents a kid might have these days in the struggle to defeat biology and have kids nature didn’t intend (b/c of relevant biological quirks, including sterility and unworkable female plumbing). Then there’s the ability to defeat nature and provide kids to any and all who have the cash and/or connections to make them happen. There’s no telling how we could even count some grandparent numbers w/o a doctorate in science, and still maybe not. “Pure” “white”= pipe dream (as in an opium den dream).

  1. What about only letting native Americans vote? Then you don’t have to worry exactly how many generations ago your ancestors moved to USA.

  2. Ann actually stated years ago that she likes or liked “swarthy” men. Ann is a creature of hyperbole that comes across as hypocrisy, perhaps with the intent of gauging reaction rather than revealing herself.

  3. Talk about Great Britian setting a high bar for enfranchisement, don’t forget the Protestant Scots, they were deemed marginally acceptable solely through political union with the English, and they were made “honorary Whites” despite their “unfortunate” Celtic lineage-

  4. I love Ann Coulter’s criterion of having “at least 4 grandparents born in America” — anyone with more than 4 such grandparents would be a biological miracle!

  5. Ben Franklin wouldn’t have thought Coulter was eligible to vote because of her gender, let alone her heritage.

  6. A very interesting article. I learned from it. And isn’t it fun to look back at the Enlightenment (in the person of Franklin) playing cultural sociologist.

  7. I must confess that I was very successfully whitewashed by all the children’s literature that I read as a child.

    Almost every illustrated book with human characters (from A Child’s Garden of Verses to the Dick and Jane series) depicted a world of fair-skinned and often blonde-haired children. Children of other ethnicities appeared infrequently as exotic secondary characters.

    I was left with the impression that the majority of people on the planet looked like the characters in these books and that, in various parts of the globe, there were small populations of “exotic” people who looked otherwise.

    It was an absurd impression as it didn’t mirror the reality of the town where I lived, but I carried this unthinking impression that the civilized majority on the planet were white until I reached junior high school and learned more about the size and population of other nations.

    I recall having a profound epiphany when it struck me that the default human color was brown! The human race, I realized, was pale white on one end, a broad band of various shades of brown all the way across the center making up the majority, and an ebony black at the other end.

    At the time, I felt this as a profound shock. My perception of the skin tone variants of the human population of the world was completely wrong. Even though I had been raised to consider all humans equal, I was like someone who walked into a paper store expecting that most of the paper would be white with only some specialty papers coming in other colors, only to find out that it was the white paper that was the less common specialty shade. It felt like the world had been turned upside down!

    Perhaps Ann Coulter never had that epiphany.

  8. hell i had 2 moms, 1 dad so 6 grandparents. believe me they all wanted their snow shoveled.

    ice cream. raz

  9. In defense of Franklin, one of the greatest Americans of all time, prevailing thought and knowledge about races and ethnic groups, etc. were much different and much less was known then. Franklin was an early opponent of slavery. When he was in his mid-teens he moved to Philadelphia in order to escape the rigid authoritarianism of the Puritans in Massachusetts, such as the Mathers. So, relative to his time, he was very enlightened. An anthropologist roommate of mine many years ago told me that there are more differences within the races than between them. The concept of race is really an artificial construct that has little meaning in biology. As for this issue in Trump era politics, Vox had a good article summarizing the fairly extensive social science research on the reason for the rise of anti-immigrant politics here and in Europe. It seems the problem is not economic insecurity, but that whites fear losing political power to non-whites. link to

    • Franklin also didn’t think the differences were racial in the sense of biological. He knew the British were descended from Germans. He though they had become “white” because of the rule of law in Britain, which was lacking in Germany. So living a long time under tyranny made you swarthy.

      If he had followed through on his theory he would have had to conclude that if America gained liberty after a while all its peoples would be “white” as he defined the word.

      • nah, he just studied his Robin Hood thoroughly. The non-French (!!) and non-celtic ancestry of the Brits is indeed Anglo-Saxonian, tribes who (angles and saxonians) were and still are at least phenotypically quite distinct from other German tribes living in the south of what now constitutes Germany.

    • I can’t speak for Europe, but there’s no question in my mind that Trumpism in America — indeed, the entire thrust of Republican politics since Reagan — is mainly the desperation a segment of the shrinking demographic feels about maintaining white privilege.

      Growing up, I was as much aware of my own whiteness as any black kid was of his blackness, and I was very much aware that in my case, it was a good thing. It was only the moral precepts I learned in Sunday school, the plain words of the Declaration of Independence, and the visible moral example of the civil rights movement that made me open to viewing the world through a different lens than race. And even then, I had to leave my all-white suburb for a big university to even begin to get the opportunities to experience that tolerance works as well in life as it does on paper.

      I think millions of “white” Americans have made basically the same journey, but millions more haven’t. It’s hard to grow up in an urban area now without at least being comfortable seeing people of color at the grocery store, but in rural America, more than half-a-mile from the interstate, it’ll still draw stares. Most job-sites requiring a college education have achieved some degree of diversity at this point, and thus most college-educated whites have had meaningful relationships outside their race. The small town auto mechanic, not so much.

      Those seem to be the basic fault lines in American politics in 2016 — rural/urban, and education — and those, I think, are the reasons.

  10. Those ignorami (Please note the Latin plural of ignoramus!) who are so obsessed about race and color should contemplate the fact that we humans (all of us) are genetically nearly identical with chimpanzees and bonobos. We share almost 99 percent of our DNA with chimps and bonobos. I would love to see the reaction of those troglodytes who are race-obsessed and who reject evolution when advised that by less than two percent of DNA they just escaped being captives in a zoo.

  11. If there is a Second Coming, assuming there was a First, Jesus wouldn’t be able to vote in Christian (?)America.

    As for four grandparents born in America some of their progeny from New England proved to be disastrous for the American people.

  12. It is remarkable that Franklin said nothing about the Dutch when one considers that they once had a thriving outpost named New Netherlands with its harbor of New Amsterdam which became New York. Was Franklin that poorly educated?

  13. “Only people with at least four grandparents born in the United States”?

    AT LEAST four? How very flexible of you, Anne Coulter.

    And that’s four out of how many? How many grandparents might a person have who were born here, Anne? 15 grandparents born here? 32? More?

    Just wondering.

  14. My father (born 1905) told me that his mother and her siblings spoke German among themselves. Their ancestors (therefore mine) came to Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. They were the people Franklin warned us about. They also fought on Franklin’s side for American Independence, and for the Union in the Civil War.
    My mother’s mother was descended from a member of the Sacred Expedition that “conquered” Alta California in 1769 for the Spanish Empire. The border crossed us. My great-uncles fought in World War I.
    My grandfathers – one was born in Cardiff and the other in Cupar (Fife). I bet that doesn’t bother Ann Coulter!

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