Twin Evils of the Literacy Test

(This is the full text of a speech Brandeis gave at a banquet held in Boston's New Century Club on April 6, 1915 for a number of Congressmen. The speech is in response to Woodrow Wilson's veto of a bill that would have required all immigrants to take a literacy test. The speech was published in the April 15, 1915 issue of La Follette's Magazine and has not been reprinted since. Two years later the Senate would override Wilson's veto of the Immigration Act of 1917, which also included a literacy test.)

Twin Evils of the Literacy Test

Privilege and Race Discrimination Threaten the High Standard of This Country

by Louis D. Brandeis

We men of Massachusetts have come together in honor of her representatives in Congress and others because they have done honor to the Commonwealth and to the Nation. By supporting our noble President, they have averted a disaster; they have helped to maintain the policy of courageous generosity, which has made America great, and which has served well the cause of liberty and humanity.

We, who are gathered here, know how strong are the arguments against the Literacy Bill. But let us not misconceive the situation. We are celebrating not a victory but an escape. The danger remains. We have "scotched the snake, not killed it." It will recover from the blow; will rise again to renewed effort, and perhaps with greater strength. If we wish to protect our Country from threatened danger -- from the lowering of high standards involved -- we too must be active, and we must be united. Effective defense demands above all things that we should perceive clearly the twin-evils which are concealed under the cloak of the literacy test.

FIRST: The Evil of Privilege. This immigration bill is not a literacy bill. It is an exclusion bill. It wishes to prevent others from sharing in the blessings which our country offers. If this measure had been one to insure the advance in the United States of literacy or education, then surely the people of Massachusetts would be united in its favor. From the time when the Pilgrim fathers, landing from Holland, brought with them our common school system, up to this day, when our forward-looking Governor is working for university extension, the voice of Massachusetts has been emphatically and continuously for the spread and improvement of education. No state in the Union, no country in the world appropriates for education as much per capita as does Massachusetts. Massachusetts was the leader not only in the movement for free schools, but also in the movement to make attendance upon free schools compulsory. So closely has Massachusetts associated education with citizenship that it led also in making literacy a condition of the right to vote; and although Massachusetts has all of the states nearly the largest percentage of inhabitants of recent foreign descent, it has also the smallest percentage of illiteracy. The opposition of the great majority of the people of Massachusetts to the literacy test arises not from a failure to appreciate education, but from a recognition of its true value. Education is a means, not an end. Education is beneficent if used as an instrument of liberty -- as a means to worthy ends; and as our President said, literacy is a test not of character, but of opportunity.

The protest of Massachusetts men against the Burnett bill is a protest against the sway of privilege -- against the closing the door of opportunity. Practically every man now coming to this Country lacks that rudimentary education prescribed by the Burnett bill, lacks it by reason of misfortune, not of fault -- the misfortune of oppressive laws like those of Russia where the Jewish children are to a large extent excluded from the schools; of the misfortune of poverty resulting from past oppression, like that of Southern Italy, or the Balkan Peninsula where it had been impossible to extend the advantages of education. Under the Burnett bill those who live in countries free and prosperous, where education is universal, are to continue to enjoy the opportunity of immigrating to America; but those who are in dire need by reason of present or past oppression are to be denied the existing opportunity of bettering their condition. Surely here is another instance where "to every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away from him."

SECOND: The Evil of Race Discrimination. The vice of the exclusion movement is even more serious. It is not an accident that the test imposed by the restriction bill is literacy. The purpose of the bill was to restrict immigration from the Mediterranean and South Western Europe. Literacy was adopted as a test because it was known that many of those people whom it was desired to exclude could not pass it. The movement thus springs from the conception or claim of race superiority. It involves necessarily race discrimination, and must lead to race antagonism. How dangerous such conception of race superiority becomes the present war bears witness. The world is beginning to recognize that a lasting peace cannot come until this arrogant claim of race superiority shall have been abandoned; because the claim of race superiority is certain to be followed by the attempt of one race to dominate over the other.

Strange indeed is it that Americans should seek to foster this idea; for racial equality is the complement of democracy. Democracy rests upon two pillars: One, the principle that all men are equally entitled to life, liberty, development, and the pursuit of happiness; and the other, the conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization. Aristocracy on the other hand denies these postulates. It rests upon the principle of the superman. It willingly subordinates the many to the few, and sacrifices the individual, insisting that civilization will be advanced by such sacrifices.

The aristocratic theory applied to peoples led to Russianizing Finland, and to Prussianizing Poland and Alsace. And the British Alien law teaches us that even in a country where liberty has long been established, the assumption of race superiority leads to discrimination against "aliens" already admitted. Thus by the English literacy test he only can only be naturalized who reads and writes and speaks the English language.

America, dedicated to liberty and the brotherhood of man rejected heretofore the arrogant claim that one European race is superior to another. America has believed that each race had something of peculiar value which it could contribute to the attainment of those high ideals for which it is striving. America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress. Acting on this belief, it has advanced human happiness, and it has prospered.

The present movement for discriminatory immigration restriction runs directly counter to these noble traditions. It has sought to make the accident of birth, not character or merit, the test whether the applicant for admission is a desirable citizen. Once before -- more than half a century ago --America, forgetful of her ideals, yielded to the selfish cry of America for Americans, and founded the Know-Nothing Party, which demanded, among other things, that no foreign born should have a vote until after twenty-one years residence in America.

Swept by the craze, Massachusetts elected a Know-Nothing Governor. It is among the few blots upon her 'scutcheon. That year is one which men of Massachusetts have tried hard to forget. The gentleman from Essex County, in supporting immigration restriction, does not represent the Massachusetts of today, nor the Massachusetts of history. He not only bears the name, he embodies the spirit of that Know-Nothing Governor whom the Commonwealth quickly repudiated.

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