Blogs > Mark Byrnes's Facing Backwards > The American Reaction to Refugees in the Early Republic

Nov 15, 2015 6:52 pm


The American Reaction to Refugees in the Early Republic

tags: Syria, migrants, refugees, immigrants, Paris Attack



Mark Byrnes is Associate Professor of History at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC.


Back in September, in response to efforts opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in South Carolina, my colleague Dr. Byron McCane of the Wofford Department of Religion organized a group of Wofford College faculty to present a panel on the subject of refugees. My colleagues Dr. Laura Barbas-Rhoden (Modern Languages), Dr. Phil Dorroll (Religion), Dr. Kim Rostan (English) and I all participated. My job was to give a brief overview of refugees in American history during the September 24 event at Wofford. Last week, on Nov. 11, we reprised the panel at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, with the welcome additions of USC colleagues Dr. Breanne Grace (College of Social Work) and Dr. Rajeev Bais (Clinical Internal Medicine).

With last Friday’s horrific events in Beirut and Paris, the refugee situation has unfortunately become a political issue in the presidential race, with candidates like Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush asserting that only Christian refugees should be admitted into the United States. Below is the first of several posts, adapted from my presentations at Wofford and USC.

From the earliest days of the republic, the American attitude toward refugees has been marked by an ambivalence and tension between two contradictory reactions.

On the one hand, Americans want to see themselves as a people who welcome refugees. In the 1790s, the American scientist David Rittenhouse said the United States was “an asylum to the good, to the persecuted, and to the oppressed of other climes.” The prominent historian Gordon Wood writes: “By the early 1790s Americans were not surprised that their country was in fact attracting refugees from the tyrannies of the Old World. The enlightened everywhere had come to recognize the United States as the special asylum for liberty.”

On the other hand, Americans have also feared that such people might represent a danger to the United States: religious, political, economic, cultural--or all of the above.

When I say from the earliest days, I mean just that. The decade of the 1790s saw nearly 100,000 immigrants come into the US—at a time when the population of the country was about 4 million people. Probably at least 15-20,000 of them were political refugees, fleeing revolutionary violence and political oppression.

The first refugee crisis in United States history came during the first term of George Washington, in 1792. The revolution in Santo Domingo led to thousands of refugees fleeing the island, most of whom came to Richmond, Virginia. One historian’s estimate of perhaps 10,000 is probably too high, but there are records indicating the existence of at least 2,000 such refugees in the US by 1794. We know this because Congress voted a specific appropriation of $15,000 for the relief of the refugees (out of $6.3 million budget that year). As the historian of this incident concluded: “For the first time in its existence as an independent state, the United States met the refugee problem in its most tragic form, and met it with … generosity and human sympathy.”

Many thousands of other refugees also fled to the United States in the 1790s, mostly from the more famous revolution in France. They were, as one historian put it, of all political stripes: “Royalists, Republicans, Catholics, Masons, courtiers, artisans, priests and philosophers.” These political refugees started their own explicitly political newspapers and book presses. They brought their passions with them, and competing groups sometimes engaged in street violence against each other.

In 1795, the pro-British Jay Treaty damaged American relations with revolutionary France and threatened to result in outright war. If war came, the Federalists feared that the French would use “native collaborators to create revolutionary puppet republics” and “French emigres and Jacobinical sympathizers in the country [might] become collaborators.”

Suddenly, asylum seekers were seen as the threat within. In 1798, Federalist Rep. Harrison Gray of Massachusetts, said: “Do we not know that the French nation have organized bands of aliens as well as their own citizens, in other countries, to bring about their nefarious purposes? By these means they have overrun all the republics in the world but our own … And may we not expect the same means to be employed against this country?”  Another Federalist said that the new immigrants were “the grand cause of all our present difficulties” and plainly stated: “let us no longer pray that America become an asylum to all nations.”

As a result of this growing fear, Congress changed the law. The first Naturalization Law in 1790 had required only two years residency in the US before one could become a citizen. That was extended to five years residency in 1795, and then in 1798, Congress raised it to 14 years. All immigrants were required to register with the government within 48 hours of arrival, and the law forbade all aliens who were citizens or subjects of a nation with which the US was at war from becoming American citizens.

The crackdown on immigrants and refugees was inextricably wrapped up in domestic politics. The Alien Act, passed by a Federalist congress and signed by a Federalist president, was a reaction to their fear that the newcomers were overwhelmingly supporters of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. Refugees from revolutionary France were joined by hundreds, perhaps thousands, fleeing political oppression in Ireland. Their historian Michael Durey concludes: “the radicals’ experiences after emigration were too varied and problematic to allow us to any longer assume uncritically that America was a welcoming asylum for them all. For many it was Bedlam.”

The Alien Act was allowed to expire, and the anti-French fever broke. But the tendency to both welcome and fear refugees would continue in the 19th century, long after the specific fear of the French dissipated.




comments powered by Disqus