Immigration and Immigrants: Political Refugees

views updated

Immigration and Immigrants: Political Refugees

"Freedom hath been hunted round the globe," Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense (1776). "[Asia and Africa] have long expelled her, [Europe] regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart." The American people must "receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind." Paine (1737–1809) had been in the United States for less than two years, but his call resonated with his American audience, many of whom were recent arrivals.

Immigrants seeking economic opportunity had come to the new world in great numbers after 1750. In the Revolutionary years, aristocratic idealists like the Marquis de Lafayette or the Polish officers Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciusko had come to offer their services. After the war, politically active Europeans fled to America to escape political oppression at home. Drawn by the promise of creating a haven for liberty, political immigrants helped to create the American political system.

Among them were Albert Gallatin (1761–1849) and Matthew Carey (1760–1839). Gallatin, born in Geneva, arrived in America in 1780. After briefly teaching French at Harvard and accompanying Massachusetts troops to the coast of Maine, he settled in western Pennsylvania where he quickly became involved in politics, serving in the state convention in 1789, and the legislature in 1790 and 1791.

Carey had been driven from his native Dublin for his political views. An apprentice printer and bookseller, Carey at age nineteen (1779) found himself in deep trouble for his pamphlet "To the Roman Catholics of Ireland." In it he urged Irish Catholics to throw off the "tyrannical bigots" who ruled them: "At a time when America, by a desperate effort, has nearly emancipated herself from slavery," Irish Catholics should seize their natural rights. Protestants and even Catholic leaders who accepted British rule denounced him (Dublin's archbishop wanted the pamphlet burned). Fearing for his safety, Carey escaped to France, where a Catholic priest introduced him to Benjamin Franklin. Franklin set him up printing American tracts and introduced him to Lafayette. A year later Carey returned to Ireland, but he continued to provoke the authorities. When the Irish House of Commons called for his arrest in 1784, Carey fled to Philadelphia. After Lafayette, then in America, learned that the "Dublin printer" was also there, he gave Carey four hundred dollars to start a newspaper. Two years later Carey published a "Philosophical Dream," a vision of the United States in the year 1850, when the thirty states of the union stretched to the Mississippi. Canals connected the prosperous land, and Americans had even built a canal through central America linking the Atlantic and Pacific. Slavery had been eliminated, and the freed slaves repatriated to a thriving free Africa. The most serious crime to be found was that of a man who failed to send his son to school.

When the French Revolution came, Carey and Gallatin welcomed it. So did other political refugees and some native-born Americans. In Paris, Lafayette and the American minister Thomas Jefferson drafted proposed constitutions for the French Republic, and Thomas Paine served in the French Assembly. But the revolution drove a wedge between moderates and radicals. As the revolution became increasingly radical and moderates (like Lafayette and Paine) were imprisoned or executed, some Americans, who saw the French Revolution as an extension of their own, now worried that France's anarchy would spread to the United States.

Edmond Genet (1763–1834) came to America not as a refugee or immigrant. The French Republic sent him to reaffirm the Franco-American treaty of 1778. When, in April 1793, he arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, Citizen Genet, as he called himself, was greeted as a hero. When President Washington declared America neutral between France and England, Genet turned to the American people to support the French cause against the English and their own president. He encouraged citizens and French exiles to form Democratic Republican Societies, modeled on the Jacobin Clubs that toppled France's monarchy. Jamaican immigrant Alexander J. Dallas launched the first society in Philadelphia on 4 July 1793. Genet's meddling in American politics so infuriated Washington that the president demanded Genet's recall. By this time a more radical faction had overthrown Genet's government in France, and, realizing that the guillotine awaited him, he chose to remain in America. He married the daughter of New York Governor George Clinton and settled down on a farm in Rensselaer County. Genet avoided politics for the rest of his life, but he had helped to create a political movement.

The Democratic Republican Societies spread—opposing the pro-British drift of the Washington administration and championing the French Revolution. The number of French and British political refugees in these societies alarmed some political leaders. Connecticut Congressman Oliver Wolcott warned in 1794 of "great numbers of violent men who emigrate to this country from every part of Europe." Abigail Adams's son-in-law wrote her, "Let us no longer pray that America may become an asylum to all nations."

France reacted to the U.S. peace with England in 1795 by attacking American ships on the high seas. In 1798 Congress created a navy and a provisional army, and it passed a series of laws to prepare for a looming conflict with France. The Naturalization Act extended the time an alien must reside in the United States before becoming a citizen from five years to fourteen. The Alien Enemies Act permitted the president to deport any alien from a nation at war with the United States. If the alien hailed from a country at peace with the United States but was a threat to American security, the Alien Friends Act permitted his deportation. And finally, the Sedition Act punished any editor, writer, or speaker who brought "contempt, hatred, or ridicule" upon the president or Congress.

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering became the chief enforcer of the Sedition Act, and he understood how the Republican press operated. Ideas and opinions percolated out of the Democratic Republican Societies through a national network of papers. It was said that a jibe at the Federalists would make "its way into the beer houses in the evening, to the Aurora in the morning, and to a large portion of the Democratic papers throughout the Union in due course." To cut off the flow of such ideas, Pickering could shut off the source of sedition—immigrants. Five of the fourteen or fifteen individuals charged under the Sedition Act were foreigners: Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont was born in Ireland, and a Federalist paper said he spoke "a gibberish between Wild Irish and vulgar American." Philadelphia Aurora editor William Duane, though born in 1760 near Lake Champlain, New York, had spent his childhood in Ireland (he had also spent some years editing a newspaper in Calcutta, and his attacks on the British East India Company led to his imprisonment there). John Daly Burk had been expelled from Ireland in 1796 for his political activities. Journalist and scandalmonger James T. Callender was a Scot, and Thomas Cooper was an English radical. Callender had been jailed for sedition in England, and on his arrival in America in the early 1790s had worked as a reporter for the Federal Gazette. But his verbatim coverage of Congress, showing the incomprehensible ramblings of its members, led to his being fired. Callender attacked not only Congress, but venerated figures like Washington, accusing him of the "foulest designs against the liberties of the people." The pro-administration Gazette of the United States warned that the country should not become "a receptacle for malevolence and turbulence, for the outcasts of the universe," and Francis Hopkinson (author of the anthem "Hail Columbia") noted with alarm that "this foreign leaven" had "fermented the whole mass of the community" and "divided the country into contending political parties."

Though no enemy aliens were deported, French philosophe Abbe Constantin François Volney left voluntarily, and French General Victor Collott dodged prosecution until the Alien Enemies Act expired. The Philadelphia Aurora speculated that "Cremona fiddles are to be ordered out of the kingdom under the Alien Bill," as their tones were "calculated to bring the constitutional music of organs and kettledrums into contempt."

William Duane (1760–1835), editor of the Aurora, joined with Dr. James Reynolds to solicit signatures against the Alien Acts outside St. Mary's Church in Philadelphia in February 1799. As some parishioners gathered in the churchyard after mass to sign the petitions, Federalist parishioners objected to having "Jacobins" outside the church and tried to push Reynolds from the churchyard. When Reynolds drew a pistol, parishioners panicked, and he, Duane, and two others were arrested for provoking a "united Irish riot," bringing "terror and torment to America." Federalists hoped to silence Duane, but Alexander J. Dallas so ably defended him that the jury only deliberated half an hour before acquitting.

During the election of 1800, Duane helped to expose the Ross Election Bill, which many said was a Federalist plot to prevent Jefferson's election. Duane reported that Federalist senators were preparing a plan to create a Grand Council to judge the validity of electoral votes, and thus prevent Thomas Jefferson's election as president. Duane's publication of the plan outraged Republicans, and Federalists charged Duane with breaching Senate privilege. Cooper and Dallas handled Duane's legal defense, delaying an indictment until October 1800 and delaying the trial for another year. By then the Grand Council had been squelched, and Jefferson had become President.

Jefferson pardoned the men sentenced under the Sedition Act and restored the immigrant to a place of trust in American society. French immigrant Stephen Girard, a Philadelphia ship-owner, donated gunpowder to celebrate Jefferson's inauguration. Albert Gallatin, a Swiss émigré who by now led the Republicans in Congress and who was regarded by the Federalists as a French agent, became Secretary of the Treasury and one of the most powerful men in the administration. Duane moved with the Aurora to Washington, and his son later became secretary of the Treasury. Carey's publishing empire grew, and his son became one of the first American economists. Jefferson even brought Thomas Paine back from his European exile, to live out his days in the new land Paine and other political refugees had helped to create.

See alsoAurora; Alien and Sedition Acts; Freedom of the Press; Paine, Thomas; Politics: Political Parties and the Press; Press, The .


Abbott, Edith. Historical Aspects of the Immigration Problem: Select Documents. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926.

Bowen, Marjorie. Peter Porcupine: A Study of William Cobbett, 1762–1835. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1935.

Carey, Matthew. Autobiography. Brooklyn Research Classics, no. 1, 1942. First published, New England Magazine, 1833–1834.

Durey, Michael. Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1956.

Robert J. Allison

About this article

Immigration and Immigrants: Political Refugees

Updated About content Print Article


Immigration and Immigrants: Political Refugees