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A Brief History of Nativism: Anti-Immigrant Bigotry in the American Past

Often thought of as a nation of immigrants, at times the United States has also been a nation of nativists. Nativism, the fear of and hostility toward immigrants or other perceived “aliens,” has been a mainstay of the American political landscape, even if xenophobic agitating has at times receded. At times, the U.S has been a refuge for the “homeless, tempest-tost.” At other times, Americans have lashed out against newcomers, and made them the victims of mob violence, discriminatory legislation, and populist demagoguery. Both inclusiveness and nativism date to the founding of the country.

Nativism and xenophobia have played noteworthy roles at particular junctures of American history: the antebellum period characterized by the activism of the “Know-Nothings,” the 1920’s with the ascendancy of scientific racism and the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan; and the contemporary anti-immigrant movement. In a special seven-part series “A Brief History of Nativism”, IREHR provides overview of these major movements, as well as the accompanying shifts in American immigration policy and their consequences.

A Brief History of Nativism

Part I: Colonial Dreams and Independent Reactions

During the colonial period, right up to the latter years of the eighteenth century, colonists viewed the North American continent as a vast, unpopulated wilderness. A constant and growing demand for labor was filled in part with enslaved Africans and indentured Europeans. There was a general perception, particularly in the early years of colonization, that more immigrants were desperately needed to insure the continued prosperity of the colonies.

The American Declaration of Independence cited England’s reluctance to encourage migration to the Atlantic colonies as one of the colonists’ grievances. The signers charged that George III had “endeavored to prevent the population of these States” by “obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners” and by “refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither.”

In the new republic, however, this unabashedly pro-immigrant stance quickly became contentious. By 1790 Congress put racial exclusion at the core of U.S. immigration policy, passing the Act of March 26, 1790 (also known as the Naturalization Act of 1790). This act limited the acquisition of American citizenship to immigrants who were “free white persons” of “good character,” thus reinforcing the enshrinement of chattel slavery in the Constitution.

Issues of race and immigration intertwined in the fledgling days of the country, bound together by the “original sin” of slavery. Historian Eric Foner, in his book, The Fiery Trial, noted that “The Naturalization Act of 1790 barred black immigrants from ever becoming citizens; the Militia Act of 1792, which established ground rules for a central responsibility of citizenship, limited service to whites.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment also quickly became political. When the governing Federalists recognized that the majority of immigrants tended to support Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican faction, so they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. This 1798 series of four laws (1) raised the residency requirement for naturalization from five to fourteen years, (2) authorized the president to summarily deport any “alien” considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,” (3) further authorized the president to deport any alien whose country of origin was at war with the United States, and (4) criminalized any anti-government communications considered “false, scandalous, and malicious.” The fourth law, known as the Sedition Act, was widely condemned, while the onus of the other three obviously fell disproportionately upon immigrants. All of these acts except the third were eventually repealed or expired.

Coming up next, Knowing Nothing in Antebellum America…

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

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