How Did We React to Refugees in the Past?

Is there anything in our history comparable to our current refugee situation? Yes, the year was 1798.

A bit of necessary background first–The French Revolution which began in 1789 reached its most radical and horrid stage with its Reign of Terror from 1792-5 which unleashed an exodus, many to the U.S. and others to Canada. As a two party system began to develop in this era, most of these refugees gravitated to the party of Jefferson and Madison which will impact our story.

The U.S. ratified Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain in 1796 to stabilize the U.S. economy, which was strongly based on trade. Great Britain had systematically excluded the U.S. from its empire which hurt the American economy deeply.

The French reacted to this Treaty with anger since it, in their eyes, violated the terms of the U.S.-France Alliance developed during the American Revolution. Within a short time, over 300 American ships were seized by French ships.

By now, the President was John Adams, a Federalist, and Congress was controlled by the Federalist Party led by Alexander Hamilton. President Adams sent emissaries to France to negotiate an end to this undeclared war, but the French representatives insulted the American emissaries.

Emotions boiled over in the U.S. pressing for war. Fear spread of a possible French invasion, but mostly of more immigration of French refugees to the U.S. who were perceived of posing serious threats to American security. As one Federalist Congressman put it, there was no need to “invite the …turbulent and disorderly of the world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility.”

By 1798, the U.S. was close to outright war with France. The Federalists believed that Jefferson and Madison’s party, the Democratic-Republican party, was disloyal and were encouraging dangerous aliens to join their party. It appears that the Federalist’s motivation for what came next was akin to GOP fears of refugees today threatening our security, and becoming citizens who’d support the Democratic Party.

The Federalists quickly passed four laws known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts in June 1798. We’ll only focus here on the first two which raised the time one had to live in the U.S. before one could become a citizen (and thus be able to vote) from 5 to 14 years; and, gave the President power to deport foreigners who he thought to be dangerous to American security. Fortunately, Adams kept the U.S. from war by successfully retrying negotiations with France, and the Acts were repealed by President Jefferson and his party after the election of 1800.

What will end the current crisis? There doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that Syrian refugees will feel safe enough to stay home any time soon. What ended well then doesn’t seem to be about to happen now. That’s my opinion. What do you think?

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