The fear that heavy foreign immigration might undermine American society is even older than the United States itself. In the early eighteenth century, Germans poured into Pennsylvania at such a rate that they soon numbered a third of the Quaker colony's population. By 1753, Benjamin Franklin worried that the heavy concentration of these immigrants, who settled mostly in tight-knit, German-speaking communities, threatened Pennsylvania's social order.
"Few of their Children in the Country learn English," Franklin wrote. "They import many Books from Germany... The Signs in our Streets have Inscriptions in both Languages, and in some places only German... I suppose in a few Years (Interpreters) will also be necessary in the Assembly, to tell one half of our Legislators what the other half say. In short, unless the Stream of their Importation could be turned... they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have, will not in my Opinion be able to preserve our Language, and even our Government will become precarious."12
Franklin himself was no nativist—he ultimately hoped not to block German immigration but only to disperse the German population more widely so that it would become more easily assimilated—but his apprehensions about the German influx into colonial Pennsylvania would be echoed by later generations of Americans opposed to unlimited immigration into the country.
The new system of government created in the United States by the Revolution of 1776 and Constitution of 1787 favored a liberal immigration policy. The Constitution delegated to Congress the power to establish "a uniform rule of naturalization," and in 1890 the First Congress passed a law that preserved unlimited immigration and offered full citizenship to all "free white persons" after just two years of residency in the United States.
The general principle established by the very first Congress—that immigration should be free and (in most cases) unregulated—would survive until 1882. Fears of the consequences of immigration, however, would arise much sooner.
During the 1790s, a pair of intertwined revolutionary movements, the French and Haitian Revolutions, threw the entire French Empire into tumult. A dizzying sequence of events saw one faction after another rise to power then fall to disgrace, both in France and in its Caribbean sugar colony. Every shift in power generated a wave of emigration, as partisans of deposed regimes fled from persecution. Many of those refugees—French royalists and radicals, Haitian slaves and slave-owners—came to the United States.
They did not always receive a warm welcome, and fears of their adverse impact upon American society would soon lead to a tightening of American naturalization laws. The Federalist Party—the conservative party of George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton—dominated American politics in the 1790s. Fearing that French émigrés would infect American politics with the dangerous radicalism of the French Revolution, the Federalists passed a new naturalization law in 1795 that lengthened the residency requirement for citizenship from two to five years. Three years later, overcoming strenuous objections from Thomas Jefferson's Democrats, the Federalists pushed through the draconian Alien and Sedition Acts, which lengthened the waiting period for citizenship to fourteen years and gave the president the unilateral authority to deport any foreigner he deemed a threat to order.
In the American South, slaveholders regarded the events of the Haitian Revolution to be even more disturbing than the French Revolution. White southerners' worst nightmare had become reality in Haiti, where the black majority mounted the only successful slave rebellion in human history, eventually driving almost all whites off the island after more than a decade of horrific violence. French planters who were able to escape Haiti with their human property in tow frequently sought to resettle in the United States, but southerners feared that slaves who had been exposed to the Haitian rebellion would spread the spirit of uprising to the American mainland. Southerners thus sought to block Haitian refugees from settling in their communities. In 1792, South Carolina passed a law banning the importation of more than two Haitian slaves by any one owner. In 1797, the city of Baltimore went further, enacting an ordinance that declared all slaves imported from the entire Caribbean after 1792 to be "dangerous to the peace and welfare of the city," and requiring their owners to remove them from the city limits.13
These efforts to control the influx of refugees from the French and Haitian Revolutions might be considered the first nativist movement in the postcolonial history of the United States, but the restrictions enacted were quite narrowly focused and, in the end, short-lived. After Thomas Jefferson led the opposition Democrats into power in the elections of 1800, the Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed and the waiting period for naturalization fell back to just five years. Free and unregulated immigration would be the rule in nineteenth-century America.