Discrimination after the American Revolution
A Foundation for Discrimination
To discuss the history of discrimination in the United States, one must consider race from a more conceptual standpoint. The notion of different races is either a social construct intended by our biology to maintain group cohesion, or it is purely unintentional psychological result of greater movement of populations and resources. The opinions on this issue are closely related to the nature versus nurture argument. Even the very notion of whether there are 'races' of humanity is purely speculative. Unfortunately, regardless of what term is used to define prejudice based on skin color and appearance, such hostilities have influenced American society for many generations.
In the early years of US history, power was in the hands of the wealthy, white Protestant men. By the Revolutionary War, over 85% of the nation's inhabitants were of British decent (the figure includes immigrants and descendants of Ireland, as it was controlled by England at this time). This dominance carried over into all areas of government. The first census, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1790, included only the following categories:
Free white males of 16 years and upwards, including heads of families
Free white males under [fifteen] years
Free white females, including heads of families
All other free [persons]
White is presented as a differentiating factor, while non-white races are either 'other' or 'slave.' This distinction was further noted in the Naturalization Act of 1790, which states "any alien, being a free white [person]" could gain citizenship.* Despite non-white males serving in the military during the Revolutionary War, most found themselves without basic rights and excluded from mainstream society. With the enslavement of African Americans a huge business in the United States until 1865 and Native Americans constantly subjected to discrimination, forced relocation, disenfranchisement, and all conceivable forms of brutality, it is easy to establish that discrimination was an active force in shaping the United States.
The economy of the new United States was severely damaged after the revolution. Saddled with war debts, over inflated currency, and falling demand for agricultural and manufactured products, opportunities for success were limited. Both Britain and the United States experienced post-war stagnation, but the newly formed nation had more issues to contend with. An increase in trade with new markets, such as China, had their influence in the economy counteracted by a severe trade restrictions in the British Indies. US vessels which were once protected by the British Navy were now easy targets for pirates. Roads, bridges, and other infrastructure works which were once managed by Britain were now left to the responsibility of the states, many of whom could not or would not pay for their maintenance.
Alongside these issues, immigration to the United States increased at wars end. By 1790, German immigrants constituted the third largest group in the US (followed by British and African-Americans). For several decades, German immigrants had established communities in Pennsylvania, leading Benjamin Franklin to remark, "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?" Franklin would become a major abolitionist later in his life. He advocated for the abolition of slavery, but insisted that former slaves would need education "to promote the public good, and the happiness of these hitherto much neglected fellow-creatures." Franklin's opinion of German-Americans and African-Americans seems to be partly based upon his estimation of their willingness to 'Americanize'. This contrast in perception reflects the contradictory and illogical nature of discrimination.
Discrimination for politicial gain emerges
Nativist sentiment began to emerge in legislation almost immediately with the Alien Enemies Act of 1798. This act provides the President of the United States with the power to "order all such aliens as he shall judge dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States...to depart out of the territory of the United States" without requiring proof of wrongdoing. The Alien Enemies Act during the lead up to the quasi war with France, but was more likely a political attack against the Democrat-Republicans. President John Adams had been startled by his near loss in the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson, and attempted to maintain the presidency in the next election by reducing the voting ability of Jefferson's Irish and French immigrant supporters.
In a speech before Congress at this same time, Federalist Harrison Gray Otis defended a large tax on a naturalization certification by arguing that the fee "...will tend to foreclose the mass of vicious and organizing characters who can not live peaceable at home, and who, after unfurling the standard of rebellion in their own countries, may come hither to revolutionize ours... I do not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility." Otis referred to the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which had ironically been inspired by the American Revolution and was aided by the French, former allies of the US against the British.
Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798
The early years of the United States established many patterns. The ideological battles between a strong central government and independent states, as well as the struggle between regulation and free market capitalism found their roots in the nation's early years. It is remarkable that a nation established by immigrants instituted radical anti-immigration policies within the first five years of its existence. Perhaps even more astonishing is that while some of these acts have expired or been repealed, a modified version of the Alien Enemies Act is still intact. Fear of immigrants is one of America's least inspiring legacies.
*It is worth noting that not every white male citizen had the right to vote or hold office. Many states set into place landholding requirements, leaving many middle to lower class white men left out of the government process for simply not being wealthy enough.
References and Resources
- Full text of "The life and letters of Harrison Gray Otis, Federalist, 1765-1848"
Includes a reprint of Harrison Gray Otis' famous "Wild Irish" speech.
- Benjamin Franklin on Abolition: PBS
Benajmin Franklin analysis on abolition by PBS.
- Franklin's "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind . . . "
Transcript of Benjamin Franklin's observations on immigration, race, education, and other social issues from 1751.
- Naturalization Act of 1790: Harvard University
Scan of the Naturalization Act of 1790. Harvard University Library.
- Historical Census Browser: University of Virginia
Census information from 1790 with sorting tools. University of Virginia, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center.
- Alien and Sedition Acts: Library of Congress
Alien and Sedition Acts: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Services and Programs, Digital Reference Section, Library of Congress)
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