The United States is a land of immigrants, which means it has been a land of arguments over immigration. The most recent battle raged around the comprehensive immigration reform bill proposed by the bipartisan Gang of Eight. The bill passed the Senate in June by hefty margins, but faced rough sailing in the Republican-controlled House. Supporters hailed it as a way to legitimize the lives of millions of undocumented aliens living “in the shadows.” Opponents saw it as a cave-in to ethnic pressure groups and a sop to employers hungry for cheap labor.

Hovering over the whole debate was a question of national character: Are we a nation defined by our openness to newcomers? Or would unrestricted immigration change our way of life?

Some of today’s arguments, as well as the approximate partisan lineup, go back to the administration of John Adams (1797-1801). The main issue in that immigration debate was subversion in time of possible war, but the nature of the country also seemed to be at stake. The liberal party of the day—Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans, ancestors of today’s Democrats—was pro-immigrant, while the conservative party, the Federalists, was hostile.

Politics in the late 1790s took its cue from the French Revolution. France’s foreign policy became more aggressive in the middle of the decade, and when President Adams dispatched special ambassadors to Paris in the fall of 1797 to resolve tensions, they were told that negotiations could not begin until they had greased French palms.

French bullying enraged Americans, and Federalists in Congress stepped up military preparedness by voting “millions for defense, not one cent for tribute,” as a popular slogan had it. They also decided to use the war fever to smite their opposition. Republicans were notoriously pro-French; Federalists portrayed them as a potential fifth column.

To guard against this threat from within, Federalists passed the infamous Sedition Act, designed to muzzle Republican journalists. But in June 1798, Congress also passed two laws aimed at immigrants. The Alien Act gave the president sole power to expel any not-yet-naturalized immigrant whom he deemed “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States,” without hearings or any judicial input. The Naturalization Act lengthened the period an immigrant had to be in the United States in order to become a citizen by 11 years, from five to 14. Federalist hard-liners had wanted the law to be even more draconian: They would have forbidden the foreign-born from ever voting or holding office.

Who were America’s immigrants in the 1790s? Several signers of the Constitution, for starters—most of them from the British Isles, one (Alexander Hamilton) from the Caribbean. In the 1790s there also had been an influx of Germans and Irish, especially into port cities. No one worried much about the former, but the Irish, who spoke English and who were often radicalized by animosity toward their British overlords, seemed more threatening to Federalists. Matthew Lyon, an Irish-born Republican newspaper editor who was also a congressman, epitomized this group; during one argument in Congress, he spat in the face of a Federalist colleague, then rumbled with him on the House floor.

William Cobbett, a Federalist journalist who wrote under the name Peter Porcupine, announced in The Detection of a Conspiracy that the United Irishmen, an Irish patriotic society, was in fact a stalking horse for revolutionary France, infiltrating  “dark and desperate, unnatural and bloodthirsty ruffians” into the United  States in order to foment “rebellion and bloodshed here.” Harrison Gray Otis, a Federalist congressman, declared in a speech in the House that, while he respected “honest and industrious” immigrants, he “did not wish to invite hordes of wild Irishmen…to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.” Hordes of wild Irishmen conjures up, not plots, but disruptive social change.

Republican congressman Albert Gallatin belonged to an immigrant group that may have consisted entirely of him, for he had been born and raised in the city-state of Geneva. But he spoke with a French accent, and Federalists mocked him for it. Abigail Adams referred to him scornfully in a letter as “the Swiss incendiary.”

Republicans were not numerous enough in Congress to block Federalist measures. They did the next best thing: They turned them into campaign issues. Republican politicians appealed to the immigrant vote. George Clinton, longtime governor of New York, cultivated the Irish. Aaron Burr put German-speaking poll workers in New York City’s Seventh Ward, thick with German immigrants. Other Republicans made similar efforts in Philadelphia.

President Adams never expelled anyone under the Alien Act. Nevertheless Federalists’ hostility to immigrants played a role in their losses in the election of 1800. Republicans swept New York City and with it New York State and the White House.

Republicans effectively courted immigrants, especially the Irish, thereafter. George Clinton’s nephew, DeWitt, who became mayor of New York, personally stopped a nativist riot outside the city’s lone Catholic church on Christmas in 1806. When the first Republican Party  morphed into the Democrats in the late 1820s they stayed pro-Irish. Andrew Jackson, whose parents were immigrants from Ulster and who had killed hundreds of Brits at the Battle of New Orleans, was an Irish-American hero.

Their political rivals, whether Federalists, Whigs or Republicans (the modern GOP, founded in the 1850s), were nationalist parties, professing to speak for an all-American identity— which often meant an old-American one. They sometimes had trouble appealing to newcomers. John Adams’ son, John Quincy Adams, would not speak German when he addressed German-American audiences, even though he was fluent in the language  (he had been minister to Berlin) because it struck him as pandering. Abraham Lincoln reached out to German-American voters in Illinois when he ran against Stephen Douglas in 1858, but he worried that Democrats would try to swing the vote by sending unregistered Irish-American railroad workers to the polls.

Ironically, none of America’s political parties set its immigration policy in the 19th century. What appears in retrospect a great wave of immigration was, in fact, sporadic and marked by many interruptions and crosscurrents, caused by outside factors. European wars would disrupt the flow from particular countries;  hard times or political persecution would start it up again. The on-off rhythm allowed for periods of assimilation.

In the 20th century Congress took control of the process. In the 1920s it slammed the country’s doors almost entirely shut—a bipartisan, America-first reaction to a post– World War I world. In the 1960s, in the same liberal spirit that produced the civil rights acts, Congress opened the doors, while Mexico’s population explosion created a supply of potential immigrants, legal and illegal, only a desert away.

Politics influences the immigration  debate today as much as it did in the 1790s. John Oliver mocked the process on The Daily Show, describing the Gang of Eight bill as “good for Republicans because they think it will win them Hispanic votes, and good for Democrats, because it will actually win them Hispanic votes.” But behind the calculations, two contending impulses about America are at work. The country has benefited when neither prevails.


Originally published in the December 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.