Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Refugees in the Early American Republic

In light of current events related to whether or not states will accept Syrian refugees, I found this piece by Mark Byrnes of Wofford College particularly relevant.  Byrnes writes that "from the earliest days of the republic, the American attitude toward refugees has been marked by an ambivalence and tension between two contradictory reactions."

Here is a taste:

On the one hand, Americans want to see themselves as a people who welcome refugees. In the 1790s, the American scientist David Rittenhouse said the United States was “an asylum to the good, to the persecuted, and to the oppressed of other climes.” The prominent historian Gordon Wood writes: “By the early 1790s Americans were not surprised that their country was in fact attracting refugees from the tyrannies of the Old World. The enlightened everywhere had come to recognize the United States as the special asylum for liberty.”
On the other hand, Americans have also feared that such people might represent a danger to the United States: religious, political, economic, cultural--or all of the above.
When I say from the earliest days, I mean just that. The decade of the 1790s saw nearly 100,000 immigrants come into the US—at a time when the population of the country was about 4 million people. Probably at least 15-20,000 of them were political refugees, fleeing revolutionary violence and political oppression.
The first refugee crisis in United States history came during the first term of George Washington, in 1792. The revolution in Santo Domingo led to thousands of refugees fleeing the island, most of whom came to Richmond, Virginia. One historian’s estimate of perhaps 10,000 is probably too high, but there are records indicating the existence of at least 2,000 such refugees in the US by 1794. We know this because Congress voted a specific appropriation of $15,000 for the relief of the refugees (out of $6.3 million budget that year). As the historian of this incident concluded: “For the first time in its existence as an independent state, the United States met the refugee problem in its most tragic form, and met it with … generosity and human sympathy.”
Many thousands of other refugees also fled to the United States in the 1790s, mostly from the more famous revolution in France. They were, as one historian put it, of all political stripes: “Royalists, Republicans, Catholics, Masons, courtiers, artisans, priests and philosophers.” These political refugees started their own explicitly political newspapers and book presses. They brought their passions with them, and competing groups sometimes engaged in street violence against each other.

Read the entire post here.