The year was 1798 and the Federalists, fearful of the French Revolution spreading to the United States, passed three Alien Acts as well as a Sedition Act, which prosecuted and imprisoned those who publicly criticized the government. President John Adams promptly signed them into law. The United States was soon to be fighting a two-year, quasi-sea war with the French who were fighting the English, again. These new laws gave the president more power to deport immigrants and to make it harder for new immigrants to vote.
The Alien Acts increased the number of years it took for an immigrant to vote from five years to 14. Clearly, the Federalists saw these new immigrants as a security threat.
“As one Federalist in Congress declared, there was no need to ‘invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all the world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility’” (U.S. History.org).
This anti-foreign mood had political undertones. Most of the immigrants, mainly Irish and French, were destined to vote for the Thomas Jefferson’s pro-French Democratic-Republican Party. By lengthening the time for immigrants to become citizens, Federalists could delay votes being cast for their political opponent.
Eventually, Thomas Jefferson and his party were able to rally support against Adams and the Federalists over these acts and sweep into power during the election of 1800.
Passing these laws was an act of desperation and fear on the part of the Federalists. Their party would eventually die in 1814 after New England, the geographic heart of the Federalist Party, threatened secession over the War of 1812 against the British. That war was hurting their trading profits with their main customer, Britain.
I think of the Alien and Sedition Acts when I see what the Republicans in Congress are doing with the immigration issue. They are, in many ways, in a no-win situation. If they pass reform of the immigration law, it is likely these eventually-naturalized undocumented aliens will vote Democratic (the party founded by Thomas Jefferson) like their Irish and French immigrant predecessors.
If the new Republican majority in Congress does not pass immigration legislation, Latinos – the largest ethnic minority in the U.S. – will permanently turn against the Republicans because Republicans will be seen as hating ethnic minorities. It must be a frustrating situation for Republican leaders. Dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.
This is one major reason why the Republicans have delayed reforming immigration for so long. Republicans are in a real bind as their political base ages and dies during the next decade or so. Who will replace them? How can the Republicans, like their Federalist ancestors, continue to survive as a political party? Will they, like their predecessors, die? Will a new political party emerge to take what remains?
The Republican Party emerged as the reform party in the 1850s when it was created in the political and racial turmoil that led up to the Civil War in 1861 – the political activists whose main push was to end slavery in America and who fought the Civil War as the party of Lincoln. In gratitude for their freedom, those former slaves voted Republican as a block until Democrat Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933.
Will this anti-immigrant cycle be repeated over the next 30 to 40 years? Time will tell. The Republican Party would do well to remember their founding goals in the 1850s rather than those of their political ancestors – the Federalists of the 1790s.