Anglo-American nativism arrived in America with the first settlers. Imbued with ideas of founding a city on a hill in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to honor God and redeem the Church of England, and harboring in Virginia a sense of commercial destiny built on racial dominion over blacks and First Nations, colonial Americans from England also nursed resentment against other white ethnicities—Irish, Dutch, German, French, and Spanish, for example, depending upon region and issues. Occasionally, as during the ethnoracial French and Indian War (1754–1763), nativist feelings burst forth. In Pennsylvania, English colonists followed Benjamin Franklin's lead in questioning local German loyalty to the crown.
After independence, the new multicultural nation faced the need to define its identity. Although the Frenchman Hector St. John de Crevecour spoke of the American as a "new" man, the Anglo-American connection died hard, if at all. With unity a key requirement for survival in a world of despotism and monarchy, many citizens expressed hostility toward European immigration—even as the new Republic became increasingly multiracial and multiethnic. This animus was understandable. Diversity heralded faction, as dangerous to a republic as the concentration of centralized power. Thomas Jefferson warned that immigrants might "warp and bias" the path of the nation and jeopardize "the freest principles of the English Constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason." Indeed, the American alliance with France—crucial to independence—became an albatross during the next fifteen years. The French Revolution, ironically styled in part on its American predecessor, terrified Federalist Party leaders.
The first organized expression of antiradical nativism came in 1798, when Federalist hostility exploded against both France and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. Influenced by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, whose Francophobia knew no bounds, President George Washington rejected any diplomacy that might offend Britain, at war against France since shortly after the revolution. Washington's diplomacy, therefore, aided Britain and opened a gap between Hamilton and Secretary of State Jefferson, a partisan of France. The fear of immigrants as a source of faction and corruption affected both emerging political parties in the new nation. The bipartisan Naturalization Act of 1795 required aliens to renounce earlier allegiances and disavow titles of nobility. But the more extreme Federalists—men and women of orthodox social, cultural, and religious attitudes united by their pessimistic view of human nature and aristocratic demeanor—worried lest incoming French émigrés, United Irishmen, and British radicals sow sedition and "Jacobinism" among the populace.
In fact, France did meddle in American politics, seeking to defeat Jay's Treaty in 1794 and to influence the election of 1796 in Jefferson's favor. The attachment of many immigrants to Jefferson alarmed Federalists. Democratic-Republican societies in New York and eastern Pennsylvania included recent Irish and Scots-Irish arrivals. These groups participated in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, led opposition to Jay's Treaty, and hence appeared connected to the intrigue of French agents like Joseph Fauchet and Pierre A. Adet. President Washington warned of this connection in his Farewell Address in 1796, but seemingly to no avail. By 1798 Federalists recalled that factionalism helped wreck the Articles of Confederation and now made the Republic vulnerable to external enemies.
The infamous XYZ affair and subsequent undeclared naval war with France presented Federalists the chance to use their control of foreign policy, in Federalist politician Theodore Sedgwick's words, "a glorious opportunity to destroy faction." Divisive issues having stimulated the lust for power in Federalists and Democratic-Republicans alike, politics now mirrored "a complete distrust of the motives and integrity, the honesty and intentions of one's political opponents." Consequently, Federalist stalwarts, moving "to crush internal opposition in the name of national security," moved to create an army and navy, to construct arsenals, and to abrogate the treaties of alliance and of amity and commerce of 1778. The more moderate wing of the party supported President John Adams's decision to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but "high" Federalists became increasingly ambitious. Given reports of a pending French invasion, the hawks demanded that Adams declare war. Although the president resisted their demand, he did link his political opponents with France and hence added his voice to an outburst of nativism that momentarily diverted the Federalists from serving the national interest.
The Quasi-War generated widespread fear within Federalist circles that French spies and their internal collaborators threatened national security. Representative Harrison Gray Otis denounced "wild Irishmen" and "the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world" who came to the United States "with a view to disturb our own tranquility after having succeeded in the overthrow of their own governments." David Tappan, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, warned graduating seniors against infidels and impending world revolution. Congregationalist minister Jedidiah Morse called attention to the machinations of the "Bavarian Illuminati," a cabal of radical atheists who already had infiltrated American churches and schools.
The Alien and Sedition Laws, as they became known, sought to root out such subversion, and in the process destroy the Democratic-Republican opposition, slow immigrant participation in political life, and compel support for Federalist measures. These laws increased the period of residency required for citizenship, empowered the president to expel aliens suspected of activities deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States," and provided penalties for citizens who engaged in rioting, unlawful assembly, or impeding the operation of the government. The Sedition Act did not weigh exclusively against immigrants. Premised on the assumption that war would be declared, the Sedition Law aimed to gag political criticism and would expire on the last day of Adams's term. The law, rooted in the seventeenth-century British concept of seditious libel, also reflected the Federalist view that government was the master, not servant, of the people. Any critique of government was dangerous because it subverted the dignity and authority of rulers. Politics was not a popular right; it belonged "to the few, the rich, and the well-born."
Certain that Democratic-Republicans stood poised to undermine the Constitution and overturn the government, Federalist judges turned their fire on Jeffersonian editors and publicists. With stacked courts presuming guilt unless defendants proved their innocence, published criticism of elected officials became synonymous with conviction. As Jeffersonians resolutely opposed Adams's call for an accelerated defense program, they encountered the heavy hand of Federalist patriotism, which included indictment of Philadelphia Aurora editor William Duane and the incarcerations of Scots publicist James T. Callender, the Irish-born Vermont congressman Matthew Lyon, and Pennsylvania editor Thomas Cooper.
John Adams withstood the war cry emanating from Federalist hawks and courageously dispatched William Vans Murray, the American minister at The Hague, to France, where he signed the Treaty of Mortefontaine (1800) ending the naval conflict and abrogating the "entangling" Franco-American treaties of 1778. In the interim, as the "Black Cockade fever" raged and Federalists sought to extirpate Illuminati and other subversives, Jeffersonians mounted an effective counterattack, organizing politically and continuing to attack Adams. Jefferson and James Madison drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, respectively, condemning the administration's violation of individual and states' rights, and the malevolence felt by many immigrant groups toward the Federalist Party became implacable. In the election of 1800, Jefferson narrowly triumphed—a victory in which Scots-Irish and Irish, Pennsylvania Germans, and New York French played a role.
The election of 1800 signified the political arrival of America's immigrants, heralded the nation's multiethnic future, and underscored the importance of public opinion—the people's right "to think freely and to speak and write what they think." With the Federalist Party in eclipse—an unintended consequence of the nativist outburst of 1798—nativism remained a potent force in New England. During the War of 1812 delegates to the Hartford Convention (1814–1815) threatened secession after denouncing the impact of the war upon their section's economy, declaring that European monarchs were "dumping" paupers on American shores, and proposing a constitutional amendment that would exclude naturalized citizens from holding civil office or serving in Congress.