Concern about ethnic groups and efforts they might make to pressure policy decisions dates from before the founding of the Republic. James Madison and others who collaborated in writing the Federalist Papers (1787–1788) translated their concerns over what they saw as the inevitable impact of ethnic factions into a representative government in which popular passions and individual pressure groups could be countered by calmer and wiser leaders. President George Washington expressed misgivings over what the impact of ethnic factions might be on the young nation's diplomacy. One of the earliest examples of ethnic group pressure came from Irish Americans, who by 1800 made up a majority of the newly naturalized immigrants to America. Favoring the cause of an independent Ireland, and the revolutionary activities already under way to accomplish that goal on the home island, Irish Americans broke with the pro-British stance of Washington and the Federalists and backed the political fortunes of Jeffersonian Republicans.
During John Adams's presidency the passage of the restrictive Alien and Sedition Laws (1798) were in part an effort to silence the criticisms voiced by Irish Americans. Although never seriously competing in effectiveness with the greater influences that moved national foreign policy toward association with Great Britain throughout the nineteenth century, Irish Americans were a consistent and significant force in diplomatic deliberations. The large-scale immigration of Irish to America during the famine of the 1840s, the political activism with which the Irish became associated, and the constant turmoil that seemed to define the struggle in Ireland itself demanded the attention and concern of those who had left. These factors combined to heighten interest in attempting to shape their new nation's diplomacy toward Irish independence and relations with the British.
A domestic affinity group, the Fenian Brotherhood—which was associated with the revolutionary Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in Ireland—had substantial support among Irish Americans in attempting to achieve twin goals. First, the Fenians were committed to assist their revolutionary brothers abroad and, second, to try to foment a war between the United States and Britain as a way to somehow secure Irish independence. Both the Republican and the Democratic Parties looked the other way when the Fenians engaged in activities as radical as launching abortive armed raids on Canada. These raids (1866–1870) were intended to bring the United States into a war over Canada, but they were dropped after Canadian forces easily repelled them.
As the United States moved inexorably toward closer association with the British around the turn of the twentieth century, Irish Americans' hatred toward their avowed enemy, and any diplomatic understanding between them and America, were translated into political campaigns. Irish-American organizations, lobbyists, and voters unsuccessfully opposed U.S. support for the British in the Boer War, the Hay-Pauncefote treaties (l900 and 1901) that ensured an accommodation on the building of a U.S. canal in Central America, and, most significantly, the U.S. entry into the Great War in 1917.
Racial minorities, including African Americans and Chinese Americans, found themselves excluded from the democratic system as it existed in the nineteenth century, and therefore without leverage to influence policy. Some Caucasian immigrant groups found that they had limited influence because of their precarious economic status and widespread prejudice directed against them. A diplomatic episode involving Italian Americans demonstrates this situation. In 1891 a mob of white nativists in New Orleans converged on the jail in which eleven Italians and Italian Americans were being held following their acquittal on murder charges. Stirred by ethnic animosities, the mob lynched the eleven and subsequently received what must be considered general plaudits from "respectable" Americans, some public figures, and the press. Future president Theodore Roosevelt declared the lynching "a rather good thing."
Italian Americans were justifiably outraged, and demanded prosecution of those involved in the lynching and compensation to the victims' families. The perfunctory rejection of their demands by the American government led to a campaign, spearheaded by Italian Americans, to engage the help of the Italian government. Italy severed diplomatic relations with the United States, and rumors of war between the two nations were widely circulated. President Benjamin Harrison defused the situation by issuing an apology and agreeing to pay compensation to the families of those who had been lynched.
It was less than a satisfying resolution for Italian Americans, who unsuccessfully sought to have justice served through the arrest and conviction of those who had participated in the lynching, and who also wanted some efforts to be made to dampen anti-Italian prejudice. Although Italian Americans lacked any real political influence and were commonly subjected to vicious discrimination that isolated them, they were white and they had sufficient numbers to gain them at least some role in electoral politics.
Tempering any dynamic role that ethnic groups might play in the shaping of policy in the nineteenth century was the reality that for all but the final few years of the century, the United States was not much of an influential player in world affairs. That would change abruptly in the new century.