The American colonies had little control over the admission of newcomers; they could not even halt the English practice of sending convicts to the New World. Americans began to shape their own destinies after 1789 when the nation's Constitution went into effect. That document said nothing about refugees, or immigrants for that matter. Moreover, the federal government did not begin to regulate the flow of newcomers until 1875. Three events and subsequent flows of migrants to the United States emerged in the 1790s. First was the French Revolution (1789), second, the Haitian Revolution (1791), and third, the failure of the United Irishmen to win independence for Ireland in the 1790s.
The first test of the nation's policy occurred when French émigrés, fleeing the increasing violence of the French Revolution, began to come to America. Those arriving in the fall of 1789 were mostly of the elite classes who witnessed the collapse of the old regime and who feared that their wealth, status, and privileged positions were under siege. Their numbers were small by comparison to those who followed. The second wave consisted of patriotic and intellectual nobles and the middle classes who had supported them. These refugees, who had backed liberal reform, watched with dismay as the French Revolution turned radical and violent. A few priests who opposed the confiscation of their lands and secularization of the revolution joined them, as did some members of the military who did not favor the ideals of the French Revolution. Numbers are not precise, but between ten and fifteen thousand crossed the Atlantic. They settled in Atlantic coastal towns and cities, with Philadelphia receiving the largest number.
Americans, including George Washington and the ruling Federalist Party, were supportive of the revolution in its first days. The Marquis de Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille to Washington, but as bloodshed increased, many Americans turned against the revolution. The Federalists especially were shocked by the growing violence. When war broke out between England and France, the Jeffersonian Republicans supported France and the Federalists England. Yet neither party wished to go to war, and the government's policy of neutrality was widely accepted. The cities and states where the refugees settled raised money to aid them, many of whom had brought little money and few possessions with them. In other cases, individuals and voluntary groups assisted in finding employment. The refugees themselves raised funds and even published several newspapers. The French minister Edmond-Charles Genet was not sympathetic to the refugees, especially those who seemed to favor England over revolutionary France. When he tried to influence American politics, he won little favor and was recalled to France. Yet the intrigues of a French minister and the radicalization of the revolution in France did not change the official neutrality of the United States, and émigrés were still permitted to enter even though the two political parties differed over aspects of exile culture and politics. However, as conditions changed in France some of the refugees returned.
Closely allied to the events in France was the slave uprising in St. Domingue (Haiti) in the 1790s. The revolt erupted in 1791, three years before revolutionary France outlawed slavery. After thirteen years of civil war, Haiti achieved independence in 1804 and became the first independent black state in the Western Hemisphere. Initially, the United States supported white planters' efforts to put down the revolt, but the French were ultimately unsuccessful. After 1791, as the white planters witnessed losses of their estates and power and increasing violence, they fled—a few to France, some to Cuba and Jamaica, and others to the United States. These refugees differed from those from France proper. To be sure, the elite planters held political views similar to the elite of France, but the refugees were not limited to the white elite; only a minority of the newcomers were white. Some planters carried their slaves with them. These slaves remained slaves whether they were brought to slaveholding states or even if they were brought to northern cities such as Philadelphia and New York, for the northern states were just beginning to end slavery in the 1790s. In addition, "free people of color"—a mixed-race group in Haiti who were not equal to whites in law but who were free and often skilled workers—believed that they would not prosper in a successful slave rebellion and fled too.
The slave revolt posed the question of whether Americans should receive another influx of refugees and how the United States should respond diplomatically if the uprising succeeded. The white Haitians were welcomed especially by American slaveholders who sympathized with the principle and reality of slavery. Some others believed the nation should receive the refugees because it would maintain the principle of America as an "asylum for mankind." The refugees settled in coastal cities, with New Orleans the center of their community. That city did not become part of the United States until after the Louisiana Purchase, but even then it continued to receive refugees when many of the St. Domingue exiles who at first went to Cuba were forced by the Spanish to settle elsewhere in 1809.
Like those fleeing France, many of these exiles brought few possessions and little money with them. Funds were raised by cities, states, and community groups to assist them. An official position was taken by the U.S. Congress when it appropriated $15,000 to assist the refugees and suspended duties on French ships arriving in American ports if they were carrying exiles.
While welcoming St. Domingue's planters, slaveholders grew alarmed that so many slaves and free people of color entered. They feared that persons from these two groups were too familiar with events in Haiti and might attempt to stir up opposition to slavery in the United States. To white southerners a black-ruled Haiti was a symbol of decadence and ruin. Moreover, they were alarmed by the rise of antislavery sentiment and groups in the North. Faced with these perceived threats, the southern states tightened restrictions on slavery. Several banned the importing of slaves from the Caribbean, but the federal government did not outlaw the international slave trade until 1808 as it was required to do by the Constitution. In 1861 the United States finally recognized the black republic and established diplomatic relations.
The third revolution of the 1790s was a failed one, but it sent refugees to the United States and prompted a debate about foreign policy and immigration. The Society of United Irishmen, composed of both Catholics and Protestants, sought to end English control of Ireland. However, Ireland did not win its freedom; England crushed the rebels, tried and sentenced some leaders to jail, and encouraged others to leave. England also passed the Act of Union in 1800, which merged the mother country with Ireland and divided the Protestant-Catholic alliance. The failure to win Irish independence led thousands of Irish refugees to immigrate to America in the next one hundred years.
The Jeffersonian Republicans generally sympathized with the rebels, but the Federalists wanted to align American foreign policy with that of Great Britain against France. Many Federalists also believed the Irish were a "wild horde" and were none too eager to see them settling in American coastal towns and cities. The Irish refugees in turn sided with the Jefferson party. As a result, the Federalists succeeded in raising the number of resident years needed for naturalization from two to fourteen. Some Republicans joined the Federalists in raising the time required for naturalization because they believed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which set two years as the required period, did not provide enough time for newcomers to be indoctrinated in the principles of republicanism. Congress also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, one of which gave the president power to deport immigrants even in peacetime if they were considered dangerous. President John Adams did not exercise this provision, but the Sedition Act did lead to several newspaper editors being arrested and sent to jail, including the Irish-born Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont.
One wing of the Federalist Party favored war against France and alliance with England. But while fighting an undeclared war against France in the last few years of the 1790s, President Adams blocked efforts for a declaration of war, and the crisis passed. With the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800, the naturalization period dropped from fourteen to five years, where it has remained ever since. The Alien and Sedition Acts were also allowed to lapse.