Stranger Citizens: Migrant Influence and National Power in the Early American Republic


September 20, 2021
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: Stranger Citizens: Migrant Influence and National Power in the Early American Republic by John McNelis OKeefe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021)

The infamous decision that Chief Justice Roger B. Taney authored in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) is widely considered to be one of the most notorious to have been issued from the United States’ Supreme Court. There is no argument that Taney specifically denied American citizenship to African Americans. Taney went all the way back to 1776, stating that the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal” was never intended to apply to African slaves or freemen. The concept of citizenship in 1776, however, was not so simple. Like the new nation, the concept was in flux at the time. No one really could say who was a citizen or who would be able to enjoy the rights of a citizen (partially because no one knew what those rights were). Were African Americans the only ones who could not be citizens? What about Native Americans? Did indentured servants qualify for citizenship after their contract? And what about the many immigrants who were coming into the country in waves? Did they have the right to take part in the American experiment?

John McNelis O’Keefe, an associate professor at Ohio University-Chillicothe, examines how immigrants helped to shape the concept of citizenship in the early days of the United States, and also how the new government dealt with issues such as naturalization, sedition, and deportation. His book, Stranger Citizens: Migrant Influence and National Power in the Early American Republic, offers a unique perspective on the issue of citizenship, arguing that migrant groups were actively and politically engaged in defining citizenship in a way that worked for their survival and success. The introduction begins with the plight of two indentured servants, one black and one white. The black servant was in an ongoing predicament that meant he would never receive citizenship rights, but the white servant’s situation involved his status as an alien during the late 1790s, when his presence in the US was suspect. O’Keefe uses these two men to illustrate the difficulties of defining citizenship and the privileges that could be enjoyed.

The first two chapters really focus on the political situation of the Adams administration, and then the first term of Jefferson’s tenure. The Federalists in Congress were concerned about the violence of the French Revolution spreading into the United States, and so the Alien and Sedition Acts were efforts to stem the tide of immigration to control the alien population. The question of migrants and citizenship was addressed. Would it be safer to move migrants into the interior as French or British nationals? Could they live in the open, risking deportation? Adams may have had some difficulties handling certain aliens, but Jefferson’s role in supporting British immigrant James Callender eventually backfired. O’Keefe provides a clear understanding of both the Alien Act and the early naturalization laws. He writes about the idea of “virtual citizenship” and how it was utilized by ordinary migrants.

The third chapter, “Married to an Alien Enemy,” brings the reader into the years just before the War of 1812, when British aliens were the concern. The question of who had the power to decide both the fates of aliens and naturalization policy is explored. Was it a state issue, or a federal problem? Enforcing alien policy, press coverage, official resistance, and legal precedents are all tackled in detail. O’Keefe must be credited for breaking down the subjects in this chapter in a way that makes for a smooth transition between topics. The fourth and fifth chapters are concerned with race and class. O’Keefe describes the situation faced by different groups when it came to naturalization: Polynesian and South Asian sailors, black and white migrants running from the revolution in St. Domingo (Haiti), migrants from Latin America, and the various religious groups that were coming into the new nation. Finally, what was the role of the white indentured servant in a white republic?

The conclusion of Stranger Citizens brings the reader back into the twenty-first century. There are still questions that need to be answered regarding citizenship definition and status, especially for DREAMERS and members of the LBGTQ community. What rights should they receive? Does the citizen’s right of marriage apply to same-sex couples? Recent events have brought the idea of citizenship back into the mainstream. The immigrants who were actively pursuing their rights in the new United States during the period of the Early Republic have shown today’s migrants what they need to do to navigate the rights and privileges of American citizenship. A fine ending to a densely detailed book.

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