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Initially, immigration into the colonies was not directly restricted. The colonists were not concerned about overcrowding, nor did they worry that newcomers would be supported by the welfare safety net, of which there was none. Consequently, immigrants were not restricted by origin, although they were sometimes expected to conform to the standards of the locally established church.

After the American Revolution, the first attempt to regularize naturalization was the Naturalization Act of 1790. It provided that any "free white person" of good character, residing in the country for two years and the state of application for one year, could apply for citizenship. It thus excluded blacks and Asians (although at that time, none were trying to immigrate). There was no restriction placed on immigration.

In 1795, the rules were tightened. There was concern that events in Europe would lead to emigration, particularly among aristocratic classes in France who might not be well disposed towards the republican spirit of America. The period for citizenship was extended to five years.

As the threat of war with France grew in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by Congress to counter the influence of foreign (specifically French) thinking on American public policy. They also passed the Naturalization Act of 1798, which raised the period required from five to fourteen years.

During the winter of 1816-1817, a number of refugees from Bourbon rule in France were in Philadelphia. Hoping to acquire land on which to colonize, they petitioned Congress for the sale of some land in the "wild west" on favorable conditions. They were granted four townships, i.e. 144 sections of 640 acres each, at present-day Demopolis, Alabama. The price was set at $2 per acre on 14 years credit, with the condition that the colony cultivate the vine and olive. The Vine and Olive Society, founded to pursue this end, did establish itself there but conditions were not suitable for either vines or olives.

Encouraged by the Vine and Olive colony, a number of associations of Irish immigrants petitioned Congress for similar treatment. However, they went further and specifically requested that no settlers in their colony be accepted except those who had emigrated from Ireland. Their proposal was rejected by the Committee on Public Lands due to, among other reasons, their belief that no ethnic political units should be established. This set the precedent that an immigrant`s ethnic origins should provide neither special privileges nor limitations.

Immigration grew particularly after 1840, due to famine in Ireland and political turmoil throughout Europe. The resulting rise in the numbers of immigrants prompted a reaction. On the political, the reaction achieved its greatest success through the Know-Nothing Party, which flourished briefly in the mid-1850s.

One of the complaints leveled against immigrants was that they were "naturalized" by unscrupulous politicians before they were fully assimilated, simply in order to obtain their votes. In response to a proposal brought before the Massachusetts legislature to deny the right to vote until two years after naturalization, Carl Schurz, a fairly-recent German-born immigrant delivered a speech, "True Americanism," on April 18, 1859:

You object that some people do not understand their own interests? There is nothing that, in the course of time, will make a man better understand his interests than the independent management of his own affairs on his own responsibility. You object that people are ignorant? There is no better schoolmaster in the world than self-government, independently exercised. You object that people have no just idea of their duties as citizens? There is no other source from which they can derive a just notion of their duties, than the enjoyment of the rights from which they arise.

Bringing about the "Americanization" of immigrants was a challenge for the school systems. There were two ways of approaching it. On the one hand, if being an American meant primarily acquiring the tastes and traditions of the established Anglo-Saxon majority, then the objective was to replace the ethnic heritage of the immigrant with something new. An alternative view was that new immigrants contributed something to the nature of American life and should retain some of the characteristics of their homeland.

John J. Mahoney, state supervisor of Americanization for Massachusetts, wrote an article on training teachers that summed up the second approach:

The Americanism to be taught is not a static Americanism, belonging exclusively to the native born. America and the American spirit are dynamic, ever-changing concepts. It is not solely the Americanism of the Puritan that we would teach. It is that plus the precious contributions that have come, and are coming, and will come to us through the spiritual heritages of the many races that seek our shores. The process of Americanization is a reciprocal one.

The less generous view of immigration was summed up by Lothrop Stoddard in his book, "The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy," published in 1920:

Well, perhaps our change of heart may come sooner than now appears. The horrors of the war, the disappointment of the peace, the terror of Bolshevism, and the rising tide of color have knocked a good deal of the nonsense out of us, and have given multitudes a hunger for realities who were before content with a diet of phrases. Said wise old Benjamin Franklin: "Dame Experience sets a dear school, but fools will have no other." Our course at the dame`s school is already well under way and promises to be exceeding dear.

Only, it is to be hoped our education will be rapid, for time presses and the hour is grave. If certain lessons are not learned and acted upon shortly, we may be overwhelmed by irreparable disasters and all our dear schooling will go for naught.

Similar thinking lead Congress to pass the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921.

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