An Asylum for Mankind? Migration in the Early American Republic

Connie Thomas
A line drawing of a large building set back from a grassy waterfront with small figures moving about in the foreground.

Frank H. Taylor, “The Lazaretto, Delaware River vicinity, Essington, Delaware County, PA,” 1895. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

I stumbled across the central character of my current JER article, Charles Julien de Longchamps, entirely by accident. It was in the pursuit of my PhD research, which explores the development of migration policymaking and American identity in the early republic, I found myself trawling early newspapers from across the Union when the distinctive name, “Longchamps,” came up time and time again. As the article argues, the Longchamps affair primarily offers insight into how we conceptualize early American citizenship. It demonstrates that citizenship at the founding was not only understood in legal, state-centric terms, but through a national sense of belonging that transcended state borders. However, this piece presents an opportunity to bring the Longchamps affair back into conversation with the original research topic that prompted its discovery: migration. By looking at the affair from the other side of the same coin, we can see not only what it tells us about how Americans understood fellow citizens from within their own borders, but also those that came from without.

In his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense, Thomas Paine hoped that the newly independent United States would prove an “asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty.” In their embrace of shared revolutionary ideals like civic participation and volitional allegiance, Paine concluded, “all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are COUNTRYMEN,” irrespective of their nationality at birth.[1] This notion has come to define both historiographical and popular depictions of migration in the United States, casting the founding as an “open-door” era. Only with the emergence of state-level policies in the antebellum era and national restrictions in the 1880s, many historians argue, did the metaphorical door slam shut on migration. “Although the dream of creating a nation without boundaries had become illusory,” Marilyn C. Baseler concludes, “the commitment to serving as an ‘asylum for mankind’ became an integral part of American republicanism.”[2]

The Longchamps affair seemingly fits this narrative too. Amid the threat of deportation at the request of the French Government, the American public rose up to protect Longchamps, a French migrant first and foremost, and in doing so, defend his status as a newly naturalized American citizen. The affair not only subverted the seemingly tyrannical demands of the “old world” government, it further demonstrated the revolutionary embrace of migration in the United States. Moreover, with Longchamps ultimately allowed to remain in the United States amid the threat of punishment by the French government, the affair seemingly proved the existence of the “asylum for mankind” trope. Yet, this does not tell the whole story.

Indeed, as the Longchamps affair further reveals, the rights available to migrants and naturalized citizens were deeply precarious in the young republic. Despite Longchamps’ status as an American citizen, the Pennsylvania state government initially complied with French demands for his deportation, albeit unsuccessfully. In doing so, they not only undermined his rights as an American citizen, but the existence of that citizenship. Meanwhile, concerned with the potential for a diplomatic incident, the national government maintained a neutral stance on the affair. Though this of course did not equate to compliance with the French government, it equally fell short of the protection of rights seemingly secured at the founding. In both cases, state and national officials acted not only on the grounds of diplomatic concern, but outright xenophobia. As the article exemplifies, Longchamps’ status as an American citizen was cast against depictions of his “foreign” character throughout the affair. Many considered him little more than “a very worthless Frenchman,” to be “viewed only as a stranger here.”[3]

This xenophobia was not unique to the Longchamps affair. In contrast to the “asylum for mankind” narrative, migrants and naturalized citizens faced systemic insecurity, xenophobia, and legal restrictions throughout the founding period. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson decried that migrants “will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave,” and in doing so, render the United States “a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”[4]This concern was reflected in state policies that sought to limit the foreign influence of migrants across the Union. In northeastern states in particular, migrants faced severe restrictions on settlement, rights, and access to citizenship. Above all, one writer in Massachusetts argued, state legislation ought to have one key characteristic: “to oblige [migrants] to return from whence they came.[5] Meanwhile, even where migration was encouraged through state legislation, this was often framed in terms of “productivity” and economic growth, rather than revolutionary sentiment.[6] As Benjamin Franklin argued, when considering the entry of any given migrant, the determinative factor ought not to be “What is he?,” but “What can he do?”[7]

Though many state policies were rooted in colonial legislation, they were not made more liberal by the American Revolution as the “asylum for mankind” idea suggests, but actually became more restrictive instead. Indeed, the Longchamps affair further foreshadowed the restrictionism that occupied national discourse on migration throughout the 1790s and beyond. In doing so, it signifies a great contradiction that sits at the heart of the American founding. Though Americans fiercely defended an expansive vision of citizenship through Longchamps, as the JER article demonstrates, this was coupled with institutional restrictionism and xenophobia that would long outlive the affair.

Though many historians recognize that the United States has had a long, complex relationship with immigration, the “asylum for mankind” myth needs further scrutiny. In order to fully understand the founding, we as historians need to reckon with the question not of when this idea fell away, but ultimately whether it ever existed at all.


Endnotes

[1] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia, PA, 1776), 22–23.

[2] Marilyn C. Baseler, Asylum for Mankind: America, 1607–1800 (Ithaca, NY, 1998), 324.

[3] Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, Philadelphia, May 21, 1784, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd et al. (47 vols., Princeton, NJ, 1950–), 7: 279–81; James Wilson, “Legal opinion supporting extradition of Charles Julian de Longchamps to France,” May 23, 1784, Barbé-Marbois Papers, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI, M-2694.

[4] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Paris, 1784), 85.

[5] Original emphasis. “Boston, Saturday, June 18,” Massachusetts Centinel (Boston), June 18, 1785.

[6] See Baseler, Asylum for Mankind, 70–99; James Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1607–1870 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1973), 65–106, 213–24; Susan F. Martin, A Nation of Immigrants (Cambridge, UK, 2011), 11–60.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America (London, 1784), 8.

13 September 2023

About the Author

Connie Thomas is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary, University of London.

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