Nativism, Conspiracy Theories, and Mobs in Federalist America

Sean Harvey

Albert Gallatin, by James Sharples, ca. 1796. Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This portrait shows the Genevan immigrant as a young Congressman. He was 35 years old, but, by the time he sat for this portrait, Federalists had already vacated his election to the U.S. Senate and questioned the legitimacy of his citizenship because of his criticism of Alexander Hamilton and his opposition to the excise.

Many people celebrate the United States as a nation of immigrants, but nativism has infused its politics from the outset. As revolutionary currents flowed from Europe and embryonic parties coalesced in Congress and mobilized out of doors, the political influence of immigrants—including naturalized citizens—alarmed many Anglo Americans who conceived of liberty being in some way tied to their Englishness. Federalist leaders feared foreign agents and their domestic sympathizers bringing radical egalitarianism and violence (“Jacobinism,” as it was called) into the United States, and possibly plotting to surrender the country to France. Federalist editors and writers gave shape to those fears by concocting narratives that ostensibly revealed parts of an insidious scheme. At times, Federalist crowds seized on the very words in these stories as they shouted their outrage and grasped for the alleged outsiders corrupting their communities and subverting the republic.

As I’ve explained in my recent JER article, an early and frequent target of Federalist nativism was Albert Gallatin (1761–1849), a French-accented immigrant who rose, uniquely, to a position of leadership among Democratic-Republicans. After immigrating from the republic of Geneva to southwestern Pennsylvania as a young man, he became an Anti-Federalist, a prominent opponent of the excise on distilled spirits, and, after marrying Hannah Nicholson in late 1793, son-in-law of James Nicholson, the president of the Democratic Society of the City of New-York. In early 1794, Federalists expelled Gallatin from the U.S. Senate on the grounds of not meeting the required period of citizenship; some asserted that his naturalization was altogether illegitimate and that he remained an alien. By the time Gallatin entered the House of Representatives in late 1795, Federalists frequently denounced him not merely as a foreigner, but specifically as a dangerous Genevan. The republic of Gallatin’s birth experienced repeated revolution and French interference between 1789 and 1794, and French annexation in 1798. A network encompassing Genevan exiles in London, Federalist printers, and high-ranking members of the Washington and Adams administrations disseminated accounts of Geneva as a cautionary tale of how democratic aspirations and French subversion destroyed a modern republic, and they pointed to its lessons as they claimed Gallatin’s opposition to Federalist political economy and foreign policy represented dangerous, insidious influence.

The Times, A Political Portrait. Image courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. On the right, one can see Albert Gallatin saying “Stop de wheels of de government”—a phrase popularized by the editor known as Peter Porcupine—as he attempts to prevent a chariot, driven by George Washington, from advancing to meet a French invasion.

Associations of Gallatin with French violence became especially prevalent as Gallatin, an implacable opponent of enlarging the national debt, opposed nearly every Federalist effort to bolster the U.S. navy and military as France preyed on Anglo–American commerce. By summer 1798, Federalists feared that internal enemies would lend aid to a putative French invasion of the United States. With the administration’s support, the Federalist Congress enacted four laws aimed at curbing the political influence of immigrants, the Alien and Sedition Acts. Federalists in several states also pursued a constitutional amendment that would have barred naturalized citizens from federal office-holding. That summer and autumn marked a new peak of popular nativism, with Federalist crowds acting out of doors against immigrants and Republicans, including political elites.

One such crowd targeted Gallatin in Reading, Pennsylvania, in early September 1798. He and his family stopped there for a night on their way to Gallatin’s home on the Monongahela River. When the family’s carriage rolled into town, “democrats” rang the bells of the churches and courthouse in a “merry peal” and fired a cannon to “welcome their champion in Congress.” The festivity “highly scandalised and irritated” the town’s Federalists. According to one witness, an immigrant merchant originally from Hamburg, they hated Gallatin because of his opposition to Federalist measures and because he “had the misfortune to be born in Switzerland.”

A Federalist voluntary militia mustered in response. The Reading Blues toppled the cannon, silenced the bells, and marched to the Federal Inn, where the Gallatin family lodged. Playing the Rogue’s March and “huzzaing” for Washington, Adams, and the federal government, they defied the county’s Republican sheriff, who ordered them to cease. The militia aimed to take Gallatin “forceably from the house and offer him some other personal indignities.” The crowd intended some rough music, possibly including a beating, tarring and feathering, or another kind of assault or humiliation. Such forms of popular regulation, which were widespread in eighteenth-century Europe, its colonies, and the United States, asserted a community’s shared values and its power to enforce them against transgressors and outsiders. Foiled in the planned abduction by the innkeeper, a large man who guarded the staircase leading to the Gallatins’ room with a whip in hand, the Blues instead determined to accost Gallatin as he exited the inn the next morning. They gathered beneath the family’s window, playing and singing a number of “patriotic songs” throughout the night. These included Hail Columbia!, whose composer had recently published a pamphlet denouncing France, its Republican supporters, and, above all, the ability of immigrants to acquire full citizenship. The crowd also prepared an effigy of Gallatin “in hideous dimensions.”

“A Political Sinner.” Frontispiece to The Political Censor, or Monthly Review of the Most interesting Political Occurrences, relative to the United States of America (Philadelphia), April 1796. Image courtesy of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. This cartoon exploited Gallatin’s own words to link his implication in the Western Insurrection to his effort in the House of Representatives to scuttle the Jay Treaty. The guillotine image played on Gallatin’s name, asserted a connection between Democratic-Republicanism and French revolutionary violence, and evoked the alleged use of that device in Geneva.

When the family’s carriage departed the next morning, Reading Federalists burned the effigy, shouting “Stop de Wheels of de Government” and “Let them go on.” They were words Gallatin had spoken in Congress, popularized by the immigrant polemicist William Cobbett, better known as Peter Porcupine. The first phrase encapsulated Gallatin’s assertion that the power of the House of Representatives over appropriations provided the right and means to obstruct administration measures. After a memorable cartoon put them in dialect and paired them with a guillotine, partisans repeated the words in everything from congressional speeches to boozy toasts at Federalist fêtes. The second phrase evoked Gallatin’s urging Americans to resign themselves to French depredations as less costly than war. To Federalists who feared a French plot, the damning words invited French invasion. Although late in life Gallatin claimed to walk through the crowd while it was burning him in effigy, other sources state that Gallatin left the inn surreptitiously. Wanting to avoid a hostile Federalist escort and assured that the crowd would not harm his wife or children, Gallatin slipped out a back door, rode his horse down an alley and out of town. He waited for his family at a nearby ferry while the carriage rolled through the angry crowd.

Support for immigration, naturalization, and a political role for immigrant citizens was one of the issues that divided Federalists and Republicans. Gallatin’s career shows the paths to influence available to an immigrant of means and talent, but also the potential precariousness of citizenship, especially at moments of crisis. Although Gallatin had deliberately distanced himself from his aristocratic Genevan family since his immigration in 1780, well-heeled elites and more poorly cobbled crowds insisted that Gallatin was indelibly foreign and, more than once, challenged the very legitimacy of his naturalization. The events in Reading illustrate not only the long roots of nativism in the United States but also the long history of political leaders and entrepreneurial journalists amplifying conspiracy theories that cast partisan opponents as outsiders who wielded influence illegitimately. Such messages can inspire crowds to impose their politics through violence.

For Further Reading

I have found four accounts of this incident, which agree in most respects. See “A Constant Reader,” Porcupine’s Gazette, Sept. 13, 1798, 3; Reading Weekly Advertiser, Sept. 15, 1798, excerpted in “Hon. Jacob Rush, of the Pennsylvania Judiciary,” ed. Louis Richards, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 39, no.1 (1915), 65–66; Peter A. Grotjan, Memoirs, 1774–1850, Vol. 1, 88–91, Historical Society of Pennsylvania (Gg.925F), Philadelphia; John Russell Bartlett, “Anecdotal Reminiscences of the Late Albert Gallatin,” Literary World, no. 151 (Dec. 22, 1849), 533. The Reading newspaper quoted the crowd’s chants. Porcupine’s Gazette confirmed the crowd chanting “Stop the Wheels,” and noted the “patriotic songs” the crowd sang. All other quotations are from Grotjan. On Gallatin’s life, the best places to start are Raymond Walters, Jr., Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat (New York, 1957); Edwin Gwynne Burrows, Albert Gallatin and the Political Economy of Republicanism, 1761–1800 (1974; New York, 1986).

On the intersection of revolution, immigration, and citizenship in this period, essential sources include James Morton Smith, Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (Ithaca, NY, 1956); Rogers M. Smith, “Constructing American National Identity: Strategies of the Federalists,” Federalists Reconsidered, ed. Doron Ben-Atar and Barbara B. Oberg (Charlottesville, VA, 1998), 19–40; Douglas Bradburn, The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774–1804 (Charlottesville, VA, 2009), 101–67, 206–34; Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism (Charlottesville, VA, 2011), ch. 3; François Furstenberg, When the United States Spoke French: Five Refugees who Shaped a Nation (New York, 2014). On fears of French plots, see also Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of a Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802 (New York, 1975), 193–218.

On conspiracy theories in U.S. politics more broadly, the classic work is Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1952; New York, 2008), 3–40. On political printers in the early republic, see Marcus Daniel, Scandal and Civility: Journalism and the Birth of American Democracy (New York, 2009); Jeffrey L. Pasley, “The Tyranny of Printers”: Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville, VA, 2001). On “rough music” in Anglo–American politics, see Paul A. Gilje, The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763–1834 (Chapel Hill, NC, 1987), 20–21, 100–12; Terry Bouton, Taming Democracy: “The People,” The Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution (New York, 2007), 154–63.

14 December 2021

About the Author

Sean Harvey is associate professor of history at Seton Hall University.

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