The Enduring Relevance of Early American Migration Regulations

Cody Nager

Nothing could be more tempting than a high wage. In March 1808, a pseudonymous author in Spooner’s Vermont Journal envisioned the possibility of the American merchant marine being swarmed by foreigners who would “engage in our service for less wages than our own” throwing “native American sailors out of employ.” Though the author’s concerns were driven by heightened Anglo–American tensions in the wake of the Chesapeake-–Leopard affair and recently introduced Democratic-Republican embargo on foreign trade, he reflected what would become a common refrain: immigrants are taking the jobs of hardworking Americans. This concern appears throughout the migration debates of not only the early republic, but all American history. Concerns over immigrants, economic viability, cultural fit, and the policy aimed at regulating them originated in the early republic and has continued through the present.[1]

picture of 1790 naturalization bill

H. R. 40, Naturalization Bill, March 4, 1790. The First Congress (1789-1791) established federal procedures and criteria for foreign-born individuals to become U.S. citizens. Image from U.S. Capitol Visitor Center,

My scholarship seeks to connect how interactions between the diverse people of America and the broader Atlantic world shaped enduring structures of racial inequality, economic development, political rights, and national identity in the United States. The precarious position of the nascent United States shaped debates over free and enslaved migration that divided Americans into political parties with different visions for the nation’s economic basis, social development, and relationship with the rest of the world. The turmoil of the Atlantic world and instability in the continental interior forced Americans to decide who could reside in the new nation, how they would be incorporated within the national body politic, and who would be excluded and on what basis. Over the course of the early republic, shifting global circumstances led Congress to consider and reconsider migration regulations, shaping the lives of the nation’s earliest migrants.

In my capacity as a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover History Lab, I work to connect the history of the early republic to American policy in the present. The Hoover History Lab, with Dr. Steven Kotkin as one of its leaders, is modeled after scientific research laboratories. It convenes diplomatic–military, political–institutional, economic–financial, and scientific–technological historians from a variety of time periods and subfields with the mission to use history to inform policy to confront contemporary challenges. By researching and communicating the origins and development of the issues facing the present-day world, the lab intends to provide nonpartisan historical analysis to government officials, private-sector investors, scholars, and students so they can better understand and work to resolve pressing issues.[2]

As a Research Fellow and the lab’s resident early Americanist, I work toward these goals of public engagement with applied history. Working with scholars who mostly concentrate on the twentieth century, my role is to contextualize the longer term, while also expanding my personal historical horizons by learning from locales, time-periods, and subfields often far afield from early America. At the most general level, promoting engagement with broadly conceived applied history involves demonstrating to students, educators, and often politicians that history has an enduring relevance to the present. I engage with Stanford students through a course on the development of global futures through the historical development of statecraft and political and social systems, and with high school teachers through a series of training seminars. Engagement with private-sector investors and politicians involves arranging conferences, briefings, and policy memos.

At the Hoover History Lab, I organized a January 2024 interdisciplinary workshop titled “American Mobility Regulations in Historical Perspective,” which involved not only some of the leading historians of American immigration history covering the early republic to the present but also economists, political scientists, sociologists, and even a pediatrician. The workshop sparked conversation on the past, present, and future of American immigration policy by asking questions such as: What is the current state of U.S. immigration policy, how did it get to where it is today, and where could it be in ten years? By assembling migration historians and mobility experts from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, the workshop produced a present-focused historical dialogue between scholars with different approaches to a common interest.

The result of this workshop was a historically informed policy brief, modeled after those distributed by the National Intelligence Council, which placed the present state of American immigration policy into its long historical context, beginning with the early republic. The resulting brief was distributed among policymakers in the halls of power across the country, providing them with much needed historical context as they, just as the individuals of the early republic did, seek to craft the migration policy of a nation amid ever-shifting domestic and global circumstances.

Six years before the author in Spooner’s Vermont Journal laid out his concerns over British sailors taking the jobs of hardworking Americans, Federalist Representative John Stanley, opposing the 1802 Democratic-Republic loosening of the remarkably restrictive Naturalization Act of 1798, touched upon the core problem that underlies American immigration history. Stanley acknowledged that the “entire exclusion of aliens from the rights of hospitality and asylum from oppression” would be morally repugnant and contrary to the principles of the United States. However, if access to citizenship were too easy, Stanley feared it would be a “great hazard to the peace and safety of the United States.” The history of American migration regulation, since the early republic, is the history of a generationally recurring balancing act between ideals of “hospitality and asylum” and international and domestic circumstances that present real or perceived “great hazards.” By applying rigorous historical scholarship, individuals in the present are empowered to make better informed choices to shape the future of the .[3]


[1] “War Unnecessary and Ruinous,” Spooner’s Vermont Journal, Mar. 21, 1808.

[2] For more information on the Hoover History Lab, see:

[3] “The Hon. Mr. Stanley’s Letter…,” Evening Post (New York), May 31, 1802.

7 March 2024

About the Author

Cody Nager is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and is affiliated with its History Lab. His scholarship focuses on how interactions between the diverse people of America and the broader Atlantic region have shaped structures of racial inequality, economic development, political rights, and national identity in the United States.

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