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Presidents and Immigration: George Washington

This month our theme will be Presidents and Immigration and we'll take a look at how some of the occupants of the oval office have viewed and affected immigration patterns during their tenure in office. When George Washington first took the oath of office as President, the United States was very much a nation of immigrants. The first successful English colony was settled in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia and when tobacco was found to be a profitable cash crop, many plantations were established along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland. One hundred English Pilgrims established a small settlement near Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, seeking freedom to practice their religion. Tens of thousands of English Puritans came to Boston, Massachusetts and adjacent areas from around 1629 to 1640.



Between then and the start of the Revolutionary War, settlements grew, with the settlers coming mainly from England, but also from Germany and the Netherlands. The British were by far the largest group of arrivals at that this time it would not be accurate to refer to the settlers as immigrants to the United States, as the land was still a colony and part of the British Empire. Many of these immigrants were indentured servants. Their passage was paid by employers in the colonies who needed help on the farms or in shops. Indentured servants were provided food, housing, clothing and training but did not receive wages. At the end of the indenture (usually around age 21) they were free to marry and start their own farm.

The Dutch immigrants first established settlements along the Hudson River in New York starting about 1626. Wealthy Dutch patroons set up large landed estates along the Hudson River and brought in farmers who became renters. Others established trading posts to trade with Native Americans and started cities such as New Amsterdam (now New York City) and Albany, New York. Later the British renamed the colony of New Amsterdam to New York.

Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware were considered to be the middle colonies. Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers from Britain, followed by Ulster Scots (Northern Ireland) on the frontier and numerous German Protestant sects. In 1680, Pennsylvania was founded, and many more settlers arrived to the middle colonies. Many Protestant sects were encouraged to settle there for freedom of religion and good, cheap land. Their origins were about 60% British and 33% German.

The mostly agricultural Southern English colonies initially had very high death rates for new settlers due to malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases as well as skirmishes with Native Americans. Despite this, a steady flow of new settlers occurred, mostly from Central England and the London area.

Nearly all of the 13 colonies were settled and financed by privately organized British settlers. The population was typically rural, with close to 80% owning the land they lived and farmed on. After 1700, as the Industrial Revolution progressed, more of the population started to move to cities. Initially, the Dutch and German Americans primarily spoke dialects brought over from Europe, while English was the main trade language. The settlers generally established their own popularly elected governments and courts.

Between 50,000 to 100,000 Irish immigrants, over 75 percent of whom were Catholic, came to United States in the 1600s, and 100,000 more Irish Catholics arrived in the 1700s. About 60,000 British convicts were transported to the new British colonies in Georgia in the 18th century. Most of these were poor people from debtors' prisons.

Next to the English, the largest group of "immigrants" were African slaves, who became immigrants against their will. When George Washington became president in 1789, the population of the United States was around 3.9 million, and nearly a quarter of this population (roughly 950,000) were immigrants. Of that group (the immigrants, not the total population), 425,000 were immigrants from Great Britain (including England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales), and 360,000 were from Africa. Other countries providing large numbers of immigrants were Germany (103,000), the Netherlands (6,000), France (3,000), Jewish immigrants (1,000) and Sweden (500).

Prior to his presidency, George Washington fully supported the concept of immigration. While a General in the Revolutionary War, he said, in an Address to the Members of the Volunteer Association of Ireland on December 2, 1783, "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment." He continued to espouse this position. In a letter to his servant David Humphreys on July 25, 1785, he wrote "Let the poor the needy and oppressed of the Earth, and those who want Land, resort to the fertile plains of our western country, the second land of Promise, and there dwell in peace, fulfilling the first and great commandment." In a letter to Francis Van der Kamp dated May 28, 1788, he wrote, "I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong."

As President, Washington expressed concern about whether regional interests would undermine his desire for a strong central government. He wrote to Vice President John Adams on November 15, 1794, and said "The policy or advantage of immigration taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them. Whereas by an inter-mixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become one people."

Despite this reservation, it was on Washington's watch, and under his signature that the nation’s first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, was passed by Congress. Washington said that he welcomed people “of good moral character” who would better the country while readily assimilating with its culture. The Naturalization Act set out the rules to be followed by the United States in the granting of national citizenship. This law limited naturalization to immigrants who were free white persons of good character. It excluded American Indians, indentured servants, slaves and free African-Americans. It also provided for citizenship for the children of U.S. citizens born abroad, stating that such children "shall be considered as natural born citizens." It also specified that the right of citizenship did "not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States."

In order for one to be considered to be of good character, the law required two years of residence in the United States and one year in the state of residence, prior to applying for citizenship. When those requirements were met, an immigrant could file a Petition for Naturalization with "any common law court of record" having jurisdiction over his residence. Once convinced of the applicant’s good moral character, the court would administer an oath of allegiance to support the Constitution of the United States. The clerk of the court was to make a record of these proceedings, and "thereupon such person shall be considered as a citizen of the United States."

The Act also establishes the United States citizenship of certain children of citizens, born abroad, without the need for naturalization: "the children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond Sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born Citizens: provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States".

The Act of 1790 was later repealed by the Naturalization Act of 1795, which extended the residence requirement to five years. In the subsequent administration of John Adams, the Naturalization Act of 1798 would extend this period to 14 years, only to be repealed later by Thomas Jefferson in 1802.



Washington recognized that the United States had become a melting pot, affected by its immigrants’ “language, habits, and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them.” Any racist component of his immigration policy was consistent with those generally accepted at the time, but otherwise, Washington did not appear overly concerned with any sort of social engineering based on where immigrants came from. He expressed more concern about two things: 1) the quality and character of the immigrants; and 2) ensuring that there adherence to the culture of the land of their birth would not undermine the presence of a strong central government.
Tags: george washington, immigration, john adams, thomas jefferson
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