Please provide a thesis, and thoughtful analysis of Chapter 7 (The Crisis of 1798-99) from Gordon S. Wood's "Empire of Liberty"
Including how Wood relates the Crisis to early post-Constitution America.
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Think about the scale of Gordon Wood’s history, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, which runs for over 700 pages broken down into 19 chapters. Wood, obviously, covers a lot of territory in this lengthy study of a crucial period in the nation’s history. Yet, he devotes an entire chapter, Chapter 7, to a two-year period of time near the end of the 18th Century. That chapter, titled “The Crisis of 1798-1799,” could be considered one of the more important, and most relevant for today, sections in Wood’s book. Most Americans know that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and that the United States Constitution followed soon after, with a revolutionary war against the British providing the drama of the time. Relatively few, unfortunately, fully comprehend how tenuous was this proposition known as the United States of America. Wood’s history is devoted to underscoring the gravity of the situation confronting America’s leaders during the vital period immediately following the nation’s birth. The survival of the Republic, he demonstrates, was not ensured.
“The Crisis of 1798-1799” primarily involved the conflict that emerged between the ideals upon which the nation was established and the imperative of protecting the nascent republic against its very real adversaries. So dire was the challenge confronting the country’s leadership that Wood devotes an entire chapter to this discussion, and the parallels to today’s immigration debate cannot be dismissed or ignored. If there is one word that recurs frequently in Wood’s text and that encapsulates this conflict, it is “asylum.” The United States was founded, first and foremost, as a sanctuary, or “asylum” from the tyrannies of old Europe and the monarchies that dominated the political landscape across the Atlantic. Every elementary school student is taught that North America was settled Europeans, mainly British, escaping such tyrannies, and the importance of immigration to the nation’s founding cannot be overstated. A country built upon concepts of religious freedom and the other liberties reflected in the Bill of Rights was quite unique and, while construction of the Statue of Liberty was still a century away, the principles underlying that gift from France were evident in the United States’ founding documents. As Wood notes in his opening chapter,
“By the early 1790s Americans were not surprised that their country was in fact attracting refugees from the tyrannies of the Old World. The enlightened everywhere had come to recognize the United States as the special asylum for liberty.”
The notion of the United States as a “special asylum for liberty” would, as noted, come into conflict with the practical realities in which the country was struggling. In Chapter 7, Wood writes regarding the growing concerns among lawmakers that unfettered immigration would threaten the nation’s security:
“Because the Federalists believed, in the words of Congressman Joshua Coit of Connecticut, that ‘we may very shortly be involved in war’ with France, they feared that ‘the immense number of French citizens in our country,’ together with the many Irish immigrants who came filled with hatred of Great Britain, might become enemy agents. One way of dealing with this threat was to restrict the naturalization of immigrants and the rights of aliens. Unfortunately, this meant challenging the idea that America was an asylum of liberty for the oppressed of the world.”
Much of Chapter 7, then, traces and analyzes these early efforts at reconciling that notion of an asylum with the threats to national security confronting the United States from more powerful countries across the ocean. Wood discusses the various legislative efforts involved in attempting to find the proper balance between open borders and national security, while emphasizing the difficulties encountered by the major political factions in debating the merits of those efforts. As Wood describes this history, political turmoil affecting France was being felt in America:
“Although Congress in 1790 passed a fairly liberal naturalization act requiring only two years of residency for free white persons, it soon changed its mind under the impact of the French Revolution. Both Federalists and Republicans backed the Naturalization Act of 1795, which extended the time residency to five years and required aliens seeking citizenship to renounce any title of nobility they may have held and to provide proof of their good moral character and their devotion to the Constitution of the United States.”
This, then, brings us to the most famous, or infamous, legislative effort intended to solve the problem of immigration once and for all: The Alien and Sedition Act of 1798. This Act represented an effort to restrict immigration out of concern for national security (in effect, fear that, among the waves of immigrants would be enemy agents), and is, today, held up as a model of how to undermine democratic ideals through restrictive immigration measures. Wood’s discussion of the immigration crisis of 1798-1799 should be required reading for all members of the current and incoming Congress. Having spent a couple of decades there, however, I seriously doubt that will occur. As Wood's history illuminates, immigration was a divisive issue then, and remains so today.
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