Monday, February 27, 2017

When America Opened Its Doors

I posted on A. Roger Ekirch on Saturday.

He's the author of American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution.

Kathleen DuVal, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has a review.


America’s founders—both its leaders and those protesting in the streets and fighting the British Army—saw immigrants as vital to the mission of the fledgling nation. The Declaration of Independence accused King George III of “obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners” and refusing “to encourage their migrations” into the colonies. To the Founders, the king’s restrictions on immigration were evidence of his desire to keep the colonies backward and under his thumb. In the newly independent United States, they firmly believed, immigration would accelerate economic development and help the country become a player among the powerful empires of Europe.

As A. Roger Ekirch’s deeply researched and elegantly written “American Sanctuary” reveals, early Americans saw the United States as a sanctuary for people oppressed by the old tyrannical governments of Europe. Refugees were the ideal citizens for a republic: Having fled tyranny, they would be a bulwark against it. And they came. Nearly 100,000 Europeans immigrated to the United States in the 1790s, a dramatic addition to a population that was just under four million at the start of the decade.

But when the French Revolution turned radical in the 1790s, some Americans began to worry. They feared that French as well as Irish immigrants would drag the new, still-fragile country into anarchy. Harrison Otis, a congressman from Massachusetts, gave a speech in which he railed that he did “not wish to invite hoards of wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all parts of the world, to come here with a view to disturb our tranquility.” South Carolina Rep. Robert Goodloe Harper proposed getting rid of naturalized citizenship altogether. And from the beginning Congress limited naturalized citizenship to any “free white person.”

The war that broke out in 1793 between Britain and revolutionary France sparked the first great divide in American politics. Thomas Jefferson and others supported France, grateful for its help in defeating Britain in the American Revolution and for following the United States into revolution itself. But other Americans, including John Adams and George Washington, were aghast at French revolutionaries’ use of the guillotine and the Bastille. After Washington’s administration negotiated a treaty with the British in 1794 that struck supporters of France as too cozy, New Yorkers threw rocks at Alexander Hamilton. Some congressmen even talked of impeaching Washington.

Into this fractious debate about the place of the United States in the world came the bloodiest mutiny in the history of the British navy—a mutiny that forced Americans to decide if the country was truly a haven for lovers of liberty, even those who had killed for its sake.

Probably half of the HMS Hermione’s diverse crew had been “impressed”—meaning that the British navy had forced them from non-British private merchant ships into British service. On one day alone in 1795, sailors from the Hermione boarded 20 American ships, took nearly 70 crewmen (most of whom claimed American citizenship) and forced them into the British navy. On most ships of the era, impressed sailors grumbled but did not mutiny, but circumstances combined with the revolutionary times and a particularly cruel captain to push the Hermione’s crew over the edge. On the night of Sept. 21, 1797, off the coast of Puerto Rico, several of the crew charged into the captain’s cabin, brandishing swords and axes. After killing him, crew members searched the ship and killed all 10 officers.

Mr. Ekirch’s gripping and timely book both conveys the drama of this long-forgotten mutiny and reveals its importance to the early American republic. The first part of “American Sanctuary” tells the story of the mutiny, and the rest of the book traces the crisis it prompted—specifically when some of the mutineers from the HMS Hermione fled to the United States. Would Americans side with rebels against British tyranny, or with the rule of law on the high seas? Would the United States turn its back on Thomas Paine’s charge in “Common Sense” to be “an asylum for mankind” by extraditing mutineers to Britain?

The man that put all of these questions to the test called himself Jonathan Robbins. A little over a year after the mutiny, an American schooner docked at the port of Charleston with Robbins aboard. He had reportedly bragged to his shipmates that he had been one of the mutineers on the now-infamous Hermione. Charleston officials put him in jail, where an officer who had served on the Hermione prior to the mutiny visited him and declared that the man in the cell was in fact Thomas Nash, one of the mutiny’s leaders. After the British consul in Charleston requested the man’s extradition for court-martial, U.S. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and President John Adams determined that this was a simple case of mutiny and murder on a British ship. With their approval, the man calling himself Robbins was handed over to British justice.

It was a huge political mistake...
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