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In The Beginning: 1607–1798

June 2024
6min read

“We are a nation of immigrants.” It’s a politician’s generality at an ethnic picnic, a textbook bromide swallowed and soon forgotten. It is also, as it happens, a profound truth, defining us and explaining a good part of what is extraordinary in the short history of the United States of America. There is no American ancient soil, no founding race, but there is a common ancestral experience of moving from “there” to “here.” Among the founders of this nation who believed that they were agents of destiny was an English preacher who said in 1669, “God hath sifted a nation that he might send choice grain into this wilderness.” The grain has arrived steadily and from many nations. “Americans are not a narrow tribe,” wrote Herman Melville; “our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one.”

We begin arbitrarily with a seventeenth-century English migration that produced the First Families of Virginia (founded in 1607) and Massachusetts’s Pilgrim Fathers (1620). Arbitrarily because already in 1643 Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit missionary visiting New Amsterdam, said he heard eighteen languages spoken in that seaport town, which probably included Mediterranean and North African dialects and the Hebrew of a small settlement of Sephardic Jews.

But the stock planted in the 1600s was basically English. In the eighteenth century it turned “British” as Scots and Irish arrived in significant numbers, then partly European through an influx of Germans, and African, too, through the thousands of involuntary black immigrants brought in on the hell ships of the slave trade.

Those initial colonial migrations to “British North America” illustrate forces that are still at work in 1993. The names, faces, and languages change, but the basics remain. Immigrants are pushed out of their original homes by war, upheaval, misery, and oppression. They are pulled toward America by the promise of economic betterment and a chance to breathe free. Sometimes they are lured by promoters who want their passage money or their labor and skills. Sometimes they have come in legal or actual bondage.

But whenever and wherever they have come, they have changed what they found. That was clear from the moment that seventeenth-century England sent the first immigrant wave. The land was ripe for mass exodus. Civil, religious, and class war raged from beginning to end of the century, encompassing in their course the execution of one king and the expulsion of another. Major changes in the economy drove small farmers off their subsistence plots in favor of sheep. “The people … do swarm in the land as young bees in a hive,” said one clergyman. “The land grows weary of her inhabitants,” said another—by name John Winthrop, soon to move with fellow Puritans to a place called Massachusetts Bay.

The London government planted colonies to help houseclean the surplus population. Some started under the rule of private corporations that looked for gold and silk and settled for the profits in fish, fur, and tobacco. Some were begun by like-minded religious seekers, some by individuals to whom the king gave huge tracts of wilderness to turn into profitable agricultural estates. All needed people to thrive, and got them. Some 378,000 Englishmen and women left for the Western Hemisphere during the century; 155,000 wound up on mainland North America. They came on the Mayflower ; they came in groups brought over by colonial proprietors who got so many extra acres of land per head of immigrant. They came as indentured servants, under bond to work a term of years. Some came in fetters at the request of unchoosy colonial administrators, like the governor of Virginia who asked London in 1611 for “all offenders out of the common gaols condemned to die.” There may have been, over the decades, as many as 50,000 of such “felions and other desperate villaines.”

They brought the imprint of England in their baggage. Without stinting other contributions, there isn’t any question that constitutional self-rule, Protestant individualism, capitalism, and the work ethic were hammered into the national character in the seventeenth-century English. And yet English with a difference. “They ate the white corn-kernels parched in the sun,” Stephen Vincent Benét wrote in 1943, “and they knew it not, but they’d not be English again.” Autocratic rule was modified almost at once because London was far away—and freedom attracted new settlers. Virginia demanded and got a representative assembly in 1624; all the other colonies followed in due course.

It was an age of religious rigidity, but state-imposed conformity had to bend to the needs of settlement. In 1632 King Charles I gave his supporter Cecilius Calvert, Lord Baltimore, the future state of Maryland (named for the Catholic queen). Calvert saw to it that his fellow Catholics, under heavy pressure back home, were tolerated within its borders. In the 168Os a different king bestowed yet another colony on William Penn. The Quaker Penn opened Pennsylvania not only to other members of the Society of Friends but to “dissenters” of every description. In different colonies intolerance rose and fell, but more often fell as population grew and spread. “Here,” reported New York’s governor in 1687, “be not many of the Church of England, few Roman Catholics, abundance of … singing Quakers, ranting Quakers, Sabbatarians, Anti-Sabbatarians, some Anabaptists, some Independents, some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part none at all.”

Immigration helped bring on the Revolution, and gave it a surprising new meaning.

By the start of the eighteenth century, that latitude, along with virgin land and prospering towns, was exerting a magnetic force outside England itself: in France, where, in 1685, the king revoked an edict that had protected his Protestant subjects, thereby sending thousands of Huguenots—thrifty, skilled traders and artisans—to settle in America; in the many little German princedoms plagued by war, taxes, and rack rents, so that altogether there were some 225,000 colonists of German stock on the Revolution’s eve, including groups like the Mennonites (ancestors of the Amish) and Moravians.

They spread through several colonies, but those in Pennsylvania became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (a corruption of Deutsch ), and their clannish ways at least once exasperated the usually tolerant Benjamin Franklin. “Why should the Palatine Boors ,” he asked (the Rhenish Palatinate was a German region that furnished many new Pennsylvanians), “be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together, establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania , founded by the English , become a Colony of Aliens ?”

There was no language problem with the “Ulster” Irish or Scots Irish. These Scots, deliberately planted in the northern counties of Ireland in the 160Os to help subdue the native Catholics, were busy and productive farmers until, in 1699, English landowners got the door slammed on competitive agricultural imports. The ensuing distress sent as many as 12,000 a year of the Ulstermen and women to the colonies. They poured into the frontier regions, carrying with them strict Calvinism and a distaste for both Indians and speculators who cornered huge tracts to sell at high prices. It was, in their eyes, “against the laws of God and nature that so much land should be idle while Christians wanted it to labor on and raise their bread.” They were the ancestors of such as Daniel Boone and Andrew Jackson.

The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 spurred a rush of migration to the now-secure colonial frontiers and the growing seaboard towns of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston. From 1763 to 1775 some 221,000 newcomers arrived: 55,000 Ulstermen, 40,000 Scots, 30,000 English, 12,000 Germans and Swiss—and 84,500 chained Africans. Perhaps a third of all the colonists in 1760 were either born abroad or had parents who were. The English government, once worried about overpopulation, now feared depopulation even more and cracked down on large landowners’ seductive invitations to immigrants. Thus the charge in Jefferson’s bill of particulars showing that the king sought an absolute tyranny over the colonies: “He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these states; … obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

Immigration helped bring on the Revolution, and to give it a surprising new meaning. By 1782 the former English colonies were separate states, linked by common interests and a common culture that was more than simply English. Michel Guillaume Jean de Crévecoeur, a French immigrant, put it this way: “What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of a European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations…. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world…”

The immigrant generals and soldiers who fought on the American side in the Revolution (like Gen. Frederick M’fchlenberg, the German-trained Lutheran pastor who would become the first Speaker of the House) would have agreed. So would Tom Paine, the English immigrant author of Common Sense , which, in 1776, called on the future United States to become an “asylum for mankind.”

But when the Constitutional Convention came to consider naturalization laws and residence requirements for officials, a different point of view was evident. Even a sturdy democrat like Virginia’s George Mason did not “chuse to let foreigners and adventurers make laws for us & govern us.” Pierce Butler of South Carolina—born in Ireland- believed that aliens brought in “ideas of Government so distinct from ours that in every point of view they are dangerous.” Gouverneur Morris, a gifted master of sarcasm from New York, applauded generosity to foreigners but counseled “a moderation in all things…. He would admit them to his house, he would invite them to his table … but would not carry the complaisance so far as to bed them with his wife.”

Compromise prevailed; no person may be a representative who has not been a citizen seven years, or become a senator with less than nine years’ citizenship. Presidents must be American-born. The issue blew up again in 1798 during stormy confrontations between Jefferson’s Republicans and conservative Federalist opponents who feared an infiltration of radical immigrants full of dangerous ideas hatched by the French Revolution, then in full career. A Federalist-dominated Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which allowed the President to expel foreigners whom he deemed dangerous on suspicion of treasonable activities. Jefferson called the measure “worthy of the 8th or 9th century,” and when he and his supporters won the election of 1800, they let it die without renewal.

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