University Community | News and Announcements

OHIO history professor O’Keefe publishes book on immigrant political influence in the early American Republic

John O’Keefe, professor of history at Ohio University’s Chillicothe campus, is trying to clear up misinformation about the history of immigration in his new book, Stranger Citizens: Migrant Influence and National Power in the Early American Public.”

His focus is on how immigrants who came to the United States in its early days as a country gave shape to citizenship in the decades after American independence.

The book also challenges academic and popular assumptions about immigration and citizenship and the changes that occurred during this time. O’Keefe points out, for example, that immigrants were a strong voice advocating for their rights from the early days of the republic. 

“I began research for this book after noticing how debates over immigration in the first decades of the 2000s revolved around definitions of belonging in the nation,” O’Keefe said. “As I began to research, I saw that these debates had origins in the formation of policies during the early years after U.S. independence, and that immigrants back then were also active in participating in those debates.”

Stranger Citizens” explains how during this formative time in American history, lawmakers attempted to shape citizenship and the place of immigrants in the new nation, while granting the national government new powers such as deportation. O'Keefe argues that despite the challenges of public and official hostility that they faced in the late 1700s and early 1800s, migrant groups worked through lobbying, engagement with government officials, and public protest to create forms of citizenship that worked for them.

An example O’Keefe uses in his book is how definitions of family affected immigrants during that time. He explains that children were apprenticed into households headed by someone other than their biological parents – if a child of British immigrants served many years as an apprentice in a household headed by a native-born American, were they citizens once they completed their apprenticeship? Some apprentices said yes, but officials did not always agree.

“From 1783 to 1830, immigrants came from well-known places such as Ireland and Germany, but tens of thousands of people also came to the U.S. during the Haitian Revolution, and from Latin America, the Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region,” O’Keefe said. “Each of these immigrant groups encountered different receptions and challenges when they arrived and pushed for different visions and understandings of citizenship. This was a period of significant racism and xenophobia, and immigrants banded together to push both collectively and individually against popular and official hostility to their rights and their presence in the U.S.”

O’Keefe presents examples of racism in his book, even opening with how a Haitian immigrant was accused of voter fraud in 1807 in a Philadelphia election and his testimony demonstrating his qualifications under Pennsylvania voting law, which then required voters to be taxpayers in Pennsylvania.

“There is a long history of racist exclusion of immigrants from political participation, and delegitimizing of immigrant voting and advocacy, especially accusing immigrants of color of participating in fraud,” O’Keefe explained. “The events of the 2020 election came home to me as I was finalizing the manuscript of the book and when Black Philadelphians were accused of voting illegitimately in the 2020 election, I realized that white hostility to voters of color exerting power at the ballot box, and its perception as a threat has very early origins.”

To write “Stranger Citizens,” O’Keefe went through extensive archival research, finding specific collections that provided information about particular immigrant groups. He also used large collections of federal records and supplemented them with newspaper accounts, petitions by immigrants, missionary accounts and secondary work to provide context and make the immigrants’ situations and choices come to life through the documents.

Stranger Citizens” is published by Cornell University Press. An online version is currently available with a print edition being published this summer.

March 4, 2021
Samantha Pelham