“Empire Through Birth Rights”: Colloquium with SLU’s Idolina Hernandez


In his 1798 “The Aliens: A Patriotic Poem,” Kentucky Senator-bard and noted Federalist Humphrey Marshall drew a distinction between those non-citizens who were “proper” and those who were “malignant.” The occasion for the poem—it was a response to (and defense of) the recently passed Alien and Sedition Acts—might provide immediate explanation for its content, but as Saint Louis University Ph.D. candidate Idolina Hernandez showed in her March 15 colloquium at the Kinder Institute, truly understanding Marshall’s verse requires unpacking the much longer and more complex history of integrating or rejecting refugees in British America and the United States.

We might begin exploring this historical narrative in 16th-century France, Hernandez noted, with Protestant Huguenots fleeing violent persecution at the hands of the country’s Catholic majority. These émigrés sought refuge in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England, and eventually crossed the Atlantic to Great Britain’s North American colonies, most notably landing in Charleston, SC, and the area around New Rochelle, NY. As Hernandez explained, this pattern of immigration gave rise to ‘denization’ as a legal category for refugees who had only limited protections from the colonial government—the right to purchase land, for example, but without jus solis (the right to cede land to their heirs). However, colonial governors and assemblies could (and often did) grant denizens naturalized citizen-status, and as a result, naturalization became a mutually advantageous imperial tool through which full rights were exchanged for the promotion of industry or for refugees settling lands at the contested fringes of—the contested borders between—empires. This was the case after the Proclamation of 1763, when Great Britain’s government financed emigration and naturalized refugees as a way of populating the territory acquired from France at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War.

That said, naturalization ultimately remained the prerogative of George III, and as the Declaration of Independence’s grievances reveal, if it was used as a mechanism for integration, it was likewise wielded as a politically expedient and punitive means of obstructing citizenship and land ownership. As Hernandez made clear in wrapping up her talk, manipulating refugee policy based on refugee type didn’t stop with the birth of the American republic. Much like the colonial governors before them, early American legislators used naturalization as a vehicle for territorial expansion. At the same time, who was and who was not deemed acceptable—or, as Marshall put it, proper—was complicated, and ultimately determined, not only by which side of inter-empire conflicts between Great Britain and France the U.S. happened to fall on but also, as the Alien and Sedition Acts demonstrate, by the partisan implications of immigrant voting patterns.


Idolina Hernandez did her B.A. in Psychology and Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, her M.A. in Sociology at Boston College, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in History at Saint Louis University, studying with Prof. Lorri Glover. She has published scholarship in Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines and Oxford’s Encyclopedia of African American History 1866 to Present, and has presented her work widely, most recently at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies and the Society of Early Americanists workshop in Mainz. She has received grants and fellowships from the Elsesser Urban History Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among many other places, as well as multiple Faculty Excellence Awards from Lone Star College.