For a generation or two after 1776—perhaps longer—American nationality was not firmly established, nor was there a single “American” ethnicity. And the colonial legacy was broadly welcoming for European immigrants. So regardless of nationality, equality before the law became the policy of every state. But old ethnic and religious prejudices, reinforced by immigration from the British Isles, made equal treatment problematic. Irish immigrants, who stood out as Catholics and potential radicals, were targets of prejudice. But when they were tried for capital crimes like rape and murder, adherence to legal procedures—including talented defense counsel—blunted the effects of prejudice. Yet fear of Irish and other Atlantic immigrants led congressmen to debate the qualifications for naturalized citizenship. Representatives agreed new citizens must be white; but they argued over the length of their probation and whether they should pay for the privilege. In the Jefferson administration Congress settled on five years and minimal fees. Equal rights for white immigrants became the rule in law and largely in practice.

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