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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: January 2019



Though the Seamen Acts did not survive the Civil War, they prefigured postwar developments in American race relations, border controls, and constitutional doctrine. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed African-American citizenship and inscribed equal protection and due process into the Constitution, but people of color continued to be denied substantive and procedural rights. Following Reconstruction, the federal government also became increasingly involved in policing the nation’s borders. The antebellum discourse of “moral contagion” foreshadowed the underlying rationale of subsequent federal border regulations. Whether it was “Chinamen,” eastern and southern Europeans, or Latinos, the supposed moral ailments of dangerous outsiders have long channeled xenophobic impulses into justifications for border control measures. These border controls demanded that “diseased” outsiders be prevented from circulating unencumbered to keep or make the American public safe and healthy.

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