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John Lawson Burnett

Jon Sedlaczek, Auburn University
John Lawson Burnett (1854-1919) served Alabama's Seventh District as a Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1899 until his death in 1919. During his tenure in Congress, Burnett voted against the popular declaration of war against Germany in April 1917 and pushed through legislation that restricted immigration as chair of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Burnett also worked as an educator and lawyer and briefly served in the Alabama legislature.
Burnett was born in Cedar Bluff, Cherokee County, on January 20, 1854, to William and Mary Brandon Burnett; he had two brothers. His father died when he was four, and his mother supported the family by working as a schoolteacher. Burnett received his early education from his mother before attending public school in Etowah County. As a young man, Burnett helped support his family by working as an iron-ore miner for the Round Mountain Iron Works. At age 17, he began teaching at a school in nearby Gaylesville. After saving enough money for tuition, Burnett attended the Wesleyan Institute at Cave Springs, Georgia, and then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to study law at Vanderbilt University. In 1876, he was admitted to the bar in Cherokee County and began practicing law in the county seat, Centre, where he also served on the board of education. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1884 and to the state Senate in 1886, serving until 1890. Burnett married Elizabeth Belle Reeder on December 13, 1886, and the couple would have one child.
In 1898, Burnett was elected to the House of Representatives by the Alabama Seventh District, taking the seat left open by the retirement of Populist Milford Howard. In this capacity, Burnett represented central and northern Alabama, including the counties of Franklin, Winston, Cullman, Marshall, DeKalb, Cherokee, Etowah, and St. Clair. During his first term, Burnett served on the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department and the Committee on Railways and Canals; during subsequent terms, he served on the committees on Public Lands and Alcoholic Liquor Traffic. Burnett worked to limit the power of the railroads and to improve roads, public schools, and mail delivery in rural communities to provide better economic conditions in his district. Because of these efforts, he was re-elected every time he ran for office.
Burnett was also involved in U.S. foreign relations. A staunch isolationist, Burnett was opposed to American imperialism, denouncing the expansionist policies of Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt as leading to the mistreatment of the peoples of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, territories that the United States had acquired from defeated Spain after the Spanish-American War. He was also one of 50 members of the House who voted against the declaration of war against Germany in 1917 and opposed conscription, given his stance as an isolationist. Edward Almon was the only other Alabamian in Congress to join with Burnett in opposing the war, and both were criticized back at home. Indeed, a debate between Burnett and the pro-war J. Thomas Heflin raised Heflin's profile during a period when he was considering a run for the Senate.
Immigration Political Cartoon
Appointed to the U.S. Immigration Commission (also known as the Dillingham Commission after its leader, Vermont senator William P. Dillingham) in 1907, Burnett worked to restrict entry of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to the United States when their numbers began increasing at the turn of the century. By 1911, Burnett had assumed the chairmanship of the Committee on Immigration. When first appointed to the immigration committee, Burnett began building support for a literacy test that would be part of the admission process for incoming immigrants to restrict the entrance of unskilled workers. He first introduced the Burnett Immigration Bill in 1912, but its veto by Pres. William Taft in February 1913, overridden in the Senate, was sustained by the House. By 1914, as more and more immigrants entered the country, opinions were shifting, and the bill passed the House in February of that year but was vetoed by Pres. Woodrow Wilson. Another version passed Congress in 1916 and again was vetoed by Wilson, but it became law in 1917 when Congress voted to override the veto. In its final form, Burnett's bill—the Immigration Act of 1917—not only introduced a literacy test but also barred individuals, including homosexuals, the mentally disabled, and alcoholics, who were viewed as "undesirable." The act also barred migrants from a region that included most of Asia and the Pacific Islands.
In early May 1919, Burnett was the target of a bomb that had been mailed to his home but failed to detonate. Media reports at the time suggested it may have been sent by foreign nationals angered by his congressional work trying to deport people considered dangerous to the United States. Although uninjured, Burnett died from a heart attack soon after the incident, on May 13, 1919, in Gadsden and was buried at Forest Cemetery in Gadsden. He left a legacy of working to improve economic conditions for the farming and working classes, often against the interests of their employers. And although his stance on immigration was meant to protect the livelihoods of his working-class constituents against the perceived threat of cheap foreign labor, it helped steer American immigration policy away from its traditional openness to more restrictive and prejudicial policies.

Additional Resources

Johnson, Timothy D. "Anti-War Sentiment and Representative John Lawson Burnett of Alabama." Alabama Review 39 (July 1986): 187-95.
Phelps, Carolyn Jean. "John L. Burnett: A Southern Congressman and the Immigration Problem. 1905-1919." Master's thesis, Auburn University, 1970.
Published:  December 11, 2014   |   Last updated:  November 16, 2017