Immigrant Policy and Law

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Immigrant Policy and Law

The Naturalization and Alien Acts of 1798 were part of the Federalist program to insulate the United States from the radical principles of the French Revolution, which seemed to have infected both newly arriving immigrants and the political opposition, headed by Thomas Jefferson. The Naturalization Act's fourteen-year residence requirement would, given eighteenth-century life expectancies, completely disenfranchise most adult immigrants. The Alien Act gave the president the power to deport any foreigner he deemed dangerous. Both of these acts violated America's Revolutionary principles and previous practice.

In 1776 the American colonies declared themselves independent states—free of a British government that had been corrupted by its abuse of power. By renouncing allegiance to the British crown, the American rebels created a new form of volitional citizenship: Americans were no longer perpetual subjects, by birth, of hereditary monarchs but rather citizens, free to choose and change their allegiance. The American Republic also broke new ground by creating a single class of citizens. In the Old World, naturalization (or denization) never conferred the full rights of natural-born subjects; foreigners could become only second-class citizens, forever subject to economic, political, and religious disabilities. Eight years of war finally forced British recognition of American independence. However, the British government continued to deny its subjects the right of peaceful expatriation and volitional citizenship well into the nineteenth century.

After declaring independence, the American states invited the oppressed subjects of Old World tyranny to join in the battle to preserve liberty and to enjoy the fruits of free republican government. Initially, full citizenship was readily bestowed on

foreigners who supported the American cause. The Continental Congress and individual states rewarded foreign soldiers with lands and citizenship and offered similar grants to those who deserted from the British army. The path to citizenship was even easier for noncombatants. Several states required only evidence of commitment to the American cause, by oath (or affirmation) of allegiance and renunciation of all other governments or potentates. For states with residency requirements, one or two years were the norm; all states provided access to full civil and political rights.

As the war progressed, some states, especially those that had endured years of occupation by the British army, enacted more stringent naturalization requirements and increased the economic and political disabilities imposed on aliens. In the mid-1780s New York, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia all passed laws to bar American Loyalists from political office and to prevent British traders from regaining their economic stranglehold on American markets. Yet at the same time states such as Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware publicized their eagerness to welcome and enfranchise the Loyalists and foreigners shunned by other states.

By the end of the Revolution, the American naturalization process was a confusing amalgam of disparate practices that varied over time and place. In Pennsylvania the oath administered by justices of the peace in the 1770s to ferret out British sympathizers was used in the 1780s to naturalize foreign-born immigrants. From Massachusetts to Georgia state legislatures conferred citizenship on immigrants seeking asylum, foreigners hoping to perfect land titles or escape customs duties, and repentant Tories. In 1783 Benjamin Franklin, then in France to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain, drew up and administered an oath that naturalized the Scottish-born father-in-law of Franklin's grand-nephew.

In the summer of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention recognized the need to rationalize the motley assortment of state procedures into a single national avenue to U.S. citizenship. However, the daunting magnitude of that task was soon revealed. Rather than grapple with yet another divisive issue, convention delegates handed Congress the mandate to create a uniform code of naturalization. In 1790 the First Congress elected under the new Constitution did create a unique, national mode of naturalization—requiring a two-year residence, an oath of allegiance, and proof of good character. However, this national procedure did not supercede state law but was merely added to the mix. In 1795 Congress finally overcame states' rights arguments and enacted a new national, and exclusive, naturalization code. All free, white foreigners arriving after June 1795 would be required to meet the same naturalization requirements, including a five-year residence and a declaration of intent to seek citizenship at least three years prior to naturalization.

Although the Naturalization Act of 1795 barely had time to take effect before being replaced in 1798, its provisions became the foundation of American policy. The laws of 1798 fueled, rather than squelched, opposition to the Federalist Party and helped to secure the presidency for Thomas Jefferson in 1800. The so-called Revolution of 1800 returned the nation to its more liberal stance on alien rights and American citizenship. After the expiration of the Alien Act in 1800, Congress made no attempt to resurrect the extraordinary presidential power over America's immigrants. In 1802 Congress repealed the Naturalization Act of 1798 and reinstated, in essence, the citizenship requirements enacted in 1795.

See alsoAlien and Sedition Acts; Constitutional Convention; Constitutionalism: State Constitution Making; Continental Congresses; Election of 1800; Federalist Party; Federalists .


Baseler, Marilyn C. "Asylum for Mankind": America, 1607–1800. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Kettner, James H. The Development of American Citizenship, 1608–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

Smith, James Morton. Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Marilyn C. Baseler

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Immigrant Policy and Law

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