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Naturalization Act (1790)

Naturalization Act (1790)

James W. Fox, Jr.

Naturalization is the process by which people can become citizens of a country they were not born in. The United States Constitution grants Congress the power "to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization" (Article I, section 8, clause 4). Soon after the Constitution was ratified Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1790 (1 Stat. 103). The act provided

that any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof, on application to any common law court of record, in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such court, that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law, to support the Constitution of the United States....

This act reveals one of the deepest ambiguities in American citizenship. In requiring a period of residence prior to naturalization, members of Congress emphasized that foreigners should spend sufficient time in the United States to appreciate American democracy; Congress viewed America as a school for equality and democracy. But by preventing foreign-born people of color from becoming citizens, the act established that American citizenship contained its own aristocracy, that of race.

The violence of the French Revolution in the early 1790s, dramatically exemplified by the Reign of Terror of 1793, raised fears that violent French revolutionaries (the Jacobins) would come to America. In response, Congress extended the residence requirement for citizenship in the 1795 Naturalization Act from one to five years. At first Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party supported the extended residence requirement. Although Republicans favored admission of European revolutionaries, who generally supported the Democratic-Republican Party, they also feared an influx of merchants who would oppress the common farmer-citizens and support the Federalist Party.

Republicans, however, opposed the longer restrictions of fourteen years implemented by a Federalist Congress with the Naturalization Act of 1798. This act, as part of the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, was designed to restrict the political power of persons sympathetic to Jefferson's Republicans. When Republicans wrested control of Congress from the Federalists in the election of 1800, they returned the residence requirement to five years in the Naturalization Act of 1802.

The increased residence restrictions implemented during the 1790s reflected a nativism, a policy that favors native-born citizens over immigrants, through which current citizens expressed a fear of foreigners and attempted to preserve what they saw as the uniqueness of American citizenship. Federalists and Republicans were each affected, in different ways, by this nativist rejection of foreigners. Throughout the nation's history, nativism has been behind exclusions of people based on race, country of origin, and political ideology.

The history of naturalization also reveals that citizenship was centered around men. While the 1790 act naturalized all "persons" and so included women, it also declared that "the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States...." This prevented the automatic grant of citizenship to children born abroad whose mother, but not father, had resided in the United States. Citizenship was inherited exclusively through the father. Congress did not remove the inequity until 1934.

The Civil War changed American ideas of citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all people born in the United States regardless of race, class, or gender. Congress then passed the Naturalization Act of 1870, which extended naturalization to people of African descent. Throughout the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, however, restrictions on immigration and naturalization based on countries of origin continued. Naturalization was limited for groups thought suspect, such as Chinese nationals, perpetuating a racial idea of citizenship. The tension between the ideals of equality and freedom and the realities of race, gender, and politics evident in the history of the naturalization laws of the first century of the United States set the stage for the debates about immigration and immigration laws during the twentieth century.

See also: Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798; Chinese Exclusion Acts; Immigration and Nationality Act; Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.


Foner, Eric, and John A. Garraty, eds. The Reader's Companion to American History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Kerber, Linda K. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Kettner, James H. The Development of American Citizenship, 16081870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

Smith, Rogers M. Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

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