Naturalization Act of 1870

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Naturalization Act of 1870


By: United States Congress

Date: July 14, 1870

Source: United States Congress. "Naturalization Act of 1870." Statutes at Large. Boston: Little Brown, 1870.

About the Author: The Congress of the United States was established by Article 1 of the United States Constitution of 1787. It is the legislative arm of the U.S. federal government.


Naturalization policy, which governs the way that foreigners may obtain U.S. citizenship, is considered so important that it is mentioned in the first article of the Constitution. The founding fathers did not list the rules for obtaining citizenship, preferring to leave that obligation to Congress. Through the years, Congress has passed a series of Naturalization Acts, including the Naturalization Act of 1870.

In the colonial era, naturalization laws were passed with the intent of encouraging immigration. Desperate for workers, colonial assemblies realized that the best way to get foreigners to come to the New World was to offer them equal privileges. By the early national period, Americans were becoming a bit less welcoming. The first Naturalization Act, passed in 1790, required from immigrants only a two-year period of residency before they could acquire citizenship. During the following decade, Americans came increasingly to question the liberality of such a policy. The groups of political refugees who came to America and the fear of aliens created by the Quasi-War with France made Americans consider stronger naturalization requirements.

Despite the presence of a strong nativist movement in the United States in the 1850s, naturalization was not addressed again until 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution made the former slaves who had been born in the United States into citizens. The change gave blacks access to the courts and Constitutional protections as well as the right to own land and to enter certain professions. In 1870, Congress expanded the list of those eligible for naturalization to include all white persons and persons of African descent. Congress specifically rejected a proposal by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts to open naturalization to all. Asians remained ineligible for naturalization. (In this era, Latinos were not considered.)


An Act to amend the Naturalization Laws and to punish Crimes against the same, and for other Purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases where any oath, affirmation, or affidavit shall be made or taken under or by virtue of any act or law relating to the naturalization of aliens, or in any proceedings under such acts or laws, and any person or persons taking or making such oath, affirmation, or affidavit, shall knowingly swear or affirm falsely, the same shall be deemed and taken to be perjury, and the person or persons guilty thereof shall upon conviction thereof be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years and not less than one year, and to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars.

And be it further enacted, That if any person applying to be admitted a citizen, or appearing as a witness for any such person, shall knowingly personate any other person than himself, or falsely appear in the name of a deceased person, or in an assumed or fictitious name, or if any person shall falsely make, forge, or counterfeit any oath, affirmation, notice, affidavit, certificate, order, record, signature, or other instrument, paper, or proceeding required or authorized by any law or act relating to or providing for the naturalization of aliens; or shall utter, sell, dispose of, or use as true or genuine, or for any unlawful purpose, any false, forged, ante-dated, or counterfeit oath, affirmation, notice, certificate, order, record, signature, instrument, paper, or proceeding as aforesaid; or sell or dispose of to any person other than the person for whom it was originally issued, any certificate of citizenship, or certificate showing any person to be admitted a citizen;

… every person so offending shall be deemed and adjudged guilty of felony, and, on conviction thereof, shall be sentenced to be imprisoned and kept at hard labor for a period not less than one year nor more than five years, or be fined in a sum not less than three hundred dollars nor more than one thousand dollars, or both such punishments may be imposed, in the discretion of the court.

And be it further enacted, That the naturalization laws are hereby extended to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.

Approved, July 14, 1870.


The naturalization laws were the basis for later restrictions upon immigration, including the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Naturalization Act of 1790 introduced race by limiting the acquisition of citizenship by naturalization to "free white persons." The Naturalization Act of 1870 expanded the privilege to all blacks. Once the issue of race had been introduced as a part of immigration policy, it was a simple step to use race as a justification for excluding would-be immigrants from the United States. Accordingly, in response to public pressure, Congress approved a series of exclusionary immigration laws in the years following 1882.

During World War II, these race-based restrictions became a great national embarrassment, chiefly because we were united with the Chinese, the Indians, and the Filipinos to defeat the Japanese. The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt openly worried that the Chinese Exclusion Act would hurt the war effort in Asia. Discriminating against immigrants from our allies was poor foreign policy and foreign policy dictated a change in domestic policy. In 1943, the right of naturalization was extended to the Chinese. In 1946, it was extended to the Filipinos and Indians. In 1952, naturalization was extended to members of all ethnic and racial groups. For the first time, naturalization became color blind.



Hutchinson, E. P. Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798–1965. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

The Immigration Reader: America in a Multidisciplinary Perspective, edited by David Jacobson. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.

Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

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Naturalization Act of 1870

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