Enacted by U.S. Congress on March 26, 1790
Excerpt reprinted from U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History
Congress passes a law that sets the tone for naturalization laws for over a century
"…any alien, being a free white person … may be admitted to become a citizen…."
Soon after the Constitution was adopted as the basic law of the newly organized United States, Congress passed a law governing the question of how immigrants could become voting citizens with the same rights as people born in the country, a process called naturalization. It was an important issue in one of the first countries ruled by democracy, the will of the citizens as expressed through voting.
The issue of naturalization had not been a problem when the states had been colonies of England. People living in the English colonies had no voice in selecting members of the British legislature, called the Parliament. Even in England, voting for members of Parliament was limited to a relatively few wealthy property owners. In the newly independent United States, political power lay in the hands of citizens (initially, limited to white men). North America seemed destined to be a magnet for people in many different countries who were looking for new economic opportunities. The question of political rights for immigrants had to be addressed.
The men who drafted the U.S. Constitution in the summer of 1788 realized that citizenship was bound to become an issue. They also realized that their newly independent country already had a rich mix of non-English people, including Native Americans, slaves from Africa, and immigrants from European countries other than England, especially France.
Consequently, Article I, Section 8 of the new Constitution listed the powers given to the new Congress. The third item on the list was the power to "establish a uniform rule of naturalization … throughout the United States."
A year after the Constitution was adopted, Congress passed the first law that established a "uniform rule of naturalization": The Act of March 26, 1790. The act was just the first in a series of laws addressing the issue of naturalization, which is a companion to the question of immigration, or admitting people from abroad to live in the United States. The 1790 law set the tone for such laws for well over a century.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from the Act of March 26, 1790:
- The 1790 law allowed any immigrant who was a "free white person" to become a citizen after living in the United States for two years. Most obviously, this clause excluded Africans brought to the United States as slaves. This law was just the first of many laws that openly discriminated against people of color. Beginning around 1860, similar restrictions were placed on people from Asia, although these limitations focused on the right to come to the United States in the first place, rather than on the right to become a citizen. As late as 1906, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government had the power to prevent Asians from becoming citizens on the grounds that they were not "white," as specified in the 1790 law.
- The law of 1790 did not distinguish between men and women; it referred to "white persons." In reality, however, the law was largely irrelevant to women, since the only practical advantage of becoming a citizen was the right to vote, which was denied to all American women until 1920. During the nineteenth century, wives and children of naturalized male citizens became citizens automatically. The 1790 law specifically mentioned that the children of American citizens who were born "beyond the sea," or overseas, were considered as natural citizens. This provision would apply to a child of a diplomat or merchant who was traveling abroad at the time a child was born, for example.
- The Act of March 26, 1790, left many questions unanswered. For example, the act said that new citizens must swear an oath, but it did not specify what the oath should say, exactly. It also stated that people becoming new citizens should appear before a "court of record," without specifying exactly what such a court was. Because these statements could be interpreted in different ways, one result was that the process of becoming a citizen was different across the country, contrary to the expectation of the men who had drafted the Constitution. Many different oaths were accepted—and in some cases, the oaths were not even recorded—in both federal and state courts. The first naturalization law provides a good example of how a law that seems simple on the surface can become complicated when it is put into practice.
Excerpt from the Act of March 26, 1790
Section 1: Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States in Congress assembled, 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, which oath or affirmation such court shall administer; and the clerk of such court shall record such application, and the proceedings thereon; and thereupon such person shall be considered as a citizen of the United States. And the children of such persons so naturalized, dwelling within the United States, being under the age of twenty-one years at the time of such naturalization, shall also be considered as citizens of the United States. And the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens: Provided, that the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States; Provided also, That no person heretofore proscribed by any state, shall be admitted a citizen as aforesaid, except by an act of the legislature in the state in which such person was proscribed.
What happened next …
The 1790 act mentioned nothing about the attitudes of new citizens toward government policy in the new democracy. Soon after the 1790 act was passed, however, politics became an important consideration in giving immigrants the right to vote. During the two terms of the nation's first president, George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97), two distinct political parties had begun to emerge. (Political parties are groups of people who broadly agree on sets of political issues and act together in order to bring about their ideas through the election to office of favored politicians.) One party, led by Washington's successor, John Adams (1797–1801; served 1797–1801), was known as the Federalists. The Federalist Party included Washington, Adams, and the nation's first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755–1804). The Federalists supported a strong central (federal) government and were generally sympathetic to the interests of merchants in the cities. An opposing faction, the Anti-Federalists (also called the Democratic-Republicans), were led by the country's third president, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9). The Anti-Federalists opposed giving the federal government more power than was absolutely needed.
In January 1795, the act of 1790 was repealed and replaced by another law. The new law required immigrants to wait five years (instead of two) to become a citizen and to make a declaration of intention to become a citizen three years before becoming naturalized. An immigrant who failed to make the declaration might have to wait more than five years after arrival in the United States to become a voter. The 1795 law also required naturalized citizens to renounce any noble titles they might hold (such as "duke" or "countess") and to promise not to be loyal to any foreign king or queen. These measures were intended to ensure that new citizens would not secretly want to restore a king and an aristocracy, or individuals who inherit great wealth and special political privileges.
In 1798, the law on naturalization was changed again. The Federalists feared that many new immigrants favored their political foes, the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists, therefore, wanted to reduce the political influence of immigrants. To do so, the Federalists, who controlled Congress, passed a law that required immigrants to wait fourteen years before becoming naturalized citizens and thereby gaining the right to vote. The 1798 act also barred naturalization for citizens of countries at war with the United States. At the time, the United States was engaged in an unofficial, undeclared naval war with France. The French government thought the United States had taken the side of Britain in the ongoing conflict between Britain and France. A related law passed in 1798, the Alien Enemy Act, gave the president the power during a time of war to arrest or deport any alien thought to be a danger to the government.
After Jefferson became president (in 1801), the 1798 naturalization law was repealed, or overturned (in 1802). The basic provisions of the original 1790 law were restored except for the period of residency before naturalization. The residency requirement, that is, the amount of time the immigrant had to reside, or live, in the United States, was put back to five years, as it had been in 1795.
The 1802 law remained the basic naturalization act until 1906, with two notable exceptions. In 1855, the wives of American citizens were automatically granted citizenship. In 1870, people of African descent could become naturalized citizens, in line with constitutional amendments passed after the American Civil War (1861–65) that banned slavery and gave African American men the right to vote. Other laws were passed to limit the number of people (if any) allowed to enter the United States from different countries, especially Asian countries, but these laws did not affect limits on naturalization.
Within a decade of adopting the Constitution, immigration, and naturalization in particular, had become hot political issues. They have remained political issues for more than two centuries.
Did you know …
- Naturalization laws relate to the process of immigrants becoming a citizen. Other laws have provided for losing citizenship—by getting married! In 1907, Congress passed a law that said a woman born in the United States (and therefore a citizen) would lose her citizenship if she married an alien (who was therefore not a citizen). In 1922, two years after women won the right to vote, this provision was repealed and a woman's citizenship status was separated from her husband's.
For More Information
Franklin, Frank G. The Legislative History of Naturalization in the United States. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Jasper, Margaret C. The Law of Immigration. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 2000.
LeMay, Michael, and Elliot Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
DeConcini, Christina, Jeanine S. Piller, and Margaret Fisher. "The Changing Face of Immigration Law." Social Education (November-December 1998): p. 462.
History, Genealogy and Education, U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. http://uscis.gov/graphics/aboutus/history/ (accessed on January 22, 2004).