Loyalty oaths Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Popular during times of war, loyalty oaths and their variants have been imposed upon immigrants as conditions of admission and eventual citizenship, as well as requirements for certain types of public employment.

As formal expressions of allegiance to a given country or government, loyalty oaths have a long history in North America. For example, Puritan immigrants;loyalty oathsPuritan settlers required loyalty oaths from community members. After the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), loyalty oaths were a condition for the reintegration into American political life of former Confederate states during Reconstruction. Modern American political officeholders, such as the president of the United States, take loyalty oaths when they are sworn into office. During the Cold War;and loyalty oaths[loyalty oaths]Cold War, many U.S. states tried to suppress Communism;and loyalty oaths[loyalty oaths]communist sympathies by requiring loyalty oaths of public employees, most notably teachers. However, many of these efforts were later deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In general, the prevalence of loyalty oaths in the United States has risen during times of war and upheaval, including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both world wars, and the Cold War.Loyalty oathsCitizenship;and loyalty oaths[loyaltyoaths]Loyalty oathsCitizenship;and loyalty oaths[loyalty oaths][cat]SUBVERSIVE AND RADICAL POLITICAL MOVEMENTS;Loyalty oaths[03310][cat]POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT;Loyalty oaths[03310]

Immigrants to the United States have also frequently been targets of loyalty oaths and tests. This is due in part to popular fears of divided country loyalties, combined with the perception, particularly during the early twentieth century, that immigrants were responsible for bringing dangerous political ideologies, such as anarchism and socialism, into the United States. The very first [a]Naturalization Act of 1790federal Naturalization Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1790, included an oath of allegiance as a requirement for citizenship. It was followed eight years later by the [a]Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798Alien and Sedition Acts, which empowered the president of the United States to deport immigrants with unpalatable political views.

It was only after the assassination of President McKinley, William[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];assassination ofWilliam McKinley by an avowed Anarchistsanarchist in 1901 that Congress added mandatory political screening of arriving immigrants, barring the admission of all those suspected of advocating anarchism or the overthrow of the government of the United States. This requirement was followed nearly two decades later by the World War I-era Espionage and Sedition Acts and the infamous Palmer, A. MitchellPalmer raids, which included the deportation of thousands of immigrants due to their radical political activities and beliefs.

Loyalty oaths also played an important role during the internment of Japanese American internment;and loyalty oaths[loyalty oaths]Japanese Americans during World War II. Military boards required the completion of loyalty examinations by all internees over the age of seventeen. To qualify for release from internment, male internees had to agree to serve in the U.S. armed forces–women in the Women’s Army Corps. All had to renounce all forms of allegiance to the Japanese government and swear to abide by the laws of the United States, even if they had not yet been granted American citizenship.

Since the passage of the [a]Naturalization Act of 1790;and loyalty oaths[loyalty oaths]Naturalization Act of 1790, loyalty oaths affirming support for the United States and the U.S. Constitution have been a consistent requirement for the granting of citizenship to resident aliens. In 2009, this requirement was still in place, demanding that prospective citizens take a public oath “to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” to renounce any foreign allegiances, and to offer military or other service if required.Loyalty oathsCitizenship;and loyalty oaths[loyalty oaths]

Further Reading
  • Hyman, Harold. To Try Men’s Souls: Loyalty Tests in American History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958.
  • Levinson, Sanford. “Constituting Communities Through Words That Bind: Reflections on Loyalty Oaths.” Michigan Law Review 84, no. 7 (1986): 1440-1470.
  • Preston, William S. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933. 2d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798



Dual citizenship

Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-1918

Immigration Act of 1903

Japanese American internment


Naturalization Act of 1790

Red Scare


World War I

World War II

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