Naturalization Act of 1790 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This act was the first federal law to establish procedures for naturalization under the U.S. Constitution. Although it required only two years’ residence prior to naturalization, less time than any succeeding law, it restricted the right of naturalization to white male immigrants.

In accordance with Article I, section 8, clause 4 of the Constitution, which grants Congress the power “to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” Congress passed a naturalization act, which was signed into law on March 26, 1790. The act granted foreign-born free white men the ability to naturalize after two years’ residence in the United States.[a]Naturalization Act of 1790Citizenship;and naturalization[naturalization][a]Constitution, U.S.;and naturalization[naturalization][a]Naturalization Act of 1790Citizenship;and naturalization[naturalization][cat]LAWS;Naturalization Act of 1790[03790][cat]IMMIGRATION REFORM;Naturalization Act of 1790[03790][cat]CITIZENSHIP AND NATURALIZATION;Naturalization Act of 1790[03790][a]Constitution, U.S.;and naturalization[naturalization]

When weighing the provisions and residency requirements, congressional legislators debated the relative merits of a liberal conception of citizenship, and its transferability, while also debating whether the danger of immigrants refusing to shed their antirepublican, old-world traditions outweighed their value as a source of wealth and increased population. Idealists who viewed the United States as a republican asylum allied themselves with moderates whose mercantilist outlook caused them to see new migrants, rich or poor, as an asset to the nation. Future Democratic-Republicans Page, JohnJohn Page and Madison, JamesJames Madison of Virginia and future Federalist Lawrence, JohnJohn Lawrence were particularly active in the debates that shaped the law into its final form.

Congressmen also debated to what degree the law should supersede or defer to existing state naturalization laws. Concerns about conflicts with state laws ultimately led to another change from the original bill, which had stipulated that the rights of citizenship would be granted in steps, withholding the right to hold office until the second year of residence. Rather than entangle the law with conflicting state requirements, the final bill that was passed granted all rights of citizenship at the end of the second year. This conflict would come to the fore in U.S. courts, with federal authority over citizenship being fully confirmed in the 1817 decision [c]Chirac v. ChiracChirac v. Chirac. Also left unanswered was the status of foreign-born colonists who had allied themselves with the patriot cause in the Revolutionary War;naturalization of veteransAmerican Revolution, which led to controversy over the seating of Swiss-born U.S. senator Swiss immigrants;Albert Gallatin[Gallatin]Gallatin, AlbertAlbert Gallatin in 1793.

The act built upon earlier existing legislation and legal tradition, modeling the law on existing state naturalization laws. A precedent for citizenship at the national level already existed in article IV of the [a]Articles of ConfederationArticles of Confederation. The law differed from Articles of Confederation provisions chiefly in explicitly restricting naturalization to whites only. The 1790 act also followed trends in the legal concept of naturalization, and the existing common-law tradition of feme covert, attaching the legal identity to the implicitly male head of household, to the exclusion of his wife, dependent children, slaves, and indentured servants. Although citizenship status descended to the acknowledged free white sons, the law excepted the children of fathers who had never resided in the United States.

The act also reflected the trend of the increasing concentration of citizenship at the federal or national level of government. Through the passage of the act, it was possible to be a citizen of the United States and, owing to religious or residency restrictions, not a citizen of one’s state of residence; conversely, a person could be a citizen of a state but not of the United States. The [a]Naturalization Act of 1795Naturalization Act of 1795 would attempt to further federalize citizenship and was aided by court cases confirming the federalization trend in evolving legal precedent.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 had a shorter residency requirement for heads of household than any succeeding federal legislation: The 1795 act lengthened the residency requirement to five years, to which it returned in 1802 after the longer, fourteen-year requirement under the[a]Alien Friends Act of 1798Alien Friends Act of 1798.[a]Naturalization Act of 1790Citizenship;and naturalization[naturalization]

Further Reading
  • 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 for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1978.
  • LeMay, Michael C., and Elliott Robert Barkin, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
  • Somerville, Siobhan B. “Notes Toward a Queer History of Naturalization.” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (September, 2005) 659-679, 1002.

Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Congress, U.S.

Constitution, U.S.

Immigration law

Naturalization

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