Rule of Naturalization 1790
Congressional Debate

Citizenship is a status bestowed on all those who are full members of a community.  All those who possess the status are equal with respect to the rights and duties with which the status is endowed.

– T.H. Marshall, British sociologist, Citizenship and Social Class, 1950

Citizenship is a legal right that acknowledges belonging to a community. Citizens in a country are given rights and are allowed to participate in the governing body. Each nation state outlines its own rules and parameters for belonging. But citizenship also defines the people and the boundaries of a national community and in doing so, undeniably defines who is not a part of the community.

14 years after US independence, three years after the US Constitution was signed, the US Congress debated US citizenship: who could get citizenship, how, and what US citizenship would mean. Other than Native Americans, most inhabitants of the US were migrants, descendants of immigrants, enslaved Africans who were forced to migrate or their descendants. The debate was not about immigration. It was clear that the US needed more inhabitants and workers. Rather, the debate was about who could become a citizen and what the requirements were for becoming a citizen. For the members of congress, this debate was about who they would allow to have the same rights they had and what the premises were for becoming a full member of their country.

The discussion in the House of Representatives centered around the following bill and the following motion from Mr. Tucker.

BILL: “The first clause enacted, that all free white persons, who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof, before a magistrate, by oath, that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to all the rights of citizenship, except being capable of holding an office under the State or General Government, which capacity they are to acquire after a residence of two years more” (House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 2nd Session, 1147)

  • MOTION: “Mr. Tucker moved to strike out the words ‘and shall have resided within the United States for one whole year;’ because he conceived it the policy of America to enable foreigners to hold lands, in their own right, in less than one year; he had no objection to extending the term, entitling them to hold an office under Government, to three years. In short, the object of his motion was, to let aliens come in and hold lands without any residency at all” (HoR, 1st Congress, 2nd Session, 1147)

Below are excerpts from the debate:

  • Mr. Hartley said, he had no doubt of the policy of admitting aliens to the rights of citizenship; but he thought some security for their fidelity and allegiance was requisite besides the bare oath; that is, he thought the residence of such a length of time as would give a man* an opportunity of esteeming the Government from knowing its intrinsic value, was essentially necessary to assure us of a man’s becoming a good citizen… The terms of citizenship are made too cheap in some parts of the Union; to say, that a man shall be admitted to all the privileges of a citizen, without any residence at all, is what can hardly be expected” (1148)
  • Mr. Page: “I think, said he, we shall be inconsistent with ourselves, if, after boasting of having opened an asylum for the oppressed of all nations, and established a Government which is the admiration of the world, we make the terms of admission to the full enjoyment of that asylum so hard as is now proposed. It is nothing to us, whether Jews or Roman Catholics settle amongst us; whether subjects of Kings, or citizens of free States wish to reside in the United States, they will find it in their interest to be good citizens, and neither their religious nor political opinions can injure us, if we have good laws, well executed” (1148-1149)
  • Mr. Laurance: “The reason of admitting foreigners to the rights of citizenship among us is the encouragement of emigration, as we have a large tract of country to people. Now, he submitted to the sense of the committee, whether a term, so long as that prescribed in the bill, would not tend restrain rather than encourage emigration? It has been said, that we ought not to admit them to vote at our elections, Will they not have to pay taxes from the moment they settle amongst us? And is it not a principle that taxation and representation ought to go hand in hand? Shall we then restrain a man from having an agency in the disposal of his money?” (1149)
  • Mr. Madison: “I should be exceedingly sorry, sir, that our rule of naturalization excluded a single person of good fame that really meant to incorporate himself into our society; on the other hand, I do not wish that any man should acquire the privilege, but such as would be a real addition to the wealth or strength of the United States” (1150).  
  • Mr. Page said “‘hard terms of admission may exclude good men, but will not exclude one of the wretches alluded to’” (1153)
  • Mr. Jackson conceived the present subject to be of high importance to the respectability and character of the American name… He hoped to see the title of a citizen of America as highly venerated and respected as was that of a citizen of old Rome… ‘I think, before a man is admitted to enjoy the high and estimable privileges of a citizen of America, that something more than a mere residence amongst us is necessary. I think he ought to pass some time in a state of probation, and at the end of the term, be able to bring testimonials of a proper and decent behavior’” (1152-1153)
  • Mr. Sylvester thought it neither for the honor nor interest of the United States to admit aliens to the rights of citizenship indiscriminately; he was clearly in favor of a term of probation, and that their good behavior should be vouched for” (1164)
  • Mr. Sedgwick was against the indiscriminate admission of foreigners to the highest rights of human nature, upon terms so incompetent to secure the society from being overrun with the outcasts of Europe” (1155)
  • Mr. Clymer was of opinion, that foreigners ought to be gradually admitted to the rights of citizenship; and that a residence for a certain time should entitle them to hold property; but that the higher privileges of citizens, such as electing, or being elected into office, should require a longer term; permitting these rights to be assumed, and exercised at a shorter period, would not operate as any inducement to persons to emigrate; as the great object of emigration is generally with the view of procuring a more comfortable subsistence, or to better the circumstances of the individuals: the exercise of particular privileges was but a secondary consideration” (1159-1160)
  • “(Mr. Burke) had often remarked, that foreigners made as good citizens as Republics as the natives themselves. Frenchmen brought up under an absolute monarchy, evinced their love of liberty in the late arduous struggle; many of them are now worthy citizens, who esteem and venerate the principles of our Revolution. Emigrants from England, Ireland and Scotland, have not been behind any in the love of this country; so there is but little occasion for the jealousy which appears to be entertained for the preservation of the government” (1162)
  • Mr. Hartley observed, that the subject was entirely new, and that the committee had no positive mode to enable them to decide; the practice of England and the regulations of the several States, threw some light on the subject, but not sufficient to enable them to discover what plan of naturalization would be acceptable under a Government like this” (1164)
  • “(Mr. Sedgwick) did not recollect an instance wherein gentlemen’s ideas had been so various as on this occasion; motions and observations were piled on the back of each other, and the committee, from the want of understanding the subject, had involved themselves in a wilderness of matter, out of which he saw no way to extricate themselves but by the rising of the committee” (1164)

“The bill was recommitted to a committee of 10” and the Act was passed on March 26th, 1790.

*In this context, “man” is a universal term for person. At the same time, men at this time had significant more rights than women, including a right that is now recognized as fundamental to citizenship, the right to vote.

Reflection Questions

  1. After reading the debate, reflect on the discussion with our see-feel-think-wonder routine.
  2. Put the bill into your own words. What is the purpose of the bill? Who does it include? Who does it not include?
  3. What are the views that congressmen have of immigrants? What differences do you notice?
  4. What do the congressmen see as the benefits of more easily allowing immigrants to arrive?
  5. What are some of the worries from those arguing that it was too easy for immigrants to enter the country?
  6. Mr. Jackson proclaimed: “the present subject to be of high importance to the respectability and character of the American name.” Why do you think the meaning of US citizenship was so important (think about the historical context)? How does this vision of the US relate to how US citizenship is talked about today?
  7. What do Mr. Hartley’s and Mr. Sedgwick’s comments tell you about the context of the debate?
  8. As you read the debate, how is it similar to discussions of immigration and citizenship today, what differences stand out?