1798, Immigrant Until Death


The 1740 Naturalization Act was normal operating procedure for creating a new nation. New nations need new laws, and lawmaking is a very complicated process. First, legislators have to become aware that there is a need for such action. If even one legislator takes up a cause to propose a new law, or repeal or amend an existing law, the next step is extensive research before the writing of an introductory bill can even begin. Once the bill is finally composed and introduced to Congress, lawmakers then have to reach a consensus in order for it to become the law of the land. Thus, any change in immigration policy is preceded by a significant event, whether social, political or economic, that would motivate lawmakers to invest such time and effort in order to bring about change. Therefore every immigration law reflects the motivating public sentiment, political benefit or economic incentive that was originally behind it.

On June 18, 1798, the Congress of the United States passed legislation that repealed the 1790 Naturalization Act.  Now, rather than have a simple immigration policy, the United States embarked on the path of detail, detail, detail, by creating a citizenship policy that had many more conditions.  The only requirements of the 1790 act were to (a) be white, (b) be “free”, (c) live in the United States for two years, and (d) live in a particular state for one year. The new legislation created a completely new path to citizenship with more documentation, fees, demands of much longer residency and the creation of a new waiting period. According to United States Congressional Records (www.memory.loc.gov), The United States 1798 Naturalization Act stipulated:

  • All white persons and aliens (except for foreign ministers, consuls, agents, their families & domestics) who continued to live within United States territory after arrival, and were at least 21 years old, were required to report to the clerk of the court that was within ten miles of the port or place in which they arrived in the United States and register as “free” immigrant arrivals (if the immigrant was younger, or a servant, they had to appear with a parent, guardian, master, or mistress)
  • Immigrant registration must be completed within 48 hours of arrival to United States territories
  • The immigrant must pay a fifty cent fee to the court for registering (fifty cents would be equivalent to about $10 today)
  • After registration, the immigrant is admitted into the United States with a 14 year period of residency required before application of citizenship can be made
  • After the 14 year residency is completed, the immigrant must make a declaration of intention to become a U.S. citizen and wait another four years
  • The application of intention to become a U.S. citizen must include proof to the court that the minimum 14 year residency has been fulfilled
  • The immigrant applicant cannot be a citizen or native of any state or country the U.S. is at war with
  • The immigrant applicant must pay a $2 fee (equivalent to about $40 today) to the court for the “abstract of such declaration” document to be filed and recorded with the court
  • After the immigrant applicant successfully fulfills all residency, waiting period and documentary proof requirements, United States citizenship is granted
  • Another $2 fee is paid to the court to file a certificate and record the court decree of the proceedings regarding the alien

What did all of this really mean to an immigrant in 1798? Why such a significant change in the period of time for residency? Why was a new waiting period of five years created? What happened in the eight years that transpired from the simple Naturalization Act of 1790 to this new, complicated process of 1798 that increased the residency period by 700%?

1790 census reports reflect a dramatic increase in immigration. Pre-1790 immigration numbers were 950,000. Post-1790 immigration numbers totaled 3,900,000. This is a bit more than a 400% increase. The following countries and ethnic and religious groups are representative of the new arrivals to the United States of America:  African, British, Scottish, Irish, German, Netherlands, Wales, France, Sweden,  and Jewish (www.wikipedia.org).

Passenger lists from ship manifests bound for the United States in the mid 1770s reflect an average age of 21 years for the typical immigrant arriving to the New World (www.olivetreegenealogy.com). According to the Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 131, 2004 lectures, “We know now that in 1798 life expectancy in Britain was around 40”. The website, Stokesfamily.org, confirms this finding by stating in reports that in the 1750’s the “average person would live to only 36.9 years of age”. If, then, the average immigrant arrived in the United States at the age of 21, by the time the residency and declaration waiting period requirements were fulfilled, this same immigrant would be approximately 39 years old. It would seem highly likely that death would then prevent many immigrants from ever becoming United States citizens.

Did the United States Congress design an immigration law that created a substandard class of people to be exploited for the benefit of the upper classes? Did this same law engender a false hope that inspired many people to immigrate to the United States never understanding the New World’s open arms received them as laborers who had no hope of ever having rights, representation and property? Did these immigrants truly perceive that this new law would probably mean they would die before ever achieving their dream of becoming an American? Does the dear reader see the same thing I see: the first step of a suspicious pattern in the United States where citizens of means and property exploit immigrants of all races and both genders in order to profit from their labor? Did the government of 1798 America intentionally design legislation to create the illusion of possible citizenship to hopeful immigrants when actually the design was to achieve national prosperity on the backs of an imported labor class who could never hope to change their lot in life, most likely dying before they gained the right to vote? If so, why would the United States do such a thing?

Although slavery was alive and well in the southern settlements, African enslavement was on its way out in New England by the 1780’s (www.wikipedia.org). This translated into a great need for cheap labor in the northern states. This economic need could then very well be the mitigating factor for a new Naturalization Act. The enslavement of the African was switched for a more politically correct form of enslavement. Create a labor class of immigrant who, without citizenship, has no rights, no vote, no property and no hope of ever having such until the day he dies. This was a very clever plan, indeed.

In a nutshell, the simple “whites only” Naturalization Act of 1790 is replaced in 1798 with a new “whites only” naturalization formula that prevents the likelihood that the people who comprised the immigrant labor class would ever have a voice and be represented in government through the power of casting ballots as legal citizen voters. It seems the Congress planned it this way. This gringa is very disappointed with her country. I can only hope there is a change in how the immigrant is perceived by the powerful and influential within the United States. As I observe the people of my barrio, their work ethic, their desire to have a better life than the one they left behind in their native country, and I see how they are affected by current immigration law, I’m not so sure that much has changed.

(photo by fincher.house.gov)

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The Birth of America’s Immigration Policies


Trying to find out just what the current laws are regarding United States immigration has led me on a much convoluted path. I decided the only way to truly understand this mess was to go back to the very beginning, 1740. That’s where it all began. As a British colony, the first immigration law, The Naturalization Act of 1740, also known as The Plantation Act of 1740, was officially passed into law by the Acts of Parliament (Commencement) Act 1739 and received Royal Assent June 1, 1740 (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantation_Act_1740). We have to go back to the beginning because, just as a pearl takes its shape after layer upon layer of nacre has coated the original grain of sand, so our nation’s attitudes toward certain classes and ethnicities of people have been affected by layers of immigration law.  We cannot understand today if we are ignorant of yesterday.

The 1740 law enacted a rather simple, practical and economical process for the colonial immigrant to become a naturalized citizen of England. It granted citizenship to any foreign Protestant colonial immigrant to American colonies if the following condition was met: reside in any colony for seven years without an absence of longer than two months. The immigrant would then be considered a natural-born subject of the British Kingdom. The person was required to take a simple oath of allegiance, although exceptions were made for Quakers and Jews. The oath went something like this:  “I, (insert name), do sincerely promise and swear, that I will be Faithful and bear true Allegiance to his Majesty King George II. So help me God.”  To seal the deal there would be a profession of Christian faith and payment of two shillings, which, today would be a little more than six bucks (www.britishislesdna.com). A new British subject was created for seven years, six bucks, and a promise. And just look where we are today. Good grief.

Somewhere along the way the American colonists became unhappy with England’s immigration policy and in 1776 it became a formal matter of grievance against King George III, the successor of King George II, whose reign oversaw the passage of the Naturalization Act of 1740. This grievance was addressed in the Declaration of Independence: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands” (www.HeinOnline.org). And thus the rebellion began.

Fourteen years later on March 26, 1790, the First Congress of the United States enacted the new country’s first naturalization law. The legislation’s criteria determined immigrants had to be “free white persons of good character”. Children born abroad were considered “natural born” United States citizens if the father was a U.S. resident (www.library.uwb.edu). This was the seed from which America’s current tangled mayhem of immigration policy has grown. The classification of free white person would exclude from citizenship any non-European Caucasian. Among the ethnic European Caucasian class, women, indentured servants, and slaves would also not be eligible for citizenship because they were not considered “free”. So, once one of the ol’ gringos decided he wanted to be a citizen he had to establish his good moral character. This was done by residing for two years within the United States and one year in one particular state. Then he could file a Petition for Naturalization with his local courthouse. When the court was convinced his character met the legal standard, he recited an oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and, bing, bang, boom, he was an American citizen (www.sjusd.org). Once again, a simple path to citizenship. And this one didn’t even cost two shillings. It only cost a white guy his time. Now, I don’t know about you, but this gringa finds it puzzling that back in the late 1700’s a group of illegal aliens arrived on North America’s soil, performed hostile acts to forcefully wrest control of the land mass from existing indigenous peoples, then had the audacity to enact laws determining who lived free and equal in America. I mean, the nerve of some people!

The distinct difference between the British Naturalization act of 1740 and the United States Naturalization act of 1790 has to do with gender, social status and ethnicity. The British act allowed for any foreign Protestant to become a citizen with no distinction of gender, ethnicity or social status. Although it specified Protestant faith as a requirement, it also allowed for certain religious exceptions. The United States act, although free of any religious discrimination, instead chose to discriminate against all women, indentured servants, slaves and all races other than European Caucasian. It seems to me that the country the founding fathers of the United States envisioned was one that was owned and managed by the white men of property. All women and non-European Caucasian men were to become the labor class with no rights to property or even the right to vote. As a woman I most certainly do not like that plan. It’s very likely if this gringa had lived in 1790 America I would have run off from the settlement to join the natives. I think they treated their women better.