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On June 18, 1798, the Congress of the United States passed legislation that repealed the 1790 Naturalization Act.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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