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The Naturalization Act of 1790 Essay

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Updated: Feb 12th, 2022

The United States is often referred to as a country of immigrants because it was created and made one of the leaders in the international arena by people who came from different parts of the world. Pilgrims, gold diggers, governors, slaves, immigrants, and a myriad of other groups came to the New World trying to start a new and better life (Spring, 2016). By the end of the eighteenth century, North America was inhabited by representatives of different nationalities, races, and cultural cohorts.

This was also the time when the country earned its independence from European Empires and started enacting various laws to ensure its survival (Noorani, 2019). The Naturalization Act of 1790 was one of the legislative instruments to create a nation and secure the independence of the United States of America. However, it also had a more far-reaching and long-lasting impact, especially when it came to the relationships among different ethnic groups.

Historical Background

It is noteworthy that the concept of naturalization was rather uncommon for the world in the eighteenth century. Only a few countries provided an opportunity for aliens to become citizens with a set of rights (Orgad, 2015). The given rights were rather limited, but still, specific legal status and procedure existed in some parts of the globe. It is necessary to add that policymakers in the New World employed various ways to shape the composition of their populations by “proactively recruiting immigrants deemed desirable and barring those who were not” (Cook-Martín & FitzGerald, 2019, p. 50). Ruling elites formed the political agenda and had an impact on the cultural and ethnic composition of their nations.

The new country that appeared in North America by earning its independence in the second half of the eighteenth century also adopted this approach when it came to immigrants. The United States of America consisted of the territories that pertained to the major European empires of the time (Noorani, 2019). The core of the population (especially politically active ones) were descendants of the immigrants who came from Great Britain. However, thousands of representatives of other states came to the USA annually, which led to certain fears.

The interaction between people pertaining to diverse ethnic and racial groups was not always effective or void of conflicts. The vast majority of those in power were Anglo-Saxons that shaped the way naturalization laws developed. Many Americans had concerns that “foreigners would overwhelm the American cultural fabric” (Orgad, 2015, p. 54). For instance, Benjamin Franklin paid specific attention to the racial aspect and expressed doubts regarding the Anglo-Saxon future of the nation. He stated that the number of “purely white people” on the planet was comparatively small because “Africa is black” while “Asia [is] chiefly tawny” (as cited in Orgad, 2015, p. 54). In addition, Franklin had a negative attitude towards the increase in the German population in several parts of the country.

Some politicians paid less attention to race or ethnicity and were more concerned about the values of newcomers. For example, Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of open immigration policy as he acknowledged the positive influence of immigration on the economy of the United States (Orgad, 2015). At the same time, he was against the encouragement of large-scale immigration of people who had certain ideas. For instance, he believed that monarchists and Catholics, if they grew in numbers, could transform the American society making it more royalist and Catholic. He claimed that immigrants would bring their ideas and transfer them to their children changing the cultural landscape of the nation.

The provision of the rights of a citizen was regarded as an effective instrument of strengthening the nation and making it able to resist possible attacks of other countries. Americans, especially political elites, were still afraid of the potential attempts of Great Britain to defeat the USA depriving it of earned independence (Spring, 2016). Importantly, the Naturalization Act of 1790 included a response to these fears as it was mentioned that a new city would take an oath to “support the constitution of the United States” (as cited in Orgad, 2015, p. 115). In other words, immigrants were supposed to support the major values of the republic and contribute to its development.

The Naturalization Act of 1790: Value and Major Stakeholders

The Naturalization Act of 1790 became the first naturalization law in the United States. Prior to that year, citizenship records were not numerous due to the lack of uniformity in procedures as well as the overall lack of documentation (Martinez-Suazo, 2015). The Act was passed on March 26, 1790, and some changes were added during the following twelve years (Martinez-Suazo, 2015). According to this law, white people aged 21 or older who resided in the USA for two years or longer could apply for citizenship in a common-law court (Martinez-Suazo, 2015). It was noted that “free white” people of “good character” could obtain citizenship (as cited in Orgad, 2015, p. 115).

As seen from the wording of the act, the focus was on ethnic and social status. Slaves could not be naturalized according to that law, which was consistent with the logic that existed as slaves could have no rights.

Another important feature a potential citizen had to possess was related to ethnicity and race. As mentioned above, political elites believed that only people of Anglo-Saxon descent could ensure the stability and development of the republic (Spring, 2016). Whiteness was one of the basic premises for the security of republican ideals, as well as the values that were the building block of the new nation. One of the controversial issues associated with the act was the status of Native Americans. In the eighteenth century, Indians were seen as non-whites, and they tended to have a status similar to one of the slaves (Velásquez, 2017).

At that, the notion of whiteness proved to be rather changeable as it referred to different groups during different periods. However, it referred to Hispanic people and was related to American policymakers’ desires to extend the boundaries of the USA at the expense of other countries such as Mexico (Ramírez, 2018). At the end of the eighteenth century, whites were Europeans and their descendants.

Importantly, the law also reflected the major values and reigning opinions associated with gender. The Act defined individuals eligible to be naturalized as “free ‘white people’ and women’s citizenship was determined by their fathers or husbands” (as cited in Ramírez, 2018, p. 317). In simple terms, women had no right to apply for citizenship as their naturalization was determined by their husbands or fathers (for single females). This perspective regarding women had a considerable effect on the further development of society in the area of human rights. Therefore, the act became a response to policymakers’ concerns and their attempt to secure their privileged position.

The American society started its formation based on the values that existed at the time. The nation was formed as people were proud of becoming citizens of the country that declared democratic values and offered opportunities for many. At that, the migration policy had a significant impact on the ethnic composition of the American society and the empowerment of people of Anglo-Saxon descent.

Political Discourse

The significance of the Act can hardly be overestimated as it defined the terms under which people could obtain citizenship, which was critical for the United States at the end of the eighteenth century. At the same time, the Naturalization Act of 1790 became the foundation of further migration policies with all its weaknesses. The Act was highly discriminative, and these values and norms migrated to later acts and policies (Ramírez, 2018).

For instance, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Mexicans were regarded as Whites for rather a short period of time, which was justified by the expansion intentions of the U.S. government (Ramírez, 2018). African Americans gained their right to earn citizenship during the American Civil War because the U.S. government (led by Northerners) needed slaves to defeat the South (Martinez-Suazo, 2015). In 1924, immigration quotas were included in the Naturalization Act and Native Americans received citizenship. It is noteworthy that Asian people were excluded from the act for approximately a century (Cook-Martín & FitzGerald, 2019). Other groups were also discriminated against in diverse ways and could hardly obtain citizenship in their lifetime.

The first century of the existence of the Act was marked by main changes associated with the procedure with occasional inclusions of certain populations that were made eligible for naturalization. As mentioned above, the changes were grounded on the needs of society. For instance, the beginning of the twentieth century was characterized by the increasing need for literate workers due to technological advances.

Therefore, literacy tests became a part of the naturalization procedures (Martinez-Suazo, 2015). Those were also methods to discriminate against several groups, for instance, Asian immigrants or those coming from Eastern Europe were faced numerous challenges as compared to Anglo Saxons or those coming from Western Europe (Martinez-Suazo, 2015). These peculiarities of the process were, at least, partially determined by the persistence of the values that became the ground for the Naturalization Act of 1790.

One of the primary and most relevant effects contemporary Americans face is the social and ethnic composition of society. The government had an exclusive power to decide whether this or that ethnic group could become a meaningful part of the community (Velásquez, 2017). Velásquez (2017) stressed that even the implementation of the Act was controversial in many states. For instance, African Americans became true citizens in the middle of the twentieth century when they earned their right to vote. The ability to affect the political agenda led to certain empowerment of this population in the American society. African Americans tend to be economically disadvantaged as they received more opportunities only several decades ago.

The privileged status of Anglo-Saxons can be traced in contemporary U.S. society. This ethnic group has access to better education and employment. In many situations, white people remain the population that enjoys all rights of a democratic society. Those in power tend to share the views of the Founding Fathers regarding ethnicity and race and impose more restrictions on ethnic minorities (Velásquez, 2017).

Apart from elites, thousands of Americans share views that are far from being truly democratic. Many people still see minorities and sub-citizens who do not need privileges. Since the time of the Civil Rights Movement, diverse groups also learned to stand up to their rights and demand equality in all respects. Immigration is still a topical issue and Americans have different perspectives on the matter. These opposing views are also visible in the current legislation and policies since quotas and numerous restrictions are in place.


On balance, it is possible to state that the Naturalization Act of 1790 achieved its major objective and become one of the building blocks of the nation. Citizenship was granted to people who, in their turn, promised to safeguard the country’s constitution and did become faithful citizens working hard to ensure the development of the United States. At the same time, the Act perpetuated some values that can be found in contemporary American society.

Discriminatory aspects of the Act persisted in the legal and social domains for decades, which has led to considerable fragmentation of the social landscape of the USA. White people often enjoy various rights while ethnic minorities have to face diverse challenges. Moreover, immigrants are still seen as quite a valuable source that has to be managed effectively by inviting desirable ethnic groups and introducing more obstacles for those who are not wanted.


Cook-Martín, D., & FitzGerald, D. S. (2019). . Law & Society Review, 53(1), 41-76. Web.

Martinez-Suazo, S. (2015). . Web.

Noorani, A. (2019). There goes the neighborhood: How communities overcome prejudice and meet the challenge of American immigration. Prometheus Books.

Orgad, L. (2015). The cultural defense of nations: A liberal theory of majority rights. Oxford University Press.

Ramírez, M. (2018). . New Political Science, 40(2), 317-335. Web.

Spring, J. (2016). Deculturalization and the struggle for equality: A brief history of the education of dominated cultures in the United States. Taylor and Francis.

Velásquez, E. (2017). Peace Review, 29(1), 104-111. Web.

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