Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Part 2: Naturalization Before the American Revolution

During the colonial period, there were no citizens of the United States because there was no such country! For the most part, the colonists living within the British Colonies were subjects of the British Empire with the exceptions of those brought in by the Slave ships or members of other Nations colonies that became acquired by British expansion or War.

In order to have all the rights and privileges of a British subject, one had to become a subject of the British monarch. Therefore, because most of the colonial immigrants were from England and were already British subjects they retained all their rights and privileges in the colonies. There were some immigrants that had previously immigrated to the British Isles from other European countries and were naturalized there before coming to the American colonies, others came directly to the colonies and petitioned to become British subjects.

According to English law, an alien (a stranger, subject to another monarchy with no allegiance to the territorial holding monarchy) could neither hold nor inherit real property, nor pass it to his heirs. If he acquired property it passed to the Crown upon his death. The alien would have to go and submit a letter of intent to the local magistrate, where in they would be given a license allowing them to stay, mandate that they follow all laws which relate to strangers and aliens, and pay double the local tax. After living in the colony for at least 7 years, the alien could apply for a change of status, where the colonial governor could grant by letter of patent the status of “denizen”, a status akin to permanent residency today, for a paid a fee and would take an oath of allegiance to the British Parliament, akin to taking the oath to the US Constitution today. The denizen was not a “natural-born subject”; therefore he did not have any political rights: he could not be a member of parliament or hold any civil or military office.

Colonial naturalization law was made by the Parliament in England. Colonies were not allowed to decide naturalization procedures for themselves. An immigrant coming directly to the colonies would have become naturalized by an act of the colonial governor acting in place of the monarch, or by act of the colonial legislature and would be naturalized as a denizen. Colonial naturalization's prior to 1740 were strictly local in nature and the rights obtained did not extend to other colonies nor to the British Isles. Turning to the attitude of individual colonies, we find Massachusetts upholding, as we should expect, the notion of a close corporation, membership in which was given with great care. Outsiders desiring admission had to seek the permission of the authorities. In 1662, by a resolve of the general court, a few French Protestants were permitted to enter the colony, but it was not until 1700 that a general immigration law was put in force. Every ship coming into the ports of Massachusetts had to furnish to the authorities a list of the passengers, and this was followed a few years later by an act which forbade the importation of poor, infirm, or vicious people. The French Protestants that went there behaved themselves so well that in 1739 an act of naturalization was passed in their favor.

After 1740, the procedure changed. The 1740 Act of Parliament [13 George II, c.7] was entitled "An Act for Naturalizing such foreign Protestants, and others therein mentioned, as are settled or shall settle in any of His Majesty's Colonies in America." It allowed a denizen who had lived seven years in a colony to become “naturalized” by fulfilling certain requirements (such as taking the oath of allegiance and producing a certificate that he had taken the Sacrament in front of witnesses) in the colony of residence. His naturalization applied in England as well as in all of the colonies. The payment for the naturalization under this act was two shillings. Large numbers of denizens, immigrants, (excluding Catholics) became naturalized under this act, their children born after this date became "natural-born subjects".

The spirit of exclusiveness, however, was by no means overthrown, for we find an English traveler writing as late as 1760 that few people of foreign birth were to be found dwelling in Massachusetts. Connecticut was in the habit of demanding an oath of all strangers who came to dwell within her territory. New York had little or no immigration until the coming of the Germans. In fact, Governor Dongan called attention to the small number of immigrants who entered the province after its capture from the Dutch. When immigration did come, it spread into the Mohawk valley and from there into Pennsylvania. Most of the southern colonies offered grants of land to attract settlers (colonists from other British colonies whether natural-born subject or denizen), and the possession of land gave not only material wealth, but also social rank and, generally, political privileges. Acts were passed to secure and guarantee these land-titles, and in some cases taxes were exempted. South Carolina went so far as to prohibit the collection of money for all debts that had been contracted before the person came to the colony. This made the territory a refuge for those who had suffered under the severe English laws and was naturally much disliked by the creditor class.

The colonies employed the same methods of naturalization that England used. Letters of denization were issued by the governors; then there were special acts of the legislature relating to particular persons; and finally there were general naturalization laws. Colonial legislation, however, was much more limited than that of England, for no colony could give any rights outside of its own borders. The naturalization acts gave many valuable rights, such as the privilege to acquire lands and to vote at elections, but that they were not intended to give the newcomers the right to act as factors and merchants or to own vessels, for that would be contrary to the navigation laws. Aliens pleading colonial acts of naturalization as a protection for their trading had their vessels seized and condemned by the courts of admiralty, whose decisions were sustained on appeal to the king in council. Several governors, who were of royal appointment, had given letters of denization, under which aliens had traded contrary to the navigation acts. On this account William ordered that no more letters of denization be granted. The limited character of colonial naturalization is shown in repeated decisions. For example, Chief-Justice North ruled that a Virginian naturalization had merely local effect and did not confer the privileges of citizenship in any other colony. The solicitor-general in 1718 held that a New Jersey act merely gave the rights of a natural-born subject in that province alone, and consequently there would be no harm in approving it.

Naturalization legislation continued to be enacted, and as late as 1773 it was provided that foreign Protestants who had served for two years in any of the royal American regiments could become naturalized under restrictions regarding office-holding in England. It was evident that England had resolved to keep the matter of citizenship under her immediate control; for, in the same year, instructions were issued to all governors in America not to give their consent to any naturalization bill passed by the legislative bodies of the colonies under their charge. The following year, 1774, an act was passed to prevent people from becoming naturalized merely for the sake of claiming the immunities of British subjects in foreign trade.

New England and especially Massachusetts Bay turned a cold shoulder to new-comers, and received with but few exceptions only those that strengthened the narrow theocratic state, on the whole strangers were welcomed; for the greatest need of America was men to develop the resources of the country. The seventeenth century drew its immigrants from England, Ireland, and Scotland, while most of the foreigners that came here were French Protestants. The eighteenth century marked a great change in colonization, for modern methods were brought into use, and the movement became more general. The foreign immigrants went chiefly to the central and southern colonies, this being especially true of the Germans and the Scotch-Irish. New England, on the other hand, kept strict watch over all immigrants. Consequently that part of the country remained more purely English than any other. The immigrants found their way to the frontiers, where they cleared the land and formed a bulwark against the Indians. New York and Virginia seemed, with that definite object in mind, to push the strangers to the west.

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