Breaking the Naturalization Color Bar in 1870, But Only for Some Immigrants

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Artist Alfred Waud drew this illustration of African Americans voting during Reconstruction. Waud was an English immigrant.

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America ended the Civil War with a naturalization law that only allowed white immigrants to become citizens. The 14th Amendment guaranteed that any child born in the U.S. of any race, except for Native Americans, would be a United States citizen, but his or her parents could not if they were people of color.1

Changes in the naturalization process would come in part from a desire to remove discrimination based on color, and in part from Republican fears of immigrant votes being harvested by Democrats. Naturalization before 1870 may have been restricted to whites only, but the process for those mostly German and Irish newcomers was remarkably open, with no requirement that immigrants know English or undergo background checks. The conferring of citizenship was mostly performed by local judges elected by constituencies with large numbers of immigrant voters.2

The loss of New York State in Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant’s successful 1868 run for president was one sign that immigrant votes might soon threaten Republican supremacy in the North. New York was the nation’s largest state and wielded tremendous power in presidential elections. Republicans fumed that New York City’s Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall, had paid the naturalization fees for thousands of immigrants who were presumably Democrats.3

Tammany Hall in New York City was suspected of engaging in naturalization fraud to increase its voting margins.

The Naturalization Act of 1870 was introduced in the House of Representatives on June 13 and quickly passed. The House bill was essentially a limited anti-fraud act. On May 31, 1868 the New York Times endorsed changing the naturalization laws because, it alleged, “ten thousand persons were naturalized in this City fraudulently” before the 1866 gubernatorial election and that similar “fraud” could sway the 1868 presidential election against Ulysses Grant. While the proposed law was aimed at combatting fraud, there was also an element of ethnic prejudice in the Times’s support. After mentioning Ireland, the Irish were largely anti-Grant Democrats, the Times noted that there were certain immigrants “who habitually abuse our hospitality.” Other Republican newspapers also decried Democratic and Irish fraud in the creation of new citizens.4

Chinatown San Francisco 1889.

The Democrats accused the Republicans of sponsoring an anti-immigrant bill rather than an anti-fraud measure. Many Mid-Western Republicans worried that their party was becoming identified with a revival of Know Nothingism in immigrant communities. New England Republicans drew heavily on the former membership of the secretive Know Nothing lodges. They criticized the Naturalization bill as an effort by the New York Republicans to defeat the city’s Democratic machine at Tammany Hall at the expense of the immigrant voters in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota the Republicans there were courting.5

The Senate bill was modified to remove its most restrictive clauses, but shortly before it was to be finalized the old Abolitionist Charles Sumner of Massachusetts proposed an amendment of his own. Sumner demanded the insertion of a new section specifying “That all acts of Congress relating to naturalization be…amended by striking out the word ‘white’ wherever it occurs, so that in naturalization there shall be no distinction of race or color.” Coupled with the 14th Amendment, this would create a color-blind criteria for citizenship.6

Sumner had campaigned for the elimination of laws based on race since before the Civil War. He had told friends that the work of the Abolitionists was not “finished so long as the word ‘white’ is allowed to play any part in legislation.” This rooting out of the word “white” was more than semantic. State and Federal laws often restricted rights and opportunities only to “free white men.” Some Southern states had set up separate schools and insane asylum restricted by race. State law prescribed different punishments for crimes based on race. A crime that might result in a fine for a white man could lead to a whipping for a black. The 14th Amendment had guaranteed persons living in the United States the equal protection of the law no matter what their race, but the old Naturalization Act remained a bastion of exclusion.7

Western Congressmen, who wanted to encourage European immigration, were outraged that Sumner would suggest allowing the Chinese immigrants living on the Pacific Coast to enjoy the same opportunity to become citizens as was offered to Germans and the Irish. Republican Senator William Stewart represented the State of Nevada. He had fought hard for voting rights for freed slaves, but he opposed the naturalization of immigrants from China. He warned that the Chinese were “pagans in religion” and “monarchists.” They were opposed to innovation and modernity, he declared. If they became citizens and voters, the “political destiny of the Pacific Coast” would be left in Chinese hands.8

Henry Wilson, an old Know Nothing from Massachusetts, wondered how anyone from China, “a country of cheap labor, a country of paganism, a country with a civilization wholly distinct from our own,” could ever be the citizen of the American Republic. He had once opposed Catholic immigrants, how could he welcome “pagans?”9

Republicans who had stood for black suffrage on principles of justice, now urged that Chinese immigrants be denied the right to vote on pragmatic political grounds. The Republicans finally settled on a compromise that allowed the naturalization only of whites and those of “African ancestry.” Since few black people were immigrating to a land that had enslaved those of “African ancestry” just a few years earlier, this was a negligible step towards equality.10

Chinese immigrants would soon be excluded from immigrating all-together and the prohibition on Chinese immigration would endure until repealed during World War II because of the propaganda damage it caused to the Sino-American alliance against Japan.11

Other Asian immigrants were not allowed to naturalize until 1952.12

Sources:

  1.  Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act by Andrew Gyory published by The University of North Carolina Press (1998); The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (1997); Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 by Roger Daniels published by Hill and Wang (2004); Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life by Roger Daniels published by Harper Perennial 2 Edition (2002); Lost Century of American Immigration Law (1776-1875) by Gerald Neuman 93 Colum. L. Rev. 1833 (1993); Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era by Christian Samito published by Cornell University Press (2009)

2.  Before the Civil War Only Whites Could Become Naturalized Citizens LI Wins

3.  The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (2012) pp. 68-70; Congressional Globe, House of Representatives, 41st Congress, 2nd Session pp. 4366-4367

4. “Naturalization Frauds” New York Times May 31, 1868; See Also: “Reform in Naturalization” New York Tribune July 10, 1868

5.  The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (2012) pp. 71-72

6.  The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (2012) pp. 71-72

7.  The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (2012) pp. 71-73

8.  The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (2012) pp. 74-75

9. The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (2012) pp. 71-72

10.  The Trial of Democracy : Black Suffrage and Northern Republicans, 1860-1910 by Xi Wang published by University of Georgia Press (2012) pp. 75-76

11. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act by Andrew Gyory published by The University of North Carolina Press (1998)

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