First Citizenship Laws Reserved for Free Whites


United States

Discrimination & Inequity Race & Ethnicity

The Naturalization Act of 1790 established the first set of rules for foreign-born persons to become citizens of the United States. Excluding non-whites and indentured servants, the law created a two-year residency requirement for “free white persons” of “good moral character.” The latter condition remains and continues to be redefined today.

All non-white persons including African Americans, Native Americans and Asian immigrants were precluded from the 1790 Act. Unable to obtain citizenship, non-whites were denied basic protections under the law, such as the right to vote, own property or testify in court. African Americans were not granted the right to seek citizenship until 1868. Native Americans became citizens through individual treaties or intermarriage and, eventually, through the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act (see also: Citizenship Conferred on Native Americans, 1924). Asian immigrants remained ineligible for citizenship until the 1954 McCarran-Walter Act (see also: Cold War Spurs Immigrations Restrictions, Repeals Race-Based Exclusions, 1952).