David Barton’s Latest: The Reference to “Free White Persons” in the Naturalization Act of 1790 Was Meant to Curb Slavery

Immigration Act

Yes–I have primary sources too!

Earlier today on his Wallbuilders Live radio show, Christian Right activist David Barton made the following case about the Naturalization Act of 1790 and its assertion that citizenship in the new United States be afforded to only “free white persons”:

The Naturalization Act 1790, is the first immigration act passed by Congress. And, it set forth what it takes to be an immigrant to America. If you come here you have to be able to provide your own income for five years.

If you become a public ward of the government within five years, you go back home. You have to have good moral character and a religious recommendation from some organization. So, it was all about character and the type of people you wanted as inhabitants.

So, why is it white? Because this is part of the anti-slavery thing, that we’re not looking for more slaves to come in. It was shortly after this that George Washington passed the law that forbid the exportation of any slaves out of America.

And, Congress had already been notified by the Constitution that Hey we’re going to ban the slave trade as well. We don’t want more slaves coming into America. And, you have to realize that at that point in time, we’re still in the middle of the Atlantic slave trade.

And, sentiment against that is growing. So, there’s lots of slave ships coming out of Africa. We know that over that that four centuries, about 12.7 million slaves were taken out to Africa; and, while most of them did not come to the United States–the United States only got about 2.5 percent of all the slaves sent out of Africa.

Still, there was growing sentiment against the slave trade in America, saying, “Hey, we need to get out of slavery and end the slave trade.” So, that’s kind of the tone at the time this law is passed. Therefore, while this looks racist today, in the context of the times, this is really more about We’re not after more slaves coming in.

Read the entire statement here.

First, notice what the Naturalization Act of 1790 offers citizenship to only free white persons.  Barton argues that by restricting immigration to free white people, Congress was trying to curb the number of slaves coming into the country.

Second, let me say that this interpretation is an example of what happens when you allow politics to shape your understanding of the past.  Barton’s argument here is absurd, but he has to make such an argument to protect his beloved founding fathers.  He knows that this is what his audience needs to hear so he twists and mangles the past to fit his contemporary agenda. He also knows that this is the kind of stuff that keeps him in business.

Third, Barton is making this all up.  He has no evidence for this revisionism.  How do I know?  Because the authors of the Naturalization Act left no specific commentary to explain why they limited citizenship to “free white persons.” In fact, it was not until 1952, with the passing of the Immigration Act and Nationality Act, that Congress prohibited racial discrimination in naturalization.

Fourth, it is likely that Northerners and anti-slavery advocates supported the Naturalization Act of 1790 precisely because it limited citizenship to white people. Duke political scientist and ethicist Noah Pickus has argued that white American men in Congress responsible for the Act–even those who opposed slavery—were trying to imagine what life in the United States would look like after emancipation.  Very few of them wanted African-Americans integrated into white society through citizenship.

As Pickus writes in his book True Faith and Allegiance: Immigration and American Civil Nationalism, “many leaders agonized over the tension between blacks’ natural right to freedom and prudential concerns about an integrated nation.  The free white clause terminology was consistent in the minds of those who opposed slavery with ensuring a cohesive community.  The shared concern to establish a nationalist foundation for citizenship made it easier for all to agree on excluding blacks from citizenship.”  In other words, the framers of the Naturalization Act of 1790 wanted a white republic.

Pickus is also aware that the evidence is scant. So he makes an argument partially based on context.  He writes, “Arguments from silence are, of course, slippery things that depend heavily on the context into which the silence is set.” But Pickus also looks to future debates over emancipation (rather than 1790s debates over naturalization) to advance his argument.  His evidence is found there.

Fifth, there is nothing in the Naturalization Act of 1790 about immigrants being sent back to their home country if they became wards of the state.  Maybe I missed it.  Perhaps someone can double-check for me.  I am afraid that this is Barton trying to twist the act to make a subtle jab about today’s undocumented immigrants.