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Citizenship in early America, 1789-1830s

The video explores early American citizenship and voting rights. It highlights the 1790 Federal Naturalization Act, which allowed free white people to become citizens. However, citizenship didn't guarantee voting rights, as most states had property requirements. Over time, voting became synonymous with whiteness, excluding many from this right. Created by Kimberly Kutz.

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Video transcript

- In this video and the one that follows, I'm going to give you a brief overview of citizenship rights in early America. Who was considered a citizen? Did having citizenship mean that you had the right to vote? How did citizenship and voting rights change over time? So let's go back to the beginning, when the U.S. Constitution took effect in 1789. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the first Federal Naturalization Act of 1790. Remember that naturalization is the process by which someone becomes a citizen. That act said, that any free white person of good character could be a U.S. citizen. They had to live in the United States for two years, later they changed it to five years, and in the state where they applied for citizenship, for at least one year, and then take an oath to support the Constitution. Who did that include and who did it exclude? Any white man who wasn't an indentured servant, meaning someone who had sold a number of years of their labor for passage to the United States, or convicted of a crime, was eligible to become a citizen and therefore enjoy all of the protections listed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Single or widowed white women could become citizens on their own. Married white women and the children of naturalized citizens also inherited citizenship from their husbands and fathers. This was an era when women and children were considered the property of the male head of household, so their identity as citizens was tied to his. But enjoying all the protections listed in the Constitution and Bill of Rights didn't necessarily mean having the right to vote, because the right to vote was not listed in the Constitution. Having U.S. citizenship didn't automatically mean that you could vote. States control elections, not the Federal Government, and most states at this time had property requirements for voting. That means that to vote, a white man had to have a certain amount of money or land. This was based on the idea that only people who owned a stake in the community should be able to vote, so this limited the vote to wealthier white men. White women couldn't vote, even though they could be citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 excluded a lot of people who lived in the United States from being eligible for citizenship. Indigenous people were not eligible to become citizens. People of African descent, both those who were enslaved and those who were free, were not eligible to become citizens, although some states did permit free black men to own property and vote if they met those property requirements. That shows us another example of how voting rights and citizenship were not necessarily intertwined. However, over the course of the next 40 years or so, whiteness became more and more synonymous with voting rights in the United States. By the 1830s, almost all states had removed their property requirements for voting and instead permitted any free white man over the age of 21 to vote. And as state legislatures rewrote these laws, the states that had permitted property to black men to vote, now outlawed them from doing so. Now it's worth noting that at that time, a larger percentage of the population could vote in the United States than in anywhere else in the world, but voting became strictly the domain of white men. That's a quick overview of the first few decades of citizenship and voting rights in early America. In the next video, we'll talk about how those rights evolved from the 1840s through the 1870s.