This post is by Elizabeth Vitek, Cataloger, American Historical Manuscript Collection
The process of becoming a naturalized citizen in America is older than the United States itself. Before the United States was an independent nation, a person of foreign nationality had to become a naturalized citizen of the American colonies through the British Supreme Court. On April 11, 1763, Gregory Ritchy of Whitemarsh in Philadelphia County (today Montgomery County) became a naturalized citizen:
being a foreigner, and having inhabited and resided for the space of seven years in his Majesty’s colonies in America, and not having been absent out of some of the said colonies for a long time than two months at any one time during the said seven years. – and thereupon was admitted to be His Majesty’s natural born subject of the Kingdom of Great-Britain.”
On March 26, 1790, Congress passed the first of many naturalization acts granting citizenship to residents who had lived in the United States for over two years. Applicants were instructed to apply at the common court where he or she had resided for the past year. On October 8th, 1794, Benjamin Maurice received his naturalization certificate. The design and layout resembles the certificate used by the British, but some changes were made to the text:
Be it remembered that Benjamin Maurice who hath resided within the limits and jurisdictions of the United States for the term of two years, and within this state of New-York for the term of one year at least, appeared in the Court of Common Pleas, called THE MAYOR’S COURT; and which is a Common Law Court of Record – and having proof to the satisfaction of the said Court, that he is a Person of good Character, and having in the said Court taken the oath prescribed by law, to support the Constitution of the United States – admitted by the said Court to be, and he is accordingly to be considered a Citizen of the United States.”
Advancing printing techniques of the nineteenth century, such as color lithography, allowed for a more elaborate design. Charles Reuschenberg’s certificate from October 3rd, 1866 includes detailed motifs of New York State and an intricate border. While a candidate no longer had to submit proof of being of good character, Congress had added six more naturalization acts. All of this text was included in a 21” x 16” sheet, printed in red and blue ink:
pursuant to the directions of the Acts of Congress of the United States of America, entitled an Act to establish an uniform rule of Naturalization and to repeal the Acts heretofore passed on that subject, passed April 14th, 1802; and the act entitled an Act for the regulation of seamen on board the public and private vessels of the United States, passed March 3rd, 1813; and the Act relative to evidence in cases of Naturalization, passed March 22nd, 1816; and the Act entitled An Act to amend the Acts concerning Naturalization, passed May 24th, 1828; and an Act to amend the Acts entitled An Act for the regulations of seamen on board the public and private vessels of the United States, passed June 26th, 1848; and An Act to secure the rights of Citizenship to children of citizens of the United States born out of the limits thereof, passed February 10th, 1854, by the said Court, that the said applicant be admitted and he was accordingly admitted to be a CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”
Today’s naturalization certificates have decreased both in size and text, but the end result is still a legal record that grants an individual the right to reside in the United States.
If you or someone you know is considering naturalization, be sure to take advantage of the New-York Historical Society’s Citizenship Project, which offers free civics classes for green card holders. For information visit www.nyhistory.org/education/citizenship-project.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.