Thomas Jefferson Papers

55. A Bill Declaring Who Shall Be Deemed Citizens of This Commonwealth, 18 June 1779

55. A Bill Declaring Who Shall Be Deemed Citizens of This Commonwealth

Be1 it enacted by the General Assembly, that all white persons born within the territory of this commonwealth and all who have resided therein two years next before the passing of this act, and all who shall hereafter migrate into the same;2 and shall before any court of record give satisfactory proof by their own oath or affirmation, that they intend to reside therein, and moreover shall give assurance of fidelity to the commonwealth; and all infants wheresoever born, whose father, if living, or otherwise, whose mother was, a citizen at the time of their birth, or who migrate hither, their father, if living, or otherwise their mother becoming a citizen, or who migrate hither without father or mother, shall be deemed citizens of this commonwealth, until they relinquish that character in manner as herein after expressed: And all others not being citizens of any the United States of America, shall be deemed aliens. The clerk of the court shall enter such oath of record, and give the person taking the same a certificate thereof, for which he shall receive the fee of one dollar. And in order to preserve to the citizens of this commonwealth, that natural right, which all men have of relinquishing the country, in which birth, or other accident may have thrown them, and, seeking subsistance and happiness wheresoever they may be able, or may hope to find them: And to declare unequivocably what circumstances shall be deemed evidence of an intention in any citizen to exercise that right, it is enacted and declared, that whensoever any citizen of this commonwealth, shall by word of mouth in the presence of the court of the county, wherein he resides, or of the General Court, or by deed in writing, under his hand and seal, executed in the presence of three witnesses, and by them proved in either of the said courts, openly declare to the same court, that he relinquishes the character of a citizen, and shall depart the commonwealth; or whensoever he shall without such declaration depart the commonwealth and enter into the service of any other state, not in enmity with this, or any other of the United States of America, or do any act whereby he shall become a subject or citizen of such state,3 such person shall be considered as having exercised his natural right of expatriating himself, and shall be deemed no citizen of this commonwealth from the time of his departure. The free white inhabitants of every of the states, parties to the American confederation, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted, shall be intitled to all rights, privileges, and immunities of free citizens in this commonwealth, and shall have free egress, and regress, to and from the same, and shall enjoy therein, all the privileges of trade, and commerce, subject to the same duties, impositions and restrictions as the citizens of this commonwealth. And if any person guilty of, or charged with treason, felony, or other high misdemeanor, in any of the said states, shall flee from justice and be found in this commonwealth, he shall, upon demand of the Governor, or Executive power of the state, from which he fled, be delivered up to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of his offence. Where any person holding property, within this commonwealth, shall be attainted within any of the said states, parties to the said confederation, of any of those crimes, which by the laws of this commonwealth shall be punishable by forfeiture of such property, the said property shall be disposed of in the same manner as it would have been if the owner thereof had been attainted of the like crime in this commonwealth.4

Report description begins Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in MDCCLXXVI, Richmond, 1784 description ends , p. 41–2. Text of Act as adopted is in Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends x, 129–30.

In his Autobiography TJ stated: “Early in the session of May 79. I prepared, and obtained leave to bring in a bill, declaring who should be deemed citizens, asserting the natural right of expatriation, and prescribing the mode of exercising it. This, when I withdrew from the House, on the 1st of June following, I left in the hands of George Mason and it was passed on the 26th of that month” (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends i, 55–6; see also TJ to John Manners, 12 June 1817). TJ’s Bill was ordered to be brought in on 4 June 1779, and Mason presented it on 14 June. It was amended on 25 June and passed by both houses the next day (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , May 1779, 1827 edn., p. 35, 48, 67, 68). The Bill as proposed by the Committee of Revisors agrees with the Act passed in 1779 (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends x, 129–30) except as indicated below. At the end of the war the question of citizenship became involved in the question of debts owed by Virginians to British merchants; petitions, letters to the Virginia Gazette, and pamphlets opposed the return of the British and their admission to citizenship, since, as citizens, British merchants would be in a position to bring suits and have judgments executed against real property (Harrell, Loyalism in Virginia, p. 133–40). At the Oct. 1783 session a compromise solution was agreed upon: TJ’s citizenship Act of 1779 was repealed in an Act which, however, substantially restated its terms (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xi, 322–4) and another Act was adopted prohibiting the migration of certain persons. The latter forbade the return of anyone who had been a resident in any one of the United States on 19 Apr. 1775 and had subsequently borne arms against the United States; anyone who had owned or had been part owner of a privateer operating against the United States; or anyone who had acted as a member of the board “commonly called the Board of Refugee Commissioners at New-York”; all other former residents who had been forbidden to return were allowed to do so and were given all rights of citizenship save those of voting or of holding office (same, p. 324–5).

On 31 Oct. 1785 Madison presented Bill No. 55 as proposed by the Committee of Revisors; it was read the second time and apparently not acted upon again. Instead, on 24 Dec. 1785 another bill was presented to amend and reduce to one the several Acts on this subject (JHD description begins Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia (cited by session and date of publication) description ends , Oct. 1785, 1828 edn., p. 12–15, 76, 87, 108, 111). It was not until the Oct. 1786 session, however, that such a bill was passed under the title of “An Act to explain, amend, and reduce into one act, the several acts for the admission of emigrants to the rights of citizenship, and prohibiting the migration of certain persons to this commonwealth.” This Act reenacted substantially the provisions of TJ’s Act of 1779 and the two Acts of 1783, but, with the exception of the specific prohibitions mentioned above, any alien taking an oath of fidelity to the state could become a citizen, though he could not vote or hold office until he had resided in the state five years and had “evinced a permanent attachment to the state” by marrying a citizen or purchasing lands valued at a minimum of £100—for alien merchants the minimum was £500 (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends xii, 261–5).

1The following highly interesting preamble, which was not in the Act of 1779 or in the Bill as proposed by the Committee of Revisors, was included in the Acts of 1783 and 1786: “Whereas it is the policy of all infant states to encourage population, among other means, by an easy mode for the admission of foreigners to the rights of citizenship; yet wisdom and safety suggest the propriety of guarding against the introduction of secret enemies, and of keeping the offices of government in the hands of citizens, intimately acquainted with the spirit of the constitution; and the genius of the people, as well as permanently attached to the common interest.”

2The Act of 1779 adds: “other than alien enemies.”

3The Act of 1779 does not include the words “or whensoever he shall without such declaration … of such state.”

4The three final provisos of the Act of 1779—(1) equal rights, privileges, and immunities for the citizens of other states; (2) recognition of the right of extradition; and (3) forfeiture under bills of attainder—are not included in the Act of 1783 or in the Act of Oct. 1786 which specifically repealed the Act of 1779.

Index Entries