“Naturalization” evolved as a keyword along with other modern conceptions of political belonging that found expression as the nation. The term appeared first in Middle French to describe the conferral of the rights and privileges of a native-born subject on a foreigner. While the noun dates from the late sixteenth century, its verb form, “naturalize,” preceded it by a century. “Naturalize” spread quickly throughout Western Europe as it proliferated in the sixteenth century, expanding to include the conversion of something foreign—words and phrases, beliefs and practices—into something familiar, or native. With their roots in the Renaissance, “naturalize” and “naturalization” continue to register the concerns of the moment of their coinage: an emerging interest in social classification and taxonomy, an increasing emphasis on human agency and the potential to adapt sufficiently to a new environment to enable settlement, and, of course, a fascination with the natural world and human experience.

A new word attests to the need for a new category. “Naturalization” debuted with the conferring of rights on the French in Scotland and the Scottish in France, since the intermarriage of the two royal families called for such accommodation. It proliferated with exploration and mercantilism. The movement of peoples, goods, and boundaries gave rise to the need for new models of belonging and new mechanisms of induction into emerging political and social communities. The terms “naturalization” and “naturalize” also signaled an interest in both territory and birthrights as new political forms and social hierarchies emerged.

The Latin natio (meaning “birth”) is the root of “nature,” “native,” and “nation,” and the interconnections of these terms have generated fundamental debates in statecraft and philosophy, especially efforts to distinguish between what is innate and what is learned. Raymond Williams dubs “nature” “perhaps the most complex word in the language” and notes its various and sometimes almost contradictory meanings ([1976] 1983, 219). It is at once what is most intrinsic and most external: the compelling force, properties, and features of the self and the material world, that which precedes, exceeds, and informs culture. Nature operates according to its own laws, and the projects of science, art, and philosophy are to discover, engage, and sometimes—at great risk—defy them.

“Naturalization” represents that defiance, heralding the possibility of adaptation and the promise of transformation. It implies an environment that can accommodate the introduction of a foreign element. While, as botanists and zoologists explain, the introduction of such an element might temporarily upset the equilibrium of an ecosystem, naturalization implies its restoration. In its original usage—as the conferral of political belonging—naturalization is not an occult process, not meant to seem natural; it is squarely in the realm of civil law. Rituals and ceremonies—the performing of a prescribed oath, the pledging of allegiance to a flag—characteristically mark the conversion and call attention to the conventionality of the process.

Naturalization manifests ambiguities of the nation as a political form, consonant with but not reducible to the state and evident in the contradictory meanings of the word “native.” Originally designating a person born in bondage or servitude, “native” gradually came to refer to the more neutral fixity of one’s birthplace before it again acquired a derogatory connotation for colonizers, this time as an allusion to the indigenous population of an uncivilized (or “natural”) place. The term oscillated between the native-born descendants of the colonizers, whose birth circumstances automatically conferred the rights and privileges of citizenship, and the indigenous populations who preceded them and who were typically excluded from those rights, especially in “new world” territories settled by Europeans. A member of an indigenous tribe in the US, for example, was a native, but not of the US nation, as the Cherokee learned when they sought representation in the US Supreme Court in 1827, only to discover they were neither citizens nor aliens and for that reason not entitled to legal personhood in the US (Kelly, Harbison, and Belz 1983; A. Grossman 1985; Perdue 1979; Prucha 1981; Wald 1995; Sturm 2003; Norgren 2004; Duthu 2008). Eventually, the contradiction became unsustainable, and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act conferred US citizenship on all noncitizen members of tribal nations “born within the territorial limits of the United States” (Maddox 1991; Michaels 1990; Berkhofer 1979; Kettner 1978).

As this example indicates, the origins of the nation in settler colonialism led to an especially fraught relationship between birthright and national citizenship in the United States. Naturalization was necessary for the nascent nation, which depended on its rapid population, with citizens prepared to assume responsibility for its growth. The Declaration of Independence justified colonial rebellion in part by charging the British monarch with obstructing “the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither” (Jefferson [1776] 1984). The concept of a nation as a consensual political entity—dedicated, as Abraham Lincoln would say, to a proposition—rather than an aggregate of people distinguished by common descent and heritage was new. What would come to be known as “a nation of immigrants” posed the particular challenge of forging common ground and a sense of belonging that could convert the arbitrary boundaries of a territory into a meaningful political community.

While national belonging was explicitly touted as a matter of affiliation rather than filiation or consent rather than descent, the familial rhetoric that characterized the nation from the outset justified the earliest restrictions: not everyone was eligible for membership in the family (Brown 2001; Lowe 1996; Ordover 2003; Sollors 1986; Takaki 1979; Weinbaum 2004). The Naturalization Act of 1790 defined a potential citizen explicitly as “any free white person” and specified two years’ residence in the territorial boundaries of the nation to qualify. The terms changed in the rapid succession of revisions through the decade and into the early years of the new century amid debates about the ideal profile of the nation and its citizens and the rapid ability of the nation to reproduce itself (Jacobson 1998; Smith 1997; Stevens 1999). The naturalization of each new influx of immigrants would at once demonstrate the principle of the nation and (for some) challenge the fragile coherence of territorial boundaries that do not conform to cultural affinities.

Subsequent debates concerning the qualifications for national citizenship waxed and waned with fluctuations in immigration and adventures in colonialism. Like earlier territorial annexations in the West and Southwest, global migrations that brought unprecedented numbers of immigrants, especially peasants from Southern and Eastern Europe, to the turn of the twentieth-century US spawned an obsession with political belonging (Higham 1963, 1984; Takaki 1989, 1993). The topic was extensively debated in political speeches, editorials, and social scientific studies as well as the explosion of immigrant autobiographies that proliferated during this period. These debates introduced a new element into the vocabulary of “naturalization,” bringing the term “Americanization” into vogue, along with the language of rebirth and conversion to describe the assumption of citizenship. “Americanization” rhetorically replaced “nature” (descent) with “nation” (consent), but the substitution only underscored how fully “American” had become a birthright. The familial rhetoric, which intensified with the debates, eroded the distinction between citizenship and kinship, and naturalization was increasingly cast in the language of adoption.

A widely circulated 1894 speech by future president Theodore Roosevelt evinces the ambiguity. Insisting that “Americanism” was a faith and not a birthright, Roosevelt welcomed the right kind of people with the appropriate attitude. Yet those born into the fold could never renounce it any more than someone could foreswear biological kinship. No American, he asserted, could ever become a European; such a being “only ceases being American, and becomes nothing” (Roosevelt 1894, 22). This apparent discrepancy was evidence of the profound faith of Roosevelt and others like him in the transformative agency—the alchemy—of the state, which has the power to confer or withhold nativity.

One of the foremost early twentieth-century theorists of ethnicity and Americanization, the urban sociologist Robert Park, offered an alternative biological model for national transformation (Park 1936, 1952). Studying the interdependence—the biological and social interconnectedness—of human groups on a variety of scales, from the neighborhood to the nation, Park argued that the transformation of these groups largely conformed to the logic of an ecosystem (a concept he borrowed from zoology and botany) in which the “invasion” of foreign elements resulted in a temporary imbalance followed by mutual transformation as the system returned inevitably to equilibrium. He believed even the most enduring antipathies between cultures and races would eventually erode, and interdependence would be followed by intermixture on a global scale. Naturalization was the first step in that process.

In all its usages, “naturalization” names the alchemy of the state: the transformation of the many if not into one, then at least into an intricate relatedness that hovers uncertainly between kinship and citizenship. Political affiliation (citizenship) and common descent (kinship) are interfused modes of belonging in this modern conception of nation. Kinship, no less than citizenship, is a taxonomic construction that registers, even as it masks, social and political hierarchies. The interweaving of the two is evident in early twentieth-century debates over topics ranging from eugenics to migration policy. As a primary mechanism of nonsexual state reproduction, naturalization thus offers an important site of inquiry for scholars of American studies and cultural studies who are committed to understanding the legacy of those debates in our contemporary moment. Naturalization laws and policies register change not only in the legal contours of political belonging but also in the terms of its articulation. Naturalization, observes Ediberto Román, makes visible a “nation’s aspirations” (2013, 33). But the fate of the nation as a political or cultural form is uncertain in the face of the rapidly increasing globalization of the twenty-first century. It is not yet clear what new models of affiliation will emerge with the movements and migrations of a deterritorializing world (Román, Teune, Spiro, Janoski). Nor is it clear what “naturalization” will mean in the coming years. Following the word and the practices it will come to denote will offer insight into the changing contours of political belonging in a world we can only begin to imagine.


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