“Naturalization” evolved as a keyword along with the modern conceptions of political belonging that we have come to associate with 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 form dates from the late sixteenth century, the verb “naturalize” preceded it by a century. Usage of “naturalize” spread quickly throughout western Europe in the sixteenth century, expanding to include the conversion of something foreign—words and phrases, beliefs and practices—into something familiar or native. With 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 a fascination with the interplay between the natural world and human experience.
A new word attests to the need for a new category. It is not surprising that “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. Nor is it an accident that its proliferation coincided 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 birthrights at a time when social hierarchies were tentatively but distinctly coming under new scrutiny.
The Latin natio (meaning “birth”) is the root of “nature,” “native,” and “nation,” and the interconnections among these terms have generated some of the most fundamental debates and discussions in statecraft and philosophy. They manifest an ongoing fascination with, and the relentless efforts to locate, the boundary between what is innate and what is learned. Raymond Williams (1976/1983, 219) dubs “nature” “perhaps the most complex word in the language” and notes its various and sometimes almost contradictory meanings. It is at once what is most intrinsic and most external: the compelling force and the properties or features of the self and of the material world, that which precedes, exceeds, and informs culture. Nature operates according to its own laws, and the project of science, art, and philosophy is to discover, engage, and sometimes—at great risk—defy them.
Naturalization represents that defiance, as it heralds 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, is 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.
This conventionality is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the contradictory meanings of the word “native.” Originally designating a person born in bondage or servitude, the term gradually came to refer to the more neutral fixity of one’s birthplace before it again acquired a derogatory connotation, this time as an allusion to the indigenous population of an uncivilized (or “natural”) place. The term was applied alternately to the native-born descendants of the colonizers, who automatically acquired 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 United States, for example, was a native but not of a nation, as the Cherokee learned when they sought political representation through the U.S. Supreme Court in 1827, only to discover that they were neither citizens nor aliens, hence not entitled to legal personhood in the United States (Wald 1995). Eventually, the contradiction became unsustainable, and the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act conferred U.S. citizenship—which is to say nativity—on all noncitizen members of tribal nations “born within the territorial limits of the United States” (Michaels 1990; Maddox 1991).
As this example indicates, the origins of the United States in settler colonialism led to an especially fraught relationship between birthright and national citizenship. Naturalization was particularly important in this historical context since the survival of the nation depended on its rapid population with citizens prepared to assume responsibility for its growth. Among the complaints leveled against the British monarch in the Declaration of Independence in order to justify colonial rebellion was that he had obstructed “the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither.” Yet the concept of a nation as a political entity rather than an aggregate of people distinguished by their common descent and heritage was still relatively new, and the original meaning of the term has haunted its subsequent incarnations. 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 (Sollors 1986; Lowe 1996; G. Brown 2001; Ordover 2003; 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. These requirements underwent a rapid succession of revisions through the 1790s and into the early years of the new century amid debates about the ideal profile of the nation and its citizens and the nation’s rapid ability to reproduce itself (R. Smith 1997; Jacobson 1998; Stevens 1999).
Subsequent debates about 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 United States at the turn of the twentieth century spawned an obsession with political belonging (Higham 1963; Takaki 1989, 1993). The topic was extensively discussed and contested in the political speeches, editorials, and social-scientific studies, as well as in the 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, undermined the distinction between citizenship and kinship, and naturalization was increasingly cast in the language of adoption.
A widely circulated 1894 speech by the future president Theodore Roosevelt evinces this important shift. 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 a biological kinship tie. No “American,” he asserted, could ever become a “European”; such a being “only ceases being American, and becomes nothing” (1894, 22). This commitment to the possibility of naturalization despite an implicit belief in the fundamental biology of citizenship was not a contradiction for Roosevelt and others like him; rather, it was evidence of their profound faith in the transformative agency—the alchemy—of the state, which has the power to confer or withhold nativity.
An alternative biological model for national transformation was offered by Robert Park, an urban sociologist at the University of Chicago and one of the foremost early twentieth-century theorists of ethnicity and Americanization. Park (1952) imported the concept of the ecosystem from zoology and botany to explain the processes of social change. He studied the interdependence—the biological and social interconnectedness—of human groups on a variety of scales, from the neighborhood to the nation, and argued that the transformation of these groups largely conformed to the logic of an ecosystem in which the “invasion” of foreign elements resulted in a temporary imbalance followed by mutual transformation as the system returned inevitably to equilibrium. Park believed that even the most enduring antipathies between cultures and races would eventually erode and that interdependence would be followed by intermixture on a global scale. Naturalization was the first step in that process.
The danger of any biological model of social formation is that it obscures the hierarchies implicit in that formation, thereby undermining the potential for critical introspection and political change. In the current incarnation of the keyword “naturalization” across the fields of American studies and cultural studies, it names that danger, serving, somewhat colloquially, as a synonym for “biologization.” In all of its usages, “naturalization” evinces 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. In this modern concept of the nation, political affiliation (citizenship) and common descent (kinship) are interfused rather than sedimentary modes of belonging. 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 who are committed to understanding the legacy of those debates in our contemporary moment (Weinbaum 2004). Naturalization laws and policies register change not only in the legal contours of political belonging but also in the terms by which that belonging is articulated. Naturalization discloses, in these multiple senses, the science of the state.