Tag Archives: Virginia

A Bill Declaring Who Shall Be Deemed Citizens of This Commonwealth – Thomas Jefferson

What is the meaning of this May 1779 Virginia statute?

Let’s examine the first part.

Be 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; 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.

(available at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a4_2_1s4.html )

Some contend that “all white persons born within the territory of this commonwealth” where citizens.

This is incorrect.

Take note of the semicolons:

Be 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;

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.

It is a complex sentence.

Semicolons are being used as “super commas”. There are several clauses separated by semicolons.

The first clause specifies the general case.

The second clause modifies the first clause by imposing conditions on it.

The third clause specifies a specific case.

The fourth clause specifies a specific case.

A rule of construction is that the specific terms of a statute override the general terms.

The specific terms of the third clause override the general terms of the first clause. Hence, the citizenship of the minor child follows that of the parents.

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Addendum

A reader wrote to say that these are modern rules of punctuation.

In 1784 Noah Webster first published his “Grammatical Institute of the English Language”, a brief excerpt of the 1800 edition is here.

Webster’s explanation of the rules of punctuation are taken directly from Robert Lowth’s 1762 book, “A Short Introduction to English Grammar”. A brief excerpt of the 1791 edition is here.

The rules of punctuation have been around a long time.

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