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In the United States, citizenship is based upon Enlightenment principles and was developed in the course of the American Revolution (1775–83) and the framing of the U.S. Constitution (1787). Its central characteristic, unique for its time, is the idea of consent. The leaders of the founding generation subscribed to the “social contract” theory of government articulated by the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). According to this theory, government derives its authority from a contractual agreement with the governed to which they give their consent. Rather than passively accept the government’s right to rule as “subjects,” “citizens” actively consent to be ruled and, when their consent has been betrayed, they may withdraw it. Thus, the founding generation asserted that it was “their right” and “their duty” to “throw off such Government” in the Declaration of Independence (1776). The words “We the people” that begin the U.S. Constitution likewise portray an active citizenry consenting to the government it creates.

Although the qualifications for American citizenship were not explicitly defined in the original Constitution, they were gleaned from several of its provisions. Members of the House of Representatives must have “been seven Years a Citizen of the United States” (Article I, Section 2), while members of the Senate must meet the same standard for “nine Years” (Article I, Section 3). The president must be a “natural-born citizen” or a citizen at the time the Constitution was ratified (Article II, Section 1). Additionally, Congress had been delegated the power to “Establish a uniform rule of Naturalization” (Article I, Section 8). Finally, representation in the House would be based upon a formula by which a state’s population would “be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons . . . three fifths of all other persons” (Article I, Section 2). These provisions were understood to mean that a “citizen” was an active member of the founding generation and/or had been born on American soil or, finally, had been naturalized. In Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), the Supreme Court declared that slaves, even if they had been freed, were not included as part of “We the people” because they were only “three-fifths” of a person and hence not whole enough to be citizens.

State governments played a major role in shaping and administering citizenship policy until the early twentieth century. They followed English common law in applying the principle of citizenship by place of birth (jus soli), at least to free white males, and by descent (jus sanguinis) for children born to citizens not on U.S. soil. As the Articles of Confederation (1781–89) made no provision for congressional control over citizenship by naturalization, such policies were controlled entirely by the states until the Constitution became effective (1789). The resultant chaos stemming from so many conflicting policies among the states prompted the First Congress to enact a naturalization law in 1790 under its Article I power to provide a “uniform rule.” Nevertheless, the states remained responsible for the administration of naturalization policy so that with limited congressional guidance, the states were effectively conferring the rights and obligations of both state and national citizenship. For the most part, however, the courts of the each state upheld the rights of national citizenship conferred by the others.

The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1868) deprived the states, as well as Congress, of the ability to selectively apply the doctrines of jus soli and jus sanguinis to whites only. Its declaration that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” effectively overruled the Dred Scott decision’s interpretation of the Constitution and made those of African descent just as eligible for citizenship by these means as whites. The Fifteenth Amendment’s (1870) de jure (in law) guarantee of the right to vote without regard to race, a fundamental privilege of citizenship, was significantly weakened de facto (in fact) by state “Jim Crow” laws that followed the end of Reconstruction in the 1870's. Women, who had traditionally qualified for birthright citizenship, would not have a similar guarantee of the right to vote until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). Although Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship under the Indian Citizenship Act (1924), full voting rights in many of the states were denied them until after World War II.

The confluence of urbanization and industrialization that followed the Civil War gave rise to enormous waves of immigration that further tested American citizenship policy and led eventually to a permanent alteration of the states’ roles. Like naturalization, immigration policy had been the prerogative of the individual states dating from the colonial period. They attempted variously to restrict and encourage immigration depending upon their internal socioeconomic circumstances. Competition among the states for immigrants and the costs of administering to them gave rise to contradictory policies and heightened interstate conflict. Especially controversial were “head taxes” charged by the states to cover the costs of processing the newcomers. The Supreme Court put an end to the chaos by declaring in an 1876 decision (Henderson v. New York) that state immigration laws interfered with the federal government’s plenary power to regulate foreign commerce (Article 1, Section 8). One important consequence of this decision was the federal effort to limit the applicability of jus soli citizenship in the United States by prohibiting the children of Chinese immigrants who were born in the United States from becoming citizens as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This limitation was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1893 (United States v. Wong Kim Ark).

Although the states could no longer regulate immigration, they continued to play a major role in the implementation of naturalization policy. Again, their internal socioeconomic circumstances produced significant policy problems. In short, the grant of citizenship became the tool of urban political machines and their industrial clients who converted, almost literally, boatloads of immigrants into citizens in time to vote in local and state elections. Congress addressed these irregularities and abuses in the Naturalization Act of 1906.

During the twentieth century, the rights of U.S. citizenship were strengthened by constitutional amendments (the Nineteenth, Twenty-third, Twenty-fourth, and Twentysixth), laws such as the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), and Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Baker v. Carr (1962). In most of these instances, primacy was given to national citizenship over state discretion to administer it. But as the century drew to a close, new controversies arose concerning the discretion of states in distributing benefits, primarily economic, to resident aliens, indigents, and citizens of other states.


Derek Heater, What Is Citizenship? (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 1999); Judith N. Shklar, American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); Peter H. Shuck, Citizens, Strangers, and In-betweens: Essays on Immigration and Citizenship (Boulder, CO:Westview Press, 1998); and Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).

Gordon P. Henderson

Last updated: 2006

SEE ALSO: Dual Citizenship; Fourteenth Amendment