Citizenship is a legal status and carries certain exclusive rights and responsibilities. In the United States, citizens and noncitizens equally enjoy all human rights in the federal Constitution, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and share most duties (e.g., resident aliens are required to register for the military draft). Nonetheless certain rights and privileges are reserved exclusively to citizens, such as the right to vote, hold office, serve on a jury, and carry a US passport.

Democracies also must decide the ways in which people become citizens. General guidance about the legal dimension of citizenship comes from the United States Constitution. Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power “to establish a uniform rule of naturalization.” Laws about naturalization are delegated to the national government and not reserved to the states.

The Fourteenth Amendment states: “All 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.” The Fourteenth Amendment establishes citizenship through birth, citizenship through naturalization, and the primacy of national over state citizenship. The United States also recognizes citizenship through blood if they are born to at least one American parent anywhere in the world.

The laws, traditions, and issues surrounding citizenship have been controversial from the founding to the present. Although the Founders radically transformed thinking about the relationship of individuals to their government (i.e., from subjects to citizens), women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups did not share equally or fully in the new system. Slavery was not abolished until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in 1865.

The vast majority of American citizens are also citizens of a state. As state citizens, people enjoy the rights, duties, and privileges associated with a particular state. Citizens of a state have the right to vote in state and local elections, and enjoy other state benefits such as education, fire and police protection, and road maintenance.

Every year millions of people apply for legal residency in the United States, and thousands of others cross the border illegally ( Zong and Batalova 2015 ). Addressing issues of legal and illegal immigration is a prominent political and legal issue at both the state and federal levels. Immigration reform is a significant political issue in national, state, and local politics, particular in the border states of the southwestern United States.

In the absence of federal reform, some states and cities have enacted laws to address problems associated with undocumented aliens. Certain state and local policies are aimed at providing authorities with tools to identify and investigate undocumented aliens, whereas others attempt to provide a safe haven for the undocumented. Arizona passed an immigration law, SB 1070, most of which was struck down in Arizona v. United States, 567 U.S. ___ ( 2012 ). The Supreme Court ruled that (1) requiring resident aliens to carry official papers; (2) allowing police to arrest a person for suspicion of being illegal; and (3) making it a crime for undocumented people to search for or hold a job were unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that federal law preempted those parts of SB 1070 and that Congress possessed broad authority to regulate immigration. San Francisco and other cities adopted “sanctuary city” policies designed to facilitate undocumented aliens living and working in a particular city.

Resident aliens are eligible to apply for citizenship. As specified by the US Office of Personnel Management, to become citizens resident aliens must:

Naturalized citizens enjoy all of the rights and assume all of the duties of natural-born citizens except one—they cannot become president. The Constitution requires that the president be a natural-born citizen.

The County Election, painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1852, depicting a lively nineteenth-century Midwestern town on election day, when men of all backgrounds came together to make decisions for their community and nation.

The County Election,painting by George Caleb Bingham, 1852, depicting a lively nineteenth-century Midwestern town on election day, when men of all backgrounds came together to make decisions for their community and nation.

The tradition and legal protection of birthright citizenship has become a matter of debate within the United States and throughout the world ( Aleinikoff and Klusmeyer 2002 ). A movement to stop or limit “birth tourism” (pregnant mothers traveling to the United States for the sole purpose of giving birth on American soil to establish citizenship for a newborn child) has become a recurrent issue in the United States, particularly since the 2000s ( Graglia 2009 ). Several developed Western democracies, such as France, the United Kingdom, and Australia, have abandoned or restricted birthright citizenship.

A variety of other legal principles influence the ways in which Americans understand the idea of citizenship. For example, government is expected to treat its citizens equally and fairly, protect their individual rights, and promote their general welfare. Citizens may use constitutional principle, law, or access to the political system to address these basic and legal expectations of citizenship.


Civic republican theory, rooted in ancient Greece and Rome, holds that the interests of the community outweigh the interests of the individual. Citizen participation in political life on behalf of the common good is superior to the individual and private pursuits of family and profession ( Kymlicka and Norman 1994 ). Civic republicans rest their theory on the shared autonomy of the community ( Lakoff 1996 ). Acting alone, individuals have little or no power to effectively address social problems. Such problems require that citizens act together for the common good ( Norman 1992 ).

Civic republicans also believe in the “intrinsic value of political participation for the participants themselves” ( Kymlicka and Norman 1994, 362 ). Engaging in deliberation and political participation not only betters the community, it also betters the individuals who participate on behalf of the community. Active participation in the public arena is the only means available for people to achieve the practical judgment necessary for effective democratic governance.

According to the civic republican tradition, liberty depends on sharing in self-governance, which requires knowledge of public affairs and a sense of belonging to the community ( Sandel 1996 ). Citizen identities, in the civic republican tradition, are “thick” and occupy a central place in one's life ( Conover, Crewe, and Searing 1991 ). Citizens not only have the right to participate, they are expected to do so, for their own good and that of the community.

Liberal political philosophers, in contrast, place the rights of the autonomous individual before the demands or needs of society. The main purpose of liberal government is security for personal liberty. According to Lance Banning, liberalism is “a label most would use for a political philosophy that regards man as possessed of inherent individual rights and the state as existing to protect these rights, deriving its authority from consent” ( 1986, 12 ).

Liberals claim that people are rational beings capable of using reason to overcome impediments in pursuit of their happiness. Citizens make a social contract that creates civil society and government by consent of the governed to guarantee their rights. Participation in public life is for protection of personal liberty and pursuit of 's self-interest ( Conover, Crewe, and Searing 1991 ).

Liberals tend to emphasize the rights of citizenship against the power of government, which citizens create and maintain to serve them ( Lakoff 1996 ). Individuals are free to choose, within reasonable limits, their own particular conception of the good life ( Sandel 1996 ). From a liberal perspective, a good society is one in which individuals are free to choose their own values and ends.

The duties or responsibilities of citizenship, which are of primary importance in the civic republican tradition, are relegated to secondary status in the liberal tradition. If individuals have the right to participate, they also enjoy the right, in a free society, not to participate. Citizen identities are “thin” because private interests and concerns primarily occupy individuals ( Conover, Crewe, and Searing 1991 ).

At the core of modern liberal conceptions of democracy and citizenship is the idea of constitutionalism and rule of law to protect individual rights. Of course, the existence of a constitution is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for constitutionalism. A country that practices constitutionalism legally limits the power of government to prevent it from arbitrarily and capriciously restricting or denying rights. It also legally and sufficiently empowers government to achieve the common good by maintaining public order and safety, and thereby preventing predators from violating the rights of individuals ( Patrick 1999 ).

A variety of forces help Americans to overcome the inevitable tensions between civic republicanism and liberalism. Participation in civil society—a space between private life and the government—brings together aspects of both. According to the sociologist Adam Seligman, civil society has a harmonizing effect on the often-conflicting ideas of individual interest (liberalism) and the common good (republicanism): “What … makes the idea of civil society so attractive … is its assumed synthesis of the private and public ‘good’ and of individual and social desiderata. The idea of civil society thus embodies for many an ethical idea of social order, one that, if not overcomes, at least harmonizes the conflicting demands of individual interest and social good” ( Seligman 1992, x ). The vitality of civil society is an indicator of a healthy blend of civic republicanism and liberalism in a democracy. If civil society is healthy, then citizens are assuming their responsibilities to act for the good of the community; they are exercising their commitments to the rights of citizenship and constitutionalism, the rule of law that regulates tensions between the state and civil society, and enables both to protect liberty and promote the common good ( Patrick 1999 ).

In both traditions, citizens not only have rights, duties, and responsibilities, they also have power. When people exercise their rights to inform their fellow citizens of an issue, influence a governmental official, or publicize governmental abuse, they are exercising the powers of their citizenship. Much of the power of citizens, however, is latent. Public officials know that citizens can hold them accountable and shed light on their actions in the court of public opinion.


Citizenship and governance in the United States blend civic republican and liberal ideas. The moral dimensions of citizenship include respect for the autonomy of the individual, the sovereignty of the citizenry, and the authority of government to protect individual rights and promote the common good. Within this theoretical framework, citizens must make practical choices, most of which involve values. From choosing a political party to taking a stance on a particular issue to deciding to run for office, citizens are required to make value judgments. Civic principles and values inform and motivate citizen participation and help to form civic identity.

The United States is a pluralistic and federal polity that respects multiple civic identities. Civic identity can be supplied in various ways—by being part of a group, a community, a state, and a nation. Participation requires that people make practical judgments about their values as they think through specific issues and make decisions about candidates—or decide not to participate at all.

From the founding of the republic until the early twenty-first century, Americans have assumed multiple civic identities. Debate, disagreement, and diversity have characterized American political culture from ratifying the Constitution to current efforts at immigration reform. Although most Americans would agree on a host of foundational values (e.g., liberalism, constitutionalism, and republicanism) that bind them together, they disagree about which of those values should be emphasized as they are applied to specific issues. Most Americans agree that the economy needs to be regulated, for example, but disagree about how much and in what ways.

Citizens' values, choices, and identity may change over time. The general framework of values and principles within which those are formed, however, has remained remarkably consistent. Since the founding, Americans have had to wrestle with several recurring issues involving diversity and unity, privacy and security, liberty and order, and minority rights and majority rule.

Butts's twelve tables of civism for the modern American republic. Adapted from the “Decalogue of Democratic Civic Values” in R. Freeman Butts, The Revival of Civic Learning (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1980), p. 128.

Butts's twelve tables of civism for the modern American republic. Adapted from the “Decalogue of Democratic Civic Values” in R. Freeman Butts, The Revival of Civic Learning (Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1980), p. 128.

In making these choices Americans have employed a host of other values such as those described by the prominent educational historian R. Freeman Butts ( 1988 ).

Of course, not all Americans would agree with the values outlined in Butts's Twelve Tables of Civism. Some would add other values or principles, or recast the table in other ways. Still, the framework Butts proposed highlights key aspects of citizen choice in American governance.

First, any important civic value or principle can become “corrupt.” Too much focus on the individual and liberty or on the community and the common good can be detrimental to a good society and/or the rights of the individual. Nearly all Americans are committed to individual liberty, for example, but most also realize that liberty has limits. Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures is limited to search incident to arrest, in a school setting, and in a variety of other circumstances. Important constitutional principles should apply equally to everyone, but circumstances may dictate various applications.

Second, effective governance requires citizens and their government to find the appropriate balance between the sometimes competing, sometimes complementary values and principles of the American political order. Such a balance cannot be found using a preset formula. Rather, citizens and statesmen are required to make judgments using reason, weighing evidence and arguments, and ultimately, making value choices.

Third, most of the important choices and preferences of citizens are made within a framework of general agreement. Several scholars have noted increases in polarization among politicians and citizens ( Fiorina and Abrams 2008 ). Yet most citizens and politicians, though they sometimes or often disagree about the means the government or the citizenry should employ to resolve particular issues, generally agree on important principles and general purposes of government.


Democratic citizens occupy the “highest office” in the land. Citizens are free to choose their own and collective identities, influence the direction of their government, and define their roles in civic and political life. Individually, through their government and with one another in civil society, citizens govern themselves. The future of good governance, in the United States and elsewhere, depends on each citizen's ability to make wise choices in ever-changing circumstances.

SEE ALSO Citizenship, History of ; Citizenship, Pathways to ; Civic Agency ; Civic Duty ; Civic Participation ; Fourteenth Amendment ; Governance ; Self-Governance .


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Thomas S. Vontz
Kansas State University