Citizenship, History of

Legally, a US citizen is anyone born or naturalized in the United States or its territories. More robustly, a citizen is a rights-bearing individual who shares equally in a community with other rights-bearing individuals. To inquire more deeply into the significance of American citizenship and its meaning for American politics is to advance the question “What is America?” Such an inquiry is destined to elicit the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence amidst an ongoing debate over what those principles mean and how well they have been implemented. The Declaration of Independence exists on both levels—as a practical expression of its times and as a statement of eternal political principles. Three broad periods track the history of citizenship: the first, fulfilling the social contract (from the founding through Abraham Lincoln); the second, focused on Progressive concepts of dynamic, expansive government; and the third, the postmodern era, in which citizenship struggles against the identity politics of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Each period has reinterpreted the Declaration of Independence as the touchstone of citizenship.


New citizens of the United States pledge allegiance to the flag at a naturalization ceremony held at the National Archives, September 17, 2014.

New citizens of the United States pledge allegiance to the flag at a naturalization ceremony held at the National Archives, September 17, 2014.
Kettner 1978, 44–61 ). A new view of political life and the relationship between the individual and the political community arose that matured in the 150 years of British North America prior to independence ( Erler and Marini 2007, 30–36 ). Perhaps the Mayflower Compact ( 1620 ) is the best expression of these two concerns of practice and aspiration. It embodies 1,600 years of Western civilization: man has dual citizenship, in the City of Man and the City of God ( Baltzell 1979, 109–121 ). The signers of the Mayflower Compact swore to their duties as Christian subjects and as the king's subjects, and then proceeded to covenant and combine with one another for their better governance. Some 150 years later, in the Declaration of Independence, Americans would break their allegiance to the king while identifying and combining with one another (in line with Lockean theory) and with God. Whatever the Founders of 1776 added, dropped, or revised, the Mayflower Compact's themes of obedience, obligation, common good, and what is “just and equal” abide in all the controversies over American citizenship ( Pickus 2005, 16–22 ).

While rejecting Parliament's authority, Thomas Jefferson's Summary View of the Rights of British America ( 1774 ) maintained that “America was conquered, and her settlements made, and firmly established, at the expense of individuals, and not of the British public.” The shift in identity became more pronounced in state declarations and constitutions. For example, in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Jefferson's fellow Virginians used the language of the social contract. Massachusetts, in its 1780 constitution, the model for later state constitutions, followed suit. Both limited the power of government by natural rights and by guaranteed rights involving speech, press, worship, trials, and the separation of powers. And both insisted on the need to develop republican character, which in many states required the Protestant religion and various forms of established churches.

The language of the social contract included diverse individuals. Yet, as in England, Catholics and various dissenting sects suffered political disabilities, due to fears they might be politically subversive, as well as theologically obtuse. Property requirements for voting diminished to the point that substantial majorities of adult white males could vote, a trend accelerating after the Revolution, which landless soldiers helped secure. Women were defined as parts of the family and thus did not, as the logic went, require the same individual rights as the men who headed and therefore spoke for their families ( Smith 1997, 42–49, 96–114; Kettner 1978, 213–247 ).

Slavery was originally legal in all the colonies, though in the decades following independence, the northern states prohibited it. Yet, even then, some voices spoke for racial equality (for example, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Rush). Free blacks enjoyed voting as well as other rights in many northern states including Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Still, these restricted black rights in varying degrees ( West 1997, 113–119 ).

The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of America, the fountain of all fundamental political arguments and accordingly citizenship. America is a nation that arises from universal principles— equality, liberty, and consent of the governed. This part of the Declaration comes straight out of John Locke's Second Treatise of Government ( 1689 ), as though it were some universal civil society emerging from the omnipresent state of nature. But America is also a distinct place, one that has a British patrimony but now assuming a “separate and equal station” among nations. The universal principles are also matched by a set of practices delineated in the twenty-eight charges against the king, which intensify in their injustice from incompetence to illegality to savagery. These protests reflect a positive meaning of the good citizen—one who fights tyranny, enjoys basic civil and political liberties, and contributes to and shares in the common good ( Jaffa 2000, 128–152 ).


How would the new nation shape the character of its citizens? The English common law practice based citizenship on birth to citizen parents on British soil. The Americans were determined to blend birthright citizenship with the social contract standard of political loyalty, especially following the Revolution. Although the laws regulating citizenship (and immigration) were state laws, all the Founders realized that the vast new continent would need and welcome immigrants. But all also agreed that the new Republic could not promiscuously take in immigrants and prospective new citizens of monarchist inclinations without danger to its new principles ( Fonte 2011, 57–61 ). In addition, the states decided that black immigrants could not be naturalized ( Pickus 2005, 52–63 ). One example of the Founders' concern for a republican civic education is the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which contained provisions on public education and citizen character and prohibited slavery.

Though the states have the power to make citizenship requirements, a uniformity is sought as well in Article IV, Section 2: “The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” The ambiguities of the Constitution regarding slavery come quickly to mind here: may a slaveholding citizen of one state take his property to any other state? And what about the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of due process to all persons, which should include slaves as “persons” as it does in Article I's taxation and representation ( Pickus 2005, 25–33 ). The ambiguity was sufficient for some to deem the Constitution as proslavery, as Chief Justice Roger Taney would do in the Dred Scott case ( 1856 ); or as a compromise with the devil, as the abolitionists charged; or as antislavery, as Frederick Douglass argued. Ambiguities notwithstanding, the US Constitution produced the most democratic society the world had ever known.

Legal definitions do not adequately portray what a citizen is in this new nation. All the great documents of the American founding, preeminently George Washington's Farewell Address ( 1796 ), concern themselves with the character of its citizens. He warns of the temptations that face citizens—parties, sectionalism, shortsighted selfinterest, and unwarranted pride among them—and proposes enlightenment, morality, patriotism, and a sober understanding of human nature as among the qualities citizens will need. In support, James Madison in The Federalist ( 1787–1788 ) speaks of citizens as “the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness” as Americans (No. 14). And this is the same Madison who warned of the persistence of faction or injustice in free political life. Can the Constitution cultivate these virtues while at least containing the vices that Washington warned against?

This was the test the new Constitution underwent in the 1790s, when Alexander Hamilton's Federalist “Monocrats” attacked Jefferson's “Mobocrats.” To be a citizen, one had to join a party, to become a member of a faction, as it were, in order to preserve the Declaration of Independence. (And “citizen” had acquired an ominous, revolutionary connotation from the French Revolution.) Was the new Republic to dissolve over such discordant views? Jefferson's election in 1800 temporarily settled these disputes.

Repeating invocations to his “fellow-citizens,” Jefferson himself recognized the irony of the situation when he declared in his first inaugural address ( 1801 ), “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” The citizen is primarily a self-governing individual, indeed a republican: “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?” ( Jaffa 2000, 47–51, 61–66 ). The debate over citizenship from the founding to the Civil War ( 1861–1865 ) can be characterized as Jefferson arguing with himself—the Jefferson who protected the states as the best preserves of republican citizenship, thus defending southern slavery—versus the Jefferson who wrote “All men are created equal.” Jefferson's American wants to be neither rider nor horse but simply a plain republican citizen. Jefferson's purchase of Louisiana ( 1803 ) expanded America in ways that opened the way for new states, added to the citizenship challenges as territories and states perpetuated the continuation of slavery, and led the way to the resettlement of the Indian tribes ( Fehrenbacher 1978, 74–113 ).

One generation later, during the Andrew Jackson era, the nation split over citizenship. One instructive example is the division over state laws that invoked state police powers to keep out paupers. In the Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. 283 ( 1849 ), the US Supreme Court struck down state laws that taxed poor immigrants, maintaining that they clashed with the national power to regulate immigration. The Declaration of Independence, Justice John Catron argued in concurrence, served to admit “all free white persons” ( Smith 1997, 227–228 ). Other justices in previous cases defended the police powers of states to exclude blacks. Immigration raised other citizenship issues as well. While French observer Alexis de Tocqueville contended in Democracy in America ( 1835, 1840 Tocqueville 2000, 275; Pickus 2005, 65–71 ). Acquisition of the territories in the Mexican War ( 1846–1848 ) expanded the territory that could become slave states but also granted citizenship rights to the Mexican residents by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ( 1848 ).


Abraham Lincoln's 1854 reentry into political life from his comfortable living as a nationally prominent lawyer signaled divisions over the nation's future. Would this be a nation where citizenship is increasingly defined by race? Would an aggrandizing racial slavery be the first step toward a caste system that would involve immigrants or conquered peoples in the Caribbean Sea or even south of Mexico, not to mention the Indians? The dominant politician in the country, Stephen Douglas, would offer one alternative, Lincoln another.

Chief Justice Taney's explosive opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 ( 1856 ), marked a new low point in the decline from the Declaration. Proceeding from the disjunction between national and state citizenship, Taney argued that the meaning of national citizenship depended on the lowest meaning it could possibly have according to the standard of the states. Blacks “had for more than a century before [the Declaration] been regarded as beings of an inferior order … and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit” (60 U.S. at 407). Thus, Taney concluded that the Declaration could not have conceivably included the black race in its general language. Justice John McLean's dissent noted that blacks could vote and possessed significant civil rights in many states. Would the Taney view affirm America as the “slaveholding republic” ( Fehrenbacher 1978 )?

Lincoln's political career, from the 1850s through his presidency, strove to instruct Americans to the “better angels” of their nature and remind them of their origins as a people in the Declaration. Lincoln first argued that the Declaration is the “white man's charter of freedom” ( October 16, 1854 ). That is, Lincoln acknowledged that politics cannot escape self-interest, though it must attempt to lead men beyond it. After all, states that prohibited slavery might deny blacks liberties and even prohibit the entry of free blacks. But once the principle of equality is established, German and French immigrants (whom Lincoln sought to win over) belong to America as “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh” of the Founders ( July 10, 1858 ). Once immigrants realized their connection to America via the Declaration, the Declaration's claims for all Americans, not excluding blacks, became undeniable. Lincoln ridiculed Stephen Douglas for making the Declaration about British rights, not universal rights, thereby cutting the immigrants out of America. For that reason, Lincoln cleverly argued, he and a black woman share in the equal natural right to earn the fruits of their labor, though he and she may be unequal in many other regards. The Gettysburg Address ( 1863 ) would revive the chords uniting Americans, living and dead; Americans would be born again in “the new birth of freedom” that would come with the full realization of the principle of equality ( Jaffa 2000, 219–221, 289–291 ).

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments all attempt to realize equality of citizenship. In theory, the Thirteenth, with its powers of enforcement given to Congress, could have been sufficient to lead slaves to full citizenship: after all, if the negation of slavery is freedom, does not that freedom mean full, equal rights ( Oakes 2012, 357–362 )? But this equality is not established by fiat; in a government by consent, the freedmen would have to face the resentments and prejudices of their countrymen ( Fehrenbacher 2001, 331–332 ). The Progressive movement's vaunted Darwinian science would render blacks (among others) hopelessly inferior, while attacking the principle of equality of natural rights and the social contract that arose from it ( Erler and Marini 2007, 151–155 ).

The Fourteenth Amendment's establishment of birthright citizenship and national citizen rights in its “privileges or immunities” clause confirmed the return to the constitution grounded in the Declaration of Independence. A state could no longer deny rights of national citizenship to any of its citizens; an aggrieved citizen had a defense in addition to the republican guarantee clause of Article IV.

The contrast between the teachings on citizenship and of politics in general of the first presidents of the American Political Science Association ( founded in 1903 ) with those of the first American presidents could not be greater. These scholars, among them Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson, openly attacked the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including natural rights, the social contract, government by consent, and the separation of powers. He regarded the focus on rights as outdated, based on Newtonian concepts which had been superseded by Darwinian organic development. Some social scientists even adopted bizarre racial theories of Nordic dominance. Political scientists were not alone. The Progressive educator John Dewey ( 1859-1952 ), for example, advocated a Hegelian identity of the individual with the community, such that the individual's will became socialized for the common good ( Smith 1997, 412–424 ).

In this view, the purified Anglo-Saxon people have direct power—no Madisonian fear of a majority faction here. (It was immigrants and blacks whom progressives suspected.) In place of the Founders' federalism and separation of powers, Progressives proposed a class of professional civil servants, zealous experts who would replace narrow politics with enlightened administration, including “Americanization” programs ( Pickus 2005, 100–106 ). These programs are not limited to education. The Seventeenth Amendment diminished the states by severing state governments and the federal government, and the Supreme Court embarked upon an aggressively nationalistic trend of decisions. A national citizenship became a rhetorical citizenship, one of postures, causes, and movements, bereft of democratic participation. Self-government is no longer the fundamental principle and hence liberty gives way to community or “civil society” —the informal voluntary associations, civic, commercial, religious, and social, that flourish in America or other free societies.


Once citizenship became subject to a national standard following the Fourteenth Amendment, a federal regulatory apparatus became necessary. In the Antebellum years, enforcement of the anti-slave trade law was virtually impossible ( Schuck 2003; Smith 1997 ). Once legal obstacles such as emigration entry fees were declared unconstitutional, states established immigrant boards to regulate the growing tide of aliens in the 1830s and 1840s. But these volunteer-dominated boards were more concerned with charity toward immigrants than with exclusion. By the Civil War, “the Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of land free to citizens and aliens who worked it for at least five years” ( Tichenor 2002, 66 ). The Freedman's Bureau offered assistance to freed slaves for their transition to a new way of life.

1907 ) gave Asians federal protections against discriminatory state laws and practices ( McClain 1994, 147–155 ).

The new “science of government” began to be applied to immigration. The Immigration Act of 1891 created a commissioner of immigration in the Department of the Treasury. The Bureau of Immigration shuttled among cabinet departments before becoming an independent agency, the Bureau of Naturalization and Immigration (later the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS). In 2003, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, INS became part of the new Department of Homeland Security, with its functions taken over by the US Citizenship and Naturalization Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection. The judiciary committees of the House and the Senate would continue to be responsible for legislation and oversight concerning citizenship issues both broadly and strictly defined.

The various restrictions on Asian immigration culminated in their complete exclusion in the Immigration Act of 1924, which also diminished the flow of eastern and southern European immigrants by restricting the annual number of immigrants from each country to 2 percent of that nationality in the United States in 1890. World War II ( 1939–1945 ), the Cold War, and refugees led to the weakening of the quotas.

The national origins system was replaced by a series of acts, most notably the Immigration Acts of 1952 and of 1965, which abolished the earlier national origins measures and emphasized family reunification and jobs skills. Passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, the 1965 Act has provided the basic framework of immigration policy ever since. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided amnesty and legalized aliens who had resided in the United States unlawfully since January 1, 1982. It also sanctioned employment of those illegally in the country. The latter provision has been enforced sporadically at best. The result was a dramatic increase, over subsequent decades, in the number of immigrants (and future citizens) from the Western Hemisphere and Asia. This demographic change is at the heart of current disputes over amnesty and illegal or undocumented immigration ( Tichenor 2002, 230–241 ). Is immigration to be measured by its economic benefits or by its effects on political loyalty ( Hanson 2007, 148–150 )?

Tichenor 2002, 289–296 ).


Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address ( 1933 ), a call to arms to fight the Great Depression, even justified a “temporary” suspension of the separation of powers, with the voters who elected him transformed into privates in an army. He compared his responsibility in this domestic crisis to what it would be during a foreign invasion. From a relationship among citizens, who create and legitimate a government, his Progressive new understanding transformed the contract into a dramatically unequal one between the people and the government.

Based on this understanding and Progressive racist tenets, President Roosevelt relocated ethnic Japanese from the West Coast following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 ( Hayashi 2004, 76–88 ). But the war, as did earlier wars, gave blacks, Japanese, Latinos, and others the opportunity to prove their worth to their fellow Americans and claim an equal share in citizenship. This bonding wartime experience, among others, aroused demands for justice, and a maturing conscience culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But what sort of America did these minorities join? The great contrast with Roosevelt was expressed in Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address ( 1981 ), which asks, against the logic of Progressivism, “But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” In Reagan's view “we the people” are heroic and are capable of such a feat as self-government. By making the case that “government is the problem,” Reagan shaped debate about government into the new century.

Reagan was in turn answered by Barack Obama, who boldly affirmed the need for government. Rhetorically, Obama manifested in his speeches, books, and very presence the unification of the now multicultural country. His second inaugural address begins by invoking the Declaration but then proceeds to use it to contrast the dutiful citizen with the selfish individual. Moreover, such citizens, who champion the cause of those who previously felt oppressed—blacks, immigrants, women, and gays—could claim the true inheritance of 1776 and become the exceptional nation in a radically different way. Thus, in the twenty-first century the controversial meaning of the Declaration of Independence remains at the heart of who Americans should be as citizens in both their rights and their duties.

SEE ALSO Citizenship, Pathways to ; Civic Agency ; Political Participation ; Representation: The Represented ; Voting Behavior .


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Ken Masugi
Center for Advanced Governmental Studies Johns Hopkins University