The subject of race and citizenship is unfortunately a very contentious one in our society today, what with the passage of Proposition 187 in California in 1994, debates right now about whether immigrants-people who are not citizens but are here-are entitled to Welfare benefits, and questions about who really is a “normal American,” to use a phrase which Newt Gingrich has popularized. But this is nothing new in American history. Ever since the beginning of our history as a nation or even before that, we have debated and fought very vigorously over the boundaries of American citizenship, the rights that American citizens ought to enjoy, where the line is drawn between Americans and others, who’s included within that term “American.” This debate today has taken on a rather nasty and vicious tone that has also been the case at many points in our past history. What I want to do here is to sketch out some history about how American society has defined who belongs to it and what rights people who belong to it ought to have.
Since the beginning of American independence, we have had these bitter conflicts over who should and should not be an American citizen. Of course very bitter disputes about who are citizens are going on in many countries around the world today. But unlike quite a few other countries, we have always defined our nation in terms of universal values. When America established its independence, it was on the basis of rights which supposedly were to be enjoyed by all mankind-a universal definition.
Some political scientists have distinguished between two kinds of nationalism or citizenship. One is based on universalism, the rights of man, etc., which supposedly the United States and France articulate. The other is a nationalism based on ethnicity, on birth, which is supposedly the German kind of ethnic nationalism. The United States is normally taken to be an example of the first kind, the society based on universal rights. One of the things I want to argue is that in fact this is not really the case. In our history we have actually operated on both levels simultaneously. We have affirmed universal rights, but for most of our history, we have defined who was entitled to those rights in racial terms.
Benedict Anderson has written a well known book about nationalism and nations which is often quoted-by scholars anyway-in which he describes a nation as a state of mind, an imagined political community. It’s not just a set of physical borders because, as we well know in the last few years, physical borders of nations can change very radically. Nations which used to exist-like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia-are no longer nations. New nations seem to spring into existence all the time; there are over 170 in the United Nations today. It’s hard to see what all those different entities have in common. Some of them are immense multi-national entities; some are very tiny and homogenous groups. But Anderson says a nation is an imagined political community, that is to say, people define intellectually who is part of their society, not just drawing a physical boundary on a map. But of course, this process of imagining or defining is a political process and rests on power-who has the power to define who is an American and who isn’t, or where the boundaries of exclusion lie. These national identities are not fixed. Citizenship is not fixed. It’s a constant point of contention and has been throughout our history.
One might say that the disputes in America about citizenship have been particularly intense because of the rights which come along with citizenship in the United States. Within this imaginary boundary, people who are citizens ought to enjoy some kind of civil equality, political equality, perhaps even economic equality. For those outside the border of citizenship, those claims to equality are obviously irrelevant. The more rights are enjoyed within the circle of citizenship, the more important the boundary of who’s included and who’s excluded will become. Since citizenship implies the ability to enjoy the full rights of freedom in America, this question of who belongs to American society, who is a real American, has been a central problem since the time of the Revolution.
Now of course, if we go back to the time of the American Revolution, the existence of the institution of slavery was critical in defining what American society was-and who was an American. Slavery helped to shape the identity of all Americans, and it gave citizenship, in our early history as a nation, a powerful exclusionary dimension. In other words, there was a large class of American people who were simply defined as being outside the body politic because of slavery. If you read the Constitution, you will find that it begins with the phrase “We the people,” a very ringing affirmation of the idea that government ought to rest on the will of the people. But of course, immediately you ask the question, “who are the people of the United States?” And if you read carefully you’ll discover that actually “the people” are not all the people within the United States. There are in fact three different groups of human beings mentioned in the Constitution with very different relationships to the national government. One group was Native Americans or American Indians, who were basically declared to be citizens of other nations; the legal fiction that Indian nations were independent entities survives long into the 19th century and therefore the question of citizenship rights for Indians doesn’t arise. They’re members of some other nation, the Sioux Nation, the Cherokee Nation. They don’t need representatives in Congress, they don’t need the right to vote, they don’t need the various prerogatives that come with being a citizen because they’re foreigners, members of some other society.
What about the non-Indian population? They are divided in the Constitution into two groups, people and persons. This seems like an odd semantic distinction but in fact it’s extremely important. The word slavery is never mentioned in the Constitution, but slaves are referred to again and again as persons held to bondage, other persons, etc. We the people, that is the people who create the American Nation, are not equivalent to the population of the United States because the “other persons,” the slaves, are excluded. They are not-as one member of the Constitutional Convention said-“constituent members of our society.” So the idea of citizenship simply doesn’t apply to them.
Now, nothing in our Constitution actually limits the rights of citizens on the basis of race or gender or any other accident of birth. There’s nothing in the Constitution which says women can’t vote. The rights enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are for everyone. It doesn’t say Congress can make no law respecting freedom of speech for men or for white people. But very quickly as the new nation began to define its membership in legal terms it became clear that citizenship and the rights that go along with it were not really open to everybody. Who can come into the United States from abroad and be naturalized as an American citizen? On the one hand, we have always declared ourselves to be an asylum for mankind. That’s what Tom Paine said in Common Sense in 1776. That was the destiny of America. That’s why America needed its independence, to be an asylum for mankind. And the very first Congress in 1790 passed a law providing for naturalization, that is, how a person from abroad could become a citizen.
But we didn’t open our doors to everybody. In fact, the very conception of the imagined community was not at all universal. A Frenchman, Hector St Jean Crevecoeur, who came here and wrote some very well known mythological works about American society in the 1780s, posed this famous question often quoted by historians: “What then is the American, this new man?” And he answered, “he is a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, German, and Swedish.” He’s either a European or the descendant of a European. Now this was at the time when 20 percent of the population of the United States were Africans or people of African origins. They weren’t European at all. The highest proportion in our entire history. Yet they were invisible because of slavery. And the first naturalization law says that anybody emigrating from abroad can become a citizen as long as they are “free white persons.” Only white persons were allowed to become citizens by immigration into the United States. And this restriction lasted a long time. After the Civil war in 1870, Congress added black or Africans to this. So now white or African-there weren’t a lot of Africans immigrating to the United States in the 1870s, but they were now entitled to become citizens. But Asians could not become naturalized citizens until the mid-1940s. So for virtually all of our history the open door for immigrants was not an open door for everybody.
On the other hand, for a century, just about any white person in the world who wanted to emigrate to the United States could do so and become a U.S. citizen. It was only in the late 19th century and then into the 20th century that laws began to be passed singling out particular groups of white immigrants who could not become citizens. The first ones were prostitutes, convicted felons, lunatics, polygamists; later in the early 20th century, anarchists were added, then communists, and, at one point, illiterates-you had to pass a literacy test. But for the first century of the republic, only one group of white people in the entire world was prohibited by law from emigrating to the United States and becoming citizens: titled aristocrats, European nobility who would not give up their titles. If you were the Duke of Gloucester or something and you wanted to emigrate to the United States, you could not become a citizen unless you renounced your title, because this was supposed to be a country without a hereditary nobility.
Now one might ask, what do these two excluded groups, non- whites and European aristocrats, have in common? And in fact they did have something in common in the view of the white majority. Both were viewed as being deficient in the qualities that were required for citizenship in a republic, in a nation based on the will of the people. Those qualities were: the capacity for self-control; the ability to devote yourself to the larger community; and rational forethought. Both aristocrats for political reasons and blacks and Asians for racial reasons were said to be lacking in those qualities.
In fact, if you go back and read Jefferson’s famous comparison of the races, in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, these were exactly the qualities that Jefferson felt black people lacked-partly, he said, due to natural incapacity, and partly (here he was a little bit ahead of the Bell curve and modern ideas like that) because environment and experience had also affected the way black people related to American society. He did feel they were inferior and he said that, but he also said that the experience of slavery had rendered black people disloyal to the United States, quite understandably he felt. He said, given the horrible injustices that have been perpetrated upon them-which he knew were injustices even though he owned slaves himself-how could black people be loyal to this country? It would be impossible. Jefferson believed that black people should enjoy the natural rights of mankind enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, but he thought they should do it somewhere else, in their own country. They could never be citizens of the United States and they should be sent away to some other place-Africa, the Caribbean, etc.-partly because they were not equal to whites, but partly because they lacked that sense of loyalty to the community because of the experience of slavery. That was his argument. And it was the same argument as why European aristocrats couldn’t be citizens of the society either.
The black population did not get itself colonized as Jefferson had hoped. They stayed here and grew in the 19th century, both the slave and the much smaller free population. The freed black population posed a problem for the question of citizenship. Were they citizens of the United States? They were born here. They were not slaves. What rights ought they to have in a country that called itself the Empire of Liberty?
Some of you may be aware that some very distinguished historians over the past decade have written long tomes about nationalism. This is a hot subject. It’s a funny thing about all these books. Number one, they’re all written by Europeans, and number two, they never mention the United States, the first modern independent nation. They have all sorts of theories, but the United States doesn’t fit any of their theories and therefore they just ignore it, instead of thinking about their theories.
The problem is the United States did not have the normal “bases” of nationality that other countries claim to have. We didn’t have physical boundaries. What were the boundaries of the United States? They were changing every five years in the 19th century. And in fact much of the present United States was in the hands of other people. But Americans felt it belonged to them anyway. It was owned by France, Spain, and Mexico. But it didn’t matter, it’s really ours and we’re going to take it from them one of these days, and we did. There were Indian nations around, but there were not the physical boundaries that existed for other countries. We didn’t have historical ethnic unity, cultural unity, religious unity the way other countries did. What was it then that made us distinct? Well, it was our institutions, as De Tocqueville said, our democratic political institutions. The United States was a democracy. That was what made American nationality distinctive. The right to vote then became the key emblem of being a citizen of the United States. In fact, Noah Webster, who put together the first dictionary of American English, in his entry for the word citizen gives various definitions of citizenship. But then he says, in the United States, it means someone who has the right to vote. In England it didn’t mean that, because no one had the right to vote before 1832. So in the United States, the right to vote became almost equivalent to being a citizen.
Now, there were other definitions. The labor movement in the 19th century put forward what you might call an economic definition of citizenship. The citizen is the person who is economically independent, the small producer, the artisan; there was an economic democracy that ought to go hand-in-hand with access to small-property ownership and control over some part of the means of production. But, in the mainstream, the right to vote was the boundary between who was a citizen and who wasn’t. Of course, that excluded a lot of people. It excluded women for the whole 19th century with the exception of a few places. Women were citizens if you assumed that being born in a place makes you a citizen. They could become naturalized citizens- white women emigrating from abroad could become citizens of the United States. The common law, of course, subsumed women within the legal status of their husbands. They didn’t have much of an independent status in society. But, as I say, they could immigrate and become citizens, and a woman didn’t necessarily take the citizenship of her husband. If she was born here she was an American citizen even if she married someone who was not. There was a period from 1907 into the 1920s when Congress actually stripped American women who married foreigners of their citizenship. A native-born American woman who married an alien was required to take the nationality of her husband. Women did not have access to economic independence, they could not control property, and very often, until after the Civil War, they could not control their own wages. They had no claim to any economic payment for work done in the household throughout the whole 19th century. And basically, they were assumed- by the dominant society-to be incapable of exercising political power, therefore, not fully citizens.
But if their position was ambiguous, the position of non-whites was pretty clear: they were just not part of what you might call the political nation. Slaves, of course, were outside the boundary of nationality altogether. They had no rights. There were about half a million free black people in the country on the eve of the Civil War, about half of them in the South and half in the North. But they faced discrimination in every phase of their lives-economic, political, educational, and residential. “Our position,” said Frederick Douglass, “is anomalous, unequal, and extraordinary. We are aliens in our native land.” Malcolm X, many years later, said the same thing in his more down-to-earth language. “Being born in America,” he said, “doesn’t make you an American. If birth made you an American, you wouldn’t need legislation. They don’t have to pass Civil Rights laws to make a Polack an American.” There was plenty of prejudice against white immigrants from abroad, as we know. And yet they were all viewed as potential citizens. White people from abroad were viewed as Americans in the making. The men among them had access to the right to vote even before they became citizens. They had access to jobs in factories which blacks were excluded from. They had access to residential neighborhoods which blacks were excluded from. In other words, white immigrants from abroad were accorded the political and economic rights of American citizens whereas black people born here were not considered part of the society.
So democracy was for whites before the Civil War. Very few black Americans had the right to vote and indeed, in the sixty years before the Civil War, those who did largely had it taken away from them. An interesting thing happens in the first half of the 19th century in the United States. At the time of the American Revolution, the Northern states did not have racial qualifications for voting. The qualifications were gender and property. Women couldn’t vote with the exception of New Jersey for a little period of time, and those who couldn’t meet a property qualification could not vote. That’s not a racial thing. If you were black and you had the property you could vote. What happens in the 19th century is that property qualifications are eliminated, the gender qualification stays, and a race qualification is added. Every state that enters the Union from 1800 on-with the single exception of Maine-limits the right to vote to white men. Not just men with property-white men. Race replaces class as the boundary. Up to 1800, class is the boundary among men. After 1800, race is the boundary.
The most famous decision of the Supreme Court before the Civil War, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, to some extent revolved around this question: “could a black person be a citizen of the United States?” The Chief Justice, Roger Taney, in deciding that case, answered very forthrightly, no. No black person can be a citizen. “Blacks had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” That was his view of black citizenship. Taney was a believer in what people like Justice Scalia and others today call “original intent” interpretation. That is to say, the Constitution ought to be interpreted according to the views of the founding fathers, not according to what we believe today, but according to what they meant when they wrote it two hundred years ago. Taney said, this is not my belief, I don’t think blacks have no rights which a white man is bound to respect, this is the view of the founding fathers. That’s what the people who wrote our Constitution believed and as a judge of the Supreme Court, my job is to implement the views of the founding fathers, not to substitute my views for theirs. They can’t be part of the community. They are not entitled to the liberties and rights of white Americans. And no state could introduce a “new member” into the society. In other words Massachusetts could say blacks can vote, but no other state has to recognize that, because a state doesn’t have the right to introduce a new member into American society.
So on the eve of the Civil War, it was widely believed, in the mainstream of the society, that this was the white man’s government, as the phrase went. How could you have a society based on the principle of equality and yet exclude a large number of people from that equality? Isn’t there a contradiction there? Not at all, in the view of most white Americans; if you exclude people on the basis of their inborn incapacity, then you’re not really excluding them. It is nature which has excluded them.
Now, of course this is a very convenient attitude in a society whose economy is based to a large extent on the labor of Black slaves, whose territorial expansion is based on dispossessing non-white people of their land-Indians, Mexicans, etc. And by the period before the Civil War this view is being justified not only by politicians but by historians. People like George Bancroft, Francis Parkman and others, constructed a whole history of the United States. It’s a narrative of Anglo-Saxon triumph, in which blacks don’t exist, and the other cultures-the Spanish-derived culture of the Southwest, the French-derived culture of the Mississippi Valley-don’t contribute to American society. They’re just obstacles to be overcome in the expansion of Anglo-Saxon liberty. Also politicians-Southern like John C. Calhoun, Northern like Stephen A. Douglas-all kept saying, the government is based on the white race. I believe, says Stephen A. Douglas, this government was made by white men for white men and their posterity. I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, instead of conferring it upon Negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.
This racial definition of citizenship was challenged in this period by the abolitionist movement, by black resistance, North and South. The abolitionists were among the first to develop-this term didn’t exist then-what in the 20th century would be called a “multicultural” or cultural pluralist view of who is an American. The abolitionists, in response to the dominant racist definition, insisted that there was no one single culture which made up America; that we were a mosaic of different peoples; that Blacks ought to be brought in and given their rights as full Americans; that it was a question of natural rights of mankind, not the rights of particular peoples and races. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, just like Crevecoeur, that America was forging a new people, a new race. But his new race included not only Europeans but Africans and what he called “Polynesians” as well. In other words it was going to be a multi-colored kind of new people, not just this European amalgam. And even Abraham Lincoln, not an abolitionist, but a man who hated slavery deeply, rejected the race-based definition of liberty and insisted that the rights of the Declaration of Independence-life, liberty and pursuit of happiness-formed the essence of American citizenship and should apply to everybody, not just Europeans and their descendants.
The era of the Civil War and Reconstruction not only abolished slavery, but led for the first time to a legal definition of who is an American citizen. In the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, for the first time, the United States declared who’s a citizen. You know the original Constitution uses the word citizen here and there, mostly in terms of qualifications. A member of Congress must be a citizen. But it never says who is a citizen. The Fourteenth Amendment finally declares that a citizen is “anybody born in the United States or naturalized.” Now, that may seem self-evident to us today. We don’t even stop to think; but in most countries that’s not the case. You’re not a citizen of Germany because you’re born in Germany. You’re not a citizen of France because you’re born in France. If you’re the child of a “guest worker” as they call it, you’re out. Forget it. The same in England. If you’re born in England, you’re not necessarily a British citizen. Before Proposition 187, Governor Pete Wilson proposed that children born in the United States whose parents are illegal aliens should be deprived of citizenship. Eventually someone pointed out to Wilson that that would require abrogating the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. So he retreated from that to Proposition 187. But the reason you needed that Fourteenth Amendment was to make black people citizens of the United States. This is what gave them the legal claim to citizenship. And it was the crisis of the end of slavery, the service of black people in the Union Army, the demands of blacks for their rights, the crisis of Reconstruction, etc., which led to this defining of citizenship.
Former slaves tried to re-invigorate the economic definition of citizenship. Their view of freedom and citizenship was more than just being recognized as Americans, although that was quite important to them. They believed that access to land, the famous forty acres and a mule, was part of what you deserved as a free person in the United States. Of course, the laws did not give that to them. The economic content of citizenship, at least as it was written into the laws in Reconstruction, was the right to compete in the marketplace. It was the rights of what they called “free labor.” You have the right to acquire property if you can, and to hold it, but no one is just going to give it to you. Nonetheless, it was a radical departure from the previous history of the United States to create this color-blind definition of citizenship in the Fourteenth Amendment.
The point I want to make is that some historians and commentators see the triumph of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the expansion of citizenship as part of the logical evolution of American freedom. We started out with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence which declared our rights but didn’t give them to everybody. Obviously, slaves were excluded. The Civil War was a logical fulfillment of the promise of America and then we expanded the boundary of citizenship. But that’s not how I view it at all. This was actually a repudiation of the real history of the United States over the ninety years since the Declaration of Independence. The United States had never operated as a colorblind society, whatever the rhetoric might have been.
What about women and their citizenship as a result of the Civil War Reconstruction period? Well, the feminist movement of that time insisted that, like race, sex was an accident of birth which ought to have no bearing on people’s rights; that there ought to be a universalistic definition of citizenship or as one feminist, Olympia Brown, said, “We must bury the Black man and the woman in the citizen.” We should not think of people according to their race, according to their gender, we should all be citizens together. But of course this didn’t happen either. In fact, slavery’s denial of the family rights of black people-including the right of the man to be the head of the household-had been among the most devastating criticisms of slavery. And the Republicans, and probably most black men too, saw the end of slavery as restoring to blacks the natural right to family life in which men would take their place as the heads of households and as the representatives to the society and women would return to the domestic sphere from which slavery had unnaturally removed them. So the feminist demands for an even broader definition of citizenship fell on deaf ears, and in some major Supreme Court cases in the late 19th century it was decided that women could consider themselves citizens, but that this did not give them the right to compete equally in the marketplace and it did not give them the right to vote.
Reconstruction, of course, was overthrown. By the end of the century a race-based system of segregation and disenfranchisement was put into place. Ideologically, the nation retreated very rapidly from that notion of color-blind citizenship. By the end of the century there was a resurgence of this racial Anglo-Saxonism in which patriotism and the ethno-cultural definition of citizenship were now renewed. Lower races-this is what they called them-were considered incapable of enjoying either the political or economic rights of American citizenship. And this notion of races-lower races-included not only color, but people that we today would call ethnic groups, all the new immigrants-Jews, Italians, Greeks, etc.-of the early 20th century. The standardized tests of that period showed that all those people were at the bottom. Now, some of them are at the top of the list, but how they got that way if all this is genetic is hard to explain.
The immigrants were representatives of servile races unfit for citizenship in the language of that period. By 1921-24, immigration policy, as we know, was shifted to exclude people from Southern and Eastern Europe and to focus again on the so-called “old Northern- and Western-European” immigration. Now, in the early 20th century, there were intellectuals and others who challenged this exclusivist definition of citizenship and tried to put forward a notion of cultural pluralism: Randolph Bourne, the writer of the Progressive period, and Horace Kallen, who really popularized the idea of cultural pluralism as opposed to the melting pot. But although we read a lot about them nowadays, at the time nobody was particularly interested in what they were saying. In fact, in World War I and the 1920s, the whole thrust was toward what was called Americanization-that is, making immigrants drop their old culture and assimilate themselves fully into Anglo-Saxon American life.
It was only in the late ’30s and World War II that this notion of cultural pluralism as the real Americanism, not a racially exclusive one, becomes a dominant point of view, legitimized by governmental propaganda during World War II. The Popular Front culture of the Communist Party and groups connected with it avidly pushed forward the notion of America as an amalgam of different groups. They directed attention to the plight of black Americans, which most people otherwise didn’t care about at all. The struggle against the Nazis and the ideology of race supremacy certainly re-invigorated this idea of a non-racial Americanism. And in the period after World War II, the Cold War period, this idea of an inclusive American citizenship really became a dominant feature of American life. Nationality quotas for immigration were eliminated in 1965. And those of us like myself who grew up in those years-the Cold War years-grew up assuming that this was the normal American way of doing things. We didn’t realize until we began looking back that this was actually a very abnormal period of American history. This was a very brief period when our society put forward the idea that race, culture, ethnicity have no connection with American citizenship and we really are the asylum for people from everywhere in the world.
The reasons this idea came to the fore are numerous; they include: the discrediting of racial ideo- logies in the struggle against Nazism; the coming to positions of power, particularly in the intellectual and academic world, of the children of the new immigrants-Jewish and others-who obviously were very attracted to this cultural pluralist notion; the consolidation (in the ’30s and ’40s) of the trade union movement, which was committed rhetorically – and sometimes actually – to racial and ethnic inclusiveness; the Civil Rights movement, which reclaims the idea of colorblind Americanism; and the ideological idea of America as an asylum for freedom in the Cold War era, that people fleeing tyrannies abroad would be given access to the rights of citizenship in the United States. All those things came together in a generation or two.
Where we are going? I have no idea. I’m a historian, not a crystal-ball gazer. The only thing I think it’s safe to predict is that in the 21st century this ongoing conflict in America about the boundaries of citizenship, the definitions of who is an American, will continue to be a source of political contention and political struggle.