Citizenship in the United States: A Historical Assessment of a Present-Day Contretemps

John Allphin Moore, Jr.


In late 2015, debate among many US Republican presidential candidates focused on immigration policy, with one candidate who was hostile to America’s immigration policy, opining that the 14th Amendment’s definition of citizenship may be unconstitutional. This was the view of the GOP candidate who eventually won the Presidency. The question of citizenship, and the linked issue of rights, was contested in the early republic. Much of the quarrel revolved around the issue of slavery. At least three competing notions of citizenship and rights gained traction by the first half of the 19th century: one argued for citizenship and rights only for whites; another urged that “popular sovereignty” should determine rights and citizenship. A third insisted on an inclusive definition of citizenship. By 1868, the 14th Amendment underscored the latter view. But, as current affairs in America show, the bickering persists, often using arguments similar to those found in the early republic’s squabbles. This essay explores the debate among the viewpoints articulated during the first half of the 19th century and seeks to draw out counsel for our own time.


citizenship; immigration; rights; empire; constitutionalism

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ISSN: 0044-8060
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