Throughout is history, the American society has exhibited an unrivalled sense of national identity. Being an American citizen has over the centuries since its independence was seen as the most significant facet of an individual living within US borders. As such, US citizens who are residents in other countries also take much pride in the numerous benefits accruing to them, by reason of their American citizenship. As Bradburn provides, the boundaries defining real aspects of what entails an American citizen have since been blurry and undefinable since independence (1094). The main cause for such an outcome was the fact that colonial America was in essence a region with immense diversity among its people, societies and cultures such that it was impossible to unite them all under a clear description of what entailed the ideal American citizen especially after its official independence. This paper seeks to discuss the ‘problem’ associated with the ambiguity of the definition of American citizenship as formulated during the period referred to as the era of the US constitution.
Description of the Problem
As Schultz provides, from 1790, when the US first federal naturalization act came into full effect up until 1906 when the US government took full control of the naturalization procedure, becoming a naturalized US citizen was a casual affair (149-150). There was no comprehensive federal oversight. It is worthy to note that the American Revolution is considered by history scholars to have set up the foundation for an individual to be deemed as an American citizen. During this time, a distinction arose setting aside subjects from citizens. Subjects were individuals who sought protection from the British colonial Empire’s feudal system and as search were considered inferior peoples within the US (Bardburn 1093). Conversely, citizens were individuals who sought to sustain freedom and equality for all living within American borders.
The original problems associated with the US citizenship dates back to the time of the nation-states. The heterogeneous nature of these colonial polities was such that differences among them abound by reason of economies, regional cultures, political behavior and more so, the individual state problems of attempting to place a definition of being an American (Bradburn 1094). Describing aspects of being an American sought to unify the people within its vast boundaries. This implies that Americans had to be united by a common language, habits, culture, manners, birthplace and race. As such, some loyalists during this period pointed out that the country’s diversity among its peoples, antagonistic attributes and jealousy could not unify them under a single umbrella definition for the American citizen. American independence resulted in numerous British subjects to seek American citizenship. This was despite the fact that the meanings of being American and being a US citizen remained largely ambiguous. This is considered as the origin of the problem associated with the meaning of what constituted being an American citizen. It was especially challenging to the generation responsible for the establishment of the independent United States.
Origin of the Problem and its Impacts on American Societal Diversity
Unlike other revolutions such as those witnessed in the Spanish colonial empire, the American Revolution failed to look into issues associated with the political, psychological and legal transformation of British subjects into American citizens. As Bradburn (1096) provides, rebels against the British colonial administration sought to invoke the idea of natural rights accorded to man as a political instrument and as a sustainable revolutionary imperative. Such constitutions, juridical and more so, rights based traditions were employed towards instituting a system supporting citizenship under the precincts of obligations as well as status of rights ascertained by the US Constitution.
Scholars of philosophy attempted to set for a clear definition of what entailed American citizenship. Most historical scholars found that individualism, voluntarism and contractualism means of characterizing the American society as untrue (Bradburn 1096). As such, revolutionary America could be better described through comparisons with renaissance and classical traditions which primarily vouched for the dismissal of commercial behaviors, selfless and virtuous individual and common good. It is important to note that America rebels against the British colonialists sought to work on a system of citizenship which looked into and supported their real needs but inevitably, excluded addressing real possibilities accruing from the revolution. This stemmed from the fact that the rebels failed to incorporate lessons learned from past revolutions as workable examples.
The innate natural rights that existed in every man could not be changed by governments such that, the American people defined sovereign authority and judges as well as magistrates were considered under law as servants of the people privy to election and even dismissal. Similarly, representatives of the people were also expected to be openly responsible to the constituents and also subject to instruction from the people (Bradburn 1097). As such, voting rights became attached to the individual as opposed to property which was the norm under feudal systems. Allegiance to the country was also founded on individual consent as well as representing the individual’s portion as a member of a specific political society. Fundamental laws could therefore be changed through the people’s sovereignty. The social way of American life thus became defined and more so, protected through natural law as were American ideals concerning freedom, independence and state responsibilities as stipulated in the constitution.
The American Revolution indeed played a significant part in the formulation of the idea of an American citizen, a process which was later projected through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the country’s Constitution (NCC 13-14). One thing that is for sure is the fact that the American Revolution failed to comprehensively address the issue Native Americans, women, loyalists as well as free and enslaved blacks. As such, this set an unfavorable precedent such that the American society after the revolution was one that favored the forcible aspects of coercion. This was especially the case for loyalists where a large number opted for exile rather than subscribe to American citizenship (Bradburn 1098). More so, race, ethnicity as well as the notion of natural inequality between genders resulted in into exclusions as to who could and could not be considered an American citizen.
Another critical aspect associated with the understanding of American citizenship after the culmination of the American Revolution is that the American nation was a relatively new one. As such, the British colonies therein had over a brief period developed discrete cultures as was represented through diverse interests that mirrored diversity in histories and origin (Bradburn 1098). Therefore, the issue of American citizenship tended to involve profound questions concerning community as well as individual identity. This served to present a rather uneasy transformation of the society after independence.
The exclusion principle adhered to after the independence of the US led to situations where called for men and women to execute roles as citizens through different viewpoints (Bradburn, 1098). This led to the situation where women were denied the right to vote. More so, this particular gender was deemed as deficient of the natural capability to possess the will to opt for allegiance. The principal of volitional citizenship championed for the unfortunate outcome. Women could therefore not participate in property ownership, sit in juries, and relied on a public persona which the law required husbands or fathers to mediate on their behalf. However, women of status were considered as being of critical importance especially towards inculcating nationally ideal virtues of morality, patriotism and sacrifice (Bradburn, 1100). The role was considered as quite significance towards the desired development of succeeding generations of male American citizens.
It is without a doubt that the Native American are considered as the most affected from being excluded in the definition of the American citizen. This was in essence due to the fact that during the colonial era under British rule, the Native Americans saw themselves as under authority of the English King (Bradburn 1099). The British colonial establishment, however, often associated the notion of Native American autonomy as a case for dependence. As such, the Native Americans were subjects of the British crown. The profound differences between the Native American’s relationships with the British brought about a situation where they were perceived as alien to American colonial polities. After the revolution, the new country considered Native Americans as an external people and as such, not privy to sharing in the sovereign powers acquired by the new nation. As such, the Native American suffered exclusion from the American description of citizenship based on rules applied against other nonwhite populations reflecting the American political establishment’s reflection of racial dimensions (Bradburn 1099). Other as being secluded as loyalists to the British colonial establishment, race was used to describe the ideal American citizen. The white male was regarded as the principal figure of American citizenship.
The black populations in the US included the free as well as the enslaved populations. In the post American revolution period, a number of American scholars did not perceive the freed Blacks as citizens. This was especially the case in states to the south which sought to ensure slavery continued unabated for economic reasons. The outcome was an even greater ambiguity with respect to status accorded to free blacks. In the Northern states, communities made up of free blacks thrived with the collapse of the institution of slavery therein. Similarly, middle states favored abolition of slavery leading to these black populations to increase at a rate much higher than the populations of blacks under slavery to the South. The result was more restriction to the constitutionally mandated civil liberties. This was referred to as the denization of the black populace (Bradburn 1100). The outcome was the failure by the white populations to consider free black communities as sovereign people under the auspices of the US Constitution. The US thus became a predominantly white nation such that it was not until the end of the Civil War that the situation of blacks as US citizens was perceived in new light.
As Schultz (152) underscores, the US is a nation that was largely built through unabated inflows of foreign migrants. Beginning with President George Washington, the nation’s executive realized that the best manner with which to push forward the country’s development agenda was through naturalization. The country’s first president encouraged Congress to institute the naturalization act which was effective for 116 years (Schultz 154). The difference between immigration and naturalization in this case largely revolved around the issue of ownership of land. As such, the naturalization act was passed as the members of the US congress were in agreement that the new country needed as many farmers on its lands as possible to drive economic growth. However, there was the express call by members of Congress towards ensuring that only people of good virtue could be accepted as immigrants to the new country.
Naturalization followed a very indifferent process which only required a white male, as this was the only individual recognized as purposeful to become a worthy US citizen. One only needed to record documentation and swear an oath to support the country’s constitution before a court of law within states (Schultz 153). The federal government due to its inherent shortcomings could not comprehensively administrate over the naturalization procedures. This lead to a situation later on where states began manipulating the process to meet the personal objectives of influential individuals.
One aspect that compelled the federal as well as state government policy makers to favor unabated immigration and naturalization of white males was the need for continued westward expansion. To meet this end, the ancestral regions of the Native Americans were forcefully taken primarily to the exclusion notion of these people (Schultz 157). As time went by, it became apparent that population growth could not meet the federal and state government’s demands for more agrarian economic drivers. The situation, however, changed in the 1840’s as the Irish immigrants came into the country with no farming skills whatsoever which led them be classified as nonwhites.
After the US Civil War, the black population began expanding and as such, it had the opportunity to serve its own interests. Most of the black scholars and professionals sought to champion for a legal interpretation of what entailed being an American citizen (Holder 165). One of the avenues explored with his regard was the issue of racial indeterminacy highlighted throughout the course of American history. As such, the attempts by the educated blacks were aimed at highlighting the notion of racial purity as misguided.
As this paper has shown, there were many aspects that led to the blurry definition of the American citizen. The aspect of natural rights of man was used to sustain the traditional dominance of the white male gender as being superior to other people. The white male citizens was perceived as the best means through which the newly founded country could be developed along the visionary lies of its founding members. It was at great lengths that the nation achieved its independence. White women suffered from the notions accruing from the natural rights of man which served to underscore the significance men and the natural weaknesses of women. The notion of loyalists led the Native American Indians to suffer the fate of being considered unfit to exist as American citizens. The issue of race and the perception that the white male was the ideal citizen also served to ensure that free blacks were denied liberties in an effort to secure the unrivalled development of the white American male. Native American suffered the longest from the ambiguity associated with the definition of the American citizens. They were also considered as being an inferior race and given their loyalist backgrounds were even forced off from ancestral lands. However, as the political, economic, cultural and social environments changed, these have changed progressively though much more still needs to be done.
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Holder Ann, S. “What’s sex got to do with it? Race, Power, Citizenship, and ‘Intermediate Identities’ in the post-emancipation United States.” The Journal of American History (2008): 153-173. Print.
National Constitution Center. “The Constitution of the United States.” National Constitution Center (1988). Print.
Schultz, Ronald. “Allegiance and land go together’: Automatic Naturalization and the Changing Nature of Immigration in Nineteenth-Century America.” American Nineteenth Century History Vol. 12, No. 2, (2011): 149-176. Print.