Born in U.S.A. Is What Makes Someone an American
By Eric Foner
August 17, 2010

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The Civil War transformed the debate over citizenship.
In a sense, the 14th Amendment wrote into the
Constitution the results of the Union's triumph and the
destruction of slavery. It begins by defining as
citizens all persons born or naturalized in the U.S.
"and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" -- language
meant to exclude Indians, deemed to be citizens of their
respective tribes, and American-born children of foreign
diplomats. It goes on to bar states from depriving these
citizens of life, liberty or property or denying them
the "equal protection of the laws."

The most important change in the Constitution since the
Bill of Rights, the 14th Amendment was intended, first,
to establish beyond doubt the citizenship of the 4
million emancipated slaves and to consign Dred Scott to

But the Republicans who controlled Congress also had a
larger purpose. "It is a singular fact," the
abolitionist Wendell Phillips wrote in 1866, "that,
unlike all other nations, this nation has yet a question
as to what makes or constitutes a citizen." The 14th
Amendment established the first national definition of
citizenship and with it the idea that these citizens
enjoyed their rights as part of the American people
rather than as members of particular racial or ethnic

National Consciousness

In this, it reflected the expansion of national
consciousness brought on by the Civil War. The struggle
against slavery crystallized the idea of the national
government as "the custodian of freedom," in the words
of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. The Black Codes
enacted by all-white southern governments soon after the
end of the war, which sought to reduce freed people to a
condition reminiscent of slavery, reinforced the
conviction that the states couldn't be trusted to
respect Americans' basic rights.

Did Congress intend birthright citizenship to apply to
the children of illegal residents? No such group existed
in 1866; at the time, just about anyone who wished to
enter the U.S. was free to do so. Only later were
certain groups singled out for exclusion -- prostitutes,
polygamists, lunatics, anarchists, and, starting in
1882, the entire population of China.


The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that birthright
citizenship applies to every American-born child and
equal protection of the laws to citizens and non-
citizens alike. The key cases, decided in the late 19th
century, were U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, which affirmed the
citizenship of children born to Chinese immigrants, and
Yick Wo v. Hopkins, which overturned a San Francisco law
discriminating against Chinese-owned laundries.


Adopted as part of the effort to purge the nation of the
legacy of slavery, birthright citizenship remains an
eloquent statement about the nature of our society and a
powerful force for immigrant assimilation. In a world
where most countries limit access to citizenship via
ethnicity, culture or religion, it sets our nation

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