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New United States citizens raising their right hands as they take the oath of citizenship.


The concept of American citizenship has evolved since America’s founding. Connected to the right to vote, the experience of citizenship has been different for many in America. Explore events, texts, and decisions such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to consider the evolution of citizenship in America and its dichotomy of inclusion and exclusion. Prepare to engage in discourse on what makes an American citizen.

Podcasts & Videos

Beyond the Legacy: Citizenship

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Episode Description
Dr. Donna Phillips: Welcome to Beyond the Legacy and Extension of the Civil Discourse and American Legacy Project. I'm Donna Phillips. Today, we go deeper into our series on citizenship in America. We are joined once again by special guest Professor Henry L Chambers Jr of University of Richmond School of Law. Welcome back, Professor Chambers.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Great to see you.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Thanks. Absolutely. Professor Chambers, let's continue our conversation around the evolution of citizenship in America and and its future.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Sure. Let's talk about about what citizenship is. In some ways, when we think about citizenship historically, we think about it as being membership, Right? Membership in the American polity, that triggers a couple of issues because membership can be inclusive in some ways, but it can be exclusive in other ways. And indeed, the history of America in some ways is one of exclusion as much as it is inclusion.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: So when we think about how we started, how the country started, when we think about the Constitution, we say, well, okay, who are American citizens? Well, that question in and of itself was a little problematic. It's problematic because before there was the United States of America, there wasn't really an American citizenship. There may have been a feeling that the British colonists were kind of Americans in outlook, but they were really creatures of their of their states.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: They were citizens of their states. So when we think about the Constitution originally creating an America and yet I recognize the Articles of Confederation technically created a Confederacy called the Unites States of America. But the America we're talking about is really the United States created by the Constitution. We had just an amalgamation of state citizens who came together and became American citizens.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: That, at least, was the notion of how the American citizen became a thing or how American citizenship became a thing. What the Constitution didn't do was define what American citizenship was, didn't define the content of American citizenship. And that has been an issue for the entire length of the republic.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Yeah, that's that's really interesting. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about, you know, some different periods in our history. And so you know, once the country did come together, how did the notion of state citizenship only transform to, you know, a more modern sense of what we think of as national citizenship?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Yeah, that's a great it's a great issue. There are folks who would argue that the the issue of citizenship remained unclear until the Civil War. And there are many who would argue that it remained unclear even after the Civil War. But let's think about the antebellum period so we can ask how do we determine who the insiders and who the outsiders were?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Couple of things we need to consider. There were certainly groups who were more privileged than others in antebellum America. So let's think about a couple of groups. We can think about enslaved people. We can think about free Black people. We can think about women. We can think about immigrants. And all of those folks get woven into the American fabric in very different ways.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Who should qualify as being a part of this American experiment? Now, we recognize that women were considered always considered citizens, but they weren't treated like first class citizens. So so that's one issue that arises is what's the nature of American citizenship, If you can be called a citizen, but you don't really get the rights of citizenship. So that's one unclear question that that we can sort of think about a little bit.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Second group of folks, whether you're talking about enslaved people or free Black folks, the question of what qualifies as citizenship was interesting because there were a number of states that allowed free Black folks to vote in the antebellum period, going back all the way back to the founding of the nation. There were some folks who argued that if free Black folks who were born in the United States who were allowed to vote in the United States, existed, they should be considered citizens of their state and therefore should have been considered American citizens.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: That was an issue. That issue was resolved at least theoretically resolved, when we saw the Dred Scott opinion where Chief Justice Taney position was free, Blacks and enslaved people could not be citizens. Not only were they not citizens, but they could not be citizens. Tony's position was an odd one, or at least it was one that didn't square with the history.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: But he just made up the history for his own purposes. So you have some issues regarding what do you do about folks who were enslaved and free Black folks. Put those folks aside for a second. Now, what about immigrants or the notion of the United States as being a nation of immigrants, a nation that welcomed immigrants? It's one that we certainly view ourselves as having.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: But we have to recognize that there were always limitations on who could be immigrants, who could come in and who could then become citizens of the United States. Your basic Europeans. Sure. Acceptable folks from other lands. Maybe not so much. So that gives us a little sense of what was going on in the antebellum period. The idea of both inclusion and exclusion with respect to citizenship in the United States.

Dr. Donna Phillips: So speaking of inclusion and exclusion, that's a great framework. And it makes me think about if we move forward a little bit in history to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Yeah. And then the Emma Lazarus piece, The New Colossus, which is on the Statue of Liberty. How do you how do you reconcile two very different messages about who's included and who's not included and what that means for citizenship in America?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Great. That's a great point. Look, let's think about a 20 year time period and talk about a couple of things that pop up. We think about the end of the Civil War. We get 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, 15th Amendment right. So we get with the 14th Amendment, the notion of birthright citizenship, the idea that we're going to extend the rights of citizenship, or at least we're going to extend the notion of citizenship to freed slaves and certainly free Black folks who were born here.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: So great. We're thinking, this is awesome. We are. We're expanding what we think of as citizenship. We do recognizing with the 15th Amendment. In fact, we extend we extend the right to vote to African-American that at least we limit how states can limit the right to vote. And we say states cannot limit the right to vote on the basis of race.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: So as a consequence, Black men essentially get the right to vote. Now, since we can still limit the right to vote, we're regarding women. That's a different story. That becomes important, an important piece of the puzzle. So as of 1870, we're in a situation where we've expanded citizenship. We get to 1875 and we see minor versus half percent where we explicitly said not that we where the Supreme Court explicitly says, well, women don't get the right to vote just because the 14th Amendment expands citizenship.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: The court said women still can be limited in their ability to vote because nothing has changed with respect to women in the United States and the right to vote. So citizenship and voting are deemed to be separate. Well, all right. That's 19. That's 1875. Now we get to the two documents that you noted, the Chinese Exclusion Act and Emma Lazarus's New Colossus.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: The idea of inclusion and exclusion are right there in front of our faces. Right. 14th Amendment inclusion. Minorities have said exclusion. Chinese Exclusion Act literally exclusion, right in front of our face, saying we're not going to allow lots of Chinese workers to come into the United States and we're going to treat Chinese workers who are already here poor.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: We're not going to allow them to become citizens, even though they may look like immigrants who in theory, Emma Lazarus, whose poem is on the base of the Statue of Liberty, even though that says give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We're trying to bring people in in the east and in the west.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: We're saying, no, no, no. Not only don't we want you here, but even if you're already here, we're not going to treat you appropriately. So you think about that 20 year time period and what inclusion and exclusion with respect to citizenship looks like. And we have a real opportunity to talk about our history and to think about our history and to ask ourselves what were we doing at that time period and how could we hold these different visions in our mind at the same time?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: It's difficult, but one of the things that we try to do with American Legacy and one of the things we try to do with civil discourse is to look at how we haven't always lived up to our ideals and to ask how do we make ourselves better and how do we do better moving forward?

Dr. Donna Phillips: And this tension between who's included and who's excluded, how do you see that continuing to play out in our history or in our future?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Yeah, it's a great question. And as you note, as time moves forward, we get things like the Indian Citizenship Act, we get us versus Wong Kim Arc, which some people would say, Well, that's odd. We didn't we allow Chinese, Chinese folks who were born in the United States, Didn't we say that they had birthright citizenship? So doesn't that seem to cut against the Chinese Exclusion Act?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: The answer is, well, it somewhat does in that yes, the 14th Amendment applies to children born in the United States, but that doesn't go terribly far when you think of some of the other ways in which folks may well have been excluded. The fact that we get the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 means that you had some folks who were excluded from from from from the population, from the Packers.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: So we get the back and forth over time and with the back and forth over time, we like to think that we're expanding our notion of citizenship. But that's not always the case. There are still some limitations that have existed through through time. And of course, getting to the broader question of who will really be treated as insiders, who will really be treated as one of us becomes a real issue.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: We have to think about that issue. We keep thinking about that issue in terms of of voting issues. So, for example, D.C.. Washington, D.C., for years did not have a right to vote in federal elections. Indeed, right now, still, D.C. has no congressional representation. No, no U.S. senators. D.C. residents do get to vote for the United States are Puerto Rican.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Brothers and sisters are citizens of the United States, but they don't have any representation and they don't get to vote for president either. That is those folks who live in Puerto Rico, obviously Puerto Ricans who have moved to the United States, to the to the to the 50 states do. But Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico do not.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: So our notion of what's an insider, what's an outsider, who's a citizen and who has citizenship rights, who can exercise all of their rights of Americanness remains a question today. And moving forward.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Yeah. And that that insider versus outsider and this is interesting when you think about the differences between natural citizens, the birthright citizenship and naturalized. I have two members of my family who are naturalized citizens and and and witnessing their journey to become American citizens has been really phenomenal. And they speak of their American citizenship very differently than those of us who were born in America with naturalized birthright citizenship.

Dr. Donna Phillips: What do you think about those two and how those two types of citizenships are treated in America as a.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: That's a great that's a great point. When we think about naturalized nation as opposed to birthright citizenship on almost every piece, there's no difference between the two except the Constitution explicitly says presidents most must be birthright citizens. And that raises a real question. Your real question is, do we believe that naturalized citizenship is still somehow significantly different from birthright citizenship?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Now, I would say that it it isn't and it shouldn't be, because the notion should be that whomever we elect as president should have passed all the kinds of tests that were necessary to figure out whether someone is dedicated to the United States or not. Nonetheless, the Constitution explicitly says that with respect to the U.S. presidency, only birthright citizens citizens are allowed.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: One question we can ask is, as we move forward, will that change? Might we see a constitutional amendment? Might we look up and say there are lots of people who are naturalized who not only believe in our country as much as folks who are birthright citizens, but who actually believe more in our ideals than birthright citizens. And as a consequence would be perfectly appropriate to serve in any position we can imagine.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Those are some of the questions that we have to ask. There are two other issues that we want to think about. That is what do we do with folks who are on the path to citizenship but who aren't necessarily there? Think about folks who serve in our armed forces, who are not citizens, but are on the pathway to become citizens.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: We have no problem with taking the the the resources of folks who want to be citizens and saying, oh, we will take your resources. And in fact, we may even have you give your life for the United States. But we're going to act as though you're not quite one of us yet. How we think about that issue for those folks who are on the path to citizenship and those folks who are doing the kind of work that we expect of citizens, how should we treat those folks?

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: That's one piece. The second piece is how should we treat people who are essentially us but who are actual citizens? Think about folks like Dreamers, for example, folks who weren't born here but know but really know no other country than United States, folks who are as American as anybody else, but who are not quite treated as Americans. I am not suggesting that I have the solution, but it does seem as though we need to speak and talk about these issues and think about what it means to be American, whether you're an actual citizen or not.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Last piece is we probably ought to consider what does it mean to be a part of America without being a citizen? So we have a number of jurisdictions that are talking about allowing non-citizens to vote. Folks may be surprised, but historically, non-citizens did vote in American presidential elections. That was cut off in the wake of World War One.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: But asking whether non-citizen should be allowed to vote in local elections or maybe statewide elections, federal elections are probably to the safe right now, But those are some questions that we ought to to ask How should we treat people who are part of America but who may not be citizens? These are all fascinating issues that will be resolved by all generations of Americans, from schoolchildren to young adults to non young adults to senior citizens.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: It's a conversation that requires real discourse done in a very simple manner.

Dr. Donna Phillips: And on that note, we will wrap up. That was wonderful. Professor Chambers, thank you so much.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Glad to talk with you.

Dr. Donna Phillips: Absolutely. I think you've given us all a lot of questions that we now want to engage even deeper with one another on. And this has been fantastic.

Professor Henry L. Chambers Jr: Thanks for having me.

Dr. Donna Phillips: It's been a pleasure having you on the show.

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