National Beginnings—American versus British Citizenship


National Beginnings—American versus British Citizenship

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any declaration, instruction, opinion, order, or decision of any officers of this government which denies, restricts, impairs, or questions the right of expatriation, is hereby declared inconsistent with the fundamental principles of this government.

—U.S. Congress, Expatriation Act, 1868

From Subjects to Citizens

In the past, political membership was seen as a biological condition. Being born into a particular community determined a person’s natural subjectship.1 Therefore, persons who did acquire allegiance to a new ruler were considered to be “naturalized,” a term that is still used today although its underlying meaning is usually rejected.2 Thus, it is common to understand persons in pre-democratic political arrangements as subjects rather than free citizens. This in turn meant that the world was divided into groups of people whose allegiance was assigned by birth, regardless of their color, parentage, or race; consequently, their political identity was “not alienable: it could not be renounced, abandoned or confiscated.”3 Since one of the debates regarding citizenship concerns individuals’ identity at birth, the history of modern citizenship can be described in terms of the changing relationship between membership and biology. Before the emergence of the nation-state as the dominant political arrangement in the nineteenth century, people were officially bound to each other by hierarchical, overlapping, religious, and dynastic systems. “Legally, people were peasants, gentlemen, barons, burghers, laity, or clerics first, and Englishmen, Belgians, or Germans second or third if, at all.”4 A process of separation between national identity and biology, which began with the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, crystallized during the French Revolution and in the American Declaration of Independence, deepened throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and continues even today.5 But this development has not been linear, equal, or inevitable, for it was introduced in a different context in each country, was actualized differently or even retracted in some, and there are still several countries that grant citizenship only on the basis of ethnic descent. Moreover, this process has never been completed. For most inhabitants of the world, citizenship is still a biological disposition. Most citizens are born into this status and will never abandon it or acquire another. Even those who do change their allegiance and emigrate to another country will do so in relation to a biological trait—family reunification or ethnic homogenization. Most people who have multiple nationalities acquired them by birth. Thus, by asserting that there is a process of separation between national identity and biology, I do not mean to claim that citizenship is in any way divorced from biology, but that there is a growing understanding that citizenship can be attained or lost by individual choice, regardless of biological qualities. The history of expatriation policy in the United States epitomizes this transformation.

The French and the American revolutions, each in its own way, gave the basic form to modern citizenship, one that entailed a repudiation of the natural subjection of people to a particular authoritarian rule.6 Although French subjects were legally differentiated from foreigners only in the later eighteenth century (as in the droit d’aubaine rule relating to inheritance of property), the ideas and practices of French nationality law mutated from absolutist conceptions into a recognizably modern political notion of citizenship.7 Modern citizenship is based on the rejection of rule by hereditary monarchical and aristocratic families in favor of a broader community of political equals. The French Revolution crystallized the modern institutions of the nation-state and of citizenship. The four aspects of the revolution—the bourgeois revolution, the democratic revolution, the national revolution, and the bureaucratic revolution—led to the form of national citizenship that determines most of men’s (and later on women’s) obligations and rights up to the present day.8 The constitution adopted in France in 1791 legally established the term “citizenship” for individuals eligible to call themselves French. In the next century, attitudes toward foreigners in France were constantly changing, in tandem with the changes of political rule. The 1889 Naturalization Law codified for the first time nationality laws according to the jus soli principle, which governs French immigration policies till now. This principle states that children born in France can become French citizens upon reaching adulthood.9 Therefore, citizenship is still determined by biology, but now it is determined by birthplace (in French territory) rather than by descent.

Biological Subjects and Alienable Citizens

But as men, for the atteyning of peace, and conservation of themselves, have made an Artificial Man, which we call a Common-wealth; so also have they made Artificial Chains.

—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

The above quotation from Thomas Hobbes signifies the beginning of the transformation toward modern political membership. Hobbes’ writings illustrate the beginning of Anglo-American liberal thought: He freed the individual to make subjective judgments as to the validity of institutions, and thereby initiated a shift from membership being perceived as a biological condition to membership seen as a social construction.

The independence of the United States formalized a novel approach to the relationship between citizenship and bloodline. In early British common law tradition, legal and political status was associated with the notion of prescribed perpetual allegiance, rather than an idea of citizenship as consensual membership. Allegiances were conceived as natural vertical ties between individual subjects and the king, like parent to child,10 and these ties could not be dissolved even with the subject’s consent. Voluntary renunciation of British subject status was an inconceivable concept. These ties knitted together the British Empire, not only the British nation: “There was no specific citizenship status for the colonies, for Britain itself, or even for the independent Commonwealth countries.”11

The American concept of citizenship, on the other hand, reflects the continuous tradition of immigration both in its formation and in its myths. Thus, the British colonists’ growing unhappiness with British rule arose not only from economic and political frustrations, as presented in the well-known slogan—“no taxation without representation”—but also from grievances regarding the autonomous identity of the settlers. The American War of Independence was fueled by sharp criticisms of the British concept of unchangeable allegiance—an impossible option for the “New World” settlers—and by the adoption of naturalization (or voluntary adhesion to the state) as the principle on which American citizenship was based. In fact, many of the clashes the United States had during the nineteenth century with other countries around the world, including the 1812 war with Great Britain, were connected to the insistence of foreign countries that national allegiance cannot be renounced or transferred.12