Birthright citizenship—the principle that any person born in the United States is automatically a citizen—has been embedded in the Constitution since the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. This summer, it has suddenly emerged as a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign. Following the lead of Donald Trump, candidates like Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul have called for the repeal or reinterpretation of the amendment, to prevent children born to undocumented immigrants from being recognized as American citizens.
The situation abounds in ironies. Now a Republican target, the 14th Amendment was for many decades considered a crowning achievement of what once called itself the party of Lincoln. Today, moreover, birthright citizenship stands as an example of the much-abused idea of American exceptionalism, which Republicans have berated President Obama for supposedly not embracing. Many things claimed as uniquely American—a devotion to individual freedom, for example, or social opportunity—exist in other countries. But birthright citizenship does make the United States (along with Canada) unique in the developed world. No European nation recognizes the principle. Yet, oddly, those most insistent on proclaiming their belief in American exceptionalism seem keenest on abolishing it.
Why is birthright citizenship part of our Constitution? Until after the Civil War, there existed no commonly agreed-upon definition of American citizenship or the rights that it entailed. The original Constitution mentioned citizens but did not delineate who they were. The individual states determined the boundaries and rights of citizenship.
The Constitution does, however, empower Congress to create a system of naturalization, and a law of 1790 offered the first legislative definition of American nationality. Although the new nation proclaimed itself, in the words of Thomas Paine, an “asylum for mankind,” that law restricted the process of becoming a citizen from abroad to any “free white person.” Thus, at the outset, ideas of American citizenship were closely linked to race.
Slaves, of course, were not part of the body politic. But in 1860, there were half a million free blacks in the United States, nearly all of them born in this country. For decades, their citizenship had been hotly contested. Finally, in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Supreme Court declared that no black person could be a citizen. The framers of the Constitution, Chief Justice Roger Taney insisted, regarded blacks, free and slave, as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race…and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” (This statement, the Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens later remarked, “damned [Taney] to everlasting fame; and, I fear, to everlasting fire.”)
The destruction of slavery in the Civil War, coupled with the service of 200,000 black men in the Union Army and Navy, put the question of black citizenship on the national agenda. The era of Reconstruction produced the first formal delineation of American citizenship, a vast expansion of citizens’ rights, and a repudiation of the idea that these rights attached to persons in their capacity as members of certain ethnic or racial groups, rather than as part of an undifferentiated American people. Birthright citizenship is one expression of the commitment to equality and the expansion of national consciousness that marked Reconstruction.