Justice  /  Comment

The Real Origins of Birthright Citizenship

Its purpose 150 years ago was to incorporate former slaves into the nation.
J.M. Hogan/AP Images

In the U.S., birthright citizenship begins here, in the struggles of the marginalized and the despised to make this nation their own even as so many claimed that when it came to rights, it was a white man’s country. Most notorious among such denials of black citizenship was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Scott v. Sandford, often referred to as the Dred Scott case. But African Americans saw Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and his decision coming from years away. They had encountered his view—that black people had no rights that white men were bound to respect—in Congress and state courts, in newspaper columns and political conventions. They denounced Taney and the high court, gathering in meeting halls and churches to decry the denial of their birthright. And they never deferred to it. Taney’s decision was another round in a struggle that would take them to the Civil War and beyond.

The 1868 ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, especially its birthright-citizenship provision, was the culmination of a long struggle, rather than a newfangled postwar innovation. Black Americans had defined its necessity, set forth its terms, persisted even in the face of highly placed doubters, and then served up to the Reconstruction-era Congress an idea whose time had come. The Thirteenth Amendment made millions of enslaved people irretrievable and constitutionally free. But it was the Fourteenth Amendment that made them citizens, and with its ratification, the terms of citizenship were transformed for all those born in the U.S., setting in place a regime that persists until the present day. It is the very regime to which many Americans owe their sense of sureness when it comes to national belonging.

It might be easy to forget the origins of birthright citizenship. In many of our lives, it was conferred silently, without ceremony or much paperwork. We might assume it was always this way. It turns out that the quintessentially American story is not one about how it has always been this way. Instead, it is one about struggle—about how our democracy has been made to an important degree by people, like former slaves, who helped build the nation and asked in turn to be full members of it. It is a story about how people largely relegated to the margins make their way to the center—fitfully, unevenly, and not without opposition. Still, their striving, their quest, their insistence that citizenship is a two-way street and a bargain, rather than a gift or a privilege, is the legacy left to us by former slaves who saw themselves as belonging by virtue of birthright long before most others did.