For the Fourth of July, Reflections on the Meaning of American Citizenship

A good American will be committed to the universal principles on which our republic is based, but will also safeguard and cherish the particular interests and identity of our country.

The celebration of the Fourth of July invites us to reflect on what it means to be an American citizen. 

Today, such reflection is especially necessary, because the meaning of American citizenship has been distorted by ideology. 

As I observe in a new “First Principles” paper for The Heritage Foundation, these distortions can be cured by referring to the thoughts of the American Founders.

We live in an age that demands rights and equality. We are accordingly conditioned to think about citizenship in terms of the equal possession of individual rights.

There’s truth in that view, but it’s not the whole truth. 

America was founded upon the teaching of the Declaration of Independence that all human beings equally possess certain fundamental rights—to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

These natural rights, however, are not the rights of the citizen, which depend instead upon the creation of particular political communities. 

Nor is the meaning of citizenship to be found in its fullness in sharing in the individual rights protected by the Constitution.

For the most part, these rights—to protections in criminal procedure and to freedom of speech and religion, for example—extend even to those who are not citizens of the United States, but who live under its authority.

In truth, citizenship is not so much a sharing in individual rights as it is a sharing in communal responsibility. 

Citizens vote, hold public office, and serve on juries. They, therefore, take a part in governing the community, in exercising power for the sake of the common good. 

For that reason, we just as appropriately speak of citizenship not only as a right, but a privilege and a responsibility. 

Thus, in the Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton referred to “the political privileges of the citizens in the structure and administration of the government.” 

That’s why a certain jealousy about the privileges of citizenship is warranted, and why some jurisdictions in the United States withhold some privileges of citizenship—such as voting—from those who are too young to exercise them responsibly or who have demonstrated contempt for the good of the community by breaking the law.

We also live in an age that venerates diversity and inclusivity. We are often reminded that America’s fundamental principles permit anyone, of any nation or background, to become an American citizen.

Here again, that’s true—but not the entire truth. 

America is founded on the rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence, which applies to all human beings. Since Americans’ identity as a people rests on respect for these rights, and not on any ancient sharing in “blood and soil,” any person of any background can become an American citizen. 

To that extent, American citizenship can manifest a kind of diversity that isn’t characteristic of other nations whose identity is based on ethnicity.

Nevertheless, the Founders also emphasized the unity that citizenship demands: A unity is respect for, and capacity to uphold, the principles of our political way of life. 

That’s why Founders as different as Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson both insisted that America should bestow citizenship carefully, looking to the new arrivals’ respect for a rights-based, self-governing way of life and their ability to live out the “temperate love of liberty so essential to real republicanism.”

Finally, we often think of citizenship only as participation in America’s political regime. As such, it has been said many times that “America is not just a country, it’s an idea.”

There’s truth in that, but we might with equal truth say that “America is not just an idea, it’s a country.” 

That is, besides being a political regime based on respect for natural rights, and for the political structures and liberties embodied in the Constitution, America is a nation like any other, with concrete interests that it needs to protect and promote. 

The Founders were mindful of this fact, too, when they wrote the Constitution. 

The Constitution withholds some of the rights of citizenship for a certain period, to ensure that new citizens are firmly attached only to the interests of the United States—and not to those of any other nation. 

Thus, the Constitution requires that one must be a citizen for seven years to be elected to the House of Representatives, be a citizen for nine years to be elected to the Senate, and be a natural-born citizen to be president of the United States. 

These limits on inclusivity were included on the realistic view that America, despite being based on universally applicable political principles, is still a particular nation with concrete interests that differ from the interests of other nations.

Therefore, it’s the duty of a good citizen not only to preserve and protect America’s regime, but also to safeguard the nation’s more ordinary interests as well.

We learn from the Founders, then, that the meaning of American citizenship is more complex than we today often realize. 

To be an American citizen is to share in a regime based on equality of natural rights, but it is also an exercise of political authority and therefore a responsibility and a privilege.

American citizenship is open to certain kinds of diversity, but it also depends on a certain kind of unity.

A good American will be committed to the universal principles on which our republic is based, but will also safeguard and cherish the particular interests and identity of our country.

Understanding these complexities is a necessary prerequisite to living out the full meaning of American citizenship and to preserving and passing on to the next generation the nation we have been blessed to inherit.

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Carson Holloway

Carson Holloway is a visiting scholar in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics of the Institute for Constitutional Government at The Heritage Foundation. He is also a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska–Omaha and is the author of “Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.”

This piece was originally published at Daily Signal