Constitution and Civic Ideals

views updated


The renowned constitutional scholar alexander m. bickel believed that "the concept of citizenship plays only the most minimal role in the American constitutional scheme." The Constitution "bestowed rights on people and persons, not … some legal construct called citizen"—a state of affairs Bickel thought "idyllic."

Indeed, the unamended Constitution mentioned citizenship remarkably infrequently. Three times it made citizenship "of the United States" required for the elective federal offices (Article I, sections 1–2; Article II, section 1). It mentioned citizenship of a "State" four times in describing the jurisdiction of the federal courts (Article III, section 2), and once in protecting citizens' privileges and immunities by a principle of interstate equality (Article IV, section 2). Article I, section 8, also gave Congress the power to establish "an uniform Rule of naturalization." That was all. The Constitution did not define United States or state citizenship, explain their relationship, or specify their "Privileges and Immunities." Strikingly, it did not demand citizenship of voters, Supreme Court Justices, or even traitors (Article III, section 3).

Yet, despite its silences on citizenship, the Constitution embodied not one but several civic ideals, all of which presented a conception of the nature and meaning of membership in the Union that its Framers aimed to perfect. With deference to Bickel, the Constitution's reticence about these ideals traces only partly to an exaltation of universal personal rights over all particular political identities. In important ways the different civic ideals visible in the Constitution were in sharp tension with each other. The Constitution's silences also reflected the Framers' decisions not to confront, much less resolve, those difficulties. Subsequently, these initially postponed conflicts over rival civic ideals have shaped the nation's evolution profoundly. Over time, Americans have modified their original civic conceptions, and in the twentieth century many have supported a new ideal of American civic identity.

In framing the Constitution, American leaders drew on the classical republican tradition espoused by James Harrington and analyzed by Baron de montesquieu and from colonial and revolutionary struggles men like luther martin derived their beliefs that legitimate governments must be popularly controlled and that popular governance must be conducted preeminently in small republics. Hence, they favored federalism, opposed lodging any extensive power in the national government, and continued to believe in the primacy of state citizenship over national citizenship. From the Enlightenment liberalism of john locke and, in most American readings, william blackstone, others such as james wilson and james madison derived their esteem for sacred personal rights, including rights of property and conscience (expressed in the contract clause limits on the states and the Article IV ban on religious tests for national office). Such men tended to favor national power and the primacy of Americans' more extended membership in their nation.

But beyond their liberalism and republicanism, American leaders from gouverneur morris to charles pinckney also expected that to be a full member of the American community, one would share in a special ethnocultural heritage clustered around Protestant Christianity, the white race, European or (preferably) American birth, and male predominance in most spheres. This version of "Americanism" led them to require all Presidents after the revolutionary generation to be "natural born" citizens (Article II, section 1); to countenance black chattel slavery implicitly but recurrently (e.g., Article I, sections 2 and 9; Article IV, section 2; Article V); to distinguish tribal Indians from both Americans and foreigners twice (Article I, sections 2 and 8); and to accept tacitly the subordinate status of women. Such an Americanism was often bound up with Protestant visions of the new Union as a "redeemer nation," providentially selected to serve divine purposes. Christianity also pervaded the other early American civic conceptions, intertwining with republican espousals of public virtue as well as liberal precepts of human dignity that transcended temporal politics and nationalities.

None of these civic conceptions could gain exclusive sway in the Constitution; none could be wholly ignored. In some respects, the Framers invented a novel kind of national liberal republic that was a significant contribution to the development of modern regimes. But some fundamental conflicts were compromised or evaded precisely by leaving citizenship and the touchy relation between state and national political membership undefined: by avoiding, explicitly accepting, or opposing the illiberal institution of black chattel slavery; by not specifying civic privileges and immunities; and by refusing to establish a national religion while permitting state establishments to continue. Even the relationship of state authority to Congress's new power to naturalize citizens was left for later resolution.

Almost immediately, state-oriented republican anxieties about the Constitution's expansions of national power compelled Congress to propose the bill of rights, explicitly reserving powers to the states and protecting local institutions like militia and juries, although several amendments, the first amendment especially, also specified liberal protections of basic personal freedoms. Clashes between Jeffersonianism and Jacksonian states ' rights republicanism and the federalists ' and Whigs' nationalist economic liberalism continued through the antebellum years, accompanied by growing conflicts pitting liberal and Christian advocates of expanded rights for blacks and other ethnic and religious minorities against Americanist defenses of Protestant white male supremacy. Finally, of course, issues of the primacy of state versus national citizenship and the status of blacks fueled the Union's great crisis in the 1860s. The civil war amendments appeared to decide those disputes in favor of liberal nationalistic civic conceptions, but in the late nineteenth century both traditional republican views of federalism and Americanist views of racial and gender hierarchies were in many respects successfully reasserted.

Most Progressive Era reformers remained narrow Protestant Americanists, but Progressive intellectuals on the left, including John Dewey, Randolph Bourne, and Horace Kallen, began formulating a broader conception of American civic identity. They drew on republicanism's calls for democratic participation, liberalism's emphasis on equal human dignity, and Americanism's stress on the importance of constitutive social identities. But, relying on pragmatist philosophic foundations, these thinkers reformulated those conceptions into one that may be termed "democratic cultural pluralism." It represented American nationality as a democratically organized confederation of disparate ethnic, religious, and cultural groups, all entitled to equal respect in public institutions and policies; these groups would serve as the primary loci of most persons' social identities. Democratic pluralists saw national membership essentially as a means to advance the welfare of all such groups on a fair, neutral basis. The democratic cultural pluralist conception of American civic identity increasingly came to prevail in judicial constitutional doctrines and in American citizenship statutes after the new deal and especially during the Great Society years. The federal government repudiated racial segregation, ended ethnically exclusionary immigration and naturalization policies, reduced legal discriminations against women, and promoted broader opportunities via bilingual and affirmative action programs. In the 1970s and 1980s, criticisms of these measures mounted, with many contending that they promoted fragmentation and group selfishness instead of national unity. Thus, the great questions about American civic ideals that the Constitution did not answer still remain far from settled.

Rogers M. Smith

(see also: Gender Rights; Jacksonianism; Jeffersonianism; Political Philosophy of the Constitution; Pragmatism; Progressive Constitutional Thought; Progressivism; Sex Discrimination; Whig Party.)


Karst, Kenneth L. 1989 Belonging to America: Equal Citizenship and the Constitution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Kettner, James H. 1978 The Development of American Citizenship, 1608–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

About this article

Constitution and Civic Ideals

Updated About content Print Article