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U.S. Citizenship Is Based on Principles, Not Heritage

Photo of Lynn Hollandby Lynn Holland on Sep 8, 2011

"To inspire Western youth to organize on the basis of identity, with pride in their heritage and their history, and counter radical multiculturalism on campus."
      – Mission Statement, Youth for Western Civilization, Tom Tancredo, national chair
Former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo tells us to be proud of our western civilization.   As a legacy of European culture, he says, "Western Civilization is our history."  And, he adds ominously, that civilization is now under attack.  The countries of Western Europe are being invaded by "Islamo-fascists," while here in the United States we face "multiculturalism."  The danger of multiculturalism, says Tancredo, is that it prevents us from assimilating American values. "Be Americans First," he beseeches his audiences, meaning be "western."
But Tancredo misunderstands the fundamental nature of American citizenship.  In this country, citizenship is not about cultural identity; it is about constitutional principles.  From the beginning, Americans embraced a new definition of citizenship and a new process of naturalization that set the nation apart from its European heritage. 
For the American founders, it was not our roots in Western Europe or the legacy of western civilization that defined us.  Rather it was a set of civic values:  liberty, independence, and self-rule.  European citizenship, in contrast, was founded on loyalty to the state as determined by one's birthplace (jus soli), and descent (jus sanguinis).  In Europe, oaths of citizenship affirmed territorial and ancestral heritage, and they usually included swearing allegiance to the nation-state or monarchy.
The members of the First U.S. Congress in 1790 rejected this view.  They preferred a policy of naturalization that would encourage immigration.  Citizenship would be determined by one's freely chosen support for republican principles.  The Congress hoped to avoid the "bigotry, superstition and deep-rooted prejudice" that characterized European policy, as John Page of Virginia put it.  Calling for a "more liberal system" than Europe's, he argued that "it is nothing to us, whether Jews or Roman Catholics settle amongst us; whether subjects of Kings, or citizens of free States . . .  they will find it their interest to be good citizens . . . if we have good laws, well executed." 
James Madison also wanted "to invite foreigners of merit and republican principles among us."  At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he had observed that"America was indebted to emigration for her settlement and prosperity.  That part of America which had encouraged them most had advanced most rapidly . . . ."  In the First Congress, he held that these immigrants would contribute to the "wealth and strength of the community." 
Similarly, John Laurance of New York declared that when a newcomer brings "money, or other property" he increases the general mass of wealth; "if he brings an able body," he will add to "our domestic strength."  Another Congressman urged that "useful men" — "farmers, mechanics and manufacturers" — be received "on liberal terms."
The outcome was the Naturalization Act of 1790.  It established easy terms for naturalized citizenship.  It allowed newcomers to become citizens with a residence of only two years, verification of "good character," and an oath to support the U.S. Constitution. 
In a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport later that year, George Washington noted that U.S. citizens had "given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy."  Happily, he added, the "Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
Undeniably, the Naturalization Act of 1790 was made meaningless for African Americans by its reference to "free white persons."  But years later former slave Frederick Douglass challenged slavery by astutely referring to the very ideals — liberty, independence and self-rule — that the act was based on.  And in our time Martin Luther King would refer to these same principles to advance the cause of civil rights. 
Tom Tancredo's view of citizenship is more European than American.  It is based on cultural identity and heritage.  But in America the first naturalization act announced a different kind of citizenship, a different kind of unity:  one based on principle and law.  Though in practice the naturalization process has been marred by racial and cultural prejudice, the founding principles have made it possible to challenge that prejudice.  The inclusion, tolerance, and diversity that those principles imply can be trusted as the true source of American unity and citizenship.

Lynn Holland teaches comparative politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.