Making Free Men and Women

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Richard Samuelson’s timely Claremont Review of Books essay, “The Genius of American Citizenship,”  presents the Founders’ argument for the citizenship of American exceptionalism, as opposed to the cultural and economic arguments that have dominated today’s debate over immigration. As Jefferson feared then, citizen identity without a sense of political duty will produce a “heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass”—the conditions for centralized bureaucracy we are seeing ever more realized today.

The great shift in American thinking—manifested in Jefferson’s own shift between his “Summary Rights of British North America” and the Declaration of Independence—is the identification of Americans with the rights of all men, not the rights of Englishmen.

[T]he colonists had to choose between being British subjects and retaining their rights. The Americans chose their rights. As a result, American citizenship would be based upon the rights of men rather than the rights of Englishmen. The penchant for universals, and for the robust discussion of them that has been so long remarkable in American history, was affirmed and established.

Oddly, our seemingly democratic adherence to being born on American soil (but see the strong case of Ted Cruz) is actually based on British standards we rejected and violates the real standards for citizenship. Thus, Wong Kim Ark and Plessy v Ferguson are cut from the same cloth, a shrunken view of the 14th amendment.

Samuelson uses the case of America’s welcoming of Jewish immigrants to illustrate these principles. Calvin Coolidge stated this admirably:

Our country has done much for the Jews who have come here to accept its citizenship and assume their share of its responsibilities in the world. But I think the greatest thing it has done for them has been to receive them and treat them precisely as it has received and treated all others who have come to it.

If our experiment in free institutions has proved anything, it is that the greatest privilege that can be conferred upon people in the mass is to free them from the demoralizing influence of privilege enjoyed by the few.

This is how the country should welcome immigrants, not for future electoral purposes or in order to tax them on account of their ancestors (e.g., London Mayor Boris Johnson). The older, prevalent “dirt” argument needs to be eclipsed by a “spirit” argument—coincidentally recalling the two accounts of the creation of man in Genesis.

Samuelson also notes how big government’s emphasis on group identity means in turn membership in groups that produce faction. Note how the HHS mandate drives a wedge (a “hyphen”) between Catholic religious obligation and alleged political obligations. The citizen disappears or becomes identified with activist or taxpayer. The more regulation, the more a centralized command-and-control pluralism, and then an “end of American exceptionalism.”  American exceptionalism requires a sense of citizen obligation that strengthens the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

In sum, there is no better brief introduction to the vital issue of citizenship today than Richard Samuelson’s instructive essay.