Guest Essayist: Professor Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School

Amendment XIV, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment is one of four amendments to the Constitution that were intended to overturn or clarify Supreme Court rulings (the 11th, 16th, and 26th were the others). Prior to 1857, there had been much scholarly discussion and political debate, but no resolution or consensus, whether the basis of American citizenship was dependent or independent of state citizenship. Many supported the view expressed by South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun in his famous Senate speech on the Force Bill in 1833, “[Every] citizen is a citizen of some State or Territory, and as such, under an express provision of the Constitution, is entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and it is in this and no other sense that we are citizens of the United States.” On the other hand, James Madison, discussing the need for Congress to provide uniformity in naturalization in Federalist 42, appears to assume that American citizenship cannot be left to the vagaries of state definitions.

The Supreme Court thoroughly examined the issue in the Dred Scott case in 1857. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s majority opinion addressed the interplay between state citizenship and American citizenship. He reasoned that “people of the United States” in the preamble and “citizens” in other parts were synonymous. The people of the United States were composed of the people of the States, as it was they who were the parties to the Constitution in light of the adoption process by state conventions. The “people” of those states were the “free” inhabitants. This was a concept of specific meaning, referring to whites only, not people brought to the colonies as slaves or their descendants, even if thereafter they had been freed. Accordingly, only those descended from white inhabitants and those people naturalized under federal law (since the first statute in 1790, only whites) could be American citizens. This fundamental principle overrode later decisions by individual states to recognize additional classes of state citizens. Scott had no basis claiming citizenship as that term was used in the Constitution. Therefore, he had no power to sue in federal court as a “citizen” of Missouri.

Taney’s argument had a weak link in that there were freed blacks, some of whom could vote in 5 of the 13 states at the adoption of the Constitution. Moreover, the privileges and immunities clause of the Articles of Confederation (the pre-cursor to its counterpart in the Constitution of 1787) had discussed the body of the states’ citizens in terms of their “free inhabitants.” An amendment proposed by South Carolina to insert “white” after “free” was overwhelmingly rejected in 1778. If that was correct, slaves could not claim citizenship, but free blacks could. Just in case, Taney cut off that argument by stating that Scott’s residence with his master in Wisconsin territory could not transmute his status from slave to free.

The main dissenting opinion, by Justice Benjamin Curtis, exploited that weakness, insisting that the Constitution established an understanding of American citizenship that plausibly could extend to all free persons born in the United States. Curtis agreed, however, that the states determined the basic parameters of citizenship, and that American citizenship was derived from the scope of citizenship recognized by the state of birth. The laws of Scott’s state of birth, Virginia, treated him as a slave; therefore he was not at that time a citizen of the United States. Nor would a slave who was temporarily taken into a free state thereby be made free. But when his master took him to reside in a free territory, Wisconsin, that action made Scott a free man and a citizen of the United States. When taken back to live in Missouri, he returned as a free man and became a citizen of that state.

Curtis accepted a unitary basis of citizenship for those born in the United States, one that was determined basically by state law. Taney, on the other hand, accepted a duality: United States citizenship was established by the understanding of the Framers of what made someone part of the “people of the United States.” While states could define state citizenship for themselves, they (or the Congress) could not go against this fundamental principle. Hence, even after the Civil War, freed blacks could not be citizens of the United States, short of a constitutional amendment.

Accepting Taney’s constitutional argument, Congress took that path with the 14th Amendment. United States citizenship was de-coupled from state citizenship, and the latter was made subordinate to the former. National citizenship appears based on place of birth (“jus soli”), the English common law principle going back to feudal antecedents when one’s station was connected to the soil where one was born. However, the amendment also adds that the person must be “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States. This clearly excludes those children born in the United States to foreign diplomats. Does it also exclude those who are born in the United States to parents who happen to be here temporarily or illegally?

The Supreme Court addressed that clause in 1898 in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark. The majority ruled very broadly that anyone (other than the children of foreign diplomats) born on U.S. soil was a U.S. citizen. The dissent argued that the competing international law doctrine of blood relationship (“jus sanguinis”) applied, which required not only birth in the U.S. but that the child’s father did not owe allegiance to a foreign power. This was an old principle of Roman law and ancient Greek practice still used in many countries today. It would keep the native-born children at least of those who are here merely as visitors from claiming birthright citizenship.

How does this affect the current debate about “anchor babies” in connection with illegal entrants into the United States? Proponents of unrestricted citizenship argue for the broad language of Wong Kim Ark that generally has prevailed in the courts. However, there are several weaknesses. First, the issue of illegal entrants, or even of temporary visitors, was not addressed there. Mr. Wong himself had lived in the U.S. all of his life. Wong’s parents had been duly admitted as immigrants to the U.S. with a permanent domicile and were engaged in a business. They were not mere passers-through. Nor were they here illegally, a concept that was not an issue in American immigration law until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, years after the Wongs arrived. It was unnecessary for the Court to give such a broad reading to the 14th Amendment, and the justices simply may not have been aware of the ramifications of their language.

Second, the law-of-the-soil tradition carried with it “indelible allegiance.” Thus, a British subject could not renounce British citizenship, which led the British navy, after American independence, to search American vessels and “impress” into British service naturalized American citizens of British ancestry. Americans have roundly rejected that principle.

Third, the debates over the 14th Amendment included remarks by Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan, the amendment’s sponsor, that seem to say that the amendment does not apply to children of any foreigners or aliens, even if those children are born in the United States.

Fourth, Congress on several occasions throughout American history has employed jus sanguinis, for example, in legislation to recognize as citizens by birth the children born abroad to American citizens. This suggests that the 14th Amendment’s jus soli principle applies, unless Congress, as part of the sovereign powers of the national government, passes a law that rests on a different principle.

Overturning a century-old precedent is difficult, but distinguishing it due to changed social circumstances unanticipated at the time is more persuasive. Still, eroding the jus soli interpretation of the citizenship clause is a longshot, but the public debate likely will intensify the pressure for some political or constitutional accommodation.

An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

April 25, 2012 

Essay #48 

2 replies
  1. yguy
    yguy says:

    United States citizenship was de-coupled from state citizenship, and the latter was made subordinate to the former.

    I submit this is not quite correct. Nothing in the letter of the citizenship clause rescinds the authority states had to confer citizenship by birth on children born abroad to citizens of that state, or shifts said authority to Congress.

  2. Ralph T. Howarth, Jr.
    Ralph T. Howarth, Jr. says:

    I would agree except the present regime paradigm sure has us thinking federal citizenship laws trump state citizenship laws due to, say, the “supreme law of the land” supremacy clause. So what has happened makes Prof. Knipprath right in a political sentiment sense though the legalities are another affair.


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