Claremont Review of Books

From Subjects to Citizens, and Back

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for American Common Culture
(Sawyer Sutton)
(Sawyer Sutton)

The defining conflict of our era is whether the United States will remain a democratic republic or morph into a high-tech administrative oligarchy. The late Angelo M. Codevilla called this national struggle our “cold civil war.”

Leaders in the commanding heights of our political and cultural institutions openly revile the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. They repudiate the core concepts of republican citizenship, national borders, and government by consent of the governed. If given their way, the ruling classes will abolish the sovereignty of the American people.

Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Edward J. Erler has fought tirelessly to preserve the American way of life against these corrosive forces. In the opening pages of The United States in Crisis: Citizenship, Immigration, and the Nation State, Erler explains how elites’ feverish efforts to destroy a duly elected president, Donald Trump, “revealed the extent to which American democracy had, indeed, transmogrified into an oligarchy.” He analyzes this “transmogrification” in terms of three interrelated dynamics: citizenship, immigration, and national sovereignty.

Erler, a professor of political science emeritus at California State University, San Bernardino, is America’s foremost expert on the ongoing controversy over birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. He rightly argues that the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause must be understood in light of the founders’ belief in natural rights, the social compact, and the consent of the governed.

Prior to the Declaration of Independence, the colonists were, under English common law, subjects of King George III. They owed their monarch perpetual allegiance. The great theorists of English common law, Edward Coke and William Blackstone, never spoke of this relationship in terms of “citizens” or “citizenship”—they mentioned only “subjects” and “subjectship.”

But, writes Erler, the Declaration created a new nation: its authors renounced all allegiance to the British crown and so disavowed the common law idea of “subjectship.” Unlike British subjectship, this new American citizenship was not perpetual and involuntary, but based upon consent. The American Revolution meant that the “historical rights [of Englishmen] were transformed into natural rights grounded in the law of nature.”

American citizenship was formally defined for the first time by the Reconstruction Congress in the Civil Rights Act (1866), the Expatriation Act (1868), and the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment (1868), which over- turned the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. These new laws made it clear that former slaves and people of African descent were citizens of the United States. Senator Jacob Howard (a major sponsor of the Reconstruction laws) declared unequivocally that American citizenship was based on “natural law and national law,” not the subjectship of the common law.

Another principal sponsor, Congressman Frederick Woodbridge, reaffirmed the founders’ natural rights framework by explicitly denouncing the common law concept of perpetual allegiance. He stated that this “doctrine” is "based upon the feudal system under which there were no free citizens" and is "at war with every principle of justice and sound public law."

Read the full review in the Claremont Review of Books.