Citizenship in these United States has consistently been in a transformative mode. From early American settlers, through the colonial period to Statehood and nationhood, and through transition from territorial to Statehood status, citizenship was a phenomenon appreciated but not necessarily understood. It was loosely defined, but yet highly valued. This was tolerable within the framework of limited government and widely accepted comity among the States and the U.S. Government. But comity among the States and the U.S. Government and limited government have been displaced by something radically different.
What is citizenship? Properly understood, a citizen is “one of the sovereign people. A constituent member of the sovereignty, synonymous with the people.” However, a funny thing happened in the course of American political development. That funny (or not so funny thing) is that the notion of sovereignty has been swallowed up by the notion of allegiance. As a matter of fact, the use of the word “citizen” is delusive, the word “allegiant” factual.
The word “citizen” implies an exalted position of the individual in relation to his government. The word “allegiant” suggests the individual as a faithful and loyal follower of his government. And the allegiant’s debased position to his government is not necessarily consensual, but may be, if questioned, enforced by the coercive powers of the government.
Like it or not, citizenship in these United States mandates allegiance to one’s government. Principles such as individual sovereignty, the consent of the governed, and even the constitution rule of law become relatively meaningless in practical politics.
This may always have been the case. In discarded federative republic of these United States the ambiguity regarding citizen’s posture towards his government was masked. When the U.S. Government was relatively weak, citizenship was more of a visceral sentiment than an intellectual and/or legal determination.
All this changed after war erupted in 1861. During the war citizenship was placed in the crucible of red hot politics, with legalism serving as both the anvil and hammer. Legalism became the determining factor ipso facto; that is, the victors militarily, politically, and statutorily mandated that all citizens must affirm their allegiance towards the U.S. Government. The antebellum ambiguity was clarified.
Senator Howard’s questioning of Robert E. Lee, on February 17, 1866, provides a glimpse into the evolution of American citizenship during this transitional phase.
Senator Howard: And that the ordinance of secession, so-called, or those acts of the State which recognized a condition of war between the State and the general government, stood as their [the States of the Confederacy] justification for their bearing arms against the government of the United States?
General Lee: Yes, sir. I think they considered the act of the State as legitimate; that they were merely using the reserved right which they had a right to do.
Senator Howard: State, if you please, (and if you are disinclined to answer the questio n you need not do so, ) what your own personal views on that question were ?
General Lee: That was my view; that the act of Virginia, in withdrawing herself from the
United States, carried me along as a citizen of Virginia, and that her laws and her acts were binding on me.
Senator Howard: And that you felt that to be your justification in taking the course you did?
General Lee: Yes, sir
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