Reclaiming the Citizenship of Our Fathers

Having just finished reading What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song, some readers might well ask, “Really, do we?  Is it that simplistically romantic?”  The editors might well reply in the negative suggesting that the song, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” conveys brilliantly a condition achieved after having weathered a potentially deadly challenge, a condition earned after having acted courageously in the defense of American liberty against a British military assault.  Hence in the title the editors signal that they have intentionally sought out many voices in their remarkable collection which call upon readers to aspire rather than offering them inspiration only, which some entries most assuredly seek to do, suggesting the sum may become greater than the parts.  Perhaps the editors believe that the former is a necessary antecedent for the latter, individual aspiration suggesting the will to become, a process wherein inspiration serves as handmaiden.  The full title of the anthology reflects the central purpose–an inquiry into the substantive meaning of American citizenship.  It may well be the first undertaking of such distinctive scope and perspective.  If this is anywhere close to the mark, then kudos to both the editors’ thoughtfulness and to the publisher’s foresight.

In all there are more than seventy documents offered, each with an introduction which offers a modest context and a series of questions intended to spark conversation about significant questions that relate in one way or another to citizenship.  Significantly, as one reads along in this book, one third of the entries are fictional stories, more about which later.  Historical chronology plays too little a part in the order of presentation.  Instead documents are grouped according to perspectives.  Interestingly and significantly, the title headings for the six chapters appear at first glance to be straight forward, almost prosaic–such as: “National Character: Why Should It Matter?”; “The American Creed”; “Making One Out Of Many.”  However, once readers enter these chapters, the editorial selection of readings will lead in unsuspected directions.  And chapter four, “Toward A More Robust Citizenry: The Virtues of Civic Life” with seven sub-headings and chapter five, “The Goals of Civic Life” with three sub-headings, occupy well over half of the volume.

Reviews of this collection have already appeared.  One, by Joseph Epstein in the November 2011 issue of Commentary, deserves notice as an essay, one with a wise hint of bittersweet,  one that explores Epstein’s meaning of American citizenship, an essay that challenges readers to wonder about what they may have lost over the years, lost without really knowing what or why.  Becoming autobiographical, Epstein, too, wondered and his journey back was revelatory in its expression of sentiment, of growing perspective, of his emerging principle, of his civic courage.  It was a personal journey offered as a window into the larger world of the meaning of American citizenship which is the quest of this volume, What So Proudly We Hail.  Thus did this review became a reflection, a gentle hint to readers that upon encountering this world of documents each would have the special opportunity to revisit their own past using Joseph Epstein as a personal tour guide.

Some readers, stylishly well armed with up to date cynicism, will argue that trying to define American citizenship is like trying to nail meringue to the wall.  Some, seeking sanctuary, will rest with the environmentally satisfying notion of birth right, a notion, by the way, not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or clarified in the Constitution.  Instead of being a question of “case omitted” perhaps it would be well to consider that perhaps those who won America’s independence knew better, much better.  The editors of What So Proudly We Hail elect to not venture into an extensive documentary investigation of the founders intentions as that was not part of their design.  The consequences are significant.  In sacrificing chronology the readers do not see firsthand the development of state and national citizenship in such documents as state constitutions and bills of rights, the second national constitution with its clear enumeration of central power, and such statutes as the Northwest Ordinance that first gave definition to the idea of American dual citizenship–part federal and part national.  As a consequence readers do not confront directly the clear constitutional picture of the 20th century degradation of citizenship into the present subjectship.  Perhaps the purpose of this book is to proclaim that the soul of American citizenship retains its moral and intellectual significance in spite of the law which, instead of celebrating it, suffocates it in a hypertrophy of criminalization and regulation.

That said, it was, however, a part of the design of several of the documents to show the original meaning and purpose of American citizenship–such as the fundamental significance of George Washington’s Farewell Address, The Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, and Calvin Coolidge’s celebration of the Declaration of Independence on its 150th anniversary.  Each of these calls upon contemporary readers to recapture the origins of what it meant to become an American citizen, a condition distinctive in the history of western civilization.  Lincoln and Coolidge, both lawyers, understood this–something that many historians since have not noticed sufficiently–that this definition of American citizenship was a hallmark of the American Revolution.

Some historians did understand, one in particular, James H. Kettner who in 1978 published The Development of American Citizenship, 1608-1870.  The ending date of the chronological limits of this inquiry are significant, a prompt that begs for explanation, particularly for anyone in the 21st century still interested in liberty.  Kettner’s answer comes late in his epilogue: “Force had finally settled issues that could not be determined by logical argument and reasoned discourse. . .  The resolution of the problems surrounding the concept of American citizenship came only as the result of war (the American Civil War and its immediate aftermath) . . .” (Kettner, 349)  This suggests a nineteenth century paradigm shift in the meaning of citizenship.  Earlier, Kettner’s seventh chapter, “The Idea of Volitional Allegiance” spells out the original meaning.  With increasing precision and intent, Americans during the years after 1765 insisted that Parliament’s jurisdiction was limited, that sovereignty was divided between the center and the periphery. Then in 1776, the Continental Congress with its Declaration renounced the monarchical form of government thus establishing the principle of government by consent.  Since at least 1774 people in many colonies had been effecting the same declaration by the practical dismemberment of royal government.  Since the fall of 1774 many colonies had been without a duly constituted government, a constitutional limbo, a condition well understood and deeply worrisome.

Between 1774 and 1776, the heartland of the American Revolution, Americans, after careful and increasingly strained commentary due to the current exigencies, developed the first crafted articulations of what it meant to be an American citizen as compared and contrasted to subjectship to the British crown.  Inspiration came from many sources including those from antiquity and from England’s 17th century.  The upshot, refined once Americans began to give constitutional attention to it, was singularly powerful.  In brief they saw that since 1607 they had by fits and starts been building a variety of distinctive legal and constitutional orders.  (see: Jack P. Greene, Peripheries and Center: Constitutional Development in the Extended Polities of the British Empire and the United States, 1607-1788. New York. Norton. 1986 and Donald S. Lutz, ed., Colonial Origins of the American Constitution. Indianapolis. Liberty Fund. 1998)

In this beginning and until after the Civil War, citizenship in traditional practice was state based.  Furthermore, during the war for independence and the years following, it was crafted, as Kettner showed, as a very special historical moment when individuals had to choose allegiance.  The play of force varied from place to place, depending upon the time and the contingencies of the war.  But in the main Kettner showed that state statutes recognized a pre-existing right of the individual in these Lockean conditions of civil disintegration to assert their fundamental individual right to pledge allegiance how and where they would.  Hence the birth of volitional allegiance.  At the beginning, say between 1774 and 1783, adult American colonists were in the distinctive position of launching allegiance, of leaving the colonies, soon to be states where they lived; of staying, reluctantly; of moving to another state; and of staying put, with determination.  In the maelstrom of revolution and war, there was much confusion, but when the dust settled state legislatures and courts began to articulate several fundamental principles–first, the individual initiated the contract of allegiance, it not being a matter of state coercion; and second, the individual possessed a fundamental right of exit, a right that very soon found statutory confirmation.  In these years, then, was born the American distinction between citizenship and subjectship, a fundamentally new element of liberty in the history of western civilization. At the heart of allegiance was the individual embrace of an idea, a bundle of rights, many of which may be summarized in the Declaration of Independence and the cornucopia of late eighteenth century American constitutions.

As viewed from the present, it is easy to see how this transformative idea faded, for with the passing of time more and more people came without question to accept the notion of birth-right citizenship as gradually they forgot the significance of the founding aspirations and dedications. Intentionally or not, one of the consequences of the American Civil War became a fateful ceremony of placing a tombstone on the fundamental idea of volitional allegiance as the primary legal reality.

But the Civil War did not cause the death of the idea of volitional allegiance as a personal quest.  And that is what this book, What So Proudly We Hail, is really all about.  To say that in the last century the law has succumbed to the rule of force, obliterating the original spirit of the law of American citizenship, is obvious as the United States during the twentieth century endorsed a man-centered universe as political agents erected a modern version of the subjectship that their eighteenth century forbearers had rejected as they signed and then embraced the Declaration of Independence.  And yet even today, Americans, the editors included, believe that there remains in the United States a deeply redemptive aspiration, that Americans are distinctly different from however the central state seeks by force to define and to control them.  And it is here where the power of the stories that the editors offer comes so clearly into focus.

It is most difficult to pigeon hole the fictional stories.  Perhaps to offer a warning against trying, the editors launch their collection with “The Man Without a Country,” Edward Everett Hale’s dark and constitutionally muddled story published within a month after his long speech at Gettysburg which preceded that of the President.  The appearance of this story with its treatment of atonement and redemption signals at least one of the themes of the stories which follow.  This becomes clear in chapter three, “The American Character: Individuals Free and Equal.”  Seven stories follow with such diverse authors as Jack London, Philip Roth, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow!

This is the only chapter or section of the collection that is so ordered, for later the stories are sprinkled between speeches and letters.  There are several themes which emerge from these stories, each of which connects with subjects in subsequent entries.  The stories include episodes of individuals in community and in isolation; individuals who suffer and fail for different reasons all of which are fatal either physically or morally; individuals who face new temptations to sin or unprecedented personal challenge; and individuals who see tyranny and break its chains, willingly and without fear of the consequences.  In each story, then, the characters are losing something they once thought was of real importance.  They lost a part of their past in quest of something they became convinced is better.  Some of them were wrong and paid dearly for it.  Some of them were right and experienced a special kind of victory.  These stories, then, offer invitations to inquire into the American history of immigration, of migration, and of twentieth century citizenship disintegrating into modern subjectship.  Insofar as America has been understood as a country of immigrants, it has been a history of uprooting and risk taking, of countless individuals breaking with their past and in the process losing something so as to gain something more, a story made vivid in the editors’ selection from Mary Antin’s autobiography, a young woman who saw and accepted the call for the intentional transformation into a new person, an American.  Renunciation of subjectship leads to a re-definition of citizenship, replayed again and again over in the American narrative.  Summing up, the stories convey the message that American citizenship, like moral character, is not free.  It is acquired, depending upon the intentional and discerning exercise of the right purpose.

So, by the time the reader is 150 pages into this 780 page crafted collage it is likely that a number of questions will be swirling around to which the editors might say with a smile, “mission beginning to be accomplished.”  The stories of chapter three establish clearly that the quest for a free life is accompanied by the moral imperative of individual responsibility.  This, of course, goes to the heart of volitional allegiance, the American, by taking responsibility, becoming free as a consequence.  The editors select stories that call upon the reader to probe the moral sense of the individual, that which issues from inner, private sources that are the substance of the man himself, the moral sense then being the necessary wellspring of aspiration for citizenship.

The stories of chapter three, then, begin to reveal more clearly what the editors may mean in the subtitle of this collection, “The American Soul,” something confirmed powerfully in the following two very long chapters.  There are no entries that are specifically Christian, for instance such rousing offerings as the political sermons of Jonathan Mayhew and John Witherspoon.  And yet there are clear references to the fundamental importance of religion in American civil life.  Here George Washington’s “Farewell Address;” his “Thanksgiving Proclamation;” Calvin Coolidge’s “Speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence;” and such songs as “The Star-Spangled Banner;” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee;” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic;” and “God Bless America” are striking as invocations, offerings of inspiration.  The cumulative effectof these inspirations combine joy and gratitude in ways that have been particularly creative for the flowering of American civil liberty.

This was a central element of Washington’s addresses for they offer readers a window into a legal order now too often overlooked, the creative fusion of religious gratitude and public order.  Washington elaborated on this his 1796 “Farewell Address,” observing and advising the people of the new nation concerning those principles he believed served as the bedrock for constitutional flourishing, one of which goes directly to the soul of What So Proudly We Hail.  “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.  The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them.  A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.  Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in the Courts of Justice?  And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion.  Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. ” (Kass, et al., 670)

Aside from being a profound rebuke of the desiccated posturing of many 21st century American political and academic voices, Washington’s invocation resonates with the legal history of both Harold Berman’s Law and Revolution and John Phillip Reid’s Law for the Elephant.  It bespeaks of “A World We Have Lost,” a world forsaken.  This passage speaks as well for the entire collection, for this is where aspiration and inspiration fuse–the stories, songs, and speeches beseeching readers to seek out and to recover and to reassert, the fundamental, the permanent truths of American distinctiveness, that delicate, that precious gift, Americans’ legacy of free and responsible individuals living under the higher law embedded in the Constitution.