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The Past and Present Partisanship of Birthright Citizenship

The 14th Amendment reflects a US grappling with its legacy of slavery while moving toward more expansive liberty.

A Honduran girl walks with her mother to receive breakfast in a temporary shelter set up for members of the migrant caravan on November 29, 2018, in Tijuana, Mexico.

President Trump’s threat to end birthright citizenship with the stroke of his executive pen has triggered a new fight over the nation’s past. After the Civil War, Congress created the 14th Amendment, and with it, birthright citizenship to protect freed slaves from Southern laws designed to usurp their newly gained liberty. Now, Trump argues that the 14th Amendment’s protective citizenship clause does not apply to undocumented immigrants.

Trump’s reinterpretation of history is not surprising: It reflects a larger tendency among US conservatives to narrowly construe the past and scope of US identity. “Culture warriors” – from Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh in the 1990s, to Sean Hannity and President Trump today – defend partisan political values by crafting a simple version of US history. When the nation’s narrative is one of continual freedom and minimal issues, contemporary change is unnecessary. The birthright citizenship tactic is merely the most recent example of this political strategy, where the “culture wars” transform into the right’s “history wars.”

Ironically, the story behind birthright citizenship challenges conservative narratives of unbroken universal freedom and longstanding equality. In 1995, Newt Gingrich posited in his book, To Renew America, that, “from the arrival of English-speaking colonists in 1607 until 1965, there was one continuous civilization built around a set of commonly accepted legal and cultural principles. … Since 1965, however, there has been a calculated effort by cultural elites to discredit this civilization and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility.”

Dramatic changes to US society and multiple calls for civil rights in the 1960s forced historians to rewrite a supposedly unified past. Historical events – such as the passage of the 14th Amendment, advancing civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote in 1920 – highlighted oppression within our supposedly democratic society. US society required extensive effort by marginalized people throughout its history; thus, the past was more complex than unified and must be recognized as such.

While historians sought to grapple with conflicting national narratives, conservative pundits and politicians frequently dismissed inequity as simply aberrations in an otherwise glorious past. Exceptions to this view existed outside the scope of US identity and values. Gingrich’s claim that cultural elites discredit US civilization ignores the less savory aspects of US history.

This propensity to simplify the US’s past also ignores the fact that one group’s struggle can impact the larger US population. The 14th Amendment provided (and continues to provide) so much more than just citizenship for former slaves. This constitutional change expanded due process in criminal trials. It became the legal basis for decriminalizing interracial marriage after the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case. However, the 14th Amendment also helped to expand corporate rights after the 2010 Citizens United decision. Still, the struggle of the marginalized is a victory for a larger ideal that expands liberty to all people.

Conservative powerbrokers frequently consider these “elite” critiques of past mistakes as generally anti-US. Rush Limbaugh, one of the nation’s foremost talk radio hosts, argues in his book, The Way Things Ought to Be, that, “We are told that because George Washington and Thomas Jefferson held slaves, and because Jefferson supposedly had a sexual relationship with one of his female slaves – which is a lie to begin with – the constitutional system of government that they created is tainted.” Historians long ago settled the question of Jefferson’s repeated sexual assaults of his female slave, Sally Hemmings. Aside from his incorrect assertion about Hemmings, Limbaugh’s larger issue stems from his feeling that all US history is tainted when its lionized heroes are criticized.

Historical complexity translates within conservative media and political worldview as an argument about the US’s contaminated legacy. Yet, Jefferson’s legacy as both slave owner and an author of US independence exists together. Similarly, the 14th Amendment reflects a national complexity – a nation simultaneously grappling with its original sin of slavery and moving toward more expansive liberty. Similarly, the 14th Amendment reflects a national complexity – a nation simultaneously grappling with its legacy of slavery and moving toward more expansive liberty.

President Trump’s insistence that he can rewrite citizenship rights with the 14th Amendment is a greater reflection of contemporary desire than historical reality. In the hands of conservative elites, history has become a political defense of contentious contemporary policy within a broader desire to dictate a politically favorable present.

Trump and others like him may wish to rewrite and sanitize the US’s legacy. However, the nation’s complicated past highlights its ability to become a better place for all of its people, even when historical reality is not necessarily politically expedient.

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