Study Guide

American Citizenship

by Judith N. Shklar

American Citizenship Essay - Critical Essays

American Citizenship

Not until the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 did the Constitution explicitly affirm that American citizenship included “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” That post-Civil War definition was a vital step forward in “the quest for inclusion” outlined in this thought-provoking brief on American citizenship, but its author, Judith N. Shklar, a professor of government at Harvard University, thinks Americans still need to remove inconsistencies about the meaning of citizenship in the United States.

Taking slavery and its legacy as a telling example, Shklar underscores how American life contradicts itself: While affirming inclusive political equality, it has denied that equality on the grounds that race, gender, or socioeconomic status makes some Americans unfit for full citizenship. Shklar finds American history to be an ongoing battle to destroy the barriers to recognition that some want to preserve. Identifying herself as an “inveterate liberal,” she also believes the ideals of inclusion can prevail.

Possession of the right to vote and the opportunity to earn—the latter idea emphasizes how public respect depends on the work one does—are two of the key elements in determining whether one enjoys the dignity that only full citizenship can confer. Shklar believes that American ideals of inclusive political rights prevailed in the first area, albeit only after a protracted struggle over voting rights that continued well into the second half of the twentieth century. Issues about the opportunity to earn, however, still need resolution. Largely because it “separated the free man from the slave,” Shklar contends, “paid labor” became a crucial element in “American civic self-identification.” Advancing her thesis that American citizenship is so much a matter of public respect and social standing, Shklar argues that lack of opportunity to earn—unemployment can make one “nobody”—is tantamount to depriving one of full citizenship. Her controversial conclusion holds that an inclusive understanding of American citizenship entails a “comprehensive commitment to providing opportunities for work to earn a living wage for all who need and demand it.”