From 1865 to the present, the conception of who is an American deserving of the full rights of citizenship has changed over time. Describe the expansion of who is or is not an American with consideration to historical context.

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The question of who is a "Real American" has always been contentious. The United States of America, when it was founded in 1776, was something new. Most countries at that time were either nation-states based on a single ethnicity, language and culture. Other countries were part of multinational empires alongside people with different identities. In most cases, the concept of citizenship as we know it did not exist. Louis XIV famously summed it up with the expression "L'etat, c'est moi," meaning "I am the state." That is to say, most people were the subjects of monarchs who were, figuratively, the country.

The United States was founded on the principle of self-government and democracy. American citizens can vote and serve in the military—they feel a stronger connection to the US beyond living there. Some Americans today define a citizen as anyone who was born in the US or to American parents, or who has gone through the process of naturalization. That is what the Constitution says in the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868.

Most Americans also tend to believe that a commitment to American ideals of freedom, hard work, equality, and democracy are necessary for someone to be a citizen. Still others believe a real American to be patriotic and hesitant to criticize country or flag. Though the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of an official religion, some Americans believe also believe a real citizen should be religious. These are the outlines of the contemporary political debate over American identity

Ethnicity and race have always been problematic components of American identity. Unlike countries like Japan or Denmark, the United States was not founded by people of a single ethnicity. While the majority of the Founding Fathers and most Americans in the 13 Colonies hailed from the British Isles, plenty of early Americans were German, Dutch, French and Irish. In fact, in 1776, the land that currently makes up the United States was home to English, French, and Spanish speaking Europeans; African-American slaves; and Native Americans. The United States doesn't have a single ethnic identity. It has instead forged a heterogeneous culture from many different elements

That said, the Founders and the people of early America had distinct ideas as to who was and was not an American citizen. The original constitution did not recognize citizenship for African-Americans or Native Americans. Additionally, it denied women the right to vote. 1865, the date in question, marks the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. It was not until 1868 that Congress finally determined that all people born in the United States were legally citizens. That did not settle the issue of voting rights, which were denied to most Native Americans and all women until the early 20th century. African American men gained the right to vote with the 15th Amendment. Jim Crow laws in the South, however, stripped this right until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

After settling the question of citizenship, the debate over American identity moved to the arena of immigration. Immigration from Europe faced no caps until the 1920s. The large numbers of Italians, Jews, Greeks and Russians that arrived between 1880 and 1920 faced discrimination but could become citizens. Asian immigration, however, was severely curtailed. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 stemmed all immigration from China. The Immigration Act of 1924 extended this ban to the entirety of Asia. The Supreme Court ruled around the same time that all Asian-Americans born within the United States were citizens. In the same ruling, they said that no one immigrating from Asia could naturalize. Asians were again reminded of their second-class status during WWII when the military forced Japanese-Americans into interment camps, regardless of their citizenship status.

In 1920 women finally gained voting rights. In 1924 the Indian Citizenship Act determined that Native Americans were, in fact citizens of the United States. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Amendments ended the national quota system. They created a system that established quotas for each hemisphere and screened immigrants based on skills. At this point, immigrants from India, Africa, the Middle East and South/Central America were able to come into the country. While people from anywhere can now come into the United States and all citizens share the same legal rights, the debate regarding the character, patriotism and religiosity of "Real Americans" continues unabated.
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In 1865, the predominant view of who was truly American and deserving of full rights narrowly applied to white men. In the period of Reconstruction, following the Civil War, this conception drastically changed. The 14th Amendment stated that all people born in the United States were citizens. This was a distinct departure from the Dred Scott Decision in the 1850s, in which the ruling stated that blacks were not citizens. While the 14th Amendment extended citizenship and equal protection under the law to black Americans, they were still not treated as full, equal members of American society. Another Reconstruction amendment, the 15th Amendment, granted black men the right to vote. With these amendments, black Americans were legally full citizens with equal rights. In practice, however, these rights would be curtailed through loopholes restricting their ability to vote and through discriminatory segregation laws. The movement to achieve real equality reached its peak in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement achieved significant gains with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited segregation, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which put into place measures to ensure blacks were able to vote.

Another group whose citizenship and rights changed in the post–Civil War period was Native Americans. They were legally considered to be a special case of a nation within a nation. As such, they were not automatically considered citizens, even though they were born within the borders of the United States. Tribes were often forcibly removed from their land as white demand for those lands increased. In the late nineteenth century, an assimilationist movement gained popularity. The idea behind this was to “kill the Indian, but save the man.” Reformers believed that an alternative to killing Native Americans was to assimilate them into white culture. Schools were set up to assimilate Native American children. Assimilation also became a prerequisite for citizenship through the Dawes Act, passed in 1887. This practice remained in place until the 1920s when the Indian Citizenship Act extended citizenship to all Native Americans born in the country.

Women, even white women, were another group who did not enjoy full rights in 1865. While white women were considered citizens, they did not have the right to vote, and they also faced many other restrictions. For example, in many places, married women were not allowed to work or own property. Women were granted the right to vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920. Similarly to black Americans, however, this did not mark the end of women’s fight for full equality. Throughout the twentieth century, the women’s rights movement continued to push for full equality through measures such as the Equal Pay Act.

Finally, there is the case of immigrants. In its early history, America had an open immigration policy. As immigration numbers increased and anti-immigrant sentiment also increased, greater restrictions were placed on who would be allowed to immigrate to the US and how these immigrants could become citizens. In the 1880s, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited most Chinese people from coming to the county. In the 1920s, quotas were placed on how many people from each country could immigrate to the US. These restrictions largely remained in place until the 1960s.

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The mid-1800s saw an increase in European immigration to the United States, particularly those from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and Poland. Despite facing discrimination from Americans, they were eventually recognized as citizens of the United States. On the other hand, African Americans who have lived in the United States for many generations—many as far back as the colonial period—were still considered second-class citizens and had very limited rights. This was the case in after the conclusion of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

It wasn't until the mid- to late-twentieth-century that African Americans were protected from voting rights violations and were integrated in the South. Later in the twentieth-century, Asian and Latin American immigrants moved to the United States en masse, mostly due to political or economic instability in their respective countries.

Unlike African Americans and Jews before them—who were considered Americans, but were discriminated against—the experiences of Asian and Hispanic immigrants were more blatantly alienating. For instance, even today many Americans of Asian-descent complain of white and black Americans asking them where they are from—meaning, what country they are from—despite being born and raised in America.

Today, there are many Asian and Latino political movements and organizations that raise awareness on the minority experience, especially on being considered non-American despite their American nationality.

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