At the core of a democratic government's effectiveness (and longevity) is its ability to protect the rights of the multitude of diverse social groups under its charge. Individual rights (and the safeguards that are put in place to ensure their perpetuation) have throughout history been a central issue in social migration, state secession, and regime ousters. The rights of citizenship are as varied as they are critical. This paper explores the manifestations of citizenship rights as they pertain to the underpinnings of a nation-state as well as the laws and regulations that permeate a political system, using the United States system as the point of reference.
Keywords Civil Rights; Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights (ECSRs); Egalitarian; Inalienable Rights; Incompletely Theorized Agreement; Regime; Undocumented Immigrant; Citizenship Rights
Sociology of Politics
In the sixth century BCE, the ancient city-state of Athens was faced with an economic, political and social crisis. Greek tradition called for the installation of seven philosophers, statesmen, and lawmakers to bring wisdom and order to Athenian society. Among these "Seven Sages" was Solon, a poet and lawmaker. As one of the Sages, Solon developed a series of reforms and laws designed to address virtually every component of society, including crime and punishment, marriage, and economic development. Central to each of "Solon's Laws" was the mandate that all citizens of every strata of Athenian society must in some way contribute to the maintenance of the government serving them. In the course of establishing this early democracy, much attention was paid to whether Solon's institutions would protect the citizens' rights as well as create order. In one instance, he was asked whether his laws perfectly protected the people. "No," he replied, "but the best they could receive" ("Solon: Legal code," 2008).
It can be said that all governments are established at least in part for the purpose of serving the people. Naturally, not all governments are alike — the level and quality of service provided varies with each system and structure. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, for example, tend to consider the rights and well-being of the people as lower priorities than consolidating power or establishing order. Then again, a great many authoritarian and totalitarian regimes have, in part, been toppled by their underserved subjects. Democratic governments tend to be driven by public input, especially in the form of free elections.
A democratic regime's efficacy and longevity largely hinges on its ability to protect the rights of the multitude of diverse social groups under its charge. Individual rights (and the safeguards that are put in place to ensure their perpetuation) have been a central issue in social migration, state secession, and regime change throughout history. The rights of citizenship are as varied as they are critical.
Inalienable Rights: Democracy
It can be said that the US Declaration of Independence was written with three points in mind:
- First, the founders condemned the actions of the British Crown toward the subjects within its empire.
- Second, they declared their intention to become a new nation, free of British charge.
- Third, they proclaimed that "all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" (cited in Coates, 2001).
Thomas Jefferson, chief architect of that iconic document, worked tirelessly to ensure that the third purpose was manifest throughout the declaration as well as during his presidency. He, like the rest of the founders, was seeking to make a statement about the sanctity of the rights of all men. In a letter to James Monroe, he made this point abundantly clear: "Natural rights [are] the objects for the protection of which society is formed and municipal laws established" (cited in Coates, 2001).
Jefferson's views did not focus on only the burgeoning American society, but also on humanity as a whole. All people, he wrote, are born with certain rights, and it is the responsibility of government to protect these rights. After all, government does not just derive its legitimacy and strength from the people; it is responsible to them and to their needs as well. In other words, a government is duty bound to protect its people's needs and interests, a duty that is rooted in the people's basic rights.
There is no comprehensive list of these "inalienable" rights with which all people are born. The US Constitution's Preamble and the Bill of Rights name such rights as freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion and conscience, freedom of assembly, and the right to equal protection under the law, but this list is not meant to be taken as complete. The founders knew that people are imbued with many more basic rights — in fact, discussions during the early years of the country centered on which of the known rights (as well as those that might surface later in America's historical lineage) would be outlined in the Bill of Rights.
An important point is that the founding documents of the United States did not identify the rights of American citizens for the purposes of empowering the people. Such empowerment, the founders felt, was understood. The reason for inclusion of these rights in the Constitution is evident in the language of the amendments themselves. Each right is identified as an area in which government may not interfere, or work to undo. In essence, the Constitution binds the hands of government so that it will not endanger the rights of the people. Government protects the rights of the people by limiting its own actions (US Department of State, 2008). The Bill of Rights, in a similar vein, was written not to underscore the rights of citizenship, but to establish parameters that prevent the government from impinging on a citizen's rights (Keefer, 2006).
It has been suggested that democracy is the political system best suited to enhance and protect the rights of the citizens. Many states that have been marred by violence, war, poverty, or political instability look to the democratic model as a vehicle that will return citizens' rights and protect the integrity of the state itself. In their estimation, a government that is beholden to the rights of the people represents a polar shift away from the repression of an authoritarian regime or the chaos of an anarchic system (Elshtain, 2004).
The rights of citizens are not limited to the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and a fair trial. A myriad of rights, many of which were not manifest to the founders in the late eighteenth century, are recognized today. Likewise, one can expect that other rights will be named in generations to come. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the founders hesitated to create a fully comprehensive list of citizens' rights. Such a list, they believed, could be used to deny citizens the rights that future generations deem necessary to recognize.
That Jefferson and his colleagues sought a new society that was egalitarian and protected the rights of the citizens is an indubitable fact. However, the views of the founders were based on social attitudes of the time, and during that period of history not all races were viewed as worthy of such rights. After all, slavery had been practiced in North America since 1619, and it would not end until 1865. Jefferson himself owned slaves ("To labour for another," 2008)), as did George Washington. Of course, these icons of American history did not view slavery as an optimal way of running a plantation — Washington and Jefferson both are known for treating their slaves with dignity; both had also set some of their slaves free. In their positions as president, they spoke candidly about their disdain slavery's brutality.
But while Washington and Jefferson openly disliked slavery, they were less outspoken about their views on black Americans. In truth, the prevailing view in the young United States was that slaves were subhuman. If slaves were freed and reintegrated into American society (it was believed) they would contribute little and become a significant drain on US resources. From Washington to Lincoln, those leaders who preferred an end to slavery (at least early on) advocated recolonization, or a return of the slaves to Africa, rather than integration and an extension of basic rights to former slaves.
Thus, those who sought to build a set of defined rights and protections into the country's laws wished to set limits on people's rights as well as to whom those rights applied. However, because definitions were not ultimately laid out, the rights, as well as the laws governing whom they applied to, could be changed over time.
For instance, while all rights were not initially extended to black citizens or women, today all of the inalienable rights are applicable to US citizens of all creeds, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, and genders. Furthermore, those rights with which people are born are complemented by civil rights. The civil rights are granted by virtue of citizenship and work to address the interests of all citizens of a specific country.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the term "civil rights" has been applied to the pursuit of equal protections under the Constitution by minority groups. Such pursuits would seem unnecessary, and the definition of the rights themselves equally redundant given the fact that the Constitution does not discriminate among social groups. Then again, as shown above, the lack of definition of applicable recipients of those rights has allowed leaders to allow their own prejudices to influence their lawmaking.
The central conflict surrounding the application of civil rights is the ambiguity inherent in Constitution-building. Much debate swirled around the development of the US Constitution, for example, as to whether it was necessary to create the Bill of Rights. A large component of that debate focused on the fact that creating in essence a list of the rights to which American citizens are eligible would almost certainly be incomplete in the short- and long-term.
Some scholars assert that such ambiguities can help create agreement on the application of civil rights....
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