Why We Should Keep the (Whole) 14th Amendment

Margaret Thatcher once said, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” When a country is united by ideals and not bloodlines, defining citizenship is a unique challenge, one that the United States has grappled with time and time again in its history.

In recent weeks, many of those seeking to be the GOP’s candidate for president have begun talk of getting rid of a constitutional amendment in order to redefine who is a citizen. Frontrunner Donald Trump and others would like to see the United States do away with the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anybody born within US borders and subject to the the jurisdiction of federal laws (i.e. the baby’s parents are not foreign diplomats or have other formal relationships with foreign governments). Rick Ungar, a contributor for Forbes writes:

It turns out that those who have long enjoyed portraying themselves as the “Guardians of our Constitution”, through strict interpretation of the same, and the proponents of law & order as the bulwark of an orderly society — of course I’m speaking of Republicans — are the very folks who no longer have much use for the Constitution when it fails to meet their desires or live up to their expectations.

 
The argument around the 14th Amendment is largely due to frustration over so called “anchor babies”, a derogatory term for babies born to illegal immigrants in the United States supposedly under the pretense that the child will somehow help the parent gain legal status. It is true that for the past 147 years, all children born within US borders are legal US citizens, regardless of their parent’s legal status.

However, the idea that these babies and US citizens are helping to grant their parents legal status in the United States is a fallacy for which there is no legal backing. In fact, in 2011 there were 5,000 children in state care or foster homes because their parents had been deported. In 2013, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported 72,410 people who had at least one child who was a US citizen.

Still, the term “anchor baby” and the vitriolic desire to get rid of the 14th Amendment persist. The amendment was a Reconstruction Amendment, adopted on July 9, 1868, with the goal of providing citizenship to African-Americans who had formerly been slaves with no protection under the law. The Citizenship Clause of the Amendment overruled the Supreme Court’s findings in Dred Scott v. Sanford, which stated that African-Americans, even those who were free, were not American citizens and therefore could not sue in federal court.

When the 14th Amendment was originally debated, there were a few mentions of children born to immigrants on the debate floor. However, in 1868 there was no limit to immigration into the United States, meaning there was no illegal immigration at the time of the amendment’s adoption. In 1898, the Supreme Court cleared this up in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, by ruling that the children of immigrants born in the US are indeed entitled to citizenship.

Since that time, America has continued to grapple with immigrant policy and citizenship laws, but with little exception, those born within the borders of the United States are citizens of our country. While American immigration policy leaves much to be desired, the 14th Amendment has provided continuity and stability to the definition of citizen. Our country’s greatness is derived from the diversity of our citizens and the uniqueness of our history. Paternity tests or another arbitrary way to obtain citizenship would rob future generations of the philosophy and ideology on which this country was founded and continues to grow.

14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, section 1. (National Archives of the United States.)

14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, section 1. (National Archives of the United States.)

150 years later: A major victory or a minor peace?

150 years ago today, after four years of civil war, the United States achieved a momentary peace – with Robert E. Lee’s surrender along with 27,000 Confederate troops, after the Battle of Appomattox Court House, which triggered a general surrender – and thus appeared to end the war over the fate and direction of the United States.

But as the insurrection collapsed, in our haste to celebrate that illusory peace, we failed to finish the bigger job of conquering and re-making the South. The peace was won, but not kept and consolidated. Instead, in a demonstration of the perils of clemency for the rebellious recalcitrance of evil, almost everything was kept the same, and the South hardened into an even more unified, retrograde, aristocracy than before. Slavery was renamed and White Supremacy death squads were formed. The peace ended, but the country just looked the other way, to avoid going back to war and supporting necessary reforms by force.

The Southern bloc, once re-admitted and then re-taken by the Union’s opponents, re-committed itself to blocking every U.S. policy effort that didn’t involve going to war with other countries. Despite the lack of commitment from President Andrew Johnson and other compromisers, the failure to Reconstruct the South wasn’t entirely for lack of trying

american-apartheid-flag

My favorite Mark Twain book

My favorite Mark Twain book is a somewhat lesser known one: “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” For one thing, it’s very foundational for a lot of time-bending/tech-bending sub-genres of today’s fiction. But I think something else drew me to it.

Twain intended it as a satire of Sir Walter Scott’s romanticized medieval fantasies but I hope and like to think it’s really (indirectly) a metaphor for Reconstruction.

Here’s a quick summary of the plot that illustrates the comparison: A technologically advanced Yankee suddenly arrives in a backwards aristocratic, slave-owning society and tries to impose modernity by schools and by force but — fairly obvious spoiler from a 125-year-old novel — is ultimately thwarted by the forces of regressive, establishment conservatism.

Now, Mark Twain may not have intended the parallel, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to surmise that it was in the back of his mind as he wrote it, a decade after the sudden termination of Reconstruction policies. Plus, he also previously had tried to blame Sir Walter Scott (the clearly intended target of the book) for all of the Deep South planter class’s behavior and attitudes. Twain insisted that Sir Walter’s ahistorical notions of nobility had inspired the southern planters to initiate a pointless war for “honor,” but I think it’s pretty clear they were already several hundred years into their obsession with creating a genteel/monstrously cruel feudal slave state, without any help from novels.

In either case, much of the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War involved New England Yankee officials, troops, schoolteachers, and ministers deploying officially and unofficially into the occupied Deep South to try to establish a slavery-free post-agrarian economy, communitarian values, industry, etc. They faced massive resistance — often violent — from local white residents, as well as sometimes from national leaders who were supposed to have their backs. Ultimately, the Yankees were thwarted in their “civilizing” mission and fled northward as military protection was withdrawn, leaving free blacks to face white mob violence, authoritarian rule, and slavery by another name on their own.

Twain’s novel doesn’t exactly have a happy ending either. The forces of the threatened establishment inevitably raise angry mobs and armies to attack the modernizing protagonist for liberating peasants from the economic system and from their fearmongering religious leaders. And in contrast with other literature of the day, it’s not really a celebration of white savior notions or “the white man’s burden.” The hero finds himself in a place not so entirely different from his own, and he is fully confident that the people aren’t substantially different. He just wants to help them unlock the knowledge and resources they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

It’s a sort of tribute to the futility of trying to enact policies for the greater good to raise standards of living for as many people as possible, even when some of the people being helped the most are also resisting it the most. Twain believed that Sir Walter Scott was pushing something insidious with his chivalrous tales of nobility, in which honorable aristocrats are heroes. The title character of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (note the deliberate identifying characteristic in the title) is an ordinary New England man who suddenly finds himself in a position of power and superior knowledge in Arthurian England — and his first instinct is to help all the ordinary people on as wide a scale as possible, even if they’re afraid of him and resist his efforts. And whether or not he succeeds, trying to reach that goal is true nobility. Which is a very New England attitude to take toward the rest of the United States.

Republicans splinter on $50 bill

A couple weeks ago, I looked at a proposal by a southern Republican representative to replace Grant with Reagan on the $50. Students of (northern) history will recall that Grant is reviled in the South for a) winning the civil war, b) enforcing strong Reconstruction policies with martial law and c) wiping out the original KKK. Reagan, on the other hand, used dogwhistle campaign tactics to win the South in his presidential campaigns, emphasizing pro-segregation code words like “states’ rights.”

While Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) insists that this is a pro-Reagan move, not an anti-Grant one, and notes that he chose one Republican to replace another, I think it’s pretty obvious why most his 17 co-sponsors hail from the South.

Now Republicans outside the South are splitting over the proposal, despite their love of Ronald Reagan. Ohio Republicans are particularly annoyed because Grant was a native son:

State Representative Danny R. Bubp, a Republican from the [Ohio] district that includes Mr. Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant and childhood home in Brown County, is preparing a resolution that would oppose the currency change.

“The Union may not have won the Civil War had President Lincoln not had the wisdom to put Grant in charge,” Mr. Bubp said. “He was just the kind of guy who needed to be there at that time, and we should not diminish his place in history.”

 
Oh snap.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

North Carolina Republican wants Reagan on the 50

When you’re a relatively new Republican representative from the South, there are lots of proposals you could make to burnish your credentials as a southern conservative. But some are more stupid and transparently reactionary than others. Case in point, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) is proposing that President Ulysses S. Grant be removed from the $50 bill, in favor of President Ronald Reagan. Now, we all know why Reagan: he’s the mythologized hero of the Right who don’t or won’t remember what they thought of him at the time. (For the record, McHenry was barely a teenager when Reagan left the White House, which explains a good deal.)

But why did he decide to go with the $50? His official (weak) reasoning:

President Reagan would be replacing President Ulysses S. Grant on the bill. In polls of presidential scholars, President Reagan consistently outranks President Grant. In 2005, The Wall Street Journal conducted one such poll of bipartisan scholars which ranked President Reagan 6th and President Grant 29th.

 
I’m deeply skeptical that this is the true reason… If you don’t remember your American History of the 1860s and 1870s, President Grant was the United States Army General who kicked Confederate butt all over the map and finally finished the Civil War in the Union’s favor… and then when he was elected President in 1868, he proceeded to implement a strong Federal Reconstruction policy in the South that protected the rights of liberated Blacks, cracked down and wiped out the original Ku Klux Klan, and implemented martial law in several Southern states until order was restored. Once Grant left office, most of his policies were immediately reversed by President Hayes as a result of the Compromise of 1877 that selected him as the winner on condition that he pull Federal troops out, which was the only force ensuring the policy’s implementation. Because of that policy, the Southern states in the post-Reconstruction period voted en masse for Democrats and against Republicans all the way until the 1960s, nearly a century later, when the Democratic hold began to slip as the national party began pushing for desegregation.

In the ensuing decades from the 1960s to the present, Republicans gradually reposition themselves as the more establishment-friendly/states’ rights party, and many Southern Democrats switched parties eventually to become Republicans. In many places, the lingering anti-Republican sentiment has continued to this day at a local level, with party switches being the only thing that finally turns a district to Republicans from conservadem/dixiecrat control. Ronald Reagan was a big factor in continuing Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” to flip the South into a solid Republican bastion — that it is today — at the presidential level. So, this proposal is a win-win for reactionary Republicans stuck in the past down South: it dumps Reconstructionist Grant in favor of states’ rights Reagan.

Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton who has actually even written a supportive book on Reagan, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times vigorously protesting McHenry’s proposal, giving many reasons why Grant deserves to remain on the fifty, instead of Reagan. He includes a lot of reasons I didn’t go over that were unrelated to Reconstruction and the Civil War, but I tend to think those are why McHenry wants to replace Grant. Wilentz makes a compelling case, additionally, that Grant’s reputation — which McHenry cites as reason for replacement — is the unjust result of extended character assassination after his death by pro-Confederate historians.

Fortunately, I don’t think McHenry has enough pull to make this go any place. Nevertheless, I think we should remain vigilant, since the Republicans did manage to use their majority a few years ago to quietly remove the Lincoln Memorial from the back of the penny.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.