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Citizenship, a relationship between an individual and a state involving the individual's full political membership in the state and his permanent allegiance to it. Other persons may be subject to the authority of the state and may even owe it allegiance, but the citizen has duties, rights, responsibilities, and privileges that the noncitizen shares to a lesser degree or not at all. The status of citizen is official recognition of the individual's integration into the political system.

More or less permanent allegiance to the state is an important element of citizenship. Even though he may leave the territory of his state, the citizen is bound by this tie unless he loses the status of citizen. At the same time, the state possesses certain responsibilities toward its citizens, which also are permanent and on which the citizen may normally rely.

Citizens, Nationals, and Subjects

For purposes of international relations, the term national is preferred to citizen, although in most states the two concepts are virtually the same. The nationals of a given state are all persons who owe it allegiance, including those who are not allowed to become citizens. The only significant group of U. S. nationals not admitted to citizenship consists of the native inhabitants of American Samoa. Many other states make this distinction with regard to their colonial populations, and some countries have denied citizenship to certain ethnic groups.

The state may treat citizens and noncitizen nationals differently in its domestic jurisdiction, just as it may discriminate between both of these groups and aliens--persons present on its territory and subject to its authority but owing it no allegiance and remaining nationals of a foreign state. In dealing with other governments, however, the state is obligated to afford protection to all of its nationals, citizens and noncitizens alike, and foreign governments customarily recognize its authority to do so.

In Britain and most other monarchies, the term "citizen" is used less often than subject. The latter word emphasizes the subordinate position of the individual relative to the monarch; however, as monarchs retain few personal political powers under constitutional monarchy, there is little practical distinction between citizen and subject. The category of British subject includes the citizens of the independent states of the Commonwealth, but a British subject is not entitled to citizenship in any particular Commonwealth country unless he qualifies under its citizenship laws. A Canadian citizen, for instance, automatically is a British subject, but a British subject from Britain, Australia, India, or from another of the Commonwealth nations may become a Canadian citizen only by meeting Canadian naturalization requirements.

Rights and Duties

In a modern democratic state, the rights and duties of citizenship are inseparable, as each stems from the other. Democratic theory holds that the state deserves, gains, and retains the loyalty of its citizens by affording them the opportunity--through their influence on the political system--to gain the maximum achievement of their own goals.

The citizen, by his own participation in the political sphere, makes it more likely that his needs and wishes will be taken into account in the making of policy. The primary right of citizenship in a democracy is the right to meaningful political participation. It is the freedom, in company with his fellow citizens, to hold the government--its officers, its policies, and its actions--responsible to him.

But the citizen in a democracy has some special responsibilities too. In addition to such requirements as obedience to law and payment of taxes, which characterize all societies, democracy necessitates political participation and obligates the citizen to accept responsibility for the results of governmental action. Citizenship in a democracy must be active. It is made meaningless by the citizen who avoids participation and declines to accept responsibility for what government does, thinking of politics in terms of "we" who are governed and "they" who govern. There necessarily must be politicians and civil servants who accept professional responsibility for the conduct of government, but they respond to the public influence in a democracy, and the public is to blame if results are unsatisfactory.

In a nondemocratic society, citizenship, if the term is used, means something else. The emphasis shifts toward duties, rather than rights, though there may be no total extinction of the latter. The loyalty of the population to the state may be just as great as in a democracy, but it is based on factors other than active political participation.

The allegiance of a citizen to his country is his most fundamental political loyalty. In a pluralistic society this can coexist with a variety of other loyalties, including those to family, church, private groups and organizations, political and social ideals, and even to subordinate political institutions or international organizations. Each of these may lead to conflict with one's national allegiance, but does not necessarily do so. In a totalitarian society, in which the state demands the total commitment of its citizens, such conflict is inevitable for anyone who has alternative loyalties.

Historical Development

Throughout history, wherever the term "citizenship" was used, it implied a combination of obligations and privileges in the relationship between an individual and his state. The major differences involved the size and importance of the citizenry relative to the population and the extent of the rights and privileges conferred on citizens. These varied greatly.

Ancient Concepts

The concept of citizenship first became important in some of the cities of ancient Greece. There it was restricted to a small minority of the population. The extent of actual political participation varied from city to city and from time to time, but in each case citizens possessed rights and privileges denied both to foreigners and to a large majority of the city's population.

Roman citizenship at first was a device for distinguishing between the Romans themselves and the inhabitants of the territories incorporated within the Roman Empire. Later, in order to promote loyalty to Rome, inhabitants of a conquered territory might be admitted to Roman citizenship; this came to be done so frequently that the idea of citizenship as a distinction of natives of Rome disappeared. Citizenship conferred special legal privileges of great significance--a notable example being the successful claim of St. Paul that, as a Roman citizen, he could be tried only in Rome and not by the authorities in Palestine.

In medieval times the concept of allegiance was important in the feudal system. However, the term citizenship was not applied to the reciprocal rights and duties involved; its use at the time was confined largely to city-states. In certain cities, especially in Germany, citizenship was a bulwark for some economically privileged persons against the claims and demands of feudal overlords. Merchants relied on their status as citizens not merely as an avenue to influence within their own cities but as a promise of protection in their dealings with other cities and with the feudal aristocracy. The later extension of the idea of citizenship to the national level can be explained largely in terms of the economic importance of the urban middle class at the time of the transition from feudalism to the national state.

Modern Concepts

The American and French revolutions were the events through which national citizenship gained its modern significance. As citizenship in the medieval city-state had signified freedom from feudal domination, so national citizenship in the United States and France symbolized the end of monarchy. The distinction between citizen and subject no longer may be vital but it was to revolutionaries of the 1700's.

Citizenship held by all, in contrast with earlier rankings, conformed to the egalitarian ideal. In France distinguishing titles of address were abolished for a time, and everyone was addressed simply as "Citizen _______." As the revolutionary ideology spread, citizenship began to be viewed as an instrument for the promotion of popular government, individual liberties, and political equality. From this base grew the modern concept of citizenship.

Qualifications for Citizenship

Citizenship normally is acquired at birth, but it may be acquired subsequently--usually by a process known as "naturalization" in which the state confers its citizenship on immigrants who meet specific requirements. For the most part, native and naturalized citizens have identical rights and duties.

Citizenship by Birth

The laws of virtually every country follow one or the other of two broad rules--or a combination of the two--in determining citizenship by birth. One rule is jus soli, according to which all persons born within the territory of a given state, except the children of foreign diplomats, are citizens of that state. The alternative rule is jus sanguinis, under which the place of birth is irrelevant and every child acquires the nationality of his parents--usually of the father if the parents are of different nationalities.

The United States, Britain, most other common law countries, and most Latin American states base their nationality laws primarily on the jus soli. The rest of the world, including the major states of continental Europe, tends to rely on the jus sanguinis.

Either of these in its pure form is rare, however. Britain, for instance, exempts from the jus soli children born in Britain to enemy aliens in wartime. But it also accords British nationality (with some exceptions) to anyone born abroad whose father was a British citizen at the time of the birth. Canada has similar rules. Virtually anyone born in Canada, except the child of a foreign diplomat, is a Canadian from birth. A child born outside Canada has Canadian citizenship from birth jure sanguinis if either parent was a Canadian citizen at the time of the birth and if the birth was registered with the appropriate Canadian authorities within two years. Such citizenship is lost at the age of 24 unless the person is then domiciled in Canada or has, after reaching the age of 21, formally registered his intention to remain Canadian.

Acquisition and Loss of Citizenship

In rare instances, citizenship may be acquired through adoption by a citizen of another state or through legitimation or recognition of paternity. By the laws of some countries, marriage automatically makes a woman a citizen of the country of her husband. This was formerly the rule in both Britain and the United States, but their laws were changed to end the loss of citizenship for a woman on marriage to an alien. Citizenship also may be gained by the acquisition of territory through annexation, conquest, or purchase. The entire population of the newly incorporated area may be made citizens of the acquiring state, although inhabitants of the territory sometimes are given an option of retaining their former citizenship.

By far the most common method of acquiring citizenship other than through birth is naturalization--conferring citizenship on an individual who has emigrated to the state and who voluntarily accepts its nationality. Almost all countries have some provision for naturalization, but requirements vary widely. Furthermore, some countries--often those which determine citizenship jure sanguinis--insist on the "indelibility" of their citizenship and deny the validity of naturalization proceedings for their citizens in any other country. This was the British rule until 1870, and the impressment into the British fleet of native Englishmen naturalized in the United States but still claimed as British subjects was one cause of the War of 1812.

The loss of nationality also is governed by widely varying laws. In some states nationality may be renounced. Certain other steps may be held to imply the renunciation of nationality, including naturalization in a foreign state, service in its armed forces, entry into its public service, or marriage to an alien. Deprivation of citizenship may be a penalty for crime or for other actions, often including prolonged residence abroad. At times states have deprived all members of a given ethnic group of their citizenship.

Dual Citizenship and Statelessness

Conflicting nationality and citizenship laws of different states sometimes result in dual or multiple citizenship or in statelessness. Considerable international effort has been directed toward avoiding these situations and their concurrent problems.

Conflicting Citizenship

A person born in a state applying the jus soli to parents who are citizens of a state with the jus sanguinis is a national of each state by its own laws. In the reverse case he is a citizen of neither and hence is stateless. Marriage between citizens of two states produces either dual citizenship or statelessness if one state provides that a wife take the nationality of her husband while the other does not. Naturalization leads to dual nationality if the country of former nationality refuses to permit its citizenship to be lost or renounced. Deprivation or loss of citizenship means statelessness to an individual who has not become a national of any other country.


Tax payment, obligations to military service, the citizenship of children, and protection in dealings with foreign governments are some of the problems that may be affected by the lack of citizenship or by dual or multiple citizenship. Compulsory military service, for instance, ought to be required of an individual in no more than one country, and every individual ought to have one state where he is entitled to live and which will afford him protection in international relations.

The Hague Conference of 1930 dealt with some aspects of these situations and declared "that every person should have a nationality and should have one nationality only." Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality or denied the right to change his nationality."

Citizenship in a Federation

In a federation, such as the United States, dual citizenship in the nation and a constituent state is inevitable; but this seldom leads to serious problems, as control of citizenship is the responsibility of the national government. The former Soviet Union, at least nominally, was an exception to this rule: both the USSR and the constituent "union republics" conferred citizenship.

Citizenship in the United States

Matters relating to citizenship have always been of concern in the United States, primarily because it is a nation of immigrants. In the early days of the republic there also was a problem of conflicting federal and state responsibilities in this area.

Native and Naturalized Citizens

American citizenship at birth is gained primarily jure soli, but children born abroad to American parents generally are entitled to American citizenship also. Naturalization requirements have changed frequently. Until the 1920's they generally were designed to encourage large-scale immigration. Thereafter immigration was restricted stringently, both in total numbers and according to national origins. Immigration restrictions and naturalization requirements are closely related, so that permanent entry to the United States generally is limited to those eligible to become citizens.

Naturalized citizens legally are equal in almost all respects to persons who have been Americans from birth. The only constitutional disqualification of naturalized citizens is for the offices of PRESIDENT and VICE PRESIDENT of the United States. However, naturalized citizens have been subject to loss of citizenship on grounds not applicable to the native-born.

Naturalized citizens who subsequently are believed to have been members of allegedly subversive organizations sometimes have been charged with falsifying their original applications for citizenship; in these cases they have been subjected to possible revocation of citizenship and deportation. American law also has provided for denaturalization of naturalized citizens who take up permanent residence abroad within five years after naturalization. In addition, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarran-Walter Act) provides for the loss of American citizenship of any naturalized citizen who later resides abroad for five years or for three years in the country of his birth or previous nationality. The purpose of these provisions is to deny U. S. citizenship to the alien who does not transfer his permanent allegiance to the United States in good faith. In practice, however, they impose restrictions on the naturalized citizen that do not apply to the native-born.

Loss of Citizenship

Several actions have been legal cause for loss of U. S. citizenship for any American, native or naturalized. These include voluntary naturalization in a foreign state, taking an oath of allegiance to a foreign state, unauthorized service in foreign armed forces, employment by a foreign government under certain circumstances, voting in a foreign election, formal renunciation of American nationality (with some limitations), desertion, treason, and draft avoidance.

The U. S. Supreme Court has held unconstitutional the desertion provision (Trop v. Dulles 356 U. S. 86 [1958]) and the foreign elections restriction (Afroyim v. Rusk 387 U. S. 253 [1967]) and has cast doubt on the validity of all other provisions withdrawing citizenship except when it is voluntarily relinquished. However, naturalization in a foreign state still may be held to constitute such relinquishment. In the Afroyim case, the Supreme Court referred to the basic nature of democratic citizenship: The individual rights bound up in the concept of citizenship were held to be a fundamental element of democracy, which could not be abrogated unilaterally by the state; only with his own consent can a person cease to possess the character of citizen.

National Versus State Citizenship

The U. S. CONSTITUTION made naturalization the responsibility of the national government, but otherwise left the determination of citizenship to the individual states. This proved awkward. All state citizens were also citizens of the United States, but it was possible that a naturalized U. S. citizen might not be accepted as a citizen by any of the constituent states. Furthermore, although the states could not naturalize, they had the right to admit anyone to virtually all the privileges of state citizenship whether or not he was a U. S. citizen.

The most serious problem involved the African American. In the Dred Scott case (1857), the U. S. Supreme Court held that no blacks, free or slave, were citizens and that neither the states nor the national government had the power to make them citizens. This decision, intimately related to the conflicts leading to the Civil War, was reversed after the war by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment deprived the states of authority over the determination of their citizens, as follows: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

Murray Clark Havens
University of Texas

For Further Reading

Barber, Benjamin, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Univ. of Calif. Press 1984)
Bookchin, Murray, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (Sierra Club Bks. 1987)
Cabranes, Jose A., Citizenship and the American Empire (Yale Univ. Press 1979)
Frederickson, H. George, and Chandler, Ralph Clark, eds., Citizenship and Public Administration (Am. Soc. of Pub. Admin. 1984)
Kettner, James H., The Development of American Citizenship 1608-1870 (Univ. of N.C. Press 1984)
Williams, Jerre S., and others, Our Freedoms: Rights and Responsibilitiesed. by T. W. Laeson (Univ. of Texas Press 1985)