What the Constitution Says About Citizenship

Courtesy of Grolier's New Book of Knowledge

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

The United States Constitution, drafted in 1787, did not explain citizenship, but it did mention "citizens of the States" and a "citizen of the United States." Citizens of the United States became entitled to the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution and its later amendments. Among these rights were the right to vote, own property, seek elective office, and to be protected by the laws of the land.

Because the young United States followed British common law, it accepted the rule of jus soli, or place of birth. As early as 1790, Congress recognized the rule of jus sanguinis, or blood relationship, by passing laws giving citizenship to a child born in a foreign country if the father was a citizen of the United States.

The 14th Amendment
The first official written explanation of American citizenship was included in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868). Section 1 of this amendment declares that "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." The wording of this amendment places national citizenship before state citizenship. In other words, an American is first a citizen of the United States and then a citizen of the state in which he or she lives. Citizens are entitled to the rights granted by both the national government and their own state's government.

The 14th Amendment was passed to guarantee citizenship to blacks who were freed from slavery after the Civil War (13th Amendment, 1865). The amendment made the rule of jus soli (place of birth) a law for all U.S. citizens. This means that any child born in the United States becomes a citizen at birth, even if its parents are aliens. (However, the rule does not apply to children born to foreign diplomats or United Nations officials.)

The 14th Amendment does not include jus sanguinis. American citizenship acquired at birth in a foreign nation is usually determined by the law that is in effect at the time the child is born. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, amended in 1965, 1976, and 1978, gives the requirements.

For a child born on or after December 24, 1952, both parents must have been American citizens. In addition, one parent must have lived in the United States for ten years (and for at least five years after the age of 14) before the birth of the child.

Ward Whipple
Editor, Civic Leader

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  • Subjects:
    Citizenship, Constitution and Bill of Rights
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