Civic Nationalism, Part III: “Ourselves and Our Posterity”

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Mon, Apr 17 - 8:00 am EST | 2 years ago by
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Lines of Departure - Constitution

The Preamble to the United States Constitution reads:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

One of the sometimes amusing aspects of certain religious denominations is the tendency of taking some obscure passage of scripture, perhaps one that pleases the vanity of the founder of the denomination, then removing it from any context, and then building an entire, and entirely threadbare, theology around that.

So, too, in the United States, one of the feeder memes for ethnic, as opposed to civic, nationalism hinges on a particular definition of “posterity.” This, as used in the Preamble to the Constitution, especially, is seen as restricting American citizenship and even the name, “American,” only to those descended, in whole or (for the more liberally minded) in part from those who were British descended, but not Irish, and possibly not Celtic, at all, who were here, on the winning side, during the Revolution or (again for the more liberally minded) at least during the period of ratification.

It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work historically. It doesn’t work logically. It doesn’t work linguistically. It doesn’t work legally. It doesn’t work from the perspective of national defense.

Firstly, what does, or can, the word, “Posterity,” mean? It has three possible meanings. It can mean one’s actual legal descendants and heirs. It can also mean just succeeding generations. It can also mean simply later times, though that has little impact on this discussion.

Samuel Johnson, in his mammoth dictionary,1 the last edition contemporary with ratification and, in the first edition, preceding the Revolution, defines it as both descendants and succeeding generations. Note that, if “succeeding generations” means the same thing as descendants, or vice versa, it would have been unnecessary to include both definitions.

Dr. Johnson also cited to Latin, wherein posteritas also means both future generations and one’s actual descendants, but also future times.2

However, Johnson was not descended from the successful revolutionaries of 1776 nor even related to the statesmen of 1789. We could, perhaps discount him and his dictionary. Unfortunately, Johnson’s own posterity, Webster, here, uses much the same definitions, as both one’s specific descendants and succeeding generations, generally.3 Of course Webster does come after but is very close in time, presumptively also very close in meaning, to the language of the day.

Ah, but I hear the mutter, “the addition of the word ‘our’ must restrict it to descendants alone.” No, add our to either definition and both stand equally well on their own – “our descendants,” “our succeeding generations” – without changing their relationship or meaning.

Still, it’s an arguable point. Madison and company could have meant only the descendants of the then “People of the United States.” That would include a number of half breeds from Indian-settler matches, of course, as well as some numbers of Dutch and Germans, Scots and Irish, and a few French, among the latter, Lafayette, who was not native born. Oh, and a non-native born German, von Steuben, as well as a couple of Poles, Pulaski and Kościuszko.4 Yeah, and, ah, Dave Farragut’s dad. You know, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” Farragut? “Old Heart of Oak” Farragut? Yeah, his old man, who was a native of Minorca. Yes, that means those were Spanish eyes scanning over the smoke-shrouded waters of Mobile Bay, at the flame-belching CSS Tennessee.

It’s not that arguable a point, though, failing on at least two grounds, one of omission and one of commission.

You see, though they didn’t have all the books we do now, these were highly educated and extremely intelligent men, drafting our constitution. Among other things, they read Hobbes, too.5

It would have been easy enough for them to have written into the Constitution, words to the effect of, “The law for citizenship in the United States shall be the same as prevailed in that other great democracy, Athens, at the time of Pericles.” That would even have allowed for special dispensation in deserving cases, as Pericles’ son by the courtesan, Aspasia, was granted citizenship, even though not full blooded Athenian.

But they didn’t. There were an infinite number of ways to have restricted citizenship if they’d wished to. Since they didn’t, and they were educated and intelligent men, we must presume they didn’t want to.

Instead, they wrote into the Constitution an understanding and intent to permit naturalization, with the implication of immigration (which, curiously, they also didn’t try to limit, except in the case of blacks and, especially, slaves). Turn to Article 1, Section 2, Clause 2:

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty-five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.

There’s that mutter again; “Well, clearly they were thinking that one would become a citizen at age eighteen, because twenty-five minus seven is eighteen, which would also be a presumptive voting age.”

Well, that’s certainly devastating, or would be were it not for Article One, Section Three, Clause Three, which reads:

No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.

See, when the math leads to two different ages, they’re not talking about a voting age. Instead they’re talking about higher qualifications for more important offices, in the context of permitting people who were not citizens, who came from outside, to come in and become citizens.

Moreover, shortly thereafter, the Naturalization Act of 1790 was enacted. This – written by men closely in tune with the tenor of the times and either drafters of the Constitution, or associates of those who drafted it – permitted free white aliens, who had been resident for two years, to become citizens.6

There’s that muttering again, “Well, it doesn’t cover blacks.”

That’s absolutely true, no argument at all. The Fourteenth Amendment covered blacks. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I suppose, as a last ditch, that someone might argue we intended that only British should be allowed to immigrate. Think about that for a bit. It’s 1790. We’ve just finished a war with the British. We’re still enemies. We still think of each other as enemies, real or potential. Indeed, we will continue to do so until the nineteen thirties, despite having been allied at least once. By the thirties, of course, our power relationship had inverted. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, though, we were weak and vulnerable. We had them off all our coasts. We had them allied with hostile Indians to our west. They have a huge base in the great white wasteland to the north. But we’re going to limit immigration to them and them only. Puh-leeze!

One can, of course, still argue that it was a mistake to have been so liberal about immigration and naturalization from such an early day. That is, however, a different argument, one I will take up in a future column.

Next Week: Civic Nationalism v. Ethnic Nationalism

Don’t miss Part I and Part II in this series.

Photo by istock / Getty Images





4 Pulaski’s citizenship was, admittedly, only honorary. But then he was already killed in action at Savannah and had no descendants.

5 Hobbes translated Thucydides from the Greek, a century or so before the Revolution.

6 The residency and certification requirements bounced around quite a bit over the years.

Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through

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