Summary of Civic Ideals by Rogers Smith
Uploaded by jamie83 on Oct 26, 2011
This essay examines Rogers Smiths book about American citizenship laws, which the author finds have been systematically and deliberately written to favor those in power.
Rogers M. Smith’s book is, in large part, the history of race relations in the United States. He begins in pre-revolutionary times, then moves to the Colonial Era, and comes forward through various epochs until he reaches the 20th Century; in total, the book spans the years 1763-1912.
Smith’s thesis is stark and uncompromising:
“I show that through most of U.S. history, lawmakers pervasively and unapologetically structured U.S. citizenship in terms of illiberal and undemocratic racial, ethic and gender hierarchies, for reasons rooted in basic, enduring imperatives of political life. (P. 1).
Smith originally set out to explore whether or not America is truly a “Lockean liberal society” as claimed by some political philosopher Louis Hartz. (P. 1). Smith felt it was not, and that there were two challenges to this idea: one, that the U.S. had been shaped by “republicanism … that … opposed Lockean liberalism”; two, that although Americans might seem liberalistic, liberalism itself is an “unsatisfying” and “incoherent” philosophy, because it ignores the basic characteristics of human beings. Smith believed that these challenges to his beliefs as a liberal could be examined by studying the American citizenship laws: “If the U.S. was a product of visions of a privatized, atomistic liberal society and a more communitarian, participatory republican one, then different perspectives should surface and clash in legislative and judicial efforts to define legal membership in the American political community.” (Smith, p. 2). With this idea in mind, Smith began to examine the citizenship laws and in so doing, wound up writing an entirely different book from the one he had envisioned, because he found that “American law had long been shot through with forms of second-class citizenship, denying personal liberties and opportunities for political participation to most of the adult population on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender and even religion.” (P. 2). It was this systematic codification of inequality that he wanted to explore.
Smith devotes his book, then, to an examination of the citizenship laws at various periods of American history. He chose the times he did, he explains, by identifying those eras “when a distinct pattern in civic rules prevailed despite ongoing struggle, until those battles...