Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Making Modern American Citizenship: Citizens, Aliens, and Rights, 1865-1965


American citizenship and the rights of U.S. citizenship became modern from the time of the Civil War until the Civil Rights era. Voting became the quintessential right of American citizenship as marginalized citizens won suffrage rights and noncitizen men lost the franchise in nearly two dozen states and territories. Conversely, nativist-inspired policies that counted only citizens as part of the population for redistricting purposes were gradually rescinded in states where they had long operated. At the same time, many forms of publicly funded blue-collar work and access to professional licenses were increasingly restricted to U.S. citizens. And the liminal legal status of hundreds of thousands of marital expatriates (U.S.-born women who had lost citizenship upon marrying noncitizen men) forced judges and immigration officers to interpret and administer the boundaries and meaning of increasingly exclusive citizenship rights.

This dissertation explores how U.S. citizenship and restrictive “rights of citizenship” were claimed, debated, learned, and experienced by citizens and noncitizens alike from 1865 to 1965. Part I, “Consolidating the Political Rights of Citizenship,” examines state constitutional and legislative debates over alien suffrage and the inclusion of noncitizens in apportionment policies. It demonstrates the growing power of “citizen only” arguments and documents how these debates transformed the rules governing membership and participation in the polity. Part II, “Claiming, Administering, and Experiencing Employment as a Right of Citizenship,” examines state legislative and licensing records to identify patterns in laws restricting noncitizens’ access to work. These policies, which disproportionately harmed and targeted women and nonwhite immigrants, led to heightened identification requirements and made exclusive economic “rights of citizenship” more powerful, recognizable, and tangible in American life.

Part III, “The Ascendance of the Rights of Citizenship,” analyzes how marital expatriates experienced and contested their alienage from the 1920s to the 1950s. It also explores how they were declared to be “citizens without the rights of citizenship” by federal immigration authorities in 1940. The courts increasingly struck this interpretation down, reasoning that citizenship status could not be separated from citizenship rights. While these rulings did not ensure that citizens possessed equal de facto or even de jure rights, they did represent a crucial transformation integral to the modern era of American citizenship: a belief that “rights of citizenship” exist, matter, and are – or at the very least ought to be – definable.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View