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Summary of Civic Ideals by Rogers Smith

This essay examines the Rogers Smiths book about American citizenship laws, which the author finds have been systematically and deliberately written to favour 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:

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“I show that through most of U.S. history, lawmakers pervasively and unapologetically structured U.S. citizenship in terms of illiberal and undemocratic racial, ethnic 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 the ongoing struggle until those battles reached turning points and inaugurated different basic civil patterns.” (P. 7).

The book is fascinating but so lengthy and detailed that it’s only possible to mention a few highlights. Smith begins with a discussion of what it means to be an American citizen. He quotes Philip Gleason, who says that an American is someone committed to the ideals of liberality, equality and republicanism.” (P. 14). But, Smith says, our judicial system makes a mockery of this, as it often perpetuates inequality.

He discusses life in 1606 in the Chesapeake colonies when King James established the Virginia Company and the English began colonizing the New World. He describes the colonists as racist and sexist – they regarded the Native Americans as subhuman and women as property and their laws were made to reinforce their prejudices.

He moves through the Revolution (1773-1776); the Confederation Era (1776-1787); the Constitution; the Federalist Years (1789-1801); the Jeffersonian Era (1801-1829) and the “Age of Jackson” (1829-1856), which he calls “High Noon of the White Republic.” In each of these eras, he examines the ways in which citizenship laws were re-written, largely to maintain white male supremacy.
Chapter 9, “Dred Scott Unchained,” is possibly the most powerful in the book, because it discusses the event that writer Shelby Foote says “defined us” (I’m quoting from memory of his television appearances) – the Civil War. The war tore the nation apart, and at least some of the underlying factors in the conflict have to be the tremendous inequalities in American citizenship. Smith quotes the great Frederick Douglass, who easily saw the terrible injustice of a system that so blatantly said one thing and did another: “… your … policies … are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty … while the whole political power of the nation … is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen.” (Smith, p. 273). The Civil War freed the slaves and ushered in an era of reform, at the cost of 600,000 dead and millions wounded. But the “glorious era of liberal victories” that emerged from the chaos of war “would prove hard-fought and short-lived.” (Smith, p. 285).

Smith continues tracing the changes in the citizenship laws through the so-called “Gilded Age” into the “Progressive Era”, and finds the pattern continues: powerful special interests, usually white and male, continued to fashion laws to benefit themselves, and lend credibility to actions that would otherwise be reprehensible, if not criminal.

In the final analysis, though, Smith refuses to give way to despair over what seems to be an unalterable and inherently unfair power structure. Indeed he suggests that Americans, and particularly liberals, look at the forces that have made us what we are today, and see clearly what they are and what must be done to preserve true democracy.

He cites three political tasks for citizens and leaders: 1) debunk the myths about America’s past and replace them with truths, no matter how difficult, complex or unpleasant; 2) leaders must re-learn the art of real compromise, so that they can “… [carry] forward the … national endeavour of finding ways to protect and promote basic liberties and opportunities for all citizens, in ways respectful of, and if possible beneficial to, outsiders”; and 3) Americans must learn to look at their history, the claims of their political leaders, and those aspiring to the office with healthy scepticism, and apply their powers of critical thinking to decide whether or not the leaders and their policies are deserving of support.

This requires Americans to be both patriotic and judgmental, a balance that is difficult to achieve but is possibly the most important single mechanism that makes representative democracy work. “Their patriotism must thus be at once profound and qualified, recognized as something both necessary and dangerous, and thus as an allegiance that is deepest when it harbours searching doubts.” (Smith, p. 505). The current climate, in which governmental actions that are highly doubtful at best and completely fabricated at worst are accepted unhesitatingly by many Americans, should be cause for the gravest concern.


Smith, Rogers M. Civic Ideals: Conflicting visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1997.

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