Birthright citizenship prior to the 14th Amendment
Strangely enough, the United States Constitution is remarkably silent on the issue of who is considered a citizen in the United States. It references citizenship in defining who is eligible to run for the House of Representatives, the Senate, and President of the United States. Our founding document did give the power to Congress to determine naturalization. While the constitution is silent on the issue of what makes a person a citizen, the courts routinely were able to use English common law to set a precedent for jus soli citizenship. Alexandra Wyatt wrote in her report for the Congressional Research Service titled “Birthright Citizenship and Children Born in the United States to Alien Parents: An Overview of the Legal Debate”, noted that the Supreme Court in Smith v. Alabama opined “[t]he interpretation of the Constitution of the United States is necessarily influenced by the fact that its provisions are framed in the language of the English common law, are to be read in the light of its history.” Wyatt found that in Inglis v. Sailor’s Snug Harbor, Justice Story wrote in a dissent (on other grounds) that “nothing is better settled at the common law than the doctrine that the children even of aliens born in a country, while the parents are resident there under the protection of the government, and owing a temporary allegiance thereto, are subjects by birth.” But these are not the best examples for a number of reasons to say that the case is settled. The New York Court case of Lynch v. Clarke was probably a better example.
Julia Lynch was born to Irish aliens during a “temporary sojourn” in 1819. She, with her parents, departed to their native country and lived there continuously from then on. The court was asked to rule on the claim of Julia Lynch, if she was a citizen, because if she was, she was set to inherit real estate. Her father did not state any intention of becoming a citizen of the United States and even though he had a daughter while in the United States, they had no real intention of staying. They moved back to Ireland. The New York Court held that Julia Lynch was a citizen of the United States. In the opinion, the justice wrote “the right of citizenship, as distinguished from alienage, is a national right or condition. It pertains to the confederated sovereignty, the United States; and not to the individual states…the policy and the legislation of the American Colonies, from their earliest times until the Revolution was adapted to foster immigration, and to bestow upon foreigners all the rights of natural born subjects…the uniform course was to extend, not to abridge, the right of citizenship.” The justice continued until ultimately concluding “I can entertain no doubt, but that by the law of the United States, every person born within the dominions and allegiance of the United Stats, whatever were the situation of his parents, is a natural born citizen.”
In one of the most infamous rulings in the United States Supreme Court’s history, the Taney court, in Dred Scott opined that the class of citizenship could not be given to descendants of slaves and to people of African descent, in general. The Dred Scott case is one of the worst decisions that the Supreme Court has issued and is rarely cited as any precedent outside of hiding in Shelby County v. Holder and by Trump confidante and anti-birthright citizenship crusader Kris Kobach. After the Civil War, which more or less repudiated the decision in Dred Scott, it was still up to Congress to determine who could be naturalized and become a citizen.