Rogers M. Smith


The United States has always proclaimed itself the land of liberty, and scholars still usually identify its prevailing political ideas as "liberal" or at least "liberal republican." These characterizations undoubtedly make much sense. Americans would not have replaced English subjectship with the particular political status they created, citizenship in a commercial republic guaranteeing various personal, economic, and intellectual freedoms, if they had not been at least partly guided by the often-intertwined ideologies historians term "liberalism" and "republicanism." Yet while those political outlooks have certainly shaped the laws that have historically constituted American citizenship, their precepts have never been wholly obeyed. America's civic laws have often been starkly illiberal, riddled with racial, sexual, ideological, ethnic, and xenophobic discriminations. Today the worst oppressions have been modified, but all the divisive tensions they expressed remain potent forces in American politics. Most disturbingly, it is still far from clear, even in theory, how a morally defensible body of citizenship laws, "liberal" or otherwise, ought to respond to these forces.

In this and other writings on citizenship, I have tried to assist consideration of how American civic membership should be defined in the nation's public laws by offering analyses of how it has actually been legally defined and defended historically. For while Americans have refused to adhere completely to what "liberal republican" principles imply for their civic laws, they have usually felt compelled to justify their apparent departures from those principles. Their justifications provide some indication of the respects in which Americans have found traditional liberalism, especially, lacking as a national public philosophy.

Here I wish to continue these analyses by focusing on the types of political ideas, values, and arguments America's governors used to defend gender discriminations in their citizenship laws, and to suggest why those defenses were so effective in a titularly liberal polity. My central argument is that such discriminations seemed legitimate because the tradition of liberal discourse, stemming from the opposition movements of the Enlightenment, paid little attention to personal and communal needs for a sense of meaningful collective identity. Thus classical liberalism said little about what its abstract commitments to universal human rights implied for the ways liberal societies should meet those needs.