What is the history of citizenship in the U.S.?

The idea of citizenship came into being many centuries ago. In the ancient city-state of Athens, citizenship was granted to males of certain classes. Citizenship was also granted to a few foreigners and freed slaves. Citizenship meant that a man could vote, hold office, serve on committees and juries, and give military service. He was also expected to share the work of government. Women, slaves, and practically all foreigners were protected under the law but had few of the rights and privileges of Athenian citizens.

Citizenship was also important to the people of ancient Rome. Roman citizens often took part in their government. Roman citizenship was extended to foreign soldiers serving in the army and to men of conquered lands. By A.D. 212 almost all of the men in Roman provinces, except slaves, were citizens.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 400's, the idea of citizenship became less important for many centuries. The feudal system spread through western Europe in the Middle Ages. This system was based on services and loyalty to a higher person in exchange for his protection. Millions of serfs worked the land for lords. The lords owed their allegiance to overlords. The overlords in turn were controlled by the king. In this system the king and nobles, rather than any government independent of these rulers, gave the people rights and privileges.

By the 1600's some kings had made many small states into nations. The common people no longer owed allegiance, or loyalty, to the nobles in their immediate region. Their first allegiance now was to the king. They began to take pride in their whole country. They also began to feel that they should have a voice in their country's government. As these changes took place, people started thinking of themselves as citizens of a nation as well as the loyal subjects of their king.

Today, most people place a high value on their citizenship. They know that when they pledge allegiance to their flag, they are willing to fulfill specific obligations to their country and will be granted many rights and privileges in return.

Ward Whipple
Editor, Civic Leader