Weil – Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic

The Question:

As governments around the world threaten to strip people of their citizenship, one must ask:

Under what circumstances (if any) can a country “strip” a citizen of his or her citizenship?

I have discovered a fascinating book by Professor Patrick Weil titled:

“The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic”

A description of the book includes:

Present-day Americans feel secure in their citizenship: they are free to speak up for any cause, oppose their government, marry a person of any background, and live where they choose-at home or abroad. Denaturalization and denationalization are more often associated with twentieth-century authoritarian regimes. But there was a time when American-born and naturalized foreign-born individuals in the United States could be deprived of their citizenship and its associated rights. Patrick Weil examines the twentieth-century legal procedures, causes, and enforcement of denaturalization to illuminate an important but neglected dimension of Americans’ understanding of sovereignty and federal authority: a citizen is defined, in part, by the parameters that could be used to revoke that same citizenship.

The Sovereign Citizen begins with the Naturalization Act of 1906, which was intended to prevent realization of citizenship through fraudulent or illegal means. Denaturalization-a process provided for by one clause of the act-became the main instrument for the transfer of naturalization authority from states and local courts to the federal government. Alongside the federalization of naturalization, a conditionality of citizenship emerged: for the first half of the twentieth century, naturalized individuals could be stripped of their citizenship not only for fraud but also for affiliations with activities or organizations that were perceived as un-American. (Emma Goldman’s case was the first and perhaps best-known denaturalization on political grounds, in 1909.) By midcentury the Supreme Court was fiercely debating cases and challenged the constitutionality of denaturalization and denationalization. This internal battle lasted almost thirty years. The Warren Court’s eventual decision to uphold the sovereignty of the citizen-not the state-secures our national order to this day. Weil’s account of this transformation, and the political battles fought by its advocates and critics, reshapes our understanding of American citizenship.

Based on the interviews below, it is clear that this is an interesting, well-researched and valuable contribution to the discussion of the relationship between the citizen and the state. I’m sold and will purchase the book.

Of interest to Americans abroad is Chapter 6 which is titled:

Chapter 6: In the Largest Numbers: The Penalty of Living Abroad

[Cross-posted from New Books in LawPatrick Weil is the author of The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). He is a visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School and a senior research fellow at the French National Research Center in the University of Paris 1, Pantheon-Sorbonne. The Sovereign Citizen is an historical study of denaturalization in the United States. It tells the story of what Weil believes is a revolution in the concept of citizenship, through exhaustive archival research. But is also a story about the actors that have made law what it is – immigrants, political radicals, criminal defense lawyers, bureaucrats, and judges.

Professor Weil notes that during the 20th Centry 85,000 U.S. born citizens of the United States were stripped of their U.S.citizenship. This took place alongside the 14th amendment which guarantees that anyone born in the U.S. is a U.S. citizen. Interviews with Professor Weil:

1. April 2013 – With “FAF – French American Foundation”

Interestingly at the 50 minute mark he quotes from Justice Black in the Afroyim case. At the 58 minute mark he touches on  “tax-expatriation and citizenship-based taxation” – refers to the U.S. Exit Tax as “quite high”. At the 60 minute mark he appears to mention the “master nationality rule“.

2. At Yale law school (where he is a visiting professor)


This interesting interview includes a mention of the following topics:

– the issue of Canadian citizens living outside Canada and their right to vote

– very interesting story of the history leading up to Afroyim

– closes with reinforcement of the idea that “citizenship” includes “rights and obligations”

The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic:Book Talk with Professor Patrick Weil Senior R from Yale Law Librarians on Vimeo.