The Fourteenth Amendment’s first test came in 1870, when Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African American elected to Congress. In a delicious irony, Revels would represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate, a position last held by Jefferson Davis before he abandoned the Union to become president of the Confederacy. Before Revels could take his seat, however, he had to defend himself against the claim that he was ineligible to serve because he was not an American citizen.
“Revels is not a citizen of the United States,” declared Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky, because the “farce” that was the Fourteenth Amendment could not make him one. Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware insisted that the Fourteenth Amendment “is no more a part of the Constitution of the United States today than anything which you … might write upon a piece of paper and fling upon the floor.”
Revels’s supporters rushed to defend both the Fourteenth Amendment and his citizenship, and eventually he was allowed to take his seat. But by the end of the 1870s, the country had abandoned Reconstruction, and black people lost their citizenship in all but name.
African Americans are not the only racial group to have had its citizenship questioned. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1870, making him a U.S. citizen at birth under the Fourteenth Amendment. Nonetheless, when he tried to enter the United States in August 1895 after a trip to China, immigration officials denied him admission.
The government argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that no person of Chinese ancestry qualified as a U.S. citizen, even if born in the United States. Wong’s parents were citizens of China, and so Wong was “subject to the jurisdiction of the Emperor of China” and not the United States at the time of his birth, the government claimed. If the government had prevailed, it would have put at risk the citizenship status of the millions of children of immigrant parents living in the United States.
Wong won his case and was permitted to enter the United States. But the U.S. government continued to deny Chinese Americans’ claims to citizenship for decades. All four of Wong’s sons had to defend their citizenship over the next three decades. One lost his case—officials refused to recognize him as Wong’s son—and was barred from ever returning to the United States.
The government did not limit citizenship-stripping to racial minorities. Hundreds of thousands of American women also lost their citizenship under a federal law enacted in 1907 that revoked U.S. citizenship from women who married noncitizens. (When women complained, one congressman responded, “Aren’t our boys good enough for you?”)
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The suffragist and socialite Ethel Mackenzie, born and raised in San Francisco, helped to win the vote for California’s women. Nonetheless, she lost her own right to vote along with her citizenship when she married a Scotsman. She took her case all the way up to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment barred Congress from stripping native-born American women of their citizenship. She lost. Congress did not repeal the law until 1931.