Hartmann on Frost, 'You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers'

Amanda Frost. You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021. 240 pp. $14.79 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8070-5142-9

Reviewed by Susan M. Hartmann (The Ohio State University)
Published on H-FedHist (August, 2022)
Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann (Miami University of Ohio Regionals)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57596

Beginning with the Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to African Americans in 1857, legal scholar Amanda Frost shows how the government stripped the rights of citizenship from various groups and individuals over the following 150 years. These included both birthright and naturalized citizens—officers of the Confederacy, women who married foreigners, immigrants, and radicals. Methods of revoking citizenship varied from legal means to bureaucratic procedures that made burdens of proof nearly impossible. Those who managed to avoid expatriation or the loss of rights that accompanied citizenship still lived under the threat of what might result from freely expressing their views.

Using the examples of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first Black senator, Frost demonstrates how in the Reconstruction era, African Americans found their citizenship codified in the Fourteenth Amendment, while Confederate leaders lost that status. Most southern rebels, however, were granted amnesty (and even Davis and Confederate general Robert E. Lee had their citizenship restored posthumously in the 1970s), while the federal government failed to act as southern states systematically stripped African Americans of rights that should have accompanied citizenship.

Chinese Americans constituted another group denied their Fourteenth Amendment right to citizenship until the 1898 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Wong Kin Ark that finally firmly established citizenship for anyone born in the United States. Yet, Frost also shows that, while the government lost its case in that landmark ruling, federal officials found bureaucratic loopholes that continued through the 1950s to erect barriers to nonwhite Americans and those with radical leanings who tried to claim birthright or naturalized citizenship.

Following the case of California suffragist Ethel Coope Mackenzie, Frost recounts the experience of another group of Americans who lost their citizenship when Congress passed the Expatriation Act of 1907, stripping that status from any woman (but not any man) who married a foreigner. Mackenzie lost her case before the Supreme Court in 1915, but after women won the right to vote with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, Congress passed the Cable Act in 1922 ending expatriation on the basis of marriage. That law continued to discriminate against women who married men ineligible for citizenship until it was amended in 1931.

Through the travails of Fritz Kuhn, leader of the German American Bund, and Joseph Kurihara, a Japanese American birthright citizen, Frost illuminates the racially biased treatment accorded to different groups of Americans during World War II. With great difficulty the government managed to expatriate Kuhn in 1943, and relatively few other German Americans who all had their day in court, but it persuaded or coerced Kurihara and more than five thousand Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, an injustice that the government formally recognized in 1959.

Radical activist Emma Goldman and labor leader Harry Bridges found their citizenship threatened during the first and second Red Scares. Goldman, whose marriage to an American citizen bestowed citizenship to her, was expatriated in 1919, but, while Bridges won his right to remain a citizen in 1954, those cases and the experiences of more than twenty thousand foreign-born Americans who were denaturalized by the end of the twentieth century had a chilling effect on individuals with views or affiliations outside the mainstream.

Mexican Americans formed perhaps the most numerous group at risk of expatriation. Frost recounts the mass deportations during the 1930s and again during Operation Wetback in the 1950s. Although laws and court decisions have diminished the formal revocation of citizenship in the twenty-first century, bureaucratic procedures and the lack of financial or legal resources often make it difficult for individuals to prove their citizenship, especially those living in the southern borderlands.

You Are Not American is engagingly written and filled with personal stories that capture the reader’s attention. While specialists may already be familiar with the histories of individuals, laws, procedures, and cases described in this book, it should serve as an excellent teaching tool and alert a large reading public to the precariousness of citizenship rights.

Citation: Susan M. Hartmann. Review of Frost, Amanda, You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57596

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.