Opinion

Citizenship clues may become trickier

There’s a lawsuit in the courts now regarding whether it’s legal to ask a person’s citizenship status in the upcoming U.S. Census.  Historically, the question of whether a resident was an “alien,” naturalized, or when they came to this country has been asked in censuses back to the first one in 1790.  But in today’s political climate it’s much trickier than it was in prior years.

Believe it or not, the issue of non-citizenship goes right back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Here’s a little history lesson all of us should know.  The furor came about because of the House of Representatives.  After the Revolution, the individual states soon found their confederation wasn’t working well and they decided to try to draw up a constitution. The issue of representation almost split our young nation in two until a compromise was suggested that allowed the southern states to sign on to the proposed Constitution.  

Senate membership was fixed at two senators per state, and at that time the senators were chosen by the legislators in each state.  The House of Representatives were to be directly elected by the people. But the number in the House of Representatives depended on the population of a state.  The more people who lived there, the more representatives they could send to Congress. Southern states argued they were rural with no large cities such as Philadelphia or New York.  Southerners felt this put them at a distinct disadvantage where they would always send fewer representatives and thus lose votes to the populous, more industrial north.

To compromise and save the country, the framers of the Constitution hit upon the idea of counting slaves in the slave states.  Every five slaves were counted as three white men (remember, women didn’t vote until 1920). Of course, slaves weren’t free, couldn’t vote, weren’t legally citizens, and weren’t represented, but that compromise, flawed as it was, helped to hold the Union together.  When a new state entered the Union, whether free or slave, it had to be balanced by a state from the opposite position.

Our own state of Maine, a free state, was part of the Missouri Compromise when that state came in as a slave state in 1820.  The system was tested and strained several times until the Civil War erupted in 1861 and the issue of slavery almost destroyed the nation.

For genealogists, the question of  citizenship is just another clue in helping us track our immigrant ancestors.  As a genealogist, the political issue probably never crossed your mind just the value of being able to learn more about when our people came to this country, were naturalized, and where and when they started the process.  The census was a valuable tool in learning the answers to these questions.

Future genealogists may not have those clues to help them find their immigrant ancestors.  It will be a loss for researchers, but it will be the courts who will determine what information can be asked of Americans from now on.  

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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