“It feels horrible.”
That’s what Constitutional scholar Rogers Smith—the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science and a self-described “left liberal”—replied when senior editor Trey Popp asked him how he felt about having his work on the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment cited by advocates of eliminating birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens born on US soil.
This issue’s cover story, “Who Is America?” traces how that unlikely development came about. It also offers an evocative and telling look back at Smith’s childhood and youth in Illinois as a “Goldwater Republican” and budding political operative. His early exposure to the state’s flagrantly corrupt brand of politics—as well as a few more inspirational figures in government—shaped his intellectual path and set him on an academic career, more or less as a way to provide some worthy ideas for professional politicians to latch on to.
Smith’s research has focused on how the US historically has used race, gender, and ethnicity to exclude groups from the full privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. For reasons that Trey delves into in detail (but which are far removed from those of his citers), he parts ways with most Constitutional scholars to argue that the intent of the language in the Fourteenth Amendment is sufficiently in doubt to make birthright citizenship for the children of unauthorized immigrants a matter for Congress to decide.
(For the record, Smith favors sticking with the established interpretation as a matter of policy. He also favors more immigration overall and believes the US should privilege Mexican nationals on issues of residency, citizenship, and lenient treatment for the undocumented.)
While he deplores the use his research is being put to by those seeking to restrict citizenship, Smith stands by his interpretation and accepts that illiberal views are part of the give-and-take of democracy. As for his own political philosophy, in the story he echoes Lincoln’s view that America’s purpose is to “extend meaningful enjoyment of the basic rights to life, liberty, and happiness to ‘all people of all colors everywhere,’” adding, “which I still think is a pretty good vision.”
That trio of rights recalls the language of the Declaration of Independence, of course, among whose signers was Benjamin Rush, the subject of a new biography by Stephen Fried C’79 titled Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father. Besides his role in the American Revolution, Rush was a dedicated and prominent physician in Philadelphia, a widely published writer and thinker, and a longtime faculty member and leader at Penn’s medical school.
We have an excerpt, “Rush on the Mind,” that centers on his role as a pioneer in the study and treatment of mental illness, the facet of his life that has led to his being sometimes described as “the father of American psychiatry.” Also included is a companion piece drawn from an interview with Fried—in which, among other things, the author agues that, with regard to its famous Benjamins, Penn’s focus should be more Rush, less Franklin.
As emeritus professor of English Peter Conn notes in “Wordsworth’s American Champion,” while medical education was thriving at the University in the early 1800s, things weren’t going so well at the undergraduate College. But among the 16 graduates of the Class of 1825 was one Henry Hope Reed—the aforementioned champion—who would help turn things around in the next generation. He joined the faculty in 1831 and would teach at Penn until his death in 1854 in the sinking of the SS Arctic—ironically on his way back from a trip to Europe that had included a pilgrimage to Wordsworth’s family home, Rydal Mount.
It was rare for colleges to address contemporary literature at all at the time—most still adhered to a classical curriculum, without majors—so Reed was an innovator in that respect. He corresponded with Wordsworth, and published the first one-volume edition of his complete works. Key to his popularizing effort was a 27,000-word essay he wrote praising the book for the New York Review. That, it turns out, wasn’t rare: “anonymous and friendly self-reviews occupied a sizable place in early 19th century criticism,” Conn notes.
“Gazetteer” also touches on some painful history, reporting on research by students, supplemented by a faculty study, that provides new details on Penn’s connections with slavery. Similar investigations have been launched at other schools, and in the University’s case as well, the links are more extensive than previously acknowledged.
—John Prendergast C’80