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Benson: The good, bad and ugly of US citizenship

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The New York Times reported last Sunday that Queen Elizabeth II is strapped for cash. This is a surprising development for an English monarch who owns Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands, acres of farmland, horses, art and jewelry, and has a net worth that Forbes magazine estimates at $500 million.

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In addition, she collects 15 percent of the income derived each year from the Crown Estate, assets that the nation owns but the queen uses, such as Buckingham Palace and the Crown Jewels.

“The British government has subsidized the royal household since the reign of King George III.”

So short of cash is the queen that in 2010 she “applied to a government fund normally reserved for low-income families to help with Buckingham Palace’s heating bills,” and was denied, due to “probable adverse press coverage if the palace were given a grant at the expense of, say, a hospital.”

Although Parliament retains most of the political power, the Britons love their queen. Fewer than one in five want a pure republic, and 45 percent show support for the monarch. So, they pay her bills.

This devotion and deference to a monarch made no sense to Americans in 1776. In Thomas Paine’s bestseller, Common Sense, he called King George III “the royal brute,” and wrote, “There is something exceedingly ridiculous in the composition of Monarchy.” “It is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion.”

In bold words he insisted that Americans declare their independence from Great Britain.

“I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain.” “‘TIS TIME TO PART!” he shouted. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” “The birth-day of a new world is at hand.”

Certain Americans agreed with Paine, that no longer should they cower to King George, that they could govern themselves, that they could establish an American republic, and so in 1776, they declared their independence, and in 1787, they wrote the Constitution.

One question the Constitution’s writers failed to answer was, “who is an American citizen?” The founding fathers did say in the second article that the president must be “a natural-born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States,” when the Constitution was adopted, but they said little else.

It was not until 1868, during Reconstruction, when Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, that citizenship was defined as “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, … are citizens of the United States.”

Last Thursday, National Public Radio reported that in 2013 almost 3,000 Americans renounced their citizenship, and among them was Tina Turner, who has resided in Switzerland since 1995 with her German-born husband, Erwin Bach. Tina signed a “Statement of Voluntary Relinquishment of U.S. Citizenship,” paid the $450 fee, and turned in her passport. Federal officials recorded Tina’s name in the “name-and-shame” list published each quarter in the Department of Treasury’s Federal Registry.

Never again will Tina cast her vote for a president, senator or representative, and if the Federal government should decide to enforce the Reed Amendment, officials may bar her entry back into the U.S. if they determine she renounced her citizenship in order to avoid U.S. taxes.

She must have thought that what she lost in privileges was of less value than what she gained by renouncing her American citizenship. “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

Others believe U.S. citizenship offers more value, than do the renunciants.

In 1806, 40 years after Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, he appeared at the polls in New Rochelle, N.Y., but the poll’s supervisor, Elisha Ward, denied him a ballot, saying, “You are not an American.”

What? Thomas Paine, the first American to urge independence, is now told he cannot vote. Ward argued that because Paine had lived for 15 years first in England and then in France after the Revolutionary War, he had either lost his citizenship or never had it in the first place.

Ward said to Paine, “our minister at Paris, Gouverneur Morris, would not reclaim you when you were imprisoned in the Luxembourg prison at Paris, and General Washington refused to do it.” Paine contradicted that argument, but Ward would not budge. A humiliated Thomas Paine was forced to leave the polls without voting. Paine sued Ward, but the judge sided with Ward, and so Paine lost the suit.

What do American citizens do? They speak their minds, they voice their opinions, they disagree with their elected officials, they participate in their government when asked, but above all else, they vote. What do American citizens not do? They do not kneel before the queen, they do not subsidize her regal and extravagant lifestyle, nor do they renounce their citizenship.

Benson is a historian from Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.

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