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United States v. Macintosh

283 U.S. 605 (1931)

Facts of the Case:

A Canadian citizen wanted to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, but he refused to pledge to take up arms in defense of his country. He would only fight for his country if he thought the war was morally justified. On his citizenship application he wrote, “I am willing to do what I judge to be in the best interests of my country, but only in so far as I can believe that this is not going to be against the best interests of humanity in the long run. I do not undertake to support 'my country, right or wrong' in any dispute which may arise, and I am not willing to promise beforehand, and without knowing the cause for which my country may go to war, either that I will or that I will not 'take up arms in defense of this country,' however 'necessary' the war may seem to be to the Government of the day.” While he was willing to give allegiance to the United States, he was not willing to put that ahead of his allegiance to God.


In a 5-4 decision, the Court refused to allow a candidate for naturalization to qualify his oath by pledging only to fight in wars he deemed moral.

Majority Opinion: (Justice Sutherland)

“Naturalization is a privilege, to be given, qualified, or withheld as Congress may determine, and which the alien may claim as of right only upon compliance with the terms which Congress imposes.” The oath is used to gauge whether the person is fitted for citizenship and all that it entails. While peace is a noble goal, Congress must have the power to decide when war is necessary and select who will fight in it. This right must not be qualified or limited. Congress, not the Courts, may decide who can claim to be a conscientious objector. Naturalized citizens must leave this to Congress just as native born Americans do already. “[W]e are a nation with the duty to survive; a nation whose Constitution contemplates war as well as peace; whose government must go forward upon the assumption, and safely can proceed upon no other, that unqualified allegiance to the nation and submission and obedience to the laws of the land, as well those made for war as those made for peace, are not inconsistent with the will of God.” The applicant should not be able to select the terms of his citizenship or it will become impossible to determine which sections of the citizenship oath are nonnegotiable.


This decision reasserted the importance of Congressional authority to dictate the terms of war. The slippery slope argument is used to prevent any qualifications being made to the terms of citizenship.


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