Martha S. Jones

Mar 11, 2019

Birthright Citizens

A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

Cambridge University Press 2018

purchase at Martha S. Jones, in her excellent new book Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2018), weaves together the legal and constitutional dimensions of citizenship—from the Founding documents and law cases with which many scholars and students are familiar—with the daily civic engagement of African-Americans as they took part in public life and the rights of citizens. This political, historical, and legal analysis focuses particularly on the antebellum experiences of black Americans in Baltimore, Maryland, just miles from the U.S. Capital, but also vital as the largest free black community in the U.S. in one of the largest cities in the United States before the Civil War. Birthright Citizens takes the question of what defines and makes an individual a citizen, legally, and how that is performed and engaged in a granular or daily way, and delves into the historical record of black Americans in Baltimore, exploring how individuals took on the qualities and actions of citizens before the 14th Amendment. Jones’ deeply researched work is, as she notes, “a history, told through a series of disruptive vignettes, that suggests how people without rights still exercised them.” This is a fascinating marrying together of the structural and legal parameters of citizen rights and denials of those rights for many black Americans, both free and enslaved, and the ideas and actions pursued and taken by African-Americans in an effort to act like and thus be citizens. As we continue to consider the idea of citizenship, which remains less fixed and clear as a concept or legal construct, this analysis lays out the fluid and evolving understanding of the idea and daily functioning of citizenship in the early years of the republic and, particularly, in context of free, formerly enslaved, and enslaved black Americans in the United States.

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