Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

Martha S. Jones. Cambridge University Press, June 2018. Available  via Amazon and Cambridge University Press.

Before the Civil War, colonization schemes and black laws threatened to deport former slaves born in the United States. Birthright Citizens recovers the story of how African American activists remade national belonging through battles in legislatures, conventions, and courthouses. They faced formidable opposition, most notoriously from the US Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott. Still, Martha S. Jones explains, no single case defined their status. Former slaves studied law, secured allies, and conducted themselves like citizens, establishing their status through local, everyday claims. All along they argued that birth guaranteed their rights. With fresh archival sources and an ambitious reframing of constitutional law-making before the Civil War, Jones shows how the Fourteenth Amendment constitutionalized the birthright principle, and black Americans’ aspirations were realized. Birthright Citizens tells how African American activists radically transformed the terms of citizenship for all Americans.

Endorsements:

“Beautifully written and deeply researched, Birthright Citizens transforms our understanding of the evolution of citizenship in nineteenth-century America.  Martha Jones demonstrates how the constitutional revolution of Reconstruction had roots not simply in legal treatises and court decisions but in the day to day struggles of  pre-Civil War African-Americans for equal rights as members of the national community.”
–Eric Foner, Columbia University

“Martha Jones’s ‘history of race and rights’ utterly upends our understanding of the genealogy of citizenship. By showcasing ordinary people acting on their understanding of law’s potentialities, Jones demonstrates the vibrancy of antebellum black ideas of birthright citizenship and their impact on black political and intellectual life. Written with verve, and pulling back the curtain on the scholar’s craft, Birthright Citizens makes an important contribution to both African American and socio-legal history.” 
–Dylan Penningroth, University of California, Berkeley

Birthright Citizens gives new life to a long trajectory of African Americans’ efforts to contest the meaning of citizenship through law and legal action.  They claimed citizenship rights in the courts of Baltimore, decades before the concept was codified in the federal constitution – ordinary people, even the formally disfranchised, actively engaged in shaping what citizenship meant for everyone. Martha Jones takes a novel approach that scholars and legal practitioners will need to reckon with to understand history and our own times.”
–Tera Hunter, Princeton University

Birthright Citizens is a brilliant and richly researched work that could not be more timely. Who is inside and who is outside the American circle of citizenship has been a fraught question from the Republic’s very beginnings. With great clarity and insight, Jones mines available records to show how one group–black Americans in pre-Civil War Baltimore– sought to claim rights of citizenship in a place where they had lived and labored. This is a must-read for all who are interested in what it means to be an American.”
–Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard University

“In this exacting study, legal historian Martha Jones reinterprets the Dred Scott decision through a fresh and utterly revealing lens, reframing this key case as just one moment in a long and difficult contest over race and rights. Jones mines Baltimore court records to uncover a textured legal landscape in which free black men and women knew and used the law to push for and act on rights not clearly guaranteed to them. Her sensitive and brilliant analysis transforms how we view the status of free blacks under the law, even as her vivid writing brings Baltimore vibrantly alive, revealing the import of local domains and institutions – states, cities, courthouses, churches, and even ships – to the larger national drama of African American history. Part meditation on a great nineteenth-century city, part implicit reflection on contemporary immigration politics, and part historical-legal thriller, Birthright Citizens is an astonishing revelation of the intricacies and vagaries of black struggles for the rights of citizenship.”
–Tiya Miles, author of The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits

In the News:

  • Jones discussed birthright citizenship and the fourteenth amendment in Time, the Atlantic, and NPR in October 2018.
  • Jones sat down with the Johns Hopkins Hub to discuss her book (August 2018)
  • KPFA radio aired an interview with Jones, “The American Circle of Citizenship: Who is Inside and Who is Outside?” (August 2018).
  • Jones’ Birthright Citizens declared a “must read” race and culture book of the summer by Colorlines.
  • Lapham Quarterly excerpted Birthright Citizens in July 2018.
  • Newbooksnetwork.com published an interview with Jones about Birthright Citizens.
  • Professor Jones discussed Birthright Citizens in an interview with WYPR in July 2018.

About the Author:

Professor Martha S. Jones is a legal and cultural historian whose interests include the study of race, law, citizenship, slavery, and the rights of women. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and a J.D. from the CUNY School of Law. Professor Jones joined the Johns Hopkins University Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Department of History in June 2017 as the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History. She came from the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts the University of Michigan where she was a Presidential Bicentennial Professor, Professor of history and Afroamerican and African Studies. She was a founding director of the Michigan Law School Program in Race, Law & History and a senior fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows. Prior to joining the Michigan faculty, she was a public interest litigator in New York City and a Charles H. Revson Fellow on the Future of the City of New York at Columbia University.

In addition to Birthright Citizens (Cambridge University Press, 2018), Professor Jones is the author of All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture 1830-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and a coeditor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), together with many important articles and essays. Her work includes the curatorship of museum exhibitions, including “Reframing the Color Line” and “Proclaiming Emancipation” in conjunction with the William L. Clements Library. Professor Jones’s essays and commentary have appeared in the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, CNN, and the Detroit Free Press, among other news outlets.

Her work has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Humanities Center, the National Constitution Center, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History. Today, Professor Jones serves as Co-President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians, and was recently elected to the Organization of American Historians Executive Board. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and Paris, France with her husband, historian Jean Hébrard.

Professor Jones also maintains a personal website where you can read more about her scholarship and upcoming talks/appearances at marthasjones.com

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