In this video, Professor Martha Jones of the University of Michigan discusses her book Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, Summer 2018). The video, courtesy of Michigan Law, provides an overview of the forthcoming book and its implications for thinking about citizenship in America. An edited transcription follows.
I’m finishing a book called Birthright Citizens, which is a look at race and citizenship in a somewhat unexplored period. That is, the period before the U.S. Civil War; the period before the amendment of the Constitution, with the 14th Amendment providing birthright citizenship for the first time in the United States. My case study is three African Americans, former slaves, and their descendants. All with a mind toward understanding how, as a nation, we grapple with people who occupy this in-between status–neither slaves, nor fully free citizens. How, in law, do we regard those people? Most often that story is told through a somewhat notorious US Supreme Court case called Dread Scott vs. Sandford, in which the court, through Roger Taney, declaims that no black person can be a citizen of the United States. It turns out that, while Taney was quite sure about his ideas, he really was just one volley in what was an extended debate about race and citizenship before the Civil War.
So, for me, the story begins in the eighteen-twenties with three African American activists themselves, who–through local courthouses, high court arguments, legislatures, and political conventions–again and again make the argument that they are citizens of the United States. Again and again, they make the argument that by virtue of birthright, military service, and their contributions to the economic prosperity of the nation, they should be citizens.
It’s an important chapter in part because it tells a new version of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was not merely a creature of the U.S. Senate, but actually came out of the activism of free African Americans themselves.