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Birthright Citizens
A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America

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Part of Studies in Legal History

  • Date Published: June 2018
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316604724


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About the Authors
  • 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.

    • Challenges the long-standing predominance of the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court case, showing the much larger story of race and citizenship during this era
    • Demonstrates how communities learned law and used it to further their rights, taking a social and cultural approach to legal history
    • Examines how and why citizenship has long been a controversial concept
    Read more


    • Winner, 2019 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, Organization of American Historians

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Beautifully written and deeply researched, Birthright Citizens transforms our understanding of the evolution of citizenship in nineteenth-century America. Martha S. 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, author of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

    '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, Martha S. 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, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

    '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 S. Jones takes a novel approach that scholars and legal practitioners will need to reckon with to understand history and our own times.' Tera W. Hunter, author of Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century

    'Martha S. Jones sheds new light on the Dred Scott decision and the unrelenting African American fight for citizenship with original and compelling arguments grounded in remarkable research. Birthright Citizens is revelatory and timely, a book that arrives as another group of Americans wages another unrelenting fight for citizenship.' Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

    'In this exacting study, legal historian Martha S. 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 - in 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

    'Martha S. Jones's 'history of race and rights' utterly up-ends 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, author of The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

    'This book is both an impressive work of scholarship and a timely intervention in the current national conversation about US citizenship. As Jones demonstrates, Baltimore's 19th-century African American community reveals much about the contested origins of birthright citizenship and the debate over who exactly is an 'American'. Jones shows how Baltimore's free blacks (including seamen) worked to acquire the legal knowledge, tools, and access to define a place for themselves within the community of citizens. Employing lawsuits to establish a right to sue or be sued enabled blacks to carve out civic space for themselves. Not everyone in the struggle remained there; Jones also discusses emigration by those who tired of this uncertain civic existence. … [This] book is an essential read for any student of race or law in US history.' K. M. Gannon, Choice

    'Birthright Citizens reminds us that historical memory played an important part in the process of retaining and recovering citizenship … [It] is a remarkable history of creative struggle …' Robert J. Cottrol, The Journal of American History

    'Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America tells the fascinating story of African American citizenship from the perspective of black Baltimoreans. Martha S. Jones's pathbreaking study details how this form of lived citizenship differed from the legal and constitutional citizenship being discussed in antebellum legal opinions and contemporary scholarship.' Mark A. Graber, American Historical Review

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    Product details

    • Date Published: June 2018
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316604724
    • length: 266 pages
    • dimensions: 228 x 152 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.37kg
    • contains: 12 b/w illus.
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Introduction: rights of colored men: debating citizenship in antebellum America
    1. Being a native, and free born: race and rights in Baltimore
    2. Threats of removal: colonization, emigration, and the borders of belonging
    3. Aboard the constitution: black sailors and citizenship at sea
    4. The city courthouse: everyday scenes of race and law
    5. Between the constitution and the discipline of the church: making congregants citizens
    6. By virtue of unjust laws: black laws and the reluctant performance of rights
    7. To sue and be sued: courthouse claims and the contours of citizenship
    8. Confronting Dred Scott: seeing citizenship from Baltimore city
    9. Rehearsals for reconstruction: new citizens in a new era
    Epilogue: monuments to men.

  • Author

    Martha S. Jones, The Johns Hopkins University
    Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University. She was formerly a Presidential Bicentennial Professor at the University of Michigan, and was a founding director of the Michigan Law School Program in Race, Law and History. She is the author of All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900 (2007) and co-editor of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (2015).


    • Winner, 2019 Liberty Legacy Foundation Award, Organization of American Historians
    • Winner, 2019 Littleton-Griswold Prize, American Historical Association
    • Finalist, 2019 PROSE Award for North American/US History
    • Winner, 2019 John Phillip Reid Prize, American Society for Legal History
    • Finalist, 2019 Sterling Stuckey Book Award, Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora

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