Law, personhood, and citizenship in the long nineteenth century: The borders of belonging

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Abstract

The Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the U.S. Constitution express a powerful vision of the fundamental right of all individuals to freedom, liberty, and equality. Looked at one way, that vision was incrementally transformed into lived reality for a broader and broader number of Americans over the course of the long nineteenth century. The American Revolution transformed subjects into citizens; between the 1820s and 1840s property qualifications for voting were removed, extending the franchise to most white men; the 1860s brought freedom to the roughly four million Americans held in chattel slavery and a constitutional revolution in individual rights; married women’s property reform and ultimately the franchise in 1920 gave women a fuller individuality; and millions emigrated to America’s shores and became citizens. One can look at this history and believe in some fundamental way in America’s liberalism And yet, taking the story as a whole, one cannot escape a different narrative. White male legal authority was fundamental to the very nature and meaning of nineteenth-century American law in both conceptual and constitutive terms. It created law’s borders and boundaries. From the outset, personhood, citizenship, and nation were imagined to belong within gendered and racialized borders: white men alone were fully embodied legal persons, they were America’s “first citizens,” they were the nation. The universal human legal person imagined by liberalism was in fact highly particularized. More important, however much change there was on the surface over the course of the long nineteenth century, the borders of belonging never escaped their initial imagining.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of Law in America
Subtitle of host publicationVolume II the Long Nineteenth Century (1789-1920)
PublisherCambridge University Press
Pages345-386
Number of pages42
ISBN (Electronic)9781139054188
ISBN (Print)9780521803069
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2008

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    Welke, B. Y. (2008). Law, personhood, and citizenship in the long nineteenth century: The borders of belonging. In The Cambridge History of Law in America: Volume II the Long Nineteenth Century (1789-1920) (pp. 345-386). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521803069.012