The Specter of Black Citizens: Race, Slavery, and Citizenship in the Early United States

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This dissertation examines the complicated relationship between the creation of United States citizenship and race and slavery. Citizenship has traditionally been seen as an outgrowth of the American Revolution, when Americans embraced a more egalitarian, and republican, status compared to the British subjecthood they had previously been under. This status, however, was fraught with contestation, forged through political compromises, and debated in the long shadow of slavery. Rarely seen as only a legacy of American independence by contemporaries, U.S. citizenship was instead a marker of political inclusion within the nation-state; a nation-state which those in power sought to fashion into a white ethno-state. I seek to examine this history by foregrounding the United States’ history of race and slavery, illustrating how we must recognize the myriad ways in which citizenship was not only crafted alongside increasingly accepted conception of race and an ever growing institution of slavery, but was also created to strengthen and protect these two. By consulting court cases, legislative debates, newspapers and pamphlets, and popular culture I seek to show the broad based acceptance by most white Americans that citizenship purposefully excluded Black people, and by doing so cut off important routes through which they could appeal to certain legal and society protections and rights. This history of citizenship, race, and slavery illuminates a critical aspect of early debates on who made up the American citizenry, shows the centrality of anti-Blackness to the nation during this period, while also illustrating how all three topics, race, slavery, and citizenship, were all topics of consistent national debate long before the Antebellum period.