Bonds of Citizenship: Law and the Labors of Emancipation

Bonds of Citizenship: Law and the Labors of Emancipation

Bonds of Citizenship: Law and the Labors of Emancipation

Bonds of Citizenship: Law and the Labors of Emancipation

Synopsis

In this study of literature and law from the Constitutional founding through the Civil War, Hoang Gia Phan demonstrates how American citizenship and civic culture were profoundly transformed by the racialized material histories of free, enslaved, and indentured labor. Bonds of Citizenship illuminates the historical tensions between the legal paradigms of citizenship and contract, and in the emergence of free labor ideology in American culture. Phan argues that in the age of Emancipation the cultural attributes of free personhood became identified with the legal rights and privileges of the citizen, and that individual freedom thus became identified with the nation-state. He situates the emergence of American citizenship and the American novel within the context of Atlantic slavery and Anglo-American legal culture, placing early American texts by Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Brockden Brown alongside Black Atlantic texts by Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano. Beginning with a revisionary reading of the Constitution's "slavery clauses," Phan recovers indentured servitude as a transitional form of labor bondage that helped define the key terms of modern U.S. citizenship: mobility, volition, and contract. Bonds of Citizenship demonstrates how citizenship and civic culture were transformed by antebellum debates over slavery, free labor, and national Union, while analyzing the writings of Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville alongside a wide-ranging archive of lesser-known antebellum legal and literary texts in the context of changing conceptions of constitutionalism, property, and contract. Situated at the nexus of literary criticism, legal studies, and labor history, Bonds of Citizenship challenges the founding fiction of a pro-slavery Constitution central to American letters and legal culture. Hoang Gia Phan is Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In the America and the Long 19th Century series An ALI book

Excerpt

What will the people of America a hundred years hence care about
the intentions of the scriveners who wrote the Constitution?

—Frederick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States:
Is it Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?”

In 1849, as the Union crisis escalated over yet another likely compromise with American slavery, Frederick Douglass startled the antislavery movement with an unusually equivocal statement of his view of the Constitution as a slavery-sanctioning text: “On a close examination of the Constitution, I am satisfied that if ‘strictly construed according to its reading’ it is not a pro-slavery instrument. … I now hold that the original intent and meaning of the Constitution (the one given to it by the men who framed it, those who adopted it, and the one given to it by the Supreme Court of the United States) makes it a proslavery instrument.” Douglass’s concluding claim that “the original intent and meaning of the Constitution” made it “a pro-slavery instrument” was uncontroversial, the reiteration of an interpretation widely accepted by abolitionists and slaveholders alike in antebellum America. Indeed, this view of the original Constitution as a slavery-sanctioning document remains accepted by most modern historians. What startled so many in 1849 was Douglass’s first claim, one that seemed to contradict this interpretation of the Constitution. How could one hold the view that the “original intent and meaning” of the Constitution was to sanction and safeguard slavery, while simultaneously arguing that “if strictly construed,” the Constitution was not a proslavery document? How could the meaning of this founding legal . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.