The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
THE LEGAL TRANSFORMATION OF CITIZENSHIP

IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA

WILLIAM J. NOVAK

We must not thrust our modern “State-concept” upon the
reluctant material.

—Frederic William Maitland

AS HISTORIANS SEARCH for ways to reintroduce “the political” back into American history, one interpretive possibility that can- not be overlooked is the idea of citizenship. The concept of citi- zenship is in the midst of an extraordinary theoretical revival.1 For good reasons. First, citizenship has the potential to integrate social and political history. Citizenship directs attention precisely to that point where bottom- up constructions of rights consciousness and political participation meet the top-down policies and formal laws of legislatures, courts, and admin- istrative agencies.2 Second, citizenship deals directly with what has be- come a preeminent social and political question in our time—inclusion and exclusion based on identity. Third, citizenship brings the state back in, focusing attention on the claims and obligations of the rights-bearing subject in distinctly modern nation-states. Fourth, citizenship brings de- mocracy back in, illuminating issues of civic participation and the con- struction of civil society.3 Fifth (taking a cue from T. H. Marshall’s influ- ential discussion “Citizenship and Social Class”), the citizenship framework can expansively incorporate three different kinds of rights— civil, political, and socioeconomic—integrating in a single developmental story the early emergence of property and contract, nineteenth-century struggles over suffrage, and the rise of twentieth-century social welfare states.4 Finally, the language of citizenship transfers smoothly to the dis- cussion of transnational politics in an increasingly global, multicultural world. Citizenship thus has much to recommend to American political historians.

But the so-called citizenship debates bring one potential hazard to a discussion of American politics (particularly nineteenth-century American politics), and that is the danger of anachronism. For most recent discus- sions of American citizenship have been framed by the thoroughly modern

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