Before and After Emancipation
Did Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which promised freedom to almost 4 million enslaved African Americans, also assure them citizenship? The question seems so basic—what did Lincoln assume to be the citizenship status of those freed by the war?—but it evades an easy answer. When Lincoln used the expression “fellow citizens,” which he did in almost one hundred of his speeches (and that is just the published ones), did he imagine free African Americans in that group? He did not use the expression during the two times that he addressed an audience of African Americans—in August 1862, when he touted a plan of colonization to free black leaders, and in October 1864, when he responded to a group of newly free Maryland African Americans who had come to serenade him. But had he nonetheless come to regard free people of color as his “fellow citizens”? Or were they something less than that?
The question is as important for our own day as it was for Lincoln’s. We remain perplexed by how and when people gain citizenship, and how and when they can lose it. The subject was arguably more critical in Lincoln’s time, but the definition of citizenship during the era was hazy, and the vocabulary consisted of fewer terms than we have today for those caught between personhood and citizenship. Today people in the middle might be neatly categorized as “guest workers” or “resident aliens,” but in the Civil War era, newly freed African Americans were formless shadows on the spectrum from person to citizen.1
Making the matter of citizenship more complicated, the commonly held definitions of the concept at the time, and the terms associated with it, do not neatly correspond to current definitions and nomenclature. Regardless of the words that nineteenth-century Americans used to describe citizenship, their understanding of the term tended to fall into three