Citizenship in History

Ellena Arroyo

Citizenship did not exist before the Civil War, William Novak tells us in “The Legal Transformation of Citizenship in the 19th Century.” “Citizen” appears in the Constitution, but is more of a place marking word, like “thing.” It did not, as it does now, mean that you have inviolable rights. Individual rights and obligations remained the product of local governments and courts. Though a definite boon for black Americans in particular, not having citizenship gave people more responsibility and hence more culturist sensibilities.

Rights were debated, with responsibilities, locally. Accepting you meant making you a part of society. Your pattern of residence, office, job, service, association, family position, age, and gender qualified you for different roles. But as master, servant, wife, parent and child, you had different duties to fulfill. But along side belonging to municipalities, you would be a member of many associations. Your church, college, dock workers, scientific society, water company were all institutions that regulated who was in and who was out too.

Municipality did not hesitate to prohibit nuisances, enforce practice eminent domain, tax what they considered to be bad things, and kick out whomever they pleased. At some level this seems like arbitrary tyranny to us. We partially see it this way because we are used to the idea of government being something outside of us. We do not volunteer for the DMV. But since most government was voluntary and extra legal, these decisions would not be made by groups you didn’t have say in. When regular tax-paying citizens decided who got poor relief, public burial, the right to stay, and what got taught, the resentment of top-down imposition was not prevalent.

Novak does not seek to glorify this situation. His goal is to make us better historians. When we say that women were not allowed to vote because they were not full citizens, we are reading our view of citizenship back in time anachronistically. They did not get to vote because they were women. The difference is that the definition of woman is not contrasted with an absolute notion of decontextualized person. Slaves were not free because they were slaves. There was no totally unrestricted person to compare this status too. Everyone had a role, status and obligation to participate.

We, of course, appreciate our gains. But there is something unrealistic about no one having more expected of them or less opportunity. Much of self-government is derived from the ability to shun and make decisions. When the government says we do not need your participation and all will receive regardless of merit or legal status, our space for participation and discretion are diminished. To create cultural solidarity it would behoove us to demarcate the limits of our tolerance and involve as many as possible in directing local institutions. When you do not know about other paradigms, even within your own history and tradition, you lose the ability to conceive of options. Thanks to Mr. Novak for reminding us of these culturist options.

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