- State and Citizen: British America and the Early United States ed. by Peter Thompson and Peter S. Onuf
Nationalism, State formation, Political history
Over the course of the past decade scholars have increasingly challenged the ‘‘myth of the weak state’’ in early U.S. history. In turn, historians have attempted to create an appropriate interpretative framework to replace it. The essays in State and Citizen transform the existing narrative of how British subjects became American citizens, offering new interpretations and explaining the implications of such change on political power in the modern world. The essays are grouped into three rough chronological and thematic fields that explore the status of persons, state formation, and war.
Holly Brewer’s and Eliga Gould’s contributions investigate the development of the institution of slavery during the colonial and Revolutionary periods. For Brewer, religious debates surrounding the Anglican Church’s place in English society ‘‘circumscribed the legal relations between sovereign and subject and master and slave’’ (26). If only Christians could be subjects of the king, then the conversion and baptism of African slaves presented a very real problem for colonial elites who were reliant upon the export of slave-produced staple crops and the trade in human chattel. The legal solution for colonial Virginians, then, was to redefine enslaved persons as ‘‘real estate,’’ thus marking a distinction between the rights and privileges of Christian subjects and those of slaves ‘‘attached to land’’ (42). Gould’s essay investigates the eighteenth-century law of nations to show how the basic premise of the 1772 Somerset decision could simultaneously limit the ‘‘rights of slaveholders in England while affirming the right to own slaves in America’’ (52). According to Gould, Europeans and Americans widely believed that slavery could exist only where legal institutions made it so; or where Euro–American laws had no reach, such as the African continent. When it came to slavery as a legal institution, the real significance of the American Revolution was its ability to change how both Britain and the United States approached the laws of war and peace. By the early nineteenth century, national statutes trumped international law in both countries.
At the core of State and Citizen are essays written by Douglas Bradburn, David Hendrickson, Max Edling, and John Brooke. These authors [End Page 672] explore American state formation in its critical years, and show the contours and meaning of American state power at the federal, state, and local levels. Bradburn’s essay on the complex, messy meaning of citizenship forces historians to rethink the very process of remaking political belonging during the American Revolution. The creation of modern citizenship during the age of revolutions mediated between the necessity of coercive state power and individual demands for fundamental rights. Hendrickson’s and Edling’s essays, on the other hand, place state formation within the framework of federalism. For Hendrickson, the framers of the constitution desired a union of states that would escape the European state system of continual warfare. Thus, the national government’s power of taxation was part of an attempt to reduce differences among the states. Edling demonstrates that the framers of the Constitution never desired a national polity that would replace the states. Rather, the federal government reigned supreme in the management of international relations, an area where the framework of the Constitution allowed it to excel: ‘‘The significance of the Constitution does not lie in the expansion of central government powers, but in the creation of an administratively autonomous central government apparatus’’ (163). Brooke’s contribution seeks to offer an alternative suggestion for nineteenth-century governance that unites legal and political history. According to Brooke, both the Jacksonian ideal of a ‘‘monitoring militia’’ and the Whig ideal of ‘‘associated improver’’ can be traced to the ‘‘common traditions of governance that Americans inherited from a colonial past’’ (179). In colonial America, governance occurred at the local level, whether that was the New England town meeting or the southern and mid-Atlantic...