- The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817–1863 by Andrew K. Diemer
Andrew Diemer delves into the middle of an ongoing historical debate about the meaning of the border between slavery and freedom in the years before the Civil War. For the last decade, many historians have recast the Mason-Dixon Line as a fluid borderland instead of freedom's definitive boundary. Nineteenth-century Americans certainly understood this fluidity as its permeability excited slavecatchers, kidnapped slaves, white abolitionists, and anti-abolitionists, creating much sectional tension. Diemer breaks new ground in this area by examining how free blacks used this permeability to their advantage in advocating for their own citizenship rights in a system that continually pushed them to the margins of the body politic.
Diemer's Mid-Atlantic borderland consists of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and their environs. Both cities loom large in the region as economic powerhouses that fueled development and attracted free blacks as slavery crumbled in Pennsylvania and neighboring New Jersey and relaxed manumission requirements in Maryland created a vibrant free black community in Baltimore. These new communities of free blacks actively negotiated for power in this borderland, which, though a unique set of opportunities due to geographic and sectional character, allowed them to maneuver for stronger positions of power.
The recognition of black citizenship became the main goal of these Mid-Atlantic free blacks but in far more specific ways than previous historians have argued. Free black activists quickly realized that overarching arguments about equality of citizenship based on revolutionary rhetoric or basic comity would automatically fail. Instead, they targeted specific privileges to win limited citizenship rights in the short term while always working for long-term gains. Voting, while important, was not the most critical issue to African Americans. More importantly, free blacks routinely tied themselves to both America, the land of their birth, and the individual states and cities in which they lived to secure themselves within the context of the sectional battle unfolding before them. [End Page 102]
The colonization movement, of course, looms large for Diemer, as it actively tried to position blacks as aliens and never able to hold American citizenship because of their link to Africa. As Mid-Atlantic whites espoused these ideas, thousands of European immigrants flooded into Baltimore and Philadelphia, which created an anti-immigrant backlash against these newcomers' incorporation into the nation. Free blacks seized on this issue and portrayed themselves as more American than these true aliens, a tactic that helped convince at least some whites of the follies of colonization.
More important to historians of the Civil War, free blacks, especially in Pennsylvania, made strong inroads into the controversy over the return of fugitive slaves starting in the 1820s, which reached its zenith after the Prigg decision in 1842, free blacks throughout the antebellum period routinely advocated for protections from kidnappers and for fugitive slaves, both for protection and to link themselves to the state in which they lived, another tactic to increase their claim to citizenship. Few white Pennsylvanians cared that slavery existed in the South, yet they objected to slave catchers coming into their state and stealing black Pennsylvanians, even as they refused to grant those same blacks full citizenship rights. Free blacks understood the activities of slave catchers as attacks against the rights of Pennsylvania and successfully helped craft the strong personal liberty laws that riled secessionists and precipitated the Civil War. If they had not been living in this borderland, these free blacks could have never have purported this larger debate for their own purposes.
As the sectional crisis grew heated after Dred Scott and Bleeding Kansas, Mid-Atlantic blacks pressed for stronger citizenship rights in the face of Republicans, whom they viewed with suspicion. That suspicion, though, faded as the war began, with free blacks seeing military service in the Union army as the key to ultimately winning citizenship rights within the larger nation...