- Civic Longing: The Speculative Origins of U.S. Citizenship by Carrie Hyde
What role does the imagination play at a time of national crisis? That question is at the heart of Carrie Hyde's recent book, Civic Longing: The Speculative Origins of U.S. Citizenship. In it, Hyde discusses the political and cultural history of citizenship in the United States before the Civil War. Disputes over the meaning of citizenship were commonplace in the antebellum era, and citizenship played a central role in the legal reforms of the Reconstruction era. While historians and legal scholars have thus explored legal precedents in depth to understand the meaning of citizenship in the Reconstruction era, Hyde, an English professor, brings a unique perspective to this discussion by exploring the cultural significance of citizenship outside the law. Instead of political debates and legal rulings, Hyde examines religious texts, essays, and works of fiction to illustrate alternative visions of citizenship that enhanced the debate over some of the most important and divisive issues in the antebellum era.
The American Revolution transformed subjects into citizens, but the original United States Constitution neither defined citizenship nor delineated the rights enjoyed by citizens. In the political realm, antislavery activists often invoked citizenship as a basis of rights for free blacks. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected those arguments in the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), holding that blacks could never be citizens. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment's citizenship clause overturned the Dred Scott ruling and established birthright citizenship. But what did it mean to be a U.S. citizen in nineteenth-century America? A wave of immigration during this era complicated this inquiry, as did the uncertain status of American Indians, who were native to the continent but belonged to tribes that considered themselves as separate sovereign nations. Belonging, or the failure to belong, was central to the debate over slavery, secession, and the rights established by the Fourteenth Amendment. Hyde shows how literature created space for debate over the meaning of belonging.
In the time of the Second Great Awakening, religion was bound to influence the debate over slavery. Hyde argues that Christians were influenced by new translations of Paul's letter to the Philippians, which referred to "citizens of heaven." Some interpreted this language as identifying heaven, rather than the nation, "as the supreme home to which one owed allegiance" (46). This doctrine arguably provided an excuse for disengagement in the political realm, but Hyde claims that it also provided a forum for [End Page 149] exploring what citizenship could mean in the corporal realm. For example, in her 1856 novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, Harriet Beecher Stowe portrays "an egalitarian image of heavenly citizenship as a counterfactual imperative for a racially inclusive model of political citizenship in the United States" (81). Here Stowe, whom Abraham Lincoln purportedly referred to as "the little woman who started this great war," presented an egalitarian model for what could happen after the war ended slavery.
Hyde shows how fiction contributed to another argument raised by abolitionists, the claim that slavery violated natural law. She describes Frederick Douglass's novel The Heroic Slave (1852) as a fictional account of a slave rebellion that took place on a slave ship. Douglass uses the open seas as a metaphor for the state of nature, invoking the natural world as a symbol of liberty and reform. In a famous quotation from the book, Douglass insists, "You cannot write the bloody laws of slavery on those restless billows. The ocean, if not the land, is free" (106). According to Hyde, Douglass links nature and citizenship to formulate the "natural citizen," where freedom is the state of nature. During congressional debates over the Fourteenth Amendment, many of its proponents agreed with Douglass that the rights of citizenship included natural rights.
Some of the authors discussed in Civic Longing explored the flip side of citizenship: the ability to relinquish it. For example, in his essay "The Custom...