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  • Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum Americaby Martha S. Jones
  • Anne Twitty
Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America. By Martha S. Jones. Studies in Legal History. ( New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. xx, 248. Paper, $27.99, ISBN 978-1-316-60472-4; cloth, $110.00, ISBN 978-1-107-15034-8.)

Black people's claims to birthright citizenship in the years immediately before and after the Civil War, Martha S. Jones argues in a compact volume about Baltimore, were built out of the stuff of ordinary antebellum life. Birthright citizenship, in other words, neither sprang forth fully formed after the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandforddecision nor was entirely the work of the black convention movement or black intellectuals more broadly. Just as important, Jones asserts, were antebellum free black people's daily experiences as workers, church members, and parents and their ownership of property, businesses, and guns.

Consequently, Jones examines black claims-making in antebellum Baltimore in a tremendous array of legal and extralegal forums. Although Jones, a legal historian, is particularly interested in the city's courthouse, where so many aspects of free black people's lives were regulated, she also takes readers aboard its ships, inside its black churches, and along its streets, with an eye toward placing these legal developments in a broader spatial and temporal context. [End Page 686]

Baltimore, in contrast to northern cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, was gripped by a more conservative spirit in the antebellum era. Though sizable, its free black community faced greater threats of reenslavement and expulsion. Baltimore's free black people neither published their own newspapers nor made radical political demands. Colonization, meanwhile, which free black people elsewhere soundly rejected, continued to appeal to a significant portion of Baltimore's free black population, largely because their status was so precarious.

Jones adds that anxieties about the belonging of nonwhite people in the United States have died hard. Drawing explicit parallels in the introduction between free black people in the antebellum era and present-day unauthorized immigrants, she notes that questions of race and rights persist despite the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. The spirit of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, she concludes in the epilogue, still haunts Baltimore's courthouse.

For a handful of black activists in antebellum Baltimore, Jones reveals, resolving the ambiguity surrounding black citizenship became a primary goal. Foremost among them was Hezekiah Grice, a founder of Baltimore's Legal Rights Association. An excellent early chapter traces Grice's tireless attempts in the early 1830s to secure a legal opinion on black citizenship from the city's prominent white attorneys, including John Latrobe and William Wirt. His failure to do so, Jones argues, led directly to his decision to immigrate to Haiti, where there would be no confusion about his status.

But most of the actors, whether they were activists or ordinary free black people, whom Jones follows over the course of their day-to-day encounters with various political and legal authorities rarely seem to have invoked citizenship, let alone birthright citizenship, when making rights claims. While obtaining travel or gun permits, filing insolvency petitions, challenging apprenticeship contracts, or arguing in church, city, and county courts about the leadership of their congregations, black Baltimoreans simply did not employ either term. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to determine how such efforts eventually coalesced into support for and articulation of either citizenship in general or birthright citizenship specifically. This question is especially pressing given the nature of the alternative justifications that black people in the period often provided while asserting their rights—justifications rooted in merit, including the centrality of their toil to the nation's prosperity and their own individual good character, rather than their nativity.

Still, Jones has recovered a remarkable history of how free black people in antebellum Baltimore carved out a space for themselves in an often hostile city. This humane, often moving account of their efforts is a fitting tribute.

Anne Twitty
University of Mississippi

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Additional Information

ISSN
2325-6893
Print ISSN
0022-4642
Pages
pp. 686-687
Launched on MUSE
2019-08-07
Open Access
No
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