Black Voices and Black Rights in Black Baltimore

BirthrightAmong the many casualties in the recent push to remove confederate monuments was Roger Taney. Taney was the Supreme Court justice who authored one of the most nefarious rulings in American history, the 1857 majority opinion in Dred Scott vs. Sanford that declared African Americans as non-citizens devoid of any rights. Despite his national reputation, Taney was a beloved (by some) son of Baltimore, and his statue sat prominently in Mount Vernon Place since 1887. In the midst of the fervid discussion concerning how America commemorates its racial past, city officials had the statue removed and placed in storage in August, 2017. Taney played a significant role in Baltimore, but it was not one that had to be commemorated.

Taney plays a crucial, if indirect, role in Martha S. Jones’s new book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Focusing on Baltimore between the 1820s and the Civil War, Jones argues that “black Americans can serve as our guides through a history of race and rights” (9). That is, rather than just focusing on race and rights as a touchstone topic—which historians have increasingly done—we must also incorporate black voices into this analysis. Birthright Citizens is a model for how to incorporate more characters into our historical narratives.

Perhaps the most profound argument in Jones’s tale is the long trajectory toward racial citizenship that predates the Reconstruction Era. Historians often look at the decade following the Civil War as the nexus for inventing birthright, universal (male) citizenship, but Jones demonstrates that black voices were experimenting with these ideas long before Fort Sumter. Whether it be through debates over colonization, where black Baltimoreans were forced to construct legal justifications to remain, or over debt petitions, African Americans formulated appeals to citizen rights that were radical at the time but later adopted into law.

Since I am not a legal scholar, much of this was new to me. For instance, I was only mildly aware of the uncertainty that followed Taney’s Scott v. Sanford decision—that many states, including Maryland, refused to follow his extreme logic. And I was definitely unaware that it was black petitioners that forced state courts and legislatures to wrestle with Taney’s arguments. Black Baltimoreans, for example, appealed to the state supreme court, which in turn begrudgingly granted them rights that Taney would have refused. Not only characters in the story, these black figures drove the narrative by pressing the issue and asking the questions.

Further, as someone whose research has not really touched Baltimore, I was intrigued by the portrait of the city Jones painted. Focusing on a small number of men who left written records, like George Hacket, Birthright Citizens reconstructs a vibrant community who labored for their rights in an era and geography that constantly tried to stifle them. Hacket, at one point, found himself in Massachusetts surrounded by abolitionists who tried to convince him never to return to Maryland; undaunted, he turned them down, and continued to fight for his rights in court, with mixed results. Like Hackett, many of the figures in this story were not experts in the law, yet through trial and error were able to explore the contours of their (un)freedoms. This book is at its best when exploring that dynamic.

One of the most interesting contributions of the book is it provides an intellectual and social genealogy for Roger Taney. Taney spent formidable years in Baltimore, and was confronted on a daily basis by the city’s race issues. And following Jones’s argument, his life was shaped by the actions of his black neighbors. He was forced to consider trendy debates like colonization and citizenship, and had decades to mull over the ideas prior to penning his 1857 decision. Supreme Court cases aren’t formed in a vacuum, and Jones demonstrates how African Americans shaped Taney’s world.

Birthright Citizens would work well in the right type of classroom. The text is persuasive, cogent, and condensed. Chapters are crisp and focused, rarely extending beyond twenty pages. While my undergraduate students might find the entire monograph daunting—it can get dense and meticulous at times—specific chapters, like chapter 7, would provoke great discussion. And I’m looking forward to assigning it in my next graduate course.

The book’s significant ideas are depressingly relevant in 2018, despite the absence of Taney’s statue. Jones has done well to highlight the lessons in several publications. In the Age of Trump, citizenship can no longer be taken for granted, especially for those on the margins of society, and particularly for those who immigrated to the nation seeking freedom. In the continued fight for equality, Americans would do well to turn to the voices recovered in Jones’s narrative.