“Citizenship” was a topic that came up briefly during our last seminar, and I wanted to raise it as a subject for more discussion here. What are the varying categories of “citizen” or “citizenship” that we think of when discussing revolution and the formation/reformation of constitutions? What constitutes citizenship? Who counts as a citizen during each of these revolutions and why?
In this post, I’m going to briefly dive into the issue I’m most interested in: parsing the potential definitions of “citizen” during the period. I’ll put a few working definitions on the table, and hopefully comments from others will help further contextualize how the category of “citizen” has been constituted historically, theoretically, and politically.
First, we might consider citizenship as a legal category that reinforces civic participation as well as the importance of belonging to a state (and, ergo, the state itself). Citizenship can also reinforce class stratification. As Sophia Rosenfeld notes in Common Sense, citizenship—and, by extension, voting rights—in the American colonies were limited to gentleman of property because it was believed that those without property (laborers, women, etc.) would be too easily influenced by outside forces in their civic participation. She writes, “In English thought on the subject, only those in possession of income-producing land could truly be called independent. And only those who were independent could be counted on to make good judgments in matters of community interest” (163). This view was challenged by the idea that a multiplicity of voices from the community—the “full, equal, and direct participation of all adult men”—would result in “the best decisions” (165). However, Rosenfeld suggests that the laws were initially framed, and citizenship limited, with the intention of the propertied classes voting in what we might call the “best interest” of the entire population. Indeed, in the wake of their respective revolutions, the United States and France limited “citizenship” to adult men of property. The Haitian Constitution of 1805 implicitly limited “citizenship” to adult black men, and also contains unusual provisions surrounding citizenship itself. For example, citizenship could be suspended in the case of bankruptcy or lost if one emigrated to another country—citizenship, then, was contingent upon financial solvency and physical presence within the nation.
However, there is also an ideological (and psychological) aspect to the rhetoric of “citizenship,” in that the ideas of “citizen” or “citizenship” can be framed as ideological categories that do not privilege national boundaries but rather national or political sympathies. One writer from the period who actively used this definition of citizenship was Helen Maria Williams, an English writer who fervently believed in the tenets of the French Revolution. Williams eventually moved her entire family over to Paris, was imprisoned during the Terror (she was a Girondist sympathizer), and, most notably, was essentially the first female war correspondent on the scene, reporting events and seeking to rouse English sympathy for the revolution. In her first letter of Letters Written in France, Williams documents her attendance of the Fête de la Fédération, which commemorated the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Caught up in the excitement of the crowd, she declared herself a “citizen of the world” (69). Her sympathy for the Revolution renders juridical categories obsolete. Indeed, the phrase “citizen of the world” infers that the French Revolution is not only the revolution of France, but also one that can be tapped into the world over; it challenges xenophobia and the ideology of nationalism. For Williams, “citizenship” is an ideological allegiance, a declaration of solidarity that supersedes borders and legal systems. Williams emphasizes how easy it is to take up this position: “It required but the common feelings of humanity to become in that moment a citizen of the world” (69). I’m not overly satisfied with calling this sort of “citizenship” an ideological category, but what Williams professes refuses allegiance to a state, person, or system.
To conclude with a few questions: how can we further define these legal, political, and ideological categories of citizenship? What happens in each of these revolutions when there is a rupture between “citizenship” as a legal category and “citizenship” as an ideological category? Consider Loyalists in the colonies, for example, and the social stigma, geographic displacement, economic loss, etc. that can result when certain groups of citizens assume supremacy over others (again, back to the idea that every revolution is a civil war). Where is line between the rhetoric of “citizenship” and the rhetoric of political ideology/partisanship in a revolution, where the fight is not for political dominance within a system but of a complete overhaul of that system based on the right of the citizen?
Rosenfeld, Sophia. Common Sense: A Political History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.
Williams, Helen Maria. Letters Written in France, in the Summer 1790. Eds. Neil Fraistat & Sue S. Lanser. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview, 2001.