Thinking Citizenship

“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?

Works Cited:

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.

About Jeanna Kadlec

Jeanna Kadlec is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University.
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4 Responses to Thinking Citizenship

  1. Jane Kamensky says:

    “Citizen of the world” is a much older phrase, of course, dating back (at least) to Spectator no. 69. What does Williams’s usage share with, and where does it diverge from Addison’s framing, still widely read in her day?

  2. Sue Lanser says:

    You raise an important topic, Jeanna, in asking us to consider the multiple definitions of “citizen” that circulate both as ideology and as legal practice during the Age of Revolution. In the French context, we see a duality of definition from the start: every French adult may be a citizen, but the (shifting) distinction between active and passive citizens raises profound questions about what citizenship means. Women, of course, were never active citizens, though their “passivity” did not spare them the guillotine. Ironically, Williams herself became a French citizen in 1817, a time when the Revolution was, for the moment, finie.

    And as Jane suggests, it would be useful to trace that widely-used phase “citizen of the world” across the eighteenth century and the Age of Revolution in particular (as well as back to its alleged provenance in Diogenes and forward to its feminist reconfiguration in Woolf’s Three Guineas). On this topic in the c18 see Mary Helen McMurran’s essay “The New Cosmopolitanism in the Eighteenth Century” in the most recent volume of Eighteenth-Century Studies:

  3. Haram Lee says:

    I like how you bring up the issue by delineating its complexity. Particularly, I am struck by the old phrase, “a citizen of the world,” as I feel its oxymoronic quality anew. It seems to me that the contradiction embedded to that phrase points to that of the modern revolutions themselves, especially, the contradiction between the legal notion of citizenship (which excludes a certain portion of people by way of selective inclusion) and the ideals of universal rights (which pertains to all the human beings). As Giorgio Agamben points out in his essay, “Beyond Human Rights” (in Michael Hardt’s edited book, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (1996)), the founding document of the revolutionary universalism, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen might illustrate this uncomfortable coexistence of exclusivity and inclusivity: the document’s title itself implies some kind of irony that all the human beings have rights as long as they are the citizens of the nation-state—not to mention the irony that the ‘humankind’ meant mankind.

    If we can claim that the tension between citizenship and universal rights (or that between restrictive legal practice and universalist rhetoric) inheres in the modern revolutions, I would like to think more about their different problematics regarding citizenship, following Jeanna’s suggestion for a comparative inquiry. For example, can we say that the Haitian notion of citizenship based on race is more ‘inclusive’ than the Western concept based on birth and property?

  4. g271187 says:

    Jeanna, I think that another way to frame the questions that you raise in this post is to ask: When is citizenship inclusive and when is it exclusive? In some ways, the creation of citizens in the “Age of Revolution” seems to increase the number of men who could participate in the political fabric of their society. Yet, by fixing identities and creating sharp lines between citizens and non-citizens, citizenship also has a dramatic exclusionary potential.

    I can think here of the very interesting example of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in revolutionary France. It is fascinating that both groups of Jews did not get citizenship at the same time. Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origins were granted citizenship on January 28, 1790, whereas Ashkenazi Jews obtained it more than a year later, on September 27, 1791. First, this chronological gap indicates that Jews did not form a united group; neither in their own eyes, nor in the eyes of the National Assembly. In fact, these two groups came from different places, lived in different parts of France, spoke different languages and had a different relationship to the rest of French society. Sephardi Jews were known for speaking French, and being quite similar, in social mores and culture, to their non-Jewish neighbors. Ashkenazi Jews, by contrast, were much more alien and isolated in the eyes of the French population. Second, it is worth noticing that Sephardi Jews for a long time opposed Ashkenazi Jews who campaigned for citizenship, because they feared that this could result in the National Assembly retracting their right to citizenship. This is a great case study that illustrates the complex relationship between inclusion and exclusion. Moreover, it should warn us not to treat “minorities” as unified groups.

    Finally, another thing that we should consider is the process through which people become citizens. When do men and women start thinking of themselves as citizens, and how does this shift happen?

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