Inventing the National Politic: Contestations over Social Membership and Political Participation in Nineteenth Century America

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From the rise of capitalism, to the demise of slavery, to the influx of new immigrants from diverse regions of the world, the dramatic social transformations of the late-nineteenth century disrupted the ways in which Americans thought about and engaged concepts of social membership and political participation. The Reconstruction Era in general, and the Fourteenth Amendment in particular, simultaneously expanded the boundaries of political inclusion and established the U.S. nation-state as both a guarantor of rights and the ultimate arbiter of their content and parameters. Far from representing a natural outgrowth of American progress, the concept of democratic citizenship was neither an immediate product of liberal ideology nor a cure-all for the ills of social inequality and prejudice. Nor has it ever been a definitive source of human solidarity. Recent tends in the historiography of the late-nineteenth century reveal the tenuousness of democracy and the charged nature of debates over rights, privileges, duties, power, inclusion, and exclusion in the age of rising nationalism and state consolidation. In particular, these current departures in the scholarship highlight the ways in which the introduction of new populations into the national body politic in the post-Civil War era provided a fulcrum for new ways of thinking—and new anxieties—about what constituted a political being and how the boundaries of political participation ought to be drawn and marshaled.

While the term, “citizenship,” was by no means new in the late-nineteenth century, its association with nationhood and rights was. As William Novak has demonstrated, the concept of citizenship bore little social significance and had no real bearing on the daily lives, associations, or participation of people in their local communities. Of course, this is not to suggest that early American society lacked a coherent system for prescribing or denying rights and responsibilities. According to Novak, social membership derived not from guarantees handed down by the nation-state but from what he refers to as a “common law of status and membership,” the particulars of which were locally defined. In the context of early American common law tradition, an individual’s personal status (which correlated with their place in the household or role in society) and membership status (in any of many public associations) determined what immunities, liberties, power, or duties they could exercise within their community. While conceptions of rights were enmeshed in hierarchies of deference and dependency, the fact that rights were not firmly tied to citizenship, or any single signifier of membership for that matter, allowed for a certain degree of fluidity with respect to boundaries of inclusion and political participation. For example, as Bonnie Honig points out, the early United States had a tradition of alien suffrage that allowed noncitizen residents to vote in local elections. It was not until the rise of nationalism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries that suffrage, political participation, and citizenship became tied to the nation and membership within it.

There were, of course, important practical advantages to the eventual transformation toward a national monopoly over citizenship and participation in the particular historical moment of the late-nineteenth century. During this period, the United States became increasingly interwoven with the developing capitalist market, and the country’s domestic economy became rapidly industrialized. These changes amplified the complexity of American political economy and produced dramatic social dislocations, making the task of governance and the dual objectives of national stability and security more difficult than ever for America’s relatively decentralized government. The consolidation of political power at the national level and the establishment of federal government discretion over aspects of social and economic life that previously fell to states and localities were thus part of the American government’s effort to manage the processes of modernization. The nationalization of citizenship—first for white men with the Dred Scott decision, and later for all free adult males with the Fourteenth Amendment—along with the expansion of America’s bureaucracy, represented critical components of a larger project for facilitating governance and making society legible to national leadership.

Some scholars (and neoliberal politicians) have rendered the story of the late-nineteenth century as one of progress—a trajectory that, despite such blots as Jim Crow and Chinese Exclusion, was marked by technological and scientific innovation, advances in industry, emancipation, expanded opportunity, and equal rights. The narratives they have produced celebrate the rise of liberal ideology as the harbinger of all things good and just. The undercurrent of recent historiography on the era, however, seeks to dismantle this mythology. While historians such as William Novak, Sven Beckert, Rebecca Edwards, Mary Ryan, Hannah Rosen, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Thomas Holt do not discount the significance of the events and developments highlighted in liberal progress narratives, they do offer an alternative analysis of the nature of that significance.

With regard to their analyses of the changing meaning and uses of citizenship and rights—the modern juridical bases of national membership and political participation—historians owe much to the work of Karl Marx. To be sure, while modern citizenship rights are often linked with the emergence of liberalism’s “natural” rights discourse, the relationship between citizenship and liberal ideology is a problematic one. Marx has offered a useful distinction between modern conceptions of the “rights of citizen,” that is, of political participation, and the “rights of man,” as associated with Enlightenment liberal thought. In Marx’s analysis the “rights of citizen” were inseparable from community life and were the basis of community membership. He explains that they were a form of rights which “can only be exercised if one is a member of a community.” They were signifiers of political and social inclusion, of who could (and who could not) participate “in community life, in the political life of the community, the life of the state.” The “rights of man,” on the other hand, were the rights of the “circumscribed individual,” as “separated from other men and from the community.” They embodied the “right of self-interest” and liberty from the interference or harm of others. Whereas citizen rights presumed equality of political participation for all who were members (though not social equality), manhood rights offered a basis for neither political or social equality—only for the pursuit of one’s interests on one’s own and independently of society. In this respect, liberalism’s manhood rights did not nourish an idea of political equality or democratic citizenship; in fact, there were inherent contradictions between the communal foundations of citizenship and the presumptions of individual autonomy embedded in liberal rights talk—between political equality and liberal individualism. Moreover, Marx emphasizes that as the nation-state became the supreme arbiter of rights, it “constitute[d] itself as universality,” assuming power over all the particularities of civil society and giving lie to a certain extent to proclamations about the popular foundations of government. For these reasons it is important to be cautious about drawing a line from capitalism to liberalism to democracy. Capitalism and liberalism did not make democratic citizenship, or democracy, a foregone conclusion.

So what did make possible the nationalization of citizenship and notions of political equality? Novak locates the transition from common law to modern politicized citizenship in the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction, and he identifies the Fourteenth Amendment as the cornerstone of the “constitutional rights revolution.” While a decentralized and locally regulated system of membership rights sufficed in the United States for nearly a century of its existence as a nation, emancipation and the “effort to fit the extreme and radically opposed status and rights understandings involved in different states’ treatment of free blacks and slaves into the established jurisprudence on comity and privileges and immunities tore the system apart.” In Novak’s words, the Fourteenth Amendment “remade the American state” by establishing the universal citizenship rights of all male members of the nation and by securing regulatory authority over those rights in the body of the national government. It was a move that not only formalized equal membership and participation for all adult male citizens; it also empowered national political leadership to marshal the parameters and particular dimensions of membership and participation on its own terms. At the same time that the government promised its citizens “equal protection” under the law, it took on the prerogative to determine the standards for citizenship and the forms of protection it would entail.

Part of the task of modernizing governance and standardizing a particular version of democracy entailed the regulation of various kinds of associations and person-to-person relations. Particularly as industrialization disrupted the conventions of domestic life which dominated the early republic, the family—its relation to the state as well as power relations within it—became of increasing concern to the government and its policymakers. Rebecca Edwards has shown how a “particular model of family life” came to dominate the political agendas and worldviews of congressional leaders during the late-nineteenth century, as the older Democratic vision of the family as a cornerstone of patriarchal equality and “manhood rights” gave way to Republican “domestic ideology.” This newer ideology elevated the status of the household and what went on within it by stressing its fundamental importance to public life. “Sexual restraint,” “male duty,” and the devotion of women to “homemaking, motherhood, and Christian benevolence,” were not just issues of etiquette and propriety but virtues of intense public interest, cultivated practices that held “the key to higher civilization” and to “America’s unique strengths.” Edwards demonstrates how the ideals of domesticity figured into debates over Mormon marriage practices, emancipation, pension benefits for widows and their children, tariffs, Indian cultural traditions, and female rights and protections. Interestingly, while the idea of women’s political equality was out of the question, their rights to higher education, to vote in school board elections, to run businesses, and to own property were often recognized on state and local levels in instances where such measures aligned with the larger objectives of achieving a certain kind of social order and strengthening the nation as a whole. In other words, Edwards’ study reveals how public policy became a mechanism for inculcating Republicans’ vision of the family as a building block of society and of domesticity as a basis for national power.

Legislation was never the only means for regulating social relationships and practices, however; nor did national government ever become the sole arbiter of membership and participation in American society. Just as local interests, hierarchies, and values affected the real distribution of privileges and immunities prior to the nationalization of citizenship, they continued to do so well after the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment. Multiple factors converged in the late-nineteenth century in a way that not only destabilized traditional formulations of social order but also mobilized individuals in all strata of society to reimagine the parameters of social inclusion and to seek to implement their own version of social order. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment followed the emancipation of thousands of black slaves in the South and coincided with a surge of immigration to United States by people from southern and eastern Europe as well as from Asia. This set of concomitant developments provoked deep anxieties among Americans who benefited from established systems of privilege and conceptions of propriety and order. In this context, ordinary folks, especially those who felt threatened in one way or another by the prospect of a more inclusive political system and society, worked to marshal the boundaries of membership and participation as they deemed appropriate. Thus, the setting of standards for inclusion and norms of social behavior in this moment of turbulence required work not only from above, by government leaders and bureaucratic officials, but also from below, by ordinary people and local associations and institutions.

To be sure, the idea of democracy in the new era of democratic citizenship was unstable and deeply contested. These contestations played out in a multiplicity of arenas and took a wide range of forms, from movements to affect public policy directly to efforts to realize a particular vision of society through more private means, including interpersonal relationships, exchanges, and violence. Sven Beckert has shown how popular protest and political reformism served not only as vehicles for bourgeois economic interests in Gilded Age New York but also as means to assuage mounting middle-class and elite fears about the political influence of undesirable populations. It is important to note that the age of emancipation, heightened immigration, and the nationalization of citizenship coincided with the period in which industrialization entered its more advanced stages and bourgeois identities gained increasing cohesion and social significance. Notions of equal participation and national regulation stoked fears among New York businessmen regarding the potential impact of votes by new immigrants and propertyless men, those who did not share the same stake in the community and its economy that they did. Their fears mobilized them to look for alternative ways of regulating suffrage rights and social membership, first in the form of an amendment to localize political and economic control in a municipal and property-owner-elected Board of Trade and later through various reform movements. While the amendment did not pass, the reform movements were more effective as they enabled the exclusion of certain unwanted groups from participation under the banners of “efficiency” and “professionalism.” In effect, this local conglomeration of interests and individuals managed to decouple citizenship and suffrage rights in practice—just as Plessy v. Ferguson would decouple citizenship and membership—even though the national Constitution declared them inextricable.

Of course, not all people had access to the arenas of policymaking to which Beckert’s anti-suffrage activists appealed. To explore the often overlooked ways in which marginalized and subaltern actors have engaged in political action despite formal or normative boundaries of exclusion, how they have sought access to the benefits of membership or forged alternative solidarities altogether, historians have drawn on a revised interpretation of Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere. For Habermas, the public sphere represented an open arena in which private individuals could come together and discuss matters of general interest, including criticisms of the state, in an unrestricted fashion. Habermas located the sites in which these activities occurred in physical spaces such as salons and coffeehouses as well as in media such as newspapers and journals. The main criticism of Habermas’ analysis has been that it ignored the exclusionary dimensions of the white, male, bourgeois public and its “democratic” agenda. Despite this critique, however, scholars have rearticulated Habermas’ public sphere in ways that illuminate the political actions and “speech communities” of marginalized people. As Thomas Holt explains, “the notion of a public sphere, or spheres, can provide a powerful entry into the interrelatedness of matters that—within the disciplinary fragmentation of academy’s normal science—might appear disparate and unconnected.” Holt emphasizes the ways in which alternative and oppositional publics—counter-publics—assumed a multiplicity of figurative forms depending on the constraints and “conditions of possibility” that confronted people of a particular status in a given place and time. Perhaps Mary Ryan identified the greatest contribution of Habermas’ public sphere when she noted the way “it freed politics from the iron grasp of the state,” which had defined the public in racialized, gendered, and class-based terms.

Ryan’s analysis of the female public sphere in the United States offers a counter-narrative to more traditional depictions of the male bourgeois public, which Habermas found to be in decline throughout the nineteenth century. In contrast with his model of declension, however, Ryan argues that American women’s public sphere ascended and expanded especially during the late-nineteenth century. She notes how in the early republic women were excluded from formal political participation and, if they appeared in the male-dominated sphere public at all, their role was mostly ornamental; they were to represent civic virtue and republican motherhood. During the middle of the century, through still denied access to electoral politics and either silenced or castigated for speaking out in public, women began to carve out alternative spaces in which to invest their political energies. By the end of the Civil War, they became increasingly involved in municipal service, lobbying activities, and clubs, thus affecting public opinion through the private realm. She remarks that, “even as public politics began to corrode into state bureaucracy, the private sex found an arsenal of weapons and an array of avenues through which to influence public policy.” Ryan’s work exemplifies they ways in which those excluded from formal membership and participatory rights manage to forge alternative paths and engage in participatory politics of their own design, within what Holt would describe as their “conditions of possibility.”

It is noteworthy the “women’s public sphere” that Ryan discusses had its own exclusionary dimensions. That is, it was a public sphere that was dominated by, and that provided access to, white women. The nineteenth-century black women’s public sphere, as Elsa Barkley Brown has shown, followed a different arc. Contrary to conceptions of Reconstruction-era black public culture which emphasize the development of a black male public sphere and a parallel female private sphere or counterpublic, Brown contends that in many regions of the south black slaves had political traditions that valued women as participants. Rooted in the communities they forged in southern black churches, these men and women carried their notions of political participation into the age of emancipation. In other words, the transition of black men into a patriarchal public and the relegation of black women to affairs of a private nature were by no means natural or inevitable developments at the end of the of the Civil War. In fact, Brown describes the fact of black women’s legal disfranchisement as “neither inconsequential nor fully definitive.” As she makes clear, after emancipation black women continued to act alongside men in public affairs, to participate in political societies and meetings, and to help shape political decisions, including the vote, despite being denied the franchise. It would be a mistake to assume that newly freed black men and women automatically internalized the gender norms that pervaded white society or took on the kind of “possessive individualism” that characterized liberal democratic practice. In Brown’s words, black women’s participation in “external and internal political arenas was part of a larger political worldview of ex-slaves and free men and women, a worldview fundamentally shaped by an understanding that freedom, in reality, would accrue to each of them individually only when it was acquired by all of them collectively.” Such a worldview suggests the unevenness of liberal democracy’s norms of political behavior as well as the influence of alternative imaginings for forms of participation that differed from the one privileged by liberalism, that is, deliberative rational debate by independent and self-possessed individuals.

Just as an “ethos of mutuality” encouraged black former slaves to regard political participation as a collective practice, violence could also be both carried out and experienced in collective terms. As historian Hannah Rosen has demonstrated, cross-racial sexual violence served as a mechanism for enforcing a particular gendered and racialized vision of membership and participation on free black populations in the years following emancipation. From the Memphis riots to the nightrider crusades, the act of white-on-black rape represented more than a spontaneous outburst of irrational violence; it manifested “a brutal form of political repression” and a vicious means for resisting the social changes wrought by the end of slavery. Rosen highlights the ways in which white southerners articulated a discourse of white supremacy and patriarchy through their violation of black women’s bodies—a discourse that was echoed in the halls of state capitols during state constitutional debates over the meaning of race, the limits of black participation, and the potential consequences of race mixing. In many ways, sexual violence proved to be one of the most grotesque expressions of white anxiety about the changing composition of free society and one of the most atrocious means of marshaling the parameters of the body politic. As a political act, white-on-black rape was simultaneously intimate, because it was enacted on individual women’s bodies, and impersonal, because it projected white aggression against free black populations in broad terms.

That is not to suggest that female victims of cross-racial sexual violence were passive victims of white aggression; nor does it follow that black women accepted the strictures of patriarchy and white supremacy that people such as the nightriders sought to impress upon them. In fact, although racialized sexual violence produced a “climate of terror” that undoubtedly restricted their maneuvering room, Rosen shows that black women and men seized what opportunities they encountered, and forged avenues where none were given them, to claim their rights as citizens and dignity as human beings. As she explains, during the early Reconstruction era African Americans throughout the south “formed multiple public spheres for political discussion outside white-dominated political discourse and, when the opportunity arose, seized the rights both to speak and to vote in existing white-controlled public arenas.” From mobilizing to influence the drafting of southern state constitutions to testifying in court against the violence that confronted them, black southerners took advantage of volatility and uncertainty that characterized race relations in the postemancipation south. Although the systematic segregation of black Americans would become formally instituted by the end of the century, the late-1860s and 1870s represented a period of flux and intense contestation in which no outcome was inevitable and in which all parties, including former slaves, participated.

The standards of national membership and political participation that liberal democracy has normatized are not natural, universal, or uncontested. To be sure, nationalized citizenship—and the rights, privileges, and immunities it entails—has become perhaps the most intelligible form of social membership and means to political participation in the United States. However, it is important not to regard full citizenship or inclusion in the national polity as a panacea for social injustice or as an objective for all people. As all of the works discussed in this essay make clear, the establishment of national citizenship and equal protection under the law was not a smooth stride in the trajectory of human progress; rather, it was the outcome of a complicated set of developments and overlapping political agendas that served the interests of some (particularly those in power) and that constricted the potential life choices and opportunities of many others. By highlighting the instability of democracy in the late-nineteenth century, by revealing the contestations that occurred over the nature of democratic institutions and behavioral norms, historians are calling attention both to the limitations of America’s liberal democratic system and to the existence of alternative imaginaries and possibilities for governance, for social membership, and for political participation. Recognizing the instability of past and current modes of governance not only denaturalizes them but also, hopefully, will open people’s eyes to new possibilities for a more democratic future.

Elizabeth Sine


Beckert, Sven. “Democracy and Its Discontents: Contesting Suffrage Rights in Gilded Age New York.” Past and Present (February 2002): 116-157. Brown, Elsa Barkley. “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life from Slavery to Freedom.” In The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book. Edited by The Black Public Sphere Collective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Edwards, Rebecca. “Domesticity versus Manhood Rights: Republicans, Democrats, and ‘Family Values’ Politics, 1856-1896.” In The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History. Edited by Meg Jacobs, William J. Novak, and Julian Zelizer. Princeton University Press, 2003. Holt, Thomas C. “Afterword: Mapping the Black Public Sphere.” In The Black Public Sphere: A Public Culture Book. Edited by The Black Public Sphere Collective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Honig, Bonnie. Democracy and the Foreigner. Princeton University Press, 2001. Marx, Karl. “On the Jewish Question.” In The Marx and Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. Norton, 1978. Novak, William. “The Legal Transformation of Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America.” In The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History. Edited by Meg Jacobs, William Novak, and Julian Zelizer. Princeton University Press, 2003. Rosen, Hannah. Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Ryan, Mary P. “Gender and Public Access: Women’s Politics in Nineteenth-Century America.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere. Edited by Craig Calhoun. MIT Press, 1992.

Annotated Bibliography

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” In Habermas and the Public Sphere, 109-142. Edited by Craig Calhoun. MIT Press, 1992.

Fraser’s essay argues for the importance of Habermas’ public sphere to critical theorizations of the limitations of liberal democracy and seeks to problematize the notion of the public that Habermas set forth in order to grapple with some of the confusions that have plagued progressive socialist movements. In particular, Fraser notes that progressive socialist-minded scholars have failed to distinguish appropriately between the “public” and state apparatus. She offers an analysis of the public sphere that emphasizes the importance of eliminating systemic social inequality, underscores the necessity of multiple publics (as opposed to striving for a single and unified public), complicates understandings about the possibilities for separating the public from the private, and stresses the value of the public as a check on state power and state action. In effect, helps to shed light on the ways in which publics and counterpublics operate in relation to the nation-state.

Hahn, Steven. A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration. Belknap, 2003.

Hahn’s work examines black grassroots politics in the south from the antebellum period through the Great Migration in order to illuminate the ways in which black slaves and freed men and women struggled in the face of racism and racial violence toward freedom and equal rights. Hahn shows how collectivity—acted out through multiple forms including emigration, separatism, self-help, and racial solidarity—was a vital component of black politics, not just a reactive strategy as it has been portrayed by some scholars. Hahn’s book explores many of the themes that arise in the works of Brown, Holt, and Rosen, such as the political traditions and multiple publics forged by southern African Americans before and after the Civil War as well as the importance of collectivity in black southern political imaginaries.

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor and Politics in the Post-Civic War North, 1865-1901. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Cox’s ambitious book seeks to explain the northern public’s abandonment of freed men and women in the postemancipation era. Placing labor and class issues at the center of her analysis, Cox highlights the ways in which northern white anxieties about the ability and willingness of free blacks to comport with idealized notions of free labor, along with fears that ex-slave politics challenged property rights and proper government, were behind northerners’ nonintervention in the segregation and disfranchisement of blacks in the south. This book parallels the works of Beckert and Rosen in that it illuminates popular concerns about the impact of expanded membership and suffrage on systems of privilege and conceptions of propriety. It also sheds light on popular reactions to the perceived threat of new populations to the body politic.

Ryan, Mary P. Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Ryan’s book explores themes similar to those she laid out in her chapter in Habermas and the Public Sphere, most notably the emergence and expansion of women’s public sphere, though with significantly greater depth and detail. Looking at female actors and conceptualizations of gender in nineteenth-century New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco, Ryan examines the ways in which this formally disfranchised population participated in politics and obtained political power and eventually the vote. She also studies such issues as the differing roles and divisions between different kinds of women (such as ladies versus prostitutes), the link between gender and ethnicity in female political culture, and the multiplicity of forms that female political participation assumed. This source would offer valuable insight for me in future investigations of the counterpublics and activism of marginalized people.

Harper-Ho, Virginia. “Noncitizen Voting Rights: The History, the Law, and Current Prospects for Change.” Law and Inequality 18 (2000): 271-322.

Harper-Ho’s central argument in this piece is that granting “resident aliens,” that is, permanent residents, the right to vote in local elections is in keeping with the political history of the United States and may help to fill the nation’s promise of democracy while addressing the policy rationales and objections surrounding noncitizen voting. Harper-Ho offers a legal historical overview of localized noncitizen voting—drawing mostly on legal and court records—to highlight different and locally-determined forms of political participation, especially voting rights that were extended to noncitizens, from the early republic through the late-nineteenth century. The main purpose of her analysis of noncitizen suffrage in past practice is to deflect some of the criticisms against the idea of noncitizen voting in the present. This piece supplements my work as a model of ways of thinking about possibilities for alternative and denationalized means to political participation.