Bonds of CitizenshipLaw and the Labors of Emancipation

Bonds of CitizenshipLaw and the Labors of Emancipation

Hoang Gia Phan

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780814738474

Publisher: NYU Press


This book demonstrates how American citizenship and civic culture were profoundly transformed by the racialized material histories of free, enslaved, and indentured labor. It illuminates the historical tensions between the legal paradigms of citizenship and contract, and in the emergence of free labor ideology in American culture. The book argues that in the age of emancipation the cultural attributes of free personhood became identified with the legal rights and privileges of the citizen, and that individual freedom thus became identified with the nation-state. It situates the emergence of American citizenship and the American novel within the context of Atlantic slavery and Anglo-American legal culture, placing early American texts alongside Black Atlantic texts. Beginning with a revisionary reading of the Constitution's “slavery clauses,” the book recovers indentured servitude as a transitional form of labor bondage that helped define the key terms of modern U.S. citizenship: mobility, volition, and contract. It demonstrates how citizenship and civic culture were transformed by antebellum debates over slavery, free labor, and national Union, while analyzing the writings of Frederick Douglass and Herman Melville alongside a wide-ranging archive of lesser-known antebellum legal and literary texts in the context of changing conceptions of constitutionalism, property, and contract. Situated at the nexus of literary criticism, legal studies, and labor history, the book challenges the founding fiction of a pro-slavery Constitution central to American letters and legal culture.