Paul J. Polgar

More than Emancipation: Envisioning Black Citizenship in Early National America

He should be standing, not kneeling. This was the conclusion the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) had reached in the fall of 1789, as the group reviewed an illustration that would serve as the centerpiece of the certificates of membership for the newly reconstituted antislavery organization. They were most likely referring to Josiah Wedgewood’s famed depiction of an enslaved man on bended knee pleading “Am I Not A Man and A Brother,” printed in London two years earlier. While approving of the image, the PAS made sure that the black man “be represented in a Standing posture.” Their decision appeared prescient. Only months later James Pemberton, the chair of the PAS Committee of Correspondence, excitedly wrote to the London Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade that in revising the state constitution the Pennsylvania Assembly had voted down an attempt to define citizenship in racially exclusive terms “by a large and very respectable majority.” Pemberton celebrated that the “Free Black-Man is to be put on the Footing of a citizen of Pennsylvania” and underscored the momentousness of this “equitable and important decision.”

Pemberton’s words were not window dressing. In the wake of independence from Britain, American abolitionists constructed a vision of antislavery reform based on an optimistic belief in the power of black civic progress to end slavery. No mere matter of abstract rights, the question of black citizenship was intimately connected with the goal of abolishing slavery. If the institution of slavery seemed to contradict the founding principles of newly independent America, slaves themselves seemed to embody the exact opposite of every quality needed in the body politic of the young republic. Lacking self- mastery and bodily independence, a chattel slave, by definition, was denied the very virtue necessary for maintaining a self-governing society. The solution to this confounding dilemma, according to black abolitionists and their white allies, was to fashion former slaves and free persons of color into republican citizens whose virtuous behavior would put to rest any doubts about the feasibility of black liberty. Premised on the educational and moral uplift of black Americans and their civic incorporation, this ideology of antislavery reform sought to topple both human bondage and the widespread white prejudice that these reformers believed buttressed slavery in America.

This paper reconstructs the shared commitment of black and white American abolitionists to citizenship for persons of color during the “first emancipation” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Scholars tend to lump together Jacksonian America’s linkage of democracy and racism with a prior period when this synthesis was still far from certain. Instead of beginning from the teleological assumption of a racially exclusive republic, this paper takes seriously the promise of black citizenship in the formative epoch of American nationhood. It argues that the goal of integrating persons of color into the body politic as citizens played a preeminent part in the American nation’s first movement to abolish human bondage.

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