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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

May 14, 2019

What defines a US citizen? Remarkably, no official definition existed until 1868 -- some 80 years after the ratification of the Constitution. That's the year the 14th Amendment was ratified. Its opening line reads, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside." The origins of this form of citizenship, known as "birthright citizenship," are in large measure due to the efforts of free African Americans who, in the decades before the Civil War, developed and promoted a claim on US citizenship based on the fact that they had been born on US soil. To learn more about this fascinating backstory to birthright citizenship, I speak with historian Martha S. Jones, author of, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.

In the course of our conversation, Martha S. Jones explains: 

Why the city of Baltimore, with its large free black population, location at the nexus of North and South, and connection to the Atlantic world as a seaport, made it an ideal focus for her study. 

How free African Americans in the antebellum era forged a notion of birthright citizenship, in part by asserting their rights in local courts and, in effect, "performing citizenship."  

How African American newspaper editors and pamphleteers developed and spread arguments in favor of birthright citizenship. 

How efforts by white Americans to force free blacks to resettle in Africa inspired the latter to assert a right to stay based on their birth in the US. 

How Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney's experience living in Baltimore shaped his understanding of race and citizenship, leading to his infamous majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case. 

And how this backstory to the concept of birthright citizenship provides important insights that are relevant to contemporary debates over birthright citizenship. 

Recommended reading

Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2017) 

David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom 

Anna-Lisa Cox, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America's Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality

Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence

Gerard N. Magliocca, American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment

Manisha Sinha, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition

Shirley J. Yee, Black Women Abolitionists: Study In Activism, 1828-1860

More info about Martha S. Jones - website  

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Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Hyson, "Signals" (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting

Podcast Editing: Wildstyle Media

Photographer: John Buckingham

Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci

Website by: ERI Design

Legal services: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

Social Media management: The Pony Express

Risk Assessment: Little Big Horn Associates

Growth strategies: 54 40 or Fight

© In The Past Lane, 2019

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