Episode 255: Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens

Who gets to be a citizen of the United States? How does the United States define who belongs to the nation?

Early Americans asked and grappled with these questions during the earliest days of the early republic.

Martha S. Jones is a Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and a former public interest litigator. Using details from her book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, Martha joins us to investigate how early Americans thought about citizenship and how they defined who could and couldn’t belong to the United States.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Each episode features a conversation with a historian who helps us shed light on important people and events in early American history.

Ben Franklin’s World is a production of the Omohundro Institute.

Episode Summary

How did early Americans think about citizenship and how did they define who could or couldn’t belong to the United States? Martha S. Jones, a Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, a former public interest litigator, and the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, joins us to investigate answers to these questions.

As we explore early American ideas about citizenship, Martha reveals the concept of birthright citizenship and how it entered early American thinking about citizenship; What the United States Constitution has to say about citizenship; And details about how early Americans thought about national belonging and the ways in which early African Americans pressed their case that free blacks should have full citizenship rights.

What You’ll Discover

  • Birthright citizenship
  • American ideas about birthright citizenship
  • How to study the history of the law
  • Historical records about the law
  • Citizenship and the United States Constitution
  • State constitutions and citizenship
  • Citizenship and free African Americans
  • How the law’s murky definition of citizenship impacted free African Americans
  • Movements for free black citizenship
  • Colonization movement
  • The Colored Convention Movement
  • Turning point in the black citizenship movement
  • Sectional lines and citizenship
  • The radical colonization movement
  • Resistance to radical colonization


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Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

In your opinion, what might have happened if the framers of the United States Constitution had clearly defined citizenship in 1787? How would the history of the American definition of citizenship and black Americans’ struggle to obtain recognition as citizens be different?

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