In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Subjecthood in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • Monarchs and Subjects
  • The Rights and Privileges of Subjects
  • From Subjects to Citizens

Atlantic History Subjecthood in the Atlantic World
Hannah Weiss Muller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0143


Subjecthood is most generally the state or condition of being a subject of a monarch. Although subjecthood was not actually a mainstay of 17th- and 18th-century vernaculars, it is a helpful term to evoke the legal and personal relationship between subject and sovereign that defined belonging in monarchical societies. The term simultaneously calls to mind the status, practices, and qualities associated with being a subject of a sovereign. Like citizenship, subjecthood implies that there is a larger community of belonging. With subjecthood, however, the community is one composed of subjects rather than of citizens. While citizenship and nationality are arguably more familiar terms, each relies on the relationship between a person and a state, rather than a person and a monarch, to define boundaries between peoples and nations. Subjecthood, like citizenship, also implies a sense of reciprocity, as there is an understanding that certain duties are owed by the subject to the monarch and that certain protections are owed by the monarch to the subject. Since it was the bond between subject and sovereign that was foundational to monarchical states and empires, subjecthood remains crucial to understanding the societies of the Atlantic world. Although citizenship studies has flourished for decades, scholarship focused on subjecthood, and more particularly on its meanings and implications, is very recent. Indeed, while legal shifts in subject status have consistently engaged historians, analysis of how individuals leveraged subjecthood, and of subjecthood’s political, cultural, and social significances, is only beginning to emerge. In general, the ways in which subjecthood, citizenship, and nationality can be related, as well as the ways in which they diverge, have remained largely unexplored and require more nuanced analysis. This entry identifies some of the most dynamic fields of inquiry, dividing recent scholarship into five categories: (1) primary and secondary sources that consider subjecthood primarily from a legal perspective in the (a) British Atlantic and (b) French and Iberian Atlantics; (2) secondary sources that insist on the centrality of monarchy in the Atlantic world; (3) secondary sources that explore the diverse individuals and groups who were recognized as subjects and that seek to understand how subjects leveraged their status in the (a) British Atlantic and (b) French and Iberian Atlantics; (4) primary and secondary sources that examine the rights and privileges often attributed to subjects; (5) secondary studies that examine the historical interconnections between subject and citizen. Although a majority of these sources address subjecthood in the British Atlantic of the 17th and 18th centuries, this entry also identifies emerging themes in studies of subjecthood across the French and Iberian Atlantics.

Legal Analyses and Histories of Subjecthood

From Sir Edward Coke’s influential report on the landmark case of the postnati (1608) to the present, legal historians and legal scholars have been those most likely to analyze subject status and subjecthood. Both 17th- and 18th-century legal treatises generally contrasted the status of the subject with that of the alien, often doing so in sections or chapters on “the law of subject and alien.” Many 19th- and 20th-century legal historians relied on these earlier sources and focused on identifying distinct shifts in understandings of subject status or in the law of naturalization. Most recently, a select number of studies have explored the legal connections between subject status and contemporary nationality laws and have weighed the utility of subjecthood in delineating the membership of diverse empires.

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