Atlantic History Citizenship in the Atlantic World
Federica Morelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0296


Normally scholars, including historians of the Atlantic world, have traditionally strictly linked the concept of citizenship to that of the nation-state and its formation in the 19th and 20th centuries. This concept of citizenship emerged in the wake of the political and socioeconomic transformations resulting from the American and French Revolutions, on the one hand, and the Industrial Revolution, on the other. This modern perspective on citizenship is, however, quite restrictive, considering the term “citizen” has been employed since Antiquity to grant rights to individuals or groups living in a certain community, and because it disregards the social dimension of citizenship. The works listed in this article understand citizenship more extensively, defined as the ability to (a) participate in a political community, (b) enjoy individual or collective rights, and (c) share a sense of belonging. Citizenship cannot be reduced to a direct relationship of an individual to the state, unmediated by other affiliations. Citizenship has always had a cultural context, a question of which people were “in” and which were “out.” The very idea of the relationship of an individual to the state has always required the making of a claim, and debates about relating citizenship to other forms of social affinity are long-standing and ongoing within communities. The legal definition of citizenship is thus not sufficient to explain the procedures of acquisition or loss of citizen status: forms of belonging are built in the social fabric, through practices of integration and identification, which make certain persons recognizable by others as members of the community. Although the Atlantic revolutions contributed to the spread of the principle of legal equality and the elimination of the ethnic categories of colonial regimes, belonging to communities and enjoying certain rights continued to be one of the main instruments through which citizens were distinguished from noncitizens in the 19th-century Atlantic world. The mechanisms of incorporation into the national community were not imposed exclusively by the state, but resulted from complex dynamics between the state and the society. Thus citizenship can no longer be studied using a classic Marshallian approach, which assumes a progressive broadening of civic, political, social rights. Atlantic history, with its focus on colonial or postcolonial multiethnic societies, has helped historians shift toward a social approach to citizenship studies. Understanding that social practices influence legal definitions of citizenship, and that there are not striking differences between the construction of citizenship in the different empires and states of the Atlantic world, this article is not based on chronological or spatial divisions, but essentially on social concepts. This can help the reader look at citizenship more broadly, not limited to a legal, state-centered approach. At the same time, many of these concepts are very interrelated, which means the reader may find one source cited in multiple sections.

General Overviews

General works on citizenship in the Atlantic world do not exist. However, works focused on citizenship in early modern and modern Europe could be extremely important to understanding how citizenship works in the Atlantic space. These studies deal indeed with important theoretical dynamics surrounding citizenship, which could be useful to analyze other contexts and periods (Brubaker 1992, Costa 1999, Rapport 2000, Riesenberg 1992). First of all, they show the strong continuity of the concept, which cannot be limited to the modern period beginning with the age of Atlantic revolutions and the emergence of national states. Actually, many of the works listed in this section do not focus exclusively on the modern period, but on the early modern one (Cerutti 2012, González Cruz 2010, Herzog 2003, Riesenberg 1992, Sahlins 2004) or on a time covering both early modern and modern period (Costa 1999, Gordon and Stuck 2007, Kettner 1978, Parker 2015). In this way, they implicitly challenge the centrality of the age of revolutions, documenting a premodern world of legal citizenship, its juridical and administrative fictions, and its social practices. These elements play an important role in defining citizenship even after the formation of national states in the 19th century. Many of the works emphasize the relevance of concept of foreignness in defining citizenship, demonstrating that it was not originally linked to a geographical dimension (the territorial provenance), but to a fundamentally social one since it indicated a deficit of belonging (Cerutti 2012, González Cruz 2010, Kim 2000, Parker 2015, Rapport 2000, Sahlins 2004). This overview does not consider the amount of works on citizenship published in the field of political theory, but rather it examines works that use an empirical and historical approach to citizenship.

  • Brubaker, Rogers. Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    Using a historical and sociological approach, the book explores the difference between the territorial basis of the French citizenry and the German emphasis on blood descent, and shows how it translated into rights and restrictions for millions of would-be French and German citizens.

  • Cerutti, Simona. Étrangers: Étude d’une condition d’incertitude dans une société d’Ancien Régime. Paris: Bayard, 2012.

    Through a deep analysis of judiciary sources in the case of the Piedmont region (Italy), this work demonstrates that the condition of foreignness in the ancient regime cannot be grasped using contemporary categories. Rather, during the 18th century, this condition was defined by the lack in belonging to a local community.

  • Costa, Paolo. Civitas: Storia della cittadinanza in Europa. 4 vols. Rome and Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1999.

    Monumental work on the elaboration and transformation of the concept of citizenship in Europe from medieval times to modernity. Through a deep analysis of the discursive strategies on citizenship, the work argues that citizenship is an interrelated concept associating the individual to a politically organized community.

  • González Cruz, David, ed. Extranjeros y enemigos en Iberoamérica: La visión del otro; Del imperio español a la guerra de la independencia. Madrid: Silex, 2010.

    This collective book analyzes the image of foreigners and enemies in the Spanish world during the early modern period. Focusing on those who were considered aliens to the monarchy, the essays help understand which were the requirements to be considered citizens.

  • Gordon, Andrew, and Trevor Stuck. “Citizenship beyond the State: Thinking with Early Modern Citizenship in the Contemporary World.” Citizenship Studies 11.2 (2007): 117–133.

    DOI: 10.1080/13621020701262438

    Assembling various works on Europe and Americas from 16th to 20th century, this monographic dossier demonstrates that elements of the early modern tradition of urban citizenship have survived alongside national citizenship. It also argues that early modern citizenship helps to set in relief the scalar, emancipatory vision of 19th and 20th century national-territorial projects, and to think beyond the narrowly defined “rights” of national citizenship.

  • Herzog, Tamar. Defining Nations: Immigrants and Citizens in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300092530.001.0001

    Herzog traces the evolution of vecindad (citizenship) and naturaleza (nativeness) in early modern Spain and Spanish America. The book argues that these categories were defined by social practices rather than by legislation or administrative acts.

  • Kettner, James. The Development of American Citizenship, 1608–1870. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

    Kettner amply demonstrates that the law of citizenship throughout American history reflected the pervasive social values of American society, a society composed by various nationalities, several races, and many cultures. The author reconstructs the patterns of thought to which judges and legislators appealed when faced with questions concerning subjectship, citizenship, or nationality.

  • Kim, Keechang. Aliens in Medieval Law: The Origins of Modern Citizenship. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511495410

    Focusing on the late medieval treatment of foreigners in England, Kim traces a shift from itemized liberties to a more abstract notion of political faith and allegiance. Kim notes the use of allegiance to distinguish insiders from outsiders during this period, arguing that by 1608 allegiance had become the decisive criterion of a person’s legal status.

  • Parker, Kunal. Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600–2000. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139343282

    This book reconceptualizes the history of US immigration and citizenship law from the colonial period to the beginning of the 21st century by joining the histories of immigrants to those of Native Americans, African Americans, women, Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans, and the poor on the concept of foreignness.

  • Rapport, Michael. Nationality and Citizenship in Revolutionary France: The Treatment of Foreigners 1789–1799. London: Clarendon, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198208457.001.0001

    The book provides useful insights into the treatment of foreigners in France during the period of French Revolution. It also contains much of value to those seeking to examine issues of immigration, national identity, naturalization, and citizenship.

  • Riesenberg, Peter. Citizenship in the Western Tradition: Plato to Rousseau. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

    Intended for both general readers and students, this instructive book surveys Western ideas of citizenship from Greek Antiquity to the French Revolution. It demonstrates the persistence of important civic ideals and institutions over a period of twenty-five hundred years and shows how those ideals and institutions travelled over space and time, from the ancient Mediterranean to early modern France, England, and America.

  • Sahlins, Peter. Unnaturally French: Foreign Citizens in the Old Regime and After. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

    In this book about the naturalization of foreigners, Peter Sahlins offers an important contribution to the histories of immigration, nationality, and citizenship in France and Europe from the 16th to the early 19th centuries. Challenging the historiographical centrality of the French Revolution, Sahlins documents a premodern world of legal citizenship, its juridical and administrative fictions, and its social practices.

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