James McCune Smith has been described as the best educated black American of the nineteenth century. Born in New York City in 1813, he attended the African Free School as a youth and went on to earn bachelor’s, master’s, and medical degrees from the University of Glasgow. When he returned to the United States, he worked as a doctor and pharmacist while also producing a steady stream of essays on slavery and black freedom.
In his writing, Smith tended to approach common issues in unique ways. This was never clearer than in an essay titled “Citizenship,” published in the Anglo-African Magazine in May 1859. Free black activists had been thinking and writing about American citizenship for decades, seeking a specific, inclusive definition for the status. That project was more urgent than ever in the wake of the 1857 Dred Scott case. Smith framed his essay as a response to Chief Justice Roger Taney and the notorious statement that black men had “no rights which white men were bound to respect.” Smith felt that Taney’s critics had attributed too much power to that phrase, which was nothing more than an interpretation of the nation’s founding era. Rather than gather facts to refute Taney’s claims, Smith encouraged activists to consider “the broad principles which underlie the discussion.” He planned his essay around a single question: “What is Citizenship?” And he reasoned that because the U.S. Constitution did not define the word, it’s meaning must be sought elsewhere. Language, he declared, was the ultimate safeguard against injustice.
Smith turned to ancient Rome, seeking out the origins of citizenship in order to examine his central question. He noted that black people across the free states had long enjoyed several of the rights of a Roman citizen, including “Jus Libertatis, the right of liberty,” as well as “Jus Dominii Legitimi, the right of property.” In Rome, “the possession of any one of these rights constituted the possessor a citizen of the Republic.” Free black people were, therefore, American citizens. “Whatever evil the framers of to-day might do, they could not deprive free blacks of citizenship. Such deprivation is not in the nature of things.”
Smith’s approach in that article raises a number of questions, but none more pressing than the dreaded “so what?” How did the rights of an ancient Roman citizen matter to black Americans in the nineteenth century? Smith surely felt that his essay was important, and he was probably joined in that feeling by Thomas Hamilton, editor of the Anglo-African. But what was the real value of saying, even printing, a declaration of black citizenship? What was Smith truly doing as a black intellectual?
These are questions about intellectual activism more broadly. Smith’s historical interpretation would have had little bearing on much of the daily existence of free black Americans. To say that they enjoyed a right to liberty would not protect black New Yorkers from being arrested and tried as fugitives or, more simply, kidnapped. But in a sense, Roger Taney’s ruling was just as distant from the lived experiences of the people he sought to exclude. We might read Smith’s essay as a bit of humor, riffing on Taney’s “logic” by drawing from another, far more distant example to make a statement on black citizenship. In the face of persistent legal exclusion, a bitter chuckle might have seemed the most appropriate response. “Relying upon this basis for our claims to citizenship,” Smith concluded, “we blacks may smile at the Dred Scott decision.”
Ultimately, the essay presented an alternative way to think about the question of belonging that was at the center of Dred Scott. James McCune Smith’s writing expanded the possibilities of black, and American, thought, offering activists history and humor as tools to deploy in their struggle with men like Taney. Smith chipped away at the Chief Justice’s authority and staked a claim to a place in a critical conversation about the shape of his native country.