Birthright citizenship just might be, former slaves believed, the safeguard they needed. In the decades before the Civil War, in an era when a remedy like the Fourteenth Amendment was hard to imagine, free black Americans embraced the view that they were citizens by virtue of having been born on U.S. soil. It was a lofty claim, especially because the Constitution was largely silent on the matter of who was a citizen and who was not. But for those who were descended from bondspeople, their circumstances were dire. Law and policy appeared to be conspiring against them, aimed directly at their tentative claims to belonging to the nation. Colonization societies organized to entice former slaves to migrate away, to Canada, the Caribbean, or Liberia in West Africa. Black laws restricted everyday life—work, travel, worship—to such a degree that black men and women felt squeezed out and many considered self-deportation.
In the U.S., birthright citizenship begins here, in the struggles of the marginalized and the despised to make this nation their own even as so many claimed that when it came to rights, it was a white man’s country. Most notorious among such denials of black citizenship was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Scott v. Sandford, often referred to as the Dred Scott case. But African Americans saw Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and his decision coming from years away. They had encountered his view—that black people had no rights that white men were bound to respect—in Congress and state courts, in newspaper columns and political conventions. They denounced Taney and the high court, gathering in meeting halls and churches to decry the denial of their birthright. And they never deferred to it. Taney’s decision was another round in a struggle that would take them to the Civil War and beyond.