RECAP: “The Missouri Compromise, Black Americans, and the Question of State Citizenship in the Antebellum United States,” Colloquium w/ Northwestern Prof. Kate Masur

In May of 1848, John Jones, a Chicago tailor, real estate owner, and vocal advocate for racial justice, sent a letter to New Hampshire Senator and congressional anti-slavery up-and-comer John Hale inquiring about the odds that his state suit petitioning for full rights as a citizen of Illinois might reach the Supreme Court. While the particular impetus for Jones’ inquiry was something she circled back to toward the end of her February 19 talk, Northwestern Associate Professor of History Kate Masur led with this exchange because the question at the heart of the letter—how Jones’ status as a now free African American born into slavery in North Carolina impacted his citizenship in Illinois—underscores just how ambiguous, understudied, and central the issue of state citizenship was in the antebellum U.S.

“The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to the Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States.” So reads Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution’s attempt to clarify the seemingly arbitrary language of the Articles of Confederation, which toggled between “inhabitants,” “citizens,” and “people” in addressing the question of the interstate applicability of citizenship rights. For whatever clarity it did offer, the Constitution still left a number of very fundamental questions unanswered: Who was a citizen? What were “privileges and immunities”? What, exactly, did “the several states” refer to? As Prof. Masur explained, congressional debates over Missouri’s proposed 1820 state constitution marked the first significant airing of these questions in the young nation, particularly as they related to free African Americans like John Jones.

The controversy sparked by Missouri’s proposed constitution stemmed from a provision banning the migration of free African Americans and mulattoes into the state. For Southern congressmen, this was entirely keeping with states’ prerogative, per the police powers, to regulate who was and who was not entitled a place in their respective communities. The Northern counterargument, as articulated in the Niles Weekly Register, required only “a very clean, simple, and imperative sentence: ‘Free blacks and mulattoes’ are ‘citizens’ in all the states…and cannot be dispossessed of their right to locate where they please.” Congress was, yet again, deadlocked on a Missouri question, which resulted in what Prof. Masur dubbed “the second Missouri Compromise”—that the state’s constitution would be accepted, with the controversial clause intact, so long as it [that clause] was never actually exercised.

While considered by many to be a toothless threading of the needle, the demand that Missouri not enforce its ban on migration was embraced by others as a federal acknowledgment that African Americans were to be considered citizens, entitled to the privileges and immunities outlined, even if vaguely, in the Constitution. As evidence of the latter line of logic (and of the second Missouri Compromise’s broader historical significance), Prof. Masur pointed out how, immediately following Missouri’s admission into the union, both the Massachusetts and New York legislatures officially recognized African Americans as citizens of their states, starting a broader conversation on the meaning and importance of state citizenship. Northerners, on the one hand, invoked the legal tradition of ancient Rome, which held that anyone in Rome’s jurisdiction was either a citizen or an alien, while legal theorists like Chancellor Kent argued that, while African Americans were free citizens of the United States, individual states could still independently decide how they would be treated within their borders.

The political reality in Missouri offered little in the way of resolution. In spite of the congressional mandate that paved the way for its statehood, Missouri passed a number of laws—including an 1835 statute requiring that Black residents obtain licenses to be considered legal residents—aimed at curbing the migration of free African Americans into the state. That said, even the most restrictive laws were enforced only sporadically, and they likewise came with the unspoken caveat that entrance would be granted and residence protected (at least in theory, at least for a time) for anyone who could prove citizenship of another state. Highlighting the uncertainty of the arrangement, when James Robinson and Sylvia Robinson—former citizens of Illinois and New Jersey, respectively—petitioned under the terms of the second Missouri Compromise to remain in the state, the court refused their request on the peculiar (at best) grounds that “they did not come within cases provided for by the law,” though Andrew Hatfield, a citizen of Pennsylvania making a similar case at roughly the same time, was successful. A grim precedent would be set in 1846, however, when Missouri Circuit Court Judge John Krum ruled against Charles Lyons, who was protesting the requirement that he purchase a license to live in Missouri on the grounds that he was born free in Kentucky. Maligning the second Missouri Compromise’s infringement upon the sovereign rights of states, Krum’s ruling provided Missouri legislators all the cover they needed to re-impose the original, 1820 terms of the state constitution.

Which brings us back to John Jones, whose letter to Senator Hale was sparked by the proceedings of the 1847 Illinois constitutional convention, which not only denied free Blacks’ full citizenship rights (including voting rights) but, more notably here, also followed Missouri’s lead in banning the migration of free Blacks into the state. If, as Jones recognized, court action was his only recourse, his hope that the federal judiciary would carry the banner of Black citizenship never came to fruition, as no federal court ever ruled on whether state-level regulations like Missouri’s and Illinois’ violated African Americans’ rights under the privileges and immunities clause. (Though it wasn’t necessarily for lack of trying, as Massachusetts sent envoys to New Orleans and Charleston to get a federal case off the ground only to see them literally run out of town.) In fact, Prof. Masur noted in closing, in Justice Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott, we almost see the opposite of what Jones had hoped for, as Taney, like Krum, attacked the second Missouri Compromise’s implication that free Blacks of one state were entitled to migrate to another as unconstitutionally precluding states from being able to regulate their own safety.