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New Worlds: Citizenship and Subjecthood

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What does it mean for a person to live in a particular realm?

I’m using the extremely generic term “realm” because the answer to that question varies wildly depending on where and when you live. How your status vis-a-vis your political superiors is conceived greatly affects both your assumed rights and your assumed obligations; it’s noteworthy that as a ordinary citizen of the twenty-first century United States, I am 100% free to mock and insult the leader of my country and every official on down the ladder, which would have been absolutely unthinkable in other places and times. (Or rather, if you thought of it, you would also think about the consequences that might fall upon your head — and the heads of those around you.)

Having just called myself a citizen, I want to broadly contrast that with another term, “subject.” Don’t go looking for any clean and lasting boundaries between those two, though; even if I limited myself to talking about the status of individuals specifically under English law, I’d have to drag us through a lengthy history of how that changed over time. To the extent that we can draw such a boundary, it looks like this: one is the subject of a person, but the citizen of a state.

Because of that, it is sort of — but in actual practice, not quite — fair to equate citizenship with life in a republic, and subjecthood with life in a monarchy. When we talk about someone as a subject, we literally mean they are subjected to the power of another person . . . or just to power in general, but the interpersonal aspect there has frequently been important. Even when we refer to someone as a subject of the Crown, the weight of history behind the use of “Crown” to mean the government to mean the person actually wearing the crown means that’s more relationship-based than being the citizen of a republic.

That framing of “being subjected” also means the term may be unevenly applied. It’s pretty common to see it used for, well, commoners: the ordinary rank-and-file who have no official power in their land. In my experience, it’s is less common to see it applied to the elite vassals of the Crown (more on vassalage later this month), who, by dint of holding power of their own, are less abjectly subjected — but it does come up when the hierarchy matters, e.g. when a monarch is questioning whether thus-and-such noble is a loyal subject or not. There’s a flex happening there, testing whether sovereign power can indeed subdue the one below it.

The other thing about subjecthood is that it’s a sufficiently generic term, based in the idea of one person being subject to someone else’s power, that we can often use it cross-culturally. Even if the specific rights afforded to and obligations demanded from an ordinary person living in Nanjing or Tenochtitlan were different from those of a Londoner or Parisian in the same year — which they most definitely were — they at least share in common that quality of being subjected to superior power.

That’s also true of citizens, of course; the U.S. government has plenty of power to make me do things! But citizenship per se is usually seen as a western concept, spreading outward to other parts of the world from there.

Unlike subjects, citizens started out as a far more limited subset of the population. Not just any schmoe gets to call themself a citizen; it’s a privileged status, one that means you get to really participate in the political life of your land. How limited that privilege is varies: in the modern U.S. it’s quite broad, with people automatically gaining citizen status if they are either born within our territorial limits or (pending certain specifications) to a citizen parent abroad. Although we group those together under the term birthright citizenship (contrasting it with naturalization, which I’ll discuss in a later essay), you can more specifically differentiate them as jus soli, the “right of soil,” and jus sanguinis, the “right of blood.” The former is common in the Americas, probably for reasons relating to colonialism and immigration, but elsewhere and historically, the latter might be very nearly the only way to achieve citizen status.

And one citizen parent might not be enough. In ancient Greece, you often needed two qualifying parents for you to inherit that status. Or rather, you needed both parents to be of citizen stock; since women were barred from political participation, they didn’t really have the same status as men, though for these purposes it’s sufficient to lump them in among the citizen class. Other people in places like Sparta or Athens might be free-born and lifelong residents of the city-state, but they didn’t enjoy the same legal rights as their citizen neighbors. Rome was noteworthy for its more inclusive and expansionist approach to this concept; not only did they at various points extend citizen status to different populations within the Republic and the Empire (often as a political concession to forestall revolt), but as I mentioned a couple of months ago, freed slaves almost always became citizens. Given that the U.S. for a time barred people with African ancestry from citizenship even if they were never enslaved, the Roman approach — though still restrictive and unfair by modern standards — remained remarkable for quite some time after the Empire’s disintegration.

Those ideas of jus soli and jus sanguinis do show up in the idea of subjecthood as well. Interestingly, though, the balance seems to tip the opposite way: you were automatically the subject of the ruler of the land you were born in. Given that travel used to be far less common and childbirth used to be far more fraught, that makes sense; relatively few women were going to randomly be in foreign lands on business or a holiday when they gave birth. I immediately wonder, though, whether there were instances of (say) an Englishwoman popping out a kid while on pilgrimage in Rome. I assume there must have been, but I have no idea how the legal questions there were handled. (My default guess is “bureaucracy was less developed at the time and nobody really cared until and unless the answer became legally pertinent, which it rarely would.”)

That, however, tiptoes in the direction of an issue I mentioned above, which is naturalization — and along with that, the status of “alien.” No, not from outer space; just from another country. For that, tune in next week!

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1 thought on “New Worlds: Citizenship and Subjecthood”

  1. Athens had an uncomfortably large number of citizens for its form of government, a fact commented on by Aristotle, who added that the limitations were added to keep the number down.

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