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Book description

Between 1822 and 1857, eight Southern states barred the ingress of all free black maritime workers. According to lawmakers, they carried a 'moral contagion' of abolitionism and black autonomy that could be transmitted to local slaves. Those seamen who arrived in Southern ports in violation of the laws faced incarceration, corporal punishment, an incipient form of convict leasing, and even punitive enslavement. The sailors, their captains, abolitionists, and British diplomatic agents protested this treatment. They wrote letters, published tracts, cajoled elected officials, pleaded with Southern officials, and litigated in state and federal courts. By deploying a progressive and sweeping notion of national citizenship - one that guaranteed a number of rights against state regulation - they exposed the ambiguity and potential power of national citizenship as a legal category. Ultimately, the Fourteenth Amendment recognized the robust understanding of citizenship championed by Antebellum free people of color, by people afflicted with 'moral contagion'.


'Schoeppner’s pathbreaking book reconceptualizes the national story of citizenship to include a broader cast of characters and an earlier timeline, demonstrating the significance of the Negro Seamen Acts to American legal history. This elegantly-written work reminds us of the centrality of movement for African Americans as they struggled over the meaning of citizenship rights.'

Kelly Kennington - Auburn University and author of In the Shadow of Dred Scott: St. Louis Freedom Suits and the Legal Culture of Slavery in Antebellum America

'Mariners stood at the forefront of struggles over US citizenship from the Revolution to the Civil War. In Moral Contagion … Schoeppner reveals how state laws regulating the mobility of black sailors became a focal point for debates in the antebellum period over the substantive rights conferred by national citizenship. Speaking to questions about federal power and racial equality in the Atlantic world, his book will become essential reading for students and scholars interested in the contested history of American citizenship.'

Nathan Perl-Rosenthal - University of Southern California and author of Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution

'… Schoeppner explores in vivid and fascinating detail the international and domestic controversies surrounding the Negro Seamen Acts. In so doing, he underscores the critical role played by African Americans in the antebellum era struggle for citizenship.'

Kunal M. Parker - University of Miami and author of Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600–2000


E. R. Crowther Source: Choice

‘… the book is a rigorous study of law, citizenship, and diplomacy and makes a welcome addition to the literature of southern history, Atlantic history, and antebellum political and legal history.’

Ikuko Asaka Source: Journal of Southern History

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