Seizing Citizenship: Frederick Douglass' Abolitionist Republicanism
There are a number of different ways to define who counts as a citizen of a political community. Sometimes, we think of citizenship as a legal status that is conferred upon people by a state. Sometimes, we think of citizenship as an identity -- to be a citizen is to be a member of a people. In this presentation, Dr. Yaure examines a third way of thinking about citizenship: citizens are people who contribute to a community by participating in political life. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, Black American abolitionist Frederick Douglass uses this republican idea of citizenship as contribution to articulate a radically inclusive ideal of political community. In the 1850s, Douglass argues that enslaved and nominally free Black Americans are American citizens because they contribute to the polity, and they ought to be recognized and respected as such for their contributions. Douglass' theoretical innovation is to redefine the idea of contribution: persons contribute to a polity as citizens by acting in ways that contest and shape what the polity values. Resistance against slavery and white supremacy, in both grand and quotidian forms, manifests the fact that those who resist matter as members of the community; such resistance thereby constitutes those who resist as citizens. It is in this sense that Douglass' republican idea of citizenship is abolitionist: an inclusive polity is realized through resistance against oppressive institutions and ideologies, because resistance itself expands the boundaries of an exclusionary polity.
Philip Yaure is an assistant professor of Philosophy. His work in social and political philosophy and anti-racist critical theory addresses topics including citizenship, political judgement and expertise, resistance, and the nature of political community. He engages with these topics through the history of Black American political thought, with special focus on the antebellum period. Yaure's focus is also in the history of early modern philosophy and ethics. In early modern philosophy, he examines the role of humility in the epistemologies of 17th century philosophers including John Locke, and Margaret Cavendish. In ethics, Yaure critically assesses the role of legal concepts in our moral practices, such as the idea that one needs proper standing to blame a wrongdoer.
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