Fighting for the State and for the Self: Military Service and the Historical Contests over the Meaning of U.S. Citizenship

AHA Session 212
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon B (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University
Christian Samito, Boston College

Session Abstract

Many generations and different communities have viewed U.S. citizenship as a sacred goal—a promise of the democratic rights and privileges enshrined in the Revolutionary Era.  Through centuries of blood and toil, the scope and nature of those individuals granted citizenship has grown.  However, as the struggles of civil liberties and reform movements has often revealed, the granting of legal citizenship does not always guarantee the full benefits of citizenship.  The meaning of citizenship has typically been a contested space.  Although, military service has often been a means of expanding the numbers of U.S. citizens by granting citizenship to those individuals prepared to fight for the national cause, this panel looks beyond this fact and explores how military service has influenced the de facto meaning of citizenship for de jure citizens.  Three emerging historians of the field will be joined —and have their work commented on—by two established scholars who have published some of the most important recent books on the subject of military service and citizenship. 

In the first paper, “’Hail her citizens as brothers’:  The Battle of New Orleans and the Fight for Complete Citizenship,” Dr. Cinnamon Brown (Westminster College, MO) examines how territorial Louisianans struggled to receive acceptance as full citizens in the Union.  Brown argues that despite fulfilling long-established requirements for legal citizenship and gaining statehood in 1812, it was only after Louisianans’ sacrifices at the Battle of New Orleans that they were recognized as fully-incorporated citizens of the United States.  Ultimately, she finds that military service in battle served as the capstone of early American conceptions of citizenship.  In the second paper, “The ‘Fightin' Granddaddy’ Clause, Voting, and Military Service as a Proxy for Race in the Disfranchisement Era,” Dr. R. Volney Riser (University of West Alabama) explores how southern disfranchisers attempted to use past military service as a proxy for race in their effort to strip African American men of the vote, thus forcing themselves into an extended discussion of the history of black military service specifically and of the citizenship-service link more broadly.  Finally, in the paper “A Promise Broken: Vietnam Veterans’ Conceptions of Citizenship in their Fight for Post-Service Benefits,” Dr. Mark Boulton (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater), examines how military service in the Vietnam Conflict—and the subsequent government treatment of returning servicemen and women—affected Vietnam veterans’ sense of attachment to the state and their conceptions of citizenship.  Boulton contends that Vietnam veterans' sense of betrayal over their parsimonious post-service education benefits engendered an estrangement from the state and forced veterans to reconsider the negotiated relationship between the individual and the state inherent in democratic citizenship.  Commenting on the panel will be Dr. Chris Samito, author of Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War Era (Cornell University Press, 2009).  Chairing the panel will be Professor Suzanne Mettler, author of two books including Soldiers to Citizens: The GI Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation (Oxford University Press, 2005).

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