Legal Fictions: United States Citizenship and the Right to Write in America

In 1776, the idea of self-evidence grounded the philosophical assertion that “all men are created equal.” And yet, political, economic and social equality in the democratic republic of the United States has often proven less of a guarantee and more of a promise. Beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the “Declaration of Independence,” the recognition of a person as fully human in the United States has depended on assumptions regarding race, class and gender.

The course examines the changing definition of United States citizenship by putting legal texts (the U.S. Constitution, federal and state laws, Executive Orders, Supreme Court decisions) in dialogue with literary writings and film. In this course we will read stories by people whom federal and or state law barred from full citizenship. Through autobiographies, fiction, poetry and speeches, we will examine the cultural legacy of legal terms such as “domestic dependent nation,” “illegal alien” and “unlawful enemy combatant.” The course themes may include: property and democracy, slavery, westward expansion and Indian Removal, immigration (with particular focus on China and Asia), the right of women to vote, and the wartime powers of the Executive Office.

Our goal will be to pay careful attention to the language and genres of the American legislative and judicial system, and conversely to contextualise literature in relation to the legal history through which the U.S. Constitution has been reinterpreted and amended to broaden its terms of equality. We will read writers who used words to protest against and revise the historical circumstances in which they had to fight for legal standing. We will also consider how different kinds of writing — legal, scientific, autobiographical and fictional — employ different rhetorical strategies to reach audiences, affect readers and influence the world.