In conversation with RevDem editor Kasia Krzyżanowska, Dr. Stephanie DeGooyer discusses her recent publication Before Borders: A Legal and Literary History of Naturalization (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022).
Stephanie DeGooyer, PhD is assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research examines intersections between law and literature, with interests in immigration, migration, human rights, and humanitarianism, from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Her publications in the fields of human rights theory and eighteenth-century literary studies include Before Borders: A Legal and Literary History of Naturalization, (JHUP, 2022), and, as co-author, The Right to Have Rights (Verso Books, 2018).
Kasia Krzyżanowska: In your recently published book, you talk about the history of naturalization in the 17th and 18th centuries in England. Why study the history of naturalization and why focus on the period you chose? What makes it particularly fascinating?
Stephanie DeGooyer: It is sort of a strange period to study. I came to it when finishing up a co-authored book that I was writing on Hannah Arendt. I was really struck by a phrase that I read over and over in The Origins of Totalitarianism in which Arendt describes the situations of refugees before the First World War. In this particular chapter of the book, she’s talking about all of the changes to immigration that occurred after the First World War. For example, the 1914 Aliens Restriction Act, which allowed the Home Secretary of England to deport aliens from the United Kingdom. Another example is the 1914 British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, which gave the state the legal power to deprive naturalized subjects of their citizenship.
When she’s describing all of these changes that took place after 1914, and what’s happening to naturalized subjects in the interwar period and also, of course, to refugees, she makes this statement: “Unlike their ‘happier predecessors’ in the religious wars, modern refugees were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere.” I was really struck by the phrase “happier predecessors”, and I wanted to know more about why religious refugees in the 17th and 18th century received what she conceived of as better treatment. And more generally, what was it like to immigrate in that period?
I had already been thinking about this before in my work on the 18th century, but Arendt’s phrase really lit a match for me. What I found is that surprisingly, there’s really little work on the history of nationality and immigration before the 19th century. There are these old, out-of-print histories by a few historians that are very hard to access and are not very detailed. So, the book began with my own efforts to do an archival dig and find some answers.
The world before 1914 was a time when “the earth belonged to the entire human race…and everyone could go where he wanted and stay there as long as he liked”, wrote Stefan Zweig (whom you quote), recalling a borderless world with evident nostalgia. In your book, you offer a more complex outlook on intra-state movement of the 17th and 18th century, when actually after a brief period of opening, borders were scrutinized more carefully by the nation-state authorities. How did the legal architecture of immigration and naturalization look like in England at that time?
This is what I set out to discover.
Many people – Stefan Zweig, Hannah Arendt, but also John Maynard Keynes – they had a tendency to romanticize immigration before the 20th century; to see it as a place of open borders or when movement was easier.
Really, they do this largely because they want to highlight how repressive border restrictions were in the 20th century.
To some extent, obviously that’s true. Before the 19th century, as I talk about in the book, there were very little requirements for immigration. You didn’t need to show residence, employment, or that you spoke a certain language. You didn’t need a visa or work permit. Very infrequently would you need a passport. Importantly, citizenship wasn’t something that could be taken away; you couldn’t be de-naturalized in law. So, the period was different, no doubt. But to frame the period before the 19th century as a time of open borders, when one could go and come as they wish, would be really false to me. Because, as I show, there was intense interest in the 18th century in what it meant to migrate and what happened to your allegiance to your sovereign when you migrated.
In this period — and this is why I’m so fascinated by it and sort of surprised there isn’t more work — is when the first nationality laws in English common law were written. The very first definitions of what an alien and what a subject is, legally speaking, are written down.
Just to be really brief about what is a very complex history that you alluded to in your question, I would think of the history this way. After King James I inherits both the thrones of England and Scotland in the beginning of the 17th century in what’s known as the Union of the Crowns, the English legal system has this big conundrum. He’s inherited both of these kingdoms, but what does that mean about the status of the Scottish subjects in England? This is a huge, huge question in the period. Do the Scottish subjects of James therefore become English subjects because he’s also the English sovereign?
A case is brought before justice called Calvin’s Case. It’s quite a famous case and is very important because, as I argue, it gives us the very first nationality law in English common law. Ultimately, this law would go on to frame the way American citizenship was written. But Calvin’s Case really only settled the status of the Scottish subjects born after the Union. It was determined that yes, because they are born to the English and Scottish king, they can be subjects of England. But those that were born before the Union, before he took the throne of both kingdoms, cannot be subjects of England. With this ruling of Calvin’s Case, we get the idea that Scotts born before the Union can be perhaps naturalized in the kingdom, because they were already living there for the first little while and then the King also was very favorable to them.
This idea of naturalizing Scottish subjects and others begins to generate a lot of debate. This is mainly because
the idea of naturalization — of allowing someone to become a subject of a kingdom they’re not born in — presupposes that the allegiance you’re born to and the entire edifice of natural law can be transferred or changed. This idea, to a great deal of people, is very heretical.
To get back to your question, for a while in a brief period between about 1660-1710 or so, many general naturalization bills are either proposed or passed by parliament to allow foreigners into England and naturalize them as English subjects. But during this period the bills generate a lot of controversy. This especially happens in 1710 when a General Naturalization Act attracts a bunch of German farmers to the country who are quite poor and some of whom are Catholic. It especially inspires a lot of debate in the middle of the 18th century when there’s an attempt to pass a Jewish Naturalization Act. Then at the end of the century, by the end of the Revolutionary War, England was taking the Black Loyalists who had come back to England after fighting for England in America, and trying to send them away to places like Sierra Leone. So, there was not even an attempt at a conversation about naturalization in the case of Black Loyalists.
The period both opens up this idea of being allowed to transfer your allegiance and change nationalities, and at the same time sort of closes it down. This is why I think the period is tremendously important for thinking through both the idea of how immigration is possible under English common law, and especially around a law that was oriented toward the natural law precept that allegiance was sacrosanct and couldn’t be changed. The period is also crucial for thinking about the rise — or really the beginnings — of immigration restriction. That’s the importance of the period for me and what I’m trying to frame in the book.
How is the concept of paranationality that you devised meant to help us understand both immigration and national identity in the 18th century? How does it relate to the question of international borders before the arrival of a nation state, and what was the relation between naturalization and national identity at the verge of the 19th century?
I’ll start by addressing the word paranational. That’s a word which I could say I coined or invented. But, really, I’m using the word because I needed something to signal a distinction from the bordered conception of the 19th century nation state and also the 19th century novel, which important political thinkers like Benedict Anderson have seen as a sort of handmaiden to the 19th century nation state. I needed a word that was distinct from this idea of the bordered nation state.
For me, paranationality is a better word to describe what I want to talk about in my book because it registers the internal movements of nationality and the external movements of nationality in an age where borders are essentially more porous.
This is an age when religious and sovereign affiliation is far more important than territorial boundaries. Before the 19th century, allegiance was far more important than nationality. This is why people were called subjects, because allegiance was based on the crown you were subject to. It’s only in the 19th century under international law that nationality becomes legally meaningful.
I really use paranational to talk about those kinds of interior and exterior movements, and to be very careful that I’m not using the word as you may see it used later in the 19th century.
Paranationality is also important for me as a word or concept because I want to show that it’s different from the ideas of internationalism and transnationalism, which are ultimately 20th century ideas.
Paranationality for me signals uncertainties about national allegiance from perspectives both within and outside the nation. It registers that ambivalence about who somebody is a subject to or where they’re supposed to be a subject of.
Naturalization is a procedure that registered a lot of uncertainty for people, because if you were naturalized, where was your allegiance? Was it to the country you were previously in and the sovereign there, or was it the new one? In this way, a migrant’s naturalization made their allegiance seem kind of para or secondary to many. So, the word for me is useful in a variety of different ways. I do explore that in the book, but it’s really important to distinguish it from those later concepts of nationality, internationalism, and the transnational.
You describe naturalization in terms of a liberal project of subject-making to free the individual from traditional allegiances. How revolutionary was the act of naturalization in an era of traditionally conceived allegiance to the states? What kind of fears of the naturalization process were raised among English lawyers in those days?
Naturalization was an incredibly radical procedure. I debated using the word radical because it has a lot of connotations and meanings, and sometimes we tend to overuse it. But I do think that it is very radical. The entire point of my project is to highlight the mess that the idea of naturalization generated in both legal courts and in public culture. It introduced a real issue. In addition to breaking the traditional orders of law that had tried to understand allegiance as the determinant of who you were, there was fear that naturalization would produce fake subjects who were spies for other realms.
I had a discussion with immigration barrister Colin Yeo about this.
It’s interesting that a lot of fears you hear today about immigrants were also the same ones you would hear percolating in the 17th and 18th century around the discourses of naturalization, the fear that you won’t be as good or loyal of a subject if you’re naturalized.
Naturalization — and this is where we get to the radical part — was front and center to a much larger transformation that was happening in the period. This is maybe a transformation that many historians of the 18th century are more familiar with, which is the transfer to a contract society, which is epitomized by the work of political philosopher John Locke. This is the idea that you can voluntarily be part of a community by entering into a social contract.
Locke, as I show, was extremely interested in naturalization. He was a proponent of it and he wrote about it in an unpublished and not very commented upon small pamphlet. He also talks about naturalization and ideas of it in the Two Treatises of Government, which is when he argues that individuals have a right to naturalize in other countries and begin new societies. It’s a deeply radical idea that’s part of this larger transformation to the contract society and I think front and central to it. That’s why I would characterize it as more explosive than maybe we’ve known or been able to historicize thus far.
How different was naturalization in those days from today’s ideologically loaded conversions based on applications, passing the state’s criteria, and then undergoing formal rituals? If there were no national bonds in the 18th century yet, what kind of bonds could be and were broken during naturalization processes? What kind of bonds are we breaking today?
The most important thing to recognize about naturalization in this earlier period is that while it generated a lot of debate, it wasn’t about assimilation or acculturation as it is today. There was no suggestion that naturalization was going to erase a subject’s former life or make them the same as a natural born subject,
although there were attempts to make these arguments in some of the common law cases I examine. But in general naturalization wasn’t designed to produce integration, as many people think of the purpose of naturalization today.
Today, to be naturalized in America or in England, for example, involves language tests. It involves a civics history test, and it also involves an elaborate public ceremony where you are given a flag, where you take an oath, where your family comes, where you stand oftentimes in a courtroom before a justice, mayor, or some other symbolic person, and you swear that you’ll uphold the constitution or the laws. It’s an elaborate ritualized process of integration. That’s what naturalization is today. It has all kinds of steps that are designed to produce integration, such as residency and language requirements.
But naturalization wasn’t meant to do this in the 18th century. That’s what made it actually kind of threatening. It was to many people, including Jonathan Swift most famously, a kind of bare-faced bureaucratic procedure. It was something parliament did. It wasn’t something integrative at all. Most importantly, it threatened the traditional bond of what was called perpetual allegiance.
Perpetual allegiance is the idea, supposedly from natural law, that an individual’s loyalty to his sovereign can never be broken or transferred. Obviously, naturalization was a legislation that was proposing to give migrants a new allegiance. So, this was heretical in the extreme, especially because as I mentioned, it was parliament rather than the king who in most cases was administering the procedure. So, it was very, very different.
Today naturalization is supposed to assuage our fears about the foreignness of migrants. In the 18th century, it was producing those fears. They’re very different, while also being part of the same legislative history.
Why did you decide to pick novels to analyze naturalization and naturalization narratives? How is naturalization conceptualized in contemporary literary studies, and how can this field help you understand the process of naturalizing and sustaining new subjects?
I’m glad you are bringing this up. I’m an 18th centuryist historian and literary scholar, and one thing about the period that we always say as scholars is that these distinctions between literature, politics, and philosophy are not quite the same as they become. Lawyers were writing novels, doctors were writing novels, and they weren’t even called novels at the time. There’s a lot of indistinction between disciplines in the period.
One of my larger points isn’t just that. It’s that
naturalization, just like any immigration procedure really, is not strictly a legal procedure. The debate about naturalization in the early modern period was also very much a cultural debate. And, as I was able to discover, some of the most vocal proponents of naturalization were also prose fiction writers – or novelists.
But my main point in bringing novel studies into the book is that I want to show that immigration historians need to look at novels in addition to legal archives. I suspect one of the reasons that we have so few histories of naturalization is because of this inability to look beyond the legal archive, which is very limited.
Also, naturalization is what is known as a legal fiction, right? It’s a law that’s not plausible on its surface, but we believe in it in order to have the end result we want. For example, the idea that corporations are people is a legal fiction. They’re not real physical people, but we say that in order to grant them certain rights.
Naturalization literally means from Latin “to make born”. It’s an inventive procedure; it’s inherently fictional. Therefore, there’s an entrance there to literary studies that I think, and I hope I show, is quite fruitful.
The larger point that I do make in one chapter for contemporary literary scholars is that novelists of the period not only talked about the legal procedure of naturalization in their novels – and they did a lot in ways that people haven’t noticed – but they were also under introducing a kind of naturalization procedure of their own. This is a little more esoteric, but novelists were essentially bringing new subjects into literature. At the time, the late 17th and early 18th century, they were directly challenging all of these classical rules that go back to Aristotle about who can be a subject of literature. Comedic subjects are supposed to be low born, tragic subjects are supposed to be high born, so on and so forth. The rule that you’re not supposed to go outside of a single setting, which obviously naturalization is about migration; the rule that it is supposed to take place in hours. They were undoing all of these rules in a way, and I make an analogy between the ways the law was undoing the law of perpetual allegiance. Both of these procedures in literature and law were inventing new subjects in really, really dramatically new ways.
Finally, I would say that by involving literary theory in this history, I’m ultimately trying to re-conceptualize a word that many of us think we understand today; that word is naturalization. Mostly in the history of cultural criticism, we think of naturalization as a bad thing. A lot of legal historians would think that too. In cultural history, it’s seen as an ideological process of covering over something fake, a process of making something fake pass as real. Raymond Williams talks a lot about that in his book. But I want to re-conceptualize the word and return it to its 18th century roots and think of it as a fiction in a good way; inventing subjects is good. It’s ultimately really generative and it’s revolutionary in different ways as well, in both the discipline of literature and law.
Ultimately, it’s by returning to these debates that took place in both law and literature that I’m hoping to re-conceive the possibilities of naturalization, reinvent them for us, while also of course being mindful of the limitations. This also was a period of restriction, and I don’t want to romanticize it at all.
What was the reaction of the literary public who was reading the books that invented those new subjects? Was there a backlash of those literary critics or did they accept that the subject had to be accepted as such?
Oh, there’s all kinds of archival evidence that many people thought that prose fictions were scandalous. They featured lowborn subjects, like a servant girl named Pamela; the writing was bad; someone called them abortive poems. There are all kinds of evidence that we can find. Also, just to use an example that I talk about in the book at length, the earliest critic of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was totally horrified about this book, that it would purport to center a son of a German immigrant, which Robinson Crusoe is the son of a German immigrant to England. He thought that was quite scandalous. There’s lots of good archival evidence that — and they weren’t called novels at the time — long-form prose fiction was associated with the middle classes and, therefore, people of higher class rank would have viewed them as something of an upstart.
You discuss some literary works by 17th and 18th century writers who depicted naturalization. Most notably, you engage with Daniel Defoe, as you just mentioned, and recall to your readers the German origins of the literary character Robinson Crusoe. Contrary to the most common interpretation that sees in Crusoe a dominant figure embodying European, or English, colonialism, you view him through paranational lenses. Could you elaborate on this point?
Daniel Defoe is a key figure for me. I have an entire chapter devoted to him and I speak of him elsewhere as well. This is because he was both a political commentator on naturalization and a literary stylist of it. In many political pamphlets, he argued in favor of naturalization, and in many ways he adopts the same perspective that we can see in John Locke. He thinks that naturalization is good for a nation; it’s good for trade; it’s something we should value and not restrict. But he also highlights naturalization in a very big way in the novel Robinson Crusoe, which I’m assuming most of your listeners will know about. There has been lots written about the novel and it occupies a pretty important place not only in the history of literature, but the histories of economics, religion, and nationalism.
People have noticed that Crusoe is the son of a German immigrant, but what they don’t notice is that before Crusoe ends up on the island – where he’s shipwrecked for years and famously makes everything by hand and borrows some things from a ship and meets and indoctrinates Friday.
But before all this happens on the island, Crusoe naturalizes as a Catholic subject of Portugal. This is because he is brought to Brazil when he’s rescued by a sea captain. He discovers that there’s a lucrative system of slave plantations. But in order to buy one, he has to become a Portuguese subject, so he does. He becomes a Portuguese subject.
So this means, ridiculously, that when he ends up on that island, he’s actually a Catholic Portuguese subject, technically.
What this does is undo a lot of the mythology that we have of surrounding Crusoe. He’s long been regarded, as you mentioned, as this prototypical protestant, bourgeois, and more recently in the 20th century, as a colonizing English subject by a lot of very important people like Karl Marx, James Joyce, and Edward Said, who I talk about a little bit in the book. But as I just mentioned, legally speaking, Crusoe is very unattached to England. He is the son of a German merchant, and this meant by law, by the way, that Crusoe too would have been seen as an alien and unable to be an inheritor of his father’s estate.
He’s also in this precarious position at the beginning of the novel. Then he becomes a Catholic Portuguese subject. This is the real kicker for me: after he gets off the island, he returns to Brazil to collect this money that he hopes is still there. He discovers that in his absence, the Portuguese king has been investing the money and he’s been using some of that money to indoctrinate indigenous subjects to Catholicism.
He makes all this money at the end, which actually is the profit of the Portuguese Crown, and this is really a huge new interpretation of the novel if you think about it, because so many people have seen Crusoe’s money as his reward for his protestant work ethic. But it’s actually not. He’s more of an offshore investor or what Defoe would have called a stock jobber, than he is actually getting rewarded for any of his work.
I frame it as a paranational novel. It’s about what happens when you leave one allegiance and go to another, and all of the financial repercussions that go with that migration. I think at some point in the book,
I call Crusoe the 18th century Peter Thiel. Rather than thinking of him as an English colonizer, we really need to see him in a much more global paranational perspective, linking him to other empires and the mechanics of global trade in the period.
How much do the figures you describe in your book – for example, Ferdinand Count Fathom (a French gentleman, a German nobleman, a Polish count…) – point to the future arrival of cosmopolites, those educated especially in the field of art who dispose over large personal budgets? Do you think that the concept of paranationality might be applicable in some sense to the elitist cosmopolites of the 19th century?
That’s a great observation. I would actually pull these two traditions apart. The one is the paranational gentleman and the other is the 19th century cosmopolitan, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, Fathom is an incredible character. It’s not the best book to read. But Fathom is likened to Yago. He honestly seems to have no motivation for his evil deeds, but he goes all over Europe pretending to be all of these people: a French gentleman, a German nobleman… He’s famously born, and I love this so much, in a carriage and his feet come out, I think, in Flanders, and his head comes out in Holland. From the moment of his birth, nobody even knows where he belongs. He learns to read English in Prague. None of his affiliations are consistent.
But I think that’s very different than the kind of cosmopolitan subject you’re referring to of the 19th century. The difference is that paranationality, which I link to Fathom and Crusoe and others, is not about overlooking national differences or about loving all of humanity, right? “Citizen of the world” is the kind of refrain that you usually see attached to the cosmopolitan. The 18th century tradition of paranationality is not about overlooking national differences or seeing everybody as part of the same ideal place. It’s very much aware of the importance of national status, and it’s very aware that that status has to be in some way administered by some kind of bureaucratic body (parliament or the crown). But this is the thing: paranationality sees nationality as something that’s a voluntary; it’s not an inborn status, which is why Fathom can bounce around and scandalously declare himself to be somebody new every time he arrives there.
One of the reasons I like your question is that by putting them in relationship, cosmopolitanism and paranationality, I think paranationality allows us to interrogate that ideal of cosmopolitanism. The idea that you can suspend the matters of the nation and transcend them to some other strata of the universal. There’s a long and very rigorous tradition of cosmopolitanism in political theory that attempts to think about these ideas.
Paranationality is not about love of the world or love of humanity. Really, it’s about love of the self. Love of the individual. This is why I think someone like Peter Thiel is the ultimate 18th century paranationalist. He’s not a cosmopolitan.
It’s his self-interest that allows him to manipulate citizenship laws. And most famously, he is now a citizen of New Zealand so that he can buy land to build his own private apocalypse bunker, right? That’s the difference. It’s that the voluntariness and individualism of the paranationalist that’s different from the tradition of the cosmopolitan. But I think that they can be brought into relation in really fruitful and interesting ways.
In collaboration with Hannah Vos.