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Immigration and Exclusion: A Comparative Study

Jennifer Roberts

City College of New Yorik

This paper explores criteria for citizenship in classical Athens and in the early United States as it affected both immigrant males and immigrant females.  I aspire to integrate the work on Athenian citizenship by Loraux (1986) and Manville (1988), on images of immigration by Kasimis (2018) and Bakewell (2013) and on immigrant women in Athens by Futo Kennedy (2014) with thinking about citizenship and immigration in America’s founding era, examining the sources collected in Hyneman and Lutz (1983) and analyzed by Smith (1997) and to explore these issues in the kind of cross-cultural context presented in the edited collection of Brettell and Hollifield (2014).  I hope to show that the drive to define a nation and its citizens, and to define it in a positive way, is surprisingly similar in extraordinarily different circumstances.  I believe too that this kind of comparative history will illuminate some of the seemingly unique problems of the classical city-states.

It is well known that Greek poleis were exclusive in matters of citizenship for both men and women. In Athens, limitation of the citizen body to the descent group was bolstered by an unusual myth.  The god Hephaestus, so the story went, lusted after Athena, but the virgin goddess got the better of him, with the result that his sperm fell to earth, impregnating Ge.  Erichthonios, the baby resulting from this unusual conception, was born literally from the earth thus ensouled by the forger god.

The subsequent claim of Erichthonios’ descendants—the people of Athens—to be autochthonous took many forms.  The autochthony myth involved not only descent from the earthborn Erichthonios but also sometimes undisturbed habitation in the land of Attica, sometimes democratic homogeneity within the citizen body.  In Athenian thought, autochthony was good, its opposite bad.  Who better to rule Greece than these very good people?  One conspicuous example of non-autochthony, of course, was the purported descent of the enemy Spartans from Dorian invaders.  Another, voiced by Alcibiades in the narrative of Thucydides (6. 17. 2-3), was the cities of Sicily, which Alcibiades dismisses as being of missed origins and concomitantly unstable.

Although early America might seem to be the very antithesis of Athens, a long-established city-state with imperial hegemony to justify, in fact the notion of a superior and homogeneous descent group could be and was articulated, and that in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Already in 1787 John Jay contended that Providence had been “pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs” (Kramnick, 91). These words, it should be noted, sprang from the pen of a man whose ancestors were exclusively French and Dutch.  Not quite autochthony—the population perceived as indigenous to the land was in the process of brutal and bloody separation from it by massacre and disease—but distinctly evocative of the picture of the continuous Athenian history put forward in Athenian funeral orations and elsewhere. Some years later Samuel Morse proclaimed that this same Providence had permitted only the native-born to enjoy citizenship in the new American nation, a “family, separated from all others” to which no foreign-born person should “ever be allowed” admission, “no matter how well fitted for office, or how infallibly honest” (Morse, 17-22, 28).  Xenophobia even extended to revoking the citizenship of American women who married foreigners (Bredbenner 1998); American men faced no such liability.  Like Yi’s analysis (Yi 2014) of the liminal status of the Eumenides in Athens in the context of controversies generated by bride kidnappings among Hmong immigrants in the United States, this paper will examine the anxieties surrounding immigration, gender and citizenship manifested in classical Greece in the context of parallel concerns voiced in the modern world.

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Citizenship Migration and Identity

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