Civil Rights in the Constitution & New Republic

The Declaration of Independence declared that "all men are created equal," and in 1788, the U.S. Constitution purported to "secure the blessings of liberty" to the American people. These rights and liberties, however, were meant only for white men of property. The Founding Fathers never imagined that women, African Americans (both slave and free), or men without property could be the equal of the propertied white men entrusted with participation in the civic arena. Nonwhite men who were of other than African descent were also excluded, as Congress had stipulated in the Naturalization Act of 1790 that only "free white persons" could become citizens. Ironically, the majority of white males who became naturalized citizens between 1830 and 1860 enjoyed manhood suffrage and other rights denied to native-born nonwhites.

Crusaders against slavery and racism advanced the concept of equality before the law, regardless of race, and often quoted the Declaration of Independence to condemn the institution of slavery that evolved after the first Africans landed involuntarily at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Many abolitionists searched for color-blind citizenship, while slavery proponents viewed nonwhites as inferior races unworthy of Constitutional rights.

Stories of Civil Rights in the New Republic

Last updated: April 6, 2016

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