Emerging Causes, 1776–1865

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, only applied to white men of property. Thus followed the pivotal moments and generations who struggled for civil rights in the Constitution and new republic and through Enslavement, Abolition and Emancipation. The great struggle reached a tipping point and was forever transformed during the Civil War.

Following the English model of colonialism, the new United States federal government viewed Indian tribes as separate nations and treated them differently from white Americans. Tens of thousands of American Indians suffered from national expansion and gave their lives in defense of their people and their country. The federal government treated Indians variously as independent nations, dependent peoples, and obstacles to be removed from the path of progress, sometimes by separate confinement on reservations and other times by forced assimilation. American Indians have fought wars and negotiated treaties with the United States, which singled them out for special consideration in the Constitution.

For women, the abolitionist and temperance movements of the 1830s and 1840s initiated their own movement in the 1840s; one rooted in an emerging white middle class and women's traditional roles in creating a civil society. Their civic duty, as captured in the phrase "Republican motherhood," was to raise virtuous citizens (sons) and to encourage their husbands to exercise civic virtues. Pushing against the boundaries of their so-called "separate sphere," women began to challenge the assigned roles of men and women in civic life, as well as access to the duties of citizenship.

Nineteenth-century territorial expansion raised civil rights issues among those who lost their lands and for new immigrants seeking economic prosperity. Mexicans who supposedly gained their constitutional rights of citizenship after the U.S. takeover of the Southwest confronted disputes in race wars, lynchings, murders, and the application of unequal justice that lasted into the early twentieth century. Chinese workers who arrived after the discovery of gold in California marked the first major wave of Asian immigration to America. Those who followed them from other Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea, and India, added a dynamic dimension to the racial diversity of American society. In comparison with African Americans, Asian Americans were not enslaved, although some were virtual "wage slaves." Because they were nonwhite, however, they were denied many civil rights granted white European immigrants, including political and economic rights. They were, in other words, "between black and white."

Within 18th and 19th century American society, nontraditional relationships were not tolerated. People involved in same-sex relationships or those who crossed the gender line were threatened with execution, imprisonment, or other forms of punishment for gathering in public places, engaging in sexual activity, or cross-dressing in public.

Below are stories of triumphs and struggles for civil rights by marginalized groups from 1776-1865.

Content used with permission from Eastern National's Guidebook to The American Civil Rights Experience.

Last updated: April 12, 2016

Experience More


  • Site Index