Today we share the first contribution to our scholarly roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment. The guest editor’s introduction can be found here.

During Reconstruction, black men claimed unprecedented formal political power by participating in southern state constitutional conventions like that held in Richmond, Virginia, in 1868. At the same time, activists continued to work outside of these formal spaces to promote their visions of legal change. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In the decades before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, African American activists helped generate a concept of citizenship that changed the nation’s legal structures. Key to the story of that amendment is the decades of black protest that shaped the intellectual context of postwar lawmaking. In the antebellum period, black Americans established the roots of Reconstruction, and exploring their politics points to the ways marginalized people can shape lawmaking in a way that moves governments toward justice.

The Fourteenth Amendment was in some ways the culmination of decades of black activism. As early as the 1820s, African Americans publicly challenged exclusionary laws in northern states. They called themselves citizens as they worked toward specific legal changes including protections from kidnappers, free movement throughout the country, equal employment opportunities, and the right to vote.[1] That work was potent because white lawmakers did not agree on the significance or content of citizenship; many felt the status simply identified a person’s connection to a place.[2] In 1838, the black Philadelphian Robert Purvis lamented that when an African American was accused of being a fugitive slave, “a free-born citizen of Pennsylvania [could] be arrested, tried without counsel, jury or power to call witnesses . . . and carried across Mason and Dixon’s line within the compass of a single day.”[3] Statements like Purvis’s made specific arguments about who could be a citizen and about the legal protections that status should provide. Black activists thus constructed citizenship as a legal status in their political statements.

The process of emancipation brought African American politics and the uncertain terms of citizenship to the center of government debates as congressmen considered what black freedom should mean.[4] With that new opportunity, black people continued their work, using citizenship to make specific claims to rights and protections. African American activists gathered for meetings around the country at which they discussed strategy and publicized arguments about their legal status. Their meetings followed a pattern of black conventions from the antebellum period, but emancipation allowed more black people from the South to take part in these political forums and brought increasing urgency to arguments about the legal terms of freedom.[5]

The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.

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