African Americans’ Experience During the Mid-1800s

The life of enslaved and freed Black Americans was characterized by their exclusion of them from the benefits of American democratic institutions. Firstly, there were nearly 4 million African Americans that were slaves by 1860. For the most part, the southern United States was the place with the majority of the black slave population. The peculiarity of the South is that it was almost impossible to emancipate from the owner’s rule because of strict laws and policies concerning slave ownership.

The northern states were the place where slave ownership was abolished, but the black community did not have equal rights with the white population. As Foner remarks, slaves in the North experienced political disenfranchisement, severe economic discrimination, and segregation from society. For example, white artisans in the North thought that African Americans were not skilled enough to have high age, mostly because they were extremely biased towards the black population. This made the formal freedom of African Americans restrictive in practice.

The crusade against slavery united many enslaved groups in the struggle against slave ownership. The movement of Abolitionism is the major driver of the struggle against slavery. They arranged meetings, printed antislavery literature, and tried to give new meaning to the American concept of “freedom”, which excluded non-whites. This resulted in the Civil War that happened from 1861-1865. One of the main standpoints of that conflict was a different understanding of freedom. Southerners’ definition of freedom included the security of property, emphasizing that slaves were also the owner’s property. In contrast, northerners were sure that the “new birth of freedom” could happen only after the abolition of slavery. These critical differences in views on slavery determined the antagonism between the two groups of Americans.

The fight for the abolishment of slavery coincided with the increased value of feminist movements in public discourse. Foner indicated that the dichotomy between freedom and slavery discursively served as a tool for shaping feminists’ political language. Their struggle consisted of gathering petitions, explaining to women that their rights were violated, and collecting funds. The intersection between feminists’ and abolitionists’ struggles is a common exclusion from the American democratic society. In some sense, the social position of women can be compared with the position of African Americans in the North. Their living conditions were characterized by disenfranchisement and the impossibility to become skilled laborers because of common prejudice.

The Civil War resulted in redefining the fundamental freedoms and guarantees of American residents. The reconstruction era that followed after the Civil War was a period when new civil rights were enforced. The Thirteenth Amendment that was approved during the reconstruction era emancipated all Black population from slavery. It was a major achievement for African Americans during the Reconstruction era. However, emancipation from slavery was not equal to assimilation into American society. In fact, the liberated African Americans from the South faced the same problems as the African Americans of the North. The great scale of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation characterized many decades after slavery was abolished. American society would face discriminative Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation in the US. Nevertheless, the abolishment of slavery radically changed Americans’ perception of freedom. Although segregation continued, American society realized that slavery was invalid within the US democratic system.

The remarkable standpoint of the Reconstruction era is that the Constitution was rewritten. Fomer indicates that “before the Civil War, disenfranchised groups laying claim to their rights were far more likely to draw inspiration from the Declaration of Independence than the Constitution.” The malleability of the Constitution showed that the core values of “whiteness” in American society could be changed. Thus, the concept of American freedom can also be changed to suit the context of the Reconstruction era. The departure from the racial understanding of freedom and democracy in the first half of the 19th century is fundamental to the theorizing of American freedom in the future. However, the political emancipation of African Americans did not correspond with the land reform that would give them land. This resulted in the evolution of the idea that political and economic freedom are separated. The black population for a long time later experienced economic “slaver” in capitalistic settings of society.

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