Rights and the Constitution in Black Life during the Civil War and Reconstruction

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Rights and the Constitution in Black Life during the Civil War and ReconstructionAuthor(s): Eric FonerSource: The Journal of American History,Vol. 74, No. 3, The Constitution and AmericanLife: A Special Issue (Dec., 1987), pp. 863-883Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American HistoriansStable URL: Accessed: 21-01-2017 23:41 UTCJSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusteddigital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information aboutJSTOR, please contact [email protected]Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available atOrganization of American Historians, Oxford University Pressare collaborating with JSTOR todigitize, preserve and extend access to The Journal of American HistoryThis content downloaded from 134.250.60.5 on Sat, 21 Jan 2017 23:41:22 UTCAll use subject to
Rights and the Constitution inBlack Life during the Civil Warand ReconstructionEric FonerEarly in 1873 a northern correspondent in Mississippi commented on the remark-able changes the previous decade had wrought in the behavior and self-image ofsouthern blacks. "One hardly realizes the fact," he wrote, "that the many negroesone sees here . . . have been slaves a few short years ago, at least as far as their de-meanor goes as individuals newly invested with all the rights and privileges of anAmerican citizen. They appreciate their new condition thoroughly, and flaunt theirindependence." As the writer intimated, the conception of themselves as equalcitizens of the American republic galvanized blacks' political and social activityduring Reconstruction. Recent studies have made clear how the persistent agitationof Radical Republicans and abolitionists, and the political crisis created by the im-passe between AndrewJohnson and Congress over Reconstruction policy, producedthe Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments-measures that embodied a new national commitment to the principle of equalitybefore the law.' But the conception of citizens' rights enshrined in national law andthe federal Constitution during Reconstruction also came, as it were, from below.In seeking to invest emancipation with a broad definition of equal rights, blackschallenged the nation to live up to the full implications of its democratic creed andhelped set in motion events that fundamentally altered the definition of citizenshipfor all Americans.The transformation of blacks' role within American society began during theCivil War. For the nearly four million slaves, for the tiny, despised black populatioof the free states, and for the free blacks of the South, the war held out the hopeof a radical change in American race relations. Each of those groups took actions

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