What restrictions did immigrants, women, Native Americans and African-Americans face in the period from 1800-1860? How did they fight to expand their opportunities, and did they succeed?
The nature of American society in the period between 1800 and 1860 was very restrictive, not only to minority groups, but also to parts of the white male population. The single greatest restriction common to all minority groups is the denial of voting rights. At the beginning of this period, only landholding white males could vote, though they were required to own a certain amount of land to qualify. By the 1830s, this requirement was lifted, so that all white males could exercise their right to vote. Suffrage was not as easily found by other groups in American society. While the restrictions on immigrants were not as explicitly implemented as they were for women, Native Americans, African-Americans, they were often treated as second-class citizens. Immigrants could vote, especially after the landholding restriction was lifted, and they could own land, but they were repeatedly the victims of discrimination, even after 1860.
During this period, Native Americans were denied virtually all rights, primarily because they generally were not granted citizenship; they could not exercise rights expressly given to citizens. In addition, though they had lived on the land they occupied for generations, Native Americans did not have any landholding privileges, opening the door for westward expansion. Like immigrants, Native Americans repeated experienced discrimination, a fact that would continue long after 1860. Native Americans were perceived as savages, so the government did not feel the need to negotiate them for rights to land. The lot of Native Americans would not change to any discernible degree for decades, and many still live on reservations.
Women, while they did not receive the severity of treatment reserved for Native Americans and African-Americans, were also not granted many rights. Women performed a specific function within society, but they had no place outside of their "domestic sphere." It was frowned upon for women to have jobs outside of the home, unless necessity dictated it to be the case. Women could not vote, though the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention marks the beginning of the Women's Suffrage Movement, a campaign that culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Women also could only hold land under extenuating circumstances, though this was not the case at the beginning of the period. If widowed, women could exercise landholder rights, but these rights were often tenuously maintained.
African-Americans, the majority of which were slaves in this period, enjoyed virtually no rights. They were perceived as property, and they were treated as such. Even in the North, African-Americans were not treated well; some have even argued that slaves were treated better than freemen in the North. Slaves such as Nat Turner in 1831 and Denmark Vesey in 1822 attempted to break their bonds of slavery, while the Underground Railroad later served as a conduit to the North. Attempts such as these were really the only means of self-assertion that slaves could pursue. It was not until after the Civil War that concerted political measures were undertaken to change the status of African-Americans in American society.
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