Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

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By 1865, how much progress had blacks and women made towards the ideals of equality and universal rights stated in the Declaration of Independence?

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In general, neither women nor African American men received the rights guaranteed by the Declaration. Indeed, most of the progress made by African Americans men and women (as a collective) was made during the Civil War, immediately before 1865.

African American men and women left slavery by the thousands, taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by the war. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, itself spurred by black claims on freedom, nearly 200,000 African American men joined the Union army and navy, staking their claim to citizenship through their service. In 1865 itself, slavery was officially banned by the Thirteenth Amendment, and calls came from many former abolitionists to enfranchise the nation's freedmen. These were small steps toward justice and meaningful liberty, but they were highly significant given the reality that the vast majority of the nation's African American men, women, and children lived in slavery in the decades between the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the end of the Civil War in 1865. However significant, these gains proved fleeting in the face of systemic racism. African Americans lacked political equality until a century after the war, and their opportunities for self-fulfillment were limited by Jim Crow and systems of oppression that persist today.

Women staked their claims to liberty and equality in the aftermath of the Revolution, but their gains were limited. Women became leaders in the nation's reform movements, including temperance and abolition. Some, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton, advocated for the right to vote, but this was generally denied to women until the early twentieth century. Women achieved some legal victories, including liberalized property and divorce laws in some states, but in general, the promise of the Declaration of Independence was denied to them until long after 1865.

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By 1865, black slaves had all been legally freed in the United States, but that was about as far as their freedom went. Although black males were granted both citizenship and the right to vote in 1868, the Southern states, where most blacks lived, almost immediately set up poll taxes and other barriers to black voting rights. It was, in fact, not until 100 years later, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that black access to the vote was finally made widely possible.

As for women, in 1865 they were unable to vote, as it was understood that the family patriarch voted for the entire family. Even if she lived independently, a woman could not vote. Voting rights for women in all fifty states did not occur until 1920. Further, wife-beating was still legal in most states in 1865 and would not be outlawed in all the states until 1920.

In other words, in 1865, neither women nor blacks had made much progress toward the rights enjoyed by white men. In addition to legal barriers, social barriers were quite intense. Most women and blacks were routinely denied access to educational and employment opportunities open to white men, and cultural concepts of social status reinforced the discrimination. Enlightenment ideals of justice, liberty, and self-fulfillment were simply out of reach for most blacks and women in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

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The Declaration of Independence made statements about “rights” that for decades were not applied to many people, including black men, women, Native Americans, and even white men who did not own property. The mid-nineteenth century brought significant changes to that situation, although many of the efforts had not succeeded by 1865. Even those rights that were secured were not always applied in practice.

The abolition movement and women’s rights movement operated somewhat independently of each other—to the extent that some people discouraged the campaigns for women’s rights as distractions from the goal of abolition. National, regional, and state activism also functioned both independently and interdependently. Although, with the advent of the Civil War, North–South distinctions became paramount, East–West distinctions were also significant in attitudes toward equality. Not only did the Western territories often take a more liberal stance than the Eastern establishment, admission of new states often hinged on deals that included slavery.

The Civil War itself was the culmination of many differences regarding states’ rights versus federal control, especially but not limited to slavery. The slave trade had already been abolished in 1807, but slavery continued. For those who favored total abolition, the Compromise of 1850 was a major disappointment, as it upheld the idea of balanced numbers of slave-holding and non-slavery states and was linked to the Fugitive Slave Act. The battles over “Bleeding Kansas,” in particular, paved the way for a nationwide war.

The war marked a turning point in many ways. African Americans’ wartime efforts, including serving in combat, had helped reunite the nation. During and immediately after the war, two major advances legally secured rights for African Americans. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, officially extending freedom to all the enslaved in the rebellious states. As the nation came back together at the war’s end, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 18, 1865.

Some women’s rights advocates came into that movement through their work for abolition or their exclusion from those efforts. By 1848, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had become established leaders of the women’s rights movement. While the activism focused on women’s suffrage, it was contextualized within larger issues of female equality under the Constitution. A group of women drew up the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that listed injustices and deliberately echoed the wording of the Declaration of Independence, and presented it at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. The initial congress was followed by the first and second National Women’s Rights Conventions in 1850 and 1851 in Worcester, Massachusetts. These included many male presenters, including noted abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass.

The Civil War effectively halted women’s rights activism. Soon after, the struggles resumed. In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would form the American Equal Rights Association. Nationwide, a women’s suffrage amendment would first be proposed in 1868, although this effort would finally succeed only in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Individual states, however, were faster to recognize voting as a woman’s right. While still a territory, Wyoming recognized women’s suffrage in 1869, and the following year a woman voted in a statewide election.

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This is an interesting and worthwhile question, concerning the degree to which the United States has lived up to its natural rights based on principles of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." When considering this kind of question, it might be useful to ask a second question: are we as a country living up to these values today? In any case, Civil Rights tends to be progressive and something advanced from generation to generation. I think you can definitely see a track towards progress, and 1865 certainly represents one of those critical turning point years, but there was still a lot more distance to travel.

With 1865, you are looking at the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery in the United States. It would be followed by later advancements: the Fourteenth Amendment, which expanded citizenship rights (1868), and the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave blacks the right to vote (1870). From this perspective, it should be viewed as a turning point (the ending of slavery is a critical moment in this country's history) but, even so, be aware that racism remained widespread and endemic and southern states would make efforts to circumvent these newly won freedom. For all the progress these amendments represented, they could not prevent the passage of the Jim Crow laws that followed.

Additionally, be aware that your question addresses the experience of women as well as blacks, and while 1865 certainly presents a victory for the latter, the defining victory for the women's rights movement (women's suffrage) would not be realized until 1920 and that fight would be long and frustrating.

Yet, you should keep in mind that this story is a progressive one, moved forward generation by generation. The question should not simply be whether or not progress was completed, but also about how far these movements and these calls for progress had advanced. In that respect, you have to consider the longer arc of nineteenth-century reform movements. Abolition was a moral stance, and its adherents grew more determined and insistent as time went on. Likewise, even as you recognize that suffrage would not be achieved until 1920, the movement was already present in the United States well before 1865. The Seneca Falls Convention was held in 1848 and is often hailed as a kind of definitive moment for the women's rights movement. These organizations advanced a conversation, and those conversations and the history that surrounded them are themselves important topics worth discussing.

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