Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Citizenship and Freedom in Post–Civil War America

By Walter Licht, University of Pennsylvania

Womens Liberty Bell Tour_2.JPG

Photograph from Women's Liberty Bell Tour of 1915. League of Women Voters Records (Collection 2095), Box 31, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Who is a rightful citizen of the United States, and what rights and liberties may citizens enjoy? These questions remained contested and unresolved in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, enacted to ensure the rights of African Americans recently freed from slavery and ratified in 1868, established for the first time in American history a criterion to determine citizenship: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." The mere fact of birth or naturalization in the United States did not transform into rights, however. If enfranchisement, for example, is considered an essential right of a citizen—the right to have a voice in the making of laws that could provide for even simple freedoms, such as the freedom to migrate or own property—then women did not possess full citizenship until 1920. While African American males were granted the right to vote under the Fifteenth Amendment, laws restricting their access to ballot box and physical intimidation at the polls greatly comprised their citizenship and freedoms. Even the liberties of Americans who had slowly gained the right to vote in the early nineteenth century—white, property-less, working-class males—remained unclear. Could they, for example, assemble and collectively petition for better working conditions? Finally, for Native Americans and immigrants, the ability to rightfully reside in the United State, much less become citizens, remained an open question.

The beginning of the struggle to achieve the franchise for women is commonly dated to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, when three hundred supporters of women's rights met to write a declaration in support of women's suffrage and to forge a movement on its behalf. Without the vote, women could not shape laws that provided for such freedoms as filing for divorce or owning property. Various splits among advocates soon emerged over the respective importance of the battles to abolish slavery and secure enfranchisement for women and the respective roles of men and women in the movement. Tensions heightened after the Civil War over adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment—leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed its ratification because it did not include expansion of the franchise to women—and over the question of whether energies should be directed to achieving female suffrage through legislation at the individual state level or through a national constitutional amendment. In May 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association with the clear aim of achieving a federal guarantee of the franchise. In the late nineteenth century, women gained the right to vote largely in western territories and states, but a national mandate granting the franchise at every level of jurisdiction awaited ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. The struggle to achieve full citizenship for women overcame stiff opposition, but was also marked by continuing divisions among advocates over strategy and the forming of alliances among women across racial lines.

African American men gained the right to vote with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, but that proved to be a hollow guarantee. Between 1890 and 1910, for example, legislators in ten of the eleven states of the former Confederacy enacted statutes that effectively disenfranchised blacks (and thousands of poor whites as well); they included measures that established poll taxes, literacy tests, and so-called grandfather clauses (you could vote only if your grandfather had voted).  But even before the use of law to prevent voting, the threat of violence kept African American males from exercising their right to vote—and this occurred in both the North and South. In Philadelphia in 1871, on the first Election Day that African American males were allowed to vote, the African American civil rights leader Octavius Catto was murdered on his way to the polls. In the South, legal disenfranchisement was accompanied by the passage of laws that legalized segregation in public facilities, including schools, as well as heightened resort to lynching to intimidate blacks and keep them subservient. In the face of such attacks and denial of citizenship, a debate began within the African American community over the appropriate response. Some counseled that blacks should patiently curry the good favor of whites by working hard and appearing respectable. Others called for the determined mounting of political and legal challenges to all forms of injustice and discrimination (in employment, particularly, with regard to the latter).

White working-class males secured the franchise in the decades before the Civil War as states and localities eliminated property requirements for voting. Possessed of rights and a sense of worthiness in the value of their labor, they began to organize to protest deteriorating conditions of work accompanying industrialization and the spread of the wage labor system. They formed unions, presented their grievances to employers, and collectively walked off their jobs when their pleas fell on deaf ears. Intense conflict between capital and labor prevailed in the US during the late nineteenth century; in the decade of the 1880s, a thousand strikes per year on average were recorded by government investigators, involving an annual average of 125,000 workers and 12,000 businesses. Pennsylvania served as the site for many of the most monumental strikes: the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Homestead Strike of 1892, and the Great Anthracite Strike of 1902. Throughout the period, the right of workers to collectively mobilize remained unclear and disputed. Judges gradually granted workers the right to form unions but not the right to strike, enjoining work stoppages as conspiracies to do harm and restrain trade and ordering the arrest of labor leaders. Organized workers faced not just judicial constraints but also the fierce resistance of employers who used every means at their disposal—including the use of armed guards—to crush strikes. A group of business leaders did emerge, though, who believed that worker loyalty and diligence could be better achieved through offering decent terms of employment, including fringe benefits, and even working and cooperating with the unions representing their workers.

Immigrants joined the ranks of the American labor force in great numbers in the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, but vociferous calls to close the doors to new arrivals rose in tandem. The first political movement to restrict immigration emerged in the 1840s with the mass migration of Irish and reached a crescendo in the 1870s as agitation grew to prevent the importation of Chinese laborers on the West Coast. Workingmen's groups in California led the so-called anti-Coolie campaign. By gaining general support, they succeeded in pressing for legislation that banned the entry of Chinese immigrants, first on the state level, then nationally with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Racial prejudice, fear of job loss and depressed wages, and antimonopoly sentiment (railroad corporations grew powerful through exploiting the labor of Chinese workers) stoked opposition to further entry of immigrants from China. Calls to limit immigration reached a peak in the first decades of the twentieth century with the arrival of millions of newcomers from southern and eastern Europe. Congress considered such measures as literacy tests to block entrance and expansion of the period of naturalization before immigrants could become rightful citizens. Eventually, the doors were just about completely shut with the enactment of laws in the early 1920s that established strict quotas by country of origin for entry to the United States.

For the original inhabitants of the land, entry to the United States also remained an unsettled issue. Native Americans generally were treated as members of foreign nations. On a piece-meal basis, Congress granted citizenship to particular groups and individuals, but it was not until passage in 1924 of the Indian Citizenship Act that Native Americans were declared citizens (even so, several states retained statutes that denied them the right to vote).  The question of sovereignty further confused matters. Whether Native Americans were primarily subject to the decrees of their tribal councils or the government of the United States through the agency of the US Commissioner of Indian Affairs shifted back and forth. Decimated by warfare, disease, and malnutrition and consigned to diminished reservations, Native Americans became second-class citizens at best.

With citizenship and the right to participate in the political processes so contested, freedom remained circumscribed in the United States in the half century following the Civil War. Without true citizenship, limits prevailed for many groups of American on greater senses of freedom that would be articulated in the upcoming decades, such as freedom from fear and want. 

Walter Licht is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches American economic and labor history.  He is an award-winning author of historical studies on industrialization, work, and labor markets.