“Though Declared to be American Citizens”: The Colored Convention Movement, Black Citizenship, and the Fourteenth Amendment

“Though Declared to be American Citizens”: The Colored Convention Movement, Black Citizenship, and the Fourteenth Amendment

Today we share the second installment of our Fourteenth Amendment roundtable. You can find the guest editor’s introduction here, and the first contribution here.


“The National Colored Convention in Session at Washington D.C.,” 1869. Courtesy of commonplace.org.

Past struggles over the meaning of citizenship speak to us today. The question of who is and is not an American (today we might use the term “real American”) has been and continues to be central to debates about how our government should behave and whom it should serve. Black leaders of the nineteenth century understood that while securing specific rights was an important part of their struggle for citizenship, and they celebrated the Fourteenth Amendment for this, they were also engaged in a larger struggle, a struggle to ensure that African Americans were understood and treated as truly American.

“And thou starry banner! Wave all thy folds in the glad, sweet air of June; flap out upon the breeze the music of liberty; such a luster shalt thou fling back to the sun of the coming Independence Day as he never, in ninety-two years, saw in thy stripes and stars before!”[1] With these words the Christian Recorder, published in Philadelphia by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, celebrated Congress’s passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. Just sixteen years earlier, Frederick Douglass had famously insisted, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn,”[2] but now, for the first time in the eyes of many African Americans, their claims on the United States had been vindicated.

This is not to say that the amendment was without its black critics. Many black leaders were quick to point out its failures, especially its failure to secure black voting rights.[3] Beyond this, as recent scholarship has emphasized, federal and even state government was often limited in its ability to enforce the liberal ideals enshrined in the Reconstruction amendments. African Americans understood this failing all too well.[4] In light of these nineteenth- and twenty-first- century critics, perhaps rather than thinking of the Fourteenth Amendment as the culmination of the fight for black citizenship, we might more fruitfully think of it as a part of a much longer struggle to establish African Americans as Americans, a struggle that continues even today.

It is worth considering just how profound a change it was, for African Americans to be considered citizens of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Just a few years earlier, the prospect of black citizenship, guaranteed by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, was unthinkable for most whites. It continued to be unthinkable for many, including the president of the United States, Andrew Johnson, who reportedly insisted that “this is a country for white men, and by God, so long as I am President, it shall be a Government for white men.”[5] The language of both the supporters and opponents of the amendment is telling. Both saw the ability of African Americans to claim the United States as their own nation as central to the larger stakes of the amendment.

The struggle of African Americans to establish their claims on the United States stretched back to the very origins of the nation itself. It unfolded side-by-side with the struggle against slavery, in every public forum that African Americans could turn to the purpose, but one particularly important arena in the early nineteenth century for the African American struggle to make black citizenship imaginable was the Colored Convention Movement. In the decades before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, hese national conventions (along with a host of similar state conventions) served as a forum in which black leaders, often driven from public spaces and legally denied most of the rights and privileges they considered rightly theirs, enacted black citizenship and helped to forge a national black community. These black leaders elected officers, established rules to govern their organization, provided for state and local auxiliaries, and generally addressed the issues facing African Americans across the nation. The minutes of these conventions, published and then reprinted in abolitionist newspapers, served to demonstrate and publicize this public service, providing witness to this long struggle for citizenship.[6]

The convention movement arose at a time when many white Americans sought to deny free black people the very right to live in the United States. The first colored convention, in 1830, was called in response to a vicious anti-black riot in Cincinnati, in which white mobs had burned black homes, schools, and churches, in an effort to drive free blacks out of the city. The convention was forced to consider in a literal sense whether there was a place for African Americans in the United States. Some concluded that there was not, and the convention resolved to support the establishment of a colony in Canada. At the same time the convention delegates asserted, “we who have been born and nurtured on this soil, we, whose habits, manners, and customs are the same in common with other Americans,” making it clear that this was a matter of practicality rather than a rejection of their claims to their native land.[7]

Portrait of Henry Highland Garnet, black activist, c. 1881. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

This tension, between those who advocated emigration outside of the United States and those who rejected this option, would persist, though most often the conventions forcefully called for African Americans to stay in the United States and fight. “We are Americans, and as Americans, we would speak to Americans,” read a typical convention address, from 1853. “We address you not as aliens nor as exiles, humbly asking to be permitted to dwell among you in peace; but we address you as American citizens asserting their rights on their own native soil.”[8] There were frequent, heated disagreements, among attendees at the conventions, but a constant theme was that African Americans were American citizens.

Out of the conventions and their debates emerged a complex vision of black citizenship. Perhaps the most contentious of these debates occurred in 1843, when Henry Highland Garnet submitted an address calling upon those who were enslaved to strike out against their oppressors. “There is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood.” he insisted. “If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” The convention came one vote short of endorsing this fiery address, driven by fears of what sort of response such a call might provoke among white southerners. It is striking, though, that Garnet did not simply call for violent resistance, he insisted that such resistance was in fact the expression of American citizenship. Throughout the address, he referred to the enslaved as his “fellow citizens,” and established a lineage of American revolutionaries that joined “Lafayette and Washington” with “the patriotic Nathaniel Turner.”[9] Slave rebellion, the great fear of the white South, was transformed into the highest expression of black citizenship.

Ultimately, when that rebellion came, many of the leaders of the convention movement were among the thousands of black northerners who joined their southern brethren in armed struggle. Even in the midst of the Civil War, though, the conventions continued to meet. The leaders of the convention movement understood that black service in the Union war effort was the strongest argument they had for black citizenship, and they saw it as their task to highlight this service. They also recognized that many whites would continue to denigrate the very soldiers who had done so much to preserve the Union and would soon try to forget that service. “Are we citizens when the nation is in peril, and aliens when the nation is in safety?” they asked.[10] They fought to ensure that the answer would be no.

Honorable Alonzo J. Ransier, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This effort would prove to be an important, though not sufficient, part of the eventual passage and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet, it was quite clear that the struggle of African Americans to secure justice at the hands of their government, to be treated as truly American, was not complete. In the opening address to the convention of 1872, Alonzo J. Ransier, Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, warned against such complacency. “Consider for a moment what kind of government we are living under…the position in which we find ourselves today, though declared to be American citizens; still laboring without adequate compensation, our education and that of our children almost totally neglected; shut out from decent accommodation at the hotels, places of amusement and in common carriers.”[11] It is important to note that Ransier was not simply critiquing the failure of the government to enforce the rights that the Fourteenth Amendment had supposedly guaranteed. He was instead calling for a bolder version of black citizenship, one that was not reducible to a set of limited rights. It was a more expansive sort of citizenship, in which government was expected to play an active and beneficial role in the lives of black Americans.[12]

Today we as a nation continue to struggle with this question of what American citizenship means and who deserves it. There are, of course, specific citizenship rights that are under assault, yet if we limit our understanding of citizenship to just these rights we miss the bigger picture of what citizenship means. We should recall the words and struggles of our nineteenth-century predecessors who understood the larger stakes and broader significance of their own struggle for citizenship.

 

[1] “A Great Day in Congress,” Christian Recorder, July 4, 1868.

[2] Frederick Douglass, “What To the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999), 188-206.

[3] See, for example, John Mercer Langston’s critique during the Colored National Labor Convention of 1869. “Proceedings of the Colored National Labor convention: held in Washington, D.C., on December 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th, 1869,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 25, 2018, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/591.

[4] See especially Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “Echoes of War: Rethinking Post-Civil War Governance and Politics,” in The World the Civil War Made, ed. Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 1-21.

[5] Hans L. Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 236. It is not clear that he actually said this, though it was reported that he did so, and his policies certainly reflected this belief.

[6] Particularly interesting in this regard is the Colored National Council, created by the 1853 convention. “Proceedings of the Colored national convention, held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 24, 2018, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/458.

[7] “Constitution of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, for improving their condition in the United States; for purchasing lands; and for the establishment of a settlement in upper Canada, also, The Proceedings of the Convention with their Address to Free Persons of Colour in the United States,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 21, 2018, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/70.

[8] “Proceedings of the Colored national convention, held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 25, 2018, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/458.

[9] The address itself is not included in the minutes of the 1843 Convention, only the debate is. The text here is taken from a later published version of this address. See Henry Highland Garnet, A Memorial Discourse (Philadelphia: J. M. Wilson, 1865), 44-51.

[10] “Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored Men; held in the City of Syracuse, N.Y.; October 4, 5, 6, and 7, 1864; with the Bill of Wrongs and Rights; and the Address to the American People,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 24, 2018, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/282.

[11] “National Convention at New Orleans, LA,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 24, 2018, http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/544.

[12] On the limits of the liberal vision of Reconstruction, see Laura F. Edwards, “Reconstruction and the History of Governance,” in The World the Civil War Made, 22-45.

Andrew Diemer

Andrew Diemer is Associate Professor of History at Towson University. He is author of The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (Georgia, 2016). He is currently working on a biography of the black abolitionist, William Still.

One Reply to ““Though Declared to be American Citizens”: The Colored Convention Movement, Black Citizenship, and the Fourteenth Amendment”

  1. Thanks for this great contribution! I appreciate the emphasis on the 14th amendment as part of an ongoing process. Do we see an organized African-American response to some of the early court cases in which the amendment was interpreted?

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