Category: Muster

SCWH Sexual Harassment Policy Announced Last Week

SCWH Sexual Harassment Policy Announced Last Week

Last week, the Society of Civil War Historians announced a new policy on sexual harassment that brings the organization in line with the new standards endorsed by the American Historical Association and others.  As the official journal of the society, the JCWE is committed to supporting this policy in our work for the journal and in our participation in the society.

The Society of Civil War Historians strongly opposes sexual harassment in all aspects of academia. In adapting the Sexual Harassment Policy of the Southern Historical Association (with which we are an affiliated society), the Society offers the following Code of Ethics for its members and for the consideration of the larger society.

I. A. Sexual harassment within academe is unethical, unprofessional, and threatening to academic freedom. In the academic context, the term “sexual harassment” may be used to describe a wide range of behaviors. It includes, but is not limited to, the following: sexist remarks or behavior, whether in or out of the classroom; requests for sexual favors; sexual advances, whether sanction free, linked to reward, or accompanied by threat of retaliation; the use of authority to emphasize the sexuality or sexual identity of a student in a manner that prevents or impairs that student’s full enjoyment of educational benefits, climate, or opportunities; and sexual assault. Such behaviors are unacceptable because they are forms of unprofessional conduct that seriously undermine the atmosphere of trust essential to the academic environment.

B. The potential of sexual harassment is not limited to incidents involving members of the profession and students. Sexual harassment of colleagues and staff also is unethical, as is student harassment of other students.

C. It is unprofessional behavior to condone sexual harassment or to disregard complaints of sexual harassment from students, staff, or colleagues. Such actions or inactions allow a sexually hostile environment to exist and are inconsistent with the maintenance of academic freedom.

II. In addition to sexual harassment, amorous relationships that might be appropriate in other circumstances are inappropriate and should be avoided when they occur between members of the profession and any student for whom he or she has a professional responsibility. Implicit in the idea of professionalism is the recognition by those in positions of authority that in their relationships with their students there is always an element of power. It is incumbent upon members of the profession not to abuse, nor seem to abuse the power with which they are entrusted, since relationships between members of the profession and their students are quite imbalanced. Such relationships may have the effect of undermining the atmosphere of trust among students and faculty on which the educational process depends.

III. The Society of Civil War Historians encourages chairs of departments of history to pass these guidelines on to the members of their departments. It suggests, moreover, that department chairs and historians urge their respective universities and workplaces to enforce existing federal regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and to publicize grievance procedures available to students, faculty, or staff who have been subjected to sexual harassment.

If SCWH members encounter problems of sexual harassment, they should refer those problems to the American Historical Association’s Professional Division, located at 400 A Street, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20003-3889. Telephone: 202-544-2422. As the umbrella organization for the history profession, the AHA’s Professional Division has experience in handling sexual harassment complaints. The Division also has legal counsel to guide its work.

The Contested Meanings of the Fourteenth Amendment

The Contested Meanings of the Fourteenth Amendment

This weekend, we share the guest editor’s conclusion to our roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment. Earlier contributions can be found in order here, here, here, here, and here. Thank you for following along with us as we reevaluated and commemorated the amendment’s 150th anniversary.

Last Sunday, I gave a public talk in a local Washington, D.C., bookstore about citizenship. I did what many historians are guilty of when speaking about our research—I assumed that my audience had a basic knowledge of the Reconstruction era amendments and their general meaning.

This was of course a naïve assumption, given how infrequently Reconstruction expressly enters public consciousness in today’s world. During the Q&A, a gentleman in the audience very nicely asked me if I might go back and review the basic premise of the Fourteenth Amendment, and while I was at it, if I could explain the meaning and implications of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as well. Such a request made sense, given that many laypeople have not often examined the admittedly complicated Constitutional language.

This general lack of clarity about the Fourteenth Amendment and its companions is perhaps reason enough for us to have convened four scholars to participate in a roundtable discussion of the Fourteenth Amendment. For some Americans, to invoke the amendment is to provoke a question about what precisely it was. What was it intended to accomplish, but even more so, what might be its implications for us today? This roundtable is one forum for exploring the Fourteenth Amendment in its entirety, as Aaron Astor has urged us to consider all five of its clauses.

As you might guess, I could not, during that bookstore Q&A, leave my remarks as a simple recitation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s clauses. Historians know that meaning frequently lies not in the text of a given law, even one as highly situated as this amendment. Instead, the history of law is best found in the contestations around its meaning and interpretation. It is in those debates, some of which happened in legislatures and in courts, and in news commentary and on the streets, where the text of a law is given its full meaning. It is there that we look for the deeper history of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Chris Bonner and Andrew Diemer have explained a long and essential episode in the history of the Fourteenth Amendment: the decades of black activism that preceded its ratification. Their careful reading of the antebellum colored conventions makes plain that long before members of Congress or state legislatures had the opportunity to contemplate the terms of the amendment in 1867 and 1868, African American activists were generating a debate over their significance. These activists engaged in a struggle over these ideas, including birthright citizenship and equal protection, which would be at the heart of the amendment’s first section. The history of the Fourteenth Amendment is the history of these decades of struggle by black Americans to imagine and insist upon a constitutional amendment that would embody their claims as Americans.

Contestation also very quickly came to characterize thinking about the Fourteenth Amendment after its ratification. Hilary Green has illustrated in her essay how quickly the nation’s high courts began to impose their own interpretations upon those who sought relief by way of the amendment’s terms. This was a grand and highly visible confrontation between high court jurists and everyday Americans who were attempting to use the amendment’s promises to further their claim to rights. This too is the history of law–not simply a history of judicial thinking, but the story of how individuals disputed the contradictory interpretations of judges that arose in the weeks and years that followed ratification.

There are also examples of how, in the very drafting of the amendment, contestation was silently embedded within its structure. Aaron Astor directs our attention, for example, to how the amendment spoke explicitly about the claims of African American men to voting rights. Still, it elided and erased the claims that American women were making on the body politic and on the Constitution at the same moment. Insight into this dimension of the Fourteenth Amendment requires historians to deliberately look behind, underneath, and inside the language of the text, burrowing down to the social and political context in which it was adopted. When we do this we discover the disputes and disagreements brewing just below the surface.

Each of these essays has also reminded us that arguments about the Fourteenth Amendment were not simply a function of the political climate of Reconstruction, or of the early judicial interpretations in the years that followed. To the contrary, the amendment has always been—and will continue to be—a site for confrontation between individuals and the state, and between disparate visions of citizenship and equal protection of the law. In this sense we might be tempted to say that little has changed since 1868. In 2018, as we remember its sesquicentennial anniversary, the amendment remains (as it always has been) a founding document that never defined the nation, though it did set the terms for the central debates over its character.

Martha S. Jones

Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Among other publications, she is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, recently published by Cambridge University Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @marthasjones_.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s “Other” Sections

The Fourteenth Amendment’s “Other” Sections

Here we provide the penultimate contribution to our Fourteenth Amendment roundtable. Stay tuned for Martha S. Jones’s conclusion, which will be published tomorrow. Previous selections from this roundtable can be found here, here, here, and here.

For a Constitutional Amendment that undergirds so much of modern American jurisprudence, there may be yet more value to be drawn from the Fourteenth Amendment in its “other” sections, as we consider the amendment’s long reach over 150 years.

The Fourteenth Amendment is best known for its first section, which defines citizenship, extends Constitutional authority more directly over the states than ever before, protects the privileges and immunities of citizens, and establishes the principle of equal protection of the law. But the Fourteenth Amendment contains five sections, and only the first and the fifth (granting Congress the power to enforce the provisions of the amendment) address the better-known matters of civil rights, citizenship, and equal protection of the laws. It is the middle sections that have been more often ignored.

What do these “other” sections mean today, and what do they tell us about Congressional debates over Reconstruction in the 1860s?   On the surface, the multi-section amendment is a grab bag of provisions only vaguely related to one another. However, the amendment’s various sections cohere quite well as a mechanism to reconstruct the federal union by enhancing the jurisdictional reach of the federal government, solidifying (including financially) the states’ adherence to the Union, and reconstructing the southern states (including the border states) on the basis of a racially egalitarian republicanism. This necessitated a restructuring of the body politic as well as of the financial and legal architecture of the federal union. As historian Eric Foner notes, “The Fourteenth Amendment can only be understood as a whole.”[1] The “other” sections–those beyond Section 1–fleshed out how the Amendment’s framers aimed to do this.

Confederate war bond. Courtesy of the Museum of Financial History.

Section 4 is a case in point. President Andrew Johnson issued his lenient Reconstruction plan in 1865, and insisted upon two conditions before state civil governments could be restored: states must renounce secession and must abolish slavery. By October 1865, Johnson made clear that as the Confederate states renounced secession, they acceded to the cancellation of all Confederate bonds, a logical but necessary act to declare the Confederacy illegitimate for all time.[2] Republicans incorporated this language into Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment: “Neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States.” This clause provided for the inviolability of the federal public debt.[3] The affirmation of the federal debt and invalidation of the Confederate debt served a political purpose more than a strictly financial one. A sizable portion of the Union population had purchased war bonds during the Civil War, and the promise to repay them served as a Constitutional validation of this collective act of financial patriotism.

Section 4 did more than this, however. It also prohibited compensation for “any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave.”[4] This clause affected more than the former Confederate states and their suddenly lost slave property. It also affected the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware, where some owners had hoped to receive compensation for their slaves freed under the provisions of recently passed state laws or the Thirteenth Amendment. Kentuckians, in particular, opposed the Thirteenth Amendment, agitated for compensation for the loss of their property in persons and even sued the federal government for illegal seizure of slave property in late 1865.[5] Thus, this clause helped zero out the financial basis of the slave system, regardless of its connection to rebellion. The future reconstructed United States would never again validate chattel slavery as a form of property.

In 2013, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi invoked Section 4 in unexpected circumstances. She argued that the recent Congressional debate over raising the national debt ceiling was unnecessary because “the 14th Amendment covers it.”[6] Her comment struck many observers as odd and perhaps esoteric, as few Americans think of the Fourteenth Amendment when they consider the national debt. And yet, the Fourteenth Amendment explicitly states that the “validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned.”[7] Refusal to raise the debt ceiling meant the United States Treasury would not be able to make interest payments on bonds issued by the U.S. government, effectively rendering the federal government insolvent and its public debt no longer “valid.” The Fourteenth Amendment was not ultimately invoked during this debate. But the episodic commentary on the amendment’s connection to the public debt raised many questions in the minds of the general public.

This image from Harper’s Weekly depicts freedmen registering to vote, c. September 1867. Courtesy of Georgia Encyclopedia.

The second section of the Fourteenth Amendment also resonates to this day. It offered the first Constitutional attempt to guarantee the right of African American men to vote; the Congressional Reconstruction Acts passed in March 1867 advanced black suffrage before the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. Section 2’s immediate effect was to nullify the infamous three-fifths clause granting slave states representation in Congress far beyond what their free population would normally authorize. Ironically, emancipation now meant that southern states could take advantage of their African American populations as full persons for purposes of legislative apportionment without granting them the right to vote. In many ways, Section 2 applied the logic of the three-fifths compromise in reverse by limiting representation in Congress for states that refused to accord full voting rights to all men, regardless of race. This indirect approach was firmed up with the later Fifteenth Amendment explicitly denying states the rights to use race, color, or previous condition of servitude as a basis of disfranchisement.[8]

However, the most immediate political effect of this clause was the establishment of MALE suffrage as a Constitutional right, denying the suffrage claims of women. Indeed, Section 2 was the first time the word “male” was entered into the Constitution; state discrimination on the basis of sex would not threaten a state’s representation under the section’s provisions. This clause drove a wedge between African American activists and some women’s rights advocates even before passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. A vigorous debate unfolded between activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who commented after the Fourteenth Amendment deliberations that “it is impossible for the best of men to understand women’s feelings or the humiliation of their position” in seeking the right to vote, and gradualists like Lucy Stone, who viewed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments as partial victories on the road to women’s suffrage.[9] The heated debate and ensuing rift would take a generation to heal and would underscore the often zero-sum nature of rights in American history–rights gained for some often come at the expense of rights for others.

But the second section of the Fourteenth Amendment may also have a modern application. The current debate over voter suppression, whether through restrictive voter ID laws, gerrymandering, lifelong punishment for felons who completed their sentences, or other restrictions that often suppress the votes of minorities and the poor may be resolved by Section 2, especially as the 1965 Voting Rights Act has been weakened. If a state is shown to have illegally and intentionally suppressed the votes of tens of thousands of legal citizens, Congress could turn to Section 2 to limit that state’s representation in Congress. Imagine, for example, Wisconsin or North Carolina losing one or two Congressional seats as punishment for such aggressive forms of voter suppression. Such a claim might strike observers today as unusual or desperate, but it is no more outrageous than turning to Section 4 to “cover” the semi-annual debt ceiling debates. In fact, deploying Section 2 to this effect would be exactly in keeping with the original intent of the Fourteenth Amendment’s framers who understood that a “republican form of government” required an expansive electorate.

By considering the Fourteenth Amendment as a whole, we gain deeper insight into what shape America’s reconstructed Union would take. Section 1 outlines the ideological foundation of post-Civil War America, based on egalitarian republicanism. But Sections 2 and 4 clearly have long-term significance as well, by reassembling the financial and political architecture of the United States now reconstructed under the promise of equal protection of the laws.


[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2002), 259.

[2] Dan T. Carter, When the War Was Over: The Failure of Self-Reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), 68–74.

[3] “U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section 4,” Yale Law School Avalon Project, accessed July 4, 2018,

[4] “U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section 4.”

[5] Aaron Astor, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 177.

[6] Quoted in Scott Bomboy, “Reviewing the 14th Amendment debt ceiling argument,” Constitution Daily: National Constitution Center, September 30, 2013,

[7] “U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section 4.”

[8] “U.S. Constitution, Amendment XIV, Section 2,” Yale Law School Avalon Project, accessed July 3, 2018,

[9] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More (1815-1897): Reminiscences of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York: European Publishing Company, 1898), 254,

Aaron Astor

Aaron Astor, Associate Professor of History at Maryville College in Tennessee, is the author of Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (LSU Press, 2012), The Civil War Along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau (History Press, 2015), and eleven articles for the New York Times Disunion series. He is currently writing a book on the 1860 Presidential election as a grassroots phenomenon from the perspective of four distinct American communities.

Erasing Dred Scott’s Shadow

Erasing Dred Scott’s Shadow

Today we are publishing Hilary Green’s contribution to our Fourteenth Amendment roundtable. Previous contributions to this roundtable can be found here, here, and here.

Amid the chaos of the current political moment, the July 9, 2018, sesquicentennial anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification must not be overlooked. By establishing birthright citizenship, this is one of most significant Reconstruction amendments. It affirmed African Americans as citizens following the 1857 Dred Scott decision and Confederate defeat in 1865. It also reflects the past and present struggles of marginalized communities and their allies to hold the nation accountable to its democratic ideals. By highlighting how African Americans embraced a constitutional amendment during the Long Reconstruction era, some important lessons emerge for those living in the present.

The Fourteenth Amendment served as a tool of empowerment. Ratification showed African Americans across the nation that their struggle for full citizenship had not been in vain. Resistance and perseverance mattered. Upon its ratification, editors of The Elevator, a black San Francisco newspaper, proclaimed their intention to take their places as full American citizens. Of course the machinations of President Johnson, who initially threatened a veto, raised some concerns among the editorial staff and readership. And, the shadow of the 1857 Dred Scott decision loomed over the process in their minds. Would voters nationally approve this amendment guaranteeing birthright citizenship of African Americans?[1]

Once the necessary number of states had confirmed ratification, however, the newspaper announced: “Notwithstanding the silly and unconstitutional action of the Democratic Legislatures of Ohio and New Jersey, in attempting to rescind the resolutions of preceding Legislatures confirming the Fourteenth Article of the Constitution of the United States, that article has been confirmed by the requisite number of States, and is now the law of the land.”[2] Although unsure what “effect this amendment will have on the political status of the colored citizens of the loyal States,” the newspaper educated its readers by reprinting all five sections of the amendment.[3] Thus, black Californians celebrated while preparing to claim and defend all of the rights there enshrined. Within the year, The Elevator called for a national colored convention that would challenge the exclusion of black voters from the 1868 Presidential election. The editors even endorsed a Nevada senator’s bill to enforce Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment as a “felony punishable by fine and imprisonment.”[4]

Ratification even emboldened some African Americans to question white allies’ paternalism and publicly air their dissent. Foretelling the later rift within the women’s suffrage movement, an African-American weekly called The Christian Recorder challenged Susan B. Anthony’s racially divisive commentary on the Fourteenth Amendment in an editorial entitled “Republican Honor and Honesty.” The editorialist succinctly dismissed Anthony’s claim that African Americans were ignorant about the framers’ intent when drafting the amendment, by stating in the concluding sentence: “The truth is, Miss Anthony and her clique are prepared to sacrifice the negro, Republican party and all, if she can but attain her ends.”[5] This rebuke revealed cracks that eventually widened into the irreparable split in the women’s suffrage movement. Former allies became foes. New alliances and organizations emerged. One thing did not change. African American men and women embraced their constitutional right. They demanded their inclusion as equal partners and not as racially subordinated foot soldiers from their white allies. Often, this meant that newer generations of African American activists, notably Frances E. W. Harper, broke with their abolitionist forefathers and foremothers.[6]

The ratification process also functioned as a cautionary tale about how the struggle for an inclusive democratic society remains constant. As David Blight reminded us in a 2015 essay in The Atlantic, Frederick Douglass cautioned against being lulled into complacency after the constitutional victory embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification.[7] The freedom struggle was not over. It merely changed. Delivered after the ratification, Douglass reminded his audience: “Had [slavery’s] death come of moral conviction instead of political and military necessity; had it come in obedience to the enlightenment of the American people; had it come at the call of the humanity … of the slaveholder, as well as the rest of our fellow citizens, slavery might be looked upon as honestly dead.”[8] The noted African American leader and former slave understood the necessity of continued vigilance against those whom might accept slavery’s demise and then fail to eliminate the racism that undergirded the institution.

E. W. Kemble, “Congress, Fourteenth Amendment,” c. 1902. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Subsequent judicial interpretation of the rights of African Americans as American citizens revealed the prophetic nature of Douglass’s 1869 words. State and federal courts have both affirmed and reversed many gains granted to African Americans. Indeed, Supreme Court decisions of the late nineteenth century, including the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873), United States v. Cruikshank (1876), Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), contributed to the reversals of the advances made during Reconstruction.[9] At the same time, African American litigants managed to win civil suits in eight southern state supreme courts using the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. As Melissa Milewski has recently shown, in Chaires v. City of Atlanta (1926), Alonzo Herndon and other black barbers successfully argued that a city ordinance prohibiting black barbers from cutting the hair of white women and children and limiting their hours of operation had violated the Fourteenth Amendment by depriving these barbers of “their liberty and property without due process of the law.”[10] The equal protection clause has allowed for the some of the greatest civil rights victories, including Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Loving v. Virginia (1967), and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) as well as major defeats of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries such as Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action (2014). This ebb and flow of judicial interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment as applied to African Americans, Latinos, women, LGBTQ+, and other marginalized communities will most likely continue. Here, African Americans’ post-ratification struggles for the fair application of the amendment should prove instructive.

On this sesquicentennial anniversary, this long history of the Fourteenth Amendment and African American usage since ratification has shown the importance of vigilance, perseverance, resistance, and hope. These lessons should inspire the current social justice struggle. Recent debates on whether birthright citizenship should be abolished or limited for undocumented immigrants and other marginalized communities should convince individuals to educate themselves of this history, find allies, speak out, and vote.[11] Though significantly faded, the shadow of Dred Scott still lingers, but only continued activism and perseverance will allow for its complete erasure.


[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 251-261; “The Constitutional Amendment,” The Elevator (San Francisco, CA), July 31, 1868, 2,

[2] “The Constitutional Amendment.”

[3] “The Constitutional Amendment.”

[4] “Call for a National Convention,” The Elevator (San Francisco, CA), November 27, 1868, 3,; “The Fourteenth Amendment,” The Elevator (San Francisco, CA), January 15, 1869, 4,

[5] “Republican Honor and Honesty,” The Christian Recorder, October 3, 1868, 2.

[6] See Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996), 222-233; Bettye Collier-Thomas, “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Abolitionist and Feminist Reformer 1825-1911,” in African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965, ed. Ann D. Gordon, Bettye Collier-Thomas, John Bracey, Arlene Voski Avakian and Joyce Avrech Berkman (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 49-54; Corinne T. Field, “Frances E. W. Harper and the Politics of Intellectual Maturity,” in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, ed. Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara Savage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 115-118.

[7] David Blight, “Slavery Did Not Die Honestly,” The Atlantic, October 21, 2015,

[8] Blight, “Slavery Did Not Die Honestly.”

[9] Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States And Its World in An Age of Civil War, 1830-1910 (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 355.

[10] Melissa Milewski, Litigating Across the Color Line: Civil Cases Between Black and White Southerners from the End of Slavery to Civil Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 168-169, 182-184.

[11] Liz Peek, “Trump, GOP should keep DACA but scrap birthright citizenship,” Fox News, September 4, 2017,

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

“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

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,

[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,

[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,

[8] “Proceedings of the Colored national convention, held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 25, 2018,

[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,

[11] “National Convention at New Orleans, LA,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 24, 2018,

[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.

The Roots of Reconstruction

The Roots of Reconstruction

Today we share the first contribution to our scholarly roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment. The guest editor’s introduction can be found here.

During Reconstruction, black men claimed unprecedented formal political power by participating in southern state constitutional conventions like that held in Richmond, Virginia, in 1868. At the same time, activists continued to work outside of these formal spaces to promote their visions of legal change. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

In the decades before the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, African American activists helped generate a concept of citizenship that changed the nation’s legal structures. Key to the story of that amendment is the decades of black protest that shaped the intellectual context of postwar lawmaking. In the antebellum period, black Americans established the roots of Reconstruction, and exploring their politics points to the ways marginalized people can shape lawmaking in a way that moves governments toward justice.

The Fourteenth Amendment was in some ways the culmination of decades of black activism. As early as the 1820s, African Americans publicly challenged exclusionary laws in northern states. They called themselves citizens as they worked toward specific legal changes including protections from kidnappers, free movement throughout the country, equal employment opportunities, and the right to vote.[1] That work was potent because white lawmakers did not agree on the significance or content of citizenship; many felt the status simply identified a person’s connection to a place.[2] In 1838, the black Philadelphian Robert Purvis lamented that when an African American was accused of being a fugitive slave, “a free-born citizen of Pennsylvania [could] be arrested, tried without counsel, jury or power to call witnesses . . . and carried across Mason and Dixon’s line within the compass of a single day.”[3] Statements like Purvis’s made specific arguments about who could be a citizen and about the legal protections that status should provide. Black activists thus constructed citizenship as a legal status in their political statements.

The process of emancipation brought African American politics and the uncertain terms of citizenship to the center of government debates as congressmen considered what black freedom should mean.[4] With that new opportunity, black people continued their work, using citizenship to make specific claims to rights and protections. African American activists gathered for meetings around the country at which they discussed strategy and publicized arguments about their legal status. Their meetings followed a pattern of black conventions from the antebellum period, but emancipation allowed more black people from the South to take part in these political forums and brought increasing urgency to arguments about the legal terms of freedom.[5]

In August 1865, activists met in the Lyceum of Alexandria, Virginia. They recognized the risks of holding a convention in what had been the most important state of the Confederacy. George Cook, a delegate from Norfolk, reported that some white southerners had tried to pay those people whom they had once owned to stay away from the convention. Others, Cook noted, threatened black Virginians, saying “that coming here would hurt us at home.” But Cook relished the high stakes of his politics, hoping to “to secure the franchise in every way that is honorable and just.” “If I die in the attempt,” he said, “my children will reverence me for it the more.”[6]

In the face of mortal danger, Cook and his colleagues pushed for sweeping legal change and for specific rights that would give texture to their new status. Delegates demanded that “as citizens of the State, the laws of the Commonwealth shall give to all men equal protection.” They sought a relationship with government that would allow any man to “appeal to the law for his equal rights without regard to the color of his skin.” They argued that voting was essential to citizen status, and they looked beyond Virginia, calling the franchise “the privilege of the nation.” They were “natives of American soil,” and “citizens of the country.”[7] These Virginians joined black activists throughout the country in outlining a vision of a new legal order. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a group declared “we are American Citizens,” and argued that because of their status, “protection and equal right to the ballot and the law, are due to us.”[8] The Civil War produced new legal relationships between the federal government and individual black people, and activists worked to sustain and shape the terms of those relationships.

It is difficult to know whether lawmakers read statements that black conventions produced or if they looked to black activists for ideas about the formal lawmaking process. But the legal terms of Reconstruction reflected many of black peoples’ chief concerns. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 declared black Americans to be citizens by birth and extended to them a set of protections by way of that status. Alongside the specific right to contract, to file lawsuits, to testify in court, and to hold property, the act secured to black people “full and equal benefit of all laws . . . as is enjoyed by white citizens.”[9] Republicans in Congress then strengthened that law by embedding its ideas in the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment echoed key provisions of the act, declaring citizenship a birthright and connecting it to equal protection of the laws. It empowered Congress to describe and enforce the legal relationship between individuals and the federal government. Together, these measures built a new legal order and held out the potential for further change by providing a broad outline of citizenship and allowing lawmakers to continue building its terms.[10] As black people had long desired, Reconstruction linked them to a powerful federal government responsible for legislating racial equality.

Whether or not lawmakers listened to black activists, the terms of Reconstruction emerged from a context that black people had helped to produce. Activists framed citizenship as a rights-bearing status and an important individual legal identity. Most republican lawmakers came from northern states where black people had consistently made such arguments about the nature of citizenship and the terms of their legal lives. By calling themselves citizens and using familiar forms of popular politics, African Americans shifted ideas about the possibilities of the nation’s laws, helping people to imagine and legislate black citizenship. They shaped the language available to lawmakers, insisting that citizenship should be a foundational legal status, a robust connection between individuals and the state.

But the story of the Fourteenth Amendment is also one about black Americans identifying and challenging its limits. In October 1868, a group of activists issued a public call for a national convention. They were concerned with a section of the amendment that outlined penalties to be imposed on states that denied black men the vote. Many people saw this gesture at protection as a tacit endorsement of black disfranchisement. Those who called for a convention worried that the new law allowed for “the partial or total exclusion of colored citizens from the exercise of the elective franchise and other citizen rights.” “Surely,” they said, “citizenship, as declared by that amendment, carries with it the rights of citizens.”[11]

Shortly thereafter, the Fifteenth Amendment would help secure black men’s voting rights, but immediately following the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification, activists were concerned about the implications of a law that implicitly separated suffrage from citizenship. They spoke publicly about the flaws of the Fourteenth Amendment, continuing the work they had done in the antebellum period. That work—molding and challenging the specific language of the law—pointed a way forward for subsequent struggles by those who sought to define the legal protections available through citizenship. Black Americans in the 1860s understood that the Constitutional changes of Reconstruction were incomplete steps toward justice. They felt entitled to an array of rights and protections as citizens, and they were clear that the Fourteenth Amendment had failed to secure them. They saw, as people would continue to see, that legal declarations of equality could have limited effects on their lives and often fail to manifest their visions of justice. Since 1868, people who have been marginalized because of their gender, ability, or other characteristics, have continued to build citizenship, hoping to clarify and expand the array of rights and protections to which they are entitled under the Fourteenth Amendment.


[1] See for instance Elizabeth Pryor, Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[2] On these uncertainties, see James Kettner, The Development of American Citizenship, 1608-1870 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973); William J. Novak, “The Legal Transformation of Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America,” in The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History, ed. Meg Jacobs, Novak, and Julian E. Zelizer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[3] Robert Purvis, Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1838).

[4] Sharon Romeo, Gender and the Jubilee: Black Freedom and the Reconstruction of Citizenship in Civil War Missouri (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016); Laura F. Edwards, A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 64-89.

[5] African Americans gathered in Baltimore for a convention in 1852, the only documented meeting of its type held in the South before the Civil War. “Maryland Free Colored Peoples’ Convention,” Colored Conventions Project, accessed June 19, 2018,; Andrew Diemer, The Politics of Black Citizenship: Free African Americans in the Mid-Atlantic Borderland, 1817-1863 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

[6] “Liberty, and Equality Before the Law. Proceedings of the Convention of the Colored People of Va., Held in the City of Alexandria, Aug. 2, 3, 4, 5, 1865,” (Alexandria, VA: Cowing & Gillis, Book and Job Printers, 1865), 3-4. Colored Conventions Project, accessed July 7, 2018,

[7] “Liberty, and Equality Before the Law,”10-12.

[8] Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, “To the Honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the United States, in Congress Assembled,” January 20, 1866, 2, 4-5. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York City.

[9] Civil Rights Act of 1866, 14 Stat. 27, sec. 1.

[10] George Rutherglen, Civil Rights in the Shadow of Slavery: The Constitution, Common Law, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Edwards, A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction, 102-105.

[11] Proceedings of the National Convention of the Colored Men of America, Held in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 14, 15, and 16, 1869 (Washington, D.C.: Great Republic Book and Job Printing Establishment, 1869), 1.

Christopher Bonner

Christopher Bonner teaches African American history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is at work on a book manuscript that explores the ways black protest shaped the development of American citizenship in the mid-nineteenth century.

A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment

A Muster Roundtable on the Fourteenth Amendment

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[1] On July 9, 1868, one of the Reconstruction Era’s boldest innovations became law. Birthright citizenship, equal protection of the laws, and voting rights entered the constitutional pantheon, pointing the way forward for a nation that had been deeply scarred by slavery, racism, and a war that wrought nothing less than a revolution. An unparalleled experiment in interracial democracy was underway.

Here, in 2018, we have not the luxury, however, of looking back to 1868 with collective nostalgia or national self-congratulation. Today, the Fourteenth Amendment is under attack by those who see in its terms unwelcome or overtrod paths to belonging, equality, and the dignity of all persons in the United States. Calls for its repeal or to otherwise radically narrow its interpretation are coming from quarters both refined and popular: at podiums, on placards, in law reviews, via Tweets, and on the op-ed page.

Historians have a role to play, and this week Muster has assembled four scholars, all of whom take the view that to engage the present we must understand the past. Their research permits us to examine closely the Fourteenth Amendment, its purpose, and its effect in its own time. And as we appear fated to revisit the amendment in political and policy terms in the coming months and years, they propose that we enter this debate well equipped with a sense of the history out of which it emanated.

The Fourteenth Amendment’s birthright citizenship clause was the culmination of black activism, but it did not go far enough. In this roundtable, Christopher Bonner and Andrew Diemer explain the origins of Section 1, which provided generally that all persons born in the United States were citizens of the United States. With it was swept aside a half century of legal ambiguity that had enshrouded the lives of black Americans, especially former slaves. In July 1868, they became citizens.

Grassroots ideas became inscribed in the text of the nation’s highest law. Bonner explains that this was a culmination of black activism of the preceding decades — the constitutionalization of a claim to citizenship that had long been made within African American political culture. Diemer examines these same claims and sees in them more that an insistence upon birthright. In his view, the Fourteenth Amendment was only a partial victory for black activists. There is little surprise then that struggles for equality did not end in 1868.

Post-Reconstruction political forces soon compromised the new principle of equal protection of the laws. In her contribution, Hilary Green explains how black Americans saw in the Fourteenth Amendment a promise that, beyond slavery, racism too would be relegated to the past. They were disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court, a crucible in which the meaning of equality was made and ultimately narrowed. Still, former slaves were emboldened by the language of the Constitution and kept its commitment to equality alive, even when the Supreme Court did not.

Finally, Aaron Astor reminds us of Eric Foner’s long-ago admonition that the Fourteenth Amendment can only be fully understood by a reading of its entire five sections. There were shortcomings built into the Amendment, known to the framers and commentators alike in 1868. Astor urges us to return to these and other “overlooked” sections of the Fourteenth Amendment. Their present day utility may surprise us.

Together, these essays make the case that the Fourteenth Amendment, even at the moment of its ratification, was neither inevitable nor unassailable. Recalling its intent and effect in the nineteenth century tells us that the amendment was both monumental and constrained, and a site of on-going contestation over what it meant to be a member of this nation. In our own time, these brief histories suggest, it is possible to return to the Fourteenth Amendment for lessons — contingencies, cautionary tales, models of struggle, and to access its yet untapped possibilities.


[1] “Amendment XIV,” National Constitution Center, accessed July 7, 2018, Scroll down the left sidebar to read the text of the amendment.

Martha S. Jones

Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. Among other publications, she is the author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, recently published by Cambridge University Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @marthasjones_.

Author Interview: Joseph Yannielli

Author Interview: Joseph Yannielli

Today we share an interview with Joseph Yannielli, who published an article in our special issue on abolition in June 2018, titled “Mo Tappan: Transnational Abolitionism and the Making of a Mende-American Town.” Joseph is a lecturer in Modern History at Aston University. His work can be found in the Journal of American History and the British Journal for the History of Science, among other places. He is also interested in digital history and has developed several projects, most recently the Princeton and Slavery Project.

Thank you so much, Joe, for speaking with us about this fascinating topic. How did you first learn about the existence of this town?

I’m writing a book about the Mendi Mission, which was a community of American abolitionists in Africa, established in the wake of the Amistad slave rebellion. Mo Tappan was the mission’s most remote station, so I knew part of the story. But its founder, John Brooks, was something of a mystery. Apart from his career in Canada, I knew very little about him. I spent years researching his genealogy, and eventually I got in touch with a distant relative who had saved his papers. It was a stunning discovery – thousands of pages of documents shedding light on Mo Tappan (and other aspects of the Mendi Mission) in minute detail. I’ve only just scratched the surface. Yale’s Beinecke Library acquired the collection last year, so other researchers can benefit from this treasure trove of new data.

It is always fun when a side project takes you in interesting directions! What questions guided your investigation into this village called Mo Tappan, and what is the main point that you hope to communicate through this story?

As far as I can tell, Mo Tappan was the first town named after an American abolitionist anywhere in the world. It was a place of tremendous significance. I wanted to understand, why did this happen in Africa? How does this reorient our approach to both African and American history?

The origin myth I discuss at the beginning of the article was my point of entry. It’s an important example of Mende culture and their experience of race and labor. In a way, it tells the story of Mo Tappan from an African perspective. Really the whole article is an attempt to put that folktale into its proper context and understand its meaning and implications. I reproduce the story in its entirety at the beginning of the article because I want readers to dwell on it and draw their own conclusions.

Chief Bunda Amadu and local residents near the site of Mo Tappan on the Sewa River in Sierra Leone. Photo by Joseph Yannielli.

What do we know about the experiences of its residents? What was life like in Mo Tappan?

Mo Tappan was a polyglot community located in modern-day Sierra Leone. Some of its residents were Mende people looking for education or to escape enslavement. Others were migrants from colonial Sierra Leone, Liberia, and adjoining territories. Language study was a central activity. Mo Tappan produced the first printed material in Mende and the missionaries communicated using a custom phonetic script. Residents also studied English and Arabic and collected magic talismans and other artifacts.

As you might imagine, there were conflicts. Local chiefs expressed concern about an abolitionist outpost operating so close to their land. There were also conflicts within the community. There were disputes over wages and responsibilities, and there were a series of interracial marriages. Even among abolitionists, interracial intimacy was controversial. I didn’t have the time or the space to tell the full story in the article, but more on that topic is coming soon!

Excellent! I know I speak for our readers when I say we look forward to learning more. Thinking more broadly, how does an understanding of this town help us understand the abolition movement writ large, especially in terms of trans-Atlantic connections?

Consider William Alcott, who corresponded with John Brooks at Mo Tappan. The Alcotts were famous in the United States as social reformers, educators, and authors. Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women, grew up in that environment. Yet here is a member of the family exchanging information with abolitionist missionaries in Africa. Brooks and Alcott discussed sex, disease, and veganism, among other things. That dialogue shows how ideas circulated across the Atlantic, and in doing so, it alters the coordinates of American history.

The Underground Railroad is another example. Before the Civil War, almost every member of the Mendi Mission was involved, to some extent, in Underground Railroad activities. Brooks, as well as his first two wives, taught American refugees in Canada, and Brooks continued to correspond with Canadian operatives. Their work was very much part of a transnational movement with global implications, and we can’t understand it apart from that context.

Early in your article, you mention that there is “confusion about the relationship between abolitionism and imperialism” (192). This struck me as an especially important point—could you elaborate on what the relationship between imperialism and abolitionism is, in your estimation?

I’m hesitant to make sweeping statements about such a complex problem. I agree with Manisha Sinha that abolitionism, at its core, is deeply subversive.[1] As Natalie Joy argues in her contribution to this special issue, support for indigenous rights and opposition to slaveholder imperialism were central to the movement.[2] Critique of African colonization was another key element of the movement. Ultimately, I think abolitionism can be imperial or anti-imperial, or some murky mix of the two, depending on the context, and depending on how you define the terms.

The Mendi missionaries covered the whole spectrum. Some were skeptical of imperialism and actively opposed British and American encroachment on African territory. Others felt they could leverage imperial authority to their advantage. I think John Brooks and Mo Tappan got caught up in the middle of this and both paid a price for it.

Thank you again, Joe, for participating in this interview. As the issue’s guest editor, Manisha Sinha noted, all of these articles “challenge the oft repeated, virtually reflexive, received historical wisdom on abolition by both broadening our conception of what constitutes abolition and deeply engaging abolitionist archives.”[3] Joe’s article is an excellent example of how scholars of abolition, slavery, and emancipation must expand their geographic scope. We hope readers will find much food for thought in the issue.


[1] Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[2] Natalie Joy, “The Indian’s Cause: Abolitionists and Native American Rights,” Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 2 (June 2018): 215-242.

[3] Manisha Sinha, “Guest Editor’s Introduction: The Future of Abolition Studies” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 2 (June 2018), 187.

Call for Papers: Inaugural Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award

Call for Papers: Inaugural Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award

The Society of Civil War Historians and The Journal of the Civil War Era invite submissions from early career scholars (doctoral candidates at the writing stage and PhDs not more than two years removed from having earned their degree) for the inaugural Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award. Papers on any topic concerning the history of the Civil War era, broadly defined, will be considered.

The winning submission will earn the author a $1,000 award and an additional $500 travel stipend to the Society of Civil War Historians biennial conference in 2020 where the award will be presented. Authors must be willing to attend the conference in order to be eligible for the award. The winning essay also will be eligible for publication in the December 2020 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era.

Submission information: The submission deadline is June 1, 2019. Submissions should be sent to the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center ( with the subject line “Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award.” Submissions should be double-spaced and not exceed 10,000 to 11,000 words, including notes. The award committee prefers submissions written according to The Chicago Manual of Style. The winning essay will be selected by a three-person panel chosen by the JCWE editor.

The award honors Anthony Kaye (1962-2017), a pioneering scholar of slavery at Penn State University and the National Humanities Center. Tony was an active member of the Society of Civil War Historians and one of the founding editors of The Journal of the Civil War Era. This award honors his passion for putting scholars in disparate fields in conversation with each other to enrich our understanding of the past.

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Neither Snow Nor Rain Nor Secession? Mail Delivery and the Experience of Disunion in 1861

Post Office, Mooresville, Alabama. The oldest post office in Alabama, this Mooresville structure dates to the early nineteenth century and exemplifies the humble but significant nodes of the postal network that connected antebellum Americans to each other – and to their government. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If your state seceded from the United States today, how would it first affect your daily life? Scholars typically study the secession crisis of 1860 to 1861 in terms of high politics, with the action unfolding in Washington and southern state capitals. For humbler residents of the seceding states, however, a distant convention did not necessarily make disunion a tangible reality. Instead, many literate white southerners first encountered the practical consequences of secession through the mail.

Historians have long noted that the Post Office was a primary connection between antebellum Americans and the federal government. “For many Americans of that time,” writes one scholar, “mail service was the only daily – or even regular – contact they had with their government. Indeed, in some of the country’s smaller settlements, the post office was the only manifestation of the federal government that people would ever come in direct contact with.”[1] One should not overstate this point: it would be difficult to convince a Cherokee survivor of the Trail of Tears, a post-1848 resident of California or New Mexico, or a fugitive slave captured after 1850, that the antebellum federal government was small and unobtrusive. But the Post Office theme does dramatize changes wrought by the Civil War, during which the federal government conscripted citizens, taxed incomes, and otherwise extended its reach. Less well-known, however, are the ways in which rituals of sending and receiving mail brought the reality of secession into routines of daily life.

Portrait of Postmaster-general John H. Reagan. John H. Reagan of Texas was the Confederacy’s first and only Postmaster-General. After fleeing from Richmond in 1865, Reagan was captured with Jefferson Davis and other Confederate officials in Georgia on May 10. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

U.S. and Confederate policymakers knew that mail delivery was significant as both a public service and an expression of sovereign power. After February 1861, Confederate Postmaster-General John H. Reagan swiftly built a new postal system upon the foundation of the extant U.S. network, aided by postal clerks who brought skills – and all manner of blank forms and other bureaucratic supplies – with them from Washington. Local postmasters, route agents, and other personnel were directed to continue the work they had done under US authority. Reagan would be one of the Confederacy’s most capable cabinet-level officials.[2]

For his part, Abraham Lincoln vowed in his inaugural message to continue delivering the mail in the seceded states, unless such efforts were “repelled” by secessionist attacks.[3] This was part of Lincoln’s policy of maintaining normal relations with the seceded states so far as possible, and it was up to his Postmaster-General, Montgomery Blair, to execute Lincoln’s order. Anticipating trouble, however, Congress had already passed a law in February 1861 authorizing the discontinuance of service on routes where delivery was unsafe; eventually, under this authority, Blair suspended mail delivery in the seceded states (exempting the future state of West Virginia) in late May. Subsequently, mail addressed to a seceded state was routed to the Dead Letter Office in Washington, although later some carefully scrutinized letters did pass between the lines under flag of truce.[4]

The son of Francis Preston Blair, Montgomery Blair was born in Kentucky and spent much of his professional life as an attorney in Missouri and Maryland. Blair, a former Democrat, helped to organize the Republican Party in the mid-1850s and served as Lincoln’s Postmaster-General until September 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Despite the swift movements of Union and Confederate leaders, the situation on the ground was confusing and uncertain, particularly during the secession winter of 1860 to 1861. It was in these wrenching months that Americans first grappled with secession’s sometimes unexpected intrusions into previously mundane daily tasks.

Secession left southern postmasters – who in that era were political appointees, not trained professionals – in a precarious position. Customers continued to buy stamps and post letters, even as a collision between state and federal authorities seemed imminent. Rumors proliferated, and while attention fixated on federal forts (particularly Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina), there was talk of disrupted mail service, too. Knowing that this could leave them dangerously perched between competing sovereignties, postmasters sought guidance. James R. Gates, a postmaster in Mississippi, wrote to Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas for counsel in mid-February. His state had seceded a month before, but he pleaded for assistance from a well-placed US senator who could offer insight into what president-elect Lincoln might do. “Let me know if the mails will be stoped [sic],” he asked, and “when it will take place.”[5]

Postal customers were similarly uneasy. Stephen W. Church, a northern-born merchant living in Charleston, wrote his uncle two weeks after South Carolina seceded to report that everything was “in a complete state of anarchy.” Exhibit A was the pending collapse of the mail system due to a shortage of postage stamps. The local supply had run out, and the Postmaster General had refused to resupply the city. “This of course is one of the least of the troubles,” Church admitted, “but it annoys me very much,” as he had struggled to find a single stamp for the letter to his uncle in New York.[6] For a displaced Yankee, life in Charleston was necessarily nerve-wracking, but the interruption of mail service threatened to isolate him entirely from sympathetic kin.

In secession’s immediate aftermath, addressing a letter sometimes brought home the magnitude of the moment. When Andrew McCollam penned a note to his wife the day after Louisiana’s state convention voted to secede, he dated it from the “Republic of Louisiana.” “From the above caption,” he solemnly reflected, “you will see and perhaps realise the fact that…you are no longer a citizen of our Glorious Republic of North America.” McCollam, a convention delegate, had tried to delay disunion but ultimately accepted that it was inevitable.[7] The gravity of his failure struck him when he first dated a letter from outside the United States.

Disunion was similarly vexing for those seeking to send mail into seceded states. In mid-November 1860, one Washington, DC, resident hastily scribbled a letter to South Carolina fire-eater William Porcher Miles, determined to mail the message before he would “be required to pay ‘foreign postage’ on a letter to Charleston.”[8]

Perhaps no one felt the disruption of mail delivery more keenly than Unionists who were also young and in love. John Wesley Halliburton, a Tennessean attending the University of North Carolina, regularly corresponded with his fiancée (and second cousin) Juliet Halliburton, who lived in Little Rock. Divided from her by distance and politics – Juliet was an avowed secessionist – John worried that disunion would halt mail delivery and permanently divide the star-crossed lovers. “No more to feel the joy which nothing but her letters or presence can inspire,” he lamented. “No more can you render me perfectly happy by telling me you love me….I among the first will suffer from the dissolution of this mighty fabric.” For the lovesick Halliburton, isolation from Juliet would likely be among the “first fruits of that disastrous course” pursued by secessionists.[9]

Envelope Showing Confederate Flag, addressed to Miss Lou Taylor, c. 1861-1865. Patriotic stationery flourished in the Union and Confederacy alike, allowing partisans on both sides to affirm their political loyalties whenever they wrote a letter. This interesting envelope bears the image of the Confederacy’s first national flag, but the recipient lived in Ohio. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In time, however, Unionists and Confederates alike soon found that the mail could also reaffirm new political identities. Hence the abundance of patriotic stationery, emblazoned with flags, slogans, martial imagery, and portraits of national heroes.[10] By using these items, partisans on both sides could express their national loyalties every time they mailed a letter. Some of these nationalistic materials crossed the lines; one can only imagine what Lou Taylor of Cincinnati thought if and when she received the envelope bearing a Confederate flag. Unless she was a displaced rebel, this letter reflects the continued desire to correspond with friends and family living on the other side of the Civil War’s bloody chasm. Thus, whether it ran smoothly or ground to a halt, the mail offered daily reminders that the hard hand of war touched every aspect of life.


[1] Bruce T. Harpham, “Postal Service, U.S.,” in The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History, ed. Christopher G. Bates, 4 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2015), III, 836. See also Melinda Lawson, Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002), 5; Adam I. P. Smith, The American Civil War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 5; and James McPherson, The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6.

[2] Walter Flavius McCaleb, “The Organization of the Post-Office Department of the Confederacy,” American Historical Review 12, no. 1 (October 1906): 66-74.

[3] Abraham Lincoln, “Inaugural Address,” The American Presidency Project, accessed June 4, 2018,

[4] Report of the Postmaster General Respecting the Operations and Condition of the Post Office Department during the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1861 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1861), 10; Amy Murrell Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 107-116.

[5] James R. Gates to Stephen A. Douglas, February 19, 1861, Box 39, Folder 4, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.

[6] Stephen W. Church to Thomas J. Coggeshall, January 3, 1861, Stephen W. Church Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[7] Andrew McCollam to Ellen McCollam, January 27, 1861, Andrew McCollam Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[8] [?] Nelson to William Porcher Miles, November 18, 1860, William Porcher Miles Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[9] John Halliburton to Juliet Halliburton, February 12, 1861, John Wesley Halliburton Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina.

[10] See Stephen W. Berry, “When Mail Was Armor: Envelopes of the Great Rebellion, 1861-1865,” Southern Cultures 4, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 63-83.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.