Summary and Keywords
Beginning in the 1630s, colonial assemblies in English America and later the new United States used legislation and constitutions to enslave Africans and deny free blacks civil rights, including free movement, freedom of marriage, freedom of occupation and, of course, citizenship and the vote. Across the next two centuries, blacks and a minority of whites critiqued the oppressive racialist system. Blacks employed varied tactics to challenge their enslavement, from running away to inciting revolts. Others used fiery rhetoric and printed tracts. In the 1760s, when whites began to search for political and philosophical arguments to challenge what they perceived as political oppression from London, they labeled their experience as “slavery.” The colonists also developed compelling arguments that gave some of them the insight that enslaving Africans was as wrong as what they called British oppression. The Massachusetts lawyer James Otis wiped the mirror clean in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, stating “The colonists, black and white . . . are free-born British subjects . . . entitled to all the essential civil rights.” The Declaration of Independence polished the stained mirror by asserting, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” However, the Constitution of the United States negated these gains by offering federal protection for slavery; it was a covenant with death, as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison later asserted. After the Revolution, many states passed black laws to deprive blacks of the same rights as whites. Blacks commonly could not vote, testify in court against a white, or serve on juries. States barred black children from public schools. The Civil War offered the promise of equality with whites, but when the war ended, many southern states immediately passed black codes to deny blacks the gains won in emancipation.
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