In 1865, the 13th amendment was passed, opening doors for not only African Americans but, also for women and Asians. These three groups now had a step forward to gaining independence for themselves socially, politically, and economically. During the reconstruction era, Freedmen, women and Asians gained different levels of independence. With the racial and gender boundaries altered but not removed, women and Asians gained citizenship but, were stopped from gaining other equal rights. Freedmen gained access to education, the right to vote and the ability to further themselves on the economic ladder but, they did not obtain one of their primary goals – obtaining land to live and work on.
Freedmen, after the end of slavery, began to rebuild their families. They gathered on the “40 acres and a mule” land promised to them by William T. Sherman at the end of the civil war. They found small jobs either as labor in the fields or in homes as cooks and maids to support their families and newfound freedom.
The equality African Americans dreamed of was to use their own labor on their own land to support themselves and their families. But their dream was quickly shattered when Sherman lands were returned to the previous owners by President Andrew Johnson when he took office. This was a major setback for the emancipated slaves because the ability to find affordable working land was impossible.
In turn, Johnson’s decision caused many families to become sharecroppers and “enslaved” once again to white landowners. Former slaves petitioned Johnson saying, “We want homesteads, we were promised Homesteads by the government,” (Foner, 562) They explain further how they were encouraged to take these lands and were ready to pay for them.
With the land removed from their ownership, African Americans felt cheated by the Union which they fought to defend. They had once believed the Union was a “true friend” (Foner, 6) to their race that would offer protection and equal rights along with a homestead.
With the inability to obtain property, African Americans focused on the freedoms they gained after the war. “In its individual elements and much of its language, former slaves’ definition of freedom resembled that of white Americans—self ownership, family stability, religious liberty, political participation and economic unity.” (Foner, 560) Henry Adams, an emancipated slave, said, “if I cannot do like a white man, I am not free.” Freedom meant no more unfair punishments, bringing their families back together, education, and the same opportunities as citizens.
To maintain an order to society, Congress enacted the Freedmen’s Bureau which provided assistance to emancipated slaves. This assistance was supposed to help Freedmen establish schools, provide health care, secure equal treatment before the courts and aid in economic stability. The most positive impact the Freedman’s Bureau had, was aiding education. The bureau helped find funding from northern societies to establish the education system. To some education was “the next best thing to liberty.” (Foner, 558) Education allowed many freedmen to grow their understanding in politics and eventually hold offices.
Another newfound freedom of African Americans was demonstrating their religion in masses. This gave them an opportunity to celebrate their culture without the supervision of whites and to improve themselves. Church became the establish community for many emancipated slaves. African Americans were better able to study the Bible because education in reading and writing grew with the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Religion and education were closely tied during this era, and it helped create a close tie in the community between whites and African Americans because of the improvement seen in schools and churches.
In addition to building a stable family, religion and education, there was also a drive for the right to vote and citizenship among African Americans. A faction of the Republican Party, the Radical Republicans, believed equality would strengthen the nation. They used the Union victory to “institutionalize the principle of equal rights for all, regardless of race.” (Foner, 571) The radicals took steps after Johnson and black codes in southern states continued to suppress former slaves. They help freedmen by passing the 14th and 15th amendments. The 14th amendment was an important change to the laws of the United States.
It gave people who were born in the united states or became naturalized, the right to be a citizen of the united states. This caused a major change in the protections of African Americans. The 14th amendment along with the civil rights act allowed political equality among freedmen and whites. The Black Codes enacted in 1865 to suppress freedmen were now unconstitutional because African Americans were now citizens equally protected. The 15th amendment gave a voice to African American men by allowing them to vote in elections. These constitutional changes allowed equality on a higher level, allowing African Americans to share their thoughts in politics and be protected by the constitution. Radical Republicans helped insure equality before the law and education for freedmen and this fulfilled the democratic promise during the reconstruction.
As changes for Freedmen were spreading through the nation, others were fighting for their own equality. The emancipation of slaves created the drive for women to begin their demands for equal rights. A major fighter for equality in the home was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In Home Life, she states, “a question of magnitude presses on our consideration, whether a man and woman are equal, joint heirs to all the richness and joy of earth and Heaven, or whether they were eternally ordained, one to be sovereign, the other slave.” (Foner, 14) Stanton, the biggest influencer in the emancipation of women, stirred the interest of other women by asking them if they were okay with having the authority of men over them while slave holders lost their slaves. Stanton believed that men were not ready to recognize the independence of women in the home due to the fear it would ruin the family.
Stanton explained that independence of women would revolutionize the home and, “marriage as an indissoluble tie is slavery for women.” (Foner, 16) To help push for emancipation of women, Stanton argued for legislation that would create a marriage to be “a civil contract, it should be subject to the laws of all other contracts carefully made, the parties of age, and all agreements faithfully observed.” (Foner, 16) This contract would lead to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as stated in the constitution because “the freer the relations are between human beings, the happier” (Foner, 17) In sum, Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued for a change in marriage laws to create and independence for women. This independence would not give much freedom in politics or economics, but it would in the home life which was the center of a woman’s world during reconstruction.
Other women believed change would come to them if they were given the right to vote. Suffragist leader Olympia Brown, believed this was the time to “bury the black man and the woman in the citizen.” She and many other feminists did not support the 14th or 15th amendments because the amendments “did nothing to enfranchise women.” (Foner, 578) The 14th amendment gave the title “citizen” to women but, women wanted more. The inclusion of the word “man” in the 15th amendment created a barrier that would cause women to be discriminated against for many years after the reconstruction. The reconstruction period did not change any laws for women, but it did begin the fight for their equality in the eyes of the government and society.
Besides freed slaves and women who wished for equal rights, there was another group who wished to have rights as an American. Asians were not allowed any of the freedoms expressed to African Americans or white people. Many would speak that the racial boundary was erased but, it had simply been redrawn to exclude Asians. This redrawn line did not go unnoticed, an argument was presented before congress by Charles Sumner to allow Asians to become naturalized citizens. Fredrick Douglass also made an argument for equal rights for Asian Americans.
He states in The Composite Nation, “we have for a long time hesitated to adopt and may yet to refuse to adopt, and carry out, the only principle which can solve that difficulty and give peace, strength and security to the republic, and that is the principle of absolute equality.” (Foner, 19) This quote asks the question, why we, as a nation, do not allow absolute equality? Douglass argues that Asians should have just as many rights as anyone else because differences in society are not decreasing but they will increase, and the United States should be welcoming and accepting of that. But the same argument stands for Asians and women on why they do not receive equality in the eyes of the republic, white men are not accepting of the new societal terms.
The constitution states, “all men are created equal.” It is the job of the united states government to uphold the constitution and ensure the country abides by those words. Frederick Douglass states in The Composite Nation, “I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.” Between these two documents, it should be affirmed when people are born in the United States, they are treated fairly and justly.
These ideas are not new, they were written into the constitution and thus become the law. During the reconstruction era, life was about adjustment. African Americans and women were now citizens and the culture was changing towards acceptance of equal rights. Some rights were more difficult to obtain, such as, land and proper work. Women made it a priority to become a citizen and spread their voice in government and even though they did not obtain the right to vote, they had managed to step towards the line of equality. Asian Americans found support through politicians such as Fredrick Douglass and his work did not go unnoticed. In sum, the reconstruction era changed how equal rights were thought of and redrew boundaries, slowly making equal rights for all and accessible idea.