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Question for Discussion: How does the struggle over Slavery
 and Black rights help us understand the inherent 
contradictions in American freedom, liberty, 
and rights?

Assigned Reading: Chalberg, pp. 17-24; Primis, pp.3, 20-22, 54;
Douglass handout; read "Declaration of Independence",  
"Preamble" to the Constitution, and the 
American Bill of Rights" on the web-site.

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1. Southern Confederate States

2. The Debate over Slavery

3. Reaction Paper to Douglass vs. Taney

4. The Meaning of the Civil War

5. Blacks and Whites in the South after the Civil War

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1. What are the basic rights spelled out in the Declaration of Independence?

2. What is the nature of the society and government that is laid out in the Declaration of Independence?

3. What are the basic rights that Americans are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.

4. According to the Preamble to the Constitution, what are the basic responsibilities of the Federal Government?

5. Why does Douglass believe that slavery is incompatible with basic American rights and values?

6. What are the Supreme Court's major arguments in Dred Scott vs. Sandford supporting the rights of Americans to own slaves?

7. According to President Lincoln, what is the meaning of the Civil War?

8. What are the major arguments Henry Turner makes for Blacks serving in office and voting in the South after the Civil War?

9. What are the major arguments James Pike makes against Blacks serving in office and voting in the South after the Civil War?

10. Do you think it was reasonable to expect Southern Whites after the Civil War to treat Blacks as equals, as full American citizens with all the basic rights guaranteed to them?

11. How long would it take for Southern Whites to accept Blacks as equals?

12. Did Northern Whites accept Blacks as full citizens with equal rights as Americans after the Civil War?

13. What role did White American racism play in denying Blacks their full rights as Americans after the Civil War?

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United States Founding Documents

Debate on Rights in America

Reconstruction and the Rights of Freed Slaves

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In July 1858, Stephen Douglas laid out his position on slavery and Black rights in America. He was trying to distinguish his position from Abraham Lincoln, who was his political opponent. Lincoln argued that American can't survive as a nation "half free and half slave." Douglas's response was to argue:

"In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men.....

I am opposed to taking any step that recognizes the Negro man or the Indian as the equal of the white man. I am opposed to giving him a voice in the administration of the government. I would extend to the Negro, and the Indian, and to all dependent races every right, every privilege, and every immunity consistent with the safety and welfare of the white races; but equality they never should have, either political or social, or in any other respect whatever.

My friends, you see that the issues are distinctly drawn." (Loewen, p. 154)

In order to understand the debate over slavery and Black rights, we need to first understand the basic values and principles that Americans bring to this debate. How can a nation built on liberty, freedom, and equality justify and allow slavery? Supporters of slavery argued that slaves were not people, not citizens of American, and merely property, just like any other form of property; therefore, White Americans had the right to own and exploit the lives and labor of Blacks. Critics of slavery argued that Blacks were men, and as men deserved the basic rights guaranteed to men in American society. They argued that if Americans enslaved Blacks that America was undermining its fundamental institutions and values. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, charged that slavery made "America false to the past, false to the present, and false to the future."

Before we can understand this debate over slavery, we need to look at the basic rights and freedoms described in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence is America's founding document; it lays out the basic principles that American society is based on. While the Constitution lays out the structure of government that was created to protect and ensure these principles. The Declaration of Independence defines American society and basic principles in opposition to the British, whose rule Americans are challenging in the Revolutionary War.

Instead of a nation, such as Britain, that is ruled by a King and an aristocracy of noblemen--people who receive their titles on the basis of their birth, the Declaration declares that in America "all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It is in these famous lines that Americans are spelling out the basic assumptions of our democratic society. In America, unlike Britain, no one is born superior to another, all are born equal, and guaranteed certain basic rights. These rights do not depend on birth, your wealth, your religion, or your political beliefs.

What does the Declaration mean by "life, liberty, and happiness"? Why don't the Founding Fathers spell out a long list of basic rights that all men as Americans deserve? Life, liberty, and happiness best summarize the general rights that might be weakened by laying them out in a long laundry list of rights. So what do they mean by life, liberty, and happiness? Life means that Americans have the inherent, God-given right to control their bodies, their lives, their labor, and who and what they will make of their life. Liberty means that Americans have the inherent, God-given right to the freedom to shape and control their lives, they have the freedom to speak, think, believe, act, and live in the manner that they see fit. No government, society, organization, or other men can deny them the right to live and think and speak their minds as they choose. The Declaration declares that Americans have the "right to the pursuit of happiness." So what do Americans mean by the pursuit of happiness? For many Americans, happiness includes material wealth, success, security, family and children, and winning the esteem and respect of others. The Declaration declares that Americans have the right to pursue happiness; they aren't guaranteed to achieve it, but they have the right to shape and control their lives and seek opportunities that will enable them to gain the success and happiness they desire.

It is important to understand what Americans mean by the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" because it is precisely the denial of these rights that have caused Americans to declare their Independence from Britain. The Declaration argues that " to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." If the end and purpose of government is to protect, ensure, and promote these basic American rights, then because the British government is violating and denying those basic rights, Americans have the right to sever their ties with the British and "form a new government" that will protect their basic rights.

The Constitution lays the foundation for an American government that will protect and ensure the basic rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence. The Bill of Rights was later added to the Constitution in 1791 to prevent the strong, powerful central government created by the Constitution from threatening the basic rights of Americans. The first ten amendments spell out the basic rights that government cannot violate. It was the violation of many of these basic rights that caused American to demand Independence from Britain. So what are these basic rights? Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable search and seizures, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, just to name a few. But recognizing the dangers of leaving out rights that many Americans hold dear, the ninth amendment declares that "the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Under the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the United States is a society based on basic rights, freedoms, and liberties. So how can we allow slavery?

The inherent problem with creating a society that protects and promotes individual rights arises when one person's rights threaten or deny other people their basic rights. For example, today many Americans believe that they have the Constitutional right to own a machine gun or a rocket launcher. But do they have the right to carry a machine gun in a crowded mall or public space? Many Americans would say the person's right to carry the machine gun interferes with their right to security, safety, and freedom from intimidation or coercion. In a similar vein, supporters of American slavery argue that they have the right to own Blacks as property, and use their property as they see fit; after all, they bought their slaves, and the government must protect their property. While critics of slavery would argue that the Black man's right to freedom clearly outweighs the white man's right to own Blacks as property. In the United States, the Courts weigh and balance competing claims of rights. They decide which rights take precedence over others. Historically, Americans have looked to the Courts both to protect slavery and to deny whites the right to enslave Blacks.

Let's look at the debate over slavery by studying a series of court cases that attempt to weigh these competing rights. In the 1780 Massachusetts Supreme Court case, "Cushing in Quock Walker," the court was asked to rule on whether a white slaveholder had the right to beat his black slave. The slave argued that he had the right to be free from such physical abuse under American law. The court begins by noting that historically, Americans have treated Blacks as slaves: "We sell and treat them as our horses and cows." But are Black slaves mere property like horses and cows to be bought and sold, used and exploited, and even beaten? The Massachusetts Supreme Court rules that slavery is incompatible with the new laws of the state of Massachusetts, because under those laws "all men are born free and equal--and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property...." The liberty and freedom guaranteed by state law makes slavery illegal. The court therefore concludes that the Black man's rights to freedom and liberty are greater than the white slaveholder's rights to own and work Blacks as property.

In the 1901 Supreme Court case, "Downes vs. Bidwell," the Court is asked to rule on whether the people living in America's newly acquired colonies in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States and have basic rights that the government must recognize and protect. The court concludes that these people are not Americans and do not have rights that the government and Americans must respect: "If those possession are inhabited by alien races, different from us in religion, customs, laws, methods of taxation and modes of thought, the administration of government and justice according to Anglo-Saxon principles may for a time be impossible." The Court is here arguing that American citizenship and rights are based on race, religion, culture, and society. Only white Anglo-Saxon, Christian, civilized peoples are entitled to basic rights in American society. Of course, it was this same argument that allowed Americans to deny the rights of Indians.

In the 1857 Supreme Court case, "Dred Scott vs. Sanford," the Court is asked to rule whether the slave Dred Scott should be granted his freedom because he lived in Wisconsin, where slavery is illegal, but was forced to move back to Missouri, where slavery was legal, and live as a slave. In this case, the Court is asked to rule on whether the 1820 Missouri Compromise that made slavery illegal north of "thirty-six degrees thirty minutes north latitude, and not included within the limits of Missouri" is constitutional. But the larger question the Course was asked to rule on was: Do Blacks have rights in America that the government and society must protect?

The Court ruled in Dred Scott vs. Sanford that Blacks, whether slave or free, were not "acknowledged as part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used" in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. The Court must now present its larger argument for why Blacks have no rights which the government or society must protect. The Court first argues that 1) Blacks are inferior beings "unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." Here the Court is declaring that Blacks are not men, not entitled to rights, and are so inferior that whites can make them slaves for their own good. The Court now argues that 2) Blacks are property, like any "ordinary article or merchandise or property." Because Blacks are not men and are forms of property, the Court argues that 3) Whites have the right to own and control slaves as property; this "right of property in a slave that is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution." Because Whites have the right to own and control Blacks as property, the Court argues that 4) the government cannot prohibit Whites from owning and using their slaves anywhere in the United States. The Court therefore concludes that slavery is legal throughout the United States.

This Supreme Court ruling helped caused the Civil War because Lincoln as President in 1860 said that he would not enforce this ruling, because the Court did not have the right to enforce slavery on the Free States of the North where slavery had been illegal for years. Southern slaveholders argued that Lincoln's refusal to protect their right to own slaves as property was a major threat to their basic rights and liberties. The South seceded from the Union, declaring its independence, arguing on the basis of the Declaration of Independence that they had the right to form their own government and union if the Government of the United States would not protect and ensure their rights to own Blacks as property. Slaveholders clearly believed that their rights to own Blacks as property are clearly greater than the rights of Blacks to their freedom and liberty.


"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Let's now look at Frederick Douglass's argument against slavery in order to understand why Lincoln and many Northerners felt that the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision threatened their rights. A former slave who was forced to purchase his freedom, fearing his arrest and recapture, Douglass became an anti-slavery activist in the North in the 1850s and 1860s. In his "Independence Day Speech at Rochester" in 1852, Douglass lays out the major arguments against slavery held by many Northern abolitionists and critics of slavery.

Douglass begins his argument by asking his audience why he was invited to speak at an Independence Day celebration. How can he be asked to speak about and celebrate American freedom and liberty while millions of his Black brethren are suffering under slavery. Douglass argues that not only Blacks but Americans cannot celebrate American freedom as long as slavery exists, because slavery contradicts the basic values that America is supposed to stand for. Douglass argues that America is "false to the part, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself false to the future" as long as its allows and support slavery. He charges that slavery is "the great sin and shame of America." Douglass now must support and defend his larger argument.

Douglass begins his argument by observing that he shouldn't have to argue about the wrongs of slavery in an American society founded on freedom and liberty for all men. Americans should intuitively understand that slavery is incompatible with American values. But Douglass now goes on to argue this point anyway. He begins by arguing that 1) a slave is a man. Slaves are morally and legally responsible for their actions. Blacks have proved they are men by becoming lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, etc. In addition, Blacks are men because they are Christians, they worship the same God as their white masters. If Black slaves are men, then Douglass argues that 2) as men they are entitled to their liberty, and they are the rightful owners of their bodies, not their white masters. He declares that "there is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him." If Blacks are men and entitled to liberty, Douglass argues that 3) it is wrong to enslave them. He argues that it is wrong to make "men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant,...." If God created all men equal and gave them certain inalienable rights, then Douglass argues that 4) slavery violates God's will, because by denying Blacks their basic God-given rights, whites are taking the place of God. He declares that "slavery is not divine...that which is inhuman cannot be divine." Douglass now concludes his argument by declaring that slavery undermines America's claim to being a nation built on freedom and liberty for all men. As long as slavery exists, he charges American will stand alone among all the nations of the world for "revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy." For Douglass, as long as Americans believe that Whites' rights to own slaves is greater than Blacks' rights to freedom and liberty, America cannot celebrate itself as a nation of freedom, justice, equality, and rights.

Now, how would Douglass respond the Supreme Court's Dred Scott ruling? He would have to step by step undermine each of the arguments the Court presents while at the same time proving that each of his arguments are valid. Douglass would challenge his reader to reject the Court's argument while at the same time accept his argument against slavery. The easiest way to write this reaction paper--How would Douglass respond to the Supreme Court's argument supporting slavery?--is to outline both of their arguments, and to use these arguments to lay out the larger arguments of your reaction paper.

Douglass's Argument Supreme Court's Argument
Thesis: Slavery is un-American Thesis: Slavery is an American Right
1. Blacks are men 1. Blacks aren't men
2. Blacks as men are entitled to liberty 2. Blacks are Property, like land
3. Whites can't own Blacks 3. Whites can own Blacks as Property
4.Whites can't enslave Blacks without
violating American values and God's laws
4. Society must protect Whites'
Rights to own Blacks
Conclusion: American can't be free
until it ends Slavery
Conclusion: Slavery is legal and a
basic right in U.S.

Tips for Writing Reaction Papers

A good reaction paper always begin with highlighting and exposing the weakness of the opponent's arguments and examples. You want to use their own arguments and examples against them. Remember, you only need to write one reaction paper before the midterm is due.

Critical Historical Essay Format:

  1. Always begin your essay with the larger question to be explored and
    answered by your larger argument.

  2. Your thesis--your larger argument--should attempt to take a position or
    answer the question your paper begins with.

  3. In the Body of your essay, include at least three supporting arguments
    that attempt to prove your thesis.

  4. For the most part, your supporting arguments should go from weakest
    argument first building to your strongest argument last.

  5. In a good essay, each supporting argument builds on and elaborates on
    the preceding argument.

  6. Remember, the purpose of an essay is to prove your thesis. So after each supporting argument remind the reader how this argument supports your
    larger argument.

  7. Your conclusion should begin by restating your thesis.

  8. In the body of your conclusion you should try to convince your reader
    that your argument is important by answering what I call "the so what question?": Why is your argument important? and Why should your reader remember it? You can do this by relating your thesis to a larger issue that you know your reader already cares about.

  9. When you look over your first draft always ask: Can an ignorant reader, who knows nothing about your topic, understand your argument? Always try to write to the largest possible audience. Never assume that your reader understands your points or your examples.

  10. After writing a first draft, go back and look at your introduction. Is your thesis clear? Do you highlight in your introduction some of the points you want to argue in the body of your paper?

  11. Always revise and redraft, trying to make your arguments and examples stronger and more precise.

The debate over American rights and slavery illustrate the troublesome and inherent contradiction in a society based on rights and freedoms at the same time allowing slavery. This contradiction between America's professed principles and values and its denial of basic rights to Blacks and other minorities will be exploited by supporter of civil rights and granting freedom to all Americans. This struggle over the meaning of rights in America and who is entitled to these rights is still going on to this day.