In 1776, the American colonists decided to declare their independence from England. Thomas Jefferson, a young lawyer from Virginia, was asked to write a Declaration of Independence to inform the English and other nations about this decision. In the Declaration, Jefferson wrote... We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all men are created equal...
But in spite of Jefferson’s words, not all Americans were equal. In fact, about 1/5 of all the people in America were slaves. The question of slavery would haunt America throughout its history.
Here, questions about slavery came up and arguments broke out.. After the Revolutionary War was won, the founders gathered to draft a Constitution to form a new government.
It became clear that the Southern states would never join the new United States of America if slavery were outlawed by the Constitution. Both sides made compromises about slavery to try to unite the states. The issue of slavery was finally left open... an issue that future generations would have to deal with.
Throughout the early 1800s people in the Northern states voiced their beliefs that slavery should be abolished. They were called abolitionists. The abolitionist movement grew. Every time a new state wanted to join the union, big arguments broke out about whether the state should be a free or slave state. Things were getting worse between the Northern and Southern states.
In 1857 the Supreme Court decided a case of a runaway slave named Dred Scott. Dred Scott was suing for his freedom, but the court held that the Constitution protected slavery and that African Americans were not citizens protected by the Constitution. The Southern states pressured the federal government to pass stronger laws for the capture of runaway slaves. This decision made the abolitionists very angry. It left no room for compromise.
Then, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected President... This caused most of the Southern states to leave the Union. Electoral Map of 1860. Lincoln carried red states. The nation was pushed closer to civil war....by the Northern states.
By April, 1861, war broke out among the Northern and Southern states.
In 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in the rebel states.
After four bloody years of civil war, the South was defeated.
“Slavery…shall not exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 13th Amendment (1865) 14th Amendment (1868) All people born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens. All citizens must be treated equally under the law. Due process of law for all. Sometimes called the “Civil War Amendments.” After the Civil War ended, Congress passes three new Amendments to the Constitution.
Right to vote cannot be denied based on “race, color, or previous…servitude.” 15th Amendment (1870)
And 50 years later another equal protection Amendment was added... 19th Amendment (1920) Women’s right to vote.
Federal troops stayed in the South until 1877 and made sure these new laws were enforced. But after that, unfortunately, new laws were passed in the South that denied many of the rights that the former slaves had won, like the right to vote. These laws became known as “Jim Crow Laws.”
In 1896, the case of Plessy v. Ferguson came before the Supreme Court challenging the Jim Crow laws. Homer Plessy had been convicted of sitting in the “white” section of a train. The Supreme Court ruled that Plessy’s conviction would stand. The court held that it was not a violation of the Constitution to have separate facilities for different races as long as the facilities were equal. This became known as the “separate but equal” rule.
It was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court overturned the separate but equal doctrine in one of its most famous cases... Brown v. Board of Education The court’s ruling on this case made it illegal to segregate public schools.
segregated public facilities, job discrimination, and ensured voting rights for all citizens. Later, laws passed by Congress ended...
The struggle for equality has been an important part of America’s history. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were created to right the wrongs of slavery. But it is important to remember that these amendments apply to all citizens. They ensure equal protection of the law for people of all racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Today, there are still struggles for equal protection. It is up to the courts to uphold the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as they hear cases dealing with discrimination.
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