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Race, and Gender in Revolutionary America
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The American colonies were settled by people of deep religious
convictions who crossed the Atlantic to escape religious persecution
and practice their faith freely. New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
and Maryland were founded for religious reasons.
The Great Awakening of the 1730s and '40s, the first event shared
by all the colonists, promoted the growth of the Presbyterian,
Baptist, and Methodist churches. It convinced many Americans
that God works directly through the people and that Christ's
Second Coming was rapidly approaching.
Religion contributed greatly to the Revolution. Many clergy
pictured the Church of England as a dangerous, almost diabolical,
enemy of American freedom and argued that resistance to tyranny
was a Christian duty.
Both the central and state governments were convinced that morality
and national survival depended upon religion. But there was
also a growing belief that government and the churches should
be separate. Intense debate erupted over the propriety of government
providing tax support to an established church or indeed to
The Revolution gave rise to the American System of religious
were disestablished, that is, they lost tax support.
Concern about Deism and skepticism led Evangelicals and others
to band together to ensure that the United States remained a
godly nation. Through camp meetings, religious revivals, and
moral reform, revivalists and reformers sought to save souls
and save the republic.
and the Constitution
Constitution, Article VI: "No religious Test shall ever
be required as Qualification" for federal office holders.
1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
Did the Constitution's framers intended to build the 'wall of
separation' between church and state?
the separation of church and state mean that prayer and moments
of silence should not be allowed in public schools?
the separation of church and state allow for clergy to participate
in graduation ceremonies?
religious displays appear on public property?
What does freedom of religion mean?
it mean that members of particular religious sects do not have
to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school or that they can practice
the separation of church and state allow individuals to bring
religious items into the workplace or school classroom?
The Revolutionary Era transformed slavery into a moral problem.
The colonists were convinced that the British Parliament was
seeking to reduce them to political slavery, and it proved impossible
to ignore the parallel between political slavery and chattel
The First Continental Congress called on the colonies to end
the international slave trade. Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland,
North and South Carolina, and Virginia did so.
African American soldiers served with valor at the battles of
Lexington and Bunker Hill. In November 1775, however, Congress
decided to exclude blacks from future enlistment out of a sensitivity
to the opinion of southern slaveholders. But in 1775, the royal
governor of Virginia offered to emancipate slaves who joined
the Royal Army. Lord Dunmore's offer of freedom led Congress
reluctantly to reverse it decision, fearful that black soldiers
might join the redcoats.
The Revolution was highly disruptive to the institution of slavery.
A third of the slaves in Georgia and a quarter of the slaves
in South Carolina escaped during the fighting. Free blacks became
the fastest growing portion of the population.
As a result of the Revolution, slavery was transformed into
a purely sectional institution. When the war was over, the New
England and Middle Atlantic states abolished slavery by legislative
or judicial action or adopted gradual emancipation schemes.
Still, as late as 1810 there were more than 30,000 slaves in
the northern states.
The Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in the west north of
The late 18th century witnessed the emergence of pseudo-scientific
Was the Constitution a Pro- or Anti-Slavery Document?
original Constitution never mentions the word slavery.
slavery was debated from the first day of substantive debates
until the last and led to numerous explosions.
Constitution gave Congress the power to enact a fugitive slave
law; power to put down uprisings.
were only two unamendable provisions of the Constitution. One
guaranteed states a republican form of government; the other
forbade legislation restricting the slave trade until 1808
3/5s Compromised enhanced Southern power in the House of Representatives
and the electoral college. In 1820, it gave the southern states
an additional 20 representatives.
the Revolution strengthened the slave South, since there was
no all-powerful Parliament to abolish slavery. But the Revolution
also created a radical egalitarian ideology that undermined
the legitimacy of slavery
What was the status of free blacks after the Revolution?
post-Revolutionary military excluded blacks
naturalization laws limited the process to whites only
the 1820s, blacks could not carry the federal mail or hold elective
office in the District of Columbia.
new state denied free blacks the vote; most did not allow free
blacks to serve on juries or testify in cases involving whites.
states (including Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Oregon) and territories
(including Michigan) barred free blacks from residence or required
substantial bonds before they could enter.
the Northwest Ordinance forbade slavery it did not prohibit
1820, free black men in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
New York, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New
Hampshire could vote. They lost that right in New Jersey, Connecticut,
and Pennsylvania before the Civil War.
few blacks received passports to travel abroad under the aegis
of the United States during the 1840s and 1850s.
1823 the Supreme Court declared state laws imprisoning free
black sailors while their ships were in port unconstitutional.
(Despite this ruling, several southern states continued the
practice until the Civil War.)
was not until enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and
ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 that black citizenship
was finally guaranteed. Although these guarantees did not ensure
the protection of their constitutional rights, African Americans
were at last irrefutably American citizens.
The Revolutionary era had contradictory effects on the status
Women assumed unaccustomed responsibilities during the Revolution.
But the Revolution also created thousands of widows and single
mothers. Older mechanisms for caring for the poor were overburdened.
To cope with the burden, states and cities created almshouses,
orphan asylums, and other institutions.
The Revolutionary generation assigned new significance to women's
roles. Republican mothers were responsible for shaping society's
moral character. Women needed to be educated and literacy rocketed
Women received new ways to contribute to their family's income,
through household industries, early factories, teaching and
writing. Women also became active in charitable and reform societies.
Older notion of coverture gave way as women gained increased
rights to divorce and custody of children.
Women also gained freer choice in marriage and began to limit
More negatively, the Revolutionary era accentuated the political
and economic differences between men and women. The Revolutionary
generation spoke of the rights of man. Women were denied access
to the vote, to higher education, and to the professions.
and the Constitution
The Constitution speaks of "persons"; only rarely
does the document use the word "he."
Women were NOT explicitly excluded from Congress or from the
Presidency or from juries or from voting.
Although taxation without representation had been a rallying
cry of the Revolution, single women and widows who owned property
paid taxes although they could not vote for the legislators
who set the taxes (except, temporarily, in New Jersey).
double standard of morals was maintained in law, by which
women were arrested for prostitution while men went free.
the legal doctrine of coverture, upon marriage, a woman's
identity was assumed ("covered") by her husband.
Thus she could not sue or be sued, make contracts, or earn
The 14th Amendment included a clause that stated: "No State
shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges
or immunities of citizens of the United States."
the presidential election of 1872, supporters of woman suffrage,
including Susan B. Anthony, appeared at the polls, arguing that
if all citizens had the right to the privileges of citizenship,
they could certainly exercise the right to vote.
Minor v. Happersett (1875) the Supreme Court ruled that women
could only receive the vote as a result of explicit legislation
or constitutional amendment, rather than by interpretation of
the implications of the Constitution. In a unanimous opinion,
the Court observed that it was "too late" to claim
the right of suffrage by implication.
aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all
attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens,
or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy
and meanness…. To compel a man to furnish contributions
of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves,
is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support
this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving
him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to
the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern,
and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness,
and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards,
which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct,
are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors
for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no
dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions
in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any
citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him
an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument,
unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion,
is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages
to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural
Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, 1786
with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between
man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his
faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government
reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign
reverence that act of the whole American people which declared
that their legislature should `make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,"
thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation
in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere
satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to
restore man to all of his natural rights, convinced he has no
natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802
petition of A Great Number of Blackes detained in a State of
slavery in the Bowels of a free & Christian Country Humbly
shuwith [showeth] that your Petitioners apprehend that thay
[they] have in Common with all other men a Natural and Unaliable
[inalienable] Right to that freedom which the Grat Parent of
the Unavers hath Bestowed equalley on all menkind and which
they have Never forfuted by any Compact or agreement whatever-but
thay wher Unjustly Dragged by the hand of cruel Power from their
Derest friends and sum of them Even torn from the Embraces of
their tender Parents-from A popolous Pleasant and plentiful
contry and in violation of Laws of Nature and off Nations and
in defiance of all the tender feelings of humanity Brough hear
Either to Be sold Like Beast of Burthen & Like them Condemnd
to Slavery for Life-Among A People Profesing the mild Religion
of Jesus A people Not Insensible of the Secrets of Rational
Being Nor without spirit to Resent the unjust endeavours of
others to Reduce them to a state of Bondage and Subjection your
honouer Need not to be informed that A Life of Slavery Like
that of your petioners Deprived of Every social privilege of
Every thing Requisit to Render Life Tolable is far worse then
Petition to the Massachusetts Legislature, 1777
an ear to the poor oppressed African Blacks that are now in
the Chaine[s] of Bondage - Gentlemen please to give The Leave
to Give a little Idea of the Cruelties that we Poore Slaves
have to endure and undergo…. Gentlemen we are Dragged
from our native Country for Life…Leaving our mothers our
farthers our Sisters and our Brothers….Further more gentlemen
after we have…fought the grandest Battles that has Been
fought in this War the greatest part of us - We and our children
and our Brothers are taken By force of violence and carried
where…we are Beaten…without any Law…. Is this…Right
and just…? No, it is murder….
Petition to the Connecticut General Assembly, 1788
is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to
see a plan adopted for the abolition of it…. But when
slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present
masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them…
it introduces more evils than it can cure."
about a Quaker antislavery society, April 12, 1786
liberate a certain species of property which I possess very
repugnantly to my own feelings, but which imperious necessity
compels, and until I can substitute some other expedient by
which expenses not in my power to avoid (however well disposed
I may be to do it) can be defrayed.
Washington hoped to rent or sell part of his land so that
he could allow his slave to work as free laborers; he was
unable to find a suitable renter, 1793
sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against
this kind of traffic in the human species. To hire them out
is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families
to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion.What
then is to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined…"
felt he had too many slaves, but felt it would be immoral
to sell any, 1799
is one Resolution I will not omit. Resolved that no Slaves be
imported into any of the thirteen colonies.
Discussing trade resolutions before the Continental Congress,
shudder when I think of the calamities which slavery is likely
to produce in this country. You would think me mad if I were
to describe my anticipations…If the gangrene is not stopped
I can see nothing but insurrection of the blacks against the
we forbear to make Slaves of their People, who in this hot Climate
are to cultivate our Lands? Who are to perform the common Labours
of our City, and in our Families? Must we not then be our own
Slaves? And is there not more Compassion and more Favour due
to us as Mussulmen, than to these Christian Dogs? We have now
about 50,000 Slaves in and near Algiers. This Number, if not
kept up by fresh Supplies, will soon diminish, and be gradually
annihilated. If we then cease taking and plundering the Infidel
Ships, and making Slaves of the Seamen and Passengers, our Lands
will become of no Value for want of Cultivation; the Rents of
Houses in the City will sink one half; and the Revenues of Government
arising from its Share of Prizes be totally destroy'd! And for
what? To gratify the whims of a whimsical Sect, who would have
us, not only forbear making more Slaves, but even to manumit
those we have.
A parody of apologies for slavery, in which a Barbary pirate
defends the seizure of Christians as slaves, 1790.
a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the Portion,
& is still the Birthright of all men, & influenced by
the strong ties of Humanity & the Principles of their Institution,
your Memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable
endeavours to loosen the bands of Slavery and promote a general
Enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom. Under these Impressions
they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the Subject
of Slavery, that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration
of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of
Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage, and who, amidst
the general Joy of surrounding Freemen, are groaning in Servile
Subjection, that you will devise means for removing this Inconsistency
from the Character of the American People, that you will promote
Mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, & that you
will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for
discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our
Petition to Congress on behalf of the Pennsylvania Abolition
laws of certain states …give an ownership in the service
of negroes as personal property…. But being men, by the
laws of God and nature, they were capable of acquiring liberty….
Alexander Hamilton, 1795
a Settlement of freed blacks on the Coast of Africa... might
prove a great encouragement to manumission in the Southern parts
of the U.S. and even afford the best hope yet presented of putting
an end to the slavery in which not less than 600,000 unhappy
negroes are now involved. In all the Southern States of N. America,
the laws permit masters, under certain precautions to manumit
their slaves. But the continuance of such a permission in some
of the States is rendered precarious by the ill effects suffered
from freedmen who retain the vices and habits of slaves. The
same consideration becomes an objection with many humane masters
against an exertion of their legal rights of freeing their slaves.
general emancipation of slaves ought to be 1. gradual. 2. equitable
& satisfactory to the individuals immediately concerned.
3. consistent with the existing & durable prejudices of
the nation... To be consistent with existing and probably unalterable
prejudices in the U.S. freed blacks ought to be permanently
removed beyond the region occupied by or alloted to a White
George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself,
violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the
persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating
& carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to
incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this
piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the
warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to
keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he
has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative
attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce:
and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished
die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among
us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them,
& murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them;
thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties
of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against
the lives of another
From draft of the Declaration of Independence, 1776
will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks
into the state…? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by
the whites; ten thousands recollections, by the blacks, of the
injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions
which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide
us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably
never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."
his 1777 proposal which would have eventually freed slaves
in Virginia and deported them.
advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether
originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances,
are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and
must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our
people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole
commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of
the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism
on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our
children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative
animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From
his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just:
that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution
of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among
possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural
interference The Almighty has no attribute which can take side
with us in such a contest.
on the State of Virginia, 1780
have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him nor safely
let him go. Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in
send off the whole of these at once, nobody conceives to be
practicable for us, or expedient for them. Let us take twenty-five
years for its accomplishment, within which time they will be
doubled. Their estimated value as property…must be paid
or lost by somebody."
proposes to deport slave children over a period of 25 years,
the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for
you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more
generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not
put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember
all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and
attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment
a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in
which we have no voice, or Representation.
your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established
as to admit of no dispute Why then, not put it out of the power
of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity
Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776
to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have
been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government
every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient--that
schools and Colledges were grown turbulent--that Indians slighted
their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters.
But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe
more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented
Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine
systems We have only the Name of Masters. and rather than give
up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism
of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave
Heroes would fight.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776
natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the
female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of
civil life. The constitution of the family organization, which
is founded on the divine ordinance, as well as in the nature
of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly
belongs the domain and functions of womanhood. The harmony,
not to say identity, of interests and views which belong or
should belong to the family institution, is repugnant to the
idea of a woman adopting a distinct and-independent career from
that of her husband. So firmly fixed was this sentiment in the
founders of the common law that it became a maxim of that system
of jurisprudence that a woman had no legal existence separate
from her husband, who was regarded as her head and representative
in the social state . many of the special rules of law flowing
from and dependent upon this cardinal principle still exist
in full force in most states. One of these is that a married
woman is incapable, without her husband's consent, of making
contracts which shall be binding on her or him. This very incapacity
was one circumstance which the supreme court of Illinois deemed
important in rendering a married woman incompetent fully to
perform the duties and trusts that belong to the office of an
attorney and counselor.
Myra Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 1873
nearly ninety years the people have acted upon the idea that
the Constitution, when it conferred citizenship, did not necessarily
confer the right of suffrage. If uniform practice long continued
can settle the construction of so important an instrument as
the Constitution of the United States confessedly is, most certainly
it has been done here. Our province is to decide what the law
is, not to declare what it should be.
Minor v. Happersett, 1875
now, at the, close of a hundred years, as the hour-hand of the
great clock that marks the centuries points to 1876, we declare
our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality
with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her
own happiness, with the absolute right to herself--to all the
opportunities and advantages life affords for her complete development;
and we deny that dogma of the centuries, incorporated in the
codes of all nations--that woman was made for man--her best
interests . to be sacrificed to his will. We ask of our rulers,
at this hour, no special privileges, no special legislation.
We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and
political rights that belong to citizens of the United States
be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.
Susan B. Anthony, 1876