In a society that had made political participation a core element of freedom, the right to vote inevitably became central to the former slaves’ desire for empowerment and equality. As Frederick Douglass put it soon after the South’s surrender in 1865, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” In a “monarchial government,” Douglass explained, no “special” disgrace applied to those denied the right to vote. But in a democracy, “where universal suffrage is the rule,” excluding any group meant branding them with “the stigma of inferiority.” As soon as the Civil War ended, and in some parts of the South even earlier, free blacks and emancipated slaves claimed a place in the public sphere. They came together in conventions, parades, and petition drives to demand the right to vote and, on occasion, to organize their own “freedom ballots.”

Anything less than full citizenship, black spokesmen insisted, would betray the nation’s democratic promise and the war’s meaning. Speakers at black conventions reminded the nation of Crispus Attucks, who fell at the Boston Massacre, and of black soldiers’ contribution to the War of 1812 and during “the bloody struggle through which we have just passed.” To demonstrate their patriotism, blacks throughout the South organized Fourth of July celebrations. For years after the Civil War, white southerners would “shut themselves within doors” on Independence Day, as a white resident of Charleston recorded in her diary, while former slaves commemorated the holiday themselves.

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