Having set the stage in prior posts (here and here), I want to delve a bit into texts from the Civil War/Reconstruction black public sphere. The first I will highlight is the National Convention of Colored Men, held in Syracuse in October 1864.
The Black Convention Movement of the nineteenth century is an important and undervalued source of public debate in the black public sphere. The movement itself arose as part of the abolitionist movement, and a number of important conventions had been held in the north prior to the war. (The Colored Conventions Project at the University of Delaware has a wonderful resource webpage for these conventions here.) Both because it was held as the war’s end was in sight, and because of the issues addressed, the Syracuse Convention of 1864 can be seen as the first Reconstruction black convention. In the ensuing five years many more—local, state, and national—would follow (including the Colored National Labor Union Convention of 1869, pictured to the right), in part as an extension of the civil society movement the Syracuse Convention aided by founding the National Equal Rights League at Syracuse. These leagues, along with Union Leagues, were critical focal points for early Reconstruction black activism and community-building.
In its Declaration of Wrongs and Rights, the convention included the following among its rights-claims:
[A]s citizens of the Republic, we claim the rights of other citizens. We claim that we are, by right, entitled to respect; that due attention should be given to our needs; that proper rewards should be given for our services, and that the immunities and privileges of all other citizens and defenders of the nation’s honor should be conceded to us. We claim the rights to be heard in the halls of Congress; and we claim our fair share of the public domain, whether acquired by purchase, treaty, confiscation, or military conquest.
This passage reveals a more comprehensive vision of basic citizenship rights than was sketched by the Reconstruction Congress. The focuses on respect as the first right indicates a claim to recognition and a broad equality. It also places concepts of equal respect and dignity at the center of the meaning of freedom and citizenship. The passage then follows the right of respect with the claim to address needs. As other parts of the convention documents point out (and as is also seen in Henry Garnet’s address), education was a commonly identified need, and was certainly implicated by this statement. And while the details of such needs are not stated, the idea that rights claims include needs claims at all is one rarely emphasized in discussions of original or public meanings about Reconstruction conceptions of rights. It is also interesting that the convention refers to the political-legal concept that would become central to the Fourteenth Amendment, the “immunities and privileges of all other citizens”, and that the next sentence identifies access to property as one of the most important rights and privileges—the point made by the George Frazier in Savannah when speaking with General Sherman a few month later.
Compared to statements of rights that would flow from Congress in the following two years, which focused on rights to contract, access to courts, rights to own property, and protections of the Bill of Rights, the statement of the Syracuse Convention strikes a different chord, one that harmonizes with but is distinct from Congress’s. The Convention is both more general, framing rights and citizenship in terms of respect and needs, and more particular, focusing on what was sometimes called the “land question” as an essential and identifiable right.
The comparison to the more traditional rights claims that would be seen in the Civil Rights Act of 1866 is made directly in the Convention’s Address:
We are asked, even by some Abolitionists, why we cannot be satisfied, for the present at least, with personal freedom; the right to testify in courts of law; the right to own, buy, and sell real estate; the right to sue and be sued. We answer, Because in a republican country, where general suffrage is the rule, person liberty, the right to testify in courts of law, the right to hold buy and sell property, and all other rights, become mere privileges, held at the option of others, where we are excepted from the general political liberty
This point was critical in the black public sphere and marked a stark contrast to the discourse on rights in the dominant sphere. Many white Republicans were fine being the “others” who held the “option” on black rights: they considered suffrage a higher order privilege rather than a natural right, and only a handful of radical Republicans were ready to grant suffrage broadly. The Syracuse Convention, on the other hand, articulated what was a common theme of the black public sphere (and was also stressed by Garnet): suffrage is the essential guaranty for civil rights. Political power, direct and complete, provides the surest protection for all other rights because it puts the control over rights in the hands of the rights-holders. Rather than being secondary to civil rights, suffrage is foundational and primary, and equal citizenship is incomplete without full enfranchisement. (This view was also held by some radical Republicans who, like Charles Sumner, were particularly open to the views of African Americans.)
As I say, there is a lot more in the documents (and even in these passages), but hopefully this gives you the idea. In the next post I will discuss the South Carolina state black convention that was cited by the Supreme Court in McDonald.