How African Americans Fought for Freedom in the Antebellum North

We shouldn’t allow the titanic revolution of the Civil War and Reconstruction to obscure a crucial fact: In the antebellum North, an interracial movement fought for, lost, and then kept fighting for black voting rights and equal citizenship rights.

A 1867 political cartoon depicting an African American man casting his ballot during the Georgetown elections. (Southern University Library Archives)

After the Civil War, Republican lawmakers pushed through a series of amendments to the US Constitution abolishing involuntary servitude, establishing birthright citizenship, and protecting the voting rights of black men, including the newly freed. What black and white Republicans accomplished during the early years of Reconstruction amounted to nothing less than a “second founding,” in the words of the great historian Eric Foner, remaking the Constitution and, along with it, the very relationship between citizens and their government.

But accepting the unprecedented novelty of emancipation and Reconstruction in the 1860s at face value requires making two additional assumptions with far-reaching implications. The first is that slavery in the United States only ended during the Civil War; the second is that black men had been universally excluded from political participation from the nation’s founding.

Though seldom acknowledged, these assumptions hew closely to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, which effectively nullified the free status of black people throughout the country, regarded black chattel slavery as an unalterable fact based on the determinative category of race, and denied that any black person had ever been — or could ever be — a citizen. Free and enslaved African Americans may have influenced antislavery politics and the growing abolitionist movement but, the story goes, they did so as outsiders until abolition in 1865 and the advent of formal black citizenship at the national level in 1868.

Two recent books by preeminent historians upend these conventional understandings. Kate Masur’s Until Justice Be Done explores the jagged roads to the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment (which established birthright citizenship) and argues that these national charters of black citizenship were not products of “emergency lawmaking,” but rather the fruits of decades of interracial political organizing against racist laws in the North and the nation at large.

Van Gosse’s The First Reconstruction shows that well before the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which outlawed racial discrimination in voting, black men in various northern states held, lost, and regained the franchise. Any discussion of politics in the antebellum North, he argues, must account for the “extensive participation” of African-American men in “seeking electoral influence over or within the state.”

Together, both works reveal that it was in the so-called free states of the North during the half-century following independence that Americans first grappled with the explosive question of black citizenship rights within a post-slavery society — a question that reemerged with full force during the Civil War.

Black Rights Inside and Outside the “Free” North

Gosse and Masur ground their studies in the first great wave of abolition by northern state lawmakers and judges. Beginning with Vermont in 1777 and Pennsylvania in 1780, and concluding with New Jersey in 1804, northern states passed gradual emancipation laws to erode the legal basis for slavery that had pervaded every American colony. In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the present-day Midwest but also included a fugitive slave clause that made it something less than free soil.

The early republic was a centrifuge machine, spinning slavery’s center of gravity southward. But slavery’s borders were extraordinarily porous, and its politics national in scope.

The midwestern states are key battlegrounds in Masur’s book, for it was there that the prohibition of slavery invited other systems of racial control. Ohio’s earliest legislators feared their state would become a beacon to any free blacks expelled from the neighboring slave states of Virginia and Kentucky. To discourage black migration, Ohio relied on its extensive police powers to pass a series of Black Laws during its 1803–4 legislative session, anticipating in many ways the Black Codes of the post–Civil War South.

Though it hardly stopped black migration, Ohio’s Black Laws made it extraordinarily difficult for black migrants to qualify for official residency, or “legal settlement,” thereby disqualifying them from public relief and rendering them vulnerable to eviction should they upset the “public order.” Fears about crime, dependency, and poverty among free blacks suffused the non-slaveholding North.

Down South, slave states like South Carolina invoked their police powers when defending laws aimed at imprisoning free black sailors who disembarked in their ports. Massachusetts lawmakers took the lead in demanding nationwide protection of the rights of its black citizens when traveling and working in other states and the District of Columbia. Black sailors in Boston and their allies — including eminent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, William Cooper Nell, and Charles Lenox Remond — petitioned Congress for protection against the South’s “unjust and unconstitutional statutes.”

Others joined the fight. In New York City in 1839, the black abolitionist William P. Powell organized a boardinghouse for African-American sailors. Many had been “arrested and thrust into lonesome prisons and dungeons” while working in places such as Georgia and South Carolina, all without any alleged charges “except that of our complexion.” In 1842, Powell helped gather signatures from two hundred twenty “free Coloured citizens of the United States and State of New York” demanding Congress protect their constitutional rights and livelihoods.

In the early republic, Americans generally derived their legal status from states and localities, not the federal government. But few states managed to clearly define the boundaries of citizenship. As Masur notes, many states began to distinguish between civil rights — the most basic protections of life, liberty, and property — and political rights, such as the right to vote, hold office, or serve on a jury.

The campaign for black civil rights, Masur suggests, was “the movement’s lowest common denominator.” In Ohio, as in other midwestern states, abolitionists in the 1830s made repealing the Black Laws and protecting civil rights for free African Americans central to their political agenda. They pressured the two establishment parties — the Whigs and the Democrats — which were both inclined to suppress the divisive slavery issue and support the racist residency laws as integral to the public order. Anti-racist activists also inundated legislatures with petitions, exacted pledges from candidates, built dissident political parties, and forged coalitions.

The Liberty Party figures prominently in Masur’s story. An insurgent third party that arose around 1840, it was dedicated not only to abolishing slavery, but also promoting racial equality before the law, including the right to vote. Often dismissed as a preordained failure, the party made impressive gains at the state and local level. But even more important, its candidates polarized the two major parties, forcing Whigs and Democrats to clarify their stances on black civil rights. Libertyites drew many dissidents into their fold as they sought the balance of power.

Political cartoon from 1850 in which abolitionist, Free Soil, and other sectionalist interests are attacked. (Wikimedia Commons)

After its apogee in 1844, the Liberty Party bowed to another insurgent group, the Free Soil Party, which united the various antislavery dissident factions of the northern states against the Slave Power. “The Free Soil Party was larger and more diverse than the Liberty Party,” Masur concedes, “and its stance on racial equality before the law was more opaque.” Nationally, the Free Soil platform of 1848 remained silent on black civil and political rights. But at the state level, many Free Soilers remained true to the old Liberty Party’s mission and continued to press for the repeal of racist laws still in effect in many northern states.

The following decade was a moment of profound political realignment. The Whig Party broke down, and the existing party system collapsed. The slavery issue rent the American social fabric apart, opening up new possibilities for mobilizing broad antislavery forces (who could seemingly agree on little else but its non-extension westward).

Masur’s great contribution is to situate the crucial issue of civil rights organizing in the North at the center of the familiar story of the 1850s. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did more than shore up the national reach of the Slave Power; it also forced a reckoning with the legal status of free black people in the northern states.

The Varieties of Black Electoral Politics

The twin issues of slavery and black citizenship roiled the United States in the 1850s. A series of blatantly proslavery acts and Supreme Court decisions assaulted the rights of African Americans, and increasingly militant black abolitionists hit back. Yet, as Gosse painstakingly details in The First Reconstruction, black men did not act solely as political outsiders, disenfranchised agitators, or fugitive slave rebels. Since the Founding, African-American men had exercised their right to citizenship, including by — when and where they could — voting.

Like Masur, Gosse trains his focus on state and local politics, rejecting the impulse to regard the “free North” as diametrically opposed to the “slave South.” Although a tide of free black disenfranchisement swelled after the Revolution — beginning with Maryland (1783) and Delaware (1787) and continuing through Tennessee, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania (mid-1830s) — Gosse argues that black men’s “electoral weight expanded in those states where they maintained the franchise,” including much of New England, New York, and Ohio. Together with the curious case of Pennsylvania — where a substantial portion of the black elite in Philadelphia retreated into what Gosse calls “shadow politics” and acquiesced to disenfranchisement in 1838 — these four political arenas formed the staging ground for the so-called first Reconstruction.

Gosse treats black voting “as a political fact rather than a lost opportunity or future possibility” — and, importantly, as a “collective practice” of building a “black-and-white partisanship.” Unfortunately, excluded from the story are the black women who exerted considerable (if unquantifiable) influence on the abolition and women’s suffrage movements and the partisan activities of black men — as they would during the “second” Reconstruction of the 1860s. Yet Gosse still does something revelatory: he has excavated the widespread engagement of black men in the electoral sphere.

The first Reconstruction began in New England. What Gosse calls a “nonracial Yankee Republic” coalesced in Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine following the Bay State’s affirmation of black citizenship in 1780. In these states political parties routinely competed for the votes of black Yankees.

This was especially true in New Bedford, the city (once home to Frederick Douglass) with the most robust tradition of black electoralism and officeholding. There, black men organized as an independent voting bloc and skillfully moved between Whigs, Democrats, Libertyites, and Free Soilers before finally becoming Republican.

In other port cities — Portland and Providence, for example — black Yankees enjoyed so much electoral influence and patronage within the Whig Party that they rebuffed entreaties from the Liberty Party when it swept across New England, baffling the insurgent party’s abolitionist leaders. “Most Afro-Yankees were Whigs,” Gosse argues, because they understood the importance of belonging to the ruling group — of being “in the state, not outside it. That the Whigs were hardly antislavery at the national level,” he continues, “was secondary when ‘the States’ mattered as much as the Union and local Whigs were firmly antislavery.”

Gosse finds the most influential African-American constituency in New York. Bolstered by its gradual emancipation initiative in 1799, by 1820 the Empire State’s free black population grew to such an extent that it stood poised to change the composition of government. With total abolition set for 1827, an estimated 11,488 black men, both free and adult, would be added to the voting rolls. It was in this context that Martin Van Buren led the effort at the 1821 state convention to universally enfranchise white men and disenfranchise black men by including a “freehold” requirement — owning $250 in property — which effectively stripped most black New Yorkers of the vote.

Gosse regards this maneuver as a turning point in American politics. Van Buren, soon to join Andrew Jackson’s presidential ticket, sought to build a national party favorable to southern slaveholding interests — which meant subordinating the growing black electorate. Van Buren’s New York was thus the bellwether of Jacksonian Democracy.

Not to be cowed, black New Yorkers built a statewide apparatus to lobby for full re-enfranchisement in the 1830s and 1840s. They variously allied with the left wing of the Whig Party (represented by William Henry Seward and Thurlow Weed) and the insurgent Liberty Party (and its wealthy abolitionist benefactor, Gerrit Smith). Though contingently disenfranchised, black New Yorkers had both parties competing for their votes in an increasing number of cities and towns across the state. Their suffrage campaign suffered a crushing defeat at a statewide convention in 1846, but by then many African-American voters had been able to meet or bypass the 1821 freehold requirement.

In the 1840s, the black electorate — led by an impressive cohort of nationally renowned black leaders — enjoyed a range of political vehicles for their advancement: Seward’s Whig Party, Smith’s Liberty Party, and the Free Soil Party. By the mid-1850s, most black New Yorkers had thrown their support behind the most logical choice, the freshly formed antislavery Republican Party. Two black men, Stephen Myers (a former slave) and William J. Watkins (an itinerant organizer), proved to be especially keen political operators. They led the New York State Suffrage Association, which urged black voters to back the Republican ticket and helped secure equal suffrage in an 1860 referendum.

Ohio witnessed the most impressive mobilization for black civil rights. Though shackled by a legally subordinated status, free blacks continued migrating to Ohio, doubling the size of their community over the 1830s. Black Ohioans achieved a remarkably united front and wielded surprising electoral strength — securing a repeal of several key Black Laws in 1849 and transforming the state into a hotbed of political abolitionism. Black leaders, such as the Oberlin-educated John Mercer Langston, made their mark in the state. And Ohio decisively shaped the political vision of abolitionist politicians such as Salmon P. Chase, who would achieve national prominence at the helm of the antislavery Republican Party during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

A Usable History of Anti-Racism

The First Reconstruction and Until Justice Be Done are timely interventions for our own historical moment. The long history of racism in America has not faced such popular scrutiny since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

But, as historian Matt Karp has recently observed, the new historicism is ill-equipped to appreciate the collective struggles of the past. From the birth of “whiteness studies” in the 1990s to the 1619 Project today, many scholars and journalists have sought to invert the mawkishly patriotic narrative of American exceptionalism and steady progress by casting light on its photo negative: a monolithically and irrevocably racist nation. In this telling, even the antislavery movement that precipitated the Civil War and the destruction of the slave regime appears as nothing more than a stalking horse for a new white supremacist order.

Neither formulation — Whiggish or whiteness — can account for what Kate Masur and Van Gosse describe in their books — a sustained, multigenerational struggle against not only human bondage but also the policies that codified racial inequality and exploitation. Despite the retrenchment of southern slavery, the onslaught of Jacksonian-style herrenvolk democracy, and the rise of Jim Crow–style policies in the antebellum North, black and white activists mobilized in staggering numbers and in countless places to challenge — and at times overturn — racist laws by sheer political force. Appreciating this serrated, kaleidoscopic history requires an awareness of both the agency of historical actors and the malign forces of accumulated wealth and power they were up against decades before the abandonment of Reconstruction.

That many such forces persist today makes the anti-racist struggles of the past all the more relevant. Among the most urgent issues in contemporary US politics is the concerted Republican effort to disenfranchise voters, predominantly voters of color. Since January, hundreds of laws have appeared in state legislatures — many in battleground states — that restrict voting access, from ID laws to intentionally burdensome registration requirements.

Voter disenfranchisement has historically emerged from calculations of partisan advantage. But, as these two histories suggest, so too have efforts to expand the electorate. Antebellum lobbying efforts by would-be black voters and allies yielded historic victories at the state level from New England to Ohio. Not incidentally, they benefited the party willing to fight for the nonracial franchise. All the while, the electorate-constricting forces slung the familiar accusations of voter fraud, charging widespread instances of black men voting illegally in New York or even enslaved men voting in Ohio in numbers large enough to sway elections.

The disenfranchisers’ response, then as now, has been to reform (read: purge) the voting rolls to supposedly preserve democracy. As historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann has recently argued, “Countering these charges will take more than pointing out the lack of evidence of voter fraud or introducing harsher penalties. It will require undermining the racially stratified notions of citizenship that such claims rest upon — and looking beyond electoral reform to the greater democratization of public life.”

It will require, in other words, a broad-based, daring, politically dexterous movement, live to alliances with insurgent politicians and parties — a movement that collectively exerts pressure at all levels of government by mobilizing across the social strata. If we can accomplish that, we might finally heed the lessons from the civil rights struggles of the first Black Reconstruction.