America Without Slavery
For newly freed men, women, and children in the South and African Americans throughout the nation, the end of the Civil War brought feelings of joy and hope, as well as turmoil and uncertainty.
As the institution of slavery came apart, newly freed people began reconstructing their families and communities. Freedom offered new possibilities—some positive, some frightening.
What was certain was that things would not remain the same.
We spent all the day in praying to God that he might grant us and all of our race a 4th of July in this country when we would be able to dwell under the bright and genial rays of universal liberty, enjoying the right of suffrage, and the rights and immunities accorded to others.
James H. Payne, U.S. Colored Troops, 1865
Ratified in December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed slavery and gave Congress the power to pass new laws to protect citizens’ rights. Abolitionists celebrated the amendment as a moral victory over the inhumanity of slavery and a redemption of the nation’s founding promise of freedom. But outlawing slavery alone would not be enough to secure full freedom—the government would have to recognize African Americans as equal citizens under the law.
This is a country for white men and, by God, as long as I am president it shall be a government for white men.
President Andrew Johnson, 1865
As to recognizing the rights of freedmen . . . I will say there is not one man or woman in all the South who believes they are free, but we consider them as stolen property—stolen by the bayonets of the damnable United States government.
T. Yancey, Mississippi, 1865
This is your country, but it is ours too; you were born here, so were we; your fathers fought for it, but our fathers fed them.
Freedmen’s Convention of Georgia, 1866
With the abolition of slavery, the United States entered a moment of possibility where the nation might live up to its ideals of freedom, fairness, and equality. Reconstruction grappled with the most fundamental questions of American democracy. Who gets justice? What does citizenship mean? How is the nation defined? It was a period of time when the process of America’s reunification held the promise of a more equitable future for African Americans.
This is the nation’s golden hour,
Nerve every heart and hand,
To build on Justice, as a rock,
The future of the land.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 1865