During the years when the expansion, destruction, and aftermath of slavery preoccupied the nation, no group focused more sharply on shaping events than those blacks who were free before the war. Throughout this critical phase they waged an unceasing political campaign to establish African Americans as citizens and to give that word a fullness of meaning. Their campaign began long before reliable white allies were anywhere in evidence and lasted long after the guns of the Civil War fell silent.
To call oneself a “colored citizen” was to claim a role in at least two simultaneous efforts. On the one hand, African American activists created networks and institutions to bind their scattered communities together. Excluded from public life in many of its forms, they created what some scholars have dubbed a “black counterpublic,” in which they looked to one another for support and affirmation. But although what they built was for many purposes a world apart, it did not represent a full-scale or principled withdrawal from the wider world. Even if they had wished to forge such an enclave, they could not create walls that slavery and prejudice were bound to respect.
Rather, most of the leading voices in that black world of speech and action sought a rapprochement of hearts and minds with white Americans. They understood that a future in the United States required them to establish their place among their white countrymen. “Citizenship” meant being legally and politically vested, but it also meant bonds of trust and even love across the color line. It meant a warm welcome to the full duties, rights, privileges, and pleasures of American life, whether understood in George Downing’s idea of “universal brotherhood” or in William Nell’s vision of “the free, the happy future.” It meant a citizenship of the heart.
That they sought a sense of belonging in no way meant that they relied on moral and emotional appeals. Far from it. As inheritors of the ideological legacy of the American Revolution, they believed that freedom belonged only to those willing to seize it. Their campaigns included assertions of their capacity to be law abiding and “respectable,” but also strident and even violent challenges to proslavery and inegalitarian laws. They were a people militant, and even armed, long before the U.S. government authorized them to march in its ranks. Citizenship, they understood, was something one demonstrated to oneself and to others. It had to be asserted. It had to be won.