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More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic


Edited by Scott Moyers

A major new narrative account of the long struggle of Northern activists—both black and white, famous and obscure—to establish African Americans as free citizens, from abolitionism through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and its demise.

Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is generally understood as the moment African Americans became free, and Reconstruction as the ultimately unsuccessful effort to extend that victory by establishing equal citizenship. In More Than Freedom, award-winning historian Stephen Kantrowitz boldly redefines our understanding of this entire era by showing that the fight to abolish slavery was always part of a much broader campaign to establish full citizenship for African Americans and find a place to belong in a white republic.

More Than Freedom chronicles this epic struggle through the lived experiences of black and white activists in and around Boston, including both famous reformers such as Frederick Douglass and Charles Sumner and lesser-known but equally important figures like the journalist William Cooper Nell and the ex-slaves Lewis and Harriet Hayden. While these freedom fighters have traditionally been called abolitionists, their goals and achievements went far beyond emancipation. They mobilized long before they had white allies to rely on and remained militant long after the Civil War ended.

These black freedmen called themselves “colored citizens” and fought to establish themselves in American public life, both by building their own networks and institutions and by fiercely, often violently, challenging proslavery and inegalitarian laws and prejudice. But as Kantrowitz explains, they also knew that until the white majority recognized them as equal participants in common projects they would remain a suspect class. Equal citizenship meant something far beyond freedom: not only full legal and political rights, but also acceptance, inclusion and respect across the color line.

Even though these reformers ultimately failed to remake the nation in the way they hoped, their struggle catalyzed the arrival of Civil War and left the social and political landscape of the Union forever altered. Without their efforts, war and Reconstruction could hardly have begun. Bringing a bold new perspective to one of our nation’s defining moments, More Than Freedom helps to explain the extent and the limits of the so-called freedom achieved in 1865 and the legacy that endures today.

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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.

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