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Self-Evident TruthsContesting Equal Rights from the Revolution to the Civil War$
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Richard D. Brown

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780300197112

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300197112.001.0001

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People of Color and the Promise Betrayed

People of Color and the Promise Betrayed

(p.105) Four People of Color and the Promise Betrayed
Self-Evident Truths

Richard D. Brown

Yale University Press

In its 1857 Dred Scott decision the Supreme Court ruled that “negroes” were not, and never had been, citizens of the United States. Two justices dissented, declaring that when the Constitution was adopted free blacks possessed the rights of citizens, including suffrage, in seven states. The rights of free blacks, like other citizens, were thereby protected. But the Court majority, conflating slavery with race, denied citizenship to people of color. In fact, starting in 1776 a majority of states recognized the rights of people of color for at least a generation. Only after the free black population grew into the tens of thousands did states north and south act to curtail those rights. The new restrictions rested on old prejudices reinforced by the new “science” of race. Nature, it was claimed, warranted the denial of equal rights. So in new northern states—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan—as well as old ones like Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, equality was written out of law. By 1858, when Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas for election to the Senate from Illinois, some public figures explicitly denied the self-evident natural rights of the Declaration. But Lincoln made the Declaration’s self-evident truths his cornerstone. Regardless of race or nationality, he argued, natural rights applied to all men.

Keywords:   Dred Scott, Supreme Court, Virginia, manumission, slave trade, racism, free blacks, African Americans, Lincoln

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