The evolution of the battle for true equality in America seen through the men, ideas, and politics behind the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments passed at the end of the Civil War.
On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass stood in front of a crowd in Rochester, New York, and asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” The audience had invited him to speak on the day celebrating freedom, and had expected him to offer a hopeful message about America; instead, he’d offered back to them their own hypocrisy. How could the Constitution defend both freedom and slavery? How could it celebrate liberty with one hand while withdrawing it with another? Theirs was a country which promoted and even celebrated inequality.
From the very beginning, American history can be seen as a battle to reconcile the large gap between America’s stated ideals and the reality of its republic. Its struggle is not one of steady progress toward greater freedom and equality, but rather for every step forward there is a step taken in a different direction. In Inventing Equality, Michael Bellesiles traces the evolution of the battle for true equality—the stories of those fighting forward, to expand the working definition of what it means to be an American citizen—from the Revolution through the late nineteenth century. He identifies the systemic flaws in the Constitution, and explores through the role of the Supreme Court and three Constitutional amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th—the ways in which equality and inequality waxed and waned over the decades.
Historian Bellesiles (A People's History of the U.S. Military) takes a stirring look at the fight to pass the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution and their subsequent circumvention by Supreme Court rulings. He examines how the framers of the Constitution failed to "address the nature of citizenship" and caved to the demands of wealthy slaveholders from Georgia and South Carolina with the three-fifths compromise, and contends that the participation of Black soldiers in the Civil War contributed to the swift passage of the "equality amendments." The phrasing of those amendments, however, excluded women, many of whom had fought to achieve equality for Black men with the understanding that they too, would be granted the same rights. Bellesiles traces Supreme Court decisions that shaped the ebb and flow of equality, including the 1857 Dred Scott ruling that led to the Civil War, and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which established the deceptive principle of "separate but equal." In the epilogue, he draws a clear line from the struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to today's battles for equality. The result is a worthy historical primer for today's progressive activists.