The nineteenth century was a defining one for the democracy of the United States since it involved a variety of events, which ultimately shaped the country’s laws, attitudes, rights of the citizens. Today, every person living in the United States still experiences the influence of the nineteenth century on their life. Moreover, the introduction of civil rights and freedoms by the U.S. government inspired other politicians to do the same in their countries. Researchers often divide history into several periods in order to identify certain commonalities inherent to each of them. In the nineteenth century, such division can be made between the period prior to 1877 and the one following it. The year 1877 marked the beginning of the Gilded Age, the time of rapid growth and development of industries, which transformed the country’s economy. The periods preceding the Gilded Age forever altered the social and political landscape of the nation. I will prove that the era prior to 1877 was notable for the rapid expansion of democracy for Americans by explaining how government measures helped former slaves become citizens of the country.
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Nevertheless, before exploring the factors which contributed to the expansion of democracy for Americans in the nineteenth century, it is essential to define these two terms to ensure clarity. Democracy constitutes a regime established in a country that relies on the principles of individual freedom and equal opportunities for all citizens, government accountability, and rejection of any form of discrimination. It is clear that the government of the United States, especially local authorities, did not fully respect and uphold these principles in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, there were major steps in the direction of recognizing the notions of freedom and equality for everyone. The term “Americans” describes all citizens of the United States, as well as the slaves who were given freedom and later their citizenship.
The first major event which can be considered a factor that ultimately contributed to the expansion of democracy in the United States was the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The Civil War started due to the desire of the Southern states to keep the institution of slavery and prevent any attempt by the North to end it.1 Nevertheless, the Union managed to win the Civil War and gain a capacity to enforce legislation that would eradicate the problem of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery in the United States and made it illegal except for instances when it could be used as a punishment; subsequently, four million people were freed.2 Such a major step by the American government demonstrated a positive change in society and the willingness of the authorities to recognize basic human rights for everyone. By making former slaves free, people laid the groundwork for further provision of civil rights to them. Essentially, the thirteenth amendment was extremely important for making the country more democratic and ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities, at least in terms of not being owned by any other person.
Nevertheless, the provision of freedom did not entail making each former slave a lawful citizen of the country; therefore, the government had to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment to resolve such a problem. The amendment was introduced in addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and outlined that every citizen of the United States was guaranteed their inalienable rights.3 In other words, every person now could not be stripped of their freedom, property, and life without any due process performed by authorities. The Fourteenth Amendment was particularly important since it officially recognized the right of former slaves to become citizens and not be denied their basic human rights. The decision of the government to implement the Fourteenth Amendment also marked the unification of all “Americans.” Former slaves were officially recognized as people who were equal to the rest of the population, including their former masters. Moreover, the Civil Rights Act, mentioned earlier, granted every citizen a right to make contracts, which meant that the freed people could now be entrepreneurs. Thus, the fourteenth amendment became another factor that contributed to the expansion of democracy for all Americans.
At the same time, freed slaves, despite getting citizenship and being guaranteed all basic human rights, still did not receive any opportunity to participate in the political life of the country. In other words, African Americans did not have a right to vote, which made them unequal to white men. The Fifteenth Amendment of 1870 was designed to grant voting rights to all citizens of the United States despite their race, skin color, or their previous status as slaves.4 Essentially, the new amendment ensured that African American men had a chance to elect and be elected to various political offices. The amendment indicated a historic occasion that in five years, former slaves became citizens of their country and were granted full rights. African Americans were free to participate in the democratic process and influence the political regime through voting and choose to support those politicians who would promote their interests. Thus, the Fifteenth Amendment became another essential element that made the extension of democracy in the nineteenth-century United States possible.
Nevertheless, it is possible to make a counterargument to the idea that the Reconstruction era led to an expansion of democracy. For instance, Georgia was among the first states to initiate a secession citing the anti-slavery stance of the North as one of the main causes.5 Yet even after the war, Southern states continued to hinder the process of granting full rights to African Americans. For instance, according to the Mississippi Black Code of 1865, freedmen could be arrested for not having papers proving their employment.6 While it is true that some states continued to enforce rules on the freedmen that were discriminating, the government quickly took measures to prevent it.
The adoption of the amendments effectively made all such attempts by local governments invalid, and the Southern states had to comply. Despite the fact that there were eleven states which initially decided to secede from the union, the Civil War considerably undermined their authority.7 As a result, the federal government was able to impose its laws in the form of amendments on the Southern states whose resistance was no longer effective. Thus, the Reconstruction period was particularly notable for functioning institutions and rapid development in terms of civil rights and freedoms. African Americans were finally free from the oppression, which further promoted democracy for Americans of all races and genders.
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Additionally, there are multiple pieces of evidence that support the notion that the United States, prior to 1877, experienced a considerable improvement in the area of civil rights and was able to improve its democratic institutions. For example, in 1968, the majority of delegates in the South Carolina Congress were black which was absolutely inconceivable before the Civil War.8 Such evidence shows that the amendments adopted by the federal government during the Reconstruction era were actually effective in promoting democracy. Moreover, the government began establishing organizations that helped freedmen to adjust to new circumstances and know their rights. The Freedmen’s Bureau is the most prominent organization which held meetings with former slaves, as well as provided them with essentials such as food and housing.9 The Freedmen’s Bureau was another example of the government’s commitment to promote democracy after the Civil War and ensure that all Americans have at least a basic level of equality.
To conclude, the period in American history prior to 1877 is known for the rapid adoption of legislation which contributed to the expansion of democracy and its institutions for all Americans. After the Civil War, the government gave freedom to all former slaves by introducing the Thirteenth Amendment, which marked the end of slavery in the United States. Despite the fact that certain Southern states continued to introduce laws that did not comply with the Constitution, the overall actions of the government were effective. Millions of African Americans were finally freed, received citizenship, and were given their right to vote as well as be elected. Some freedmen became particularly active in the political life of the country and occupied numerous offices. As a result, the period before 1877 can be safely considered a time when democracy expanded for all Americans and ultimately contributed to raising the level of equality among races in society. The Reconstruction era still impacts the modern state of the American democracy since, during it, major laws were introduced, which today function as important institutions guaranteeing freedom and equality to every citizen.
American Historical Association. n.d. “The Decision to Secede and Establish the Confederacy: A Selection of Primary Sources.” Web.
Coski, John. 2017. “Myths & Misunderstandings: What Caused the Civil War.” The American Civil War Museum. Web.
DeVelvis, Melissa. 2019. “Reconstruction.” YouTube video, 19:37. Web.
Harris, Duchess, and Bonnie Hinman. 2019. The Freedmen’s Bureau. Minneapolis: ABDO.
The American Yawp Reader. n.d. “Mississippi Black Code, 1865.” Web.
U.S. Constitution, amend. 13.
U.S. Constitution, amend. 14.
U.S. Constitution, amend. 15.
Yale Law School. n.d. “Confederate States of America – Georgia Secession (1861).”. Web.
- Coski, John. 2017. “Myths & Misunderstandings: What Caused the Civil War.” The American Civil War Museum. Web.
- U.S. Constitution, amend. 13
- U.S. Constitution, amend. 14
- U.S. Constitution, amend. 15
- Yale Law School. n.d. “Confederate States of America – Georgia Secession (1861).”Web.
- The American Yawp Reader. n.d. “Mississippi Black Code, 1865.” Web.
- American Historical Association. n.d. “The Decision to Secede and Establish the Confederacy: A Selection of Primary Sources.” Web.
- Harris, Duchess, and Bonnie Hinman. 2019. The Freedmen’s Bureau. Minneapolis: ABDO.
- DeVelvis, Melissa. 2019. “Reconstruction.” YouTube video, 19:37. Web.