The Concept Of Freedom During The Civil

War Essay, Research Paper

The concept of freedom drove an entire nation to a Civil War, which was, arguably, the bloodiest war this country has ever seen. It set North against South, nation against state, and brother against brother. Each group of individuals maintained an interpretation of freedom that was so powerful to them, they were willing to die to preserve it. However, the definition of freedom was not easily pinpointed for each individual. In fact, Eric Foner, in his book A Short History of Reconstruction did not specify a straightforward definition of freedom. He could not grasp a direct meaning that would incorporate each group’s personal beliefs towards the concept. Furthermore, Foner devoted an entire chapter to “The Meaning of Freedom” which he never conquered defining. It is impossible to fully understand what is exactly incorporated into the definition of freedom without looking at it from the point of view of each group during the Reconstruction era. However, while the road to freedom would take different paths for the freedmen and plantation owners, each group had the same destination in mind: the ability to live autonomously.

For the freedmen, the basic need to live autonomously was to escape the authority of the former slave owners and those persons who believed themselves to be superior because of their skin coloring. There was “a desire for independence from white control, for autonomy both as individuals and as members of a community being transformed by emancipation” (Foner, p. 36). This independence included the ability to govern themselves, own their own land, reach economic autonomy, and live day to day without the fear of violence against themselves or family. In politics, it was important to these newly freed slaves to be included in the institutions they were left out of for so many years. Blacks wanted their equal rights to be recognized and bringing these concerns to the political floor was a way to let their opinions and needs be heard. Many black leaders were recognized as persons able to eloquently represent the concerns of the black population. For instance, James T. Rapier was elected as Congressman in Alabama, and James D. Lynch as Secretary of State in Mississippi (Foner, p. 49).

Many of these men developed their leadership ability through the church. While at one time under the control of the white population, the southern black churches began to secede after slavery was overthrown. “The creation of an independent black religious life proved to be a momentous and irreversible consequence of emancipation” (Foner, p. 40). Religion and church was a center point in the lives of the Black population. Within the walls of the church, it was possible to worship without white control, an important element in the journey of becoming autonomous. It was “the first social institution fully controlled by black men in America” (Foner, p. 41). The church was also a voice of hope for a people so oppressed. Many churches related the struggling of the freedmen with the struggling of the Jews in the Old Testament. The Jews shrugged off the shackles of slavery and escaped the oppression of the Egyptians when God delivered them to freedom. “There is no part of the Bible with which they are so familiar as the story of the deliverance of the Children of Israel” (White Army Chaplain, Foner, p. 42).

However, the road to freedom was not an easy path. Often violence and oppression marked the path. Whites were determined to ‘keep blacks in their place.’ “The pervasiveness of violence reflected whites’ determination to define in their own way the meaning of freedom and to resist black efforts to establish their autonomy, whether in matters of family, church, labor, or personal demeanor” (Foner, p. 53). The white population was afraid of what changes would be brought by this new population of citizens and its sympathizers. From this fear stemmed violence. Violence was used as an intimidator and a threat to curb any ideas and desires of autonomy held by the black population. ” . Many blacks suffered merely for exercising their rights as citizens” (Foner, p. 185).

While fear of change may have been one of the driving forces behind violence against the black population, many whites truly believed the freedmen were a lower species. They believed the mere emancipation and intermingling of the races would result in a lower breed of humans. “Having read Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Blair [Democratic candidate, Seymour's, running mate] now asserted that racial intermixing would reverse evolution, produce a less advanced species incapable of reproducing itself, and destroy ‘the accumulated improvement of the centuries’” (Foner, p. 145). These assertions were so widely accepted that many whites felt as if this was inflicting upon their freedom to live without the threat of their species being decimated and many whites resented the government telling them otherwise.

Like the blacks, the white population of the south wished to live autonomously. The whites were fighting against the federal government telling them to now accept blacks as equals and to integrate them into politics and everyday life. Directly in the way of their old way of life was the black population who was now capable of directly effecting the way of life of the former slave-owners. “Although whites generally retained political control, the fact that well over six hundred blacks, the majority former slaves, served as legislators represented a stunning change in American politics” (Foner, p. 151). No longer were the whites free to enslave blacks to further their financial gain.

In lacking the ability to enslave blacks, the southern white population lost a bit of freedom they once possessed. The federal government revoked a privilege they once had, and by doing this, many southern whites believed their rights were also being revoked. They were no longer able to live as they wished and to govern themselves. Southern whites often tried to redeem themselves, however, by enforcing rules such as Black Codes.


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