The following excerpt is taken from The First Reconstruction: Black Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War by Van Gosse, now available from UNC Press.
“We are Americans. We were born in no foreign clime.…
We have not been brought up under the influence of other, strange, aristocratic, and uncongenial political relations. In this respect, we profess to be American and republican. With the nature, features and operations of our government, we have been familiarized from youth; and its democratic character is accordant with the flow of our feelings, and the current of our thoughts.…
We call upon you to return to the pure faith of your republican fathers. We lift up our voices for the restored spirit of the first days of the republic—for the great principles then maintained, and that regard for man which revered the characteristic features of his nature, as of more honor and worth than the form and color of the body in which they dwell. For no vested rights, for no peculiar privileges, for no extraordinary prerogatives, do we ask. We merely put forth our appeal for a republican birthright.”
—Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the State of New York, To Consider Their Political Disabilities, “Address to the People of the State of New York,” August 1840
One hundred thirty-four men representing thirty-three of New York’s fifty-seven counties issued this manifesto, which became the exemplary black political text of the antebellum era. Their unprecedented gathering built on a statewide drive for “equal suffrage” in the nation’s premier electoral arena. Probably authored by the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, a twenty-four-year-old fugitive and now a well-educated Presbyterian minister, their “Address” set the terms for the next generation. Aimed at white Whigs and ex-Federalists for whom Jacksonian Democracy meant mob rule, it mixed familiar patriotic tropes with nativist disdain for those “born in foreign climes” who had brought with them “strange, aristocratic” habits. The “appeal for a republican birthright” reminded New Yorkers that black men voted in the Empire State from 1777 until 1821, when most were disfranchised by a “freehold” property qualification, meaning real estate worth $250. Above all else, however, Garnet evoked a declension from “the pure faith of your republican fathers.” With supreme audacity, he claimed for black men the Revolution itself, “the first days of the republic” and “the great principles then maintained,” before modern corruption set in.
Yet this first statewide black convention, the dozens of conclaves it inspired over the next twenty years (statewide meetings from Maine to California, including ten in New York), and the movement represented at those conventions, are now largely unknown, eclipsed by stories of slave resistance and the Underground Railroad. Consider the best-known speech by a black American in this period, Frederick Douglass’s 1852 “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”: “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? … I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.… The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.… This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.” Douglass’s antipatriotic excoriation has been quoted dozens of times as the authentic voice of black alienation. How could it be otherwise? How could black people declare “We are Americans” as long as slavery drove the nation’s economy, laws, and politics? From that perspective, Garnet’s 1840 address seems irrelevant or deluded. What kind of “republican birthright” could a slave hope to share?
In defiance of the notion that slavery defined African Americans, northern free men of color, led by self-emancipated slaves like Garnet and Douglass, made the claim “We are Americans” over and over. Douglass’s 1852 oration was a provocation, one of the things he did best. By then, he was an international celebrity whom even Negrophobes flocked to see. Speaking to whites in Rochester, he pressed upon them the republic’s inevitable damnation while slavery persisted. They wanted Douglass’s lash, and they got it, in high style. But his views speaking to his peers one year later conformed exactly to the terms Garnet set out in 1840. In July 1853, Douglass presided at the Colored National Convention in Syracuse, and chaired the committee that drafted its address “to the People of the United States.” This document repeated the 1840 language almost verbatim, with a dollop of aggressive Protestantism for good measure: “We are Americans, and as Americans, we would speak to Americans. We address you not as aliens or exiles … [but] as American citizens asserting their rights on their own native soil.… We ask that, speaking the same language and being of the same religion, worshipping the same God, owing our redemption to the same Savior, and learning our duties from the same Bible, we shall not be treated as barbarians.
Van Gosse is professor of history at Franklin and Marshall College.