To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
contact us | site guide | search
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Identity

Declaration of Wrongs and Rights
- African Americans' campaign for citizenship rights, selections from speeches, petitions, editorials, convention declarations, etc., 1810s-1865 (PDF)

Are we good enough to use bullets, and not good enough to use ballots? May we defend rights in time of war, and yet be denied the exercise of those rights in time of peace? Are we citizens when the nation is in peril, and aliens when the nation is in safety? May we shed our blood under the star-spangled banner on the battle-field, and yet be debarred from marching under it to the ballot-box?
National Convention of Colored Men, 1864   

This indictment of America's treatment of its black citizens arose from the National Convention of Colored Men in 1864, when African Americans could fight in the Union army—and were actively recruited—but could not vote in most regions of the country. With the end of the Civil War a year later, and with the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, all male American citizens were guaranteed the right to vote, at long last.

The arduous campaign for equal rights waged by free African Americans began with a few futile petitions to colonial assemblies and state legislatures in the late 1700s, expanding exponentially in the 1800s with appeals and declarations issued by black organizations, newspapers, and activist leaders. Presented here are selections from twenty-three documents in this campaign—the "civil rights movement" of its time—spanning half a century before general emancipation in 1865. They include letters, speeches, petitions, newspaper articles and editorials, and declarations from state and national "Negro conventions." Some excerpts are quite brief, others one to two pages; they can be divided among students for group discussion and jigsaw activities. Compare this campaign with the twentieth-century civil rights movement(s) in The Making of African American Identity, Volumes II and III. (19 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How do African Americans appeal for citizenship rights in these documents? What rhetorical, logical, literary, and emotional techniques do they use?
  2. How do they appeal to whites' sense of honor, duty, patriotism, godliness, and, occasionally, shame?
  3. What specific rights do they request? Do they emphasize different rights at different times?
  4. When and why do the requests become appeals or demands?
  5. How do the black activists use the rhetoric and ideals of the Declaration of Independence to underscore the justice of their campaign?
  6. Why do the activists equate citizenship with "manhood"? What do they mean?
  7. Consider the documents that are addressed to fellow African Americans, such as Walker's Appeal and the letters to black colleagues and newspapers. How do they differ from documents addressed to white Americans?
  8. How did the campaign change with the "Negro convention movement" beginning in the 1830s? the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850? the beginning of the Civil War in 1861? the enlistment of black soldiers into the Union army in 1862?
  9. What individual forms of activism for equal rights are presented in these documents, e.g., those of Elizabeth Jennings, Henry Highland Garnet, Thomas Van Renselaer, and Thomas Hedgepeth? How do they contribute to the organizational campaign for rights?
  10. Compare the goals of this campaign with those of the civil rights movements of the twentieth century (see Vols. II and III of The Making of African American Identity).
  11. Create a speech, newspaper report, letter to the editor, journal entry, or similar text authored by a black activist for citizenship rights. Use one of these statements as the driving theme of your composition.
    "A change we do want and a change we will have. When it comes, we shall be called citizens of the United States and Americans."
    The Liberator, 1 Sept. 1831

    "When you have taken from an individual his right to vote, you have made the government, in regard to him, a mere despotism."
    Appeal of Forty Thousand, 1838

    "Colored as we are, black though we may be, yet we demand our rights, the same rights other citizens have."
    The Colored American, 6 or 13 March 1841

    "If we are not willing to rise up and assert our rightful claims, and plead our own cause, we have no reason to look for success."
    National Convention of Colored Citizens, 1843

    "We in our efforts for elevation, recognize no such word as FAIL."
    Ohio Convention of Colored Citizens, 1849

    "We declare that we are, and of right we ought to be American citizens. We claim this right, and we claim all the rights and privileges and duties which properly attach to it."
    Frederick Douglass, Colored National Convention of 1853

    "Are we good enough to use bullets, and not good enough to use ballots? . . . Are we citizens when the nation is in peril, and aliens when the nation is in safety?"
    National Convention of Colored Men, 1864

Framing Questions
  •  How did African Americans construct identity in antebellum America?
  •  How did enslaved and free blacks differ in their exercise of power and self-determination?
  •  How did African Americans define themselves as members of groups?

Selections from 23 documents: 19
TOTAL 19 pages
Supplemental Sites
Legal Rights and Government, primary texts and resources, in Slavery and the Making of America (WNET/PBS)

Petition of black leaders of Boston to the governor of Massachusetts for consideration of rights, 1773, in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH)

Petition of free black men in Charleston to the South Carolina legislature for equal legal standing with white citizens, 1791, in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH)

Petition of free black men in Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania legislature on the immigration of free blacks into the state, 1832, in Africans in America (PBS/WGBH)

"The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar," on Elizabeth Jennings's civil rights suit in New York City in 1853, The New York Times, 11 November 2005

The Fight for Equal Rights: Black Soldiers in the Civil War, in Teaching with Documents, from the National Archives

Black Troops in Union Blue, from the Constitutional Rights Foundation

"What, to the American Slave, is the Fourth of July?," address delivered by Frederick Douglass, 4 July 1852, in, from Dr. Quintard Taylor, University of Washington, Seattle

"Why Blacks Used to Celebrate July Fifth," by William Loren Katz, in History News Network, George Mason University

The Oregon Exclusion Law of 1849, full text, in

Full text or longer selections of documents excerpted in this selection:

Image: Declaration of Wrongs and Rights, page one (detail), in Proceedings of the National convention of colored men, held in the city of Syracuse, N.Y., October 4, 5, 6, and 7, 1864; digital image in From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909, courtesy of the Library of Congress, African American Pamphlet Collection.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Slave   2. Slave to Free   3. Free-born   4. Entrepreneurs   5. Artists
6. Poets   7. Soldiers   8. Education   9. Citizenship   10. Emigration

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: June 2009