The Nationalization of
Civil Rights, 1865-1883
DURING RECONSTRUCTION the issue of civil rights, like the question of emancipation in wartime politics, was both a means of securing fundamental political objectives and an ideological end in itself. Protecting freedmen's rights was first of all a necessary means of confirming the abolition of slavery and extending democratic institutions into the South. Black civil rights also possessed instrumental value in a more expedient political sense related to the fact that voting came to be seen as a right of citizenship rather than, as previously, a privilege granted to certain citizens on a prudential basis by the responsible political community. The expediency inherent in this change lay in the certainty that newly enfranchised freedmen would support the party that gave them the right to vote. At the same time, however, freedmen's rights became an ideological and moral issue, a matter of justice as well as expediency. Indeed many Republican congressmen defended Negro civil rights not for political gain but rather in spite of the political risk it involved. A more favorable view of blacks as a result of emancipation notwithstanding, racial prejudice remained deeply embedded in social practices.
Although decisions taken during Reconstruction laid the foundation for modern American civil rights law, the term civil rights carried a different meaning in the 1860's than it does in the twentieth century. Nowadays civil rights and civil liberties have been conflated and are essentially interchangeable terms. Civil liberties refers to legal guarantees which protect individ