Equal Rights Under Reconstruction

But "equal rights" did not mean the same thing to all Radical Republicans.  In the post Civil War era, rights and liberties took many forms, and some seemed more essential and worth protecting than others. 

There was widespread sentiment in the North that "natural rights" should be protected – slavery was against natural law and morally wrong.  All people should have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  Many people also believed that African-Americans should have access to such "civil rights" as equal treatment in law and before the courts.  These were seen as essential to the functioning of the Bill of Rights.

But beyond that there was little common ground.  Not everyone in the North agreed that African-Americans should have political rights such as the right to vote.  Where did that leave women?  Should former slaves be given property that had belonged to disloyal Southerners?  Or should they simply be expected to fend for themselves after hundreds of years of enslavement?  And what about the notion of social equality?   Did "equal rights" mean that blacks should mix as equals with whites in society? 

If more Americans had thought like the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, the subsequent course of American history would have been very different.  He asked to be buried in a black cemetery, under a stone bearing these words:

"I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude, but finding other cemeteries limited by charter rules as to race, I have chosen this that I might illustrate in my death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of Man before his Creator."  1

1  Quoted in Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America (Penguin Books, 1984), p. 230