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Race and the three phases of the American Revolution

Par Olivier Richomme : Maître de conférence - Université Lumière - Lyon 2
Publié par Marion Coste le 25/03/2019

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The American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction period, along with the Civil Rights era can be seen as three phases of the same struggle for racial equality in the U.S. The Declaration of Independence established the revolutionary ideal of equality among men. This promise was not fulfilled by the Reconstruction Amendments. Some might argue that the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 the Voting Rights did not bring about true racial equality. In a sense, the American Revolution can be envisioned as a work in progress.


The social construct of “race” is a good point of entry into American history, as it enables teachers to cover different time periods. The idea is to get students interested: they usually respond well to discussions about race and they have heard of Black Lives Matter and the Civil Rights Movement. In my class, we start with present time and we work our way back to the American Revolution and the Civil War. This approach helps with the chronology of American history and puts things into perspective; it also introduces race as a key concept in American political and cultural history.

The concept of race presents a difficulty with regard to its translation: many students believe that they understand the concept of race – which they don’t – because what they understand is the French translation of “race”. More often than not, they will start speaking about “white” and “black” and understand it in a French context and not realize that these are translations. These concepts were not born out of a vacuum; they are deeply entrenched in a culture and a history. You are not White in France the way you are White in the U.S., nor are you Black in France the way you are Black in the U.S. These translations are therefore imperfect: students need to see how useful it is to speak in a different language, because it allows them to manipulate concepts differently.

We can look at the entire spectrum of American history through the prism of race. Many students believe that the American Revolution is a thing of the past and that it has no repercussions today. However, some historians have argued that today would actually be the third or fourth phase of the American Revolution and that we are still fighting for the ideals set forth by the Founding Fathers. D.H. Lawrence said that “the past is not dead, it’s not even past”: the ideals of the American Revolution are still with us today, and to some extent, the ideals of the American Revolution are still being fought for today.

The American Revolution brought about some real revolutionary ideals. A good point of entry for students would be to talk about Thomas Jefferson, as he embodies the contradictions that the American society presents on race. He was one of the Founding Fathers and wrote some interesting revolutionary texts but at the same time, he was a slave owner and had a relationship with Sally Hemings, who was one of his slaves. To this day, there are still articles in the press about the Hemings and the Jeffersons fighting about this shared inheritance and trying to prove who is a legitimate descendant of whom.

Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, is credited with writing “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal;” that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights;” that among these are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Students usually see right away that there is a contradiction between these values and the fact that slavery exists. American history is made up of a series of compromises: some were set at the time of the American Revolution and the Constitution; another series of compromises were made during the Civil War and the Reconstruction. Those compromises are still at the heart of what America is struggling with today.

1. The American Revolution

The beginning of the struggle for racial equality is visible in the Constitution, especially with the Three-Fifths compromise and the slave trade compromise.

1.1 The Three-Fifths compromise

The Constitution does not explicitly mention slavery; however, it refers to the Three-Fifths compromise, which is the result of two countries trying to come together. The North and the South are indeed two distinct societies with different economic models trying to create “a more perfect union.” The difficulty is that one society, the South, is an agrarian model, where slavery is crucial for the economy. Not only these two societies disagreed on the principle of slavery, but they also disagreed on the practical aspects of it.

The Three-Fifths Compromise, which is a way of calculating the population of each state, is one of the first and most important compromises set by the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional convention. The Constitution institutes a census of people living in the U.S. every ten years – the census is not limited to citizens, which means that people who are in the U.S. illegally are also counted.

Based on the result of the census, power is allocated to the states through reapportionment, which is a calculation of how many representatives each state can have in Washington. This is a compromise between the big states and the small states. There are two US Senators per state in the federal Senate, which means that a small state like Wyoming has the same representation – two senators – as the state of California, which is the most populated state.

The House of Representatives is supposed to be closer to the people: the representatives are elected directly every two years, which means that are close to the concerns of the people. The House is reapportioned according to population, which gives an advantage to the big states. Today, the state of California has fifty-three Representatives in the House of Representatives and the smallest states only have one Representative.


The US congressional apportionment is a system which allocates seats in the House of Representatives to each of the 50 states according to the most recent census: the number of seats held by a state is therefore in proportion to its share of the U.S. population.

Reapportionment takes place after each decennial census and determines the number of seats each state has in the Electorate College. The number of electoral College Votes for each state equals the total number of seats the state has in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. For instance, California has two Senators and fifty-three Representatives in the House: the state therefore has fifty-five votes in the Electoral College.

But in order to implement this system, the Founding Fathers had to agree on what the term “population” meant and whether slaves should be counted ((Native Americans (referred to in the Constitution as “Indians not taxed”) were excluded straight away from this population.)). The  Three-Fifths compromise aimed at maintaining a balance of power between the North and the South, and this is where the students sometimes get confused: the North, which is abolitionist, did not want to count the slaves, as it would give more power to the Southern states in the House of Representatives. The South, on the other hand, wanted every single slave to be counted. It was therefore decided that three slaves out of five would be counted as people, so as to maintain a balance of power between Northern and Southern states in the House of Representatives. This had nothing to do with the way slaves were perceived as human beings: three fifths of the slaves was just the number of African Americans who needed to be counted to maintain that balance.

1.2 The slave trade compromise

There is another compromise in the Constitution, which has to do with the slave trade. The slave trade, that is to say the kidnapping of Africans, ends in 1808 in the United States, but that does not mean the end of slavery: people could still own and sell slaves. That compromise guaranteed the protection of the slave trade for another twenty years (from 1788 to 1808). In the Constitution, slaves are referred to using euphemisms (‘other persons’). The problem here is that the Constitution is supposed to be about equality, but African Americans are held in perpetual servitude, and a genocide of Native Americans was organised.

2. The compromises during the Westward Expansion

2.1. The 1820 Missouri Compromise

Those compromises in the Constitution did not hold for very long: in 1820, Westward Expansion required a new compromise.

Map 1. States and Territories of the US in 1789
Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons (CC)
Map 2. States and Territories of the US from 1834 to 1837
Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons (CC)

The key to building the American nation is land and free labour: as the settlers killed Native Americans and took their lands, thus moving westward, more territories were created. These territories, once populated, could apply for statehood and get the same status as the other states. But as the nation progressed westward, one question remained: will the new states be slave states or free states?

In 1820, Missouri petitioned for statehood as a slave state: the Missouri Compromise stated that territories north of latitude 36°30’ (which follows most of Missouri’s southern border) will be free states, except for Missouri; territories below will be slave states. In order to maintain the balance between free states and slave states, Maine is carved out of Massachusetts and admitted in 1820 as a free state.

Map 3. Slave states and Free states in 1821

Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons (CC)

2.2. The Compromise of 1850

The 1820 Missouri compromise held on for a while. But in 1848, the Mexican-American War broke out: in 1836 Mexico had already lost the territory of what would later become the state of Texas. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848 marks the end of the war: the Rio Grande becomes the boundary for Texas and the Treaty gives the U.S. ownership of California and most of the Southwest of today’s US (the states of California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, half of new Mexico, a quarter of Colorado and a small section of Wyoming). With the Gold Rush California becomes state almost overnight. But California has a revolutionary idea and decides to let its people decides whether they want to be a free state or a slave state (using the principle of popular sovereignty); the people vote for a free state.

The question of the status of California and down the road the territories acquired during the war upsets the balance between free states and slave states, which leads to the 1850 Compromise. This compromise states that these new territories can have popular sovereignty. Texas is also added to the Union.

The Fugitive Slave Act is also passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 and is despised by the North as it criminalizes the helping out of run-away slaves (slaves used the Underground Railroad, which consisted of a network of roads and secret routes to flee up North). The Act also requires that all the slaves caught in the North be returned to their masters. Just like the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850 did not offer any real solution, as the tensions between the free states and slaves states remained important.

3. The Civil War and the Reconstruction 

3.1 The prelude to the Civil War

Things start accelerating after 1850. The next states to enter the Union ones are Kansas and Nebraska, which are key states for the transcontinental railroad. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed for the decision to become a free state or a slave state to be determined by popular sovereignty. This led to “Bleeding Kansas”, a series violent confrontations between the pro and anti-slavery sides, in what is now seen as a prelude to the American Civil War. The entire nation turns its attention to Kansas: people from other States or other neighbouring territories go to Kansas to try and influence the vote. People fight each other over this issue of popular sovereignty and whether this State is going to be a slave state or a free state. Kansas is eventually admitted in the Union as a free state in 1861.

Another important event foreshadowing the Civil war is the Dred Scott v. Sandford case: the Supreme Court rules in 1957 that a descendent of slaves cannot become an American citizen. This decision infuriates the North. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican candidate, in 1860, the US is on its way to the Civil War.

The series of crises and compromises outlined in this article reach their logical conclusion when war breaks out between the North and the South over the issues of State sovereignty, equality and slavery.

3.2 The Reconstruction and racial segregation

The Union wins the Civil War, which was in many ways the easiest part: keeping the Union together was actually the hardest part. The period after the Civil War is called the Reconstruction era: this period is hard to date, but Eric Foner ((American historian, author of Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper &Row. 1988.)) argues that it ends in 1877.

During Reconstruction, the Federal Government tries to force reform in the South. The military is sent to the former confederacy, the Freedmen’s Bureau ((Also known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The Bureau was created in 1865 and assisted freedmen in the South during the Reconstruction.)) is created, and three amendments are passed and added to the Constitution – the 13th amendment in 1865, which ends slavery, and the 14th amendment in 1868, which gives citizenship to any person born in the U.S. ((Native Americans, however, did not obtain citizenship until 1924 under The Indian Citizenship Act.)). The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, guarantees the right to vote: no one can be disenfranchised on the basis of previous condition of servitude.

The 14th amendment

To this day, the 14th amendment remains the most important amendment when dealing with discrimination, because of two crucial clauses.

  • The Due process clause (already mentioned in the 5th amendment) means that you cannot be deprived of life, liberty or property without the sanction of the law. A legal procedure needs to be respected and certain fundamental rights are protected.
  • The Equal Protection clause means that the law of the land should be applied to anyone in the same way.

African American candidates start getting elected locally, and even to Congress. However, the South is still rebellious, so much so that the Union is at stake. After a while, the North decides to turn a blind eye and let the South go back to its old ways. Black Codes intending to restrict African Americans’ freedom are passed and segregation is implemented. Students have usually heard about Jim Crow laws but it is important to show how far those laws went. The South recreates slavery without calling it slavery: it recreates a state where African Americans are not citizens and their lives are controlled in many aspects, from the way they can work, to the way juries work ((African Americans were sentenced more easily because it would mean having to repay their debt: in order to avoid prison, they would have to work for a white person. This system basically made free labour possible again.)). Anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented non-white and white people from marrying each other ((In 1967, the Supreme Court ruling in the Loving v. Virginia case (brought by Mildred Loving, a woman of colour, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to prison for getting married), ended all race-based restrictions on marriage.)), are also strictly implemented.

4. The Civil Rights Movement

Some historians have argued that the Civil Rights Movement is in fact the third phase of the American Revolution.

Minorities usually feel more legitimate asking for more rights after a war, because of their participation in those wars. It is not a coincidence if women got the right to vote after WWI, and it is not a coincidence if the Civil Rights Movement started emerging after WWII: a lot of African Americans went to fight on the European continent. I try to show my students how far segregation went, and how ironic it is that the U.S. fought Nazism while segregation was still implemented. For instance, wounded white soldiers received “white blood” for transfusion, and black people would receive “black blood”.

But there are other reasons why the circumstances were right for the Civil Rights Movement to emerge. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union used segregation as a propaganda tool to fight an ideological war: the model represented by the U.S. (free market and freedom of religion and speech, etc.) was tainted by segregation, and it was an embarrassment for U.S. diplomacy.

After WWII, political organizations for African Americans start to emerge; there are riots, people ask for more rights and jobs and want to be treated as equals and as full U.S. citizens.

4.1 Party realignment

It is crucial to point out the political evolution that has taken place since the Civil War. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican, fought for the abolition of slavery. The Republicans were therefore the abolitionists and the Democratic party imploded and what remained of it in the South became the segregationist party. There is however a party realignment that started with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s: Roosevelt puts together a coalition and the Democratic party starts becoming the party supporting Civil Rights and Black unions start voting for the Democratic party.

The consolidation of this realignment is especially obvious under the Johnson administration, which passed two of the most important pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

These two pieces of legislation are passed under Democratic leadership. This is where realignment truly occurs and after the 1960s, the Democratic Party becomes the party of the Civil Rights and the Republicans take over the South, instrumentalizing the opposition to integration and the end of segregation for electoral gain. It was dubbed the “Southern Strategy.” This balance can still be seen today: the Northeast is mostly Democrat and the South is mostly Republican. It used to be the opposite. This political realignment therefore occurs (partly) because of race. ((See Andrew Ives's article on "Republican Electoral Strategy after Realignment: Electioneering and the Ideological Shift". La Clé des langues, 29/02/2016))

4.2 Fighting discrimination: affirmative action and redistricting

The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act are extremely important. The Civil Rights Act put an end to segregation and is still helping with discrimination today. The way you do it in the U.S. is with the judiciary: you have the right to sue your employer if there is discrimination. Bear in mind in mind that discrimination can be defined in lots of different ways: one of the key differences with France, for instance, is that very early on, the U.S. used statistics to define discrimination – we move from intent to effect. In France, you still need to catch someone red-handed (recordings, e-mails, etc.); in the U.S., if your workforce is 2% African American, it means there is discrimination (because African Americans represent 13% of the US population). Intent doesn’t matter: there is an institutional form of discrimination. The U.S. relies on racial statistics. This is also how the U.S. measures the end of discrimination: public policies were put in place to increase the number of African Americans in the work force through affirmative action policies.

These policies are the realisation that ending discrimination and leaving people to compete in the market place would be unfair. You cannot ask people to go through slavery and decades of segregation and then expect them to have to compete in the market place, because people on the other side have accumulated wealth for centuries and have gone to the best universities. African Americans need help to get jobs and go to elite universities through affirmative actions. But this is not what African Americans had asked for: when those policies were implemented, they of course jumped at the opportunities, but they had primarily asked for better training.

Racial statistics is paramount to implement affirmative action, but also to rethink the voting system. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the entire American political system appeared to be unfair to a lot of people because an entire part of the electorate was completely absent and didn’t have proper representation.

The first goal of the Voting Rights Act was to give access to the polls to African Americans. The 15th amendment gave them the right to vote but under segregation, lots of laws were created to prevent African Americans from voting (such as the grandfather clause – if one’s grandfather did not have the right vote one could not vote –,literacy test, poll taxes, etc.). The Voting Rights Act was passed in order to finally make the 15th amendment a reality and to give African Americans access to the polls. But access to the polls was not enough: African Americans should also be able to elect a “candidate of their choice.” A sort of affirmative action is therefore implemented within the voting system in order to increase the number of African American candidates who get elected.

It is similar to the French public policy to increase the number of women in office, but in the U.S. it is not about gender, and all about race. Based on racial statistics and statistical models, we know that in the U.S. white people tend to vote for white candidates and black people tend to vote for black candidates. Electoral districts in which the majority of the population is black are therefore created to guarantee the election of a black candidate. We call those majority-minority districts.

Figure 1. Drawing electoral boundaries (redistricting)

Source: original diagram on Wikipedia, Creative Commons (CC)

Nowadays, if African Americans candidates are elected in Congress, or in State legislature, it is thanks to a public policy that is explicitly trying to get African American candidates elected. If there are minorities in the US Congress it is mainly thanks to this public policy.

After a series of historical compromises, the Civil Rights Movement finally succeeds in reforming the U.S. The Civil Rights Movement had tremendous consequences: the two parties got realigned, the Democrat now dominated the Northeast and the Republican dominated the South.

4.3 Black Lives Matter

These two parties had opposed each other on the issue of race and integration for a long time, but it does not mean that there isn’t still a long way to go: the U.S. is still fighting the good fight. Your students have probably heard of Black Lives Matter and the athlete-activist LeBron James for instance. That is because in the U.S. today, race is still very important. Statistics prove that there is still discrimination, that equality is not what it should be.

Black Lives Matter - Key events

Black Lives Matter is a social movement against systemic racism towards black people.

2013: creation of the movement after George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

2014: deaths of Michael Brown (an 18-year-old African American killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri) and Eric Garner (who was put in a headlock by a NYPD police officer and chocked to death). Protestserupt in Ferguson, and the movement spreads nationwide.

2015: Black Lives Matter organise marches and demonstrations nationwide to protest the numerous deaths of African American men and women at the hands of the police. The Charleston shooting in June 2015 is condemned as an act of terror.

2016: National Football League athletes start a national anthem protest by refusing to stand during the anthem.

The counter-slogans "All Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter" became a talking point during the 2016 presidential elections.

The Black Lives Matter movement is about criminal justice: one of the things the Civil Rights Movement did not address – and it was understandable, as at the time there was no system of mass incarceration – was the issue of criminal justice reform. There is today a very real problem with police brutality and the incarceration of minorities. That is because after the Civil Rights Movement, and especially with the start of the war on drugs, there has been an increase in the rate of incarceration of minorities: there are disproportionately more African Americans and Latinos incarcerated.


The phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” has not become a reality in the U.S. today. The ideals of the Founding Fathers are still being fought for today in different ways. We are either still in the third phase of the American Revolution or we have started a fourth phase, but the ideal of racial equality is still being fought for today. We can therefore show students, going back in time, that Black Lives Matter is not something new and that it was at the heart of American society and political contract from the beginning.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Olivier Richomme, "Race and the three phases of the American Revolution", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2019. Consulté le 14/04/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/race-and-the-three-phases-of-the-american-revolution