School Improvement in Maryland
Clarifications: Each clarification provides an explanation of an indicator/objective to help teachers better understand the skills and/or concepts.

Standard 1.0 Political Science

Topic C. Protecting Rights and Maintaining Order

Indicator 2. Explain how the United States government protected or failed to protect the rights of individuals and groups

Objective b. Describe methods that were used to deny civil rights to women, African Americans and Native Americans


In spite of a spirit of democratization that emerged in the nation during the American Revolution, throughout the course of early U.S. history the human rights ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Bill of Rights largely did not apply to women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Throughout this entire time period, federal and state governments and private institutions alike employed a variety of very different policies that were either intended to or had the effect of denying civil rights to all three of these groups.

Although following the Revolution state legislatures throughout the country eliminated colonial-era primogeniture laws that had favored eldest sons in the inheritance of property, throughout early U.S. history married women remained economically dependent upon their husbands. Under a system known as coverture, married women were not permitted to own most forms of property independently of their husbands, and even were required to turn earned wages and wealth brought into marriage over to them. Government policies that attempted to protect women from neglect offered no remedies to those whose husbands irresponsibly invested or even gambled what was once their wives’ property away. (An excellent and more detailed overview of the legal status of both married and unmarried women as property owners can be found at

Throughout the 19th Century, in spite of a decades-long suffrage campaign that was waged by leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both single and married women were denied the right to vote in most American elections. In November of 1872, Anthony and other suffrage activists attempted to vote, citing the Fourteenth Amendment’s declaration that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.” After they were denied, they took their case to the courts. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), the Supreme Court ruled that being a citizen does not mean that a person has the right to vote and that states could therefore continue to deny the vote to women. Women would not be guaranteed the right to vote until Congress and the states effectively overruled the Court’s decision in Happersett by ratifying the 19th Amendment in 1920.

African Americans:
Governments across the entire country also employed policies that denied African Americans of their civil rights. In general, these policies were designed either to protect the institution of slavery or to maintain the superiority of whites in the nation’s social, political, and economic framework.

In 1793 the federal government passed the first Fugitive Slave Act, which provided for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another state or federal territory. After the federal government’s ability to enforce this law was undermined by northern states’ passage of “personal freedom” laws, which required jury trials before runaway slaves could be returned to their masters, Congress in 1850 passed a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required both state and federal law enforcement officers, under penalty of fine, to arrest African Americans suspected of being runaway slaves. Furthermore, the legislation criminalized the practice of providing food and shelter to runaway slaves, and denied suspected slaves of the right to request a trial by jury or to testify on their own behalf. Since suspected runaways could not defend themselves in trial, the law had the effect of drafting into slavery free blacks who were unable to present evidence of their status.

Both northern and southern states also passed laws that were designed to deny full citizenship to their African American populations. The most well known of these policies were Black Codes. The Black Codes were laws passed by southern legislatures following the Civil War that were intended to secure the region’s supply of cheap labor in the aftermath of emancipation, and also to maintain a social structure of white superiority. Examples of Black Codes include laws requiring freedmen adhere to labor contracts that relegated them near-slave status, vagrancy ordinances that restricted the free movement of blacks from place to place, laws restricting black ownership of firearms, policies mandating racial segregation of public facilities, and prohibitions on black voting and office holding. Although the Black Codes were nullified by state legislatures during the “Radical” phase of Reconstruction, they became the forerunners of Jim Crow laws that emerged after federal forces were removed from the South in 1877. But it is also important to note that laws denying African Americans of civil rights were not confined to the southern states. In the North, laws banning miscegenation and maintaining separate public accommodations for the races were common during early U.S. history.

Native Americans:
The original Constitution mentions Native Americans, or “Indians” twice. In Article I, “Indians not taxed” are to be excluded from state populations for purposes of apportioning taxes and determining representation in Congress. Article I also empowers Congress to “regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” Both of these provisions reflect the Framers’ position that Native American tribes were distinct political entities, separate from the federal government and the states, with whom the United States would deal on a basis similar to foreign nations. As such, even though they resided within the territorial boundaries of the United States, Native Americans were not considered citizens, and they lacked the right to vote.

Early decisions by the Supreme Court that attempted to clarify Native Americans’ status increased their vulnerability to the government’s denial of their civil rights. A series of decisions by John Marshall’s Supreme Court between 1823 and 1832, sometimes known as the “Marshall Trilogy,” created a trustee-ward relationship between the United States and Native American tribes. The Court’s establishment of such a relationship would later be used as justification for government actions that denied Indians of their individual rights and tribal sovereignty.

In the first case, Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), the Court applied a principle known as the “Discovery Doctrine” to rule that the federal government retains ultimate ownership over all territories within its jurisdiction, and that Native Americans enjoyed only “occupancy” rights over their tribal lands. The Discovery Doctrine, which is rooted in a belief in the superiority of Christian European culture, had previously been used by European explorers and colonists to justify their control over lands occupied by native peoples. As a result of the Johnson ruling, tribes were denied the right to sell their land to private entities, and the federal government was given exclusive rights to acquire tribal land. Eight years later, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the Justices determined that the Cherokee Nation was a “domestic dependent nation” that was subject to the sovereignty of the United States government. As a result of this precedent, tribal entities would not be given legal status enjoyed by states or foreign nations.

Actions of the federal legislative and executive branches also had the effect of denying Native American civil rights. In 1830, at the urging of President Jackson, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act. This law gave the president the power to negotiate land removal agreements with Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River, arranged for tribes who agreed to leave their lands territory in the west, and provided citizenship to individual Native Americans who elected to stay behind. At the time of its passage, supporters of the Indian Removal Act thought that relocation would be beneficial to Native American tribes, who in territories west of the Mississippi would never need to worry about the encroachment of white settlers. But in practice, the law was devastating to Native Americans. In the first place, white settlers to areas where tribes such as the Choctaws had signed removal treaties overwhelmed individual Native Americans who remained behind and either squatted on or swindled them out of their land. Later, the federal government forced the relocation of tribes in the southeast who refused to negotiate according to the terms of the legislation. Forced relocation led to a series of bloody and financially costly conflicts between the U.S. military and the Seminoles of Florida, and eventually resulted in a brutal relocation march of thousands Cherokees that has become known as the Trail of Tears.

Resources for Objective 1.C.2.b:
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