Tracing the notion of personhood in the history of the United States

In the history of the United States, since time in memory, the definition of personality has been a very important topic. It can be traced back to the founding fathers all the way to the modern world, from the Columbus period. Over time, different classes of individuals in American society have struggled against various challenges in an effort to emancipate themselves from subjugation. The desire to achieve a level of equality between people of different races, sex, and social status has largely intensified the politics of the human body. In an effort to counteract the unjust policies that were forced on them, citizens who felt disadvantaged eventually marshaled powers. However, it should be noted that such movements often end up marginalizing other people. The rationale behind this is that for a particular group to attain the rights they are fighting for, these rights have to be drawn from a group that was previously enjoying them.

The Slavery Era

The period between the 17th and the 19th Century was a time when the US experienced numerous instances of discriminatory practices that were meted against the blacks. According to Coates (2003), the first official slavery incident that had been initiated by the colonial government occurred in 1640 when John Punch, an enslaved African, was sentenced to life imprisonment for fleeing to Maryland. As this happened, the courts sentenced two Europeans who had escaped with Punch to serve three-year sentences and thereafter were released (Coates, 2003). This incident set the stage for America to start experiencing slavery and the following year Massachusetts passed its Body of Liberties which was a statute that authorized slavery (Wiecek, 1977). The government at the time continued its discriminatory tendencies by determining the birthright of Negroes by overlooking their fathers’ races and paying more attention to the status of their mothers. From the 18th century when slavery had deeply been enshrined in the American society, slaves were not perceived as human beings but were counted as part of the property that the white men owned (Finkelman, 2012).

Fortunes started changing for the black slaves after the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Slavery was ultimately abolished, and the court in reiterating the substance of the Declaration of Rights in the case of Quock Walker v. Jennison (Massachusetts) held that slavery was illegal in the country. Progressively the Constitution that was passed by the founding fathers was ratified by some states in the country in a bid to end slavery. However, in a bid to address two competing interests at the time which included giving people the autonomy to own slaves and emancipating slaves, Congress in 1820 passed the Missouri Compromise. This legislation designated Missouri as a slave state whereas Maine was designated as a free state. With the exception of Missouri, the legislation outlawed slavery in the north of the 36°30′ parallel (Wilentz, 2004).

As a follow up to the Missouri Compromise, the Congress went ahead to enact the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) which provided that slaves who had escaped could be apprehended and returned to their owners. This was a controversial statute since slaves could be captured even though they were in the Free states. There was a conflict in the application of this law, and this challenge was articulated in the case of Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506 (1859) where a freed slave had escaped Missouri for Wisconsin where he was employed. U.S. Marshalls racked down and arrested the slave who was scheduled to be returned, but the Supreme Court ordered for the slave’s release together with Booth, an abolitionist who had incited people to have the slave released. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, it was decided that Wisconsin Supreme Court erred in law in contravening a federal legislation and ordered that slaves be returned. The status of the black people was further undermined following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 where the plaintiff had brought to sue his masters for his freedom. The court pronounced itself by stating that black slaves could not be regarded as American citizens and thus lacked the locus standi to institute any proceedings in federal court (Finkelman, 2012).

Post Slavery

It was not until President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that slavery was officially abolished in the United States. The 1866 Civil Rights Act embraced personhood by providing for equality for all people within the country. The fourteenth amendment to the constitution that happened in 1868 had the effect of granting citizenship to all people that were either naturalized or born in the US. The 14th Amendment further required states to ensure that they equally protected everyone within the country and contained the due process clause in the event of limitation of a person’s inherent rights. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution that happened in 1870 had the effect of ensuring that African Americans men had the right to vote.

One of the notable groups of people in the United States that has endeavored to fight discrimination and oppression is the black community. However while the blacks, in general, have made strides in attaining equal status within the society, the black feminists have been left out. This is rather unfortunate since both the black men and women jointly fought for the civil rights movements in the 19th and 20th Century. According to Penningroth (1997), the black women were instrumental in assisting their male counterparts acquiring and maintaining the little property that they had. The personhood right to own property was an initiative that the black community collectively supported at the time. For example, all the members of a given family, children included, were required to work either at the farms or at various factories in order to sustain a given homestead. After the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, black men affirmed their personhood since they were able to own property (Welke, 2010). However this prerogative was hardly applied to the black women, yet they had fought alongside their male counterparts in their quest to emancipate themselves from slavery (Penningroth, 1997). Black women did not have their legal autonomy and were constantly subjected to the male coverture. Everything they undertook had to be in their husbands’ names (Penningroth, 1997).

In as much as there was some progress in the country in the clamor to fight for the right of women, the black women were continually sidelined. Some of the notable changes in addressing the plight of women, in general, were the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which granted women the right to vote. Furthermore, the Supreme Court in the case of Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971) interpreted the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in order to prohibit gender-based discrimination. Notwithstanding all the strides that the country had made in its bid to enhance gender equality, Anthony argued that black women were still marginalized (Stanton, Anthony, & DuBois, 1981). She contended that they were not only discriminated against by the black men but also by the feminist movement. It is evident after reading Anthony’s Constitutional Argument that as the feminist movement gained traction and white women started making progress in fighting for their rights, the black women were left behind (Stanton, Anthony, & DuBois, 1981).

In conclusion, the American society as currently constituted has made taken considerable steps to encourage and enhance equality among its citizens. This is very evident in the cordial relations that have been witnessed in the recent past where women and the African Americans in the society have been elected to various leadership positions and have been in top management roles in the country. The epitome of it all was witnessed in 2008 when the American electorate overwhelmingly voted for President Obama, an African American, in 2008 and affirmed his presidency by reelecting him in 2012. In 2016, Hillary Clinton almost managed to beat all odds to become the first women president in the U.S but was narrowly defeated by President Donald Trump. All these recent events are an indicator that progressively the United States is becoming an all-inclusive country where everyone has an equal opportunity regardless of their race or gender.


Coates, R. D. (2003). Law and the cultural production of race and racialized systems of

oppression: Early American court cases. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(3), 329-351.

Finkelman, P. (2012). Slavery in the United States: Persons or Property?.

Penningroth, D. (1997). Slavery, freedom, and social claims to property among African

Americans in Liberty County, Georgia, 1850-1880. The Journal of American History, 84(2), 405-435.

Stanton, E. C., Anthony, S. B., & DuBois, E. C. (1981). Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B.

Anthony, Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. Schocken.

Welke, B. Y. (2010). Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth Century

United States. Cambridge University Press.

Wiecek, W. M. (1977). The statutory law of slavery and race in the thirteen mainland

colonies of British America. The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History, 258-280.

Wilentz, S. (2004). Jeffersonian democracy and the origins of political antislavery in the

United States: The Missouri crisis revisited. Journal of the Historical Society, 4(3), 375-401.

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