The terms "civil rights" and "civil liberties" have come to mean different things, although their dictionary definitions would be almost synonymous. In American usage, "civil rights" are those that are guaranteed to black citizens by the Constitution, and "civil liberties" are all other constitutionally guaranteed rights, especially those stemming from the Bill of Rights.
The writers of the Constitution had largely avoided slavery issues. The number of black slaves in America did not immediately expand after the Dutch Mann o Warre brought the first boatload to Jamestown in 1619. But by 1800, there were about 900,000 slaves in the United States; fewer than 40,000 of them lived in the northern states. At that time, the question of slave populations and representation had been solved by the Three-Fifths Compromise and the slave trade was protected for 20 years.
In 1808, Congress acted to end the slave trade, but illegal importation into the Southern states was common. As slaveholders moved westward into new territories, they frequently took their slaves with them. When those areas achieved the population necessary for statehood, the question of slavery would have to be faced.
Although for the purpose of the decennial census, the U.S. Constitution distinguished between slaves, who counted only 3/5, and free blacks, who were fully counted, it did not guarantee any rights to free blacks and most state constitutions did not at first address the issue. In later year, changes were made in many state constitutions, such as those of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio, to restrict the suffrage to white men. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1837, in the case of Fogg v. Hobbs), that blacks were not freemen and consequently could not vote. Protests were to no avail.
After the failed rebellion by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831, laws were passed against the education of blacks. In 1853, Mrs. Margaret Douglass was arrested for teaching free black children to read and write in Norfolk, Virginia. She was convicted and sentenced to jail with a fine of one dollar. Judge Richard Baker overturned the fine, but his ruling clearly showed his support for the law:
After these several and repeated recognitions of the wisdom and propriety of the said act, it may well be said that bold and open opposition to it is a matter not to be slightly regarded, especially as we have reason to believe that every Southern slave state in our country, as a measure of self-preservation and protection, has deemed it wise and just to adopt laws with similar provisions. There might have been no occasion for such enactments in Virginia, or elsewhere, on the subject of Negro education but as a matter of self-defense against the schemes of Northern incendiaries and the outcry against holding our slaves in bondage.
Mrs. Douglass served a one-month prison sentence for her crime.
In a similar manner, although California was admitted as a "free" state under the Compromise of 1850, blacks continued to suffer discrimination. A meeting was held at the Colored Methodist Church of Sacramento in late November 1855 to discuss the grievances. The attendees issued an address to the white citizens of California, which stated in part:
We again call upon you to regard our condition in the state of California. We point with pride to the general character we maintain in your midst, for integrity, industry, and thrift. You have been wont to multiply our vices and never see our virtues. You call upon us to pay enormous taxes to support government, at the same time you deny us the protection you extend to others; the security for life and property. You require us to be good citizens, while seeking to degrade us. You ask why we are not more intelligent. You receive our money to educate your children, and then refuse to admit our children into the common schools.
It is a measure of the degree to which Abolitionism was viewed as radical that the convention declined to forward a report of their meeting to either William Lloyd Garrison or Frederick Douglass.