Throughout the course of history the definition of the term “American” has changed repeatedly. The changes in the definition of the term between 1865 and 2011 coincide with political, social and economic trends during any specific time during this period. Originally the term “American” was not an inclusive term and even though the Constitution states that all men are created equal, many “Americans” did not practice what they preached. However, it is a common phrase today that America is a “melting pot” where peoples from many different countries and cultures come to live a better life. Although certain groups in the United States still struggle with being ostracized by some citizens, they are still “Americans” as the term is now inclusive.
The subtle shift in the view of the term “American” from a non-inclusive term to an inclusive term can be tracked through the mindset of citizens of the United States through many periods leading up to the present. For example, African Americans gained their freedom at the end of the Civil War but they were not really considered Americans until years later during the Civil Rights movement and immigrants were not often included in the term “American” as they were not the “ideal” candidates to represent America; ie, they were often not white, middle class, and/or Protestant. Over time, however, these stigmas were dropped and now many Americans are proud to be part of a nation that is so diverse. To properly analyze this shift, we have to examine the time periods surrounding the subtle changes and in order to do that we must first start with the period after the Civil War.
When the Civil War ended, African Americans were freed from slavery with the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment. Of the roughly five million African Americans in the United States, four million had been slaves and were now facing the realities that many of them had no housing, background in education or skills outside of farming. Due to this, most African Americans failed when they tried to better their lives during this period and ended up stuck in the lower class of society. They were still ostracized by the white citizens of America and there was a heavy stigma associated with being black.
The feeling that African Americans were not suitable to be “Americans”, along with a hefty dose of racism, led to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1867. The group regularly threatened, terrorized, injured and killed black citizens throughout the country and did so until the late 1880s when they faded from sight because they had broken the wills of the African American community through their actions of hate. Another way that African Americans were not treated as “Americans” was through the refusal to allow them to exercise the rights granted to them through amendments to the Constitution.
Although African Americans were granted the right to vote in 1870, many never got the chance to do so because of poll taxes, literacy tests and the so-called...