Who could claim the human rights declared at independence? In the nineteenth century, Americans struggled with the practical meaning and scope of this abstract question. The Constitution tolerated the enslavement of African Americans until 1865. Women, regardless of race, lacked voting and property rights. Wage workers and their families—many of them newly arrived immigrants—faced frequent economic depressions and had few rights on the job.
As Chicago grew from a frontier town to a center of world commerce the limits of American democracy would be tested again and again.