Abolition of Slavery: United States

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Abolition of Slavery

United States 1863-1865


By early 1861, just before the beginning of the American Civil War (sometimes also called the War Between the States and the War for Southern Independence), serious economic and ideological differences divided the citizens of the United States. The primary points of contention were slavery and the rights of the states with respect to the federal government. These growing differences also divided the country geographically. Nineteen states, including the industrialized northern states, prohibited slavery, while 15 southern states, whose society depended on agriculture, allowed the ownership of slaves. Seven of those 15 southern states had already withdrawn from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America after Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as president of the United States. Despite the hopes of President Lincoln that the secession would end without conflict, the two regions fought a civil war from 1861 to 1865 that exploited the distinctions between the northern states and the southern states. The primary reason why the war was being fought (at least from the perspective of Lincoln and the people in the northern states) changed during the year 1863 from regaining the unification of the country to the abolition and resulting emancipation of black slaves throughout the United States.


  • 1846: Frederick Douglass establishes the abolitionist newspaper The North Star.
  • 1849: Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery in Maryland. Over the next eight years, she will undertake at least 20 secret missions into Maryland and Virginia to free more than 300 slaves through the so-called Underground Railroad.
  • 1852: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, though far from a literary masterpiece is a great commercial success, with over half a million sales on both sides of the Atlantic. More important, it has an enormous influence on British sentiments with regard to slavery and the brewing American conflict between North and South.
  • 1854: Republican Party is formed by opponents of slavery in Michigan.
  • 1857: In its Dred Scott decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a slave is not a citizen.
  • 1859: American abolitionist John Brown leads a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. His capture and hanging in December heighten the animosities that will spark the Civil War 16 months later.
  • 1861: Within weeks of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, the Civil War begins with the shelling of Fort Sumter. Six states secede from the Union, joining South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America (later joined by four other states) and electing Jefferson Davis as president. The first major battle of the war, at Bull Run or Manassas in Virginia, is a Confederate victory.
  • 1863: President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in Confederate territories, on 1 January. Thus begins a year that sees the turning point of the Civil War, with decisive Union victories at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga. Thereafter, the Confederacy is almost perpetually on the defensive, fighting not to win but to avoid losing.
  • 1865: Civil War ends with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. More than 600,000 men have died, and the South is in ruins, but the Union has been restored.
  • 1865: Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery.
  • 1868: Ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants civil rights to African Americans.
  • 1870: Fifteenth Amendment, the last of the three post-Civil War amendments to the U.S. Constitution, states that an American citizen cannot be denied the right to vote because of race, color, or previous status as a slave. At this time, the new amendment is treated as law in the South, which is still occupied by federal troops, but after Reconstruction ends in 1877, it will be nearly 90 years before blacks in some southern states gain full voting rights.

Event and Its Context

From the colonial years in the late 1770s until 1860, the northern states (the "North") and the southern states (the "South") of the United States had developed socially, economically, and politically into two divergent regions. Although governmental compromises had loosely kept the United States (the "Union") together for many years, the situation quickly reversed itself during the 1860 presidential campaign. The resulting election of Abraham Lincoln as the sixteenth president of the United States was viewed by the South as a threat to slavery and the southern way of life; indeed, it ignited the Civil War. The first two years of the war, 1861 and 1862, were fought primarily by the North to restore the Union. These efforts helped to bring about the later years of the war, 1863-1865, which were fought by the North to emancipate black slaves in the South as well as to restore the Union.

Industrialization Versus Agriculture

Sharp differences between the North and the South, though apparent in the eighteenth century, dramatically increased during the first half of the nineteenth century. By 1860 cotton was the primary southern crop, accounting for the majority of total U.S. exports. The South's plantation system and its critical labor component of slavery were developed as a result of the profitability of cotton, along with the other major crops of sugar cane, tobacco, and rice.

The North, on the other hand, had successfully established itself as an industrial society in the second half of the eighteenth century. Free labor was desperately needed by the northern states for their growing industrial facilities, and that labor came in the form of European immigrants. These immigrants worked in factories, built the railroads of the North, and settled the western part of the United States (the "West") that, at this time, comprised the land immediately west of the Appalachian Mountains. According to 1860 census records, the northern population was several times that of the southern population (approximately 21.9 million in the North and West versus about 5.5 million, plus about 3.9 million slaves, in the South). Because of its expanding industrial base, the North was more dependent on the federal government than the South in order to develop a complex transportation network, consisting mainly of highways, railroads, and canals. Immigrants built the bulk of the transportation infrastructure and at the same time settled along its route throughout the North and West; however, few immigrants settled in the South.

The South rejected industrialization and instead looked to agriculture as its primary business. Almost all manufactured goods necessary for southern society had to be imported either from the North or from Europe or other trading partners. The South was long dependent on slave labor, while the North was dependent on free labor, and both sides wanted to preserve that comfortable situation in their particular homelands.


The immediate cause of the Civil War was slavery, although various factions often stated other reasons. Fifteen southern states, including the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, depended on slave labor to support their economy. Although slavery was not universally practiced in the 19 northern states, only a small proportion of northerners (called abolitionists) actively opposed it. The main debate between the North and the South in the years leading up to the Civil War was whether slavery should be permitted in the new territories and states. The territories included Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Utah (established between 1840 and 1850), and the newly established states that were in contention were Maine (1820) and Missouri (1821). Opponents of slavery were concerned about its expansion into undetermined territories and slave-free states, mostly because they did not want to compete against slave labor.

Compromise or Conflict

According to the U.S. Constitution, the federal government reserved to the states the right to deal with slavery, so it could not prohibit or otherwise interfere with slavery within the states. Opponents of slavery could legally only prevent its spread. Moderates from both the North and the South hoped to compromise the regional differences by equalizing the power between free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. In 1818 the Senate became balanced with the addition of the state of Alabama to the Union. However, for the next 40 years, many territories in the West and Southwest petitioned for statehood, which constantly disrupted the balance of the Senate. As a result, the North and the South began a desperate struggle over whether territories would enter the Union as free or slave states. They found temporary agreements in the Missouri Compromise of 1821, admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state, and later in the Compromise of 1850, admitting California as a free state and allowing territorial governments to decide slavery.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin, an antislavery novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, greatly changed public opinion in the North. Stowe wrote the novel in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal to assist an escaped slave. The story was first published in the abolitionist newspaper National Era in 1851 and 1852 and then was published as a novel in 1852, when it quickly sold 300,000 copies. The book exposed many Americans, for the first time, to the horrors of slavery and depicted slaves not as shiftless, carefree characters, but as human beings capable of the same thoughts and emotions as white people. Uncle Tom's Cabin was widely read in the United States and abroad and motivated many to join the abolitionist cause. Southern critics tried to minimize the book's depiction of slavery, but in the end Stowe's novel helped many people to voice criticism of slavery and to favor its abolition.

Abraham Lincoln

The slavery issue was in the forefront of all thought during the presidential election year of 1860. The Republican Party had run on an antislavery platform, and during the campaign many southerners had threatened secession from the Union if Abraham Lincoln was elected. Rich, white southerners feared that a Lincoln administration would threaten slavery, their cherished antebellum heritage, and southern society.

On 6 November 1860 Lincoln was elected president of the United States—an event that outraged southern states. At his inauguration, Lincoln declared that he had no intention of ending existing slavery. Southerners decided, however, that secession was a better choice than to remain in the Union and risk compromising their familiar way of life. Therefore, on 20 December 1860 South Carolina seceded, and by 1 February 1861 six more states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—had seceded from the Union as well.

When Lincoln took the oath of office on 4 March 1861, the seven seceded states had already adopted the constitution of the Confederate States of America (the Confederacy) and elected Jefferson Davis as its president. Southern leaders believed that their action was lawful. But northern leaders, including Lincoln, were fiercely against the South's withdrawal from the Union. The president maintained that secession was illegal and that the newly formed Confederacy was not a valid nation.

The North wanted to preserve the Union, and the South wanted the right to establish a country that guaranteed the right to own slaves. Lincoln believed that with governmental compromise, diplomatic efforts, and sufficient time—absent a provocative act—the seceded states might return to the Union. However, this did not happen.

The Civil War Begins

On 12 April 1861 Confederate artillery attacked Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. Immediately following the attack, four more states—Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—severed their ties with the Union. To retain the loyalty of the remaining border states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri—President Lincoln insisted that the war was not about abolishing slavery but was rather a war to preserve the Union. His words were not aimed just at southerners but were also addressed to white northerners, who were for the most part not interested in fighting to free slaves or in giving rights to black people.

Lincoln upheld the laws barring blacks from the army, proving to northern whites that their privileges would not be threatened. Still, many blacks wanted to join the fighting and continued to place pressure on federal authorities. Even if Lincoln did not publicly state his beliefs, many blacks believed that this was a war against slavery.

Both sides now prepared for a bloody conflict that they knew would last much longer than either had initially imagined. Early Confederate victories at the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia, and in Missouri at Wilson's Creek, crushed the hopes of the Union to stop the rebellion quickly and without great loss of life. Northern forces soon assembled along the upper Mississippi River and the Ohio River in order to assure unimpeded movement of needed goods throughout the North. Northern forces also established new naval bases—and conquered existing ones—along the southern Atlantic coast in order to block international traders and smugglers who could aid the southern war effort.

From the beginning of the war, President Lincoln insisted that his primary purpose was the restoration of the Union, not the abolition of slavery. As the war continued, however, Lincoln saw that the preservation of the Union depended, in part, on the elimination of slavery. The leaders of the Lincoln administration began to believe that if they stressed the abolition of slavery as a major war objective, then they could prevent France and England from recognizing the Confederacy. Both England and France had abolished slavery and would probably not support a country fighting a war to defend slavery. Furthermore, the abolition of slavery (popularly called "emancipation") might permit the North to demolish the South's war effort, which was strongly supported by slave labor.


Self-emancipation presented a problem to the Union army as slaves escaped to various Union states. Because there was no consistent federal policy regarding fugitives, individual commanders made their own decisions. Some put them to work for Union forces, while others wanted to return them to their owners. Since these black people were originally enslaved in the South, someone had to decide whether they would become free or be returned to their southern masters, as was required under the existing fugitive slave laws. Northern general Benjamin F. Butler stated that southern slave owners considered the fugitives their property, and during a state of war, an enemy's property can be legally taken. The Lincoln administration supported Butler's rationale. On 6 August 1861 fugitive slaves were declared to be "contraband of war" if their labor had been used against Union forces. As such, they were declared to be free.

Antislavery Legislation

At the beginning of 1862, Lincoln continued to insist that the Civil War was a fight to save the Union, not to free slaves. However, public opinion in the North began overwhelmingly to favor abolition of slavery. In response, Congress began to pass legislation to end slavery. On 10 April 1862 Congress pledged financial aid to any state that proceeded with gradual emancipation of blacks (along with appropriate compensation to their previous owners). In addition, on 16 April 1862 Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia; on 19 June 1862 it prohibited slavery in the territories; and on 17 July 1862 it provided (through the Militia Act) for the employment of blacks in military or naval service.

On 22 July 1862 Lincoln informed his cabinet that he intended to free the slaves in states that were in active rebellion against the Union. However, the members of his cabinet persuaded Lincoln to wait for a northern victory in order to give the announcement more credence. After the Battle of Antietam on 17 September 1862, President Lincoln visited the battlefield, the scene of the single bloodiest day in United States history. With the Union army having emerged victorious at Antietam, Lincoln determined that his announcement was now appropriate.

Emancipation Proclamation

Five days later, on 22 September 1862, Lincoln issued the first proclamation, which marked a major change in Union policy. The proclamation stated that the Confederate states were to surrender by 1 January 1863 or their slaves would be freed. It also announced the Union's intention to enlist black soldiers and sailors. On 1 January 1863 Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, proclaiming freedom for about 3,120,000 slaves. The stated purpose of the Civil War had now changed, for now the North was not only fighting to preserve the Union, but it was also fighting to end slavery.

Black men rushed to enlist upon hearing about the proclamation. They were accepted into all-black units. By late spring large-scale recruitment through the War Department's Bureau of Colored Troops was under way throughout the North and in all the Union-occupied Confederate states except Tennessee. One of the first of these regiments was the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Colored Regiment. Their heroism in combat proved the willingness and ability of black soldiers to fight. (By the end of the war, more than 186,000 black soldiers had joined the Union army: 93,000 from the Confederate states, 53,000 from the free states, and 40,000 from the border slave states.) By mid-1864 the war was turning in favor of the North. On 3 March 1865 the Congress prepared for the war's end by establishing the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands to oversee the transition from slavery to freedom.

On the morning of 9 April 1865, northern commander Ulysses S. Grant and southern commander Robert E. Lee met at a private home in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee accepted the terms of surrender offered by Grant, and the war was effectively over. Over 600,000 people lost their lives during the war, and property valued at $5 billion was destroyed, but the war assured the freedom of about four million black slaves and the preservation of the United States of America. The final number of about four million liberated slaves included those inhabiting the states in the Confederacy (three million) who were liberated in Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, plus those liberated at war's end who lived outside the Confederacy.

Aftermath of the War

The war caused wide-scale economic destruction to the South. The Confederate states lost two-thirds of their wealth during the war. The loss of slave property through emancipation accounted for much of this, but the economic infrastructure in the South was also severely damaged in other ways. Railroads and industries in the South were destroyed, over one-half of all agricultural machinery was destroyed, and 40 percent of all livestock had been killed. It took the South a full 100 years to return to its prewar state with regard to industry and agriculture. In contrast, the northern economy thrived during and after the war. Between 1861 and 1870 northern wealth increased by 50 percent; while during that same decade southern wealth decreased by 60 percent.

Since Lincoln's proclamation was a war announcement that might be held unconstitutional after the war, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery forever in the United States, early in 1865. It was ratified by three-fourths of the states and was formally proclaimed in effect on 18 December 1865. With the end of the war, four million former slaves were free to travel throughout the South, although some remained in, or moved to, the North. Black men who fought for the Union felt a strong desire for full U.S. citizenship. Because they had risked their lives in the military, black men argued that they should have the right to vote and live as full members of American society. Instead, the North and the South debated the future of black Americans during the 12 years of Reconstruction following the war.

The Fourteenth Amendment that was passed in June 1865 granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States. The Fifteenth Amendment, passed in February 1869, guaranteed that no American would be denied the right to vote on the basis of race. Despite ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, black Americans failed to win equal rights for many years in much of the postwar South.

Following Reconstruction, blacks were denied the franchise in many states until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As the nineteenth century closed, they faced a segregated life in the South and hostility across most of the North. The Civil War granted blacks their freedom; however, the battle for black equality had yet to be won.

Key Players

Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865): Lincoln attended a one-room school for only a few months; the rest of his education came from his avid reading habit. While reading law, he worked in a store, managed a mill, surveyed land, and split rails. In 1834 he went to the Illinois legislature as a Whig and became the party's floor leader. He practiced law in Springfield, Illinois, for the next 20 years, except for a single term (1847-1849) in the Illinois Congress. In 1855 he was an unsuccessful candidate for senator, and the next year he joined the new Republican Party. Lincoln gained national attention in 1858 when, as Republican candidate for senator from Illinois, he engaged in a series of debates with the Democratic candidate but lost the election. Lincoln gained the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. His next five years involved directing the Union's activities in the Civil War against the southern states that had seceded from the union. His inaugural speeches and the Gettysburg Address are considered masterpieces of American oratory. Lincoln demonstrated his mastery of foreign affairs by avoiding war with Great Britain. Often called the "Great Emancipator," Lincoln was the central figure of the Civil War and is regarded by many historians as one of the greatest U.S. presidents. He was fatally shot on 14 April 1865 at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811-1896): Stowe was an American writer and philanthropist, best recognized for the antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. She attended the seminary at Hartford, Connecticut, which was managed by her sister Catherine, and four years later was employed there as an assistant teacher. Harriet and Catherine later founded the Western Female Institute, another seminary. In 1834 Stowe began her literary career when she won a contest sponsored by the Western Monthly magazine, and soon she became a regular contributor to the magazine. Her first book, The Mayflower, appeared in 1843. She started to publish her writings in the Atlantic Monthly and later in the Independent and the Christian Union. Stowe published The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), which contains source material from her earlier book. A second antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), tells the story of a slave rebellion. The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862), Old-Town Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878) are loosely based on her husband's childhood memories of life in New England.

See also: Black Codes; Jim Crow Segregation and Labor.



Collier, Christopher, and James Lincoln Collier. The Civil War, 1860-1866. New York: Benchmark Books, 1998.

Naden, Corinne J., and Rose Blue. Why Fight? The Causes of the American Civil War. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2000.

Wesley, Charles H., and Patricia W. Romero. Negro Americans in the Civil War: From Slavery to Citizenship. New York: Publishers Company, 1968.


Chronology of Emancipation during the Civil War [cited 16 November 2002]. <http://www.inform.umd.edu/ARHU/Depts/History/Freedman/chronol.htm>.

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The Civil War Years: The Fight for Emancipation [cited 16 November 2002]. <http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/douglass/part4.html>.

Lincoln, Abraham. The Emancipation Proclamation [cited 16November 2002]. <http://americancivilwar.com/eman.html>.

Population of the United States (1860) [cited 16 November2002]. <http://www.civilwarhome.com/population1860.htm>.

Slavery [cited 16 November 2002]. <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAslavery.htm>.

—William Arthur Atkins