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Regulating Slavery Overview

Regulating Slavery Overview

Before the complete abolition of slavery in 1865, the executive, judicial, and legislative arms of the U.S. government, state and local political bodies, and individual citizens employed various methods to perpetuate or eradicate the institution of slavery in the United States. At one end of the spectrum were the white citizens who held the political and socioeconomic power in American society and regulated the daily lives of the men and women of African descent, who they held in human bondage, in order to control them and to maintain the status quo. These regulations reinforced the low status and positions of servitude that African American slaves held in American society; most white citizens, even those in nonslaveholding states, believed that slaves of African descent were inferior beings rightfully within the complete dominion and control of the white people who owned them. At the opposite end of the spectrum were the many Americans of European descent, along with free and enslaved black people, who struggled to loosen the chains of slavery by whatever means necessary through the courts, individual actions, or governmental executive orders and legislative enactments. This chapter addresses the political, legal, and individual tools that different sectors of American society used to support or oppose slavery in the United States. These factors had an impact on the daily lives of African American slaves, the conditions of their bondage, and their quests for freedom in American society.

Although it was the federal government of the United States that ultimately determined how it would regulate the institution of slavery throughout America, individual slave owners and other people in direct contact with the African American slaves maintained control over their daily lives. As early as 1600, there were half a million slaves in the Western Hemisphere. The first recorded African slaves to reach the American colonies arrived in Virginia in 1619, and were followed by a second group who landed in the New Netherlands (present-day New York and New Jersey) around 1625. By 1860, there were 3,950,511 African American slaves in the United States, 32.3 percent of the total population of 12,249,075 people in the slaveholding states (Gienapp 1992, pp. 13-15). Because of this large percentage of African American slaves in comparison to the white population in the slave states, white American slave owners believed that it was necessary to rule their slaves through fear, subjugation, and physical force. Southern slaveholders used punishments such as whipping, maiming, branding, the threat of sale to another slave owner, and the withholding of food and other necessities of daily living.

The federal and state governments were complicit in establishing complete dominion and control over the daily lives of slaves through various legislative enactments, executive orders, and court decisions. In 1787 the antislavery delegates to the Constitutional Convention had to compromise with the Southern states on the issue of slavery, to ensure that the Constitution would be approved by a majority of the delegates. For example, under article 1, section 2, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution—the three-fifths clause—three-fifths of each African slave was counted for the purpose not only of taxation, but also of representation in the House of Representatives. This article had a direct effect and long-lasting impact on the regulation of the institution of slavery, because it essentially gave the slaveholding states great political power in Congress. As a result of the three-fifths clause, the Southern states were able to strengthen and expand the institution of slavery up through to the beginning of the Civil War (1861–1865). In addition, article 1, section 9, clause 1 mandated that Congress could not prohibit the international slave trade before 1808, thereby giving the slaveholding states free reign in expanding slavery for at least twenty years. Article 4, section 2, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution—the fugitive slave clause—legalized the right of slaveholders to enter any American state to retrieve escaped slaves and to return them to bondage. In 1787 Congress also passed the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the territories northwest of the Ohio River, but allowed the return of fugitive slaves who escaped to these territories from the slave states. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 allowed Missouri to be admitted as a slave state, but stipulated that for each slave state admitted, a free state had to be admitted; Maine was admitted as a free state when Missouri became a slaveholding state. This compromise also allowed fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners and eventually led to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The 1850 law gave federal marshals and the citizens who they deputized the authority to capture and return fugitive slaves to their masters. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 resulted in a mass exodus of escaped slaves, as well as free African Americans, to Canada to avoid capture and a lifetime of bondage. These federal enactments had a great impact on African American slaves and their daily lives.

Each slaveholding state enacted measures to manage slaves and to maintain the institution of slavery. In order to control the African American slaves within their jurisdictions, individual American states enacted restrictive slave codes to regulate their slaves' lives. These codes restricted the social, economic, and legal aspects of the slaves' daily existence. For example, most of these laws prohibited slaves of African descent from the following: marrying; owning, buying, or selling real or personal property; learning to read and write; and assembling with other African slaves and free African Americans for religious ceremonies or for any other reason. White citizens of the United States were worried about slave insurrections and collaborations between antislavery whites, free African Americans, and African slaves. This fear was not unfounded, as evidenced by slave rebellions headed by the likes of John Brown (1800–1859), a fanatical white abolitionist, and slave leader Nat Turner (1800–1831). Ultimately, these slave revolts were not successful, but they invigorated the abolitionist movement in the United States and encouraged African American slaves to act to obtain their freedom by whatever means necessary.

One important example of an African American slave fighting to obtain his freedom that had an enduring impact on the institution of slavery was the infamous 1857 Supreme Court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. Scott (1795–1858) was an African American slave who sought his freedom because his owner had brought him to free states over the course of his lifetime as a slave. For political reasons and to perpetuate the institution of slavery, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1777–1864) decided that a black person, whether free or enslaved, could not be a citizen of the United States and held that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, thereby allowing the expansion of slavery into the Western territories. Justice Taney declared that blacks were "so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect" (Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 [1857]). This court decision catalyzed the abolitionist movement and was one of the factors that led to the Civil War. It also ultimately led to Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed slaves in the states loyal to the Confederacy. Ultimately, after the end of the Civil War, Congress passed the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which effectively abolished slavery in the United States and entitled African Americans to the rights and privileges of American citizenship.


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                              Jocelyn M. Cuffee

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