Slavery and Abolition

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10: Slavery and Abolition

For more than two hundred years, slavery was legal and common in the United States. To many people in the American South, owning slaves was a natural way of life. However, many Americans, particularly in the North, came to view slavery as wrong and immoral. Those who opposed slavery and who worked to end it were known as abolitionists. They wanted to abolish, or end, the practice of slavery. They waged a determined campaign to make slavery illegal throughout the United States. It was a battle that many southerners viewed as an attack on their very existence.

Tensions between the North and the South over the issue of slavery reached a boiling point during the 1850s. The practice was, in large measure, the major reason why the American Civil War (1861–65) was fought. The war's end brought victory for the North and freedom for slaves, although the bitter legacy of slavery left its mark on the United States for many generations to come.

A slave's journey

Slavery in America began in the early 1600s and continued for more than two hundred years. During that period, several million Africans were forcibly removed from their homes, shipped to America, and sold as slave laborers to farmers and other landowners. The slaves' involuntary journey began when they were taken from their homes and forced to march, sometimes great distances, to the western coast of Africa. There, they were held in prisons, known as slave factories, until being loaded onto ships bound for the New World.

On the slave ships, the African captives were treated like cargo. Their bodies were crammed into tight spaces with little room for movement. The voyage across the Atlantic, a course that came to be known as the Middle Passage, took several weeks in the best of circumstances. If the seas were rough and the weather was bad, the journey could take several months. The conditions on the ship were far from sanitary. In addition, the slaves were fed just enough to keep them alive. Many suffered from disease. It was not uncommon for a number of slaves to die along the way.

Eventually they arrived in America, an unfamiliar place where people spoke an unfamiliar language. There they were examined by slave traders who evaluated them based on their strength and sturdiness. The healthy slaves were usually auctioned off to slave owners. Families were often separated. Children were taken from their mothers, and husbands were sold away from their wives. Some managed to find out where their family members had been taken. A few may even have had the occasional chance to visit them. Many, however, had no idea where their family members had gone and never saw them again.


The act of ending or abolishing slavery by making it illegal.
civil war:
A war fought by different groups within a country rather than among many countries. The American Civil War (1861–65) was fought between the northern (Union) and southern (Confederate) states.
Emancipation Proclamation:
An order of President Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves in southern states, which had not remained loyal to the Union and were not under Union control.
Freedmen's Bureau:
An organization formed by the U.S. Congress to aid former slaves after the American Civil War.
Middle Passage:
The trip across the Atlantic made by slaves captured in Africa, beginning with the slaves' forcible removal from their homes to them being sold as property to slave owners in the United States.
Reconstruction Era:
A period from 1865 to 1877 of rebuilding after the American Civil War (1861–65) when the southern states were readmitted to the Union and formerly enslaved southern blacks were briefly granted basic civil rights.
A system in which a human being is considered the property of another and is forced to work for the "owner," sometimes called his or her "master," without pay and often under brutal conditions.
Underground Railroad:
A network of people secretly helping slaves to escape to the North and assisting them in establishing new lives there.

The life of a slave

Initially, slave labor was used in both the northern and southern colonies. But the warmer climate of the South created favorable conditions for growing certain crops on large plantations. Thus, there was a greater demand for slaves in the South. Southern farmers cultivated tobacco, sugar, rice, and cotton. They needed a large, inexpensive labor force to make their businesses profitable. So, the slave population swelled in the southern colonies.

Many northern businessmen became specialists in the slave trade, arranging for the import of slaves from Africa and their sale to plantation owners in the South. By the mid-1700s, the slave trade was a major industry in America. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that greatly simplified the processing of cotton. This device allowed southern farmers to greatly expand their profits, their plantations, and their slave labor force. By the early 1800s, slavery had become a vital part of the southern economy. Farmers in the South believed that the region's economy would collapse without slave labor.

The conditions of slave life were cruel and difficult. Slaves worked long hours in the fields or in homes without any pay. Even small children were put to work as soon as they were able. The field work was extremely demanding, especially when the work was done under the harsh summer sun. Slaves often lived in primitive cabins, sometimes without windows or furniture. Owning slaves was a business matter. As such, owners made decisions about their slaves based on the financial needs of their estates. They regarded slaves as property, not as human beings. If it proved profitable for an owner to sell off a male slave, the fact that the man had a wife and children may have meant nothing to the owner.

Slave families lived every day knowing that they could be split up at a moment's notice. Although some owners treated their slaves mildly or even kindly, others were brutal and pitiless, subjecting their slaves to beatings and verbal abuse. Even the kindest master never let his slaves forget what they lacked: freedom. Many slave owners thought of their slaves, and black people in general, as little better than animals.

For a time, some slaves were allowed to earn modest sums of money selling items they had made or fish or game they had caught. But some owners became concerned that allowing slaves to have money would lead them to rebel or perhaps escape. Hence, buying things from slaves became illegal. By the same token, it was illegal to teach a slave to read or write. Slave owners felt that, to control the growing population of slaves, it was necessary to keep them locked in a state of ignorance, humility, and, in some cases, fear.

Resistance and rebellion

Throughout the centuries of slavery in America, many slaves resisted bondage in a variety of ways. Some simply pretended to be slow, clumsy, or inept, frustrating the owners and confirming in their minds that they were their own masters. Others took a bolder step of sabotaging their masters' farming equipment or damaging the crops. If an owner suspected such acts were intentional, the punishment was severe. Slaves could be whipped for the slightest incident, such as looking a white person in the eye. Bold disobedience brought harsh, brutal penalties.

A number of slaves, unable to bear the burden of servitude, sought freedom, most often by running away. Once the northern colonies and states had outlawed slavery in the late 1700s and early 1800s, runaway slaves usually headed north. Escaping from bondage was extremely risky. Most slaves had no money and little food. They could only travel at night during the cover of darkness. Nighttime travel was treacherous, as many southern communities had armed slave patrols searching for runaways. Slaves caught by these patrols were sometimes shot on sight. Owners used such tactics to discourage other slaves from escaping. Other runaway slaves received punishment later, perhaps a severe beating or even death.

Even the few who did find freedom from slavery by fleeing to the North did not have equal rights with their white peers. In most northern states, free blacks could not vote, could not live in white neighborhoods, and could not attend schools with white children. Nearly every aspect of their lives was restricted. In general, much of white society viewed them as inferior beings.

In some cases, slaves and those sympathetic to the plight of the slaves, staged armed rebellions against southern plantation owners. None of these rebellions could be described as successful. The retaliation by white owners was quick and severe, and most of the blood shed was that of blacks. Nonetheless, each attempt at rebellion, no matter how small, spread some measure of hope and pride among the slaves.

Gabriel Prosser (c. 1775–1800) was a man born into slavery in Virginia. Unlike other slaves, he had learned to read and write as a child. A skilled blacksmith, Prosser often traveled from his owner's plantation to work for others. Although he had more freedom of movement than some slaves did, Prosser could not be satisfied with anything less than complete independence. He convinced a number of slaves to join him in a battle to take over the city of Richmond and destroy most of the white population. The rebellion was planned for August 30, 1800, but a massive rainstorm made many roads impassable. The storm forced the rebels to delay their attack by one night. During the delay, the rebels were betrayed and the revolt was crushed. Prosser and several others were eventually caught and sentenced to death by hanging.

Denmark Vesey (1767–1822) spent much of his life as a slave in South Carolina. After winning $1,500 in a street lottery, he was able to purchase his freedom. Vesey became a skilled and successful carpenter, but he was not satisfied with having gained freedom only for himself. He dedicated his life to securing freedom for all slaves. To that end, he gathered a group of thousands, slaves and free men, to conduct an attack on the city of Charleston. Before the revolt could take place, however, word of the plot leaked out. The white residents of Charleston felt that their worst fears were being realized, and they quickly rounded up Vesey and nearly fifty other leaders of the rebellion. Vesey was hanged on June 23, 1822.

Perhaps the most brutal slave revolt in American history was led by Nat Turner (1800–1831), a man born into slavery in Virginia. Intelligent and deeply religious, Turner often preached to other slaves about the injustice of slavery and the importance of seeking freedom. He believed that God had chosen him to free his people. In early 1831 he began enlisting volunteers and plotting an attack on the white people of Southampton County, Virginia.

Turner's revolt began on August 21. Within two days, the rebels had killed between fifty-five and sixty-five white landowners. By August 23 state and federal soldiers had suppressed the revolt. Turner escaped and was on the run until his capture in late October. He was executed by hanging on November 11, 1832. Terrified by this slaughter, white officials throughout the South responded by tightening restrictions for slaves and free blacks alike.

In 1839 a group of slaves on the ship Amistad rebelled against their captors and took control of the ship. They had been forcibly removed from Africa and taken to Cuba, and then were put on the Amistad and sent to a plantation in the Caribbean. During the voyage, the slaves killed two crew members and ordered the remaining crew to sail for Africa. Instead the crew headed for the United States, where the slaves were taken to prison upon arrival. After a lengthy court battle, which ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, it was decided in 1841 that because the slaves had been captured in violation of numerous laws and international treaties, they should be returned to their homes in Africa.

The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman

Desperate to taste freedom and escape the misery of bondage, many slaves in the American South risked their lives trying to escape. Beginning in the late 1840s, runaway slaves found unexpected help in their dangerous attempts at freedom.

Free blacks in the North, with assistance from white abolitionists, created a means of helping slaves escape. Their escape network came to be known as the Underground Railroad. However, the Underground Railroad didn't involve transportation by train in tunnels under the ground. Instead, the word "underground" was used to indicate the highly secret nature of the escapes, and railway terms were used as code words. For example, guides from the North were called "conductors." They made trips into the South to help groups of slaves escape. They would travel by day, often by foot but also on wagons, boats, or trains.

During daytime hours, runaway slaves would stay at safe houses, called "stations," provided by people sympathetic to the cause. Eventually the slaves, described as "packages" or "freight" in Underground Railroad terms, would reach the North. In 1850 even the northern United States became unsafe for blacks, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. This law ordered that runaway slaves be returned to their owners. It established serious punishment for anyone assisting runaways. After 1850, Canada became the most common destination for runaway slaves using the Underground Railroad.

Approximately three thousand conductors helped many thousands of slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. The most famous conductor was Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913). Born a slave in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman escaped, with the help of the Underground Railroad, in 1849. She went to Philadelphia where, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, she became involved in the Underground Railroad. For her first mission as a conductor, she agreed to travel to Baltimore to help a woman and her children escape from slavery. Upon her arrival, she learned that the woman was her sister, Mary.

Tubman made at least fifteen additional trips to slave states, rescuing more than three hundred slaves, including much of her family. Tough and determined, Tubman never lost a passenger. If any of her passengers, out of fear or fatigue, wanted to turn back, Tubman would persuade them to keep heading for freedom, with the help of her revolver if necessary. A number of slave owners banded together to try to capture Tubman. They offered forty thousand dollars as a reward. But Tubman dodged the bounty hunters time after time.

During the American Civil War (1861–65), Tubman spent time assisting slaves who had run away to join the Union Army. She later worked for the Union forces as a spy, providing strategic information about the Confederates. After the war, Tubman became active in black women's organizations and in efforts to attain voting rights for women. In her final years, she devoted herself to the establishment of a home for the poor and elderly. The Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People opened in 1908. Three years later, Tubman herself became a resident. She died of pneumonia in 1913, at approximately ninety-three years of age.

The spread of abolitionism

Some Americans had opposed slavery from the time the first slave ships arrived in the 1600s. Many such people were members of religious groups, like the Quakers, that believed slavery to be immoral and inhumane. The abolitionists did not begin to organize into a movement, however, until after the American Revolution (1775–83). In the midst of the American colonists' struggle for independence from Great Britain, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He stirred the hearts of Americans with his call for freedom: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Ironically, Jefferson owned slaves himself.

A growing number of American citizens believed that the new nation—built on the values of liberty, freedom, and justice—could not support the institution of slavery. These abolitionists worked to change the beliefs of their neighbors and friends as well as to elect politicians who would pass laws outlawing slavery.

Secret Folk Song

Secret code words were vital to the success of the Underground Railroad. Secrecy could mean that a slave found freedom; the lack of secrecy could return a slave to bondage. It also could mean the difference between life and death because captured slaves were often beaten before being sent back to the plantation; some were even killed. During their escape to freedom in the North, slaves used folk songs to guide them as they traveled. One of the most famous songs used on the Underground Railroad was "Follow the Drinking Gourd."

The "drinking gourd" was a code word for the Big Dipper constellation in the night sky, which points to the North Star. Being able to locate the North Star helped slaves know what direction was north. Many were especially eager to reach Canada where they could escape the fugitive slave laws of the United States. The song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" contained many coded travel instructions that were meaningless to those not in on the secret. Memorizing the song helped many slaves begin their journey, which eventually included crossing the dangerous and mighty Ohio River, which had a fast current.

One verse of the song states: "When the sun comes back and the first quail calls, / Follow the Drinking Gourd. / For the old man is awaiting for to carry you to freedom / Follow the Drinking Gourd." As explained on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's NASA Quest Web site: "The verse tells slaves to leave in the winter and walk towards the Drinking Gourd. Eventually they will meet a guide who will escort them for the remainder of the trip." It took many escaped slaves a year to reach the Ohio from the plantations in the South. By arriving in the winter, runaways could avoid the dangerous Ohio River current and cross it while it was frozen, according to NASA.

A number of prominent citizens in the new republic were abolitionists, including scholar, inventor, and diplomat Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790); statesman Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804); and politician and diplomat John Jay (1745–1829). These men were among the leaders of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, which was established in 1784. Jay later became the head of the New York Manumission Society. ("Manumission" means releasing people from slavery.) In 1795 the two groups merged to become a national organization with a noble ambition and an unwieldy name: the American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race.

Many early abolitionists held strong beliefs that slavery was wrong. Yet they took a moderate approach to abolishing the practice, promoting a gradual release of slaves. A number of developments in the late 1700s and early 1800s chipped away at the institution of slavery in the United States. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states passed laws outlawing slavery. Some of these laws took effect immediately, while others phased slavery out over a number of years. The Ordinance of 1787 made slavery illegal north and west of the Ohio River. This ordinance applied to the Northwest Territory, which included the present-day states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Each of those regions was admitted to the Union as a free state. In 1808, a federal law banning the international slave trade made it illegal to bring slaves into the country, though smuggling of slaves continued for decades.

When the region known as Missouri applied for statehood in 1819, a debate raged in the halls of Congress as to whether it would be a slave state or a free state. Southern lawmakers desperately wanted Missouri to be a slave state. They fought strongly to block an amendment that would have allowed slavery there initially but would have gradually abolished it. Eventually lawmakers reached a compromise known as the Missouri Compromise, or the Compromise of 1820. The compromise stated that Missouri would be a slave state, while the territory of Maine would be admitted as a free state. Although the Missouri Compromise put a temporary halt to congressional arguments about slavery, the intensity of the debate over Missouri signaled that the nation was deeply divided on the issue of slavery. The situation indicated that future compromises would be ever more difficult to reach.

The abolition movement gains steam

One significant factor in the rise of the abolition movement was the Second Great Awakening, a religious revival that spread throughout the United States in the early nineteenth century. (The first Great Awakening took place in the 1700s.) During the Second Great Awakening, religious beliefs changed. People moved away from the idea that God decided each person's fate before he or she was born. This belief had suggested that no amount of good deeds could save a soul that had already been condemned to damnation. The preachers of the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), instead taught that a person's actions on Earth could bring salvation after death. This religious principle encouraged people of faith to devote their lives to good works. Finney was an avid supporter of the abolition movement, and many faithful Christians followed suit.

Perhaps the best-known abolitionist was William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879). As the publisher of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, Garrison publicized his firm views about slavery. He believed slavery would be the ruin of the nation. He also contended that the slaves would eventually rise up in violent rebellion against their owners. Garrison supported not just the freeing of slaves but full equality for African Americans, a position that separated him from many other abolitionists of his day.

Garrison also supported women's rights. At that time, women did not have the right to vote. He proclaimed that women were entitled to become involved in the abolitionist cause and other social or political endeavors. In 1833 Garrison became a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, a national organization founded for the purpose of obtaining full and immediate freedom for all slaves. Garrison became the most prominent leader of the abolition movement. He is credited with broadening the cause from its New England origins to a much larger segment of the United States.

Garrison's views had always been more extreme than those of many other abolitionists. He and some of his followers suggested, for example, that the U.S. Constitution was a pro-slavery document. Garrison encouraged abolitionists to distance themselves from any organization, including the U.S. government, that did not proclaim its moral opposition to slavery. A number of abolitionists objected to this view, and the movement experienced deep divisions during the late 1830s and early 1840s. Two groups split off from the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840. The Liberty Party formed as a political organization that would promote antislavery candidates and work to change the existing laws. The American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society formed to continue the fight against slavery without allowing women to take an active role.

Another important leader of the abolitionist movement was Frederick Douglass (c.1817–1895), a former slave who had escaped bondage through the Underground Railroad. A well-spoken and passionate speaker, Douglass attracted the attention of Garrison and other leaders of the cause and became one of the American Anti-Slavery Society's chief speakers and writers. Douglass published his autobiography, the first of three volumes, in 1845. The work, called Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, touched the hearts of many with its account of the humiliation, pain, and degradation of a slave's life. In 1847 Douglass began publishing his own antislavery newspaper, The North Star. He continued for many years to fight for equal rights for both African Americans and women.

The role of women in abolition

In spite of the objections of some men, a number of women became prominent leaders of the abolitionist cause. Abby Kelley (1811–1887), a Quaker who believed intensely that slavery was morally wrong, became a well-known lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. During her speeches, Kelley was often harassed by men in the audience who were offended that a woman would get involved in social issues. However, she never backed down.

Another abolitionist criticized for not assuming the traditional role of a woman was Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880). She was the author of several novels as well as a popular advice book called The Frugal Housewife. Child turned her writing skills to the cause of slavery during the 1830s. Her writings persuaded a number of people to join the cause. However, some of her ideas, including the notion of marriage between blacks and whites, were too radical for her time and made her unpopular with many. In 1841 she became the editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. That position made her one of very few American women at that time to edit a major newspaper.

Unlike many abolitionists, Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) and her sister Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) came from the South and had been raised in a family that owned many slaves. Moving to New England as adults, the Grimkeé sisters became Quakers and began working for the abolitionist cause. Both siblings published influential essays that urged all faithful Christians to oppose slavery. The sisters went on to become leaders in the women's movement, arguing for voting rights and equality for women.

Like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883) had been born a slave. She had survived a harsh and demeaning life to become a leading figure in the abolitionist movement. Born during the late 1790s and given the name Isabella, she became free in 1827. In 1843 she experienced a religious revelation and changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She felt that she was on a divine mission and began a life as a traveling preacher. During the mid-1840s she began working as a lecturer for the abolitionist movement. She captivated audiences with her joyful mix of speaking and singing.

The pro-slavery movement in the North and South

The abolition movement took root in the North, but not all northerners wanted to get rid of slavery. There were many who, even if they did not benefit personally from slavery, wished to preserve the practice. Many people held racist views about African Americans, believing them to be racially inferior to whites. They believed that black people were savage and uncivilized and needed to be kept under control. In some cases, pro-slavery activists in the North lashed out at the abolitionists, threatening, harassing, and sometimes physically attacking them. Anti-abolitionists set fire to black homes and churches and to the abolitionists' meeting places.

Many southerners felt that their whole world was at stake in the battle over slavery. As the abolitionist movement gained more and more followers in the North, the pro-slavery activists in the South stepped up their efforts. They made speeches contending that slavery was the natural order of things and in keeping with the will of God. They claimed that northern efforts to end slavery would result in the collapse of the southern economy and the ruin of southern culture. They described the abolitionists as agitators who wanted to divide the nation and inspire a violent slave rebellion. Pro-slavery forces in the South also tried to strengthen the legal basis for slavery. They lobbied for laws that reinforced the institution in southern states and expanded it to other regions of the country. In 1836 Southern lawmakers successfully established a "gag rule" that prevented any debate about abolition in Congress.

Sometimes, the heated debate over slavery boiled over into violence. On November 7, 1837, a mob of some two hundred supporters of slavery surrounded the offices of The Observer, a weekly abolitionist paper, in Alton, Illinois. The editor of the paper, a reverend named Elijah Lovejoy (1802–1837), had relocated the offices to Alton after being forced out of St. Louis, Missouri, on the other side of the Mississippi River. The newspaper's offices had been vandalized before by anti-abolitionists. So when the crowd gathered around the building on that November day, the workers inside were prepared for a fight.

Someone fired a shot out the window, killing one person. The mob struck back by attacking Lovejoy. His attempts to defend himself were unsuccessful, and he was killed. Lovejoy's death shocked many people. In his book The Abolition of American Slavery, James Tackach summed up the significance of Lovejoy's death. "Americans were no longer willing merely to debate the slavery issue in the press and in the legislative halls; American citizens were now willing to use violence to defend their stand on slavery."

Tensions continue to rise

During the late 1840s, the United States engaged in what came to be known as the Mexican-American War (1846–48), and emerged victorious. The war began as a dispute over the border of Texas. The U.S. victory significantly increased Texas territory. The spoils included the present-day states of California, New Mexico, and Utah. This acquisition of territory sparked a renewed debate in Congress over whether the new regions would be slave states or free states.

After much intense debate, lawmakers devised a halfway solution known as the Compromise of 1850. The compromise dictated that California would enter the Union as a free state, while the slavery issue in New Mexico and Utah would be decided later by those states' citizens. The compromise also outlawed the slave trade in Washington, D.C. The most controversial aspect of the compromise was the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that made it easier for slave owners to retrieve escaped slaves and severely punish anyone helping runaways. Supporters of slavery celebrated this new law; abolitionists were angered.

Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, even free blacks who had been living in the northern United States for years could be accused of being runaways and sent south for a life of bondage. Many free blacks uprooted their lives in the northern states and headed for Canada, which also became the destination for slaves escaping the South via the Underground Railroad. The so-called free states in the North were no longer safe for African Americans, regardless of their history.

The Fugitive Slave Act dictated that white northerners could be compelled to join a posse to hunt for runaway slaves. This was a provision that many citizens, even those who previously had been neutral on the slavery issue, found distasteful. Sympathy for runaway slaves increased, and abolitionist activity took on a new urgency. Many people openly defied the Fugitive Slave Act, pledging to help runaway slaves in any way they could, regardless of the law.

The debate over whether new U.S. territories should allow slavery was renewed a few years later when the Kansas-Nebraska territory sought statehood. Again, a compromise was reached, though neither side felt satisfied by it. The Kansas-Nebraska Act stated that this territory would be divided into two states, Kansas and Nebraska. The citizens of each of these states would decide whether to make slavery legal or illegal. Supporters of slavery as well as abolitionists flooded Kansas, where the first vote would take place, to make their voices heard on the slavery issue. Tensions between the two sides were high, and fighting broke out throughout Kansas. The state became known as "Bleeding Kansas" and "Bloody Kansas."

One of the abolitionists who headed to Kansas to fight pro-slavery forces was John Brown (1800–1859). He led a militia known as the Liberty Guard on raids of pro-slavery camps throughout Kansas. In one infamous incident, Brown and his men murdered five slavery supporters in retaliation for an attack on the city of Lawrence, Kansas, by "slave staters." Federal troops eventually entered Kansas to put a stop to the fighting. Brown returned to his Ohio home to plan his next move.

The Dred Scott case

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1857 shocked the abolitionist community, thrilled the supporters of slavery, and proved to be an additional wedge dividing the nation. In 1846 a slave named Dred Scott filed a lawsuit in St. Louis in an attempt to gain his freedom. With his former owner, Scott had lived for several years in free states (states that had outlawed slavery). With the help of antislavery lawyers, Scott attempted to persuade the Missouri courts that he should be a free man because of his years spent in free states. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where five of the nine justices came from slave-owning families. The decision of the court was read by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in March 1857. It stated that black people, even those who were free, were not, and never could be, citizens of the United States. As a noncitizen, Scott had no right to file a lawsuit and certainly could not obtain his freedom through the courts. The Dred Scott decision stated that the laws of the land did not apply to black people.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) grew up in a family of abolitionists. Her father was Lyman Beecher, a prominent minister whose sermons often dealt with the evils of slavery. Stowe grew up in Connecticut, but in 1832 she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she met and married Calvin Stowe. It was while living in Cincinnati, a city directly across the river from the slave state of Kentucky, that Stowe witnessed firsthand the horrors of slavery. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Stowe felt moved to use her skill as a writer to try to change the way people thought about slaves and slavery.

In 1852 Stowe released Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel depicting the lives of three slaves living in Kentucky: Uncle Tom, Eliza, and George. Eliza and George both flee from slavery, with Eliza making a dramatic escape by running across a partially frozen river with her baby in her arms. Eliza and George make it to freedom, finding happiness and safety in Canada. Uncle Tom remains loyal to his white owners, only to be later sold to a cruel man who beats him to death.

Written in a highly dramatic style, Uncle Tom's Cabin revealed the desperation, humiliation, and determination of the slave characters. The book forced readers to think of slaves as real human beings living in a horrifying state of bondage. The novel was an immediate best-seller and became the subject of conversations, sermons, and speeches throughout the North. In the South, however, Uncle Tom's Cabin was sharply criticized as manipulative and inaccurate. In some places, the book was banned.

A number of southern authors responded by crafting stories that showed a pro-slavery view of gentle masters and content slaves. Regardless of whether the reception was positive or negative, Stowe's work proved highly influential at a time when the nation was becoming increasingly divided over the issue of slavery.

The ruling in the Dred Scott case angered abolitionists. At the same time, the court's decision encouraged slaveholders. It supported their right to hold onto their property, including their human property (their slaves), regardless of the states to which they traveled with that property. The decision in the Dred Scott case had the potential to further establish the institution of slavery, perhaps even spreading it to states that had long been free. As explained by Tackach in The Abolition of American Slavery, "If one slave owner … could bring one slave, Dred Scott, into a free state or territory and retain possession of that slave as a piece of property, what would prevent a slave owner from Missouri from bringing one hundred slaves into the free state of Illinois and settling there permanently?"

An Illinois politician and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was particularly disturbed by the Dred Scott ruling. Lincoln, who had served a term in the House of Representatives in the 1840s, had begun speaking out against the spread of slavery after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854. The Dred Scott case gave him further ammunition in his speeches. Lincoln was not a passionate abolitionist, but he did believe strongly that slavery should not be allowed to spread to new territories. As a result, he began to attract widespread attention for his views.

John Brown's raid

John Brown, former leader of the Liberty Guard in Kansas, was concerned that the supporters of slavery were gaining ground in the United States and that abolitionists were weakening. He felt that the abolitionist cause was worth fighting for and even dying for. Brown began to plan a dangerous mission to spark a massive slave revolt. With the help of about twenty other avid abolitionists, Brown planned to raid the federal arsenal, a collection of weapons for the U.S. military, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He intended to then pass the weapons along to slaves in the region and lead them into battle against their owners.

On a Sunday night, October 16, 1859, Brown and his supporters easily captured the arsenal. By Tuesday morning, however, local militias as well as the U.S. Marines had arrived in Harpers Ferry and surrounded Brown and his fellow fighters. The marines attacked and several of Brown's men were killed. A few managed to escape. Brown was captured and, on December 2, 1859, he was executed by hanging.

The raid on Harpers Ferry convinced people across the country that the issue of slavery could not be settled peaceably. It created a sense that a civil war was looming, a notion that occupied the thoughts of many.

The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation

In 1858 Lincoln ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate against Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. In that race, Lincoln represented the newly formed Republican Party and argued powerfully for a halt to the spread of slavery in the United States. Douglas supported the practice of allowing citizens of new states to choose whether to allow slavery or forbid it. Lincoln and Douglas debated the issue in many Illinois cities, and citizens around the country followed the debates with great interest. Although Lincoln lost the Senate race to Douglas, he had earned a devoted following among abolitionists. His followers grew over the coming months as Lincoln prepared to enter the presidential race of 1860.

During the run-up to the 1860 election, the Democratic Party split on the slavery issue, with northern Democrats opposing it and southern Democrats supporting it. This division among the Democrats strengthened the position of Lincoln, who had become the Republican nominee for president. Lincoln appealed to many moderate voters because of his views on slavery. He was opposed to the expansion of slavery, and he personally objected to the practice. However, he did not challenge the right of southerners to continue owning slaves.

In 1860 Lincoln was elected president. Lincoln chose not to make abolition a priority and stated that he had no intention of interfering with slavery in the South. Instead, he wished to hold together a troubled and divided nation. In spite of Lincoln's moderate approach, his election to the presidency seemed to confirm southerners' worst fears. They had lost control of the federal government, and they felt certain that the tide would soon turn against slavery.

After the election, several southern states, starting with South Carolina, began to secede, or withdraw, from the Union. In other words, they tried to divorce themselves from the United States. The seceding states created a separate constitution, elected Jefferson Davis (1808–1889) as their president, and declared themselves the Confederate States of America.

Initially, President Lincoln did nothing to force the seceding states back into the Union. But on April 12, 1861, southern troops forcibly took control of Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor. Lincoln called out the Union, or northern, troops and the Civil War began. Lincoln initially refused to let blacks fight in the Union army. He held off on freeing the slaves for fear of further angering the southern states and alienating the many northerners who were not abolitionists. As the fighting wore on, however, Lincoln changed his mind on both counts. He allowed blacks to be officially employed as Union soldiers, though their pay was lower and their weapons were inferior. He also ordered the slaves to be emancipated, or set free.

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that announced the freedom of all slaves living in states that were at war with the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation did not completely abolish slavery, however. Slavery remained legal in the states on the North-South border that had remained loyal to the Union and in those southern states where Union forces had taken control. Thus, about 800,000 people remained enslaved, almost one-quarter of the total number of slaves before the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when the Confederacy surrendered. Nearly 180,000 black soldiers fought for the Union side in the conflict, and more than 30,000 were killed. Approximately twenty black soldiers earned Congressional Medals of Honor, rewarding their brave service. All told, more than 600,000 people died during the Civil War, many from disease as well as in battle. The war took a terrible toll on the nation, particularly the South, destroying homes, businesses, farms, and even entire cities in some cases.

Reconstruction Era

As the war came to an end in early 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery throughout the United States. During the same period, Lincoln began to plan the rebuilding of the South, known as the Reconstruction Era (1865–77). His primary goal was to quickly unify the nation. He intended to approach that process with a great deal of forgiveness toward the states that had seceded from the Union. One week after the war's end, however, the Reconstruction efforts were no longer led by Lincoln. On April 14, 1865, the president was shot by John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865), an actor who sympathized with the South. Lincoln died the following morning.

President Lincoln was succeeded by Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69). Johnson, a southerner, approached Reconstruction with an attitude similar to that of Lincoln. Johnson felt that southern states should be readmitted to the Union by following mild requirements, including the ratification, or approval, of the Thirteenth Amendment. If the southern states agreed to such conditions, they could be part of the Union again and all Americans could try to put the Civil War behind them.

Southern states may have seen the wisdom of returning to the Union after the devastating losses of the Civil War. However, their leaders had no intention of allowing newly freed black citizens an equal share in society. Following the end of the Civil War, southern states began passing laws known as the Black Codes. These laws varied from state to state, but the general idea was to place severe restrictions on the lives of African Americans. In many cases, the laws created conditions that closely resembled slavery.

In the interest of national unity, President Johnson was willing to overlook the Black Codes. Yet Congress, which was controlled at that time by northerners, took a much less tolerant view of the southern practices. The years following the Civil War were marked by a continuous struggle for power between Congress and the president.

A time of freedom and deadly violence

In addition to the Thirteenth Amendment, the post-Civil War Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law. Congress also created the Fifteenth Amendment, securing the right to vote. Congress passed a series of Civil Rights Acts in 1866, 1871, and 1875. These laws attempted to grant basic rights to black citizens. Such laws allowed blacks to be active members of society and attempted to protect them from discrimination and racist violence.

Some members of Congress may have been motivated to pass these laws by a moral obligation to improve the lives of African Americans. Many northern congressmen, however, realized that giving blacks the right to vote would help them win elections. Southern blacks were far more likely to vote in support of northerners, most of whom were Republicans (the party of President Lincoln, the man who had freed the slaves), than to vote for southerners, most of whom were Democrats.

Former slaves received tremendous assistance in making the transition to independence from the Freedmen's Bureau, an organization established by Congress toward the end of the war. The Freedmen's Bureau faced a difficult task. Many African Americans in the South had spent their entire lives as slaves. Most had not been allowed to learn to read or write and had only been trained in farming. They had no homes, no jobs, and no experience finding either. The Freedmen's Bureau provided food, shelter, and medical care while also assisting blacks in finding places to live and work. Perhaps the most significant contribution that the Freedmen's Bureau made during Reconstruction was to build thousands of schools for black children.

As Congress worked to pass civil rights laws, President Johnson asserted his authority by appointing local southern leaders without congressional approval. Many of these leaders counteracted or completely ignored the civil rights measures being passed by Congress. Amidst the presidential and congressional power struggle of the 1860s, southern blacks did enjoy a few years of relative freedom, voting in elections and owning property. Several hundred African Americans were elected to local and state offices, and a number of blacks living in southern states were elected to the U.S. Congress.

While this period offered blacks in the South a taste of freedom and citizenship, it also proved to be a very dangerous time. Southern blacks were subjected to widespread violence by white southern gangs, particularly the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Many white southerners bitterly resented the freedoms granted to blacks, and they feared that the black population would rise up against the white former slave owners. The KKK and other such groups made sure African Americans lived in fear. Dressed in robes with pointed white hoods covering their faces, KKK members terrorized black citizens, beating them, setting fire to their homes, and sometimes murdering them. Federal troops, stationed throughout the South, offered some protection to African Americans, but they could not be everywhere at once.

The actions of the KKK were extreme expressions of racial hatred. Not every white southerner wanted to physically harm black people. But racism was widespread and deeply felt throughout the South and in the North as well. Many white people believed that blacks were inferior and should be kept in the position of second-class citizens. Even with the power of civil rights laws and constitutional amendments behind them, African Americans suffered from constant discrimination. They were far from being accepted as equals in society. The modest protections and freedoms of the Reconstruction Era ended in 1877, the result of a political compromise between the Republicans and the Democrats.

The presidential election of 1876 pitted Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81), a Republican candidate from the North, against Samuel J. Tilden (1814–1886), a Democrat from the South. The presidential race was extremely close and hotly disputed. Each side charged the other with election fraud, or cheating. A special commission met to decide the outcome. In order to resolve the dispute, the commission reached an agreement, known as the Compromise of 1877. It was decided that Hayes would be the next president, but the South would gain some advantages as well. These included the government's promise to withdraw federal troops from southern states. With this compromise, Reconstruction ended, and so did the promise of further reforms to aid black southerners. While the civil rights laws remained in effect, the absence of federal troops in the South meant that such laws would rarely be enforced.

With the end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished, and African Americans in the South had a small taste of life as free men and women. With the end of Reconstruction, however, southern blacks found that while they were technically free, their lives were burdened by great restrictions. Society was strictly divided along racial lines, and blacks were not allowed to forget that whites considered them second-class citizens. Throughout the South, blacks were forced to live in separate neighborhoods and attend separate schools from whites.

Southern governments created legislation to get around the constitutional amendments and civil rights laws passed by Congress during Reconstruction. They devised numerous ways, for example, of barring blacks from voting in spite of a federal law guaranteeing that right. Blacks had few legal rights in the post-Reconstruction South. They could be arrested for the slightest incident and faced far greater punishments than did whites. Although southern blacks were no longer literally in chains, they were far from free. This situation remained unchanged until the civil rights movement took hold in the middle of the twentieth century.

For More Information


Altman, Linda Jacobs. Slavery and Abolition in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1999.

Currie, Stephen. Life of a Slave on a Southern Plantation. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2000.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Katz, William Loren. Breaking the Chains: African American Slave Resistance. New York: Aladdin, 1990.

Kleinman, Joseph, and Eileen Kurtis-Kleinman. Life on an African Slave Ship. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2001.

Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1996.

Tackach, James. The Abolition of American Slavery. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2002.


"Africans in America." Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). (accessed on May 22, 2006).

"The Emancipation Proclamation." National Archives and Records Administration. (accessed on May 22, 2006).

"Explanation of 'Follow the Drinking Gourd.'" NASA Quest. (accessed on May 22, 2006).

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