The United States of America was founded on such principles as, enumerated in the Thomas Jefferson authored Declaration of Independence, the equality of all men and their natural right to pursue that which makes them free and happy. But were the words “all men are created equal” intended to convey what they seem to say at face value? Did in fact the Framers mean all men, regardless of color? Or was it white men of means and property? And is “all men” to be understood in a generic sense; that is, to include all women as well? That question is for a different paper. The issue at hand here is slavery. How and why could a nation built on a principle, a revolutionary one, of the basic equality of all men, have maintained for nearly a century an institution as unquestionably antagonistic to that very principle and debased as slavery? Why did the men who courageously and eloquently defied the King of England in the name of liberty not see fit to liberate those who toiled in their fields? Indeed, many of the Founders were slaveholders themselves, including three of the first four Presidents. While they often spoke and wrote about the evils of slavery, in a letter to Robert Morris, George Washington wrote, “there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]” (as cited in Ellis, 2004, p. 163)., political expediency and fear of the dissolution of a still-fragile Union prevented the fledging government from addressing the issue head on. As a result, the bondage of blacks persisted. The purpose of this paper is trace the history of slavery in America focusing on ten key events and government rulings: the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the Constitution, the Compromise of 1820, the Nullification Crisis, the Compromise of 1850, the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment.
The Declaration of Independence
What exactly did Thomas Jefferson mean when he wrote that “all men are created equal”? Though himself a slaveholder, Jefferson excoriated King George III in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence for having “waged cruel war on human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither” (as cited in “Declarations of Independence, 1770-1783,” n.d.). The Constitutional Foundation noted that “some scholars believe that
Jefferson agreed with the Scottish philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, that all men are born morally equal to one another and that ‘Nature makes none masters, none slaves’” (“The Declaration of Independence and Natural Rights,” 2001). If all men are naturally equals, what prevented the seemingly morally necessary immediate emancipation of slaves? Though Spalding (2002) reported that Jefferson “proposed legislation to emancipate slaves in Virginia” while serving in the House of Burgesses, a measure that was defeated, Middlekauf (1982) explained that later Jefferson believed that “slavery had so poisoned affections of both blacks and whites as to make their living together—as equals—impossible” (p. 338).
Jefferson, as well as other slaveholding, yet liberty loving Founders, acknowledged the wrongs of slavery and it’s debasing of human beings, both slave and master, but did not believe that outright emancipation was a plausible solution at the time of the Declaration. In their estimation the struggling would-be nation was just not ready to handle the new challenges that it would bring. Others simply refused to agree to relinquish their vast free work force purely on economic grounds.
Slavery was in fact a key catalyst in the events that lead the colonies to declare their intentions to leave the auspices of the British crown. Even after Lexington and Concord and
Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress was reluctant to make this declaration. Many more conservative leaders still yearned for some sort of compromise and reconciliation with the Crown. As Middlekauf (1982) stated, the Congress “hesitated to act while a remnant of its membership retained hope that negotiations that might heal terrible wounds…were possible” (p. 322). A series of events in the late months of 1775 and early in 1776 changed all that. One of these grievous acts was Lord Dunmore’s, the royal governor of
Virginia, Proclamation, given in November 1775. Middlekauf (1982) noted that, “early in [November] he called upon the slaves of
Virginia to rebel and promised them their freedom if they joined forces and fought their masters” (p. 322). This announcement, which played on underlying planter fears, coupled with the shelling of
Norfolk, and the pamphlet Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine, would push the Congress, and the people, ever closer to claim their independence. It is ironic that a call for those who were oppressed to rise up against their oppressors, helped to inspire many of those same oppressors to rise up against their government, all in the name of freedom.
The American Revolution
For slaves, the Revolution was not as much a struggle for the right to cast a vote or have only fair taxes levied, but the right to live as truly free. The African American Registry has noted, “that men fought not only for the idea of political liberty, but also for personal liberty” (“Blacks barred from continental army,” 2005). Consequently, many slaves sought to escape and join the fight on the side of “whichever army promised them personal liberty” (“The Revolutionary War,” n.d.). The British were only too willing to recruit runaway slaves into their ranks. George Washington initially banned the recruitment of blacks, free or slaves, into the Continental Army, but as times worsened and manpower grew short, he rescinded the order and blacks were recruited. In an ironic twist, the Revolution would be the last time the
United States would field an integrated army until after World War II. There were those in the Patriot camp who saw service in the army as a gate to emancipation—and a way to fill the depleting ranks. As Ellis (2004) has pointed out, “John Laurens proposed arming 3,000 slaves in South Carolina and offering emancipation in return for service to the end of the war” (p. 162). This measure was voted down, but over the course of the war about 5,000 blacks served the American cause, slave and free. Arsenault (n.d.) has noted that their reasons for joining varied significantly:
Initially, many masters forced their slaves into service. Others joined later upon the promise of freedom in exchange for service. Many free blacks chose to serve for the same reasons that the German and Irish did—the promise of food and wages when steady employment was scarce. Still others rallied to the American cause attracted by the rhetoric of freedom and equality. They fought, in part, so that those ideas would have to expand to include them, too.
Sadly, many slaves seeking the freedom the Declaration had claimed was for all men ended up back in shackles after the war. Ellis (2004) has stated that after the war
Washington “insisted on the return of all escaped slaves in British custody to their respective owners” (p. 163).
The United States Constitution
Though the word “slave” or “slavery” does not appear in the Constitution of the
United States, the issue was very much alive during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Spalding (2002) pointed out that, “by the time of the U.S. Constitution, every state (except Georgia) had at least proscribed or suspended the importation of slaves”; however, the Southern states were by means ready to put an end to slavery itself. The difficulty for the framers of the Constitution then was to craft a document that would bind the states into an effective union without offending sectional sensitivities. Slavery was as big a sectional sensitivity as there could be. One of the main questions was how the slave populations of the Southern states should be counted. As slaves, they had no vote to cast. Should they then be counted as part of the population in regards to representation in the legislature? As Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey (2002) stated, “the North replied ‘no,’ arguing that, as slaves were not citizens, the North might as logically demand additional representation based on its horses” (p. 180). A compromise was reached in which a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person thus conceding to the South a portion of their human property for the purposes of representation and increased political power.
A second constitutional issue concerning slavery was the slave trade. As stated above, nearly all states had already restricted the importation of slaves or abolished it all together. However, in order to placate the South, particularly South Carolina and Georgia, the Constitution would not prohibit “the migration or importation of such persons [slaves] as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit” until 1808. The states could, restrict the slave trade as they saw fit, but the federal government was prohibited from doing so for two decades. A third key issue was the question of fugitive slaves. What will the law require of a free-state found to have a runaway slave within its borders? The Privileges and Immunities Clause was thus inserted which required fugitive slaves in free-states be returned upon their master’s request.
These three concessions seem a heavy human price to pay as a sop to Southern interest. How could someone like James Madison who once wrote that he “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men” (as cited in Spalding, 2002) allow conditions that led to slavery’s perpetuation? The answer can again be found in the words of Madison, this time to the Constitution ratification convention of Virginia:
Great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse. If those states should disunite from the other states for not indulging them in the temporary continuance of this traffic, they might solicit and obtain aid from foreign powers.
The Constitution made no clear condemnation of slavery, but it did not endorse it either. Frederick Douglass, the former slave and prominent abolitionist, said about slavery and the Constitution in 1864, “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered” (as cited in Benet, 2006). It would take until the year after this statement by Douglass for this to occur, nearly eighty years from the Constitutional Convention. Those years would see one crisis after another concerning slavery.
Compromise of 1820
One such crisis arose in 1819. The territory of Missouri requested statehood in the Union. In the House of Representatives, James Tallmadge of New York sponsored a plan to restrict slavery in Missouri though it had sought to join the Union as a slave state. At this point in the young Republic, the balance in the Senate between slave and free states was even. Neither side was anxious to see favor tipped in the direction of the other. A compromise was put forward in which Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, and Maine, then a part of Massachusetts, would be admitted as a free state, thus preserving the balance in the Senate. Also, the bill would prohibit slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of the southern border of Missouri, save for Missouri itself. Initially the bill was thwarted, but through the efforts of Henry Clay and others, the compromise was finally agreed upon in 1820.
As with most compromises, neither side was completely pleased and as Kennedy et al. (2002) have said, “the morality of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’ [slavery] could not be swept under the rug” (p. 246). Though the compromise calmed immediate tensions, it only increased the chasm, political and moral, between the anti-slavery North and the pro-slavery South. With the borders of the young nation expanding ever rapidly, the question of slavery and it’s affect on sectional balance was becoming more and more troublesome. Writing to a friend after the compromise Jefferson said of slavery, “we have a wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go” (as cited in Kennedy et al., 2002).
The Nullification Crisis
Sectional concerns were acutely conspicuous during the Nullification Crisis in the early 1830’s. Nullification was not a crisis over the existence of slavery, but rather a tariff. The Tariff of 1828 was passed in order to protect Northern manufacturers from imported goods from
Europe. The South was a major importer of European goods, as well as a supplier of foodstuffs to Europe, and as Remini (1989) noted many in the South saw the tariff as an abuse by “a government that used its power to pass legislation detrimental to part of its constituency” (p. 65). Encouraged by John Calhoun, the South Carolina legislature passed the South Carolina Exposition to protest the tariff. In 1832 the legislature called a convention in which they, as Kennedy et al. (2002) have stated, “solemnly declared the existing tariff to be null and void within South Carolina” (p. 264). They further declared that should the federal government use force to collect the duties, “the state would secede and ‘forthwith proceed to organize a separate Government’” (Remini, 1989, p. 69). In an alarming harbinger of things to come, Bennet (2006) has observed that “some ‘nullies’ even struck medals bearing the inscription: ‘John C. Calhoun, First President of the Southern Confederacy’” (Jefferson Davis was the actual first president of the Confederacy). President Andrew Jackson would have none of it and threatened to use force if necessary and declared that “disunion by armed force is treason” (as cited in Remini, 1989, p. 70). Again, Henry Clay worked to ease tensions by guiding a compromise tariff through Congress ending the crisis.
Regarding the future of slavery, nullification had certain and definite ramifications. It provided a precedent for a possible mechanism by which a state could secede should the federal government attempt to pass laws restricting slavery. If other Southern states had joined
South Carolina in its efforts the imbroglio may not have been resolved as relatively peacefully as it was. The crisis also served to drive a further wedge between the North and an already suspicious South. Through Clay’s guiding conciliatory hand and Jackson’s firm rhetoric secession had been avoided. But as Jackson would observe, “Nullification is dead. The next pretext will be the negro or slavery question” (as cited in Remini, 1989, p. 72).
Compromise of 1850
America’s ever expanding borders once again brought the free/slave state question to the fore. When California applied for statehood, the Senate balance was once again evenly split between free and slave states. California was applying as a free state and thus threatened to tip the political balance toward the Northern free states. In addition, fugitive slaves were becoming an increasingly bothersome problem for Southern planters and they began calling for stricter fugitive slave laws. Kennedy et al. (2002) have written that, “’fire-eaters’ in the South were voicing ominous threats of secession” (p. 396). Once again, Henry Clay played a crucial role. Along with Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, Clay once again proposed a series of compromises to solve the nation’s ills. California would be admitted as a free state, but the remaining territories from the Mexican Cession, much of it claimed by Texas, would be formed without any slavery restrictions. The people of these territories would be allowed to choose slave or free through popular sovereignty. As another concession to the South, stricter fugitive slave laws were proposed. The compromises were fiercely debated in Congress. At one point Vice President Milliard Fillmore and Thomas Hart Benton became involved in a “heated exchange [that] became so emotionally charged that Senator Benton was nearly shot by Compromise floor leader Henry Foote of Mississippi” (“Compromise of 1850, n.d.). The compromises eventually passed and a tenuous “cease-fire” on the issue was initiated.
The results of the Compromise of 1850 would prove to further long-term tensions regarding slavery while quelling short-term worries. The new, harsh laws regarding fugitive slaves would serve to galvanize Northern abolitionists and would lead “many who had previously been ambivalent about slavery [to now take] a definitive stance against the institution” (“The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act,” n.d.). Even with the new laws, many in the South were troubled about how to keep the balance in the Senate. Kennedy et al. (2002) remarked, “If they could not carve out new [slave] states out of the recent conquests from Mexico, where else might they get them?” (p. 398). Perhaps most importantly, the compromise delayed a possible armed conflict in a period when the North would develop “exponentially more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population” (“The Compromise of 1850,” n.d.). These advantages would prove decisive in the coming Civil War.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was yet another sectional conflict that arose over the creation of new states or territories. Many in the North were anxious to see theNebraska Territory organized to allow a cross-country railroad to have its terminus in the North. The South was in no mood to allow another free territory into the Union. Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas proposed splitting the Nebraska Territory into two separate territories and allowing the inhabitants of each to decide if they would be free or slave, with the “obvious inference…that the first would be slave, the second free” (“Kansas-Nebraska Act,” n.d.). The proposal flew directly in the face of the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery north of the 36th parallel, which the whole of the Nebraska Territory was. With Southern support the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, and the Missouri Compromise was repealed. Northern abolitionists fumed. Both sides rushed into the newly created territory of
Kansas in an effort to establish it on their side of the slavery issue. Violence often erupted. The episode was but the next in a chain of ongoing and increasingly violent struggles between the slaveholding South and North, which was becoming ever more homogenous in its anti-slavery sentiment. More importantly, many Northern Democrats felt that Douglas had betrayed them with the act and a rift grew within the party. As Kennedy et al. (2002) have written, “The proud Democrats—a party now over have a century old—were shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act” (p. 408). With the decline of the Democrats came the rise of another party, the Republicans. This new party made no secret of its desire to stop the spread of slavery and was outlawed in much of the South.
Dred Scott Decision
Dred Scott was a slave who had lived in the free state of Wisconsin with his master for several years. As Kennedy et al. (2002) reported, “Backed by interested abolitionists, he [Scott] sued for his freedom on the basis of his long residence on free soil” (p. 417). As a slave, and therefore not a citizen, the Supreme Court ruled that he was not eligible to sue. The court went on to rule that since they were property, slaves could be held in bondage in no matter what territory or state their masters may take them, free or otherwise. The decision enraged Northerners and undoubtedly “greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election” (“Dred Scott’s fight for freedom,” n.d.). The election would prove to be the last straw for the South. Before Lincoln could officially take office seven states had seceded.
Lincoln’s proclamation in January of 1863 was technically nothing more than that. The statement offered freedom to the slaves in the states that had seceded but not to those in states still loyal to the Union. His secretary of state William Seward commented, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free” (as cited in “Emancipation Proclamation,” n.d.). Much like his founding forbears, Lincoln, who detested slavery, addressed the question pragmatically. If he attempted to free the slaves in loyal slave states, they may not be loyal for much longer. More than practically freeing the slaves at that point in time, the goal of Lincoln’s proclamation was to “strengthen the moral cause of the Union at home and abroad” (Kennedy et al., 2002, p. 459). To that point the war had ostensibly been to restore the Union, not to abolish slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation served if not as the immediate death blow to slavery, then as the introduction of a time-release vaccine to kill it over a prescribed period of time, namely, the length of the war.
Slavery was finally officially ended in the United States by the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Proposed in January of 1865 it was ratified by the required three-quarters of the states by December of that year. Technically speaking the amendment only freed the slaves in Kentucky and Delaware as all other states had either already passed measures in their state legislatures abolishing the practice or were affected by the Emancipation Proclamation of two years prior. In a somewhat ironic twist the bill was authored by John Brooks Henderson of the once-controversial state of Missouri.
It took a long, bloody war to finally put an end to slavery and that was probably the only way it could have happened at that point in
America’s history. If allowed to continue it no doubt would have died out gradually as technology and morality would have increased pressure on the South to change its archaic plantation methods. But how many more lives would have been subjected to what Ben Franklin called, “an atrocious debasement of human nature” (as cited in Spalding, 2002)? The strong sectionalism of the first half of the 19th century provided the conditions in which only a violent national convulsion could effectively expectorate the sickness of slavery from its soul.
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