Slavery. This one word brings forth an endless collection of visceral reactions and feelings. The
American Heritage Dictionary offers the relatively sterile definition of, "The state of one bound in servitude as
the property of a slaveholder or household." In essence, one person or persons exerts power over another to
enforce their claim that they own that person or persons. The person can act only with the consent of the owner, unless
they wish to risk what could be severe consequences. With few likely exceptions, every society which has existed for
any significant duration has had a history of slavery. Persons of European descent brought their own brand of slavery to
this continent in the 1600s. With the birth of the new nation, the new constitution would allow the importation of additional
slaves until 1808. The wording of Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 reads, "The Migration or Importation of such Persons
as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year
one thousand eight hundred and eight."
Regardless of this constitutional allowance, several northern states would take steps to outlaw slavery on their own. Both
Massachusetts and Pennsylvania passed laws in 1780 gradually abolishing slavery. Section 13 of Pennsylvania's Act for the
Gradual Abolition of Slavery would read, "Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid, that no covenant of personal
servitude or apprenticeship whatsoever shall be valid or binding on a Negro or Mulatto for a longer time than seven years,
unless such servant or apprentice were at the commencement of such servitude or apprenticeship under the age of twenty one
years; in which cafe such Negro or Mulatto may be holden as a servant or apprentice respectively, according to the covenant,
as the cafe shall be, until he or she shall attain the age of twenty eight years, but no longer." Other northern states
would follow suit and gradually abolish slavery as well.
Some of the founding fathers sought to formally condemn slavery but opted to
avoid the subject in order to keep all states in the newly formed Union. However, with the advent of the 19th century, the
conflict over the future of slavery grew, especially when debating the anticipated status of the newly acquired lands of the
Louisiana Purchase in 1803. With the northern population swelling past that of the south, slave states faced a loss of influence
in the House of Representatives, a body whose number of representatives was based on the population of each state. With the
possible exception of the 3/5th Rule in the US Constitution, where each slave counted as 3/5th of a person when determining
population counts, the political leaders in the south could have little impact on population. They could however work to keep
the number of slave states equal to the number of free states in order to maintain balance in the Senate. By 1820, the conflict
over the future of slavery brought about mutual concessions. The Missouri Compromise allowed the admission into the Union of
Missouri as a slave state, balancing Maine's admission as free, in order to maintain parity between the opposing factions in
The Missouri Compromise also allowed for the expansion of slavery in any future states below the southern border of Missouri or
latitude 36' 30'. Section 8 of this compromise reads, "And be it further enacted. That in all that territory ceded by France
to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude, not
included within the limits of the state, contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the
punishment of crimes, whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be, and is hereby, forever prohibited: Provided
always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labour or service is lawfully claimed, in any state or territory of
the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labour or service
Despite the Missouri Compromise, tensions would continue to simmer just below boiling.
By the late 1840s, another compromise would be necessary to keep the pro and anti-slavery factions somewhat pacified. With Kansas
and Nebraska seeking statehood, the question of their status, although above the 36' 30" line, would again scratch open the
raw wounds threatening to infect the whole country. The Compromise of 1850 and its focus on popular sovereignty, would undo its
counterpart from 30 years prior and further aggravate existing tensions. With popular sovereignty, states above the 36' 30"
line could now legally become slave states should the people of those states vote in that direction. Proponents of either side
rushed into the territories to add and sway votes. Predictably, the fighting escalated. The term "Bleeding Kansas"
was much more than a metaphor. Americans were now killing Americans in their efforts to determine the future direction of slavery
in this nation.
Another section of the Compromise of 1850 strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, expanding upon Federal jurisdiction and authority in
recapturing fugitive slaves who flee into northern states and territories. A section that particularly enraged abolitionists
delineated the penalties for any citizen assisting a fugitive slave. The act stated that any such person aiding a fugitive slave or
hindering the apprehension of said slave would face penalties of a "fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment
not exceeding six months." At that time, one thousand dollars was a very large sum of money.
The 1850s would play host to other events that would seal the fate of a nation destined to tear itself
apart. Although initiated in 1846, the Dred Scott decision of 1857 would suggest the nullification of any laws barring slavery from
even the northern states. Dred Scott and his wife, both slaves, spent time with their master in Illinois and Wisconsin, both free
states. Scott sued for his freedom saying that he had been held in bondage contrary to the laws in the state within which he lived.
Eleven years later, the United States Supreme Court would rule that slaves were not citizens and so could not sue in court. The
language of the decision said specifically, "A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country
and sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.
When the Constitution was adopted, they were not regarded in any of the States as members of the community which constituted the State,
and were nut numbered among its "people or citizen." Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens
do not apply to them. And not being "citizens" within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that
character in a court of the United States, and the Circuit Court has not jurisdiction in such a suit.
The only two clauses in the Constitution which point to this race, treat them as persons whom it was morally lawful to deal in as
articles of property and to hold as slaves.
Since the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, no state can by any subsequent law make a foreigner or any other
description of persons citizens of the United States, nor entitle them to the rights and privileges secured to citizens by that
The Supreme Court continued that, under the constitution, congress did not have the authorization to bar slavery from the territories.
When the decision stated thus, it threw more fuel on the slavery debate fire. "The territory thus acquired, is acquired by the
people of the United States for their common and equal benefit, through their agent and trustee, the Federal Government. Congress can
exercise no power over the rights of persons or property of a citizen in the Territory which is prohibited by the Constitution."
Now, slavery could occur anywhere. A master could take his slaves into the north and slavery could exist in the territories.
Along with the issuing of this decision, the publishing of
a variety of abolitionist newspapers and more specifically, Harriet Beecher Stowe's wildly popular "Uncle Tom's
Cabin" in 1852 firmly packed the already expanding and volatile slavery powder keg. Several years later, the
occurrence of John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry in
1859 would set the fuse. To the South, Northerners appeared to support John Brown's raid, one in which he
sought to incite a slave insurrection. This lead the South to further fan the flames of angry desperation. Southerners had
not forgotten previous slave rebellions such as Nat Turner's which ended with between 55 to 60 white men, women, and children dead.
The election of Abraham Lincoln by a northern population touched fire to the slavery powder keg's fuse. Some in the Southern
States believed that they could not allow even a moderate anti-slavery candidate to enter the White House, especially given
his expressed views of barring slavery from the territories. Among other concerns, the addition of any free states to the Union
without counterbalancing slave states would dramatically decrease the South's ability to impact slavery-favoring legislation
via the US Senate. They would be at the mercy of northern politicians.
By 1860, about four million men, women, and children lived in slavery in the United States, mostly in the south. Although the
northern states had abolished slavery by that time, they were not in actuality entirely free. According to the web site
Slavery in the North, "At the start of the Civil War, New Jersey
citizens owned 18 "apprentices for life" (the federal census listed them as "slaves") -- legal slaves by any
"New Jersey's emancipation law carefully protected existing property rights. No one lost a single slave, and the right to the
services of young Negroes was fully protected. Moreover, the courts ruled that the right was a 'species of property,' transferable
'from one citizen to another like other personal property.' "
Thus "New Jersey retained slaveholding without technically remaining a slave state."
Whether slavery as an institution existed in the north or not, institutional racism thrived. Black laws in many northern states
barred or made difficult the immigration of runaway slaves or free blacks into their states. For example, Ohio's Black Laws stated,
"...no black or mulatto person shall be permitted to settle or reside in this state, unless he or she shall first produce a fair
certificate from some court within the United States, of his or her actual freedom."
It would be a mistake to infer that those living in the
north or south were all in agreement with the views published in the newspapers or espoused by those in power. However,
those supporting the non-majority view often found the task advancing of their positions difficult indeed. People viewed
as abolitionists in the south were often threatened or arrested. For a somewhat benign example, consider an
article published by the New York Times, on September 15, 1856:
"Arrest of Abolition Agents in South Carolina. Baltimore, Saturday, Sept. 13. James Caldwell and John Malone have been
arrested at Cheraw, S.C., charged with being Abolition Agents. They were taken before
the Vigilance Committee and sent to the Free States."
Not all incidents ended so mildly. In 1837, an angry pro-slavery mob killed Elijah P. Lovejoy who declined to cease publishing
abolitionist literature. Georgia placed a $5,000 bounty on William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist publisher of the Liberator who also
received multiple death threats. In 1856, some Southerners cheered when Representative Preston Brooks beat US Senator Charles Sumner
insensible on the Senate floor after Sumner made an impassioned speech against the existing slave powers.
Despite these galvanizing incidents, the north
was not unified in how they wished to approach persons of African decent nor did they agree upon the value or equality of
people they considered black and white . Some, including soon-to-be President Lincoln, felt that the black and
white races could not live together, and recommended colonization, a practice which, if followed, would result in blacks
emigrating to another country. There were of course the black laws mentioned above which stated clearly that escaped slaves
were not welcome in Northern states. Some prejudices were more subtle however and appeared in unlikely venues.
In a book by Lillie Buffum Chace entitled "Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806-1899: Her Life and Its Environment",
Lillie Chace recounts how Elizabeth noted that, although some sought the abolition of slavery, they did not necessarily seek
equality of the races.
Ms. Chace relates, "We organized a Female Anti-Slavery Society at Fall River, about the year 1835. In the village were
a few very respectable young colored women who came to our meetings. One evening, soon after the Society was formed, my sister
and myself invited them to join. This raised such a storm among some of the leading members that, for a time, it threatened
the dissolution of the Society. They said they had no objection to these women attending the meetings, and they were willing
to help them in every way, but they did not think it was proper to invite them to join the Society, thus putting
them on an equality with ourselves."