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History of Slavery in the United States (1808-1865)


"I didn't know I was a slave until I found out I couldn't do the things I wanted." -- Frederick Douglass
Harriet Tubman (1911)

A photograph of Harriet Tubman, taken in 1911. Tubman, a former slave herself, was one of the chief architects of the Underground Railroad--a grassroots network of abolitionists who helped hide and shelter escaped slaves as they headed north to Canada.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Life as a Slave

Slave life varied considerably depending on whether one worked as a house slave or a plantation slave, and whether one lived in plantation states (such as Mississippi and South Carolina) or more industrialized states (such as Maryland).

The Fugitive Slave Act

Under the terms of the Constitution, import of slaves ended in 1808. This created a lucrative domestic slave-trading industry organized around slave-breeding, the sale of children, and the occasional kidnapping of free blacks. When slaves escaped from this system, Southern slave traders and slaveowners weren't always able to count on Northern law enforcement to assist them. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was written to address this "loophole."

The Dred Scott Decision

When a slave named Dred Scott used his citizenship in one state in an attempt to escape slavery in another, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his very ethnicity prevented him from being a full citizen entitled to the protections offered under the Bill of Rights. The ruling stated the chilling implications of race-based chattel slavery more clearly than any other ruling ever had.

The Abolition of Slavery

In December of 1860, South Carolina seceded from the United States. Although conventional wisdom states that the American Civil War began due to complex issues involving state's rights rather than slavery, South Carolina's own declaration of secession belies this claim. "[T]he constituted compact [respecting the return of fugitive slaves] has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States," the South Carolina legislature decreed, "and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation [to remain a part of the United States]."

The American Civil War claimed well over a million lives and shattered the Southern economy. Although U.S. leaders were initially reluctant to propose that slavery be abolished in the South, President Abraham Lincoln finally acquiesced in January of 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all Southern slaves but did not affect slaves living in the non-Confederate states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and West Virginia. The Thirteenth Amendment, which permanently ended the institution of chattel slavery throughout the country, followed in December of 1865.
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