Slavery in the United States

Slavery has appeared in many forms throughout its long history. Slaves have served in capacities as diverse as concubines, warriors, servants, craftsmen, tutors, and victims of ritual sacrifice. In the New World (the Americas), however, slavery emerged as a system of forced labor designed to facilitate the production of staple crops. Depending on location, these crops included sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cotton; in the southern United States, by far the most important staples were tobacco and cotton. A stark racial component distinguished this modern Western slavery from the slavery that existed in many other times and places: the vast majority of slaves consisted of Africans and their descendants, whereas the vast majority of masters consisted of Europeans and their descendants.

Slavery has played a central role in the history of the United States. It existed in all the English mainland colonies and came to dominate productive relations from Maryland south. Most of the Founding Fathers were large-scale slaveholders, as were eight of the first 12 presidents of the United States. Debate over slavery increasingly dominated American politics, leading eventually to the nation's only civil war, which in turn finally brought slavery to an end. After emancipation, overcoming slavery's legacy remained a crucial issue in American history, from Reconstruction following the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement a century later.

The Introduction of Slavery

There was nothing inevitable about the use of black slaves. Although Dutch traders brought 20 Africans to Jamestown, Virginia, as early as 1619, throughout most of the seventeenth century the number of Africans in the English mainland colonies grew very slowly. During those years colonists experimented with two other sources of unfree labor: Native American slaves and European indentured servants.

Although some Native American slaves existed in every colony, the number was limited. Indian men balked at performing agricultural labor, which they regarded as women's work, and colonists complained that they were "haughty" and made poor slaves. Even more important, the settlers found it more convenient to sell Native Americans captured in war to planters in the Caribbean than to turn them into slaves on their own terrain, where escape was relatively easy and violent resistance a constant threat. Ultimately, the policy of killing Indians or driving them away from white settlements proved incompatible with their widespread employment as slaves.

Far more important as a form of labor than Indian slavery was white indentured servitude. Most indentured servants consisted of poor Europeans who, desiring to escape harsh conditions and take advantage of fabled opportunities in America, traded four to seven years of their labor in exchange for the transatlantic passage. At first predominantly English but later increasingly Irish, Welsh, and German, servants consisted primarily (although not exclusively) of young males. Once in the colonies, they were essentially temporary slaves; most served as agricultural workers although some, especially in the North, were taught skilled trades. During the seventeenth century, they performed most of heavy labor in the Southern colonies and also provided the bulk of immigrants to those colonies.

For a variety of reasons, foremost among them improved conditions in England, the number of persons willing to sell themselves into indentured servitude declined sharply toward the end of the seventeenth century. Since the labor needs of the rapidly growing colonies were increasing, this decline in servant migration produced a labor crisis. To meet the need, landowners turned to African slaves, who from the 1680s began to supplant the labor of indentured servants; in Virginia, for example, blacks (the great majority of whom were slaves) increased from about 7 percent of the population in 1680 to more than 40 percent by the middle of the eighteenth century. During the first two-thirds of the seventeenth century Holland and Portugal had dominated the African slave trade and the number of Africans available to English colonists was limited. During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by contrast, naval superiority gave England a dominant position in the slave trade, and English traders (some of whom lived in English America) transported millions of Africans across the Atlantic.

The transatlantic slave trade produced one of the largest forced migrations in history. From the early sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century, between 10 and 11 million Africans were torn from their homes, herded onto ships where they were sometimes so tightly packed that they could barely move, and deposited in a strange new land. (Since others died in transit, Africa's loss of population was greater still.) By far the largest importers of slaves were Brazil and the Caribbean sugar colonies; together, they received well over three-quarters of all Africans brought to the New World. About 6 percent of the total (600,000 to 650,000 persons) came to the area of the present United States.

Advertisement for Slave Auction, 1829

This poster advertised slaves for sale or temporary hire in the early 1800s. Auctions often separated family members from one another, and many slaves never saw their loved ones again.


Hulton Deutsch[1]


Slavery in the Colonial Era

Slavery spread quickly in the American colonies. At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some — like European indentured servants — managed to become free after several years of service. From the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slave relations; central to these laws was the provision that black slaves, and the children of slave women, would serve for life. By the eve of the American Revolution, slaves constituted about 40 percent of the population of the southern mainland colonies, with the highest concentration in South Carolina, where well over half the population were slaves.

Slaves performed numerous tasks, from clearing the forest to serving as guides, trappers, craftsmen, nurses, and house servants, but they were most essential as agricultural laborers and most numerous where landowners sought to grow staple crops for market. The most important of these crops consisted of tobacco in the upper South (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina) and rice in the lower South (South Carolina and Georgia); farther south still, on Caribbean islands such as Barbados, Jamaica, and Saint-Domingue, sugar was an even more valuable slave-grown commodity. Slaves also worked on large wheat-producing estates in New York and on horse-breeding farms in Rhode Island, but climate and soil restricted the development of commercial agriculture in the Northern colonies, and slavery never became as economically central as in the South. Slaves in the North were typically held in small numbers, and most served as domestic servants; only in New York, with its Dutch legacy, did they form more than 10 percent of the population, and in the North as a whole less than 5 percent of the inhabitants were slaves.

By the mid-eighteenth century American slavery had acquired a number of distinctive features. Well over 90 percent of American slaves lived in the South, where demographic conditions contrasted sharply with those to both the south and the north. In Caribbean colonies such as Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, blacks outnumbered whites by more than ten to one and slaves often lived on huge estates whose inhabitants numbered in the hundreds; in the Northern colonies, blacks were few and slaves were typically held in small groups of less than five. The South, by contrast, was neither overwhelmingly white nor overwhelmingly black: slaves formed a large minority of the population (in some areas, of course, they formed the majority), and despite regional variations, most slaves lived on small and medium-sized holdings containing between 5 and 50 slaves.

A second distinctive feature was the rapid "Americanization" of both masters and slaves. English colonists quickly came to feel "at home" on their American holdings. Few sought to make quick killings on their planting ventures and then retire to a life of leisure in England, and the kind of absentee ownership common in much of the Caribbean was relatively rare in the American South; instead, masters typically took an active role in running their farms and plantations. Equally significant was the shift from an African to an African American slave population. By the eve of the American Revolution, only about 20 percent of American slaves were African-born (although the concentration of Africans remained higher in South Carolina and Georgia), and after the outlawing of new slave imports in 1808, the proportion of African-born slaves became tiny. The emergence of a native-born slave population had numerous important consequences. To take one example, among African-born slaves (imported primarily for their ability to perform physical labor) there were few children and men outnumbered women by about two to one; American-born slaves, by contrast, began their slave careers as children and included approximately even numbers of males and females.

This shift from African to African American was closely related to a third distinctive characteristic of American slavery that was in many ways the most important of all: in contrast to most other slaves in the New World, those in the United States experienced what demographers refer to as "natural population growth." Elsewhere, in regions as diverse as Brazil, Jamaica, Saint-Domingue, and Cuba, slave mortality rates exceeded birth rates, and growth of the slave population depended on the importation of new slaves from Africa; as soon as that importation ended, the slave population began to decline. At first, deaths among slaves also exceeded births in the American colonies, but in the eighteenth century those colonies experienced a demographic transition as birth rates rose, mortality rates fell, and the slave population became self-reproducing. This transition, which occurred earlier in the upper than in the lower South, meant that even after the outlawing of slave imports in 1808, the number of slaves would continue to grow rapidly; during the next half century the slave population of the United States more than tripled, from about 1.2 million to almost 4 million in 1860. The natural growth of the slave population shaped a distinctive slavery in the American South and hastened the transition among slaves from African to African American.

The Revolutionary Challenge


Throughout most of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among white Americans was virtually nonexistent. Settlers in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries came from a sharply stratified society in which the upper classes savagely exploited members of the "lower orders"; lacking a later generation's belief in natural human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement of Africans. As they sought to mold a docile labor force, these planters resorted to harshly repressive measures that included liberal use of whippings and brandings.

Gradually, as slavery became more entrenched, changes occurred in the way masters looked on their slaves (and themselves). Many second-generation masters, who unlike their parents had grown up with slaves, came to regard them as inferior members of their extended families, and to look upon themselves as kindly patriarchs who, like benevolent despots, ruled their "people" firmly but fairly and looked after their needs. Such slave owners continued to rely heavily on the lash (and other forms of punishment) for discipline, and few slaves saw their owners as the kindly guardians that they proclaimed themselves to be. Still, the most extreme forms of physical abuse became less common over the course the eighteenth century, at the same time that many slave owners accepted the idea that they should treat their slaves humanely.

Some slave owners went further. The last third of the eighteenth century saw the first widespread questioning of slavery by white Americans. This questioning was boosted by the American Revolution, which sparked a sharp increase in egalitarian thinking. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, while slaveholders, were profoundly troubled by slavery; leery of rash actions, they initiated a series of cautious acts that they thought would lead to slavery's gradual abolition.

These acts included measures in all states north of Delaware to abolish slavery. A few states did away with slavery immediately. More typical were gradual emancipation acts such as that passed by Pennsylvania in 1780, whereby all children born to slaves in the future would be freed at age 28. Two significant measures dating from 1787 included the Northwest Ordinance, which barred slavery from the Northwest Territory (which included much of what is now the upper Midwest), and a compromise reached at the Constitutional Convention that would allow Congress to outlaw the importation of slaves in 1808. Meanwhile, a number of states passed acts to ease the freeing of slaves by individuals, hundreds of whom — especially in the upper South — set some or all of their slaves free. In addition, tens of thousands of slaves acted on their own, taking advantage of wartime disruption to escape from their masters. As a result, the number of free blacks, which had been tiny before the Revolution, surged during the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Nevertheless, the Revolutionary-era challenge to slavery proved successful only in the North, where the investment in slaves was small. The antislavery movement never made much headway in Georgia and South Carolina, where labor-hungry planters rushed to import tens of thousands of Africans before the 1808 cutoff. In the upper South, Revolution-inspired egalitarianism withered in the 1790s and 1800s. And because the American slave population was self-reproducing, the end of slave imports did not undermine slavery as it did elsewhere, or as many of the Founding Fathers expected. The ultimate result of the first antislavery movement was to leave slavery a newly sectional institution, on the road to abolition throughout the North but largely unscathed in the South.

Slavery in the Antebellum Era


During the antebellum (pre-Civil War) years slavery expanded aggressively along with the United States (see population statistics, below). Fueled by a surging world demand for cotton, slavery spread quickly into the new states of the Southwest; by the 1830s Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana formed the heart of a new "cotton kingdom," together producing more than half of the nation's supply of the crop. The great bulk of this cotton was cultivated by slaves. Between 1790 and 1860 about 1 million slaves (almost twice the number of Africans shipped to the United States during the whole period of the transatlantic slave trade) moved west, some together with their masters and others as part of a new domestic trade in which owners from the seaboard states provided "surplus" slaves to planters in the Southwest.

As slavery grew, so too did its diversity. Slavery varied according to region, crops, and size of holdings. On farms and small plantations most slaves came in frequent contact with their owners, but on very large plantations, where slave owners often employed overseers, slaves might rarely see their masters. Some owners left their holdings entirely in the care of subordinates, usually hired white overseers but sometimes slaves. A few slave owners were even black themselves: a small percentage of free blacks owned slaves, in some cases essentially as a fiction so that they could protect family members, but more often to profit, like other slaveholders, from unfree labor. Most slaves on large holdings worked in gangs, under the supervision of overseers and (slave) drivers. Some, however, especially in the coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia, labored under the "task" system: assigned a certain amount of work to complete in a day, they received less supervision than gang laborers and were free to use their time as they wished once they had completed their daily assignments. In addition to performing fieldwork, slaves served as house servants, nurses, midwives, carpenters, blacksmiths, drivers, preachers, gardeners, and handymen.

Despite such variations, there were a number of dominant trends. First, slavery was overwhelmingly rural: in 1860 only about 5 percent of all slaves lived in towns of at least 2500 persons. Second, although some slaves lived on giant estates and others on small farms, the norm was in between: in 1860 about one-half of all slaves lived on holdings of 10 to 49, with one-quarter on smaller and one-quarter on larger units. (Holdings tended to be bigger in the Deep South than in the upper South.) Third, most slaves lived with resident masters; owner absenteeism was most prevalent in the South Carolina and Georgia low country, but in the South as a whole it was less common than in the Caribbean. Fourth, most able-bodied adult slaves engaged in fieldwork. Owners relied heavily on children, the elderly, and the infirm for "nonproductive" work (such as house service); only the largest plantations could spare healthy adults for exclusive assignment to specialized occupations. The main business of Southern farms and plantations — and of the slaves who supported them — was to grow cotton, tobacco, rice, corn, wheat, hemp, and sugar.

Southern slaveholders took an active role in managing their human property. Viewing themselves as the slaves' guardians, they stressed the degree to which they cared for their "people." The character of such care varied, but in purely material terms — food, clothing, housing, medical attention — it was generally better in the antebellum than in the colonial period and (judging by measurable criteria such as slave height and life expectancy) better in the American South than in the Caribbean or Brazil. Although young children were often malnourished, most working slaves received a steady supply of pork and corn which, if lacking in nutritional balance (about which antebellum Americans knew nothing), provided sufficient calories to fuel their labor, especially when supplemented with produce that slaves raised on the garden plots that they were often allotted. Clothing and housing were crude but functional: slaves typically received four coarse "suits" per year (pants and shirts for men, dresses for women, long shirts for children) and lived in small wooden cabins, one to a family. Wealthy slave owners often sent for physicians to treat slaves who became ill; given the state of medical knowledge, however, such treatment — which could range from providing various concoctions to "bleeding" a patient — often did as much harm as good.

Masters intervened continuously in the lives of their slaves, from directing their labor to approving (and disapproving) marriages. Some masters made elaborate written "rules" and most engaged in constant meddling — directing, nagging, threatening, and punishing. Many took advantage of their position to exploit slave women sexually. What slaves hated most about slavery was not the hard work to which they were subjected (most people in the rural United States expected to engage in hard physical labor), but the lack of control over their lives — their lack of freedom. Masters may have prided themselves on the care they provided for their "people"; the slaves, however, had a different idea of that care. They resented the constant interference in their lives and struggled to achieve whatever autonomy they could.

Slave Life and Slave Resistance

Such autonomy was not totally lacking. In the quarters — the collection of slave cabins that on large plantations resembled a miniature village — slaves developed their own way of life. The degree of social independence available to slaves was not constant: throughout the South, a continuing power struggle raged in which slaves strove to increase and masters strove to limit this independence. The character and resolution of this struggle in turn depended on a host of factors, from size of holdings and organization of production to residence and disposition of masters. Masters rarely were able, however, to shape the lives of their slaves as fully as they wanted.

Away from the view of owners and overseers, slaves lived their own lives. They made friends and made love, played and prayed, sang, told stories, cooked, joked, quarreled, and engaged in the necessary chores of day-to-day living, from cleaning house, cooking, and sewing to working on their garden plots. Especially important as anchors of the slaves' lives were their families and their religion.

Throughout the South, the family defined the actual living arrangements of slaves: most slaves lived together in nuclear families — mother, father, children. The security and stability of these families faced severe challenges: no state law recognized marriage among slaves, masters rather than parents had legal authority over slave children, and the possibility of forced separation, through sale, hung over every family. (Such separations were especially frequent in the slave-exporting states of the upper South.) Still, despite their tenuous status, families served as the slaves' most basic refuge, the center of private lives that owners could never fully control.

Religion served as a second refuge. Although African slaves usually clung to their native religions, and many slave owners in the early colonial period were leery of those who sought to convert their slaves to Christianity (in part because of fears that converted slaves would have to be freed), during the antebellum years Christianity was increasingly central to the slaves' cultural life. Many slaves were converted during the religious revivals that swept the South in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Slaves typically belonged to the same denominations as white Southerners — Baptists and Methodists were the largest groups — and some masters encouraged their "people" to come to the white church, where they usually sat in a special "slave gallery" and received advice about being obedient to their masters. In the quarters, however, there developed a parallel ("invisible") church controlled by the slaves themselves, who listened to sermons delivered by their own preachers. Not all slaves had access to these preachers and not all accepted their message, but for many, religion served as a great comfort in a hostile world.

If their families and religion helped slaves to avoid total control by their owners, slaves also more directly challenged that control through active resistance. The limits of such resistance must be kept in mind. Unlike slaves in Saint-Domingue, who rose up against their French masters in bloody rebellion and established the black republic of Haiti in 1804, American slaves faced a balance of power that discouraged armed resistance. When it occurred, such resistance was always quickly suppressed and followed by harsh repression designed to discourage repetition. Aside from "conspiracies" aborted before any actual outbreak of violence in New York (1741), Virginia (1800), and South Carolina (1822), the most noted uprisings included the Stono Rebellion near Charleston, South Carolina (1739), an attempted attack on New Orleans (1811), and the Nat Turner insurrection that rocked Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The Turner insurrection, which at its peak included 60-80 rebels, resulted in the deaths of about 60 whites; the number of blacks killed during the uprising and executed or lynched afterward may have reached 100. But the rebellion lasted less than two days and was easily suppressed by local residents. Like other slave uprisings in the United States, it caused enormous fear among whites but did not seriously threaten the slave regime.

Lower-level resistance was both more widespread and more successful. This included "silent sabotage," or foot dragging, by slaves who pretended to be sick, feigned difficulty understanding instructions, and "accidentally" misused tools and animals. It also included small-scale resistance by individuals who fought back physically — at times successfully — against what they regarded as unjust treatment. But the most common form of resistance was flight. About 1000 slaves per year managed to escape to the North during the late antebellum period (most from the upper South), but this represented only the tip of the iceberg, since for every slave who made it to freedom, several more tried. Other fugitives remained within the South, heading for cities or swamps, or hiding out near their plantations for days or weeks before either returning voluntarily or being tracked down and captured. On a continuing basis, slaves "voted with their feet" against slavery.

Like all people, slaves felt diverse, overlapping attachments. They identified as members of families, parishioners of churches, residents of particular farms and plantations, and members of an exploited class, the fruits of whose labor were appropriated by their owners. They also identified as African Americans and saw themselves as an oppressed people. Because the vast majority of blacks in the antebellum South were slaves, the line separating black from white approximated that separating slave from free, and the class exploitation of slave by master often appeared indistinguishable from the racial oppression of black by white. Racial identification drew support not only from common African origins and the close ties that often existed between slaves and free blacks but also from the virulent racism of many nonslaveholding whites that made it easy for slaves to look upon whites in general as their oppressors. Early African American cultural identity was forged in the crucible of slavery.

Sectional Tensions over Slavery

Slavery was an increasingly Southern institution. Abolition of slavery in the North, begun in the Revolutionary era and largely complete by the 1830s, divided the United States into the "slave" South and the "free" North. As this happened, slavery came — both to Northerners and Southerners — to define the essence of the South: to defend slavery was to be "pro-Southern," whereas opposition to slavery was "anti-Southern." Although most Southern whites did not own slaves (the proportion of white families that owned slaves declined from 35 percent to 26 percent between 1830 and 1860), slavery more and more set the South off from the rest of the country — and the Western world. If at one time slavery had been common in much of the New World, by the middle of the nineteenth century it remained only in Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the southern United States. In an era that celebrated "liberty" and "equality," the slave South came to seem backward and repressive, associated in many people's minds with that other bastion of reaction, serfholding Russia.

In fact, the slave economy grew rapidly, enriched by the spectacular increase of cotton cultivation to meet the burgeoning demand of Northern and European textile manufacturers. But Southern economic growth was based largely on putting more acreage under cultivation; the South did not undergo the kind of industrial revolution that was beginning to transform the North, and the South remained almost entirely rural. In 1860 there were only five Southern cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants (only one of which, New Orleans, was in the Deep South); less than 10 percent of Southerners lived in towns of at least 2500 persons, compared to more than 25 percent of Northerners. The South also increasingly lagged in other indices of modernization, from railroad construction to literacy and public education.

But the biggest gap between North and South was ideological. As Northern states abolished slavery and then saw the growth of a small but articulate abolitionist movement, Southern white spokesmen — from politicians to ministers, newspaper editors, and authors — rallied around slavery as the bedrock of Southern society. Defenders of slavery developed a wide range of arguments to buttress their cause, from those that stressed the institution's "practical" necessity to those that depicted it as a "positive good." They made heavy use of religious themes, pointing to the biblical "curse of Ham" to explain the origins of black bondage and portraying slavery as part of God's plan for civilizing a primitive, heathen people.

Racial justifications were especially prevalent among proslavery arguments, in part because of the widespread racism that united most white Americans and in part because such arguments were especially effective in appealing to the majority of Southern whites who did not own slaves. The extreme — "scientific" — version of these arguments purported to prove that blacks were so physiologically different from whites that they amounted to a different species (or, in the reformulation of some theoreticians, were the products of a separate creation). Such an approach violated the Christian sensibilities of too many Southern whites, however, to become a central staple of proslavery propaganda. Far more common were brief, unscientific, and vaguely supported assertions that blacks were by nature different, inferior, and therefore unsuited for freedom. Hardworking, loyal, and productive under loving but firm direction (i.e., slavery), they supposedly lacked the intellectual capacity for independent existence and in freedom would quickly degenerate, perhaps even fall into extinction.

During the 1840s and 1850s Southern spokesmen increasingly based their case for slavery on social arguments that contrasted the harmonious, orderly, religious, and conservative society that supposedly existed in the South with the tumultuous, heretical, and mercenary ways of a North torn apart by radical reform, individualism, class conflict, and — worst of all — abolitionism. Insisting that Southern slaves were treated far better than Northern wage laborers, proslavery ideologues developed a biting critique of free-labor capitalism ("wage-slavery") as cruel, exploitative, and selfish, and pointed to the degraded condition of supposedly free British paupers and Irish peasants. This defense in many ways represented the mirror image of the "free-labor" argument increasingly prevalent in the North: as free-labor spokesmen argued that slavery kept the South backward, poor, inefficient, and degraded, proslavery advocates retorted that only slavery could save the South (and the world) from the evils of modernity run wild.

From the mid-1840s the struggle over slavery became more and more central to American politics. Northerners committed to "free soil" (the idea that new, western territories should be reserved exclusively for free white settlers) clashed repeatedly with Southern spokesmen who insisted that any limitation on slavery's expansion represented unconstitutional meddling with the Southern order and a grave affront to Southern honor. In 1860 the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on a free-soil platform set off a major political and constitutional crisis, as seven states in the Deep South seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America; the start of hostilities between the United States and the rebel Confederates in April 1861 led to the additional secession of four states in the upper South. (Four other slave states — Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri — remained in the Union, as did the new state of West Virginia, which split off from Virginia.)

Emancipation — and After

Ironically, although Southern politicians supported secession in order to preserve slavery, their action led instead to slavery's death. As the war dragged on, Northern war aims gradually shifted from preserving the Union to abolishing slavery and remaking the Union. Two especially important catalysts of this shift included: (1) the wartime behavior of Southern blacks, who under conditions of weakened authority at home increasingly refused to behave like slaves; and (2) the changing views of Northern whites, a growing number of whom accepted the Radical Republican position that the war provided an ideal opportunity to overthrow slavery and institute a sweeping transformation of the Southern social order.

Slavery ended for hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks well before the Confederate surrender, as Union troops occupied larger and larger areas of the South and as increasing numbers of slaves fled from their owners and sought refuge within Union lines. In Union-occupied areas of the South, blacks experienced a rehearsal for Reconstruction, as federal officials experimented with various forms of free and semifree labor and as Northern missionaries established schools to help turn slaves into citizens. The freedpeople's enthusiasm for education, in turn, created a powerful impression among Northern whites and contributed to their growing determination that the war must yield what President Lincoln termed "a new birth of freedom."

This goal received symbolic recognition with the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln issued on January 1, 1863. Although the proclamation applied only to areas under rebel control, and did not end slavery in the United States, it marked a clear turning point in the struggle against the "peculiar institution": a war for union had become a war for freedom, and henceforth everyone recognized that a federal victory would mean the death of slavery. During the second half of the war, as slavery crumbled in much of the South, more than 188,000 African Americans, both Southern and Northern, served in the Union's armed forces, fighting to hasten that death. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in January and ratified by the states in December 1865, completed the process, outlawing slavery everywhere in the United States.

Despite the overthrow of slavery, at war's end the future status of the former slaves remained unclear and resolving that status remained at the center of the nation's political agenda. An intense struggle ensued, as freedpeople strove for economic security, social autonomy, and civil rights; former slave owners sought to preserve their old prerogatives; and Northern politicians divided among themselves over the proper course of Reconstruction. The compromise that resulted from this struggle yielded an unprecedented — although temporary — national commitment to turn former slaves into citizens, anchored by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. Together, these measures provided basic civil rights to former slaves, enfranchised black males, and imposed a largely self-administered democratization process on the former Confederate states, under federal supervision.

Emancipation brought many tangible rewards. Among the most obvious was a significant increase in personal freedom that came with no longer being someone else's property: whatever hardships they faced, free blacks could not be forcibly sold away from their loved ones. But emancipation did not bring full equality, and many of the most striking gains of Reconstruction — including the substantial political power that African Americans were briefly able to exercise — were soon lost. In the decades after Reconstruction African Americans experienced continued poverty and exploitation and a rising tide of violence at the hands of whites determined to reimpose black subordination. They also experienced new forms of discrimination, spearheaded by a variety of state laws that instituted rigid racial segregation in virtually all areas of life and that (in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments) effectively disfranchised black voters. The struggle to overcome the bitter legacy of slavery would be long and arduous.


Contributed By:

Peter Kolchin[2]


[1]"Advertisement for Slave Auction, 1829," Microsoft® Encarta® Africana. ©&(p) 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


[2]"Slavery in the United States," Microsoft® Encarta® Africana. ©&(p) 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.