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Slavery and Emancipation

The Monstrous Injustice of Slavery

The tragic history of American slavery began with the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia in 1619. Although the Founding Fathers grappled with the issue, they allowed slavery to continue in the Southern states. Throughout the early nineteenth century, the debate continued while the westward expansion of the United States and the entry of new states into the Union brought the issue to a crisis.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth, d. 1883.

A series of Congressional compromises sought to balance slave and free states admitted to the Union. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 banned slavery from the northern portions of the Louisiana Purchase. Abraham Lincoln believed that these restrictions would lead to a slow but eventual extinction of slavery and was willing to accept its continued presence rather than split the Union. In the 1850s, however, the ideologies of the North and South were hardening and compromise was no longer possible. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise and opened the west to slavery. The Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 denied any rights to slaves and ruled that Congress could not exclude slavery from the territories.

Lincoln was forced to recognize that compromise on slavery was impossible. He now saw that slavery could not exist in a free society, saying, "I object to it because it assumes that there can be a moral right in the enslaving of one man to another." His opposition to slavery was clear. In an 1854 speech, he referred to the "monstrous injustice of slavery" and in his debates with Stephen Douglas declared that "slavery is an unqualified evil to the negro, to the white man, to the soil, and to the State."

James Williams, b. 1805.

Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave; Who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama... New York: American Anti-slavery Society, 1838.

Slave narratives were an attempt to put a human face on the struggle against slavery. Between the 1820s and the end of the Civil War, nearly a hundred such stories were published in America. Many were published by abolitionist societies and distributed widely and cheaply. Tales of slave auctions, the break-up of families, and escapes to freedom helped generate support for the cause.

Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895.

Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Written by Himself. Boston: Pub. at the Anti-slavery Office, 1845.

Abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass wrote this powerful and inspirational memoir. It was a bestseller in England as well as the United States, selling 4,500 copies in its first five months in print, and 30,000 in its first five years.

Olive Gilbert.

Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828. Boston: Printed for the Author, 1850.

After fleeing from slavery, Truth traveled and preached for the abolitionist cause. She dictated her memoirs to friend Olive Gilbert, and in 1850 the journalist and reformer William Lloyd Garrison privately published her book.

United States. Supreme Court.

Report of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Opinions of the Judges thereof, in the Case of Dred Scott versus John F.A. Sandford : December term, 1856... Washington: C. Wendell, Printer, 1857.

Papers for the Times: Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States, Fugitive Slave Laws of 1793-1850, Missouri Compromise, Massachusetts Personal Liberty Law, the Chicago (Republican) Platform, Crittenden's Propositions. Lowell: Stone & Huse, Printers, 1861.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly. Boston: J.P. Jewett, 1852, c1851.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, which appeared first in serial form in an abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, in 1851-52, was written largely in Brunswick, Maine. In 1852, the story was published in book form in two volumes. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, making it a crime for citizens in free states to assist runaway slaves, inspired the story. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a best seller in the United States, England, Europe, Asia, and was translated into over 60 languages.

Stowe was impatient with Lincoln for not immediately freeing the slaves after his election and for overruling some of his generals who wanted to emancipate slaves as they conquered Confederate territory. After meeting Lincoln, her attitude changed and she praised him for the depth of his understanding and strength of character.

Edward J. Pringle.

Slavery in the Southern States. By a Carolinian. Cambridge: J. Bartlett, 1852.

Pringle responded to Stowe by arguing that the behavior of the slave owners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an exaggeration and not representative of reality. He defends slavery on economic, cultural and moral grounds.

Stephen Vincent Benet, 1898-1943.

Prints from John Brown's Body. West Hatfield, MA: Pennyroyal Press, 1980.

The John Brown Invasion: An Authentic History of the Harper's Ferry Tragedy, with Full Details of the Capture, Trial, and Execution of the Invaders... Boston: J. Campbell, 1860, c1859.

Late in 1859, the failed attempt of abolitionist John Brown to capture the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to use the weapons to arm a slave rebellion added to the pressure to find a solution to the slavery question. Brown was executed, but the issue enraged partisans on both sides of the issue. Many Northerners saw him as a heroic figure, while Southerners say him as doing the bidding of the abolitionist Republican Party.

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The Emancipation Proclamation

Abraham Lincoln first presented a plan for ending slavery to his Cabinet in July 1862, but was convinced by Secretary of State William Henry Seward to wait until a major Union victory to announce it.

"Abe Lincoln’s Last Card; or, Rouge-et-noir."
Punch. October 18, 1862.

After the Union won the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, the president issued a decree declaring that he would free all slaves in the Confederacy unless the states surrendered and rejoined the Union. When they refused, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

The Proclamation had a limited scope: it did not free slaves in slave states that stayed in the Union nor in territories that had already been conquered by the Northern troops. It would require military victories to actually free the three million slaves in the Confederacy.

The Proclamation also permitted freed slaves to join the Union Army, something Lincoln had avoided before in order to pacify supporters in the border states. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had taken part in securing their own freedom.

"Abe Lincoln’s Last Card; or, Rouge-et-noir." Punch. October 18, 1862.

Well-known British cartoonist John Tenniel satirized the Proclamation before its release as the last resort of a desperate gambler. Britain was officially neutral during the early years of the war although its textile industry was damaged by lack of Confederate cotton imports. After 1863, with the war favoring the North, Britain finally declared its support for Lincoln’s policies.

Emancipation of the Negroes, by Thomas Nast
"The Emancipation of the Negroes,
January, 1863—The Past and the Future—
Drawn by Mr. Thomas Nast." Harper’s Weekly,
January 24, 1863.

Charles M. Ellis, 1818-1878.

The Power of the Commander-in-chief to Declare Martial Law, and Decree Emancipation; by Libertas. Boston: A. Williams & Co., 1862.

Ellis argues in defense of Lincoln that unlike in other wars, the entire country is the battlefield and the power of the commander-in-chief therefore extends to all areas of civilian life.

"The Emancipation of the Negroes, January, 1863—The Past and the Future—Drawn by Mr. Thomas Nast." Harper’s Weekly, January 24, 1863.

Nast provides a vision of the future for the freed slaves, including public education, paid employment, and a happy family life.

Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865.

A Proclamation, known as the "Emancipation Proclamation."

This document was signed by Lincoln and printed in Philadelphia by Frederick Leypoldt, on or about June 6, 1864. It was co-signed by Secretary of State William Henry Seward and attested to by Lincoln’s private secretary, John G. Nicolay. This signed broadside edition of the Proclamation is one of forty-eight copies originally printed to be sold as fundraisers at the Great Central Sanitary Fair held in Philadelphia, June 7 to June 29, 1864. Only about twenty copies are known to exist today.

Emancipation Proclamation
Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865. A Proclamation,
known as the "Emancipation Proclamation." (detail)

Andrew Jackson Hamilton, 1815-1875.

Letter of Gen. A.J. Hamilton, of Texas: to the President of the United States. New York: W.C. Bryant & Co., 1863.

Hamilton writes as a Southern Union man supporting emancipation and arguing that the Constitution does not exclude black men from citizenship. His letter was published by the Loyal Publication Society of New York and was one of a series of pro-Union publications.

Emancipation and Its Results. New York: Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge, 1863.

This pamphlet rejects freedom for slaves based on the anonymous author’s belief that doing so would increase crime and decrease agricultural production.

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Compensated Emancipation

In the fall of 1861, Abraham Lincoln proposed to Delaware Congressman George P. Fisher a plan that would compensate the state’s slave owners from federal funds if they would free their remaining slaves (approximately 1800). Lincoln believed that if compensated emancipation was successful in Delaware, it could be extended to the other Union slave states. But even though slavery was not essential to the Delaware economy, the plan was rejected on the grounds that it represented Federal interference in what was regarded as an internal matter.

An act for the gradual emancipation of slaves in the state of Delaware: with just compensation to their owners. [Dover, Delaware?: s.n., 1862].

This document prints the proposal for emancipated compensation in Delaware. Although the plan was introduced into the General Assembly, its two sponsors, Congressman George P. Fisher and his fellow republican Nathaniel P. Smithers withdrew the bill before a vote could be taken because of widespread opposition to it.

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The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

"A Resolution," dated February 1, 1865, submitting the Thirteenth Amendment to the States. Signed by Abraham Lincoln.

This is one of four known signed copies of this resolution.

A Resolution
"A Resolution," dated February 1, 1865, submitting the Thirteenth Amendment to the States.
Signed by Abraham Lincoln. (detail)

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