In 1619 a ship put in at Jamestown, and sold twenty Negroes it had brought over from Africa as part of its cargo. Bound labor was common in all the colonies because of the intense labor shortage. Many settlers earned their passage to the New World, and that of their families, by indenturing themselves for a term of years, usually seven, after which they would be free. At least some of the early Africans were treated as indentured servants, because there are records of free blacks in the Chesapeake area in the 1650s. But about that time the white colonists determined that blacks would be slaves durante vita (for the term of their lives), and their children would be slaves as well.

Slaves became the backbone of the southern plantation system. The southern colonies relied on certain cash crops such as tobacco, rice and indigo, all of which were labor intensive, and slavery provided the least expensive and most reliable source of labor. At the time of the American Revolution, there were about 500,000 slaves in the thirteen colonies, out of a total population of roughly three million.

By then slavery, which had never been as extensive in the northern colonies, had begun to die out. Slavery did not make economic sense in the northern economies, and many northerners objected to the forced bondage of human beings. Some white southerners also looked forward to the end of slavery, and in fact much of the early abolitionist sentiment could be found in the South, not in the North. The invention of the cotton gin in the early nineteenth century made cotton an extremely profitable crop, however, and slavery continued to grow. By 1860 there were nearly four million black men and women in bondage.

At the Second Continental Congress there had been some discussion about slavery. How, after all, could the Congress declare that "All men are created equal" when Americans kept some men and women as slaves? But the agenda before the Congress was independence of the colonies from Great Britain, not the emancipation of slaves, and the northern delegates agreed to mute their concerns about slavery in order to achieve a united front against the king.

Similarly, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates had come to Philadelphia to design a new system of government and not to abolish bondage. Slavery played practically no role in the debate, and those sections of the Constitution dealing with slaves (who are never identified as such), such as taxation, importation and counting for purposes of state representation, were quickly negotiated.

One reason slavery remained a mute issue was because in the eighteenth century human bondage was fairly widespread. Even though serfdom had disappeared from most of Europe, the notion of enslaving humans had roots going back many centuries. The Bible mentioned slavery as widespread, and did not condemn the practice. The Enlightenment writers ignored the issue, and the movement to abolish slavery did not take firm hold in England until the end of the eighteenth century.

Southerners moving westward took their slaves with them, and in 1819, when Missouri applied for entry into the Union, it did so as a slave state. In what struck many people, both North and South, as an amazing development, the House of Representatives refused admission, and instead passed a resolution calling on Missouri to end the practice. When Thomas Jefferson heard this news, he wrote to a friend that it struck him "as a firebell in the night," and he "considered it at once as the [death] knell of the Union."

Henry Clay managed to work out what came to be known as the Missouri Compromise, which permitted Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state but prohibited slavery in the rest of the immense Louisiana Purchase. But the issue would not go away, and within a relatively short time pressure began to build in the northern states to prevent the spread of slavery into the western territories, while some groups began agitating to end slavery in the United States altogether.

The southern states reacted angrily to this attack on what they termed their "peculiar institution." By the nineteenth century slavery served far more than demands for labor; bondage based on race had become essential to the southern caste system. It served as a tie between small farmers and the wealthy plantation owners, and as long as even poor whites could look down on black slaves, class differences could be glossed over.

As northern agitation increased, southerners argued that slavery was no one's business except their own, and held up the banner of states' rights to deflect abolitionist demands. What went on within their own borders was the business of each individual state, and not of any other state or of the national government.

But southerners wanted additional territory in which to expand their cotton holdings, they wanted the federal government to secure Texas for settlement by slaveholders, and they wanted a strict fugitive slave law authorizing the federal government to help capture and return runaway slaves. And they claimed all this as their right under the Constitution.

The result was the gradual deterioration of the ties that bound the country together. As abolitionist sentiment increased in the North, secessionist demands rose in the South. By the late 1850s, the United States was, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, a "house divided," and on the verge of collapse.

When the southern states seceded from the Union after Lincoln's election as president in 1860, many voices in the North urged that they be let go; the remaining nation would be better without them, since it would be free of the taint of human bondage. But Lincoln and many other northerners believed that the Union had to be preserved, and the Civil War began as an effort to keep the Union together.

But slavery, which had led to this crisis, could not be ignored, and eventually the war became not just a crusade to save the Union, but one to end the "peculiar institution" as well. For Lincoln at Gettysburg, as well as for soldiers in the field, the fight had become a struggle for democracy, and for a while the outcome of that struggle remained in doubt.

War, even for noble purposes, creates strains upon a democratic society. Behavior that can be tolerated in peacetime, such as severe criticism of the government, is seen as threatening when the nation itself is at peril. The Civil War, fought for democracy and freedom, also had its dark side of intolerance and the invasion of civil liberties. In the end, the Union emerged stronger than before, with slavery abolished and democracy enthroned. As we shall see in subsequent sections, however, the issues were not fully resolved.

  1. American Anti-Slavery Society, Declaration of Sentiments (1833)
  2. Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1846)
  3. Massachusetts Personal Liberty Act (1855)
  4. Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
  5. Abraham Lincoln, "A House Divided" (1858)
  6. Sullivan Ballou, Letter to His Wife (1861)
  7. Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation (1863)
  8. Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)
  9. Ex parte Milligan (1866)

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