Some Milestones in Black History
Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad
The early abolition movement in North America was fueled both by slaves’ efforts to liberate themselves and by groups of white settlers, such as the Quakers, who opposed slavery on religious or moral grounds. Though the lofty ideals of the Revolutionary era invigorated the movement, by the late 1780s it was in decline, as the growing southern cotton industry made slavery an ever more vital part of the national economy. In the early 19th century, however, a new brand of radical abolitionism emerged in the North, partly in reaction to Congress’ passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and the tightening of slave codes in most southern states. One of its most eloquent voices was William Lloyd Garrison, a crusading journalist from Massachusetts, who founded the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in 1831 and became known as the most radical of America’s antislavery activists. Antislavery northerners—many of them free blacks—had begun helping fugitive slaves escape from southern plantations to the North via a loose network of safe houses as early as the 1780s. Known as the Underground Railroad, the organization gained real momentum in the 1830s and eventually helped anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 slaves reach freedom. Harriet Tubman, its most celebrated —conductor,” was a former slave who married a free black man and escaped from Maryland to Philadelphia in 1849. On numerous risky trips south, she helped some 300 other slaves escape before serving as a scout and spy for Union forces in South Carolina during the Civil War. The success of the Underground Railroad helped spread abolitionist feelings in the North; it also undoubtedly increased sectional tensions, convincing pro–slavery southerners of their northern countrymen’s determination to defeat the institution that sustained them.
The Civil War – 1861
In the spring of 1861, the bitter sectional conflicts that had been intensifying between North and South over the course of four decades erupted into civil war, with 11 southern states seceding from the Union and forming the Confederate States of America. Though President Abraham Lincoln’s antislavery views were well established, and his election as the nation’s first Republican president had been the catalyst that pushed the first southern states to secede in late 1860, the Civil War at its outset was not a war to abolish slavery. Lincoln sought first and foremost to preserve the Union, and he knew that few people even in the North—let alone the border slave states still loyal to Washington – would have supported a war against slavery in 1861. By the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln had come to believe he could not avoid the slavery question much longer. Five days after the bloody Union victory at Antietam in September, he issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation; on January 1, 1863, he made it official that —slaves within any State, or designated part of a State&in rebellion,&shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln justified his decision as a wartime measure, and as such he did not go so far as to free the slaves in the border states loyal to the Union, an omission that angered many abolitionists. By freeing some 3 million black slaves in the rebel states, the Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labor forces and put international public opinion strongly on the Union side. Some 186,000 black soldiers would join the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865, and 38,000 lost their lives. The total number of dead at war’s end was 620,000 (out of a population of some 35 million), making it the costliest conflict in American history.
Dred Scott case – March 6, 1857
On March 6, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Scott v. Sanford, delivering a resounding victory to southern supporters of slavery and arousing the ire of northern abolitionists. During the 1830s, the owner of a slave named Dred Scott had taken him from the slave state of Missouri to the Wisconsin territory and Illinois, where slavery was outlawed, according to the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Upon his return to Missouri, Scott sued for his freedom on the basis that his temporary removal to free soil had made him legally free. The case went to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and the majority eventually ruled that Scott was a slave and not a citizen, and thus had no legal rights to sue. According to the Court, Congress had no constitutional power to deprive persons of their property rights when dealing with slaves in the territories. The verdict effectively declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, ruling that all territories were open to slavery and could exclude it only when they became states. While much of the South rejoiced, seeing the verdict as a clear victory for the slave system, antislavery northerners were furious. One of the most prominent abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, was cautiously optimistic, however, wisely predicting that —This very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the complete overthrow of the whole slave system.”