Slavery in 19th Century America

The History of Slavery and the Lenghty Fight to End It

Slavery in America ended with the Civil War, but the long struggle to end slavery actually consumed much of the first half of the 19th century.

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Illustration of Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup, from the original edition of his book. Saxton Publishers/public domain

Solomon Northup was a free black man living in upstate New York who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841. He endured more than a decade of degrading treatment on a Louisiana plantation before he could communicate with the outside world. His story formed the basis of a moving memoir and an Academy Award winning film.

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Engraved illustration of the Christiana Riot
The Christiana Riot. public domain

In September 1851 a Maryland farmer ventured into rural Pennsylvania, intent on capturing runaway slaves. He was killed in an act of resistance, and what became known as the Christiana Riot shook America and resulted in a federal treason trial.

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The moral crusade against slavery was greatly inspired by a novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Based on real characters and incidents, the 1852 novel made the horrors of slavery, and the silent complicity of many Americans, a major concern in countless American households.

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Artist's depiction of slaves escaping from Maryland on the Underground Railroad
Artist's depiction of slaves escape from Maryland on the Underground Railroad. Print Collector/Getty Images

The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized network of activists which helped escaped slaves find their way to a life of freedom in the North, or even beyond the reach of United States laws in Canada.

It is difficult to document much of the work of the Underground Railroad, as it was a secret organization with no official membership. But what we do know about its origins, motivations, and operations is fascinating.

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Engraved portrait of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Frederick Douglass was born a slave in Maryland, managed to escape to the North, and wrote a memoir which became a national sensation. He became an eloquent spokesman for African-Americans and a leading voice in the crusade to end slavery.

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Engraved portrait of abolitionist fanatic John Brown
John Brown. Getty Images

The abolitionist firebrand John Brown attacked pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in 1856, and three years later he attempted to foment a slave rebellion by seizing the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. His raid failed and Brown went to the gallows, but he became a martyr for the battle against slavery.

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Congressman Preston Brooks attacking Senator Charles Sumner
Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Getty Images

Passions over slavery and "Bleeding Kansas" reached the U.S. Capitol, and a Congressman from South Carolina entered the Senate chamber one afternoon in May 1856 and attacked a Senator from Massachusetts, brutally beating him with a cane. The attacker, Preston Brooks, became a hero to slavery supporters in the South. The victim, the eloquent Charles Sumner, became a hero to abolitionsts in the North.

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The issue of slavery would come to the forefront when new states were added to the Union and disputes arose over whether they would allow slavery or be free states. The Missouri Compromise was an attempt to settle the issue in 1820, and the legislation championed by Henry Clay managed to appease opposing factions and postpone the inevitable conflict over slavery.

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The controversy about whether slavery would be allowed in new states and territories became a heated issue after the Mexican War, when new states were to be added to the Union. The Compromise of 1850 was a set of laws shepherded through Congress which essentially delayed the Civil War by a decade.

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Disputes about two new territories being added to the Union created the need for yet another compromise on slavery. This time the law which resulted, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, backfired horrendously. Positions on slavery hardened, and one American who had retired from politics, Abraham Lincoln, became passionate enough to once again enter the political fray.

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Slavery was embedded in the U.S. Constitution, but a provision in the nation's founding document provided that Congress could outlaw the importation of slaves after a certain amount of years had passed. At the earliest opportunity, Congress did outlaw the imporation of slaves.

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The slave narrative is a unique American art form, a memoir written by a former slave. Some slave narratives became classics and played an important role in the abolitionist movement.

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While some slave narratives have been considered classics since before the Civil War, a few slave narratives have only recently come to light. Two particularly interesting manuscripts were discovered and published in recent years.