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 the practice actually consumed much of the first half of the 19th century. Here is a selection of articles related to the enslavement of African people and the long battle to end it.

Solomon Northup, Author of 'Twelve Years a Slave'

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 and enslaved 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.

Christiana Riot: 1851 Resistance By Freedom Seekers

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

In September 1851 a Maryland farmer ventured into rural Pennsylvania, intent on capturing freedom seekers. 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.

Fighting the Gag Rule

Engraved portrait of John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Constitution gives citizens the right of petition, and in the 1830s anti-slavery activists in the North began to submit petitions to Congress seeking changes in slavery laws as well as the freedom of individual enslaved people. Members of Congress from the South became incensed by this tactic and passed resolutions banning any discussion of slavery in the House of Representatives.

The leading opponent against the "Gag Rule" was John Quincy Adams, the former president who had been elected as a member of Congress from Massachusetts.

'Uncle Tom's Cabin'

Engraved portrait of author Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriett Beecher Stowe. Getty Images

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 enslavement, and the silent complicity of many Americans, a major concern in countless American households.

The Abolitionist Pamphlet Campaign

Illustration of abolitionist pamphlets being burned in South Carolina.
A mob broke into a post office and burned abolitionist pamphlets in Charleston, South Carolina. Fotosearch/Getty Images

As the anti-slavery movement organized in the 1830s, it became obvious that it was dangerous to send advocates of the cause into the pro-slavery states. So abolitionists in the North devised a clever plan to mail anti-slavery pamphlets to people in the South.

The campaign caused a furor and led to calls for the federal government to begin censoring the mail. In cities of the pro-slavery states, pamphlets were seized from post offices and burned in bonfires in the streets.

The Underground Railroad

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

The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized network of activists which helped freedom seekers find their way to a life of liberation 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.

Frederick Douglass, Formerly Enslaved Man and Abolitionist Author

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

Frederick Douglass was enslaved from birth in Maryland, but he managed to free himself and get to the North. He 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.

John Brown, Abolitionist Fanatic and Martyr for His Cause

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

The abolitionist firebrand John Brown attacked pro-slavery settlers in Kansas in 1856. Three years later, he attempted to foment a rebellion of enslaved people 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 enslavement.

A Beating Over Slavery in the U.S. Senate Chamber

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 Bleeding Kansas and the issue of slavery 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.

The Missouri Compromise

The issue of slavery would come to the forefront when new states were added to the Union and disputes arose over whether or not they would allow enslavement. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was an attempt to settle the problem, and the legislation championed by Henry Clay managed to appease opposing factions and postpone the inevitable conflict over slavery.

The Compromise of 1850

The controversy about whether enslavement 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.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

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

Importation of Enslaved People Outlawed by an 1807 Act of Congress

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 enslaved people after a certain amount of years had passed. At the earliest opportunity, Congress did outlaw the importation of enslaved people.

Classic Slave Narratives

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

Newly Discovered Slave Narratives

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.