No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.
- Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution
After the American Revolution, the movement to abolish slavery gained momentum in the North. In the South, though, where the black majority lived, slave owners re-asserted their rights. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, southerners forced several compromises that laid the foundation for a new nation: a nation which espoused liberty, but practiced bondage.
Pro-slavery petitions in Virginia
Am I Not a Man and Brother?
Although the word "slavery" does not appear in the Constitution, Georgia and South Carolina delegates insisted that a proportion of their slave population be factored in to determine representation in Congress. The Fugitive Slave Clause affirmed the rights of slaveholders to reclaim runaways. And southerners won a constitutional guarantee that the slave trade, which had resumed after the war, could continue unabated for the next 20 years.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793
In 1780, Massachusetts approved a new constitution, which borrowed from the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Rights, stating that "all men are born free and equal." Relying upon this language, Elizabeth Freeman and Quock Walker successfully sued for emancipation.
The Quock Walker case
...we can imagine this woman, this slave woman, reading a constitution and saying, "Well, if everybody is created equal, then that includes me, too," and challenging the state government on this issue
- Margaret Washington, historian
In 1780 Paul Cuffe, a free black businessman in Boston, pushed for voting rights by requesting that he and his brother be excused from paying taxes, because they had "no voice or influence in the election of those who tax us."
By 1790, more than 59,000 African Americans lived free. Venture Smith and his family had settled into modest prosperity in Haddam, Connecticut, where he helped build the church where he was later buried. Benjamin Banneker distinguished himself as a scientist, almanac writer, and surveyor of the nation's new capital.
Banneker's letter to Jefferson
Jefferson's reply to Banneker
The Boston Plan
A Memorial to the South Carolina Senate
I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you, to need a proof here, that we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; that we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt; and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments
- Benjamin Banneker, writing to Thomas Jefferson
Free blacks' status and social standing varied by region. Most everywhere, though, they were from excluded from public schools, denied the right to vote, and faced racism and legal discrimination. Their hold on freedom was so vulnerable that some considered emigrating to Africa.
In spite of inequality and hardship, free African Americans were in most cases far better off than their 800,000 brethren who lived in bondage. By 1810 the free black population had swelled to 186.446, but slavery too, continued to flourish and spread westward with the growing new nation.
Part 2 Narrative:
Map: The Revolutionary Era
Freedom and Bondage in the Colonial Era
Slavery and Religion
Declarations of Independence
The Revolutionary War
The Constitution and The New Nation
Part 2: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
Africans in America: Home | Resource Bank Index | Search | Shop
WGBH | PBS Online | ©