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Slavery and the Making of AmericaPicture of the first black U.S. Senator and representatives
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Freedom & Emancipation
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Imagining Freedom Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Freedom & Emancipation
Freedom & Emancipation
By: Nicholas Boston and Jennifer Hallam


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Objections to slavery existed in the early colonial period. But opposition to slavery did not develop into an organized effort until the age of the Revolutionary War. As colonists demanded the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they were forced to question and come to terms with the hypocrisy of slaveholding in their emergent free nation. Slaves also recognized the paradox of living in a country busy promoting fundamental rights while simultaneously holding blacks in bondage. Many of them used this moment of uncertainty to secure freedom. When the British forces called upon slaves to join their ranks and promised them freedom in return, black men enlisted. When the Colonial army made the same offer, black men joined their lines as well. Others, men and women, petitioned the courts for freedom, making their arguments on the same philosophical grounds that the patriots used to validate the war.

Photo of the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence. Library of Congress, George Washington Papers.
The Declaration of Independence not only declared the colonies free of Britain, but it also helped to inspire Vermont to abolish slavery in its 1777 state constitution. By 1804, all Northern states had voted to abolish the institution of slavery within their borders. In most of these states, however, abolition was not immediate. Instead, gradual emancipation laws set deadlines by which all slaves would be freed, releasing individuals as they reached a certain age or the end of a certain work period. This situation left some African Americans lingering in bonded servitude. Pennsylvania passed its Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780. Yet, as late as 1850, the federal census recorded that there were still hundreds of young blacks in Pennsylvania, who would remain enslaved until their 28th birthdays.

As they were emancipated in the first half of the nineteenth century, African Americans in the Northern states began to shape their lives as free people. They changed the names that had been given to them as slaves, they sought out educational opportunities, they founded institutions to provide for their spiritual and physical needs, and they formed communities that provided social support as well as the
Photograph of an Anti-Slavery Convention in Cazenovia, New York
Cazenovia, New York, Anti-Slavery Convention. Madison County Historical Society, Oneida, New York.
opportunity for cultural growth. Moreover, many of these African Americans joined or established societies dedicated to freeing those blacks that remained enslaved in other parts of the country. Although the abolitionists, both black and white, were not directly responsible for ending the U.S. system of slavery, their support of the Underground Railroad helped thousands to escape to freedom and their vociferousness helped to define Northern attitudes toward slavery.

The clash between abolitionists in the North and slaveholders in the South was a contributing factor in the outbreak of the Civil War. Nevertheless, when fighting broke, President Lincoln insisted that the war's sole purpose was the preservation of the Union. In the early years of the war, Lincoln's actions with regard to slaves were motivated by military strategy and necessity.
Photograph of Company E, the fourth U.S. Colored Infantry
Company E, fourth U.S. Colored Infantry. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Civil War Photographs.
In August 1861 he accepted the First Confiscation Act passed by Congress, which declared that slaves escaping to union lines would be considered contraband. Before the passage of this act, Union leaders had turned away blacks seeking to enlist and returned escapees seeking protection in the North to their Southern masters. Legally defined as contraband, and therefore subject to capture, thousands of slaves fleeing the South could now be put in the service of the Union army. The Second Confiscation Act, passed shortly after the first, gave the president the authority to recruit black men for the Union army. Although freedom was given to those who fought, it was considered a reward, not an intrinsic right.

In 1863, the nature of the Civil War shifted. On January 1st of that year, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the Confederate states. The Proclamation applied neither to slaveholding border states that had remained loyal to the Union (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) nor to rebel states subdued by Union forces prior to its issuance. Nonetheless, its significance was profound. With the Emancipation Proclamation, the struggle between North and South transformed into a war to end slavery. Concurrent with the war's end in 1865, the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Slavery was declared illegal in every part of the newly restored Union. African-Americans across the nation were free.

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