Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Liberty, Slavery, and the Civil War

By Richard Newman, Rochester Institute of Technology

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"Freedom to the Slave." Historical Society of Pennsylvania Print Collection (Collection V89), Box.FF 20.2.

Well before the outbreak of sectional fighting in 1861, Americans clashed over the meanings of liberty and slavery. In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, nearly every northern state in the new American Union passed, or at least debated, a gradual abolition law, putting slavery on the path to extinction above the Mason-Dixon line. But American masters secured the first federal fugitive slave law in 1793 and, soon after that, the right to bring slave property into the new states of Kentucky and Tennessee. During the first half of the nineteenth century, as slavery expanded both demographically and geographically in the South and Southwest and a newly aggressive brand of abolitionism emerged above the Mason-Dixon line, debates over liberty and slavery became enmeshed in almost every part of American social and political life. By the 1850s, when a new and more intense round of sectional debate emerged, many Americans wondered if they could see past diverging understandings of liberty and slavery, or if sectional discord would finally lead to disunion and war. "While this nation is guilty of the enslavement of three millions of innocent men and women," the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass told a Rochester audience in December of 1850, "it is as idle to think of having a sound and lasting peace, as it is to think there is no God to take cognizance of the affairs of men." That same year, a band of radical proslavery delegates in Nashville urged Southerners to protect bondage at all costs, even if that meant secession. A decade later, angry words turned to bloody battles. Unsurprisingly, liberty and slavery remained a key part of Civil War America.

Although slavery's territorial expansion proved to be one of the most divisive sectional issues during the 1850s, the recovery of fugitive slaves in the North also sparked intense debate and even violence between pro- and antislavery forces. In the wake of Lincoln's election, several seceding states cited the problem of recovering fugitive slaves as a justification for leaving the Union. After decades of trouble in the North, Southern masters pushed for a stronger fugitive slave law. The Compromise of 1850, which also admitted California as a free state, delivered just that, threatening Northern citizens with stronger fines and even jail time if they did not help recover runaways.

While many fugitives were recovered, enslaved people continued to seek freedom. Drawing on a tradition of flight dating to the eighteenth century, enslaved African Americans fled to New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Massachusetts. Thousands of runaway slaves also settled in British Canada (present-day Ontario), which banned bondage. Few understood enslaved peoples' struggle for liberty better than William Still, a free black activist in Philadelphia who aided roughly nine hundred fugitive slaves before the Civil War. He began keeping a journal of heroic escape tales in the 1850s and eventually published these gripping stories in The Underground Railroad (1872).

Slaveholders fumed at even nominal Northern support for fugitive slaves. As South Carolina's secession convention put it in December of 1860, Northerners had long "encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes," thoroughly justifying Southern disunion. By then, some Southerners also believed that their Northern neighbors promoted slave rebellion. Though fueled by years of concern about slave revolt, John Brown's failed raid on Harpers Ferry (a federal arsenal in Western Virginia) in October 1859 ignited a new round of vigilance. For proslavery men throughout the South, Brown represented an aggressive form of abolitionism that threatened to infiltrate the federal government. Believing that the Founder's Union enshrined property rights in man, slaveholders argued that American definitions of liberty inherently sanctioned slaveholding. As South Carolinian Thomas Drayton wrote his Pennsylvania brother Percy in April 1861, Southerners were horrified that abolitionists had "made merit of John Brown's murderous invasion"; they were equally disturbed that Northerners had "the avowed object of abolishing slavery throughout the southern states."

Although many Northerners repudiated him—as well as Southern emancipation—Brown's martyrdom galvanized abolitionists. In New England, Thoreau and Emerson hailed Brown as a hero. The Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society issued a resolution supporting Brown's antislavery ideals, while black poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper celebrated Brown in print. As the "Declaration of Liberty" (transcribed by his son Owen) indicated, Brown believed that slave uprising was justified by the Declaration of Independence. He also heralded "equality" as a natural right, regardless of race. For these reasons and more, Brown was honored by generations of black activists as freedom fighter.

Brown's raid did not lead to the Civil War, but it did help to fuel sectional discord. In the election of 1860, for instance, slaveholders and their Northern allies stigmatized Abraham Lincoln as the leader of the "Black Republican Party," an insurgent band of abolitionists maniacally focused on black emancipation and equality. While Republicans vowed only to end slavery's western expansion, the name stuck below the Mason-Dixon line; Lincoln was not even on the ballot in most Southern states. By April 17, 1861, when Thomas Drayton told his brother that Northerners and Southerners could no longer coexist, eleven states voted to leave the Union. From Louisiana to South Carolina, seceding Southern states highlighted slavery's protection as a rationale for disunion.

Ironically, slaveholders' bid for liberty led to the most pressing attack on slavery since the passage of northern abolition laws in the postrevolutionary era. Of course, Lincoln's rallying cry at the start of the war was preservation of the Union, not abolitionism. Nevertheless, the specter of black liberty hovered over both military and political events. Black and white abolitionists advocated wartime abolitionism before 1863, while thousands of enslaved blacks fled to Union lines. In 1861, the black press cheered mini–emancipation proclamations by Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe in Virginia and John Fremont in Missouri (the latter act was rescinded by Lincoln). Though Lincoln and his cabinet—knowing that many white Northerners initially opposed war for abolition—remained wary of mass emancipation edicts, they began to entertain abolitionism as a war aim. Even before Lincoln unveiled the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, both Congress and the Union army had sanctioned confiscation of Confederate slave property as a legitimate military tactic.

With the Union's fortunes flagging (particularly in the East), Lincoln came to see emancipation as a transformative wartime policy. Although it did not impact loyal slave states (Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky) or certain conquered sections of the South, the final Emancipation Proclamation liberated enslaved people throughout the Confederacy. It also promised to incorporate blacks into the Union army. By 1865, nearly 200,000 blacks, the majority of whom were former slaves, had joined Union forces. Camp William Penn, located outside of Philadelphia, welcomed over ten thousand African American soldiers. Organized under the banner of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), black soldiers at Camp William Penn served in eleven regiments and fought battles in Virginia, Florida, and many other Confederate locales. As white officer N. H. Edgerton's 1864 testimonial illustrates, black soldiers fought bravely. Indeed, though seeking his own promotion, Edgerton touted black military "worth"—no small matter when antiwar Democrats sought to return to the "Union as it Was" (that is, a Union that protected slavery) in the election of 1864.

As Edgerton knew, the meaning of black liberty was still being negotiated. Though they faced a variety of military hazards (especially threats of enslavement by Confederate troops), black soldiers did not initially receive equal pay. Only after blacks protested did the federal government require equal pay in June 1864. Beyond the military sphere, Union cities from Washington to New York debated the nature of black civic equality. In Philadelphia, distinguished white citizens like Horace Binney and David Brown joined African American leaders to oppose segregated streetcars. But public discrimination on transportation facilities would not end there until 1867, when William Still galvanized support for a new city ordinance banning streetcar segregation.

Even after the Civil War ended, battles over black liberty continued in the victorious North no less than the conquered Confederate South. Despite the passage of constitutional amendments ending slavery nationally (the Thirteenth), instituting racial equality (the Fourteenth), and granting black male voting rights (the Fifteenth), black freedom was routinely contested. In parts of the Reconstruction South, African Americans secured voting rights and political power—only to face new rounds of intimidation, violence, and political disfranchisement during the 1870s and 1880s. In the North, African Americans pushed for civic and educational equality—only to face virulent, and eventually violent, opposition. The saga of Octavius Catto, a longtime black activist in Philadelphia who was gunned down during a local election in October 1871, reminded racial reformers that a new birth of freedom left much to be desired. Born in South Carolina and raised in Pennsylvania, Catto lived to see liberty triumph over slavery during the Civil War. But he could not conquer the vestiges of bondage still circulating in American society.

Richard S. Newman is a professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of numerous books on African American history and abolitionism, including The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic (2002) and Freedom's Prophet: Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (2008).