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1619 The first Africans arrive in Virginia. They appear to have been indentured servants, but the institution of hereditary lifetime service for blacks soon develops. The vast majority of slaves will be transported from Africa to the West Indies.

1660's The practice of slavery becomes a legally recognized institution in British America. Colonial assemblies begin to enact laws known as slave codes, which restrict the liberty of slaves and protect the institution of slavery.

1776 The Declaration of Independence declares that "All men are created equal." In spite of that, slavery remains a legal institution in all thirteen of the newly-established states.


Vermont amends its constitution to ban slavery. Over the next 25 years, other Northern states emancipate their slaves and ban the institution: Pennsylvania, 1780; Massachusetts and New Hampshire, 1783; Connecticut and Rhode Island, 1784; New York, 1799; and New Jersey, 1804. Some of the state laws stipulate gradual emancipation.


The Northwest Ordinance bans slavery in the Northwest Territory (what becomes the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin). The ordinance together with state emancipation laws create a free North.


Drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788, the United States Constitution does not directly mention the institution of slavery, but it addresses it indirectly in three places:

  • It grants Congress the authority to prohibit the importation of slaves after twenty years.

  • The "three-fifths" clause in Article I settles the debate over whether or not to count slaves for determining taxation and representation. For those purposes, all free persons in the districts, including indentured servants, are counted. To that total is added the number of "three fifths of all other persons"—i.e., slaves.

  • Article IV, Section 2 required that a "person held to service or labor" in one state, who escapes to another state, "shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor shall be due." Enforcement of the clause is not specified (see next paragraph).


To enforce Article IV, Section 2, the U.S. Congress enacts the Fugitive Slave Law. It allows slaveowners to cross state lines to recapture their slaves. They must then prove ownership in a court of law. In reaction, some Northern states pass personal liberty laws, granting the alleged fugitive slaves the rights to habeas corpus, jury trials, and testimony on their own behalf. These Northern state legislatures also pass anti-kidnapping laws to punish slave-catchers who kidnap free blacks, instead of fugitive slaves.


In 1807 Congress bans the importation of slaves, effective January 1, 1808, the earliest date allowed by the Constitution. The internal slave trade continues in states where the institution is legal.


In the Missouri Compromise, Congress admits the slave state of Missouri and the free state of Maine into the Union, and bans slavery north of the 36° 30' line of latitude in the Louisiana Territory. 


In Boston, William Lloyd Garrison founds the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, signaling a dramatic shift in the antislavery movement. In the previous decades, it had centered in the South and favored a combination of compensated emancipation and colonization of freed slaves back to Africa. In the 1830s, the abolitionist movement becomes the dominant voice among antislavery advocates. Abolitionists demand the immediate end to slavery, which they consider to be a moral evil, without compensation to slaveowners. In 1833 Garrison joins Arthur and Lewis Tappan to establish the American Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist organization.


Nat Turner, a literate slave who believes he is chosen to be the Moses of his people, instigates a slave revolt in Virginia. He and his followers kill 57 whites, but the revolt is unsuccessful and up to 200 slaves are killed. After an intense debate, the Virginia legislature narrowly rejects a bill to emancipate Virginia’s slaves. The widespread fear of slave revolts, compounded by the rise of abolitionism, leads legislatures across the South to increase the harshness of their slave codes. Also, expressions of anti-slavery sentiment are suppressed throughout the South through state and private censorship.


In Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, stating that slaveowners have a right to retrieve their "property." In so doing, the court rules that Pennsylvania’s anti-kidnapping law is unconstitutional. At the same time, the Supreme Court declares that enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law is a federal responsibility in which states are not compelled to participate. Between 1842 and 1850, nine Northern states pass new personal liberty laws which forbid state officials from cooperating in the return of alleged fugitive slaves and bar the use of state facilities for that purpose.


The Compromise of 1850 is introduced into Congress by Henry Clay as an omnibus bill designed to settle disputes arising from the conclusion of the Mexican War. It passes after Stephen Douglas divides the bill into several parts: California enters the Union as a free state; the slave trade (but not slavery) is abolished in Washington D.C.; the fugitive slave law is strengthened; and the Utah and New Mexico Territories are opened to slavery on the basis of popular sovereignty (allowing territorial voters to decide the issue without federal interference).


Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published. The novel depicts slavery as a horrible evil, but treats white Southerners sympathetically. The villain of the piece is the cruel slave-overseer, Simon Legree, a transplanted New Englander. The book is banned in the South, while Northerners make it a bestseller.


The U.S. ministers to Britain, France, and Spain meet in Ostend, Belgium. They draft a policy recommendation to President Pierce, urging him to attempt again to purchase Cuba from Spain and, if Spain refuses, to take the island by force. When the secret proposal—called the Ostend Manifesto—is leaked to the press, it creates an uproar since Cuba would likely become another slave state.


In an attempt to spur population growth in the western territories in advance of a transcontinental railroad, Stephen Douglas introduces a bill to establish the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. In order to gain Southern support, the bill stipulates that slavery in the territories will be decided by popular sovereignty. Thus the Kansas-Nebraska Act repeals the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36° 30' in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. 


A miniature civil war—known as Bleeding Kansas—erupts in the Kansas Territory over the issue of slavery. In May 1856 a proslavery group attacks the free-soil town of Lawrence, destroying and stealing property. In response to the "sack of Lawrence," radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers attack a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five men. By the end of 1856, nearly 200 Kansans have been killed and property worth $2 million has been damaged or destroyed.


Senator Charles Sumner delivers a stinging speech in the U.S. Senate, "The Crime against Kansas," in which he attacks slavery, the South, and singles out his Senate colleague, Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for criticism. In retaliation, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, attacks Sumner with a cane while the Massachusetts senator is seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate. The injuries he sustains cause Sumner to be absent from the Senate for four years.


The U.S. Supreme Court decides the Dred Scott case. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney rules that Scott is still a slave with no standing to sue; that black Americans (slave or free) are not citizens and do not have civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution; and that neither the territorial government nor the federal government can ban slavery in the territories, thus making the (now-defunct) Northwest Ordinance and Missouri Compromise bans unconstitutional.


The rivalry in the Kansas Territory between pro- and anti-slavery factions results in the establishment of two territorial legislatures, each claiming legitimacy. The pro-slavery legislature at Lecompton drafts a constitution to make Kansas a slave state. Anti-slavery forces boycott the popular referendum on the constitution, which passes and is sent to Congress. Senator Stephen Douglas considers the Lecompton Constitution a perversion of popular sovereignty, but President James Buchanan endorses it. Congress sends the Lecompton Constitution back to Kansas for another referendum. This time, it is defeated overwhelmingly.


Illinois Republicans nominate Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. Senate. In accepting, Lincoln delivers his "House Divided" speech in which he asserts that the nation can not endure permanently half-slave and half-free. Incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas agrees to an unprecedented series of debates held in towns across the state. Although the Democrats win control of the state legislature and reelect Douglas, Lincoln gains notoriety and becomes a contender for the 1860 presidential nomination.


John Brown, the radical abolitionist and veteran of "Bleeding Kansas," fails in his attempt to capture the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) and to use the weapons to foment a slave rebellion. Brown and his co-conspirators are hanged, becoming martyrs to the anti-slavery cause in the eyes of some abolitionists. See related illustration.

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