Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Road to the Abolition of Slavery

Constitution Study, March 31, 2011

The Road To The Abolition of Slavery

Slavery was a huge issue during the time the U.S. Constitution was written. The word "slavery" actually never appeared in the U.S. Constitution until the addition of the 13th Amendment. It is possible that the Founding Fathers avoided using the word "slavery" because they recognized the contradiction of the idea that "all men are created equal," while many of those same men were also slaveholders. One thing is for sure, the Constitution is filled with many compromises primary because the slave states to the south were needed in order to ratify the Constitution.

There were many at the Constitutional Convention that wanted the new federal government to have the power to abolish slavery immediately, or for the United States to become a nation without the defiant slave states to the south. Instead, the necessary compromises were made, while making sure that neither the free states, or the slave states, had too much power in government.

One of the compromises is found in Article I, Section 9, where it is provided that in 1808 the Congress may pass legislation to prohibit the Atlantic slave trade. True to the Constitution, on January 1, 1808, legislation was passed to do just that. The importation of slaves from other countries was banned, but the selling of slaves within our borders continued.

The northern states had all abolished slavery by 1804, beginning with Rhode Island in 1774, and ending with New Jersey in 1804. By 1820, the worry was that if the free states were to begin to outnumber the slave states, they would use their power to overpower the slave states, and vice versa.

Missouri Compromise of 1820

Population differences produced a disparity in House seats, despite the three-fifths ratio. As long as the number of slave states equaled the number of free states, the Senate would not be lost. The Missouri Compromise would help keep the number even, they figured. Missouri would be added as a slave state, but in the future no slave state could be added north of the parallel 36°30' (the southern boundary of Missouri).

The Fugitive Slave Act 0f 1850

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution called for escaped slaves to be returned to their owners, even in the event that the slave escaped to a non-slave state. The northern states, however, were not abiding by this clause, so the southern states appealed to the federal government to ensure that the northern states follow the Constitution. In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Its main provision was that any federal marshal who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1,000. A person suspected of being a runaway slave could be arrested and turned over to any person who gave sworn testimony of ownership. A suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial nor testify on his or her own behalf. Any person who aided a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance would be sentenced to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a fee, and this encouraged some officers to kidnap free African Americans and sell them to slaveowners.

Northern States failed to abide by this law, and the federal government failed to enforce it.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

In 1854, Stephen Douglas introduced his Kansas-Nebraska bill to the Senate. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The Act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´. Southerners entered the area with their slaves, while active members of the Antislavery Society also arrived. Henry Ward Beecher condemned the bill from his pulpit and helped to raise funds to supply weapons to those willing to oppose slavery in these territories.

Kansas elected its first legislature in March, 1855. Although less than 2,000 people were qualified to take part in these elections, over 6,000 people voted—mainly Missouri slave-owners who crossed the border to make sure pro-slavery candidates were elected. The new legislature passed laws that imposed the death penalty for anyone helping a slave to escape and two years in jail for possessing abolitionist literature. In 1856, Abraham Lincoln joined the Republican Party and unsuccessfully challenged Stephen Douglas for his seat in the Senate.

In 1858 when he made a speech at Quincy, Illinois. Lincoln argued: "We have in this nation the element of domestic slavery. The Republican Party think it wrong—we think it is a moral, a social, and a political wrong…that affects the existence of the whole nation."

Dred Scott

John Emerson was an Army Doctor that traveled from army base to army base. His slave, Dred Scott, followed him to these army bases in both slave states and free territory. Dr. Emerson died in 1843, at which time the Dred Scott and his wife became the property of his widow Irene Emerson. And in 1846, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit against Irene Emerson in the courthouse in St. Louis, claiming he was a free man by virtue of the fact that Dr. Emerson had, for extended periods of time, taken him to parts of the country where slavery was outlawed.

When Dred Scott originally filed his lawsuit asking for his freedom, due to the fact that many other similar lawsuits had been filed before, Scott and his lawyer were convinced that Dred Scott would win his case. In 1850 the judge ruled that Scott was free and that Mrs. Emerson even owed him the money she had received from "leasing him out."

However, Irene Emerson appealed the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Two years later, in 1852, the Missouri high court struck down the lower court ruling -- deciding, in effect, that Scott was still a slave and that it didn't matter that he had been taken into free territory.

Another group of attorneys came forward and decided to continue fighting on behalf of Dred Scott. Irene Emerson then transferred her ownership of Dred Scott to her brother, a New Yorker named John Sanford. Since the case now involved people from two different states, it shifted from the Missouri state court to U.S. federal court.

In 1856 the Supreme Court heard the case and rendered its decision in March 1857. The court ruled that Dred Scott was still a slave, that any person descended from black Africans, whether slave or free, could not be a citizen of the United States, and it also ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional.

This verdict affected a lot more people than Dred Scott. It effectively meant that the series of compromises that had been worked out over the previous generation regarding the issue of slavery were no more. Southern slaveholders could take their slaves wherever they wanted, and they could take legal action to have runaway slaves from years past returned to them. Most importantly, it opened up the entire American west to slavery.

The American People, primarily in the north, were opposed to the verdict in the Dred Scott case. The issue became a key factor in the 1860 presidential election.

After the Dred Scott case finally concluded, Taylor Blow stepped forward and purchased Scott, his wife and his two daughters from John Sanford. He then took the legal steps to set them free.


Special Thanks to: Faith Armory, 27498 Enterprise Cir. W #2, Temecula, CA 92562; 951-699-7500, - For providing us with a classroom to meet in.

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