Slavery and the Making of AmericaDramatic re-enactment of a slave in uniform
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Legal Rights & Gov't
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight You be the Judge Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Legal Rights & Gov't
Legal Rights and Government
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Rendition of the painting Black Regiment in the Revolutionary War
Black Regiment in the Revolutionary War. Rhode Island Black Heritage Society.
While objections to the legal subjugation of blacks existed before, it was not until the Revolutionary War, when the great paradox of slavery's prominence in a nation fighting for its freedom emerged, that opposition to slavery transformed into wide-spread, impassioned action. For generations of blacks, the American Revolution was an opportunity to fight for their own independence. From 1773 to 1774 Massachusetts slaves, using the rhetoric of liberty and natural rights, presented petitions for freedom to colonial authorities. A few years later, with both Loyalists and Patriots offering freedom in return for service, thousands of slaves took up arms. The Revolution also inspired the formation of antislavery groups, the black and white members of which argued that slavery was incompatible with Christian ideas and the values of an independent America. By the end of the 1790s almost every Northern state had enacted provisions for gradual emancipation, which phased in the abolition of slavery by freeing all blacks after performing a certain amount of service or after reaching a specified age.

Even as enslaved African Americans made progress toward freedom and equal rights, they experienced setbacks in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Under gradual emancipation in the North many blacks were forced into long periods of indenture or servitude. Meanwhile a steadily growing black population in the North contributed to white anxiety and intensified racial animosities. Race riots broke out in U.S. cities, and in many areas where slavery had been abolished, governments were passing new discriminatory laws and reviving old ones. During the 1820s and 1830s the Northern states were eliminating white men's property qualifications for voting and for holding political office, yet simultaneously they were also enacting provisions outlawing black male suffrage. Like their Southern counterparts, Northern blacks continued to face curfew and travel restrictions. They were forbidden from participating in the militia and they could not sit on juries.

As increasing numbers of people flooded westward during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, new states including Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa expressly prohibited black emigration, while Ohio passed "black laws" to curtail the rash of fugitive slaves entering its borders in search of freedom. The Ohio laws, first passed in 1804, required all blacks and mulattoes residing in the state to register themselves and their children with the county clerk's office and to provide proof of their free status. Registered slaves were required to pay the office for a certificate confirming freedom. Employers were forbidden by law to hire any non-certificate-holding black or mulatto.

Rendition of Selling a Freedman
Selling a Freedman, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
Living in a free state did not guarantee freedom for blacks. Free blacks could be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Escaped slaves were forced back into captivity by increasingly stringent fugitive slave laws. Despite the fact that many Northern states passed personal liberty laws to protect their black populations, the heterogeneity of laws among the states and the conflicting laws of state and federal governments, created a situation of inconsistency and confusion. In this atmosphere, the outcomes of court cases regarding the free or slave status of black men and women were unpredictable.
When a slave named Dred Scott went before the Supreme Court in the 1850s, a significant ruling affirmed the sovereignty of slaveholders in America. Scott argued that his residence with his master in the free territories of Wisconsin and Illinois entitled him to freedom. The Court said differently. Its 1857 decision on DRED SCOTT v. SANFORD declared that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories. More importantly, it pronounced that blacks were not citizens and therefore were not guaranteed rights under the U.S. Constitution.

Portrait of Dred Scott
Portrait of Dred Scott. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
Just four years after Dred Scott, the Southern states of America seceded from the Union and the Civil War began. Although it did not begin as a war over slavery or a quest for black citizenship, eventually that is what it became. With the war still raging, President Lincoln issued the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in rebel states. When the fighting ended in 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution called for the abolition of slavery throughout the nation.

With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, blacks were declared citizens before the law and black males received the right to vote. Other laws gave African Americans rights previously denied them: the right to sit on juries and testify in court, the right to have their accounts recognized and upheld by laws, and the right to hold office. Former slaves embraced their newly won freedom and citizenship. During the years of Reconstruction (1865-1877) blacks were actively committed to strengthening their political involvement as voters, activists, and elected officials. Almost 800 blacks served in state legislatures and in every Southern state blacks served in local offices in the decade following the war.

Despite these important gains, blacks in the South faced menacing threats intended to undermine their efforts to become powerful and autonomous within their society. The fourteenth and fifteenth amendments guaranteed black rights, but they did nothing to enforce them. The climate of violence and intimidation in the South spurred the federal government to pass Civil Rights Bills in the 1860s and 1870s. But a compromise over the presidential election in 1877 removed all remaining Union troops from the South. This act literally left African Americans unprotected. But it also symbolized the government's change of heart regarding black citizenship. In 1888, Tennessee passed the first "Jim Crow" laws in the U.S. Other states followed suit, legalizing segregation. The true impact of the 14th Amendment would not be felt until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Kimberly Sambol-Tosco is a graduate student in History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation will explore the centrality of gender in African-American political identities in the North during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
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