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When was slavery abolished in the US?

Men with slaves panning for gold in river
Men with slaves panning for gold in river

Slavery is probably the biggest blot on the history of the United States. Luckily it did stop and all slaves were released.

When did slavery end and when was slavery abolished?

Slavery was officially abolished by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

However, the answer is not so clear. Read on to find out the different stages of the end of slavery in the United States.

End Of Slavery In The US

In the early years of colonial America from 1526 until the later passing of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery was a part of America’s makeup.

Practiced even among the 13 Colonies, slavery, under law, was ownership of another person. Slaves were treated as a person’s property, no different from a horse or chattel, and could be bought and sold on a whim.

We can see that even the first Presidents owned slaves.

However, as the country progressed further, many spoke about the abolition of slavery, including President Abraham Lincoln. Particularly during the abolitionist movement, the sentiment surrounding slavery became increasingly ill-received until, in 1861, the American Civil War began. This was the start of when slavery was abolished in the US.

The Abolitionist Movement

A movement built around ending slavery in America, the abolitionist movement existed as a surprisingly early part of American history. For example, Benjamin Franklin, a slaveowner, became one of the leading members of “Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery for much of his life.” This showed just how deep the movement existed throughout the country.

$100 Bill
$100 bill showing Benjamin Franklin.

Immediately following the Revolutionary War, many Northern states had already begun abolishing slavery. By the early 1800s, slavery was abolished throughout the North, with it only being pervasive in the South.

Abolition of Slavery In The South

While the North had over 15,000 abolitionists by 1840, the South had less understanding of the Black man’s plight. Abolitionism was considered illegal, and any publications on the subject matter could not be sent to Southern post offices.

Any form of ending slavery in the South was treated with extreme hostility, often with prison sentencing or public whippings.

Many Southerners argued that abolitionists and anti-slavery rhetoric were inhibiting them as people, stating that slavery was not only necessary for the country but actively beneficial for society.

The Start Of The American Civil War

Many of America’s beliefs surrounding freedom and independence were at odds with the idea of slavery. Citizens in the North found it increasingly difficult to justify slavery still active throughout the country. This was further exacerbated by the South’s ever-increasing expansion of territory.

Fearing their continual growth (and their economic and political power due to the Constitution’s “Three-fifths Compromise”), the North sought to contain and eventually abolish slavery in the South.

This was considered an infringement of the southern states’ constitutional freedoms, arguing that ending slavery was an overstep of the federal government that would economically destroy them.

President Lincoln wanted to end slavery

The issue surrounding slavery eventually reached a fever pitch after the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. As much of the conversation surrounding slavery had become more adversarial, and because Lincoln was regarded as standing ardently against slavery, many slaveholding states feared that his election would result in an attempt to abolish it entirely. Instead, his election resulted in several states moving to leave the country.

Abraham Lincoln
Things started to change with the election of Abraham Lincoln. He was an abolitionist who was staunch anti-slavery.

This began the start of the American Civil War.

The Confederate States Of America & The American Civil War

After Lincoln’s election, 11 of the 15 slaveholding states issued a “declaration of secession” from the US before establishing the Confederate States of America.

These states included: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Realizing that this would likely tear the country apart, Lincoln went to war, attempting to bring the confederate states back under the Union. Beginning on April 12th of 1861 and continuing out to May 9th, 1865, the Union and Confederate soldiers warred with each other.

In the middle of this war, the president signed into power the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Emancipation Proclamation

Issued in 1862, the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order that brought about the end of slavery. It was signed by the president that, as of January 1st of 1863, every slave would have the status of a free person throughout the country, whether in a free Union state or the Confederate states.

If any Confederate state were brought back into the Union, all enslaved men and women would be immediately regarded as free. Similarly, if any slave managed to escape a Confederate state and enter a Union state, they would also be given the status of a free man.

The Compensated Emancipation Act

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln and Congress signed several laws to incentivize the release of slaves while also attempting to demoralize the idea of owning slaves. These included the DC Compensated Emancipation Act and the Confiscation Act of 1861 and 1862.

Flag for the state of Columbia.

The D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act ended slavery in the District of Columbia. In addition, the act provided slave owners partial compensation for releasing their slaves. And while it never progressed outside of the D.C. area, it did set the tone for the rest of the country, as more and more states would eventually begin to abolish slavery.

The Confiscation Acts of 1861 & 1862

The Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862 worked somewhat similarly to the Compensated Emancipation Act, though also having some differences. The first act, coming a year before the Compensated Emancipation Act, authorized the “confiscation” of any slaves the Union soldiers came across.

The second act of 1862 stated that any Confederate soldier or civilian that did not surrender within 60 days would have their slaves freed through criminal proceedings. This only was applicable for any Union-occupied Confederate area. This did not apply to general Confederate states or Union states that still allowed slavery.

While Lincoln was wary of signing these into motion, afraid that they’d convince the border states to side with the Confederacy, these three acts were the foundation that ultimately led to the Emancipation Proclamation and later the 13th Amendment.

Slavery in The Border States

Interestingly, the Emancipation Proclamation did not affect border states like Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and Kentucky (all slave states that remained in the Union). The executive order was meant strictly for free states and any Confederate states brought back into the Union, border states were exempt.

As a result, it took varying amounts of time for each state to abolish slavery independently. As a result, many opted to only end slavery in 1864 or 1865, when the 13th Amendment was officially signed.

This was also true for Tennessee, as, despite it initially being a Confederate state, they had fallen back in line with the Union before the executive order took effect, essentially including them in the exemption.

When was slavery ended in D.C. and Union Territories

As with the Union-controlled states that agreed with slavery, any Union territory, such as portions of Virginia and Louisiana, were similarly exempted from immediately abolishing slavery. This resulted in slavery only ending in either state in 1864.

Arkansas, when taken, similarly abolished slavery in 1864, while the newly established West Virginia followed suit the following year.

Due to the Confederate states seceding from the US, Congress was almost entirely abolitionist. As a result, they were able to push bills with little resistance. An example is the abolishment of slavery in the District of Columbia.

State Holdouts on Abolition of Slavery

Almost every state had abolished slavery before the Civil War or after the Union Army’s defeat. But, there were a couple of holdouts. First, because both Kentucky and Delaware had never left the Union, they were exempt from the Emancipation rulings. Thus they were not required to abolish slavery in their respective states.

Kentucky, in particular, opposed much of the efforts to abolish slavery throughout the war, even outright rejecting the 13th Amendment until the late 1970s.

Delaware was only slightly better, as they agreed to ratify the 13th Amendment in 1901, almost 70 years before Kentucky.

Despite this being the case, because the Civil War inherently undermined slavery as an institution, slaves would constantly flee servitude to join the Union army or escape to any free states.

This became even more prevalent because these states were technically Union-controlled. In addition, fleeing from them was often much easier for slaves than the Confederate states due to continual Union soldiers traveling through the area.

When did slavery end in America?

Officially proclaimed and effective as of December 18th, 1865, the 13th Amendment completely abolished all slavery and involuntary servitude (except for criminal punishment).

13th Amendment

The Crafting Of The 13th Amendment

Seeing his Emancipation Proclamation as potentially reversed at a later time, Lincoln, as well as several other members of Congress, considered a constitutional amendment to be a more permanent solution. Several other Union lawmakers agreed with the sentiment. Accordingly, James Mitchell Ashley, James F. Wilson, and John B. Henderson pushed their proposals to amend the constitution.

Passing The 13th Amendment

As very few Southern states were represented due to the ongoing war, passing the amendment was considerably more straightforward than it could have been. In January of 1865, the amendment passed by 119 to 56, officially seeing it acknowledged as law.

Ratifying The 13th Amendment

Though it had been successfully passed, that wasn’t the end of the 13th Amendment. In addition, the amendment needed to be ratified by at least 27 of the existing 36 states at the time. This meant ex-Confederate states would similarly need to ratify the amendment. This was not a given.

From January to the end of February, 18 of the 36 states had moved to ratify, including Louisiana and Virginia, both previously slaveholder states. Later, Tennessee and Arkansas also ratified the amendment. Finally, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia agreed, giving the amendment its 27 states.

Eventually, all 36 states did agree to ratify the amendment, Delaware, Kentucky, and Mississippi all taking the longest, ratifying in 1901, 1976, and 1995 respectively.

The After Effects Of Slavery and The 13th Amendment

While the effects surrounding the implementation of the 13th Amendment (making slavery illegal) were immediately felt, there were additional effects.

The Full Effects Of The Emancipation Proclamation

After the 13th Amendment was signed and ratified, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation expanded to affect all states, regardless of their association with the once-Confederate states.

Delaware released almost 1,000 people, while Kentucky was forced to legally free between 65,000 and 100,000 people.

Nullifying The Three-Fifths Compromise & The Fugitive Slave Clause

The 13th Amendment also, by its very nature, resulted in both the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Clause being nullified.

The Three-Fifths Compromise was a constitutional provision that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining the appointment of seats in the House of Representatives. It also was used to determine how much the federal government would tax a state. This gave slaveholder states considerable political power both in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College.

The Fugitive Slave Clause was a clause added in 1789 which essentially forced a slave that fled their respective state, if caught, to return to said state. This was why, before the Emancipation Proclamation, many enslaved African Americans would escape to Canada, as even free states were forced to comply with this clause at the time.

The Realities Of The 13th Amendment

Despite the considerable good done by the 13th Amendment and its use to end slavery, many Southern states established workarounds that were virtually slavery in all but name.

Sharecropping and forced servitude from those with criminal offenses were commonplace. In addition, many state laws restricted Black land ownership and mandated Black children into indefinitely long “apprenticeships.” They even made it so that Blacks could only work on farms or as servants with almost no Constitutional rights.

As such, while many of these laws have been repealed today, it is important to note that, though many positives come with individual states’ rights, there are an equal number of dangers that can come from them as well.

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