The Dred Scott Case
On March 6, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Scott v. Sanford–a victory to supporters of slavery; it also fueled the fires of northern abolitionists.
During the 1830s, the owner of a slave named Dred Scott had taken him from Missouri—a slave state–to the Wisconsin territory and Illinois, where slavery was against the law, according to the Missouri Compromise. Once returned to Missouri, Scot sued for his freedom on the idea that since he’d been taken to a free state he was now free.
The case went to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and the majority eventually ruled that Scott was a slave and not a citizen, and thus had no legal rights to sue.
The verdict, in effect, declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, ruling that all territories were open to slavery and could exclude it only when they became states.
The South rejoiced; antislavery northerners were furious.
John Brown’s Raid
John Brown was a restless man; he struggled throughout life trying to support his family, moving from place to place in an effort to do so. He had assisted the Underground Railroad in Missouri, and fought in battles between pro– and anti–slavery forces in Kansas in the 1850s. Still, he was anxious to strike a more extreme blow for the cause.
During the night of October 16, 1859, John Brown led less than 50 men in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Brown wanted to obtain enough ammunition to lead a larger operation against Virginia’s slaveholders. Brown’s men, including several blacks, captured and held the arsenal until federal and state governments sent troops and were able to overpower them.
John Brown was tried for his crimes;; his trial riveted the nation, and he emerged as an eloquent voice against the injustice of slavery and a martyr to the abolitionist cause.
John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859
Civil War and Emancipation
In the spring of 1861, the bitter sectional conflicts between the North and South erupted into civil war; eleven southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America.
President Abraham Lincoln, although vocally anti-slavery, whose mere election as America’s first Republican President was the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused the south to secede, did not want the Civil War to be seen as a war to abolish slavery. Lincoln simply wanted to preserve the Union; and he knew that few people even in the North would have supported a war against slavery in 1861.
In the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln had come to believe he could not avoid the slavery question much longer.
After the bloody Union victory at Antietam in September, he issued a preliminary emancipation proclamation, and then, on January 1, 1863, he made it official that “slaves within any State, or designated part of a State in rebellion, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
Lincoln justified his decision as a wartime measure. He did not free the slaves in the border states loyal to the Union, an omission that angered many abolitionists. But, by freeing 3 million black slaves in the rebel states, the Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labor forces and put international public opinion strongly on the Union side.
Some 186,000 black soldiers–nearly all of them former, or runaway, slaves–would join the Union Army by the time the war ended in 1865, and 38,000 lost their lives.
The Post–Slavery South
Though the Civil War gave over 4 million slaves their freedom, significant challenges awaited during the Reconstruction period.
The 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery in 1865, but the status of freed slaves in the south was in flux. White southerners eventually reestablished civil authority, and enacted a series of laws known as the “black codes,” designed to restrict freed blacks’ activity and ensure their availability as a labor force.
Impatient with the leniency shown former Confederate states by Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s assassination, so–called Radical Republicans in Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867. This essentially put the South under martial law, and the following year the 14th Amendment broadened the definition of citizenship, granting “equal protection” of the Constitution to former slaves.
Congress required southern states to ratify the 14th Amendment and enact universal male suffrage before they could rejoin the Union, and the state constitutions during those years were the most progressive in the region’s history.
In 1870, the 15th Amendment guaranteed a citizen’s right to vote would not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” During Reconstruction, blacks won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress.
The growing influence of former slaves angered many white southerners, who felt control slipping away. The white protective societies that arose during this period—the largest of which was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—sought to disenfranchise blacks by using voter fraud, intimidation and, finally, violence .
By 1877, when the last federal soldiers left the South and Reconstruction drew to a close, blacks were left with little improvement in their economic and social status; the political gains they had made oftentimes eradicated by white supremacist forces.