A bloody civil war ends slavery in America
This article is excerpted from the book “Free At Last: The U.S. Civil Rights Movement”, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs. View the entire ebook (PDF, 3.6 MB).
The issue of slavery and the status of black Americans eroded relations between North and South from the first days of American independence until the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. Lincoln opposed slavery, calling it a “monstrous injustice,” but his primary concern was to maintain the Union. He thus was willing to accept slavery in those states where it already existed while prohibiting its further extension in the western territories. But white southerners considered Lincoln’s election a threat to their social order. Beginning with South Carolina in December 1860, 11 southern states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America.
For Lincoln and for millions of northerners, the Union was, as the historian James M. McPherson has written, “a bond among all of the American people, not a voluntary association of states that could be disbanded by action of any one or several of them.” As the president explained to his private secretary: “We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose.” Thus, as Lincoln made clear early in the war: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
But slavery drove the sectional conflict. As the brutal war wore on, many northerners grew more unwilling to abide slavery under any circumstances. Northern troops who came into firsthand contact with southern blacks often became more sympathetic to their plight. Lincoln also saw that freeing those slaves would strike at the Confederacy’s economic base and hence its ability to wage war. And once freed, the former slaves could take up arms for the Union cause, thus “earning” their freedom. For all these reasons, freeing the black slaves joined preserving the Union as a northern war aim.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective January 1, 1863, declared all slaves in the rebellious states “thenceforward, and forever free.” As he signed the document, Lincoln remarked that “I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper.”
The future African-American leader Booker T. Washington was about seven years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was read on his plantation. As he recalled in his 1901 memoir Up From Slavery:
As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. … Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a U.S. officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper — the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.
As a condition of regaining their congressional representation, the seceding states were obliged to ratify the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These “Reconstruction Amendments” abolished slavery, guaranteed equal protection of the law — including by the states — to all citizens, and barred voting discrimination on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The years following the Civil War thus established the legal basis for guaranteeing African Americans the civil rights accorded other Americans. Shamefully, the plain meaning of these laws would be ignored for nearly another century, as the politics of sectional compromise again would trump justice for African Americans.