December 26, 1820 – Jefferson Argues for the Morality of Extending Slavery Westward

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Albert Gallatin, who at the time was U.S. Minister to France. Having retired from the presidency, Jefferson continued to correspond with many of the country’s leaders, spending several hours a day writing letters.

He first complains about the infirmities of aging (he would die six years later at the age of 83) and then comments on the “storms gathering” in Europe. But things are not going well in the U.S. either, he contends, largely because of the Federalists, of course, i.e., his political enemies.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

In particular he mentioned the Missouri Compromise, which was touted as a “moral” solution to the conflict over slavery. He wrote:

Moral the question certainly is not, because the removal of slaves from one state to another, no more than their removal from one county to another, would never make a slave of one human being who would not be so without it. indeed if there were any morality in the question, it is on the other side; because by spreading them over a larger surface, their happiness would be increased, & the burthen of their future liberation lightened by bringing a greater number of shoulders under it.”

Moreover, Jefferson argues, let Congress start regulating the condition of the inhabitants of the states, and before you know it, it could “next declare that the condition of all men within the US. shall be that of freedom.” The horror! The whites would have to evacuate their states!

On the other hand, he somewhat contradicts himself by suggesting that as a positive side effect, the whole controversy “has brought the necessity of some plan of general emancipation & deportation more home to the minds of our people than it has ever been before.”

His proposal for all slaveholders (or maybe all but him), is that:

. . . the holders should give up all born after a certain day, past, present, or to come, that these should be placed under the guardianship of the state, and sent at a proper age to St Domingo. there they are willing to recieve them, & the shortness of the passage brings the deportation within the possible means of taxation aided by charitable contributions. in this I think Europe, which has forced this evil on us, and the Eastern states who have been it’s chief instruments of importation, would be bound to give largely. but the proceeds of the land office, if appropriated to this would be quite sufficient.” (emphasis added)

You can read the entirety of the letter here.

September 16, 1843 – Frederick Douglass & Members of New England Anti-Slavery Society Attacked by a Mob in Indiana

The New England Anti-Slavery Society (NEASS) was founded on January 1, 1832, in Boston, Massachusetts. Its principal founder was William Lloyd Garrison. The Society held that slavery was immoral, and advocated for immediate, uncompensated abolition of slavery. Garrison was in favor of “moral suasion,” i.e., informing the general public on the evils of slavery and racism to bring them to their side. The NEASS sponsored numerous lecturers in pursuit of this goal.

An Indiana government history site reports that in 1843, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society sent speakers to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana to hold “One Hundred Conventions” on abolition. The speakers encountered citizens with deeply held racist ideas, and were often targets of violence.

On this day in history, a crowd gathered at a church near Pendleton, Indiana to listen to George Bradburn, William A. White and Frederick Douglass. During Bradburn’s speech, a crowd marched in armed with stones and brickbats, demanding that the speakers leave. Frederick Douglass described the scene in his book The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass:

As soon as we began to speak, a mob of about sixty of the roughest characters I ever looked upon ordered us. . . to ‘be silent,’ threatening us. . . with violence.”

In the assault that followed, White, Douglass, and others were injured. Douglass attempted to defend himself and the others by grabbing a club and swinging it vigorously. However, a stone was thrown, breaking his hand, and another stone knocked him briefly unconscious. Local supporters defended them and carried them to safety. The rioters went unpunished.

Douglass spoke the next day at nearby Friends meetinghouse without incident.

Douglass circa 1847–52, around his early 30s

May 14, 1804 – The Lewis and Clark Expedition Sets Out from Camp Dubois, Illinois

President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery Expedition (more popularly known as “The Lewis and Clark Expedition”) shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He wanted to know just what the U.S. had purchased, and if the land contained a water route to the Pacific.

Captains Lewis and Clark recruited twenty-seven volunteers to join them on the mission. In addition, Captain Clark ordered York, his slave, to prepare for the trip. Thus, in May, 1804, twenty-eight men left from St. Louis, Missouri in three boats with the goal of reaching the Pacific Ocean.

There are many stories written about Lewis and Clark. Most do not tell the story the slave York.

York fulfilled important roles on the expedition. As Smithsonian Magazine reports:

As detailed in ‘The Journals of Lewis and Clark,’ during the two years of the Corps of Discovery expedition, York handled firearms, killed game and helped to navigate trails and waterways. In early December 1804, York was one of 15 men on a dangerous buffalo hunt to replenish their supply. ‘Several men returned a little frost bit,’ wrote Clark in his journal. ‘Servents [sic] feet also frosted…’ Native Americans they encountered were reportedly awestruck with York’s appearance, and he was later allowed to have a vote in key decisions. But when the men returned to the East legends and heroes, York, whose contributions to the expedition rivaled that of his comrades, returned to a life of enslavement.”

And yet, York was not freed by Clark after the mission, nor was he allowed to stay with his family when Clark moved to St. Louis. Clark had ordered him beaten, jailed, and forced into hard labor in attempts to break York’s continued desire to be free.

In an 1832 interview with Washington Irving, Clark claimed he had freed York and set him up in a business at which he failed. Then, according to Clark, York died of cholera while trying to return to Clark. There is no evidence for any of it.

What is clear is that York made a substantial and positive contribution to the Expedition, but like many men and women in history “behind the scenes” – especially black slaves, he received no credit for it.

May 1, 1845 – Publication of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” an Autobiography

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on approximately February 14, 1818 (he did not know the exact date, but chose this one).

As the Oxford African American Studies Center tells the story:

Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, ‘The Lady in the Lake.’”

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Within a few years Douglass gained fame as an abolitionist, author, and orator. On this date in history, he published his first memoir detailing his time as a slave. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass consists of eleven chapters, and is considered to be one of the most influential pieces of literature to fuel the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century in the United States. Within four months of publication, five thousand copies were sold; by 1860, almost 30,000 copies were sold.

After publication, Douglass left Lynn, Massachusetts and sailed to England and Ireland for two years in fear of being recaptured by his owner in the United States. While abroad, he gained supporters who paid $710.96 to purchase his emancipation from his legal owner. He also gained insight into the uniquely American character of racism:

Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!

After returning to the U.S. in 1847, Douglass started publishing an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York. The North Star’s motto was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The AME Church and North Star vigorously opposed the mostly white American Colonization Society and its proposal to send blacks back to Africa.

Douglass circa 1847–52, around his early 30s

Douglass also traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on civil rights and social justice topics, including women’s suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to see President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops.

After Lincoln’s assassination, a bronze statue was commissioned featuring President Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand and holding his left hand over the head of a liberated slave kneeling at his feet. It was dedicated in 1876 on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address to President Ulysses S. Grant and more than 25,000 people in attendance. After Douglass spoke, he received a standing ovation, as well as a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick.

Frederick Douglass in later life

Frederick Douglass in later life

Following the war, Douglass continued speaking, writing, advising presidents, and encouraging civil rights movements. Douglass died of a heart attack at Cedar Hill on February 20, 1895, having just returned from a rally for women’s suffrage. He was buried in Rochester, NY, where many members of his family still lived.

Douglass’s three autobiographies are still read and respected: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). His famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century.

There are many resources on the life and thought of Frederick Douglass. Lincoln fans can combine the two interests in the book The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics by James Oakes.

April 14, 1816 – Slavery Rebellion in Barbados

According to “The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700” by Mark Johnston, the first commercial production of sugar in the new world began in Brazil in 1550. The sugar industry advanced rapidly with the importation of slaves from equatorial Africa, financed by the Dutch East India Company. But in 1660 sugar production began to shift to Barbados and other West Indies islands. An English settler in Barbados, John Drax, acquired a great deal of land, equipment from the Dutch, and slave laborers from Africa. In the space of twenty years, Barbados became a major supplier for Europe, and by the mid-1650s, sugar production had largely supplanted tobacco and all other crops as the dominant economic activity of the island. By 1660, Barbados generated more trade than all the other English colonies combined.

[For an exploration of the complex reasons why the sugar trade switched from Brazil to the West Indies, you can read a detailed and interesting analysis by Matthew Edel, “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of West Indian Competition” in Caribbean Studies 9, no. 1 (1969): 24-44 online here. He notes that the war between Spain and the Netherlands, common trends in economic cycles, and cultural developments all played a role.]

As sugar developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates.

A BBC history of slavery in Barbados reports that as the sugar industry grew, slaves were imported in large numbers from Africa, especially from what is today the country of Ghana. They estimate that from 1627 to 1807, when Britain abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself), some 387,000 Africans were shipped to the island against their will, in overcrowded, unsanitary ships, which made the Middle Passage a synonym for barbaric horror. Moreover, as they point out, the high mortality rate among slaves working on the sugar plantations necessitated a constant input of fresh slaves in order to maintain a work force.

By 1700, there were 15,000 free whites and 50,000 enslaved blacks. To ensure the imbalance didn’t threaten the plantocracy, black or slave codes were implemented in 1661, 1676, 1682, and 1688. In response to these codes, several slave rebellions were attempted or planned during this time, but none succeeded.

On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1816, some 20,000 slaves from over 70 plantations rose up in the largest major slave rebellion in the island’s history. Three days later it was put down by the local militia and British imperial troops stationed on the island. The uprising was later called “Bussa’s Rebellion” after the slave leader Bussa. One hundred and twenty slaves died in combat or were immediately executed, and another 144 were brought to trial and executed. The remaining rebels were shipped off the island.

Statue of Bussa in Bridgetown, Barbados

The New York Times noted that The “Bussa Rebellion” prompted the British authorities to build six signal stations on the island’s high points where officers could detect slave revolts and warn other lookouts. One of the stations, Gun Hill in the Parish of St. George, has been restored by the Barbados National Trust, and offers visitors panoramic views to the south and east, plus an exhibition on the semaphore system used for signaling any threat from land or sea.

In 1826, the Barbados legislature passed the Consolidated Slave Law, which simultaneously granted concessions to the slaves while providing reassurances to the slave owners.

Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire 18 years later, in 1834. In Barbados and the rest of the British West Indian colonies, full emancipation from slavery was preceded by an apprenticeship period that lasted four years.

December 2, 1859 – William Lloyd Garrison Delivers a Tribute to John Brown, Advocating End of Slavery

William Lloyd Garrison (1805 – 1879), was a prominent American abolitionist and journalist. His anti-slavery newsletter, The Liberator, in print from 1831 to the abolishment of slavery in 1865, was widely read throughout the United States.

William Lloyd Garrison, circa 1870

As the Library of Congress points out:

The radical tone of the paper was unprecedented because it labeled slave-holding a crime and called for immediate abolition. When the Nat Turner rebellion of August 1831 escalated Southern fears of slave uprisings, some Southern states passed laws making circulation of The Liberator a crime and called for prosecution of Garrison. Although he had detractors, Garrison quickly became a noted leader of the anti-slavery movement and helped launch the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833. Until he ceased publication in 1865, Garrison employed the Liberator to advance militant anti-slavery views. He especially opposed African colonization, as is shown in the article entitled ‘Emigration’ in column one of this issue.”

Like other major abolitionists, Garrison had a price was on his head; he was burned in effigy and a gallows was erected in front of his Boston office. At one point he had to be smuggled onto a ship to escape to England, where he remained for a year.

Garrison, a devout Christian, believed the moral problem of slavery could only be solved through a non-violent approach. But when the abolitionist John Brown seized the largest Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October of 1859, Garrison saw the value of Brown’s martyrdom. As Elisa De Togni writes in “Martyrdom through Militancy and the Onset of Civil War”:

The raid on Harpers Ferry and the resulting execution of Brown was a major turning point in the American abolitionist movement, causing many peaceful abolitionists to accept more militant measures to push for the end of slavery.”

John Brown in 1859

Brown was tried by the Commonwealth of Virginia, sentenced to death, and hanged on this day in history, December 2, 1859. On that day in Boston, Garrison delivered a tribute to Brown which he later published in The Liberator. He used the occasion to advocate that the North secede from the South to end slavery, proclaiming:

By the dissolution of the Union we shall give the finishing blow to the slave system; and then God will make it possible for us to form a true, vital, enduring, all-embracing Union, from the Atlantic to the Pacific–one God to be worshipped, one Saviour to be revered, one policy to be carried out–freedom everywhere to all the people, without regard to complexion or race–and the blessing of God resting upon us all! I want to see that glorious day!”

You can read the entire text of Garrison’s speech here.

September 3, 1838 – Frederick Douglass Escapes From Slavery

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on approximately February 14, 1818. He did not know the exact date, but according to the Library of Congress, he celebrated his birthday on February 14 in memory of his mother, who had brought him a heart-shaped cake on the night that he last saw her.

He was determined to make a better life for himself.

As the Oxford African American Studies Center tells the story:

Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North.”

Portrait of Frederick Douglass, Frontispiece. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself.

He later explained that he posed as a free sailor wearing a red shirt, a tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf tied loosely around his neck. He boarded a train bound for Philadelphia. When the conductor came around and examined his papers he recalled in a later autobiography, Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Time, 1881, online here:

My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt.’”

Upon reaching New York City, he was given assistance by free black abolitionist and activist David Ruggles.

Soon after, Douglass married Anna Murray, a free black woman whom he had met in Baltimore. He settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his experience as a ship caulker enabled him to find work on the docks. The Library of Congress explains that in New Bedford, Frederick asked a friend to help him choose a new name, since he might be sought under the old name as a runaway:

I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name of ‘Frederick.’ I must hold on to that, to preserve a sense of my identity. Mr. Johnson had just been reading the Lady of the Lake, and at once suggested that my name be “Douglass.”

He began to travel throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on civil rights and social justice topics.

Douglass circa 1847–52, around his early 30s

After returning to the U.S. in 1847, Douglass started publishing an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester, New York. The North Star’s motto was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” The AME Church and North Star vigorously opposed the mostly white American Colonization Society and its proposal to send blacks back to Africa.

In 1848, Douglass wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, online here, in part to refute charges that it was impossible that someone of his accomplishments could have been a slave.

Douglass continued to travel throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on civil rights and social justice topics, including women’s suffrage. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to see President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops.

After Lincoln’s assassination, a bronze statue was commissioned featuring President Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand and holding his left hand over the head of a liberated slave kneeling at his feet. It was dedicated in 1876 on the 11th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. Frederick Douglass delivered the keynote address to President Ulysses S. Grant and more than 25,000 people in attendance. After Douglass spoke, he received a standing ovation, as well as a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick.

Frederick Douglass in later life

Frederick Douglass in later life

Following the war, Douglass resumed speaking, writing, advising presidents, and encouraging civil rights movements. Douglass died of a heart attack at Cedar Hill on February 20, 1895, having just returned from a rally for women’s suffrage. He was buried in Rochester, NY, where many members of his family still lived.

Douglass’s three autobiographies are still read and respected: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892). His famous speeches make him one of the most quoted men of the nineteenth century.

August 30, 1861 – Civil War Union General John C. Frémont Issues an Emancipation Proclamation for Missouri; Lincoln Rescinds It

The U.S. Senate passed the First Confiscation Act on August 5, 1861 allowing the federal government to seize property, including slaves, being used to support the Confederate rebellion. Although President Lincoln feared that the act might push the border states to secede, he signed the act into law the next day. When, however, Union General John C. Frémont took the additional step, on his own initiative, to issue a proclamation freeing all slaves in Missouri that belonged to secessionists, Lincoln drew the line. In a letter dated September 11 (text here), Lincoln ordered Fremont to change his proclamation to conform to the First Confiscation Act.

“Maj. Genl. John C. Fremont, 1861” via Missouri History Museum

As the site “Mr. Lincoln and Freedom” points out:

At the beginning of the Civil War, emancipation was not a popular sentiment among Union Army officers.” Moreover, as indicated above, Lincoln considered it essential not to alienate the border states in any way that would drive them from the Union.”

In May of the following year, Union General David Hunter issued a similar proclamation freeing slaves in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Again, Lincoln was forced to issue a public statement revoking the proclamation. As in the previous instance he disavowed advance knowledge of the measure, declaring:

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, proclaim and declare, that the government of the United States, had no knowledge, information, or belief, of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation; nor has it yet, any authentic information that the document is genuine–  And further, that neither General Hunter, nor any other commander, or person, has been authorized by the Government of the United States, to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free; and that the supposed proclamation, now in question, whether genuine or false, is altogether void, so far as respects such declaration.”

Lincoln, February 9, 1861

He concluded his statement, however, by urging the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to “‘adopt a gradual abolishment of slavery,'” as encouraged by Congress’s Joint Resolution of March 1862:

You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times — I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partizan politics — This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproach upon any — It acts not the pharisee. The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything — Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as, in the providence of God, it is now your high previlege [sic] to do — May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it.”

August 28, 1833 – Slavery Abolition Act of British Parliament Given Royal Assent

The “Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves” was given assent by the British Royalty on this day in history, and came into force the following August 1, 1834.

By this act, more than 800,000 enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and South Africa as well as a small number in Canada were freed. The Act specifically excluded, however, territories in the possession of the East India Company, or the Islands of Ceylon [Sri Lanka] and Saint Helena.

A bronze sculpture representing an African couple and their child in Rock Hall Freedom Village in Barbados. CreditGina Francesca for The New York Times

Because the act made Canada a free territory, thousands of fugitive American slaves headed for Canada. A PBS online history reports that some thirty thousand (a conservative estimate) reached Canada between 1800 and 1860.

In 1998, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was repealed. Slavery was still illegal of course but the prohibition was incorporated into the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights both of which prohibit the holding of any person as a slave.

You can read the full text of the 1833 act here.

July 17, 1862 – During the Civil War, Congress Approved the Second Confiscation Act, Relating to Slaves of Captured Confederates

During the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passed two “Confiscation Acts” relating to the fate of slaves that made their way to Union lines.

The Confiscation Act of 1861, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on August 6, 1861, authorized the confiscation of any Confederate property by Union forces (“property” included slaves).

The Confiscation Act of 1862, passed on July 17, 1862, this day in history, stated that any Confederate official, military or civilian, who did not surrender within 60 days of the act’s passage would have their slaves freed in criminal proceedings. However, this act was only applicable to Confederate areas that had already been occupied by the Union Army.

Lincoln in 1862

Though U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was concerned about the practical legality of these acts, and believed that they might push the border states towards siding with the Confederacy, he nonetheless signed them to make them law. The growing movement towards emancipation was aided by these acts, which eventually led to the Preliminary Emancipation Act of September, 1862, and the Final Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863.