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Slavery had become institutionalized in North America with the establishment of European settlements. As the attached essay on the Massachusetts Bay Colony notes, that early settlement established slavery as a practice, and eventually formally endorsed it in the 1641 Body of Liberties. The first imposition of law in the emerging colonies, the Body of Liberties formally sanctioned the ownership of slaves under certain circumstances, set forth as follows:
91. There shall never be any bond slavery, villeinage, or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons cloth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authority.
As the Founding Fathers struggled to reconcile the contradiction between slavery and democracy, the debates regarding that practice began to assume more confrontational tones. Important figures continued to argue against slavery. The southern economy, however, became increasingly dependent upon the cheap labor it provided.
Anti-slavery sentiments were most pronounced in the northeast. New Jersey adopted a provision supporting the abolition of slavery, and Thomas Jefferson, a foe of slavery despite owning slaves, continued his efforts at eliminating the practice, ensuring that newly-acquired territories were regulated to minimize the import of slaves through the port of New Orleans. The 19th Century also witnessed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision freeing Native American tribes from slavery, and, as noted in the attached essay on the establishment of the American Anti-Slavery Society, that organization was formed to oppose slavery throughout the country. The Society’s founding charger included the following provision:
Art. II. The object of this Society is the entire abolition of slavery in the United States. While it admits that each State in which slavery exists, has, by the Constitution of the United States, the exclusive right to legislate in regard to its abolition in said State it shall aim to convince all our fellow-citizens, by arguments addressed to their understandings and consciences that slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God, and that the duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned, require its immediate abandonment, without expatriation.
The culture of the U.S. evolved in an anti-slavery direction, evidenced in the publication and wide-distribution of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and in the emerging poetry of such luminaries as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem “The Slave’s Dream” spoke eloquently of the inhumanity of slavery.
That the country still had a long way to go in addressing the issue of slavery and its undercurrent of racism, however, was astonishingly evident in the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case, in which the majority of justices concluded that, in the words of Justice Taney:
“We are satisfied . . . that it is now firmly settled by the decisions of the highest court in the State, that Scott and his family upon their return were not free, but were, by the laws of Missouri, the property of the defendant; and that the Circuit Court of the United States had no jurisdiction, when, by the laws of the State, the plaintiff was a slave, and not a citizen.”
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