Student Question

Why did it take 200 years for slavery, which started in the U.S. in 1619, to become a contentious issue? What events sparked public debate?

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It took over 200 years for slavery to be abolished in North America for the basic reason that slavery has been practiced for thousands of years all over the world, and it took the evolution of western political thought hundreds of years to develop a culture and legal framework within which the practice of slavery was viewed as abhorrent.  As the eNotes essays to which linkages are provided below point out, slavery has an ancient history and was viewed as a common, acceptable practice.  It is also important to remember that, while slaves were brought from Africa to North America in the early 17th Century, the British colonials who would lead the American Revolution did not declare independence from Britain until the last quarter of the 18th Century.

Once the British colonials in the 13 American colonies began to agitate for independence, the issue of how to treat slaves and the continuing practice of slavery was fiercely debated among the Founding Fathers.  In fact, Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence included phrases, subsequently removed from the final draft, alluding to the abolition of slavery.  Known as the deleted “slave-trade clause,” Jefferson was evidently struggling with the contradiction between a nation that would be formed on the principle that “all men are created equal” with the practice of placing men in bondage and subjecting them to the horrors of slavery.  One of the deleted phrases Jefferson had originally written into the Declaration read as follows:

“he [the king of England] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its’ most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

Because slavery was such a common practice throughout the Americas, and because dependence on slave labor had become so important to the economy of the southern colonies, its abolition was anathema to many Americans.  So politically divisive was the issue, that those charged with drafting the Constitution were, as with Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, unable to resolve the debate about how slavery should be handled in a newly-free nation. 

While slavery was a common practice, however, by the early 19th Century, the abolitionist movement in North America had begun to take root and would remain active in the decades leading up to the Civil War, fought in no small part over the issue of whether individual states should be free to continue to the practice of slavery.  President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 ended the legal practice of owning slaves, but southern resistance continued to manifest itself in a bloody war that would continue for two more years at the cost of tens of thousands more lives.  Full civil rights to blacks would not be granted for another 100 years.

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