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Last Updated on October 22, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187

The Legislative History of Slavery

The institution of slavery took root in North America more than a century before the foundation of the United States. The ideological divide over slavery also predated the foundation of the United States, though the first “free state” was not established until 1780, when Pennsylvania...

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The Legislative History of Slavery

The institution of slavery took root in North America more than a century before the foundation of the United States. The ideological divide over slavery also predated the foundation of the United States, though the first “free state” was not established until 1780, when Pennsylvania formally outlawed the practice. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most Northern states independently abolished slavery. However, Southern states clung to the institution, citing its importance to the cotton industry, the primary export of the South. 

As of 1804, there was a tense balance between slave states and free states. Each side was equally represented in the US Senate, and the Mason-Dixon line represented the divide between the free North and the slave-holding South. However, as more territory was settled and more territories petitioned to enter the union as states, Southerners worried about how the balance of power might shift. As a compromise, the government began to admit states in pairs: one free state and one slave state. 

However, the tide of public opinion was steadily shifting towards abolitionism. In 1808, Jefferson formally abolished the international slave trade via the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. Douglass mentions the result of this act in his speech, noting that the international slave trade has since become an object of universal condemnation, even as the internal slave trade continues. 

Tension between North and South built throughout the early-to-mid 19th century, and war seemed increasingly inevitable. In 1850, in an attempt to stave off war between slave states and free states, President Millard Fillmore signed a controversial set of bills known as the Compromise of 1850. These bills, drafted by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, stipulated, among other things, that slavery would be permitted in new territories and that fugitive slaves who had escaped to the North must be returned to their masters. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, was an outspoken critic of the compromise, and many abolitionists viewed it as a major step backwards for the anti-slavery cause.

The Abolitionist Movement

Objections to slavery as an institutions were first raised by American Quakers in the mid 17th century, but the mainstream abolitionist movement did not gain traction until the late 18th century. It was heavily inspired by the British abolitionist movement, just as American slavery was largely rooted in Britain’s slave institutions. Though Britain itself never had a thriving market for slaves, slavery was commonplace throughout the British Colonial Empire, and many slaves were brought to Britain by their masters. In 1772, James Somersett, a fugitive slave, petitioned the British court to grant him his freedom after his former master captured him with the intention of selling him back into slavery. In a case that attracted international attention, the court granted Somersett his freedom and effectively declared slavery illegal in Great Britain. 

Though illegal in Great Britain, slavery was a deeply entrenched institution throughout the British Colonial Empire. In 1783, a British abolitionist movement arose, pushing for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. This heavily inspired the American abolitionist movement. Ultimately, Britain abolished slavery throughout its colonial holdings in 1833, and, though the movement largely tapered off, many former British abolitionists lent their support to the American abolitionist cause. Frederick Douglass obtained freedom from his former master Thomas Auld in 1846 with the help of the British abolitionists he met during his two year stay in Britain. 

The American abolitionist movement had additional roots in Christian and Quaker institutions. Though Southern theologians pushed back with pro-slavery rhetoric, many Northern churches adopted the stance that slavery was a violation of Christian values. Many abolitionists were deeply religious, with Douglass himself frequently quoting the Bible during his speeches and essays. William Lloyd Garrison, a radical abolitionist and friend of Douglass’s, appealed to the moral and religious consciences of readers in his anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator

Douglass became a leading figure in the abolitionist movement beginning around 1840, and his status as a former slave was often used to combat the pervasive stereotype that black people were illiterate and unintelligent. His 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was a bestseller and is considered a seminal work of abolitionist literature, alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though he was often met with malice from prejudiced audiences, Douglass remained a passionate activist throughout his life, championing the rights of Native Americans, African Americans, immigrants, and women.

The Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in the Chesapeake Bay region. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he lived and worked on plantations. The wife of one of his masters began teaching him to read when he was twelve, but she eventually stopped, coming to believe that education was incompatible with slavery. To supplement his education, Douglass would pay local children to teach him. He eventually took to teaching other slaves how to read using the New Testament of the Bible. 

In 1937, Douglass met Anna Murray, a free black woman who would becomes his wife. With Murray’s help, he successfully escaped from slavery in 1938 after two previous failed attempts. The couple were married later that year in New York, before resettling in Massachusetts. In 1939, Douglass became a licensed preacher, which heavily influenced his oratorical style. He regularly attended abolitionist meetings and, in 1841, met William Lloyd Garrison, who invited the then-23-year-old Douglass on stage to tell his story. This officially began Douglass’s career as an abolitionist. 

For the next several years, Douglass toured the United States with the American Anti-Slavery Society, during which time he was frequently harassed and accosted by slavery supporters. In 1845, he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which became an international bestseller and is considered a seminal work of abolitionist literature. Fearing that the popularity of the book would inspire Douglass’s former owner to seek him out, Douglass’s friends and mentors encouraged him to travel abroad.

Douglas spent two years touring Ireland and Britain, during which time he befriended several British abolitionists. Their support, combined with the earnings from the sale of his autobiography, allowed Douglass to formally purchase his freedom from his former master Thomas Auld. Officially a free man, Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 and began his own newspaper, The North Star. Over the next few years, Douglass came to believe that the US Constitution was an important vehicle of the anti-slavery cause. This opinion caused a rift with Garrison, who held that the Constitution was inherently pro-slavery. 

Douglass was also a fervent supporter of women’s rights. He attended the 1948 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, and was the only African American present. He vocally supported Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” including the controversial resolution proposing that women ought to have the right to vote. Though he broke with Stanton’s faction in the late 1860s due to their conflicting views on the scope of the Fifteenth Amendment, Douglass remained a proponent of women’s suffrage, and the rights of many other oppressed groups, throughout his life. 

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