In 1619, a year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, African slaves were first brought to Virginia. Negro slavery was gradually institutionalized on a legal basis by the end of the 17th century; black skin color and slave status were virtually synonymous.
Moral opposition to slavery stirred slowly, beginning with New England diarist Samuel Sewall's tract, "The Selling of Joseph", in the 1730s. Later in the century Quakers openly encouraged abolition, and in Philadelphia they organized the first American antislavery society in 1775.
Despite language of freedom and equality in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution safeguarded slavery as a compromise with southern states to secure their entry into the union. Slavery had become the basis of the agrarian economy of the South. Thus, with the invention of the cotton gin and the rise of "cotton culture," slavery became more entrenched than ever. Of little economic reward in the North, slavery was gradually abolished there.
In the 1830s a general reform movement gave great impetus to the crusade for abolition. Free blacks joined white abolitionists in writing, preaching, lecturing, organizing, and deluging Congress with petitions against slavery. Abolition overshadowed all other reform movements of the early 19th century. Whether the Negro should be slave or free became the central issue of American life, an issue that finally erupted into the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, issued during the Civil War in 1863, had been proclaimed as a military measure affecting only the slaves in those portions of the country then in rebellion. Because the Constitution had guaranteed the status of the institution of slavery, a constitutional amendment was needed to abolish it. On January 31, 1865, an amendment to accomplish that purpose was passed by the House of Representatives. It was ratified during the year by the required number of states and on December 18, 1865, was proclaimed in effect. The Thirteenth Amendment forever abolished slavery everywhere in the United States.
From "We the People: The American People and Their Government" (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975) 63.
"Abolitionist Hymn" from the recording entitled Ballads of the Civil War 1831-1865, Folkways F 5004, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1954 Used by permission.
"…We mourn not that the man should toil
Tis nature’s need, tis God’s decree
But let the hand that tills the soil
Be, like the wind that fans it, free.... "