The decade of the 1850s was a dispiriting time for African Americans seeking freedom through the law or through a more personal form of self-liberation—running away. After the Mexican American War (1848), events piled upon themselves. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 strengthened the original Act of 1793. The law made it legal for slaveholders to pursue runaways into states where slavery was illegal.
As a result, professional slave catchers seized black men and women, often on the street or at their workplace. After giving evidence that this person was indeed a fugitive slave to a local justice of the peace or court, they hastened them south. The evidence the unsavory slave catchers had was often flimsy or false. While the South had won the legal victory, the abolitionist cause won a larger victory when northerners witnessed blacks struggling to escape from their captors. Many northerners acquired a new understanding of the slave condition and a greater sympathy for the campaign to end slavery in the United States.
Still, the national government seemed to reflect the southern view throughout the decade, partly through fear of southern defection from the Union, partly from the central role of Southern politicians in national politics. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act revived the concept of “popular sovereignty,” meaning that settlers in those territories were free to determine their own form of government. Free soil and abolitionist settlers were drawn to Kansas. A state of guerilla warfare followed with proslavery settlers attacking the Free Soilers and vice versa. The state of Kansas became known as “bleeding Kansas.” It was here that John Brown received his first national attention.
In 1857, in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney declared that blacks had no rights that the white man was bound to observe. This meant that the status of free blacks was up to the individual states. The federal government could guarantee nothing. John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry was a desperate attempt to inspire slaves to rebellion. All other avenues to national manumission seemed closed. While it failed, many historians credit Brown’s raid with being the spark that led to the Civil War.
As the nation approached the Civil War, there was a free black population of substance in every state. In the North, many were active in antislavery, African-American churches, and in self-help societies. Even southern free blacks had been organized into churches and societies, although their public presentation on all issues was extremely careful not to offend. The very existence of this class of people raised every question about liberty and citizenship that the U.S. government tried fervently to ignore.
In this atmosphere, the Civil War began as a war to save the Union. It was not a war to free the slaves. However, the Union was threatened by the expanding contradictions inherent in a nation “half slave, half free.” No sooner had Union troops appeared in the border states, on the islands off the Atlantic coast, and in the lower Mississippi Valley, than thousands of blacks took the opportunity to liberate themselves by deserting to the Yankee camps. A first impulse to send them back to their masters was soon squelched. The runaways became “contraband,” or confiscated property of war. Many of them quickly found work within the Union lines and members of their families began to join them. At the same time, northern blacks, seeking to form companies and join the army, had initially been rebuffed.
The Confederacy was also quick to see the advantages of non-enlisted black labor. Free blacks were conscripted to dig fortifications for the southern army and to labor on roads and in mines. Slaves accompanied their masters to army camp. They acted as cooks, grooms, and personal attendants. Early in the war, slaveholders hired out their slaves to the army but when slaves availed themselves of the chance to change sides, the same slaveholders and others decided to send their slaves to interior plantations, far away from the battles.
This enormous upheaval and movement of the black population within the South created unique opportunities for self-liberation; this had taken place on an extraordinary scale even before the federal government acknowledged its reality.
1. Why were the 1850s a daunting time for African Americans in search of freedom?
a. There was very little aid from northern abolitionist groups.
b. The southern slaveholders were growing more powerful.
c. The Fugitive Slave Law was in effect and was being enforced.
d. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had been revoked.
2. Why was the Kansas-Nebraska Act a blow to the emancipation movement?
a. It showed that the government was undecided about the spread of slavery.
b. It allowed slavery to continue by authorizing popular sovereignty in some states.
c. This ruling was a sign to the members of the southern legislature.
d. The northern states were too far away to fight proslavery groups.
3. Which of the following is true about John Brown’s relationship with slaves?
a. John Brown came from the North and was uninterested in slavery.
b. He worked for the welfare of the slaves within the existing laws.
c. John Brown agreed with Justice Taney’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford.
d. He thought that every person should be free, and that slavery was wrong.
4. Why did many of the slaveholders choose to send their slaves into interior plantations after the Civil War began?
a. Their concern was their crops and they did not want to lose their slaves in battle.
b. Neither the Confederate nor the Union armies were interested in the labor of slaves.
c. The slaveholders did not believe that the slaves would be of any help in the war.
d. They did not want to give the slaves the opportunity to desert and join the Union.
5. Give two examples to show that the United States government did not want to make a stand on slavery. Clearly explain each one.