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OPINION: The Undoing of Slavery in America — A Timeline

How America abolished a millennia-long, global institution in a single lifetime


The American experiment was never a question of whether or not we would have slavery, it was always a discussion of how we would get rid of this deeply ingrained and sinful practice that had been around for thousands of years, and still exists in parts of the world today. But America managed to abolish the practice entirely within the 76 years between the First Constitutional Convention and the Civil War.

Slavery was a global institution. Thus, many states had laws designed to keep it intact — whether by mortgages, inheritance, or laws for buying, selling, and freeing slaves and severe penalties if you broke them. Vermont, for example, had no vested interest in slavery, and ended it in 1777, while states like South Carolina literally went down with the ship to keep it in 1865. The process was tedious and arduous, but America abolished slavery in the length of one lifetime — through Federalism, federal legislation, and Civil War.

So here is a timeline of slavery in America drawn primarily from the official website associated with 2005’s four-part PBS documentary Slavery and the Making of America:

1776

The British colonies send the most epic break up letter in the history of the universe to Britain and we start the clock.

In Philadelphia, the Quakers forbid its members from holding slaves.

Delaware bans the importation of African slaves.

1777

Vermont, nearly a decade and a half before it became the fourteenth state, abolishes slavery and enfranchises all adult males.

New York enfranchises all free propertied men regardless of color or prior servitude.

1778

Virginia prohibits the importation of slaves.

1780

Pennsylvania begins emancipation.

A freedom clause in the Massachusetts constitution abolishes slavery. Massachusetts enfranchises all men regardless of race.

1783

Maryland bans the importation of African slaves.

1784

Rhode Island and Connecticut begin emancipation.

North Carolina bans the importation of African slaves.

Jefferson’s proposal to restrict the westward expansion of slavery fails. (Strike 1)

1785

New York passes a gradual emancipation law, and prohibits the importation of slaves.

The Northwest Ordinance forbids slavery, except as criminal punishment, in the Northwest Territory. Residents of the territory are required to return fugitive slaves.

1787

Rhode Island forbids residents from participating in the slave trade.

Delaware regulates interstate slave trade.

South Carolina ends domestic and international slave trade.

North Carolina levies a prohibitive duty on imported African slaves.

According to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory,” referring to all states northwest of the Ohio River.

See, while the North had already began abolishing slavery in several states, the South, which depended on slavery for their economy, argued that slaves were their property. However, they were also trying to count them as part of the population for census purposes.

Why was that important? If the south could successfully exploit the number of slaves for census purposes, that would mean they could acquire more representation and electoral votes to push forward their goals regarding keeping slavery legal and their own westward expansion. The northern delegates said absolutely not. After some debate, between 0/0 and 5/5 representation, they landed on 3/5s, which would ultimately leave the South short of the extra members of the House of Representatives and the electoral votes they needed.

1787-1789

The U.S. Constitution is drafted, ratified, and put into operation.

1788

Connecticut and Massachusetts forbid residents from participating in the slave trade.

1792

Thomas Jefferson tries again to abolish slavery in Virginia. He fails again. (Strike 2)

1793

Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin, making cotton production more profitable, thereby increasing the market value of slaves.

The First Fugitive Slave Law is passed

1794

Congress prohibits slave trade between the U.S. and foreign countries.

1798

Georgia bans international slave trade.

1800

Congress prohibits U.S. citizens from exporting slaves.

1801

Congress extends the Virginia and Maryland slavery laws into the District of Columbia, establishing a federally authorized slave code.

1804

The U.S. bans the importation of slaves from foreign territories into Louisiana.

In Pennsylvania, the Underground Railroad is officially established.

New Jersey enacts laws introducing emancipation.

1807

On the first day he was legally able, Thomas Jefferson abolished all incoming slaves via the Slave trade. (Finally a win for TJ.) So, to reiterate: within 20 years of the birth of our country, this millennia-old stain on the world was already in the beginning of the end stages in America.

1817

The state of Georgia bans the slave trade.

1819

U.S. law declares slave trading to be a capital offense.

1820

The Missouri Compromise forbids slavery in the Louisiana territory north of Missouri’s Southern border

1826

Pennsylvania passes an anti-kidnapping law to protect free blacks.

1827

Tennessee bans slave trading.

1831

The Underground Railroad is given its name.

1832

Kentucky forbids residents from buying and importing slaves.

1843

New York, Vermont, and Ohio pass personal liberty laws.

1844

Connecticut passes a personal liberty law.

Oregon bans slavery.

1847

Pennsylvania passes a personal liberty law.

Frederick Douglass founds a black abolitionist paper called The North Star.

1848

Rhode Island passes a personal liberty law.

Connecticut law bans slavery.

1849

Virginia passes a law permitting the emancipation of any slave by will or deed.

1854-1855

Connecticut, Maine, and Mississippi pass personal liberty laws. Massachusetts and Rhode Island renew personal liberty laws first enacted in the 1840s.

1856

The Republican Party is formed out of the Free Soil Party.

1857

New Hampshire declares that no one shall be denied citizenship on account of African descent and, along with Vermont, repeals laws against the enlistment of blacks in state militia.

Ohio and Wisconsin pass personal liberty laws.

1858

Vermont passes a personal liberty law and declares that no one shall be denied citizenship on account of African descent.

1860

Abraham Lincoln is elected to the presidency.

1861

The Confederate States of America is formed. Jefferson Davis is elected its president.

The Civil War kicks off in South Carolina

1862

West Virginia is admitted to the Union as a free state. Its constitution calls for gradual emancipation.

Utah abolishes slavery.

1863

Maryland state law abolishes slavery.

1864

Lincoln signs repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law

Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri abolish slavery

1865

The thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery throughout the country, thanks to the sacrifice of nearly half a million Union Soldiers.

Abraham Lincoln keeps our country together on this Unionist idea that our best days were still ahead of us.

“All Men Are Created Equal” has been an ever present purpose since the birth of America; a purpose fought and sacrificed for by imperfect men. No other country has tirelessly pursued a moral good like the United States of America and we should be proud of our integrity, our history, and the courage it took ordinary men to achieve extraordinary feats.

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