Leaders of the young nation felt that God granted them a manifest destiny to expand landownership, capitalism, and slavery from sea to shining sea. They achieved their goals through far-reaching and impactful legislation. Slavery rested at the heart of such legislation that laid the foundation for generations that followed. Indigenous people faced forced removal from their homelands while yeoman white farmers and poor whites competed with the planter elite to gain access to a piece of the American pie. Meanwhile African Americans, free and enslaved, fought to survive and pushed the meaning, application, and manifestation of freedom.
The Revolution’s language of liberty influenced government policy. With the Northwest Ordinance, the new nation limited slavery, banning it in territories above the Ohio River (present-day Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois). This act created the nation’s first federally guaranteed free territory. The region became home to many free Black communities.
The expansion of the cotton empire cemented slavery in American society and the economy. Each new territory raised the stakes: would it be slave or free? African Americans responded by enacting new visions of American freedom. Year by year, state by state, territory by territory, African Americans used the press, public protest, and movement to insist that slavery come to an end. This combination of words and actions left a mark on the Constitution and on the practice of political participation, deepening and enriching liberty for all.
The Compromise of 1850: Testing the Constitution
Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 to ease tensions between free and slave states. California was admitted to the Union as a free state, while the status of slavery in Utah and New Mexico was left up to the voters in each territory.
The Compromise also banned the slave trade in the District of Columbia, although slavery continued to be legal there. It also included the Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave catchers to pursue freedom-seekers in any state or territory in the Union and effectively eliminated any safe haven in free states for fugitives from slavery. Even in the North, African Americans were subject to sale unless they could prove they were free. Many fled to Canada to avoid the threat of kidnapping by slave traders.
When a person held to service or labor . . . shall hereafter escape . . . the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due . . . may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Policing Human Property
Col. Henry Ward Adams of the Virginia state militia appointed a company of nine men to "patrol and visit all Negro quarters and other places suspected of entertaining unlawful assemblies of slaves" and to arrest any person found traveling "without a pass from his or her master or mistress or overseer."
Colored Citizens Rally: The Public Square
The right to appear in public and demand one’s rights is a cornerstone of American democratic expression. African Americans held rallies to protest the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which permitted bounty hunters to track runaways anywhere in the country and return them to slavery. If caught without their freedom papers, free Black people could be illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery, too. For African Americans, the streets were unsafe. Stores were unsafe. Public transportation was unsafe. Public appearances, therefore, were acts of bravery.
The Fugitive Slave Bill . . . commenced its bloody crusade o’er the land, and . . . imperatively demands an expression, whether we will tamely submit to chains and slavery, or whether we will . . . Live and Die freemen.
Rally of Colored Citizens, 1850
The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Let the People Decide
The battle over slavery expanded with the nation, spreading across the Great Plains. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise by allowing slavery above the 36°30’ parallel if the white citizens of the Kansas or Nebraska territories voted to permit it. The crops associated with plantation slavery—cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice—could not be grown in 19th-century Kansas; there were no agricultural profits to be made from slavery in that environment. Yet slavery consumed the region because slavery consumed the nation. Proslavery and antislavery advocates rushed into Kansas, prepared to tip the vote in their favor whatever the cost. Two rival elections were held with opposite results. The region descended into years of violence known as Bleeding Kansas.
[The] meaning of this act [is] not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State . . . but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way.
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
Wilson’s Declaration: The Power of the Spoken Word
The Compromise of 1850 and the chaos following the Kansas-Nebraska Act threatened the citizenship of African Americans. To demand their rights, Black women and men, like William J. Wilson, toured the United States and Europe to bring more visibility to slavery and injustice. In doing so, their voices and personal presence served as living proof of their humanity and their experiences. They used their voices to vividly capture their listeners’ attention by employing cadence, repetition, and powerful imagery to speak of freedom.
I see husbands and wives, parents and children, separated, manacled and driven off. . . . I see . . . the ferocious bloodhounds dyed in red gore and the . . . victims’ whitened bones . . . on the plains of Kansas.
William J. Wilson, 1854
The Dred Scott Decision: Limiting Citizenship
Dred Scott sued his enslavers in state and then federal court, arguing that he became free when he was brought into free territory in 1833. The Supreme Court decided that African Americans, free or enslaved, held no rights as citizens of the United States. The 1857 ruling established that slavery was not confined to the South. The institution of slavery legally existed everywhere in the nation as long as enslavers could move freely with their human property. Scott was not the first enslaved person to test this principle in court, but his case reached the Supreme Court and produced a ruling that denied citizenship to every African American. In the end, the highest court ruled that Congress could not interfere with owners taking enslaved people into any territory.
A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a 'citizen' . . . they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, majority opinion for Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford, 1857
Dred and Harriet Scott Timeline
Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s Message: Leaving America
For many African Americans, the Dred Scott decision confirmed that the United States would never abolish slavery nor accept African Americans as citizens. From Windsor, Ontario, Mary Ann Shadd Cary published her newspaper The Provincial Freeman to make the case for Black emigration to Canada. Other activists disagreed with her position, claiming that people of African descent had built the nation and should stay.
Your national ship is rotten sinking, why not leave it, and why not say so boldly, manfully? . . . Leave that slavery-cursed republic.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary, 1857