One hundred and fifty-three years ago this September, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declaring his intention to free all slaves in the rebellious states if the South did not end the fighting and rejoin the Union by Jan. 1, 1863.
At that time, the country was embroiled in the U.S. Civil War, a conflict over the power of the federal government and the role of slavery in American society. Lincoln, the first Republican president, was elected in 1860 after pledging to keep slavery out of the territories that hadn’t become states yet. The seven Southern slave states seceded and formed their own nation, the Confederate States of America.
Estimates vary, but between 620,000 and 750,000 died during the bloody conflict.
When the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, the Union forces had proven victorious and as a result, more than four million enslaved Americans were given their freedom. A more powerful, centralized federal government was also established.
Slavery first came to the North American continent in the 17th century when a Dutch ship carrying African slaves arrived to the New World. The ship came at a time when the colonies were in dire need of labor to work the land.
By the American Revolution, it’s estimated that 3 million captured Africans had been brought to the Americas by English importers.
Slavery eventually died out in the North, but in the South, the institution of enslaving people was integral to the cotton industry, a mainstay of the regional economy. However, in 1807, Congress banned the importation of slaves.
The 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision affirmed that slaves and their descendants were not U.S. citizens and therefore had no rights as citizens, even though free black men in some of the original U.S. states had been full voting citizens since the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The Dred Scott decision widened the gulf between the North and the South ahead of the Civil War.
An 1855 slave action brochure (partially pictured below) contains listings of entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade.
This particular group of enslaved Americans was being sold by the heirs of their deceased owner. The pamphlet lists parents and their children together and stipulates they be sold as a family group. The state of Louisiana required that very young slave children be sold along with their mothers.