On this day in 1862, a momentous event in American history took place: Congress finally outlawed slavery in United States territories. President Abraham Lincoln quickly signed this legislation, setting the country on a path out of one of the darkest periods in its history. It’s hard for us now to imagine living a society in which people were regularly trafficked and sold like goods, but this had been the harsh reality for slaves in America for as long as they could remember. So the signing of this law enacting emancipation came as a relief to many, many people (though it was just as vehemently opposed by others).
CHAP. CXI.–An Act to secure Freedom to all Persons within the Territories of the United States.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passage of this act there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.
APPROVED, June 19, 1862.
Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from E.H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, a book that tells the story of man from the stone age to the atomic bomb in forty concise chapters. Today, we take a look at the history of slavery in America and Abraham Lincoln’s role in abolishing this inhumane practice.
Gombrich begins his account with a contrast of South and North, which diverged not only in climate but also in their attitudes towards slavery:
‘Those in southern, tropical regions lived off great plantations where cotton or sugar cane was cultivated on a gigantic scale. The settlers owned vast tracts of land and the work was done by negro slaves bought in Africa. They were very badly treated.
Further north it was different. It is less hot and the climate is more like our own. So there you found farms and towns, not unlike those the British emigrants had left behind them, only on a much larger scale. They didn’t need slaves because it was easier and cheaper to do the work themselves. And so the townsfolk of the northern states, who were mostly pious Christians, thought it shameful that the Confederation, founded in accordance with the principles of human rights, should keep slaves as people had in pagan antiquity. The southern states explained that they needed negro slaves because without them they would be ruined. No white man, they said, could endure working in such heat and, in any case, negroes weren’t born to be free … and so on and so forth. In 1820 a compromise was reached. The states which lay to the south of an agreed line would keep slaves, those to the north would not.’
This agreement, however, was not to last. As Gombrich puts it, ‘the same of an economy based on slave labour was intolerable’. At first it seemed impossible to change the situation, since the southern states were so much stronger and richer than the northern ones. But things began to change when Abraham Lincoln stepped into the picture. Lincoln, who worked his way up from humble beginnings to become a lawyer, member of parliament and finally, the president, fought relentlessly against slavery. When he was elected in 1861, the southern states founded their own Confederation of slave states—75,000 volunteers then signed up to support Lincoln in his fight. However, Lincoln and his supporters faced difficult odds:
‘[…] the outlook was very bad for the northerners. Britain, which had abolished and condemned slave labour in its own colonies for several decades, was nevertheless supporting the slave states. There was a frightful and bloody civil war. Yet, in the end, the northerners’ bravery and tenacity prevailed, and in 1865 Lincoln was able to enter the capital of the souther states to the cheers of liberated slaves.’
Sadly, Lincoln was assassinated eleven days later by a southerner while he was at the theatre. But his legacy continues to this day, and he is remembered as one of the most important presidents in all of American history.