Slavery was a legal institution in the United States of America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Practiced from the days of the earliest settler colonies, slavery was still legal in all Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence (1776).
The southern colonies, in particular, came to rely heavily on slavery due to their plantation-based agri-economics. The cotton, rice and tobacco plantations required a large labor force.
Plantation owners preferred slaves who offered the cheapest kind of labor, maximizing their profits. However, in principle, slavery stood in contrast to the republican principles of liberty on which America’s foundations were laid.
Soon after American independence, slavery became a divisive and contentious political and social issue. The issue would continue to fester until slavery was finally abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865.
The words ‘slavery’ and ‘slave’ do not appear in the Constitution of the United States. Before the beginning of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and other leaders fought to prevent slavery from extending to other territories.
This became a major political issue and point of contention as more and more states were added to the Union. The political conflict eventually divided the American states into Union and Confederate camps, paving the way for the American Civil War. This long and bloody war was mostly fought over the issue of slavery.
As the war dragged on, the Republican leaders realized the strategic advantages of emancipation. Freeing slaves would greatly weaken the Confederate forces and deprive them of a major portion of their labor force.
Congress annulled the fugitive slave laws, which prevented states from freeing slaves who fled from another state and demanded the return of the human chattel property to their respective owners. Slavery was thus prohibited in the U.S. territories and President Lincoln was authorized to employ free slaves in the army.
On the first day of 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It called on the Union army to liberate all slaves in states still in a state of rebellion ‘as an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity’.
The three million slaves thus emancipated were effectively declared to be forever free. This strategic move enabled the Union to enlist 180,000 African American soldiers and sailors who volunteered to fight in the war. The status of slaves in the Border States, however, did not change and their fate remained uncertain.
In order to completely abolish slavery and prevent any efforts at reversing the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln saw a constitutional amendment as a more permanent change. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by Congress with a vote of 119-56, nearly two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.
President Lincoln approved the joint resolution of Congress, submitting it to the state legislatures for ratification. He did not live to see the final results of his hard work, however, as he was assassinated shortly after.