A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Historical Overview

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In some ways, the death of slavery came with breathtaking swiftness. In 1860, slavery was stronger than it had ever been, the Supreme Court had found that blacks could not be citizens of the United States, and Congress seriously considered a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the perpetuity of slavery. Not even the staunchest abolitionist could imagine slavery disappearing for decades. Yet by the spring of 1865, legal slavery was abolished, black men had served in the Union Army for equal pay (after a few months of unequal pay, rectified in 1864 and applied retroactively), and states throughout the Union prepared for referenda on extending the vote to black men. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment confirmed the citizenship of black Americans and extended basic civil rights to all citizens. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to black men nationwide.

In other ways, the end of slavery was a lengthy, incomplete affair stretching back at least to the eighteenth century when slaves like Quock Walker took their freedom suit cases to the courts, and extending far beyond the 1860s. Even with the Civil War over and the Thirteenth Amendment ratified, violence against former slaves persisted, sometimes exploding in deadly episodes like the Colfax Massacre of 1873 and other times more stealthily robbing former slaves of real freedom through invidious daily practices of intimidation and discrimination. Northern states as well as Southern ones retained statutes and personal habits that perpetuated civil and legal inequality. Supreme Court decisions curtailed the scope of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and states of the former Confederacy adopted systematic segregation laws unopposed by the federal government or ordinary Northerners.

Without question, the end of slavery in the crucible of Civil War stands out as one of the most revolutionary episodes in the nation's history, and Massachusetts' role in that revolution looms large, even as the revolution remains incomplete. The ambiguous distinctions between ending slavery as a legal practice and ensuring real freedom in the lived experience of all Americans, visible in Massachusetts' eighteenth-century experiences and the nation's nineteenth-century experiences, continue to reverberate through ongoing struggles for civil rights and equality in Massachusetts and nationwide.

Chandra Manning is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University. She is particularly interested in ordinary Americans' ideas about slavery, civil rights, citizenship, republicanism, and the legacy of the American Revolution. Her most recent book, What this Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, was awarded the Avery O. Craven Award by the Organization of American Historians, as well as 2008 Lincoln Prize Honorable Mention.