A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.


20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was a Civil War Regiment from Massachusetts that was known as the “Harvard Regiment” because of its elite, highly educated officers. They fought in such battles as Ball’s Bluff and Antietam.

54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments were formed in 1863. They were the first military units raised in Massachusetts composed of men of Afrian descent. Their impressive performance, particularly the 54th’s at Fort Wagner, garnered further Northern support for abolition. 

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) served as the sixth president of the United States from 1825-1829, Secretary of State, and Congressman (1831-1848). The son of President John Adams, he was an antislavery advocate who became an increasingly vocal opponent of slavery and its expansion, opposing the annexation of Texas and war with Mexico, championing the freedom of petition in defiance of the congressional gag rule, and defending the Amistad captives before the Supreme Court. He won the case, earning the slaves their return to Sierra Leone.

American Anti-Slavery Society existed from 1833 to 1870. Led by William Lloyd Garrison and with a membership of over 150,000, it promoted immediate abolition in the United States. See “William Lloyd Garrison” for more information.

Amistad Case was brought before the United States Supreme Court in January 1841. John Quincy Adams defended a group of Africans, who had been abducted in Sierra Leone and sold into slavery. While being transported from Cuba to a Caribbean plantation aboard the Amistad on 1 July 1839, the Africans seized the ship, killed the captain, and ordered the crew to return to Africa. The Amistad was seized off Long Island, New York, and the Africans were imprisoned on charges of murder. While those charges were eventually dismissed, the Africans remaine confined as the focus of their case shifted to property rights.  In March 1841, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Africans, and the surviving captives were returned to Sierra Leone.

John A. Andrew (1818-1867) was an antislavery lawyer who served as the governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War (1861-1866).

Article IV of U.S. Constitution determined that slaves from other states were still considered enslaved even if they entered a free state such as Massachusetts.

Battle of Ball’s Bluff was fought on 21 October 1861 in Virginia. Geographically, Ball's Bluff was a natural trap. Northern soldiers formed at the top of a steep cliff with their backs to the Potomac River, with only a few small boats to move reinforcements to the south bank, and to rescue survivors after the Union rout. The two Massachusetts regiments present, the 15th and 20th Infantry, together lost more than 500 men, including 84 killed or mortally wounded. As a result of miscommunications during the battle, Congress established the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War to investigate the blunder and prevent more of its kind.

Clara Barton (1821-1912) was a Massachusetts woman who was nicknamed the “Angel of the Battled” for her service as a Civil War nurse and as the Superintendent of Union Nurses. Her wartime experience inspired her to found and act as first president of the Red Cross.

Jeremy Belknap (1744-1798) was the founder of the Massachusetts Historical Society, clergyman, and scholar. In January of 1795, St. George Tucker, a Virginia judge, forwarded to Belknap a set of eleven queries regarding the history of slavery in Massachusetts. An abolitionist, Tucker was interested in the advent and eventual abolition of slavery in New England (and Massachusetts in particular), hoping that he could use the information to help bring an end to slavery in Virginia. At Tucker's request, Belknap circulated a list of the queries to a number of prominent Massachusetts citizens. Belknap compiled the responses into a document that he forwarded to Tucker in April 1795.

John Bell (1797-1869) was nominted for president by the Constitutional Union Party in 1860. He lost to Abraham Lincoln.

Border States were the slave-holding states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri, which bordered the North during the Civil War.

Henry Bowman (1834-1904) was a Captain in the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment who was captured at Ball’s Bluff.

John Breckinridge (1821-1875) was the Southern Democratic candidate in the 1860 presidential election. He campaigned in favor of heavy federal government involvement in the spread of slavery to the territories. He lost to Abraham Lincoln.

John Brown (1800-1859) was an ardent abolitionist who, with the help of New England financial backers known as the “secret six," raided the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on 16 October 1859, with the intention of arming slaves. Although Brown was captured and hanged, and many of his 21 accomplices killed, his raid fueled fears among Southern whites.

Anthony Burns (1829?-1862) was slave from Virginia who escaped to Boston and was captured in 1854. A group of armed abolitionists stormed the courthouse where Burns was being held in an attempt to rescue him, but they were repulsed by deputies. Burns was convicted and shipped back to Virginia as an example of President Franklin Pierce’s committement to enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act. In less than a year, however, abolitionists raised $1,300 to purchase Burns's freedom, and he returned to Boston.

Benjamin Butler (1818-1893) was a Massachusetts politician and Union general who declared that the slaves who had fled to Fort Monroe seeking protection with Union troops were “contraband” of war and refused to return them to their owners.

Maria Weston Chapman (1806-1885) was a Massachusetts abolitionist, co-founder of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and editor of the antislavery publications Liberty Bell and Non-Resistant. She was one of the chief organizers of the American Anti-Slavery Society's Antislavery Fair, which raised revenue for the Society through the sale of items such as free-labor sugar, artwork, and books.

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was an abolitionist, member of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and editor of the American Anti-Slavery Standard. Also a famous author, her 1833 work, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, called for immediate emancipation and racial equality,

Joseph Cinquez or Cinqué (c. 1815-c. 1879)  was the leader of the June 1839 slave revolt on the Amistad. He was captured by the United States Navy along with the rest of the rebelling Africans and charged with piracy and murder. On 9 March 1941, the United States Supreme Court  granted his freedom and he and his fellow mutineers returned to Africa.

Compromise of 1850 was proposed by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and supported by Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. It was meant to quell the tensions between North and South that arose when California applied to enter the Union as a free state. The Compromise called for California to enter as a free state while the territories of Mexico and Utah would determine through a popular vote whether or not to allow slavery. The Compromise also outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia and enacted the Fugitive Slave Law.

"Contraband" was a label given by General Benjamin Butler to slaves who fled to Union troops at Fort Monroe. After the War Department approved this action, thousands of slaves escaped to Union lines hoping to gain freedom.

Ellen Craft (1826-1897) was a slave from Georgia who, along with her husband William, escaped to the North in 1848. The light-skinned Ellen disguised herself as a sick, white male travelling to Philadelphia for treatment, and William posed as her slave. They lived in Boston until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 threatened their freedom. They then fled to England, where they remained until after the Civil War.

George Ticknor Curtis (1812−1894) was a lawyer and author who wrote such titles as Life of Daniel Webster and A Constitutional History of the United States from the Declaration of Independence to the Close of the Civil War. Despite his opposition to slavery, in 1852, while serving as a United States Commissioner in Boston, Curtis was compelled to send a former slave, Thomas Sims, back to slavery in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

William Cushing (1732-1810) served as the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice from 1780 to 1789. In 1783, he presided over the Quock Walker trial, in which the state attorney general brought a case against Nathaniel Jennison for beating Quock Walker, a slave in his household. Before the jury deliberated, Cushing instructed jury members to consider Walker a free man, since, according to the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, all men were "born free and equal." In his trial notes, Cushing wrote that "there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature."

Jefferson Davis (1808?-1889) was president and leader of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) was a reformer who served as the Union’s Superintendent of Female Nurses during the Civil War. She argued for better conditions for prisoners and the mentally ill, and army nursing care improved greatly under her leadership.

Frederick Douglass (1818-1896) was an escaped slave from Maryland who became a famous abolitionist leader, lecturer, and writer.

Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) was the Northern Democratic candidate in the 1860 presidential election. He ran on a popular sovereignty platform but lost to Abraham Lincoln.

Election of 1860 was a pivotal presidential election in which Abraham Lincoln ran against Northern Democrat Steven Douglas, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, and Constitutional Unionist John Bell. Lincoln carried the Northern states, winning him the election. His win incited Southern states’ secession from the Union.

Election of 1864 pitted Abraham Lincoln, who promised Union victory and an amendment to the Constitution banning slavery, against George McCellan, who promised peace but did not make clear whether he would allow Confederate independence or make constitutional guarantees for the illegality of slavery. Though Union setbacks threatened Lincoln’s chances, major victories in the late summer of 1864 along with soldier support secured him the win.

Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on 3 February 1870. It stated that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," thereby extending the right to vote to black men.

Emancipation Proclamation, issued 1 January 1863 by President Lincoln, declared that all slaves in the Confederate states were now free. The proclamation did not apply to the border states, however, because Lincoln feared losing these states’ support. (This followed Lincoln's preliminary proclamation of 22 September 1862, which delcared that in 100 days all slaves in the rebel states would be free.)

Eliza Lee Follen (1787-1860) was an author and abolitionist from Massachusetts.

Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carlonia, was the site of the first shots that triggered the Civil War on 12 April 1861. Jefferson Davis ordered the Confederate troops to shoot at the fort when Lincoln sent supply ships to the Union troops stationed there. In response, Lincoln called for volunteer Northern troops to “put down the rebellion.”

Abby Kelley Foster (1811-1887) was an abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and lecturer. In 1838 she was among the founders of the New England Non-Resistance Society, which condemned the use of force in the fight against slavery.

Fourteenth Amendment was ratified on 9 July 1868. It granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including recently freed slaves, and extended to these citizens the protection of civil rights.

Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850 by Congress as part of the Compromise of 1850. The act heavily increased the United States government’s role and responsibility in the capture of runaway slaves and required every Northern citizen to help recapture slaves.

William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) abolitionist and editor, was the founder of The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, and leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Thomas Gage (1721-1787) was the last royal governor of Massachusetts, appointed by the British crown in 1774. He enforced the Coercive Acts, passed by Parliament after the destruction of East India Company tea in Boston in 1773, and sent troops to Concord in April 1775, where confrontations with the colonial militia started the Revolutionary War. In May of 1774, a group of slaves unsuccessfully petitioned Gage for the abolition of slavery.

Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was the site of the federal arsenal that was raided by radical abolitionist John Brown on 16 October 1859 with the intention of arming slaves with seized weapons. Brown was captured and hanged.

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) was a slave from Edenton, North Carolina, who escaped to the North in 1842. Her 1861 memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, detailed her life as slave, her attempts to thwart the sexual advances of her master, and the seven years she spent in hiding before safely escaping to the North.

Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, revoking the ban on slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories put in place by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and instead replaced it with popular sovereignty, which allowed white men who settled in the territories to vote on whether to allow slavery. Endorsed by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas as a peaceful means of encouraging settlement in the territories, it resulted in eruptions of violence between the pro- and anti-slavery groups who rushed to settle the regions. See “Lawrence, Kansas” for more information.

La Amistad was the Cuban Schooner on which illegally abducted Africans from Sierra Leone were shipped to a Caribbean plantation. On 1 July 1839, the Africans killed the captain and seized the ship. They were sailing back to Africa when the ship was captured by the United States and the slaves imprisoned in Connecticut. President Martin Van Buren wanted to extradite the slaves to Cuba, but Northern abolitionists hoped they would regain their freedom and raised money for their defense. The case went before the Supreme Court in 1841, with John Quincy Adams representing the Africans. The Court decided in their favor and the surviving Africans returned to Sierra Leone.

Lawrence, Kansas, was founded in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 by a group of abolitionist settlers from Massachusetts.

William R. Lee was a Colonel in the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment. He was captured by the Confederates at Ball’s Bluff in October 1861 and released in February 1862 in a prisoner exchange between the North and South. He resumed his duties and commanded the Twentieth at Antietam. Due to poor physical health, however, he resigned his commission in December 1862.

The Liberator was an abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) served as the sixteenth president of the United States from 1861 to 1865. He led the North in the Civil War, preserved the Union, and issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves. He was assassinated in 1865 before he could complete his second term as president.

Market Revolution occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century. The proliferation of slave-grown, inexpensive staples like cotton, tobacco, and sugar allowed Americans to rely on a market economy—where instead of producing their own goods and food they sold their crops in order to buy other goods—and made nationwide abolition unlikely.

Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society was founded in 1835. Dedicated to the abolition of slavery through peaceful means, throughout the 1840s and 1850s it produced publications, sponsored public speakers, and held concerts and fairs.

Massachusetts State Constitution was drafted by John Adams and ratified in 1780. Its statement that “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of obtaining their safety and happiness” was crucial to ending slavery in Massachusetts.

George McClellan (1826-1885)  was a Union general who ran against Abraham Lincoln in the 1864 election. He promised peace but did not make clear whether that peace would come at the cost of a union win or whether he would keep provisions for slavery in the Constitution. He lost to Lincoln.

Mexican-American War took place between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848. At the war’s end, the U.S. had gained thousands of square miles of territory from Mexico where slavery had been banned under Mexican law but shareholders hoped could be farmed with slave-labor, leading to conflict over the spread of slavery in the United States. See “Wilmot Proviso” for more information.

Missouri Compromise of 1820 was crafted by Kentucky statesman Henry Clay to resolve the controversy over whether new state Missouri would be admitted as a slave or free state. It consisted of three parts that maintained the balance between slave and free states: Maine separated from Massachusetts and became a free state, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, and the remaining territory from the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36°30′ parallel.

New England Anti-Slavery Society, which promoted the immediate emancipation of slaves, was founded in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831.

New England Emigrant Aid Company (or Society) was founded by Massachusetts businessman Eli Thayer in 1854 to promote the settelement of Kansas by antislavery advocates. Since the Kansas-Nebraska Act stipulated that inhabitants of the Kansas territory would eventually vote to determine whether to allow slavery in its state constitution, Thayer was determined to send as many eligible (antislavery) voters to the territory as possible.

Personal Liberty Laws were passed by a number of Northern states, including Massachusetts, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These laws made it illegal for slave catchers to seize and remove runaway slaves from a particular (free) state. Many Northern states attempted to pass personal liberty laws after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, but this federal law superceded any state laws on the matter of capturing fugitive slaves.

John Pierpont (1785-1866) was a Massachusetts poet and Unitarian minister who wrote antislavery-themed poems and hymn lyrics.

Popular Sovereignty was the method by which territories could determine the legality of slavery by putting it to a vote.

Paul Joseph Revere (1832-1863) was the grandson of Paul Revere and an officer of the Twentieth Massachusetts Regiment who was captured at Ball’s Bluff by the Confederates and held prisoner until February 1862. He went on to lead a unit in the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. He was killed at Gettysburg on 4 July 1863.

George Rockwood (1822-1896) was a Captain in the Fifteenth Massachusetts Regiment who was captured at Ball’s Bluff.

Benjamin Seaver (1795-1856) served as thirteenth mayor of Boston from 1852−1853.

Second Great Awakening was a religious revival that began in the 1790s and lasted until the mid–nineteenth century. It spawned religious fervor, an increase in church membership, and inspired reform movements in the North, including abolitionism.

Secret Six were the wealthy men who financially backed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. They included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Franklin Sanborn, George Luther Stearns, Gerrit Smith, and Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe.

Robert Gould Shaw (1837-1863) was a Civil War Colonel who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all-black regiment raised in Massachusetts. He was killed in the attack on Fort Wagner on 18 July 1863. His parents, Francis Gould Shaw and Sarah Blake Shaw, were both antislavery advocates and members of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Slave-Grown Staples included products such as cotton, tobacco, and sugar that were produced cheaply by slaves and made huge profits while discouraging diversification or emancipation.

Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869) served as Abraham Lincoln's Attorney General from December 1860 to March 1861 then, after the Civil War broke out, as Secretary of War. He continued in President Johnson's cabinet after Lincoln’s assassination but resigned after Johnson’s impeachment trial. He was later nominated to the Supreme Court but died shortly after his confirmation.

Hannah Stevenson (1807-1887) was the first woman from Massachusetts to volunteer as a nurse during the Civil War. She served in multiple Union hospitals between 1861 and 1863.

Joseph Story (1779-1845) was a Massachusetts jurist appointed to the Supreme Court by James Madison in 1811. Though personally against slavery, he often felt that he must uphold it in his rulings. However, he tried to find ways around it and interpreted the Treaty of 1795 to justify the release of the Africans in the Amistad Case of 1841.

Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on 6 December 1865. It ended the institution of slavery in America, declaring: "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

St. George Tucker (1752-1827) was a lawyer and United States District Court Judge in Virginia who urged the abolition of slavery. In 1796, he published A Dissertation on Slavery With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia and communicated with Jeremy Belknap regarding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

Underground Railroad was a vast, informal network that emerged in the late eighteenth century and helped fugitive slaves escape to the North or Canada. Taking its name in 1831 from the new steam railroads, participants borrowed railroad terminology to describe the places and people involved in the escape. Though whites took part in it, it was mostly run by blacks.

Wafers were printed antislavery slogans that were used to seal or close envelopes.

David Walker (1796-1830) was a black abolitionist in Boston. In 1829 he published the radical An Appeal to the Colored People of the World, which called on slaves to revolt against their masters.

Jonathan Walker (1799-1878) was a ship captain and fervent abolitionist who attempted to help seven slaves escape to freedom by sailing them from Florida to the West Indies in 1844. He was caught, arrested, convicted, and sentenced, and as punishment his hand was branded with the letters “S.S.” for slave stealer.

Quock Walker (b. 1753) was a Massachusetts slave who was promised freedom from his first master after his death and ran away when his new owner, Nathaniel Jennison, refused to fulfill this promise. Recaptured and beaten at Jennison’s hand, Walker then sued for assault and battery without right, claiming he was a free man. The jury agreed with Walker, contributing to the end of slavery in Massachusetts.

Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was a prominent Massachusetts senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate for the Whig Party. As senator he supported the Fugitive Slave Act and other measures as a means of keeping the Union intact.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was brought over to Boston as a slave aboard the ship Phillis. She was purchased by a prominent Boston merchant family who taught her to read and write. In 1773 she published a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, making her the first published African American woman in the United States. Emancipated after the death of her master, she made an unhappy marriage and died impoverished at age 31, without producing another book.

Jonathan Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was a Massachusetts poet and abolitionist who made Captain Jonathan Walker’s story famous in his poem "The Branded Hand."

Wilmot Proviso was introduced by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot in 1846. It stated that any territory acquired through the Mexican-American War would be free territory. Southern leaders threatened to secede if it was passed, and though it was passed by the House of Representatives it failed in the Senate.