Civil War and Aftermath

U.S. Supreme Court
Dred Scott Ruling Denies Citizenship to All Negroes

Pittsburgh 1800

In 1833, Dred Scott, an illiterate Black slave, lived in Missouri, a slave state. Scott was purchased by U.S. Army surgeon John Emerson, who took him to Illinois, a free state, and later to Fort Snelling, in the northern part of the Louisiana Purchase, also free.

In 1846, with the help of antislavery lawyers, Scott filed suit in the state courts of Missouri claiming that living on free soil had made him a free man. The case eventually made its way into the federal courts. It is cited as Dred Scott v. Sandford [sic], as by this time Scott’s slaveholder was John F. A. Sanford, of New York.

Scott’s attempt to become free, culminating in an 1857 Supreme Court decision, was bitterly disappointing. In the climate of a nation deeply divided over the question of whether there would be slavery in the territories, the ruling pushed the nation a little further along the road to Civil War.

The following was the court’s main findings:

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Negroes, both slaves and free Blacks, were not citizens and therefore could not sue in the federal courts; a slave’s residence in a free state did not make him a free man; and

The Missouri Compromise of 1820, prohibiting slavery in parts of the Louisiana Purchase, was an unconstitutional use of Congressional power.

The Supreme Court hoped to settle all questions arising about slavery by saying that the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights were not intended to apply to Black Americans. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote that, at the time the Constitution was adopted, Blacks had been “regarded as beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In addition, Taney wrote that any law excluding slaves from the territories was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition against the seizure of property without due process of law. In other words, slavery could not be banned in the territories, and any slaveholder would be free to take his slaves into any western territory.

This ruling suited President James Buchanan, who felt that Kansas should be a slave state and that Southern slaveholders should have the right to take their chattel there. The newly formed Republican Party, according to a party historian, saw the Dred Scott decision as part of a “conspiracy” of the Southerners to nationalize slavery.

Dred Scott, his wife, and children were returned to his original slaveholding family—now his friends who freed them shortly after the Supreme Court ruling. Scott made his living as a hotel porter in St. Louis until his death on September 17, 1858, little more than a year after the decision that bears his name.

Republicans Convene in Pittsburgh, Oppose Slavery

William Penn

Although America flourished with a belief in democracy and a willingness to compromise, slavery added tension to its early history. By 1854, decisions about slavery in the Western territories were tearing the nation apart.

Would the territories be free or would they permit slavery? When the Kansas- Nebraska Act allowed voters in those territories to decide whether or not to permit slavery, people in the North were outraged.

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In February, a group of citizens met in Ripon, Wis., to form what they named the Republican Party. The new party stood for the belief that slavery must be barred from the Western territories.

In Pittsburgh, antislavery sentiments intensified. David N. White, editor of the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette, sometimes called the father of the Republican Party, organized two meetings in the city: a county convention, followed by a state organizing meeting. White told the assemblies, “The Democratic Party is tied hand and foot to the … slave masters.”

White met privately with Salmon P. Chase, who would become Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. Chase liked what he heard about the Republican Party. The next year a national convention was held in Pittsburgh, welcoming all who opposed slavery. Some 500 Republicans came from 24 states and two territories, both slave and free. The group began the process of solidifying a party and formulating a platform. As an outcome of this meeting, Abraham Lincoln (who did not attend) renounced his Whig political affiliation and joined the Republicans.

Four parties entered candidates in the 1860 presidential race. The Republicans selected the little-known Lincoln. Although Lincoln won less than 40 percent of the popular vote, he receieved 180 electoral college votes, a clear and decisive victory.

In March 1861, Lincoln traveled by train to his inauguration, stopping in Pittsburgh on the way. Though it rained a chilling, persistent rain, a crowd of 4,000 lined the streets for hours, waiting to see their new leader. Lincoln told the crowd: “I couldn’t help thinking as I traveled here, that if all … people were in favor of the Union, it can certainly be in no great danger.”

Lincoln was wrong about the strength of the Union. Even before his inauguration, South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, followed by six other Southern states. President Lincoln, who revered the Union, made ready for war. His course ended with the abolition of slavery—and with his own assassination.

The Civil War

Map of Border Dispute

By the Civil War’s beginning, slavery had been the dominant social issue in the United States. The nation’s westward expansion following the Mexican-American War pitted proslavery politicians from the South who wished to spread slavery into the new lands against those from the North who wished to abolish or contain it. Several compromises during the 1850s attempted to preserve the power balance by designating certain states and territories as free or slave, while allowing the status of other states and territories to be decided by citizens living there.Abolitionists felt these measures only perpetuated slavery while their foes, belonging largely to the small but all-powerful classes of Southern planters and professionals, sensed a Northern effort to end the crux of their wealth and influence.

The Southern states moved to secede shortly after Abraham Lincoln of the antislavery Republican Party won the 1860 presidential election. Politicians in Washington, D.C., scrambled for another compromise, and Lincoln made assurances that he would only contain and not abolish slavery, but South Carolina seceded in December 1860.

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The deep South states—those states with the most slaves—followed in January 1861 with the upper South withdrawing from the Union after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and the start of the Civil War.

Despite the furor over slavery in the run up to the Civil War, ending slavery was not the stated purpose for the war at first. Lincoln held that his goal was to preserve the Union and quell the Southern rebellion. Although committed to abolitionism, Lincoln feared that preaching emancipation would drive away the support of Northern Democrats and people in the Union slave states of Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware. Also, many Republicans and Northerners, although opposed to slavery, doubted that Blacks had the ability to be free and care for themselves.

In the South, Confederate politicians rallied people around the right to live free of Northern meddling rather than around the slavery issue, because only a minority of Southerners owned slaves. Instead, slaveholders—who held nearly all the power and wealth—warned of Northern efforts to disturb the structure of White male supremacy. Many in the South resisted this message, however, and resented the control of the slaveholders, particularly in the aforementioned border South that refused to secede and in regions populated mostly by small landholders.

As the war dragged on into 1862 with limited success for the Union Army, Lincoln, already under pressure from abolitionists, saw an opportunity to make the war about ending slavery. Emancipation, he hoped, would help reinvigorate stagnant recruitment efforts, particularly by attracting the scores of free Black men eager to liberate the South. Moreover, as the bloodshed escalated, much of public opinion had shifted from wanting to merely restore the old Union to wanting to crush the Southern aristocracy and forge a new nation without slavery. Reports of the heroics of Black Union troops and of slaves abandoning their duties and plantations as Union troops advanced helped convince many Northerners that Blacks wanted—and deserved—freedom.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, granting freedom to all slaves living in the Confederacy. The proclamation symbolized Lincoln’s aim of abolishing slavery, but it was controversial: it applied to rebel territory where it could not be enforced, but not to border slave states under Union control. Southerners balked and Northerners criticized the proclamation’s limitations. But the document ensured that the Union would not accept slavery. As the federal army advanced through the South, scholars estimate that as many as 700,000 slaves, or around 20 percent of all slaves, escaped to Union lines. They exercised their liberty as contractors and paid workmen and served as soldiers along with 34,000 free Blacks until the Confederate surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

Emancipation Proclamation

Map of Border Dispute

“… That on the 1st day of January, in the year of our Lord 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free …”
—Emancipation Proclamation

As the nation entered its third year of civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The five-page document declared immediate and irreversible freedom for all slaves in states still in a state of secession from the United States government, paving the way for the eventual abolition of American slavery.

The proclamation consisted of two executive orders. The first, issued on September 22, 1862, was an announcement outlining the intent to abolish slavery within territories comprising the Confederate States of America that chose not to return to the Union by the end of 1862.

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The second, issued on January 1, 1863, specifically named states in which the proclamation would apply—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

The proclamation came at a time when the call for nationwide abolition had reached a fever pitch. Congress had outlawed slavery in all U.S. territories in June 1862. Under pressure to take steps toward emancipation since the beginning of his administration, Lincoln first presented a draft of the proclamation to his cabinet and discussed its possible ramifications in the summer of 1862.

Initially, abolitionists viewed the order as ineffective in answering the question of slavery in America. They noted that despite the magnitude of the proclamation’s scope, the document itself effectively freed very few slaves. Indeed, the proclamation’s provisions did not apply to border states fighting on behalf of the Union, nor did it affect slaveholders in Southern territories that had come under Union control, which most notably included several counties and parishes in Virginia and Louisiana. In essence, many viewed the move as a punishment toward rebelling states rather than a move toward the abolition of slavery.

The proclamation’s greatest support came from those who viewed it as an effective military measure designed to both progressively deprive the Confederacy of slave labor and bring additional men into the Union Army. In the final two years of the Civil War, 180,000 African Americans enlisted with the Union Army, constituting 10 percent of the Union’s forces by the war’s conclusion. The proclamation also cast a moral light on the Union’s side of the conflict. Foreign nations such as France and Britain, which already had abolished slavery, found it impossible to support the Confederacy without supporting the institution of slavery.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in America, its ramifications made abolition a feature issue for the remainder of the Civil War.

The Amendments: Outlaw Slavery, Establish Rights

Pittsburgh Gazette

Although an important symbol of the abolition of slavery, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was unenforceable in the rebel states, over which Union laws had no effect. Many, including the President, questioned whether the proclamation, a wartime measure, could be legally enforced once the war ended. To ensure slavery effectively would be outlawed in the post-Civil War era, laws in the form of amendments to the U.S. Constitution would have to be passed. To rectify the shortcomings of the good-intentioned yet flawed Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were passed in rapid-fire order.

The 13th Amendment, proclaimed December 18, 1865, represented the first attempt at broadscale social reform through the amendment process of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude was the logical culmination of Lincoln’s emancipation policies and the legal victory for which two generations of abolitionists had worked. The end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment gave nearly 4 million slaves their freedom.

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The 14th Amendment, proclaimed July 28, 1868, was originally enacted to protect the freedman from the stripping of his rights by Southern states. By making the Negro a citizen and by making the federal government responsible for his privileges and immunities, the 14th Amendment sought to build a wall of federal protection around him. Also, before its adoption, the Bill of Rights only protected citizens from invasions of individual liberty by the federal government. The 14th Amendment extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to state and local government actions. This amendment also provided the constitutional means to achieve social progress with the inclusion of arguably the two most important phrases in American constitutional law: due process and equal protection.

At the end of the Civil War, there was little support for allowing African Americans to vote. However, by 1866, the issue of voting rights for African Americans had a prominent place on lawmakers’ agendas. After a long struggle, the 15th Amendment, proclaimed March 30, 1870, granted African American men suffrage. However, this hard fought victory did not come without obstacles. Two decades a fter the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Democrats in several states developed ways to limit the African American vote. Through the institution of poll taxes, gerrymandering, and property ownership qualifications, the vote moved further from the reach of Southern African Americans.

In the coming years, progress continued to move backward as African Americans were regularly denied the use of railroad cars, hotels, and other public facilities. Violence against African Americans also increased dramatically in the 1860s particularly that by a secret society called the Ku Klux Klan, which was founded in Tennessee in 1865.

Reflections on Free at Last?

The exhibition Free at Last? presents a sobering, document-based examination of the development of local human and race relations in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the1808 Federal act that abolished the legal importation into the United States of African slaves. In this exhibition, we take a historic journey that is by turns jarring, sad, inspiring, and at times anger provoking, but always, we hope, thought provoking.

We observe the legislative leadership of Pennsylvania in grappling with the institution of slavery in 1780 by acting to gradually abolish it, and doing so in a manner that changed the course of the future for African American children in the Commonwealth.

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Pennsylvania’s Act of Gradual Abolition did not usher the children of slaves into freedom but into a status known as indentured servitude, which exposed them until the age of 28 to conditions that also were perilous and confined. The indenture system is at the heart of the 55 Allegheny County records donated to the Senator John Heinz History Center and featured in this exhibition. As we present these accounts of the indentures of some of the Black children of Western Pennsylvania—or those brought here—we place them and other slavery-related accounts displayed here in the national context of the American slavery drama.

That Pittsburgh’s Black children and Black community came through this ordeal with such determination and positive attributes is a tribute to them and a credit to the small but brave band of local White activists who helped them in their struggle.

It is our hope that by seeing specific examples of how slavery in America, Pennsylvania, and in Pittsburgh arose, flourished, and was abolished, we might enhance our insights into understanding contemporary issues that inform life in Western Pennsylvania.

In the days since the close of the antebellum period, Pittsburgh’s African Americans—as those in the rest of the nation—have made enormous progress across the range of human endeavors. Even so, the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work’s Center on Race and Social Problems published a 2007 landmark study that gives credence to the belief held by many Pittsburghers that Black residents continue to experience differences and disparities in the region’s quality of life.

It is the hope of the University of Pittsburgh, in partnership with the History Center, that the “Free at Last?” exhibition inspires community efforts to fully free Black Pittsburghers from a legacy of slavery so that they may participate in the mainstream of progress that ushers in the next great Pittsburgh renaissance.