The End of Slavery in the US

Lincoln was hesitant to instigate any laws regarding slavery and its end. His objective, above all else, was the restoration of the Union. But anti-slavery advocates in the North would settle for nothing less than the complete abolition of slavery in order to restore the Union. The South continued to fight for the right to retain their peculiar institution. The border states were divided between the two. To abolish slavery would mean the loss of one part of the nation, while allowing slavery to continue drew harsh criticism and loss of support in the North.

Finally, in September of 1862, Lincoln announced the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, the legislation that would free only those slaves in the Confederate States of America. It went into effect on 1 January 1863. News of the end of slavery in the South spread, but it soon became clear that the legislation was only effective on paper. Slaveholders in the Confederacy refused to recognize the legitimacy of the proclamation.

At the beginning of his administration as president, Lincoln had stated that African-Americans were entitled to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, while making it clear that he did not advocate suffrage for them. By the end of his administration, Lincoln’s attitudes toward African-American suffrage and colonization seemed to have changed. Those around him at the time later claimed Lincoln still supported colonization. But his public comments suggested that he had abandoned the idea after the passage of legalization for enlistment into the military for African-Americans. On his second inaugural speech, Lincoln supported a form of limited suffrage for African-Americans.


Lincoln’s assassination, illustration by Currier & Ives

Whatever his plans, they were all lost on 14 April 1865. While attending a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC, an actor and Southern sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth gained access to the presidential box and shot Lincoln point-blank in the back of the head (pictured above). The president lived for several hours without regaining consciousness before he died. General Robert E. Lee had officially surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox only six days earlier. The civil war was over, but the violence had not yet come to an end.

With Lincoln’s death, many felt that the South had lost their best friend. Lincoln had been planning reconstruction on a basis of forgiveness and reunification. Instead, without Lincoln’s rational thinking to hold emotions in check, those who resented the South and blamed it for the war took advantage of the opportunity to punish its people. Harsh laws and policies were instigated that made recovery and reconstruction hard for the South. In turn, many Southerners saw African-Americans as the cause of all their troubles, and took out their anger on the defenseless former slaves.

African-Americans had also lost a friend in Abraham Lincoln. The reconstruction era that followed the American Civil War was hardly a better time for former slaves and other African-Americans than it had been before. They were still seen as inferior to Anglo-Americans. Even in states where African-American men had voting rights and could run for public office, they still found themselves harassed and sometimes brutally attacked and even murdered, often with no provocation other than the colour of their skin.

Financially, the South was in trouble. Their economy had been ripped apart and their labour force was gone. Former slaveholders often had difficulty looking to the needs of their own families, much less helping the people they had once owned. Relocating to the industrialized North where the economy was better did little to improve life for African-Americans. Few in the North saw them as equals and many blamed them for the war, as they had in the South.

It would be another hundred years before the United States would begin to effectively change its attitude regarding the rights and fair treatment of African-Americans and other minorities. The American Civil War had ripped apart a nation, destroyed a way of life, and made life harder for African-Americans, who now found themselves without protectors or providers. But they did, finally – after two hundred years of bondage – have their freedom.


Emancipation statue in Washington DC, photograph by the US government

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