Abraham Lincoln (12 February 1809–15 April 1865)
Abraham Lincoln is possibly the figure most closely associated with the slavery issue in the United States, but slavery was not his primary concern when he was elected as the sixteenth president of the United States in November 1860. While he had made clear his opposition to slavery throughout his political career, he expressed the opinion on more than one occasion that he did not believe that African-Americans were equal to whites. He also supported colonization for the same reasons that Thomas Jefferson had – both men felt that African-Americans could not assimilate into white society.
Abraham Lincoln, photograph by Alexander Hesler
But the general consensus in the South was that Lincoln was a threat to their ‘peculiar institution’, and when he was elected to office many slaveholding states followed through on their threats to secede from the Union. Within months, the war that so many had foreseen and feared had begun.
Lincoln’s priority was preservation of the Union; the abolition of slavery was secondary. He made his position clear, stating that he would do whatever it took to preserve the Union, even if it meant preserving slavery, ending slavery, or finding common ground somewhere in the middle.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had educated himself and who advocated for the rights of slaves, met often with Lincoln to discuss equality for African-Americans, especially its soldiers. It was Douglass who encouraged Lincoln to provide equal pay, uniforms and armaments for African-American troops who fought for the Union.
While Lincoln is known as the man who ended slavery, in truth he was reluctant to do so. He felt that the Constitution did not provide for government to end the institution. When South Carolina was followed by ten other states in seceding from the Union to form the Confederate States of America, Lincoln refused to recognize it as a nation, saying that it was unconstitutional. He had declared martial law in some border states, states where slavery was still legal, but that hadn’t joined the Confederacy. Even though the Union had been divided, he was still hesitant to outlaw slavery for fear of losing the support of the border states. But finally, in 1863, Lincoln declared slavery illegal in the states that had seceded.
Lincoln was re-elected as president shortly before the war ended. Whatever plans he might have had in mind for rebuilding and reuniting the nation never saw fruition. While attending a production at the Ford’s Theatre on the night on 14 April 1865, a Southern supporter, John Wilkes Booth, who saw Lincoln as a tyrant, forced his way into Lincoln’s box and shot the president at point-blank range in front of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The president lingered for several hours before dying on the morning of 15 April. The secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, is said to have saluted and uttered the words, ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’ Lincoln was the first US president to be assassinated.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy (9 November 1802–7 November 1837)
Elijah Parish Lovejoy was not the only abolitionist who died for what he believed in, but he is one of the better-known martyrs of the abolitionist movement. Lovejoy was murdered by a mob in Alton, Illinois, because he continued to publish abolitionist materials, even after his having press destroyed three times.
Elijah Parish Lovejoy, portrait by Jacques Reich
Tensions ran high in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1837. The city stood on the banks of the Mississippi River, dividing it the pro-slavery state of Missouri from the free state of Illinois. Lovejoy had criticized a local judge for his failure to indict anyone for the lynching of an African-American.
Lovejoy had moved his family and his press to Alton in 1836 and established the Alton Observer. Even though Alton was in a free state, it was still a focal point for slave catchers and slavery supporters because of its proximity to the slave state of Missouri.
On 7 November 1837, a mob of pro-slavery supporters approached the warehouse where Lovejoy had hidden his press. They opened fire on the building, and Lovejoy and his men responded in kind, killing a man named Bishop. The mob found a ladder and used it to set fire to the warehouse roof. Lovejoy and another man came out and pushed the ladder down before hurrying back inside. When the ladder was raised again, Lovejoy and his friend ran out again to push it down. This time, he was shot dead.
The local district attorney prosecuted the case, but failed to make a conviction. Abolitionists were outraged, and Lovejoy was elevated to the status of martyr.
After Lovejoy’s murder, his brothers Joseph and Owen wrote a memoir of their brother and his defence of the freedom of the press. Other honours to Lovejoy include a monument erected near his grave in Alton; and a local African-American community was renamed Lovejoy, as was a library at Southern Illinois University. The Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award is a journalism award given each year by Colby College; and Reed College annually awards the Elijah Parish and Owen Lovejoy Scholarship.
Frederick (Bailey) Douglass (c.1818–20 February 1895)
The title of Renaissance Man is probably the best way to describe Frederick Douglass. Born a slave and denied even the most basic education, Douglass rose to become a man of intelligence, principles and influence.
Frederick’s mother was a slave named Harriet Bailey. The identity of his father is uncertain, but it is believed to be his mother’s owner, Anthony Bailey. While his mother worked in the fields, Frederick was raised by his grandmother. At the age of twelve, he went to live with a relative of his owner whose wife began teaching Frederick to read. When her husband learnt of it, he demanded his wife desist. Not only was it illegal to educate a slave, but it was believed that if a slave learnt to read, he might become dissatisfied with his lot in life and attempt to rise above it.
But Douglass had already obtained the rudimentary skills of reading and continued to teach himself using the Bible and newspapers.
In 1833, Frederick was hired out to a poor farmer named Edward Covey. Covey was known as a slave breaker and 16-year-old Frederick was whipped on a regular basis. On the verge of defeat, Frederick steeled himself and fought back. Covey lost the fight and could have sent Frederick to jail, where he would have been executed without trial. But Covey didn’t want anyone to know that he had been bested in a fight with a slave and so kept quiet.
After three attempts, Frederick finally managed to escape in 1838, and married a free African-American woman named Anna Murray. Before long, he became acquainted with abolitionists and earned a reputation as an orator, telling his story of slavery and escape to audiences all over New England, and later in the United Kingdom. It was while he was in Britain in 1847 that funds were collected to purchase Douglass’ freedom.
Douglass wrote three versions of his life under the name Frederick Douglass. He also owned and edited five newspapers, including the North Star. He was known as an orator, a social reformer and a statesman. During the American Civil War, he fought for the equality of black soldiers and supported women’s suffrage.
After the war, Douglass held several government positions, including US representative to Haiti. He was the first African-American to receive a vote for president of the United States from a major political party.
Douglass lost his wife, Anna, in 1882. He remarried in 1884 to Helen Pitts, a white feminist. The marriage was controversial, not only because of their difference in race, but also because Helen was twenty years younger than Douglass.
Douglass died in 1895 at Cedar Hill, a home that he had purchased in 1877. He and Anna had expanded the house from fourteen rooms to twenty-one, and purchased surrounding lots to expand the property to fifteen acres. Overlooking the Anacostia River as well as the city of Washington DC, the house is now maintained by the National Park Service.
Henry Clay (12 April 1777–29 June 1852)
Henry Clay was known as an orator, statesman and peacekeeper. Born the son of a Virginia farmer, his father died when he was only four and left him heir to two slaves. His mother remarried and his stepfather moved the family to Richmond, Virginia where Henry worked first as a shop assistant, and later in the Court of Chancery. He showed an aptitude for law and received his legal education at the College of William and Mary. After being accepted to the Bar, he set up a law practice in Lexington, Kentucky in 1797.
Clay’s legal skills led him to be interested in politics. In 1803, he was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly and advocated the state’s gradual emancipation of slavery. It was the beginning of what would be a long career in politics. Clay was appointed to various seats and elected three times to the United States House of Representatives where he served as Speaker of the House. He was the ninth United States Secretary of State and served four times as a United States Senator.
Clay watched as the balance of power between slaveholders and anti-slavery advocates swung back and forth, and feared for the growth and stability of the United States, a nation still in its infancy. In 1820, the Missouri Territory, part of the Louisiana Purchase, applied for statehood. Admission would mean that there would be twelve slave states to eleven free. In an effort to keep the peace in Congress, Clay proposed the Missouri Compromise in which Missouri would be allowed to enter as a slave state and the state of Maine would enter the Union as free soil. It also determined that any states north of the latitude 36 degrees 30 minutes would be free, with Missouri as the only exception.
Clay also prevented the South’s first threat to secede over the Tariff of 1828. The tariff was intended to help protect the industrial growth in the North, but it also put a financial burden on the agricultural South. The State of South Carolina refused to pay the tariffs and threatened secession. Matters grew worse until Clay managed to broker a deal in Congress to gradually lower the tariffs. It was a clear warning signal that tensions between the North and South over economics and slavery were mounting.
Clay also foresaw that admitting Texas as a slave state would increase tension over slavery and provoke Mexico into war. He would later propose resolutions known as the Compromise of 1850 to appease both North and South over expansion policies regarding slavery.
In spite of his heritage as a slave owner and representative of a slave state, Henry Clay served the Union until his death from tuberculosis in 1852 at the age of seventy-five. Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi said of Clay, ‘Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860–61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war.’
Jefferson Davis (3 June 1808–6 December 1889)
Born the son of a plantation owner in Mississippi, Davis spent his formative years in Louisiana and Mississippi. His schooling included the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he graduated to become a second lieutenant in United States Army. Davis saw action in the Black Hawk and the Mexican-American Wars. His career ended when he fell in love with Sarah Knox Taylor, the daughter of his commanding general, Zachary Taylor. Davis and Sarah were married in June of 1835, but Sarah died of malaria in September of that same year.
Davis moved to Brierfield Plantation in Warren County, Mississippi and lived a life of seclusion, studying government and history and discussing politics with his brother Joseph. He began his political career in 1844 when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.
In 1845, Davis married again, this time to Varina Howell. They had six children, but only one reached adulthood and married. Shortly after, Davis returned to the military and fought in the Mexican-American War. Davis formed the volunteer regiment, the Mississippi Rifles, trained them and led them into battle. His valour earned him the respect of Mississippi’s governor who appointed Davis to the seat of the late Jesse Speight. Davis served out the remainder of Speight’s term. He was re-elected to the Senate, but resigned to make a bid for the governor’s seat of Mississippi, which he lost. He remained politically active and was appointed secretary of war in 1853 by newly elected President Franklin Pierce. When Pierce lost his bid for re-election, Davis ran for the US Senate and won.
During his term, Davis became seriously ill and spent the summer of 1858 in Portland, Maine. While there, he travelled to Boston twice to speak in opposition to secession and to urge the preservation of the Union. Davis believed that each state had the sovereign right to secede, but knew that the North would never tolerate the peaceful secession of the Southern states. As a former secretary of war, he also knew that if it came to war, the South was ill prepared in terms of military and naval resources.
Lincoln’s election accelerated the inevitable. When Davis received official notice of Mississippi’s secession on 9 January 1861, he delivered his farewell address to the Senate, offered his resignation and returned to Mississippi.
Within days, Davis was offered a commission as a major general in the Confederate Army. But on 9 February 1861, he was named provisional president of the Confederate States of America at a constitutional convention in Montgomery, Alabama, the Confederacy’s first capitol. The Confederacy’s seat of power was moved to Richmond, Virginia in May 1861 and Davis and his family had already moved into the White House of the Confederacy when he was elected to a six-year term as the Confederacy’s only president.
Davis attempted to avoid war. He appointed a Peace Commission to try to resolve the differences between the Union and the Confederacy, but the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the attack which led to war, came before the commission could travel to Washington DC, to begin its work of negotiation.
The threat of invasion by Federal troops forced Davis to flee Richmond in April 1865. Later that month, he received a letter from General Robert E. Lee, his commanding officer, announcing his official surrender. On 5 May 1865, Davis met with his cabinet and officially dissolved the Confederate government. He was captured on 10 May 1865 in Irwinville, Georgia, and held as a prisoner for two years at Fort Monroe, Virginia. One year later, he was indicted for treason. It was another year before he was released on bail. The charges against him were finally dropped in February 1869.
Davis later wrote his account of the war, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He also toured the South, attending ‘Lost Cause’ ceremonies and receiving a warm reception. In 1889, he wrote a second book, A Short History of the Confederate States of America. He died two months later, on 6 December 1889, in New Orleans. He was eighty-one.
William Lloyd Garrison (12 December 1805–24 May 1879)
A colleague of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison was a white indentured servant who, once a free man, became an attorney. After taking a stand for abolition, he was at first known as a Gradualist, the branch of abolitionists who supported the gradual emancipation of slaves. Later, Garrison’s sentiments changed and he became an Immediatist, an abolitionist who supported freeing all slaves immediately without compensation to their owners for loss of property. Garrison was an articulate speaker, but was also known as a radical who stressed non-violent resistance. He was also among the early male supporters of women’s suffrage.
William Lloyd Garrison
In 1831, Garrison began publishing The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper. In 1833, he founded the American Anti-Slavery Society, along with fellow abolitionists Theodore Weld, Lewis Tappan, Arthur Tappan, Henry B. Stanton, and James G. Birney. By 1838, it had almost a quarter of a million members.
While publishing another abolitionist newspaper, Genius of Universal Emancipation, Garrison introduced a column called The Black List in which he listed reports of brutal acts within the slave community. Garrison’s outspoken opposition to slavery enraged Southern slaveholders so much that the state of Georgia offered a $5,000 reward for Garrison’s arrest and conviction. At one point, he was dragged through the streets of Boston with a noose around his neck.
After the war ended, Garrison shut down The Liberator and parted company with the American Anti-Slavery Society after he was voted out of office as their president. He refused to associate with the organization for the rest of his life but he continued to support causes such as women’s suffrage and civil rights for African-Americans.
On 25 January 1876, Garrison’s wife, Helen died after a long illness. Grief-stricken, he turned to spiritualism in hopes of contacting her. On 24 May 1879, Garrison succumbed to kidney failure at the home of his daughter, Fanny, in New York City surrounded by his five surviving children.
Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743–4 July 1826)
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was well known as a statesman, and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. But his interests went far beyond politics. He studied horticulture, architecture, archeology, paleontology, and music, and founded the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson, portrait by Gilbert Stuart
Jefferson was also a planter and slave owner who reputedly had a relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, which produced several children. The relationship supposedly began when Jefferson lived in Paris while he was the United States Minister to France. The question of whether or not the relationship ever existed is contentious, even though such relationships between slaves and their owners were not uncommon.
Jefferson is best known as the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was one of five men chosen by the Second Continental Congress to draft a declaration to accompany their resolution of independence from Great Britain. The five-man committee decided that Jefferson should author the document. It was approved on 4 July 1776, but not until after a passage regarding the slave trade was cut. But Jefferson’s preamble is still recognized and often quoted as a statement of human rights:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Paul Cuffee (17 January 1759–9 September 1817)
Paul Cuffee’s rise from farmer’s son to wealthy shipowner might not sound remarkable unless you consider that he was African-American and that in his lifetime free African-Americans were not entitled to vote in most states and slavery was still a common practice. His mother was a Native American of the Wampanoag tribe and his father was born in Africa, a member of the Ashanti tribe, and transported to the colonies as a slave. His owner, a Quaker, felt that slave ownership and his religion were in conflict, and so freed Cuffee’s father. After gaining his freedom, Cuffee’s father, Kofti, worked to support his family, eventually acquiring a farm which Cuffee and his siblings inherited. Cuffee became one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the United States.
Silhouette of Paul Cuffee, engraved for Abrm. L. Pennock by Mason & Maas, from a drawing by John Pole
Cuffee believed in colonization for African-Americans, but not for the same reasons as white supporters of the concept. He saw the return of free African-Americans to Africa as an opportunity for commerce and the spread of Christianity. In 1816, Cuffee arrived in the colony of Sierra Leone with thirty-eight colonists, having financed a large portion of the journey himself. Cuffee continued to attempt to help relocate African-Americans to Africa and to Haiti from Sierra Leone. He died in 1817, at the age of fifty-eight, years before the emancipation of his fellow African-Americans.
John Brown (9 May 1800–2 December 1859)
John Brown was an abolitionist who believed that armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery and who was prepared to back up his words with action. In 1855, his sons living in Kansas told him of the violence among pro-slavery militia and so Brown began travelling west to Kansas, collecting support from other abolitionists along the way.
John Brown, daguerreotype by Martin M. Lawrence
Once in Kansas with five of his sons, Brown was involved in more than one violent episode. After the assault on Lawrence, Kansas by slavery supporters, Brown retaliated and led an attack on Pottawatomie, Kansas. Among his group of seven men were four of his sons and one son-in-law. Three supporters of slavery were dragged from their homes and hacked to death. Two more were killed before the sun rose. Brown escaped the pursuing peacekeeping troops of the US army.
He fled to New York where he asked abolitionists for funds to provide weapons for a slave army. Brown’s plan was to establish a stronghold where both white and African-Americans could stage a revolt that would spread across the country and put an end to slavery.
But Brown’s plan was betrayed, forcing him into hiding. He returned to Kansas and led a raid into the neighbouring slave state of Missouri, killing slaveholders and freeing eleven slaves. Once again, Brown escaped, this time taking the freed slaves with him into Canada.
In July 1859, Brown finally began to prepare for full-scale revolt. He rented a house in Maryland just across the river from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where supporters arrived in the night to join him.
In the early hours of 17 October 1859, Brown and his followers took possession of the Federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry with the intent of stealing the weapons inside. Among his twenty-one followers were three of his sons and five African-Americans, armed with rifles and Brown’s Pikes, a weapon Brown designed himself.
A neighbour heard the disturbance and raised an alarm that drew the military. Marines led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart were sent to deal with the situation. By the time it was over, Brown and four followers had been captured, twelve were dead, including two of Brown’s sons, with five more escaped to Canada. Brown was charged with treason, murder and criminal conspiracy with slaves by the State of Virginia. On 2 December 1859, with an armed militia surrounding the gallows to prevent any rescue attempts, John Brown was executed by hanging. Six more of his followers, men who had taken part in the raid, were also tried and hanged.
Harriet Tubman (c.1820–10 March 1913)
As the demand of banning slavery within the United States grew, so did the number of people who were willing to risk their safety and security to help runaway slaves. Harriet Tubman was a fugitive slave with a high price on her head. Born Araminta Ross in Dorchester County, Maryland, in around 1820, Tubman escaped to freedom in 1849, leaving behind her husband, John Tubman, who refused to accompany her. She could have remained in relative safety, protected by abolitionists in Philadelphia, but instead, she chose to return frequently to Maryland to act as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, an impromptu system of individuals aiding runaways. Tubman often worked in disguise and was said to carry a gun. Accounts vary as to how many slaves were led to freedom through her efforts, ranging from seventy to three hundred.
Harriet Tubman, photograph by H. B. Lindsley
Tubman was expected to participate in John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859, but she never arrived and never offered an explanation. One explanation that has been offered is Harriet had been unexpectedly stricken with an ailment that had been known to come upon her from time to time following an incident in her childhood. At the age of twelve, Harriet was accidentally hit by a weight from a scale system thrown by her owner at another slave. For the remainder of her life, Harriet suffered unbearable headaches and blackouts.
During the American Civil War, Tubman continued to assist slaves. But she also used the skills acquired as an Underground Railroad conductor to help spy and scout for the Union. She was also known to lend her hand to nursing the sick and wounded.
After the war, Tubman moved to Auburn, New York, where she had previously lived. In 1870, she married again, this time to former soldier Nelson Davis. In 1913, she died of pneumonia at the age of ninety-three.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (14 June 1811–1 July 1896)
Born into a family of ministers and abolitionists who worked with the Underground Railroad, Harriet Beecher Stowe was a bold free-thinker. She is the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the novel that is said to have thrown the spark that ignited the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln spoke of her as the ‘little lady who started this great big war.’
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Stowe’s book enraged Southern slaveholders, and some Southern authors retaliated with their own ‘Anti-Tom’ literature, defending slavery and condemning Stowe’s work. One of the most popular of these novels was The Planter’s Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz, a story seen through the eyes of a Northern abolitionist’s daughter who marries a slave owner.
Harriet attended a girl’s seminary school operated by her sister, Catharine, who was an author in her own right. Stowe’s education included maths, literature and languages, things were typical of a ‘male education’ in the early nineteenth century. At the age of twenty-one, she went to Cincinnati, Ohio where her father, Lyman Beecher was president of Lane Theological Seminary. It was there that she met Calvin Ellis Stowe, a professor at the school. On 6 January 1836, they married and together produced seven children. She died on 1 July 1896 in Hartford, Connecticut at the age of eighty-five.