Chronology of Slavery in the United States

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and escaped to spend his life fighting for justice and equality for all people. His tireless struggle, brilliant words, and inclusive vision of humanity continue to inspire and sustain people today.


A Maryland slave named Fred runs away and later becomes Frederick Douglass.

I have observed this in my experience of slavery, – that whenever my condition was improved, instead of its increasing my contentment, it only increased my desire to be free, and set me to thinking of plans to gain my freedom.”

— Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass


In Prigg v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, stating that slave owners have a right to retrieve their “property.” In so doing, the court rules that Pennsylvania’s anti-kidnapping law is unconstitutional. At the same time, the Supreme Court declares that enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law is a federal responsibility and states are not required to participate. Between 1842 and 1850, nine Northern states pass new personal liberty laws which forbid state officials from cooperating in the return of alleged fugitive slaves and bar the use of state facilities for that purpose.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is published in Boston, Massachusetts, launching the public career of the most notable black American spokesman of the 19th Century.


The Wilmot Proviso, introduced by Democratic representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, attempts to ban slavery in territory gained in the Mexican-American War. The proviso is blocked by Southerners, but continues to inflame the debate over slavery.


Free Soil Party is organized to stop the spread of slavery into the Western territories.


Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery and becomes one of the most effective and celebrated leaders of the Underground Railroad.


The Compromise of 1850 is introduced into Congress by Henry Clay as an omnibus bill designed to settle disputes arising from the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Only after the bill is divided into several parts does it pass. The bill requires that California enter the Union as a free state; the slave trade (but, not slavery) is abolished in Washington D.C.; the fugitive slave law is strengthened; and Utah and New Mexico Territories are opened to slavery, based on popular vote.


Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published. The novel depicts slavery as a horrible evil, but, treats white Southerners sympathetically. The villain of the piece is the cruel slave-overseer, Simon Legree, a transplanted New Englander. The book is banned in the South, while Northerners make it a bestseller.




Did you know?…

The median size of slave holdings ranged in Virginia, and North Carolina, to 30-50 slaves in upland cotton regions. Plantations in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia and the sugar parishes of Louisiana averaged 60-80 slaves. In small areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, some owners held as many as 125-175 slaves.


U.S. ministers to Britain, France, and Spain meet in Ostend, Belgium to draft a policy recommendation to President Pierce, urging him to attempt again to purchase Cuba from Spain and, if Spain refuses, to take the island by force. When the secret proposal, called the Ostend Manifesto, is leaked to the press, it creates an uproar since Cuba would likely become another slave state.

In an attempt to spur population growth in the western territories in advance of a transcontinental railroad, Stephen Douglas introduces a bill to Congress which will establish the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. In order to gain Southern support, the bill stipulates that slavery in the territories will be decided by popular sovereignty. Thus, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery north of 36° 30′ in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase.


A miniature civil war, known as Bleeding Kansas, erupts in the Kansas Territory over the issue of slavery. In May 1856, a pro-slavery group attacks the free-soil town of Lawrence, destroying and stealing property. In response to the “Sack of Lawrence,” radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers attack a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, killing five men. By the end of 1856, nearly 200 Kansans have been killed and property worth $2 million has been damaged or destroyed.

Uncle Toms Cabin - Courier Litho Co1899

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.


Senator Charles Sumner delivers a stinging speech in the U.S. Senate, “The Crime against Kansas,” in which he attacks slavery, the South, and singles out his Senate colleague, Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for criticism. In retaliation, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, attacks Sumner with a cane while the Massachusetts senator is seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate. The injuries he sustains cause Sumner to be absent from the Senate for four years.


The U.S. Supreme Court decides the Dred Scott case. The court rules that Scott is still a slave with no standing to sue; that black Americans (slave or free) are not citizens and do not have civil rights protected by the U.S. Constitution; and that neither the territorial government nor the federal government can ban slavery in the territories, thus making the (now-defunct) Northwest Ordinance and Missouri Compromise bans unconstitutional.


The rivalry in the Kansas Territory between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions results in the establishment of two territorial legislatures, each claiming legitimacy. The pro-slavery legislature at Lecompton drafts a constitution to make Kansas a slave state. Anti-slavery forces boycott the popular referendum on the constitution, which passes and is sent to Congress. Senator Stephen Douglas considers the Lecompton Constitution a perversion of popular sovereignty, but President James Buchanan endorses it. Congress sends the Lecompton Constitution back to Kansas for another referendum. This time, it is defeated overwhelmingly.

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