peace and hotep,
One of the most distressful events of recent memory is commonly referred to as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. That mind boggling episode in American history has very few comparisons. It is sometimes called the “peculiar institution” and peculiar and strange it truly was. The strangest thing was how those not enslaved were brought into captivity by just being born:
‘I was born about forty-five miles from the city of Richmond, in Louisa County, in the Year 1815. I entered the world a slave---in the midst of a country whose most honoured writings declare that all men have a right to liberty---but had imprinted upon my body no mark which could be made to signify that my destiny was to be that of a bondman. Neither was there any angel stood by, at the hour of my birth, to hand my body over, by the authority of heaven, to be the property of a fellow-man; no, but I was a slave because my countrymen had made it lawful, in utter contempt of the declared will of heaven, for the strong to lay hold of the weak and to buy and to sell them as marketable goods, thus was I born a slave; tyrants--- remorseless, destitute of religion and every principle of humanity----stood by the couch of my mother and as I entered into the world, before I had done anything to forfeit my right to liberty, and while my soul was yet undefiled by the commission of actual sin, stretched forth their bloody arms and branded me wit the mark of bondage, and by such means I became their own property, Yes, they robbed me of myself before I could know the nature of their wicked arts, and ever afterwards---until I forcibly wrenched myself from their hands---did they retain their stolen property.” HENRY BOX BROWN----
The Spanish conquistadores used war dogs to maim and kill their victims. The English, who during the sixteenth century reveled in horror stories about Spanish New World barbarities (the so-called Black Legend) thought of war dogs as a new low point in human warfare. Yet within a few years of founding their first settlements, the English likewise were training and unleashing war dogs on Native Americans and escaped African slaves. In 1501 the Spanish Crown authorized the first shipment of slaves to the Caribbean islands, a small beginning to what became a vast, forced migration of some 10 million human beings to the Americas.
"The Good Ship Jesus" was in fact the ship, "Jesus of Lubeck." Twenty years after its purchase the ship, in disrepair, was leant to Sir John Hawkins by Queen Elizabeth. Hawkins, a cousin of Sir Francis Drake, was granted permission from Queen Elizabeth for his first voyage in 1562. He was allowed to carry Africans to the Americas "with their own free consent" and he agreed to this condition. Hawkins had a reputation for being a religious man who required his crew to "serve God daily" and to love one another. Sir Francis Drake accompanied Hawkins on this voyage and subsequent others. Drake, was himself, devoutly religious. Services were held on board twice a day. Off the coast of Africa, near Sierra Leone, Hawkins captured 300-500 slaves, mostly by plundering Portugese ships, but also through violence and subterfuge promising Africans free land and riches in the new world. He sold most of the slaves in what is now known as the Dominican Republic. He returned home with a profit and ships laden with ivory, hides, and sugar. Thus began the British slave trade.
Slavery as it developed in New Spain was harsh. Hacienda owners and mine operators wanted only young adult males who could literally be worked to death, then replaced by new shiploads of Africans. On the other hand, Spanish law and Roman Catholic doctrine restrained some brutality. The Church believed that all souls should be saved, and it recognized marriage as a sacrament, meaning that slaves could wed and aspire to family life. Spanish law even permitted slaves to purchase their freedom. Such allowances were well beyond those made in future English-speaking colonies, and many blacks, particularly those who became artisans and house servants in the cities, did gain their independence.
During the sixteenth century the Spanish and Portuguese started pouring Africans into their colonies. These slaves were not thought of as family members, but as disposable beings whose energy was to be used up in mining or agricultural operations. High mortality rates among the migrants did not seem to bother their European masters because more slave ships kept appearing on the horizon. As a result, areas such as Brazil and the West Indian sugar islands earned deserved reputations as centers of human exploitation and death.
Between 1640 and 1670 the distinction between short-term servitude for whites and permanent, inheritable slavery for blacks became firmly fixed. In appearance and by cultural and religious tradition, Africans were not like the English. As with the "wild" Irish and Indian "savages," noticeable differences translated into assumptions of inferiority, and blacks became "beastly heathens," not quite human.
John Punch was a black indentured servant who joined two white servants and tried to flee Virginia in 1640, only to be caught by local residents and brought before the governor's council, the colony's highest court. The judges ordered the flogging of each runaway—30 lashes well laid on. Then in a telling ruling, these officials revealed their thinking about the future status of blacks in England's North American colonies. The two whites had their terms of service extended by four years, but they ordered John Punch to "serve his said master . . . for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere."
Local laws were catching up with the growing reality of lifetime slavery for blacks, as compared to temporary servitude for whites. In 1640 the Virginia council considered other runaway cases, besides that of John Punch. One of these involved a black named Emmanuel, who ran away with several whites. The judges handed out severe penalties, including whippings and extended terms of service for the whites. The leader of the group endured branding with an "R" on his face and had one of his legs shackled in irons for a year. Emmanuel received the same penalty, but the court made no mention of an extension of service. Apparently Emmanuel was already a slave for life.
The English North American colonies existed at the outer edge of the African slave trade until the very end of the seventeenth century. In 1650 the population of Virginia approached 15,000 settlers, including only 500 persons of African descent. By comparison, the English sugar colony of Barbados already held 10,000 slaves, a majority of the population. English Barbadians had started to model their economy on that of other Caribbean sugar islands, whereas Virginians, with a steady supply of indentured servants, had not yet made the transition to slave labor.
Factors supporting a shift, however, were present by the 1640s, as evidenced in laws discriminating against Africans and court cases involving blacks like John Punch and Emmanuel. During the same decade, a few Chesapeake planters started to invest in Africans. Governor Leonard Calvert of Maryland, for example, asked "John Skinner mariner" to ship him "fourteen negro-men-slaves and three women-slaves." Planters like Calvert were ahead of their time because slaves cost significantly more to purchase than indentured servants. Yet for those who invested, they owned their laborers for their lifetimes and did not have to pay "freedom dues." Moreover, they soon discovered that Africans, having built up immunities to tropical diseases like malaria and typhoid fever, generally lived longer than white servants. Resistance to such diseases made Africans a better long-term investment, at least for well-capitalized planters.
Then in the 1660s two additional factors spurred on the shift toward slave labor. First, Virginia legislators in 1662 decreed that slavery was an inheritable status, "according to the condition of the mother." The law made yet unborn generations subject to slavery, a powerful incentive for risking an initial investment in human chattels. If slaves kept reproducing, planters would control a never-ending supply of laborers. Second, the numbers of new indentured servants began to shrink as economic conditions improved in England. With expanded opportunities for work, poorer citizens were less willing to risk life and limb for a chance at economic independence in America.
Also assisting the shift was the chartering of the Royal African Company in 1672 to develop England's role in the slave trade. Royal African vessels soon made regular visits to Chesapeake Bay. As the supply of slaves increased, asking prices started to drop—at the very time that the cost of buying indentured servants began to climb. In 1698 the company lost its monopoly, which spurred some New England traders to engage actively in the slave trade. Yankee merchants now had something in common with Chesapeake planters besides English roots and language. Both were profiting from the international traffic in human beings.
Long before the under-ground railroad was an effective antislavery device, enslaved Africans, were running away: men, women and children, alone, in pairs or in groups. At times they went so far as to organize themselves into groups called maroons and to live in forests, mountains and swamps and they proved to be troublesome to the masters who sought to maintain strict order on their plantations. Although most Africans adapted to slavery, some remained defiant. They stole food, broke farm tools, or in a few cases poisoned their masters. In rare instances they resorted to rebellion.
In September 1739 twenty slaves in the Stono River area of South Carolina rose up, seized some weapons, killed a few whites, and started marching toward Spanish Florida. Within a few days frightened planters rallied together and crushed the Stono uprising by shooting or hanging the rebel Africans.
The South Carolina legislature soon approved a more repressive slave code, which all but restricted the movement of blacks from their home plantations. No legislator gave thought to the other possibility, which was to abandon the institution of slavery. Even though long in development, slavery now supported southern plantation agriculture and the production of such cash crops as tobacco and rice.
As late as the 1750s, no church had discouraged its members from owning or trading in slaves. Slaves could be found in each of the 13 American colonies, and before the American Revolution, only the colony of Georgia had temporarily sought to prohibit slavery (because its founders did not want a workforce that would compete with the convicts they planned to transport from England).
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, protests against slavery had become widespread. By 1804 nine states north of Maryland and Delaware had either emancipated their slaves or adopted gradual emancipation plans. Both the United States and Britain in 1808 outlawed the African slave trade.
The emancipation of slaves in the northern states and the prohibition against the African slave trade generated optimism that slavery was dying. Congress in 1787 had barred slavery from the Old Northwest, the region north of the Ohio River to the Mississippi River. The number of slaves freed by their masters had risen dramatically in the upper South during the 1780s and 1790s, and more antislavery societies had been formed in the South than in the North. At the present rate of progress, predicted one religious leader in 1791, within 50 years it will "be as shameful for a man to hold a Negro slave, as to be guilty of common robbery or theft."
By the early 1830s, however, the development of the Cotton Kingdom proved that slavery was not on the road to extinction. Despite the end of the African slave trade, the slave population had continued to grow, climbing from 1.5 million in 1820 to over 2 million a decade later.
It was almost natural for the colonists to link the problem of African slavery to their fight against England. The struggle for the Africans to secure their freedom was growing. African slaves themselves petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for their freedom on the grounds that it was their natural right. When Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave, became the first to die in the struggle against England at the Boston Massacre, the colonist reasoned that it was a remarkable thing to have their fight for freedom waged by one who was not as free as they.
By the end of the War for Independence, some forces had been set in motion that operated to effect a change in the status of Africans in America. It is no mere coincidence that when the battle of Lexington was fought the first antislavery society was just beginning to form its plans for action. So powerfully did the philosophy of freedom act upon the minds of the people that almost every state enlisting slaves to serve in the army freed them after the war against England. Antislavery societies became more widespread after the war. In 1775, the Quakers organized the first society and Prince Hall and fourteen other free blacks joined a British army lodge of free Masons who were stationed in Boston. Many other groups and organizations later joined in. Massachusetts began enlisting free African Americans for Continental service.
On November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore issued an emancipation proclamation. It read in part: "And I do hereby further declare all indentured servants, Negroes, or others . . . free, that are able and willing to bear arms."
Dunmore hoped that Virginia's slaves would break their chains and join with him in teaching their former masters that talk of liberty was a two-edged sword. The plan backfired. Irate planters suppressed copies of the proclamation and spread the rumor of a royal hoax designed to lure blacks into Dunmore's camp so that he could sell them to the owners of West Indian sugar plantations, where inhuman working conditions and very high mortality rates prevailed. Still, as many as 2000 slaves took their chances and escaped to the royal standard.
In 1860, 488,000 African Americans were not slaves. After the American Revolution, slave owners freed thousands of slaves, and countless others emancipated themselves by running away. In Louisiana, a large free Creole population had emerged under Spanish and French rule, and in South Carolina a Creole population had arrived from Barbados. The number of free blacks in the Deep South increased rapidly with the arrival of thousands of light-colored refugees from the slave revolt in Haiti.
Free African Americans varied greatly in status. Most lived in poverty, but in a few cities, such as New Orleans, Baltimore, and Charleston, they worked as skilled carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, and millwrights. Free people of color occupied an uneasy middle ground between the dominant whites and the masses of slaves. Others identified with slaves and poor free slaves and took the lead in establishing separate African American churches.
Free African Americans faced intense legal, economic, and social discrimination, which kept them desperately poor. They were prohibited from marrying whites and were forced into the lowest paying jobs. Whites denied them equal access to education, relegated them to segregated jails, cemeteries, asylums, and schools, forbade them from testifying against whites in court, and, in all but four states—New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont—denied them the right to vote.
In the North as well as the South, most free African Americans faced economic hardship and substandard living conditions. Northern African Americans typically lived in tenements, sheds, and stables. During the 1830s or even earlier, African Americans in both the North and South began to suffer from heightened discrimination and competition from white immigrants in both the skilled trades and such traditional occupations as domestic service.
Every southern state enacted a slave code that defined the slave owners' power and the slaves' status as property. The codes stated that a slave, like a domestic animal, could be bought, sold, and leased. A master also had the right to compel a slave to work. The codes prohibited slaves from owning property, testifying against whites in court, or from making contracts. Slave marriages were not recognized by law. Under the slave codes, slavery was lifelong and hereditary, and any child born to a slave woman was the property of her master.
The slave codes gave slaves limited legal rights. To refute abolitionist contentions that slavery was unjust and inhumane, southern legislators adopted statutes regulating slaves' hours of labor and establishing certain minimal standards for slave upkeep. Most states also defined the wanton killing of a slave as murder, prohibited cruel and unusual punishments, and extended to slaves accused of capital offenses the right to trial by jury and legal counsel. Whipping, however, was not regarded by southern legislatures as a cruel punishment, and slaves were prohibited from bringing suit to seek legal redress for violations of their rights.
The main goal of the slave codes, however, was to regulate slaves' lives. Slaves were forbidden to strike whites or use insulting language toward white people, hold a meeting without a white person present, visit whites or freed slaves, or leave plantations without permission. The laws prohibited whites and free blacks from teaching slaves to read and write, gambling with slaves, or supplying them with liquor, guns, or poisonous drugs. Most of the time, authorities loosely enforced these legal restrictions, but whenever fears of slave uprisings spread, enforcement tightened.
For most slaves, slavery meant backbreaking field work on small farms or larger plantations. On the typical plantation, slaves worked "from day clean to first dark." Solomon Northrup, a free black who was kidnapped and enslaved for 12 years on a Louisiana cotton plantation, wrote a graphic description of the work regimen imposed on slaves: "The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night." Even then, the slaves' work was not over; it was still necessary to feed swine and mules, cut wood, and pack the cotton. At planting time or harvest time, work was even more exacting as planters required slaves to stay in the fields 15 or 16 hours a day.
Deprivation and physical hardship were the hallmarks of life under slavery. Plantation records reveal that over half of all enslaved babies died during their first year of life—a rate twice that of Caucasian babies. The slaves' diet was monotonous and unvaried, consisting largely of cornmeal, salt pork, and bacon .The physical conditions in which the enslaved lived were appalling. Lacking privicy, slaves had to urinate and defecate in the cover of nearby bushes. Lacking any sanitary disposal of garbage, they were surrounded by decaying food. Chickens, dogs, and pigs lived next to the slave quarters, and in consequence, animal feces contaminated the area. Such squalor contributed to high rates of dysentery, typhus, diarrhea, hepatitis, typhoid fever, and intestinal worms.
Slavery severely strained family life. Slave sales frequently broke up slave families. During the Civil War, nearly 20 percent of former slaves reported that an earlier marriage had been terminated by "force." The sale of children from parents was even more common. Over the course of a lifetime, the average slave had a fifty-fifty chance of being sold at least once and was likely to witness the sale of several members of his or her immediate family.
Even in instances in which marriages were not broken by sale, slave husbands and wives often resided on separate farms and plantations and were owned by different individuals. On large plantations, one slave father in three had a different owner than his wife and could visit his family only at his master's discretion. On smaller holdings divided ownership occurred even more frequently. The typical farm and plantation were so small that it was difficult for many slaves to find a spouse at all. As a former slave put it, men "had a hell of a time getting a wife during slavery."
One of the earliest forms of African American literature was the slave narrative, graphic first-person accounts of life in bondage, written by former slaves, including William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Josiah Henson (he was Harriet Beecher Stowe's model for Uncle Tom). These volumes not only awoke readers to the hardships and cruelties of life under slavery, they also described the ingenious strategies that fugitive slaves used to escape from bondage. William and Ellen Craft, for example, disguised themselves as master and slave; Henry "Box" Brown had himself crated in a box and shipped north. Sojourner Truth was born into slavery around 1797 in New York State's Hudson River Valley, 80 miles from New York City. As a slave, she was known simply as "Isabella." But a decade and a half after escaping from bondage, she adopted a new name. As Sojourner Truth, she became a legend in the struggle to abolish slavery and extend equal rights to women.
In fact, there is no evidence that the majority of slaves were contented. One scholar has identified more than 200 instances of attempted insurrection or rumors of slave resistance between the seventeenth century and the Civil War. And many slaves who did not directly rebel made their masters' lives miserable through a variety of indirect protests against slavery, including sabotage, stealing, malingering, murder, arson, and infanticide.
Four times during the first 31 years of the nineteenth century, slaves attempted major insurrections. In 1800, a 24-year-old Virginia slave named Gabriel, who was a blacksmith, led a march of perhaps 50 armed slaves on Richmond. The plot failed when a storm washed out the road to Richmond, giving the Virginia militia time to arrest the rebels. White authorities executed Gabriel and 25 other conspirators.
In 1811in southern Louisiana, between 180 and 500 slaves, led by Charles Deslondes, a free mulatto from Haiti, marched on New Orleans, armed with axes and other weapons. Slave owners retaliated by killing 82 blacks and placing the heads of 16 leaders on pikes.
In 1822 Denmark Vessey, a former West Indian slave who had been born in Africa, bought his freedom, and moved to Charleston, South Carolina. There he devised a conspiracy to take over the city on a summer Sunday when many whites would be vacationing outside the city. Using his connections as a leader in the African Church of Charleston, Vesey drew support from skilled African-American artisans, carpenters, harness makers, mechanics, and blacksmiths as well as from field slaves. Before the revolt could take place, however, a domestic slave of a prominent Charlestonian informed his master. The authorities proceeded to arrest 131 African Americans and hang 37.
The best known slave revolt took place nine years later in Southampton County in southern Virginia. On August 22, 1831, Nat Turner, a trusted Baptist preacher, led a small group of fellow slaves into the home of his master Joseph Travis and killed the entire Travis household. By August 23, Turner's force had increased to between 60 and 80 slaves and had killed more than 50 whites. The local militia counterattacked and killed about 100 African Americans. Twenty more slaves, including Turner, were later executed. Turner's revolt sparked a panic that spread as far south as Alabama and Louisiana. One Virginian worried that "a Nat Turner might be in any family."
Slave uprisings were much less frequent and less extensive in the American South than in the West Indies or Brazil. Outright revolts did not occur more often because the chances of success were minimal and the consequences of defeat catastrophic. As one Missouri slave put it, "I've seen Marse Newton and Marse John Ramsey shoot too often to believe they can't kill" a slave.
The conditions that favored revolts elsewhere were absent in the South. In Jamaica, slaves outnumbered whites ten to one, whereas in the South whites were a majority in every state except Mississippi and South Carolina. In addition, slaveholding units in the South were much smaller than in other slave societies in the Western Hemisphere. Half of all U.S. slaves worked on units of 20 or less; in contrast, many sugar plantations in Jamaica had more than 500 slaves.
In 1832, Prudence Crandall, a Quaker school- teacher in Canterbury, Connecticut, sparked a major controversy by admitting Sarah Harris, the daughter of a free black farmer, into her school. After white parents withdrew their children from the school, the young schoolteacher tried to turn her school into an institution for the education of free blacks. Hostile neighbors broke the school's windows, contaminated its well with manure, and denied its students seats on stagecoaches and in pews in church. In 1833, after the state adopted a law making it a crime to teach black students who were not residents of Connecticut, state authorities arrested Crandall. She was tried twice, convicted, and jailed. After her release, a local mob attacked Crandall's school building with crowbars and attempted to burn the structure. It never opened again.
Questions over strategy and tactics divided the antislavery movement. At the 1840 annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York, abolitionists split over such questions as women's right to participate in the administration of the organization and the advisability of nominating abolitionists as independent political candidates. William Lloyd Garrison won control of the organization, and his opponents promptly walked out. From this point on, no single organization could speak for abolitionism.
During the eighteenth century, the South was unique among slave societies in its openness to antislavery ideas. In Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina, Quakers freed more than 1500 slaves and sent them out of state. Scattered Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist ministers and advisory committees condemned slavery as a sin "contrary to the word of God." As late as 1827, the number of antislavery organizations in the South actually outnumbered those in the free states by at least four to one.
Only once, in the wake of Nat Turner's famous slave insurrection in 1831, did a southern state openly debate the possibility of ending slavery. These debates in the Virginia legislature in January and February 1832 ended with the defeat of proposals to abolish slavery.
In 1841, John Quincy Adams argued and won the Amistad Case which was tried by the U.S. Supreme Court. It established that the United States should treat as free men any enslaved Africans escaping from illegal bondage. Adams defended the right of the accused Africans to fight to regain their freedom. The court decided that the Africans would be freed and returned to their homelands if they so desired. In Spanish, the word "Amistad" means friendship.
The Fugitive Slave Law kindled widespread outrage in the North and converted thousands of Northerners to the free soil doctrine that slavery should be barred from the western territories. "We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise, Union Whigs," wrote a Massachusetts factory owner, "and waked up stark mad Abolitionists."
Efforts to enforce the new law provoked wholesale opposition. Riots directed against the law broke out in many cities. In Christiana, Pennsylvania, in 1851, a gun battle broke out between abolitionists and slave catchers, and in Wisconsin, an abolitionist editor named Sherman M. Booth freed Joshua Glover, a fugitive slave, from a local jail. In Boston, federal marshals and 22 companies of state troops were needed to prevent a crowd from storming a courthouse to free a fugitive named Anthony Burns.
A war of revenge erupted in Kansas. Columns of proslavery Southerners ransacked free farms, while they searched for John Brown and the other "Pottawatomie killers." Armed bands looted enemy stores and farms. At Osawatomie, proslavery forces attacked John Brown's headquarters, leaving a dozen men dead. John Brown's men killed four Missourians, and proslavery forces retaliated by blockading the free towns of Topeka and Lawrence. Before it was over, guerilla warfare in eastern Kansas left 200 dead.
On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court finally decided a question that Congress had evaded for decades: whether Congress had the power to prohibit slavery in the territories. Repeatedly, Congress had declared that this was a constitutional question that the Supreme Court should settle. Now, for the first time, the Supreme Court offered its answer.
The case originated in 1846, when a Missouri slave, Dred Scott, sued to gain his freedom. Scott argued that while he had been the slave of an army surgeon, he had lived for four years in Illinois, a free-state, and Wisconsin, a free territory, and that his residence on free soil had erased his slave status. By a 7-2 margin, the Court ruled that Dred Scott had no right to sue in federal court, that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that Congress had no right to exclude slavery from the territories.
On August 19 1859, John Brown, the Kansas abolitionist, and Frederick Douglass, the celebrated African American abolitionist and former slave, met in an abandoned stone quarry near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. For three days, the two men discussed whether violence could be legitimately used to free the nation's slaves. The Kansas guerrilla leader asked Douglass if he would join a band of raiders who would seize a federal arsenal and spark a mass uprising of slaves. "When I strike," Brown said, "the bees will begin to swarm, and I shall need you to help hive them."
"No," Douglass replied. Brown's plan, he knew, was suicidal. Brown had earlier proposed a somewhat more realistic plan. According to that scheme, Brown would have launched guerrilla activity in the Virginia mountains, providing a haven for slaves and an escape route into the North. That scheme had a chance of working, but Brown's new plan was hopeless.
Up until the Kansas-Nebraska Act, abolitionists were averse to the use of violence. Opponents of slavery hoped to use moral suasion and other peaceful means to eliminate slavery. But by the mid-1850s, the abolitionists' aversion to violence had begun to fade. In 1858 William Lloyd Garrison complained that his followers were "growing more and more warlike." On the night of October 16, 1859, violence came, and John Brown was its instrument.
Brown's plan was to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), and arm slaves from the surrounding countryside. His long-range goal was to drive southward into Tennessee and Alabama, raiding federal arsenals and inciting slave insurrections. Failing that, he hoped to ignite a sectional crisis that would destroy slavery.
But Brown's plans soon went awry. As news of the raid spread, many townspeople and local militia companies cut off Brown's escape routes and trapped his men in the armory. Twice, Brown sent men carrying flags of truce to negotiate. On both occasions, drunken mobs, yelling "Kill them, kill them," gunned the men down.
Two days later U.S. Marines, commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart, arrived in Harpers Ferry. Brown and his men took refuge in a fire engine house and battered holes through the building's brick wall to shoot through. A hostage later described the climactic scene: "With one son dead by his side and another shot through, he felt the pulse of his dying son with one hand and held his rifle with the other and commanded his men . . . encouraging them to fire and sell their lives as dearly as they could."
Later that morning, Colonel Lee's marines stormed the engine house and rammed down its doors. Brown and his men continued firing until the leader of the storming party cornered Brown and knocked him unconscious with a sword. Five of Brown's party escaped, ten were killed, and seven, including Brown himself, were taken prisoner.
A week later, John Brown was put on trial in a Virginia court, even though his attack had occurred on federal property. During the six-day proceedings, Brown refused to plead insanity as a defense. He was found guilty of treason, conspiracy, and murder, and was sentenced to die on the gallows.
The trial's high point came at the very end when Brown was allowed to make a five-minute speech. His words helped convince thousands of Northerners that this grizzled man of 59, with his "piercing eyes" and "resolute countenance," was a martyr to the cause of freedom. Brown denied that he had come to Virginia to commit violence. His only goal, he said, was to liberate the slaves. "If it is deemed necessary," he told the Virginia court, "that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice and mingle my blood . . . with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done."
In 1859, John Brown's raid convinced many white Southerners that a majority of Northerners wished to free the slaves and incite a race war. Southern extremists, known as "fire-eaters," told large crowds that John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry was "the first act in the grand tragedy of emancipation, and the subjugation of the South in bloody treason." After Harpers Ferry, Southerners increasingly believed that secession and creation of a slaveholding confederacy were now the South's only options. A Virginia newspaper noted that there were "thousands of men in our midst who, a month ago, scoffed at the idea of a dissolution of the Union as a madman's dream, but who now hold the opinion that its days are numbered." The final bonds that had held the Union together had come unraveled.
The Underground Railroad was a secret network in the period before the U.S. Civil War through which systematic and organized aid was given to fugitive enslaved African slaves in their flight to the northern states and Canada. Enslaved Africans seeking freedom were, under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, liable to recapture by slaveholders or their agents. But by this time, slavery of Africans had been abolished in most of the northern states which passed personal liberty laws intended to protect their citizens against unscrupulous slave catchers.
The Underground Railroad was carried on secretly, informally and at great risk to the participants. The conflict between those who saw the struggle on the basis of property rights and those who considered only the human rights involved resulted at times in large-scale riots and pitched battles. There were even daring courtroom rescues and seizures of captured slaves from U.S. marshals.
Those aiding the fugitives Africans were predominately other Africans in America, men and women, Quakers, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. Hundreds of prominent men participated in the Underground Railroad. Preachers urged their members to disobey the law of the land. The reputed leader of the Underground railroad was Levi Coffin of Cincinnatti, and the most active station was the home of John Rankin in Ripley, Ohio. Harriet Tubman, who escaped from Maryland, was the most famous African agent.
Members of the Underground Railroad brought enslaved fugitives from the plantations, traveling alone or in groups. The fugitives were then met by other agents as they crossed the Ohio River or the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and they were then fed and clothed before being escorted to safety.
The largest, safest, and most prosperous havens were Essex and Kent counties in the province of Ontario, Canada, but there were also settlements of escaped enslaved Africans within the area between Detroit, Michigan and Niagara Falls, New York. Some 10,000 fugitive Africans reached Ontario by 1840 and about 60,000 by 1860. Those enslaved African fugitives who went to Canada by way of the New England states eventually reached Montreal, Quebec.
Ohio was the most important state engaged in the work of rescuing slaves because of the proximity of its long southern and eastern border to the slave states of the United States of America. It was also the most direct route to Canada.
The Underground Railroad was a network of people to help slaves to get to freedom. The network moved hundreds of slaves to freedom each year and also the South lost 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850.
The network even used terms used in railroading: the homes and businesses where the slaves would eat and rest and eat were called “stations” and “depots” and were run by “stationmasters”, those who contributed money were “stockholders”, and the “conductor” was responsible for moving the slaves from one station to the other.
The Underground Railroad would be meaningless without the horrors of slavery. Great costs have been paid in the name of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade. Untold numbers of people have suffered and died in its unrighteous grasp. War and battles have been fought in the name of freedom and humanity, yet there are many more to be fought. The Underground Railroad remedied the ethnic and moral problems that America inherited but the ignorance, stubbornness and arrogance inherent in mankind hasn’t any quick fix.