Institution by which, in the United States, blacks were held in service as the chattels of other people.
The institution of slavery came to the colonial United States in the seventeenth century. Blacks were taken from Africa, enslaved, and brought to the New World. The majority of the slaves were taken to the southern colonies, where they performed agricultural work, especially labor-intensive tobacco farming.
From the time the United States was formed, slavery was a contentious political issue. A draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a critical reference to slavery that caused tension at the Continental Congress. In order to gain agreement among the colonies, that passage was removed and the debate regarding slavery was postponed.
At the Constitutional Convention
The second reference to slavery stated that “the migration of such persons as any of the states now existing think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808.” In other words, Congress would not be permitted to ban the importation of slaves for at least thirty years. This was significant because some, including James Wilson, who was a prominent member of the Constitutional Convention, thought that abolishing the slave trade was the first step in ending slavery in the United States.
The final passage refers to the return of fugitive slaves,
In 1841, former president John Quincy Adams served as an attorney for the Amistad defendants.
The Constitution did not outlaw slavery until the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in December, 1865. That provision reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The Supreme Court addressed issues related to the slave trade in several cases. The earliest such case was The Antelope
The best-known case involving the African slave trade was made famous by the 1997 film Amistad. The Amistad
Groves v. Slaughter
Two issues were involved in this case. First, the Court had to determine whether this prohibition was valid according to Mississippi law. The Court ruled that Mississippi needed to have enabling legislation to make this provision valid. However, the state had no statute regarding punishments for importing slaves until 1837. The second, more important issue was whether the Mississippi prohibition on importation of slaves violated the constitutional provision that gives Congress the power to regulate interstate commerce. The Court ruled that slaves were to be treated differently from other articles of commerce such as agricultural and manufactured goods. Justice Smith Thompson in his opinion in the case said that a state “may establish or abolish slavery within her limits; she may do it immediately, or gradually and prospectively.” If a state may abolish slavery within its boundaries, it is a logical extension that the same state may abolish the importation of slaves. Thompson further stated that “these state laws are not regulations of commerce, but of slavery.” In his reasoning regarding the commerce
The Court also addressed issues related to fugitive slaves. Article IV of the U.S. Constitution contained a clause requiring the return of fugitive slaves. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793 indicating procedures for returning escaped slaves. At the same time, the New England states and Pennsylvania and New Jersey had either abolished slavery or were in the process of doing so. These states were concerned that southerners and bounty hunters might take advantage of the 1793 law regarding fugitive slaves and come to northern states and forcibly take free blacks. With that in mind, most of the states that had abolished slavery passed laws requiring strong evidence that an African American was in fact an escaped slave and therefore subject to being forcibly returned.
In Prigg v. Pennsylvania
Jones v. Van Zandt
Although the cases dealing with the slave trade and fugitive slaves are significant, the most important case regarding slavery was Scott v. Sandford
Chief Justice Taney wrote the majority opinion. The first major argument in his decision was whether Scott had standing to sue. To sue, one had to be a citizen,
Taney could have stopped right there, but he insisted that the Court could correct mistakes made by lower courts. The mistake he sought to correct was the Court’s earlier acceptance of the constitutionality of banning slavery in the territories. Taney argued that Article IV of the Constitution, which gave the federal government power over territories, applied only to territories held at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. Therefore, Scott was never free, even when he was in the Missouri territory.
Because of the Civil War and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment
James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton’s Slavery and the Making of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) examines the central role that slavery played in the development of the American political system and the rise of sectional interests. Robert McCloskey’s The American Supreme Court, revised by Sanford Levinson (3d ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) includes a useful discussion of the Taney court and its decisions on slavery. Timothy S. Huebner’s The Taney Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003) is a comprehensive reference work on the Court that passed down the Dred Scott decision. Don E. Fehrenbacher’s The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) examines that ruling more closely. Thomas West’s Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997) has a chapter on slavery and the founding in which the author argues that the Taney court misinterpreted the Framers on slavery. Africans in America by Charles Johnson and Patricia Smith (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998) is a fascinating history of slavery in the United States. Helen Kromer’s Amistad: The Slave Uprising Aboard the Spanish Schooner (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1997) provides an excellent account of The Amistad and the case that went before the Court. Historian John Hope Franklin provides a detailed account of slavery in the United States and discusses the impact of Supreme Court decisions on slavery in his From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994). For an in-depth study of the Dred Scott case, consult “Dred Scott v. Sandford”: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Paul Finkelman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
Ableman v. Booth
Groves v. Slaughter
Jones v. Van Zandt
Kentucky v. Dennison
Plessy v. Ferguson
Prigg v. Pennsylvania
Scott v. Sandford
Taney, Roger Brooke