Slavery, Civil War, and the “New Birth of Freedom”

To twenty-first-century Americans, the case against slavery may appear self-evident. However, nineteenth-century opponents of slavery faced a quite different social consensus on the issue.

Originally published by Newberry Digital Collections for the Classroom, Newberry Library, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.


To twenty-first-century Americans, the case against slavery may appear self-evident. Most of us have no doubt about the profound injustice of a system in which some people are the property of other people. However, nineteenth-century opponents of slavery faced a quite different social consensus on the issue. They had to make the case for abolishing an institution that dominated the economic and social structure of the Southern states. They also had to address widespread anxiety about how the nation would integrate freed slaves into its social, political, and economic fabric. The documents that follow bring together arguments for emancipation written before, during, and after the Civil War. The collection allows students to trace the evolution of abolitionist arguments as well as to examine conflicts among writers over what emancipation would entail.

William Lloyd Garrision’s Call for Immediate Emancipation

“Immediate Emancipation”: William Lloyd Garrison. From The American Anti-Slavery Almanac Volume 1, No. 1, 1836

During the nineteenth century, almanacs were very popular publications, widely read and used by literate Americans. Each year, the American Anti-Slavery Society distributed an almanac containing poems, drawings, essays, and other abolitionist tracts. The intent of the almanac was to instruct readers in the horrors of slavery and to persuade them to join the abolitionist cause. William Lloyd Garrison was a prominent abolitionist and the founder and publisher of the Liberator, an antislavery newspaper published between 1831 and 1865.

Anti-Slavery Literature

“A Mother’s Anguish”: From The American Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1837

Antislavery literature often portrayed the deliberate destruction of black families under the institution of slavery. Slaves’ marriages were not legally recognized and people could be sold away from their spouses, children, and siblings at their owners’ wills. The following piece addresses the trauma that slavery inflicted on families through the story of a slave who murders her children to prevent their being sold. A similar story served as the basis for Toni Morrison’s contemporary novel, Beloved.

Anti-Slavery Songs

“Oh, Help the Contraband”: Horace Waters. From The Harp of Freedom: A New and Superior Collection of Anti-Slavery, Patriotic, and “Contraband” Songs, Solos, Duets, and Choruses, 1862

In 1861 the Confiscation Act declared that property used by the Confederate military, including slaves, could be confiscated by Union forces. This act was followed in March of 1862 with the Act Prohibiting the Return of Slaves. Together, these acts not only created a new legal category for certain escaped slaves, but also provided a common term, contraband, for referring to these slaves.

Lincoln Defends his Emancipation Proclamation

“Letter to James Conkling, August 26, 1863”: Abraham Lincoln. From The Letters of President Abraham Lincoln on Questions of National Policy, 1863

During the Civil War, Union supporters in President Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, asked him to speak at a rally on September 3, 1863. Lincoln could not attend, but wrote this letter to be read at the gathering by his longtime friend, James C. Conkling. This letter was also sent to the New York State Union Convention, which was held at the same time. In the letter, Lincoln defends his emancipation policy. At the beginning of that year, Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” The proclamation also established that freed slaves would be allowed to serve in the Union army.

Former Slaves Join Sherman’s March to the Sea

“General Sherman’s Rear Guard”: Thomas Nast. From Harper’s Weekly, April 2, 1864

Between November and December of 1864, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman conducted what came to be known as “Sherman’s March to the Sea.” As his army marched through Georgia, it destroyed crops, land, and equipment that could aid the Southern cause. Along the way, hundreds of former slaves joined the “rear guard” of the Union forces. The campaign ended when Sherman’s troops reached Savannah, Georgia, on December 21st.

Lincoln’s Changing Position on Emancipation

“Letter to Albert Hodges, April 4, 1864”: Abraham Lincoln. From Greeley on Lincoln, by Horace Greeley. April 4, 1864

Abraham Lincoln wrote this letter at the request of Albert Hodges, a Kentucky newspaper editor. In it, Lincoln restates thoughts that he had voiced in conversation with Hodges and two prominent Kentucky politicians. The letter illuminates Lincoln’s changing position on the question of emancipation.

Challenges of the Freedman’s Bureau

“The Freedmen’s Bureau”: A.R. Waud. From Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868

The Freedmen’s Bureau was a U.S. federal agency established at the end of the Civil War to aid freed slaves and refugees in the South. The agency assisted newly freed slaves in obtaining clothing, food, jobs, and housing. It also established schools for freed slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau faced significant opposition from white Southerners, especially for establishing its own court system to bypass Southern civil courts, which were presumably biased against African Americans. In 1869 the Freedmen’s Bureau was disbanded.

W.E.B. DuBois Challenges the Idea of the Freedman’s Bureau

“Of the Dawn of Freedom”: W. E. B. Du Bois. From The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903

W.E.B. Du Bois was a prominent black intellectual, writer, and activist who famously declared, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” He criticized the position of another important black leader, Booker T. Washington, who had argued that accommodation of post-Reconstruction racial segregation would bring incremental progress to the race. Du Bois, in contrast, advocated immediate, full political and social equality for African Americans. “Of the Dawn of Freedom” provides a history of Reconstruction and, specifically, the Freedmen’s Bureau. Du Bois explains that many whites, particularly in the South, questioned the necessity as well as the constitutionality of the agency. Their arguments inadvertently bolstered the case for black enfranchisement: If African American men could vote, they would not need the protection of the Freedmen’s Bureau. They could defend their own interests.

By Rachel Rooney
Assistant Director, Editorial and Resource Management
Great Minds



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