What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation

Explore : slavery

Ideas

How New Mexico’s “Peons” Became Enslaved to Debt

A System Inherited From Colonial Spain Kept Americans in Servitude Even After the Civil War

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By William S. Kiser
November 2, 2017

Imagine a time and place where a small debt—even just a few dollars—could translate into a lifetime of servitude not only for the debtor, but also for his or her children. For much of the 19th century, the American Southwest was just such a place. There, a system commonly called debt peonage relegated thousands of men, women, and children to years of bondage to a master.

This system of unfree labor came into existence in the 1700s, when the region was …

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Places

The Bostonian Who Armed the Anti-Slavery Settlers in “Bleeding Kansas”

Amos Lawrence Backed Abolitionist Pioneers in the Town That Bears His Name

A print from Harper’s showing Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, Kansas, August 21, 1863. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

By Robert K. Sutton
August 8, 2017

On May 24, 1854, Anthony Burns, a young African-American man, was captured on his way home from work. He had escaped from slavery in Virginia and had made his way to Boston, where he was employed in a men’s clothing store. His owner tracked him down and had him arrested. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the United States Constitution, Burns had no rights whatsoever.

To the people of Boston, his capture was an outrage. Seven thousand citizens …

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Encounters

The Civil War General Whose Godly “Mission” Went Astray

Oliver Otis "Uh Oh" Howard Was a Crusader for Ex-Slaves and a Scourge of Native Americans

Caricature from Puck showing Gen. Oliver Otis Howard chasing an Indian around a rock; Aug. 7, 1878. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By Daniel Sharfstein
May 12, 2017

When God first visited him in 1857, Oliver Otis Howard was a lonely army lieutenant battling clouds of mosquitoes in a backwater posting that he described as a “field for self-denial”: Tampa, Florida. Howard had spent his life swimming against powerful tides. Ten when his father died, he had to leave his family in Leeds, Maine, and move in with relatives. Through constant study, he made it to Bowdoin College at age 16, graduating near the top of his class …

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Ideas

How Abolitionists Fought—and Lost—the Battle with America’s Sweet Tooth

Before Cotton Became the Symbol of American Slavery, Cane Sugar Was the Source of Oppression and Bitter Opposition

Digging the Cane-holes—Ten Views in the Island of Antigua (1823), plate II. Image by William Clark. Courtesy of the British Library/Flickr.

By Calvin Schermerhorn
March 10, 2017

Today, land developer and businessman William Cooper is best known for founding Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But back in the 1790s, Cooper was a judge and a congressman who used his power to market a different sort of pleasure—American-made maple syrup—as an ethical homegrown alternative to molasses made from cane sugar, which was at that time farmed by slaves. He took tours of the Eastern Seaboard, extolling the virtues of “free sugar,” as he …

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Encounters

Recovering the Stolen Histories of American Slaves

The Tragedy of Treating People as Property Has Left Only Scattered Scraps to Hint at Their Cultures and Communities

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By Sean Kelley
August 18, 2016

For the past eight years I’ve been living with 72 people. These 28 men, 25 women, 12 girls, and seven boys are long dead—they were Africans sold into captivity and shipped to America in the mid-1700s. It’s generally accepted that a factual account of their experience—like almost all Africans enslaved in America—is beyond recovery. Even Roots blended fact and fiction into something its author referred to as “faction.”

But thanks to laborious archival research and the linking of two rare and …

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Ideas

With Free State of Jones, Hollywood’s Civil War Comes Closer to History’s

Pop Culture May Finally Be Ready to Surrender the Myth of a Noble, Confederate Lost Cause

At a meeting of the Union League, Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Newt (Matthew McConaughey) tell the Freedman that all citizens shall have the right to vote.

By Victoria Bynum
June 23, 2016

The setting is the piney woods of Civil War Jones County, Mississippi. The white farmer Newt Knight leads a band of deserters against Confederate forces. An enslaved woman, Rachel, lends invaluable aid to this Knight Band. After gaining her freedom, she spends the rest of her life as Newt’s partner.

These events are a great story—and even better history. This summer, Free State of Jones will bring to movie theaters across the country a thrilling and relatively unknown tale of …

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Ideas

Let’s Not Play ‘Gotcha’ With the Great Emancipator

If Lincoln Seems Like a Lukewarm Abolitionist, It’s Because He Was a Nuanced Radical

Guelzo on Great Emanicipator LEAD

By Allen C. Guelzo
February 12, 2016

“I am naturally anti slavery,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” That doesn’t come as too much of a surprise, considering that every American is taught in school that Lincoln was the president who freed the slaves.

Yet, there has always been a small cloud of doubt about just how great an emancipator he really was. Why (for instance) did he wait …

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Identities

Why Abolitionist Frederick Douglass Loved the Photograph

He Considered It the Most Democratic of Arts and a Crucial Aid in the Quest to End Slavery and Achieve Civil Rights

Lead Image for Homepage Stauffer

By John Stauffer
December 4, 2015

Suddenly, it seems, the camera has become a potent weapon in what many see as the beginning of a new civil rights movement. It’s become a familiar tale: Increasingly, blacks won’t leave home without a camera, and, according to F.B.I. Director James B. Comey, more police officers are thinking twice about questioning minorities, for fear of having the resulting film footage go viral.

But the link between photography (or film) and civil rights dates back to Frederick Douglass, the famous …

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Ideas

Abolition and Emancipation Were Not the Same Thing

After the Civil War, Rose Herera Wanted More Than Freedom—She Wanted Justice

Rothman slave auction

By Adam Rothman
July 21, 2015

Early in 1865, in the city of New Orleans, a newly freed woman named Rose Herera made a startling allegation. She told a local judge that her former owner’s wife, Mary De Hart, had abducted three of her children and was holding them in bondage in Cuba. She wanted De Hart prosecuted for kidnapping, and she wanted her children back.

In histories of slavery, we often hear about people who wanted to be free. But Rose Herera and countless other men …

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Ideas

Did the End of the Civil War Mean the End of Slavery?

April 1865 Marked the Beginning of a New Battle for American Abolitionists

Emancipation monument

By Matthew Pinsker
April 14, 2015

On the same morning that Abraham Lincoln died from an assassin’s bullet, noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was quietly gloating by the Charleston, South Carolina graveside of John C. Calhoun. Garrison, approaching his 60th birthday, had traveled down to secession’s birthplace with a delegation led by the former Union commander at Fort Sumter, now Major General Robert Anderson, in order to help mark the end of the Civil War with a symbolic flag-raising ceremony at the heavily damaged harbor fortifications …

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