Slavery and Civil Rights

Civil liberties and civil rights are not the same. Civil rights involve the government protection of individuals against discrimination based on their race, religion, national origin, gender, age, and other factors. The concept of civil rights is based on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which says that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The United States has traveled a long road in the effort to achieve equality for all its citizens. In fact, not until the middle of the 20th century did the nation take serious action to fight against discrimination. Milestones along the road show how Americans dealt with civil rights issues at various points in history.

The Declaration of Independence may have asserted that "all men are created equal," but laws clearly did not treat them that way. Slavery was a legal institution in the United States until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished it in 1865. Slavery is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution and, with the exception of the slave trade, was left to the states to deal with. The Northern states ended slavery long before the Civil War, but this did not mean that free African Americans were equal in status to whites. Laws either restricted or prevented them from voting, holding public office, serving on juries, and joining the militia.

The Missouri Compromise

By 1820, Americans recognized that the country was heading in two directions on the question of slavery. When the Missouri Territory, which allowed slavery, applied for statehood in 1819, the free states objected; the number of slave and free states was equal at that time, and the admission of Missouri would tip the balance in the Senate in favor of the proponents of slavery.

The Missouri Compromise, which was worked out by Henry Clay, maintained the balance by admitting Maine as a free state. Further, all territories north of latitude 36°30′ north would be free. New states were admitted in pairs: Arkansas (1836) and Michigan (1837), Florida (1845) and Iowa (1846), Texas (1845) and Wisconsin (1848).

The Compromise of 1850

The territory that the United States acquired at the end of the Mexican War raised the issue of the extension of slavery again. After considerable debate, Congress approved a series of laws known collectively as the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state, ended the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and organized the New Mexico and Utah territories with no restrictions on slavery. The South won a fugitive slave law that made harboring an escaped slave a federal crime.

The Dred Scott decision

In the 1857 Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled that slaves must remain slaves even though they reside in a free state. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stated that African Americans were never meant to be included in the term citizen in the Constitution and, therefore, had no rights under the Constitution. Further, Taney declared that the Missouri Compromise, which was the basis for Scott's claim, was unconstitutional because it denied slave owners their property rights.

The Emancipation Proclamation and the abolition of slavery

The Civil War (1861-1865) began as a test of whether states could withdraw from the Union, but the goals of the North soon broadened to include abolishing slavery. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln, using his war powers as commander in chief, issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves in the rebel-held areas of the country. Technically, the proclamation did not free the slaves, but it had that effect, as thousands of slaves left Southern plantations. Slavery as an institution was not abolished until the end of the war with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), which the Southern states were required to accept as a condition for readmission to the Union.