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Freedom in Antebellum America: Civil War and Abolishment of Slavery Research Paper

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Updated: Feb 25th, 2022

People living nowadays find it difficult to imagine how their counterparts from the 19th century lived, as everything has dramatically changed. The world is an entirely different place nowadays, and the meaning of many concepts has shifted. Nevertheless, it is essential to look back at the past, analyze, and make conclusions. The American Civil War, which led to the abolishment of slavery, was one of the most important events in the history of the United States. Numerous individuals are convinced that the Thirteen Amendment to the Constitution was among the most outstanding achievements, while others state that all the processes were gradual and complicated. The lives of numerous black people did not change overnight, and they did not obtain freedom at once. In the South, as well as in the North, African Americans lacked rights and opportunities before and after the Civil War. Even though many black people were not slaves in Antebellum America, they could not enjoy complete freedom, thus being free at the time meant to be under constant pressure.

The South

In the South, African Americans were treated mostly differently from their counterparts in the North; thus, many of them dreamed of a free land where they could enjoy their lives and prosper. Undoubtedly, one of the worst crimes of humanity was slavery, which imposed unreasonable restrictions on millions of individuals and inflicted widespread suffering. The Confederate States of America was the place where it was prevailing. It may be challenging to imagine that only about 160 years ago in Louisiana, Texas, or Arkansas, black people worked hard in order to bring advantages to their white owners. Moreover, the former could not make choices on their own, as they were under the complete control of their masters. Their physical freedom was restricted, though their mental freedom could not be reduced.

To begin with, millions of Americans nowadays have heard much about the horrors of slavery. However, getting aware of some information does not mean realizing it. In the modern world, political leaders can lose their positions due to racial remarks on social media. In contrast, white plantation owners traded, sexually harassed, and mercilessly exploited black people with no punishment only a century and a half ago. Brent wrote, “You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of a chattel, entirely subject to the will of another.”1 The woman fully experienced the horrors of slavery and assured that those who had never encountered it could not understand the problem entirely. Even though some slaves were lucky to have compassionate owners, they always feared for their own future. The reason for it is that they were utterly dependent on white owners, who could die, go bankrupt, or change their minds.

Fortunately, physical restrictions could not reduce their mental freedom, which was nurtured by education. Masters might provide basic education for some of their slaves, and black people were eager to learn and spread knowledge among their relatives and friends. For example, an old black man told Brent, “I only wants to read dis book, dat I may know how to live; den I hab no fear ’bout dying.”2 Education helped many individuals to forget about their terrible conditions for a moment and liberate their minds. At the same time, many owners were aware of the power of knowledge and feared that it might make their slaves less dependent; thus, they severely punished those who taught, as well as those who studied.

Furthermore, education opened new horizons for black people and encouraged them to escape from exploitation and search for freedom in the North. Many liberated minds could no longer withstand the absurdity of slavery. They believed that the North Star would assist them in finding the way to a new life. However, only the most desperate slaves could escape from the South, as numerous obstacles restricted them. For example, fleeing meant leaving one’s parents, children, close relatives, and friends behind under brutal exploitation. Besides, those who tried to escape risked to be caught, sent back, severely punished, or even killed. Nevertheless, the desire to be free was overwhelming and pushed them to undertake this difficult journey.

The North

In the North, everything was different, though former slaves still struggled to be free even without the control of plantation owners. Up to the Civil War, African Americans could not feel safe in free states because of numerous absurd rules and regulations. Moreover, the attitude of white people to them was not always favorable, as the former appeared to be exceptionally racially biased. Nowadays, indirect racial discrimination in the workplace is considered to be a severe issue. Still, in the first half of the 19th century, it was a problem of considerable inequality and direct physical assaults. However, there were numerous black people who did not accept the prevailing system and worked diligently to change it. They gave speeches and wrote books endeavoring to influence the perspectives of ordinary white people and political leaders.

Unfortunately, after escaping the South, black people could not obtain complete freedom. Even though they were no longer physically restricted and abused by their masters, they constantly feared being sent back. The laws, policies, and guidance of the government contributed to the problem. Passed in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act conclusively proved it.

It was stated that “with authority to take and remove such fugitives from service or labor… to the state or territory from which such persons may have escaped.”3 It made civil servants, along with ordinary citizens, inform the authorities about black people who had fled from the southern states. African Americans still faced persecution and feared being returned to plantations in the North. Nevertheless, the conditions of black people got better, and they encountered new opportunities.

Already having mental and physical freedom, African Americans did not obtain social freedom in Antebellum America. Many white people were extremely biased, feared, and disregarded black people. The latter suffered much due to discrimination, hardships, few rights, legal segregation, and lack of education. Brent described how citizens treated former slaves in free states, “Yet when victims make their escape from the wild beast of Slavery, northerners consent to act the part of bloodhounds, and hunt the poor fugitive back into his den.”4 The reason for it was that white people lacked the awareness of the problem, and strong racial biases were rooted in their minds. They had never tried to hear the voices of former slaves deserving freedom, as the latter had always been segregated. However, at one point, it became impossible to resist the desire of millions of individuals to be treated fairly.

Therefore, the abolitionist movement occurred involving white intellectuals and educated black people. Many individuals could not withstand the absurdity of slavery; thus, they started to take action to change the system. The members of the Colored National Convention in 1853 argued, “By birth, we are American citizens; by the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are American citizens; within the meaning of the United States Constitution, we are American citizens.”5 The notion of slavery and the restrictions upon black people seemed more irrational and immoral than ever before. African Americans started to realize that they could gain social freedom and become decent citizens of their country. Then the Civil War spread across the United States and changed the nation.

Freedom

In general, the question of what it meant to be free in Antebellum America is hugely problematic. Therefore, it is critical to consider its different aspects, as black people at the time were simultaneously free and bound. First, as long as they obtained basic education and started to spread knowledge among their relatives and friends, they gained mental freedom. It could not be restricted by physical restrictions imposed on them by plantation owners. Second, some African Americans ventured to the North, trying to obtain physical freedom. Even though they were still persecuted there, their conditions significantly improved. Finally, social freedom was not achieved until the American Civil War. However, even in the modern world, racial discrimination within society persists. Nevertheless, in Antebellum America, numerous individuals considered African Americans to be equal and struggled for their social freedom.

Conclusion

In conclusion, history can teach people many lessons and help to look at the world differently. The issue of freedom is widely discussed nowadays as it used to be in Antebellum America. Undoubtedly, the context had shifted dramatically, though that period helps to understand the modern world better. Black people struggled to obtain mental, physical, and social freedom and change the prevailing system. Some of them succeeded in getting some knowledge and liberating their minds, and others escaped the southern states intending to become physically free. Nevertheless, even though many African Americans were no longer slaves, they could not enjoy complete freedom. To be free in Antebellum America meant to be under constant pressure due to discriminatory policies, biased attitudes, and a multitude of hardships.

Bibliography

Brent, Linda. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1861.

The Avalon Project. 2020, Web.

University of Delaware. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1861).
  2. Brent, Incidents.
  3. “Fugitive Slave Act 1850,” The Avalon Project, Web.
  4. Brent, Incidents.
  5. “Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, Held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th and 8th, 1853,” University of Delaware, Web.
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IvyPanda. "Freedom in Antebellum America: Civil War and Abolishment of Slavery." February 25, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/freedom-in-antebellum-america/.

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IvyPanda. 2022. "Freedom in Antebellum America: Civil War and Abolishment of Slavery." February 25, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/freedom-in-antebellum-america/.

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IvyPanda. (2022) 'Freedom in Antebellum America: Civil War and Abolishment of Slavery'. 25 February.

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