Most of us are unaware that slavery originally existed in all thirteen colonies. Slowly, Quakers and other religions determined that the practice was immoral, mirroring a process taking place in England at the same time. An Abolitionist movement emerged which actively promoted the end of the South’s “peculiar institution.” The Underground Railroad helped run-away slaves reach the north, some continuing to Canada to be safe due to the Fugitive Slave Act. Southern fear of a “servile insurrection” resulted in slave patrols, in which every able-bodied male had to serve. The lure of huge profits from plantations growing tobacco, cotton, rice and sugar cane made perpetuation of the institution irresistible, but the North was intimately involved in its continuance as well. Slaves were expensive, financed by bankers in New York City and Philadelphia, and most cotton mills were in the North. Lincoln noted that slavery as an institution involved the entire country.

The human side of slavery had few humane aspects. Slaves were captured from the interior of Africa, driven in coffles (lines of individuals shackled in chains) over long distances in the hot sun, branded, sold, and transported in slave ships. These unfortunates remained shackled and were confined to coffin-like areas once herded aboard ship, forced to wallow in their own excrement, since they were infrequently permitted topside. Something like one third perished in the trans-Atlantic crossing.

Controversy over the practice led to the Constitution counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for representational and tax purposes. Legally, however they were merely property anywhere in the South. There was no regard for family units; children, even babies could be sold at any time, as could husbands or wives. Brute force was often required; slaves were whipped, or even mutilated for particularly bad behavior. Above all, education was prohibited so the myth that they were ignorant brutes was perpetuated.