What most Americans may not realize is that early Americans opposed and even outlawed slavery. By the 1770s Pennsylvanian, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and others had passed anti-slavery laws—which the Tories opposed. King George III’s British governors in America vetoed every anti-slavery law the American colonists passed.
(Less than one percent of colonists in the southern colonies owned slaves. Southern cotton production was financially linked to the British who primarily funded the Confederates.)
Thomas Jefferson wrote about King George III and his imposition of slavery against the will of the colonists. Of his many writings compiled by Albert Ellery Bergh, published in 1903, Jefferson said, King George III:
… waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.
“Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing ever legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”
However, by the time independence from Britain was declared in 1776, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont had outlawed slavery. In the northern states slavery was nearly entirely illegal.
One hundred years later Abraham Lincoln signed several anti-slavery laws and in 1864 he called for a Constitutional amendment to eliminate slavery. After his reelection, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment.
After its passage, Reverend Henry Highland Grant was the first black American pastor to preach a sermon before Congress.
On February 12, 1865 he recounted his own experience, as a former slave who escaped to the North, became a minister, and later a chaplain to black Union troops. (Grant was considered by some as radical for publicly challenging slaves to rebel.)
After citing Exodus 21:16 and the God of the Bible’s opposition to slavery, Grant declared:
Honorable Senators and Representatives! Illustrious rulers of this great nation! I cannot refrain this day from invoking upon you, in God’s name, the blessings of millions who were ready to perish but to whom a new and better life has been opened by your humanity, justice, and patriotism.
“You have said, ‘Let the Constitution of the country be so amended that slavery and involuntary servitude shall no longer exist in the United States, except in punishment for a crime.’ Surely, an act so sublime could not escape Divine notice; and doubtless, the deed has been recorded in the archives of Heaven!
“Favored men, and honored of God as His instruments, speedily finish the work which He has given you to do. Emancipate! Enfranchise! Educate! And give the blessings of the Gospel to every American citizen!
“Let the verdict of death which has been brought in against slavery by the Thirty-Eighth Congress be affirmed and executed by the people. Let the gigantic monster perish. Let slavery die. It has had a long and fair trial; God Himself has pleaded against it. Its death warrant is signed by God and man. Do not commute its sentence.”
Grant recounted the many religious and political leaders who had opposed slavery in America, including many of the Founding Fathers. He quoted George Washington, who said, “It is among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country shall be abolished by law. I know of but one way by which this can be done, and that is by legislative action; and so far as my vote can go, it shall not be wanting.”
Grant imagined that after Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, “the spirits of Washington, Jefferson, the Jays, the Adamses, and Franklin, and Lafayette, and Giddings, and Lovejoy—and those of all the mighty and glorious dead” were hovering over a Congress who Grant said would be “remembered by history because they were faithful to truth, justice, and liberty.”
The Thirteenth Amendment was passed on January 31, 1865 and ratified on December 6, 1865.
This article was first published on August 14, 2015.