The antebellum period is defined as the time between the formation of the U.S. government and the outbreak of the American Civil War.
During this period, federal and state governments grappled with the contradiction of U.S. slavery. States in the northern regions of the country gradually abolished the practice of slavery, even as they maintained strong economic ties to the practice elsewhere in the country. States in the southern regions, whose economies were entirely dependent on large-scale agricultural enterprises fueled by enslavement, made the system ever more restricting and degrading. The chattel slavery practiced in the United States was so integral to the economy that it was adopted and practiced by some First Nations people who sought to benefit from U.S. economic systems. And the practice of slavery did not only provide economic gains for white people and institutions in this period. For example, enslaved people were exploited for advances in medical science that became the foundation of modern gynecology.
But Black people did not quietly accept their enslavement. They actively fought to resist and dismantle the system. Black women were an integral force in the formal and informal opposition to slavery that gained steam in the antebellum period, despite being doubly discounted by people in power because of their race and sex. Black women in Salem, Massachusetts, created the first female anti-slavery society in the United States. Ex-slave abolitionist activists like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs widely shared their personal experiences of slavery in the North and South, forcing the white American public to confront the daily horrors perpetrated in a country that espoused the ideals of freedom and justice. Harriet Robinson Scott took her fight for emancipation to the U.S. Supreme Court, hoping to force a permanent change in U.S. laws and legislation. And every day, enslaved women across the country actively resisted their oppression, including limiting their ability to have children and taking their own freedom by leaving their enslavers forever.
In states that outlawed the practice of slavery, systemic racism and segregationist practices prevented Black people from achieving full equality with their white peers. Black women fought hard to dismantle these systems across the country, from fighting streetcar segregation in New York City to challenging unfair inheritance practices in Oregon. In Missouri, free Black people were required to apply for a special license to live in the state. Free Black women did not hesitate to assert their right to live and work there, even in the face of nearly insurmountable opposition.
White women in the northern and southern regions of the country also took an active role in the ongoing debate over slavery. The Cult of Domesticity that gained popularity in middle- and upper-class white society in the antebellum period severely limited the ways that white women could engage in public discourse. But slavery was considered as much a moral issue as an economic or political one, and morality was an area in which women were allowed a voice. This meant white women could engage in the debate over slavery publicly, as long as they stuck to moral arguments and channels deemed appropriate for women. Pro- and anti-slavery activist women wrote literature to educate young children about the issue, leveraging their socially prescribed role as educators of the next generation. Writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Childs wrote highly romanticized accounts of slavery and abolitionist actions, taking advantage of the fairly new opportunity for women to pursue careers as novelists. White women all over the country used their domestic skills, such as sewing, preserving, baking, and crafting, to produce thousands of items sold at abolitionist fairs, which funded political anti-slavery campaigns led by men. But stepping outside the bounds of what society deemed appropriate behavior could have dire consequences.
Free blacks in the antebellum period—those years from the formation of the Union until the Civil War—were quite outspoken about the injustice of slavery. Their ability to express themselves, however, was determined by whether they lived in the North or the South. Free Southern blacks continued to live under the shadow of slavery, unable to travel or assemble as freely as those in the North. It was also more difficult for them to organize and sustain churches, schools, or fraternal orders such as the Masons.
Although their lives were circumscribed by numerous discriminatory laws even in the colonial period, freed African Americans, especially in the North, were active participants in American society. Black men enlisted as soldiers and fought in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Some owned land, homes, businesses, and paid taxes. In some Northern cities, for brief periods of time, black property owners voted. A very small number of free blacks owned slaves. The slaves that most free blacks purchased were relatives whom they later manumitted. A few free blacks also owned slave holding plantations in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina.
Free African American Christians founded their own churches which became the hub of the economic, social, and intellectual lives of blacks in many areas of the fledgling nation. Blacks were also outspoken in print. Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned newspaper, appeared in 1827. This paper and other early writings by blacks fueled the attack against slavery and racist conceptions about the intellectual inferiority of African Americans.
African Americans also engaged in achieving freedom for others, which was a complex and dangerous undertaking. Enslaved blacks and their white sympathizers planned secret flight strategies and escape routes for runaways to make their way to freedom. Although it was neither subterranean nor a mechanized means of travel, this network of routes and hiding places was known as the “underground railroad.” Some free blacks were active “conductors” on the underground railroad while others simply harbored runaways in their homes. Free people of color like Richard Allen, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, David Walker, and Prince Hall earned national reputations for themselves by writing, speaking, organizing, and agitating on behalf of their enslaved compatriots.
Thousands of freed blacks, with the aid of interested whites, returned to Africa with the aid of the American Colonization Society and colonized what eventually became Liberia. While some African Americans chose this option, the vast majority felt themselves to be Americans and focused their efforts on achieving equality within the United States.