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An animation showing the free/slave status of U.S. states and territories, 1789-1861. The Civil War began in 1861. Slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865.

In the United States history, a slave state was a U.S. state in which slavery was legal at a particular point of time, and a free state was one in which slavery was prohibited at that point of time. The issue of slavery was one of the causes of the American Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery throughout the United States, and the distinction became irrelevant.


Slavery was legal and practiced in each of the Thirteen Colonies. Organized political and social movements to end slavery began in the mid-18th century.[1] The sentiments of the American Revolution and the equality evoked by the Declaration of Independence rallied many black Americans toward the revolutionary cause and their own hopes of emancipation; both enslaved and free black men fought in the Revolution on both sides.[1]

In the 1770s, blacks throughout New England began sending petitions to northern legislatures demanding freedom; by 1800, all of the northern states had abolished slavery or set measures in place to gradually reduce it.[1][2] While free, blacks often had to struggle with reduced civil rights, such as restrictions on voting, as well as racism, segregation, or physical violence.[1] Vermont abolished slavery in 1777, while it was still independent, and when it joined the United States as the 14th state in 1791 it was the first state to have done so. All the other Northern states abolished slavery between 1780 and 1804, leaving the slave states of the South as defenders of the "peculiar institution". Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780, and several other Northern states adopted gradual emancipation. In 1804, New Jersey became the last original Northern state to embark on gradual emancipation. Slavery was proscribed in the federal Northwest Territory under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed just before the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The free black population increased from 8% to 13.5% from 1790 to 1810; most of whom lived in the Mid-Atlantic States, New England, and the Upper South, where most of the slave population lived at the time.[1]

The first U.S. region by federal law that prohibited slavery was the Northwest Territory, which was ordained free under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed just before the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The states created from this region—Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota —were generally settled by New Englanders and American Revolutionary War veterans granted land there. Because slavery in this region was prohibited from its inception and separated by the Ohio River from the South—which was pushing an expansion of legal slavery into the west—the concept developed of "free states" in contrast to "slave states." The rural parts of these states, at one time in direct East-West rivalry with the Northeastern commercial states, realigned with the Northeastern states, which were newly free of slavery, and together these regions created the amalgamation of states prohibiting slavery, known in the context of the Civil War as the free states.

Anti-slavery settlers in "Bleeding Kansas" in the 1850s were called Free-Soilers, because they fought (successfully) to include Kansas in the Union as a free state.

Original state-based abolition efforts

Prior to the American Revolution, all of the British North American colonies had slavery, but the Revolutionary War gave impetus to a general anti-slavery sentiment. The Northwest Territory, now known as part of the Midwest, was organized under the Northwest Ordinance with a prohibition on slavery in 1787. Massachusetts accepted that its 1780 Constitution effectively abolished slavery, and several other northern states adopted statutes requiring gradual emancipation. In 1804, New Jersey became the last original state to embark on the course of gradual emancipation.

Conflict over new territories

During the War of 1812, the British accepted as free all slaves who came into their hands, with no conditions as to military service such as had been made in Dunmore's Proclamation in the Revolutionary War. By the end of the War of 1812, the momentum for antislavery reform, state by state, appeared to run out of steam, with half of the states having already abolished slavery (Northeast), prohibited from the start (Midwest) or committed to eliminating slavery, and half committed to continuing the institution indefinitely (South).

The potential for political conflict over slavery at a federal level made politicians concerned about the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, where each State was represented by two Senators. With an equal number of slave states and free states, the United States Senate was equally divided. As the population of the free states began to outstrip the population of the slave states, leading to control of the House of Representatives by free states, the Senate became the preoccupation of slave state politicians interested in maintaining a Congressional veto over federal policy in regard to slavery. As a result of this preoccupation, slave states and free states were often admitted into the Union in pairs to maintain the existing Senate balance between slave and free.

Missouri Compromise

Controversy over whether Missouri should be admitted as a slave state, resulted in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which specified that Louisiana Purchase territory north of latitude 36° 30', which described Missouri's southern boundary, would be organized as free states and territory south of that line would be reserved for organization as slave states. As part of that compromise, the admission of Maine as a free state was secured to balance Missouri's admission as a slave state.

Status of Texas and the Mexican Cession states

The admission of Texas and the acquisition of vast new western territories after the Mexican-American War further excited controversy. Although the settled portion of Texas was an area rich in cotton plantations and dependent on slavery, the territory acquired in the Mountain West did not seem hospitable to cotton or slavery. In 1850, California was admitted as a free state, without an additional slave state as balance. This would have created a free state majority in the Senate, except that California agreeably sent one pro-slavery and one anti-slavery senator to Washington, D.C. Thus, the admission of California increased the anxiety of pro-slavery politicians but did not change the balance in the Senate.

Last battles

The difficulty of identifying territory that could be organized into additional slave states stalled the process of opening the western territories to settlement, while slave state politicians sought a solution. Efforts were made to acquire Cuba and to annex Nicaragua, both to be slave states. In 1854, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was repealed, and an effort was initiated to organize Kansas as a slave state. Kansas was paired with Minnesota for admission, but the admission of Kansas as a slave state was blocked because of questions over the legitimacy of its slave state constitution. When the admission of Minnesota proceeded unimpeded in 1858, the balance in the Senate was lost; a loss that was compounded by the subsequent admission of Oregon in 1859.

Slave and free state pairs

Before 1812, the concern about balancing slave-states and free states was not profound. This is how the states lined up in 1812:

Slave States Year Free States Year
Delaware 1787 New Jersey
(Slave until 1804)
Georgia 1788 Pennsylvania 1787
Maryland 1788 Connecticut 1788
South Carolina 1788 Massachusetts 1788
Virginia 1788 New Hampshire 1788
North Carolina 1789 New York
(Slave until 1799)
Kentucky 1792 Rhode Island 1790
Tennessee 1797 Vermont 1791
Louisiana 1812 Ohio 1803

After 1812, and until the Civil War, maintaining the balance of free and slave states within the federal legislature was considered of paramount importance if the Union were to be preserved, and states were typically admitted in pairs:

Slave States Year Free States Year
Mississippi 1817 Indiana 1816
Alabama 1819 Illinois 1818
Missouri 1821 Maine 1820
Arkansas 1836 Michigan 1837
Florida 1845 Iowa 1846
Texas 1845 Wisconsin 1848
(One pro-slavery Senator)
Minnesota 1858
Oregon 1859
Kansas 1861

End of slave states

Maryland,[3] Missouri,[4] Tennessee,[5] the new state of West Virginia,[6] and the District of Columbia prohibited slavery before the Civil War ended. However, in Delaware,[7] Kentucky,[8] and most of the Confederate States, slavery continued to be legal until the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery throughout the United States in December 1865, ending the distinction. Ratification of the 13th Amendment was a condition of the return of local rule to those states that had declared their secession.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Painter, Nell Irvin (2007). Creating Black Americans: African-American History and Its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. p. 70. Cite error: The named reference "Painter" was defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  2. ^ Wilson, Black Codes (1965), p. 15. "By 1775, inspired by those 'self-evident' truths which were to be expressed by the Declaration of Independence, a considerable number of colonists felt that the time had come to end slavery and give the free Negroes some fruits of liberty. This sentiment, added to economic considerations, led to the immediate or gradual abolition of slavery in six northern states, while there was a swelling flood of private manumissions in the South. Little actual gain was made by the free Negro even in this period, and by the turn of the century the downward trend had begun again. Thereafter the only important change in that trend before the Civil War was that after 1831 the decline in the status of the free Negro became more precipitate."
  3. ^ "Archives of Maryland Historical List: Constitutional Convention, 1864". November 1, 1864. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  4. ^ "Missouri abolishes slavery". January 11, 1865. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  5. ^ "TENNESSEE STATE CONVENTION: Slavery Declared Forever Abolished". NY Times. January 14, 1865. Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  6. ^ "On this day: 1865-FEB-03". Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  7. ^ "Slavery in Delaware". Retrieved 2012-11-18.
  8. ^ Lowell Hayes Harrison and James C. Klotter (1997). A new history of Kentucky. p. 180. In 1866, Kentucky refused to ratify the 13th Amendment. It did ratify it in 1976.