1619 – The first slaves were brought to colonial America. This occurred at Jamestown, in Virginia, where tobacco was becoming the colony’s primary crop. A crucial change in law was effected in 1662, when the Virginia House of Burgesses reversed English Common Law by holding that any child born in the colony would follow the status, slave or free, of its mother, rather than its father. This resulted in nearly 200 years of mixed race children being born slaves.
1787 – The U.S. Constitution is ratified, permitting slaveholding in the new nation. At the time of ratification five Northern states (N.H., Mass., R.I., Conn. and Penn.) had already abolished or were in the process of abolishing slavery. New York and New Jersey followed soon thereafter. In order to win ratification, the Northern states compromised with the Southern states by protecting slavery were it already existed, but limiting its spread. Since the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, and since the importation of slaves was protected for just 20 years, slavery remained legal, but constrained.
1820 – The Missouri Compromise restricts slavery to southern territories. No territory north of Missouri’s southern border could be admitted to the union as a slave state, but Missouri was allowed to enter the Union as a slave state, with Maine also gaining statehood as a free state, maintaining an even split between slave and free states at 12-12.
1846-48 – The Mexican-American War adds vast new territories to U.S., dividing nation over whether they are to be slave or free. California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and most of Arizona and Colorado all become American territories as a result of the war, as well as the fixing of Texas with settled borders. Texas is a slave state, but the disposition of the others spark years of bitter dispute in Congress.
1850 – The Compromise of 1850 spreads talk of secession. With Southern states already threatening secession, and holding a convention in Nashville to discuss it, the Northern states agreed to several controversial concessions, principally agreeing to a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act and to relax the hard line of the Missouri Compromise allowing slavery above the 36th parallel. The South agreed to allow California in as a free state, and Texas agreed to relinquish its claim to New Mexico, but many in the South viewed the Compromise as unacceptable.
1852 – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published. Thought to be the best-selling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a profound effect on Northern opinion and was crucial in fostering anti-slavery views abroad. Its depiction of the cruelties of slavery was shocking to populations unfamiliar with the institution of slavery, and offensive to Southerners who viewed the depiction as unfair.
1854 – The Kansas-Nebraska Act, undermining the Missouri Compromise, is passed. By allowing popular sovereignty (slavery by vote of the people) in the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, the act had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise. And by making slavery a question to be decided by the relative strength of the opposing populations, the act resulted in a rush of people flooding into the territories to fight for their side of the issue. A bloody civil conflict in Kansas ensued.
1856 – The sacking of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces, the most notorious episode in “Bleeding Kansas,” was a foreshadowing of the war to come. More than 1,000 Northerners had entered Kansas in the year before determined to fight against slavery, but many more supporters of slavery crossed the Missouri border to counter them. On May 21, 800 pro-slavery fighters descended on the abolitionist town of Lawrence and destroyed its newspapers and hotel and looted the town. One man was killed in the attack and as many as 60 in Kansas during the entire conflict.
1856 – Rep. Preston Brooks (SC) assaults abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner on the Senate floor. Sumner had made an insulting speech attacking Brooks’ cousin, Sen. Andrew Butler, and two days later Brooks appeared in the Senate chamber to confront Sumner, who was seated at his desk writing. Using his cane, Brooks beat Sumner unconscious, leaving him unable to return to the Senate for three years and in chronic and debilitating pain for the rest of his life. Brooks, however, died of croup eight months after the attack.
1857 – In the Dred Scott decision, U.S. Supreme Court, led by Roger Taney, rejects the idea that Negros have rights.
1859 – Abolitionist John Brown leads failed insurrection at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia