U.S. presidents and slavery

U.S. presidents and slavery

12 of the first 18 American presidents owned slaves

The history of the American presidency’s relationship to slavery is a complicated one that touches on two main issues: presidential ownership of slaves and the handling of slavery as a political issue. This essay provides a basic overview of the importance of slavery in early America and then discusses several presidents who were enslavers, while also considering how different presidents navigated the struggle between slavery and freedom during the first hundred years of the American republic.

Slavery in the early United States

The United States of America came into existence in 1789, but the practice of enslavement had existed and thrived in the British colonies for more than a century-and-a-half before.

Most historians date the beginning of the enslavement of Africans in what became the United States back to 1619 when enslaved Africans arrived in the Virginia colony. In colonies such as Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina, slavery would become the driving economic force in the agricultural economy. In the 17th century, English demand for cash crops such as tobacco required a large number of laborers to grow, cultivate, and harvest. White colonists initially attempted to enslave Native Americans with limited success. For much of the 17th century, they also drew on a system of indentured servitude, in which laborers would work without pay for a period of time to gain their freedom. However, white landowners began to rely on enslavement by about 1660, when the number of enslaved people in the colonies jumped to about 2,800. By 1700, white colonists had forcibly moved about 27,000 Africans to the North American colonies. The number of enslaved people was almost 460,000 on the eve of the American Revolution, and then 700,000 by the founding of the United States.1 By the 1860 census, the United States had almost 4 million enslaved people.

Slave cabin
Enslaved people in the United States often lived in small wooden structures such as this slave cabin on a former plantation in Tennessee. Credit: Myotus

From the beginning, enslaved people in the colonies and early United States lived under horrific conditions. Most lived outdoors in small wooden quarters with little ventilation or protection from harsh weather. Some were expected to work indoors to assist with the functioning of homes, but many more labored in fields and on plantations, exposed to the elements, such as grueling heat and bitter cold.

Enslavers used enslaved people for a wide range of labor, though the largest number of enslaved people labored on large plantations to harvest agricultural commodities such as cotton and sugar. But slavery was not limited to plantations, and people who resided in urban areas also held enslaved people and required them to labor in a number of different roles.

Slaves auction
This drawing of a slave auction in Virginia in 1861 illustrates one of the most brutal forms of torture that enslaved people faced—family separation while being bought and sold as property. Credit: Illustrated London News

Enslavers relied on violence to compel enslaved people to labor and used violence when and where they pleased. Most infamously, these enslavers used the whip to punish enslaved people who did not meet expectations. Enslavers’ most brutal form of torture, however, was the use of family separation for the slave trade. Husbands, wives, children, and even infants, were torn from their families and sold.

For some historians, the simultaneous rise of slavery and the American Revolution is a “paradox” that requires explanation. This paradox only grows in consequence when we consider that some of the loudest advocates for Americans’ “freedom” from British “tyranny” were themselves enslavers. Thomas Jefferson, a member of the Continental Congress and later president of the United States, was an enslaver when he wrote the famous opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Was Jefferson considering enslaved African and African American people to be among those who were “equal,” possessed of “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

Washington at 1787 Constitutional Convention
George Washington stands before the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Slavery was a point of contention during the convention debates. Credit: Junius Brutus Stearns, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Slavery was a contentious issue during the debates that ultimately resulted in the writing and ratification of the United States Constitution between 1787 and 1789. While enslavement, and the use of enslaved labor for agricultural labor in particular, was already an engrained practice in the economic systems of numerous colonies—especially those in the South—the 18th century had also witnessed the emergence of a powerful group of antislavery political leaders. These antislavery leaders viewed the American Revolution’s emphasis on liberty as an opportunity to abolish slavery.

Meanwhile, representatives from states that had grown dependent on slavery demanded that the new US Constitution not interfere with the existing conditions. Ultimately, slavery’s defenders secured a few key provisions in the new Constitution: they would be able to count every enslaved person as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning representatives in Congress, thereby increasing their political power; they would be able to pursue and reclaim enslaved people who ran away to other states as “fugitive slaves”; and the international slave trade would remain open until 1808.

Scholars continue to debate whether the Constitution was proslavery, antislavery, or a bit of both. What is undeniable is that when the dust settled on the American Revolution and the creation of the new United States in 1789, slavery remained a key—if not the key—part of the new republic. Slavery in the early American republic would continue to grow and to structure the economic and social conditions in the Southern states, beginning with the original states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and then expanding to new states over the next several decades: Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas. Notably, however, when the new Constitution came into effect, there were no “free” states. Even as most Northern states enacted gradual “emancipation” laws that slowly reduced the number of enslaved people in those states, slavery would persist in many of these states until the Civil War.

White leaders in Southern states built a system of law to govern the enslaved population by emulating slave codes from other English or European colonies in the West Indies. These laws were noteworthy for their brutality as they frequently relied on whippings as punishments for minor “crimes.” One key example of these laws was a surveillance system known as “pass laws,” that allowed any white person to ask any Black person for a written “pass” if that Black person was found unaccompanied in public. If the purportedly enslaved person lacked a pass or if the inspecting white person found something suspicious, the white person had the authority to arrest the Black person.

Slave patrol
Enslaved people were often subject to slave patrols that could stop, question, or seize Black people with little to no justification or explanation. Credit: Frederic B. Schell

Slave patrols, or police forces that policed public spaces, usually after sundown, were also common. Patrols that apprehended enslaved people often relied on harsh whippings. These slave codes also prescribed capital punishment for enslaved people accused of crimes such as threatening or attacking a white person or running away for so long as to be classed as an “outlaw.” In tandem with plantation and household rules governing enslaved people’s workdays and privileges, the laws governing slavery meant that enslaved people faced extremely harsh restrictions and vicious violence when captors and public officials deemed them to have violated rules or laws.

Family of African American Slaves
An enslaved family of different generations gathers on a plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, in the early 1860s. Credit: Timothy H. O'Sullivan

Facing this legal apparatus, as well as the violence that enslavers routinely meted out, enslaved people nonetheless managed to defiantly survive, build families, and create communities. Enslaved people on plantations and elsewhere often organized their own religious practices and operated their own systems of exchange and commerce. In other words, even against the reality of laws and violence that tried to erase their humanitiy, enslaved people strove to control their daily lives as much as possible.

Presidents and slavery

Until the Civil War, US presidents were deeply involved with slavery in three main ways. First, many early presidents were themselves enslavers, though their specific roles varied from deeply involved in the day-to-day management of enslaved people’s lives and activities, to more distantly involved. Second, presidents signed legislation and administered government policies that had important effects on slavery as an economic system. Finally, in some cases, presidential administrations were affected by the impact of political issues that revolved around slavery.

Twelve of the 18 presidents who held office between 1789 and 1877 owned slaves in various capacities: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses Grant. Notably, four of the first five presidents were enslavers, with Washington, Jefferson, and Madison owning several hundred people. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor also owned about two hundred and three hundred, respectively. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln were the only US presidents not to own slaves in these years. The striking reality that many of the nation’s key political founders were enslavers led historian Edmund S. Morgan to contemplate the paradox that the same men who propounded important principles of individual freedom did so while enslaving almost an entire race of people.2

George Washington

When George Washington was eleven years old, his father died, and Washington inherited a small estate and ten enslaved people. He continued to increase the number of enslaved people under his control throughout his life. Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, housed hundreds of enslaved people, some of whom Washington had purchased through the slave trade, and others who had been born into enslavement under Washington’s control. After Washington married Martha Custis, she brought more than 80 enslaved people with her to Mount Vernon. 

Washington at Mount Vernon
In this painting, George Washington hosts the Marquis de Lafayette at Mount Vernon, his plantation along the Potomac River in Virginia. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most of Washington’s slaves labored in Mount Vernon’s fields while others worked near or within the Washington home. Like many Virginia plantation owners, Washington used overseers to supervise labor and to mete out verbal admonitions and physical beatings when he deemed them necessary. Washington often made the final decision about these whippings and was also known to personally use harsh language toward slaves he believed were not doing their work. However, Washington was also known to believe enslaved people deserved basic food and shelter, and he disfavored excessive punishment. Today, visitors to Washington’s Mount Vernon can see recreations of the small quarters in which enslaved people lived.

Even as the owner of several hundred enslaved people over his lifetime, Washington had complicated views toward slavery. As the American Revolution gained steam, he helped frame the Fairfax Resolves, which protested British actions and criticized the Atlantic slave trade. Washington understood Britain’s treatment of the North American colonies as similar to the relationship between enslaver and enslaved. During the War of Independence, however, he did not believe that free or enslaved Black people should serve in the Continental Army until British attempts to recruit Black soldiers forced his hand.3

During the war, Washington also instructed the man supervising Mount Vernon to reduce the number of Black slaves, while also noting that he did not want to separate families through slave sales.4 However, after the war, Washington led a decade-long quest to recapture one of his former slaves, Ona Judge, who had escaped and settled in New Hampshire. As historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar has shown, as president, Washington used a strategy of moving his slaves back and forth from the national capital of Philadelphia to Virginia, to avoid the possibility of his slaves taking advantage of Pennsylvania’s legal pathway to freedom if an enslaved person lived in the state for more than six months.5 Washington further complicated his personal legacy with slavery by including in his will a plan to free one slave and to manumit those under his control—roughly over a hundred—after the death of his wife, Martha. Of the more than 300 enslaved people at Mount Vernon when Washington died, about half of them were owned by the estate of Martha’s first husband, and neither she nor George had the legal right to free them; Martha’s heirs inherited them after her death.

Slave cabin at Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon was home to more than 300 enslaved people when George Washington died. This structure is slave cabin at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson

As president, Washington made two major policy decisions that signaled support for the institution of slavery. First, he oversaw an unsuccessful program of support for the French government as it contended with a massive slave rebellion in the colony of Saint-Domingue, which eventually became the Haitian Revolution.6 Second, and most notably, he signed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, which provided a mechanism for enslavers to invoke the right—from the US Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause—to pursue and reclaim people who had fled enslavement to states with less slavery. And despite his reservations about the slave trade in 1774, Washington brushed off a 1791 entreaty from the Quaker community demanding an end to the slave trade. However, Washington also signed the 1787 version of the Northwest Ordinance, which granted freedom to enslaved people forcibly moved into the Northwest Territory after 1787. He also signed a law that prohibited United States citizens or foreigners living in the United States from involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, though the law had little effect on the scope of the trade.7

Thomas Jefferson

President Thomas Jefferson’s main residence was Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. A working plantation, the property was home to hundreds of enslaved people. Credit: Martin Falbisoner

When Thomas Jefferson won the presidential election of 1800, he had been an enslaver for almost 50 years. Like Washington, Jefferson had inherited slaves as a child after his father’s death in 1757, and he later inherited more than a hundred slaves after his father-in-law died in 1773. Jefferson’s slaves were held captive at his main residence, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as other locations in the state. Jefferson closely controlled the management of slave labor at Monticello. He generally did not believe in separating families of enslaved people because keeping them together would lead to reproduction and natural population growth, obviating the need to buy new slaves through the slave trade.8 Violence against enslaved people was common at Monticello, although Jefferson likely did not personally whip or otherwise physically torture them.9

According to historian Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson’s sexual interactions with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, likely led to her giving birth to six or seven children. Gordon-Reed points to the preferential treatment of the Hemings children as circumstantial evidence that Jefferson more closely regarded them than any other enslaved people at Monticello: several were spared onerous labor as children, and all were eventually freed.10 Moreover, Gordon-Reed has traced how since Jefferson’s death, historians and other invested in preserving Jefferson’s reputation had purposefully obscured the Hemings connection. DNA testing in the late 1990s suggested strongly that he could not be ruled out as the father, and most scholarly historians now view it as likely that he was.11

The Recorder newspaper
Journalist James T. Callender first publicized the issue of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings in a newspaper column in The Recorder newspaper in 1802 in an effort to hurt the president’s reputation. Credit: The Recorder

As president and in his private life and writings, Jefferson developed a contradictory record on slavery. He directed the Louisiana Purchase, which eventually led to the massive growth of plantation slavery in the Gulf South and beyond.12 Yet he also permitted American merchants to trade with Haitian revolutionaries against French enslavers and the French government, and in 1808 he signed a law that criminalized participation in the international slave trade. In his autobiography, Jefferson suggested that slavery would eventually end and that Black enslaved people would be freed. Yet, in his earlier and popular work, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote that Black people were inferior to whites. Perhaps most damning was Jefferson’s lack of care for the enslaved people at Monticello after his death, as more than one hundred were sold to help cover Jefferson’s debts, leading to the traumatic separation of families and their removal from Monticello.13

James Madison

James Madison, who succeeded Thomas Jefferson as president in 1809, came from a large slaveholding family in Orange County, Virginia. When Madison went to Princeton University in 1769, he brought an enslaved person named Sawney with him, and Sawney would later go on to become a trusted overseer of the Madison family estate, Montpelier. In his lifetime, Madison emancipated only one enslaved person, Billey. Billey went to Philadelphia with Madison and lived with him during the time of the Continental Congress. Madison believed that Billey had learned too much about what it meant to be free to return to live as a slave. Billey, Madison seemed to fear, might teach other enslaved people about the freedom he had experienced in the North and endanger the institution of slavery at Montpelier. The rest of the people Madison owned as slaves he bequeathed to his wife.14

Montpelier slavequarters
More than 300 enslaved people lived and worked in the slave quarters at James Madison’s family plantation, Montpelier, near Orange, Virginia. Credit: Mike Miriello

Madison’s political thought, which is widely considered pivotal to the creation of the United States, featured ambivalence about the morality and importance of slavery. On one hand, especially during the height of the American Revolution, Madison questioned whether slavery should be a fundamental part of the American experience. At the Constitutional Convention, he criticized the slave trade and quipped that it would be wrong to codify in the Constitution the principle that human beings could be held as property.15

But Madison’s brief dalliance with antislavery thought receded by the time he was secretary of state during the Jefferson administration. When Madison became president, he imported to the White House several enslaved people from Montpelier. Scholars have identified that President Madison, and especially First Lady Dolley Madison, turned the White House into a key venue for political activity, and slave labor proved to be pivotal to these efforts.16

Madison’s post-presidential life exemplified his contradictory philosophical and personal dealings with slavery. During the Virginia constitutional convention in 1829, Madison insisted that both free and enslaved African Americans should be counted for purposes of representation in the state legislature. However, as historian Paris Amanda Spies-Gans explains, Madison abandoned his “principles” when he sold enslaved people to cope with mounting financial woes at Montpelier.17 Fifteen years after leaving the White House, James Madison became president of the American Colonization Society, which was founded in 1816 and advocated for the deportation of the free Black population in the United States to colonies in Africa.

James Monroe

James Monroe was born to a prosperous family in Virginia. After the death of his parents, Monroe and his siblings shared an inheritance of land and enslaved people. In 1799, James Monroe and his family moved to Highland, a plantation worked by enslaved people outside of Charlottesville, Virgina. After fighting in the American Revolution and becoming a mentee of Thomas Jefferson, Monroe became involved in politics. During his time as governor of Virginia, Monroe dealt with Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800, when he called out the local military guard to thwart a planned slave uprising in Richmond, Virginia. This event led Monroe to support colonization out of a desire to protect the white population of Virginia from possible slave rebellions. By deporting the free Black community, Monroe believed, slavery in Virginia would be less susceptible to the kind of unrest that had occurred during Gabriel’s Rebellion.

American Colonization Society certificate
President James Monroe was a supporter of the American Colonization Society, which paid to transport free Blacks to Africa. African Americans strongly criticized the ACS efforts because they protected the interests of slaveowners. Credit: Library of Virginia

Notably, African American criticism of the American Colonization Society (ACS) was fierce and persistent; they argued that Blacks had lived in the United States for generations, and it was their home.18 African Americans also saw colonization as a way to protect the interest of slaveowners and remove the “problem” of free Blacks. While Monroe was president, Congress appropriated $100,000 to the ACS, and the transportation of African Americans to Liberia began in 1820. The ACS memorialized Monroe’s support for the project by naming the colony’s capital city Monrovia.19 The ACS continued to capture the attention of American politicians in years to come, including future President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had supported colonization in the 1840s until after the Emancipation Proclamation, when African American critics finally convinced him to abandon the scheme.20

From a policy perspective, Monroe’s term as president is important because he signed the law that would come to be known as the “Missouri Compromise,” which admitted Missouri as a state where slavery was legal, while Maine entered the Union as a state without legalized slavery. From one perspective, the Missouri Compromise ensured that new states created north of the 36 30’ parallel line would be states without slavery. However, the Compromise also hardened the divide between slave and “free” states and set the tone for the divisive political debates between the sections of the nation for decades to come.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson had a large number of enslaved people who worked in the cotton fields of his plantation, The Hermitage, nearby Nashville, Tennessee. Jackson participated in the slave trade in order to grow his slave labor force to more than 150 people by the time he died in 1845. As master, Jackson’s concern for the preservation of his wealth and property meant that he demanded that overseers and others responsible for the daily management of operations at The Hermitage avoid excessive violence toward the enslaved population.

The Hermitage
The Hermitage was Andrew Jackson’s plantation near Nashville, Tennessee, home to more than 150 enslaved people when he died in 1845. Credit: Jim Bowen

On the other hand, Jackson demanded vicious retribution against enslaved people when he wanted it. Infamously, he once wrote an advertisement for the capture of a slave named “Tom Gid” who had run away from The Hermitage that offered ten dollars extra for “every hundred lashes” the captor laid on the captive.21 Above all, concludes historian and Jackson biographer Mark R. Cheathem, Jackson approached his enslaved population with the kind of paternalism that was characteristic of elite Southern planters of the time.22 He saw his role as controlling the day-to-day lives of his enslaved population so their labor could support his family and lifestyle.

Jackson and Calhoun political cartoon
President Jackson rejected the idea developed by planters in South Carolina that they could nullify federal laws they did not like. This political cartoon shows Jackson chastising his first vice president, John C. Calhoun, who was from South Carolina for supporting the idea of nullification. Credit: Pendleton’s Lithography

As president, Jackson’s commitment to preserving the Union led him to take decisive measures against the most influential proslavery and antislavery voices of the time. Jackson’s handling of the “Nullification Crisis” in 1833 pit him against elite planters in South Carolina, who had devised a legal theory that gave South Carolina the power to nullify certain federal laws. They wanted to nullify federal laws in response to a federal tariff law that South Carolina’s political leaders claimed was punitive against them (and other slave states), but the subtext of the controversy was to defend slavery against the purported rising tide of antislavery ideology in the North. Jackson rejected the doctrine of nullification and mobilized US military forces to invade South Carolina if the state persisted.23

Late in Jackson’s second term, in contrast, the president directed Postmaster Amos Kendall to allow Southern postmasters to seize abolitionist literature in the mail. Jackson, and other critics of abolitionism, believed that the transmission of these pamphlets in the mail would circulate revolutionary sentiments among enslaved and free Black people. Thus he mobilized a key part of the federal government, the US Postal Service, to act for the benefit of enslavers.24

Presidents Taylor, Van Buren, Tyler, and Polk

Of the other presidents who owned slaves, Zachary Taylor benefited the most from slave labor. He had inherited two slaves from his father, but later purchased a plantation in Mississippi that included a large number of enslaved persons. Taylor served only two years as president before dying in office, but he had enslaved servants in the White House while also supervising his Mississippi plantation’s operations from the nation’s capital. Like Jackson, Taylor demanded that his overseers treat enslaved people with care in order to protect his financial investment, rather than out of humanitarian concerns.

Zachary Taylor's plantation
Before Zachary Taylor became president, he owned a plantation in Mississippi, known as Cypress Grove Plantation, later renamed Buena Vista Plantation, which bordered the Mississippi River. Credit: Henry Lewis

However, Taylor’s record as president suggests that he was more broadly aware of the moral evils of slavery. Taylor opposed expansion of slavery into the territories, much to the chagrin of expectant slave state politicians, who had assumed that they had his support. Likewise, Taylor vowed to veto the “Compromise of 1850,” that included the draconian Fugitive Slave Law. This law, which was signed by Taylor’s successor, Millard Fillmore, granted enslavers greater authority to seize supposed fugitive slaves in Northern states, as well as other extremely controversial measures.25

Most of the remaining presidents who owned slaves supported the political cause of slavery. The exception was Martin Van Buren, who was president from 1837 to 1841. Van Buren’s slave, Tom, ran away before Van Buren’s ascent in politics, and Tom lived free in Worcester, Massachusetts. A slave catcher offered to capture Tom, but Van Buren, who became an ardent opponent of slavery after he left office, never finalized the agreement.26

Van Buren’s immediate successor, William Henry Harrison, owned slaves by inheritance and, while Governor of Indiana, had previously attempted to liberalize slaveowning there.27 After Harrison died in office, John Tyler, another enslaver who was part of a prominent slaveowning family in Virginia , became president. Perhaps most importantly, Tyler and his Secretary of State Abel Upshur—counseled by no less a proslavery ideologue than John C. Calhoun—oversaw the annexation of Texas as a slave state in December 1845.28 President James K. Polk owned several plantations and even purchased enslaved people during his presidential tenure. As an absentee plantation owner, Polk gave his overseers vast authority to police the enslaved population, one of whom would become infamous for his brutality.29

Slavery's long shadow

Slavery died a slow and uneven death in the United States. After the American Revolution, slavery was found in every state in the Union. During the early American republic, gradual emancipation laws in many Northern states slowly whittled slave ownership to extremely low levels, although many Northern and Midwestern states retained harsh restrictions on free Black people and on fugitive slaves.30 Antislavery partisans and abolitionists, often led by African Americans themselves, worked to permanently end slavery, which came to fruition during the American Civil War.

Emancipation Proclamation
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in areas still in rebellion during the American Civil War and made destroying slavery a Union war objective. Credit: Popular Graphic Arts

Famously, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, declared that “all persons held as slaves” in the Confederacy “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”31 This measure technically brought freedom to more than three million African Americans who were being held as slaves in the Confederate states although many had to wait until the South was defeated in 1865 to realize their freedom. Enslaved people who did not live in the Confederate States had to wait for the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution to take effect in December 1865.

The Thirteenth Amendment was perhaps the most momentous single amendment because it ended two practices—slavery and involuntary servitude—that  had been key drivers of the national economy and cultural foundations for Southern life in particular. Slavery had powered the plantation economy that led to the mass production of cotton, sugar, and other crops; it had been used to build the public infrastructure of much of the South and even major parts of the White House; it had undergirded white supremacy.

Lincoln at the Battle of Antitam
President Lincoln is standing at the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War. Credit: Alexander Gardner

In 1864, Congress, dominated by a Republican Party that was widely supportive of ending slavery, guided the legislation that became the Thirteenth Amendment over the initial opposition of Democrats. President Lincoln remained quiet on the measure until after he won reelection in November 1864, because he was concerned that outward support for ending slavery might jeopardize his chances.  After reelection, however, Lincoln and his administration threw their support behind whipping votes to ensure congressional approval. Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H. Seward was even suspected of bribing reluctant members of Congress.

Finally, on February 1, 1865, President Lincoln signed the text of what would become the Thirteenth Amendment after passage by the House and Senate.32 The states ratified the amendment within the coming months, with some notable exceptions: Texas ratified in 1870, Delaware in 1901, Kentucky in 1976, and Mississippi in 1995. Slavery continued on select Native Indian reservations until the negotiation of separate treaties in 1866.33

Picking cotton
After the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States, Blacks were free but unable to have full autonomy over their lives because of strict laws in South that limited what they could do. Many were forced to continue similar work that they had done when they were enslaved, such as picking cotton. Credit: Library of Congress

Broadly speaking, the Thirteenth Amendment had a profound effect on the United States. As news of its ratification and adoption filtered through the states, the practice of slavery came to an end. African American children, women, and men who had been owned by other people were now free from bondage. However, being free from bondage did not equate to the type of freedom that would allow former slaves to fully enjoy their rights and citizenship. Importantly, beginning in the late spring and summer of 1865, former Confederates throughout the South began enacting local legislation—widely referred to as Black Codes—that imposed harsh restrictions on Black people, ranging from incarceration for public vagrancy to criminal restrictions on emigration. These policies were possible because of President Andrew Johnson’s approach to Reconstruction.34

Lincoln’s first vice president, the Republican Party’s Hannibal Hamlin, had been a devoted abolitionist. But Lincoln turned to Andrew Johnson for the election of 1864 because Johnson had been a strong supporter of Lincoln, and Lincoln believed that Johnson would help him capture some Democratic voters. Before Johnson had become Abraham Lincoln’s running mate in the 1864 presidential election, he had been military governor of Tennessee; in that role, he convinced Lincoln to prevent the Emancipation Proclamation from applying to states, like Tennessee, under military occupation. Johnson was also an enslaver himself and had strongly supported the political cause of slavery before the Civil War.35 Lincoln’s decision to choose Johnson as his running mate may have been smart electoral politics, but once Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination, it jeopardized Lincoln’s plan for a Reconstruction policy that would prioritize the needs and rights of emancipated African Americans.

Andrew Johnson
After President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his vice president, Andrew Johnson, became president. A Southerner from Tennessee, President Johnson was uninterested in securing civil rights for newly freed slaves. Credit: Mathew Brady, National Archives

President Johnson’s central goals were to reunify the Union by readmitting former Confederates as citizens of the United States and to limit emancipated people’s civil rights. So long as former Confederate states repealed their secession ordinance and citizens took an oath of loyalty, they would be readmitted into the United States (with some exceptions). This process meant that largely unrepentant former Confederates throughout the South quickly returned to the positions of power they held before the war, and just as quickly enacted harsh restrictions on emancipated Black people.

The Republican Congress moved to block and limit much of President Johnson’s Reconstruction policies. Tensions grew between Republicans in Congress and President Johnson until House Republicans impeached Johnson in 1868, although the Senate fell short in its attempt to convict him. But the broader effect of Johnson’s actions was to blunt the potential power of Reconstruction policy to establish civil rights for the newly emancipated.36

Congressional Republicans tried to redress attempts to limit freed people’s rights after the Civil War with two other Constitutional amendments: the Fourteenth Amendment, which better defined the terms of US citizenship and guaranteed due process and equal protection for all citizens; and the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed voting rights for the newly emancipated.37 However, over the course of the remainder of the 19th century, the Supreme Court of the United States would starkly limit these guarantees by preventing the federal government from actively enforcing equality under the Fourteenth Amendment, and by allowing state legislatures to impinge on voting rights through discriminatory measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Thus, while Reconstruction was a well-meaning attempt at bringing emancipated people out of the shadow of slavery and into the full enjoyment of the rights of citizens, Andrew Johnson and the Supreme Court severely limited its impact. Historian Eric Foner has therefore called this era, “America’s unfinished revolution.”38

Man standing under "colored waiting room" sign.
After slavery ended, Blacks in the South had to live under the system of segregation, which relegated Blacks to separate and unequal facilities. Credit: Library of Congress

That “unfinished revolution” meant that African American struggles to redress historical inequalities and inequities that emerged during slavery have continued to have a profound bearing on American political life. In the decades that followed, presidents have engaged with the policy legacies of America’s long entanglement with slavery in different ways. President Grover Cleveland appointed the extraordinarily conservative Melville Fuller as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which doomed litigation to rescue Black American voting rights from state restrictions during the Jim Crow era.39 President Woodrow Wilson infamously reneged from pledges made during the 1912 presidential campaign to pursue racial equality.40 Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, his vaunted program of federal involvement to rescue the national economy from the Great Depression, seemed like a promising approach to redress historic discrimination of Black people from the labor market, but in practice the program fell victim to the racial prejudices of state and local administrators.41

LBJ meets with civil rights leaders (including MLK)
President Lyndon Johnson meets with civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964. Credit: Yoichi Okamoto, Lyndon Johnson Library

Some presidents have been more responsive to Black activists’ demands for greater equality. African Americans who served in the military during World War II returned home demanding the desegregation of the nation’s military, which occurred through President Harry S. Truman Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower acted decisively in 1957 to use the National Guard to enforce the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).42 President John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department eventually moved to protect civil rights activists engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and protests. Civil rights activists’ relentless drive for equality gradually pushed Kennedy to pursue a bill that would better protect Black Americans’ civil rights, which Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon Johnson, signed into law in 1964.43 More recently, President Joe Biden signed into law the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which marked the federal government’s commitment to policing a practice of lynching that that Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups had used to terrorize African Americans for decades.44

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Michelle Duster in front of the White House
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, speak at the White House after the signing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in 2022. Credit: Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith

Despite these efforts to advance Black equality, presidents, as the executive leaders of the US government, will continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery as much of the work to create equality for Black Americans continues today.



Jacob David Hacker, “From ‘20. and odd’ to 10 million: The Growth of the Slave Population in the United States,” Slavery and Abolition 41, no. 4 (2020), 840-55.


Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978).


Philip D. Morgan and Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, “Arming Slaves in the American Revolution,” in Christopher L. Brown et al., ed., Arming Slaves: From Classical Times to the Modern Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 180-207.


Mary V. Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).


Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017).


Steven J. Brady, Chained to History: Slavery and US Foreign Relations to 1865 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2022).


Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2001).


Karen Cook Bell, Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 28.


Lucia Stanton, Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000).


Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2008).


Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson & Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998).


Henry Wiencek, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his Slaves (New York: MacMillan, 2012). On the growth of slavery after the Louisiana Purchase, see Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013).


“The 1827 Slave Auction at Monticello,” https://www.monticello.org/slaveauction/.


Paris Amanda Spies-Gans, “James Madison,” Princeton & Slavery, https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/james-madison.


Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson (New York: Random House, 2013), 304.


Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Helped Build a City and a Government (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000); and specifically on Dolley Madison, see Allgor, A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the American Nation (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006).


Spies-Gans, “James Madison.”


Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993). African-American criticism of the ACS and colonization is recounted in Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Against the Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement (New York: NYU Press, 2014).


See Burstein and Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, 566-644.


Michael Vorenberg, “Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Black Colonization,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 14, no. 2 (Summer, 1993), 22-45.


Andrew Jackson, “Advertisement for Runaway Slave,” (1804) in The Papers of Andrew Jackson, ed. Harold D. Moser et al. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984), II:40-1.


Mark R. Cheathem, “Hannah, Andrew Jackson’s Slave,” Humanities 35, no. 2 (March/April, 2014), https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2014/marchapril/feature/hannah-andrew-jacksons-slave. See also, Mark R. Cheathem, Andrew Jackson, Southerner (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013).


Richard E. Ellis, The Union at Risk: Jacksonian Democracy, States’ Rights and the Nullification Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).


Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 87-124.


Sarah Fling, “The Enslaved Households of President Zachary Taylor,” The White House Historical Association, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-enslaved-households-of-president-zachary-taylor.


Donald B. Cole, Martin van Buren and the American Political System (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 110.


Robert M. Owens, Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007), 6-98.


Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 70-102.


William Dusinbere, Slavemester President: The Double Career of James Polk (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 23-54; John Spencer Bassett, The Southern Plantation Overseer as Revealed in his Letters (Northampton, Mass.: Smith College, 1925), 35-87.


See, James Gigantino, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 2014).


Emancipation Proclamation (1863), The National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/emancipation-proclamation.


Christian G. Samito Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), 73-102.


Claudio Saunt, “The Paradox of Freedom: Tribal Sovereignty and Emancipation during the Reconstruction of Indian Territory,” Journal of Southern History 70, no. 1 (Jan., 2004), 63-94.


Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).


David Bowen, Andrew Johnson and the Negro (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976).


Robert S. Levine, The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2021).


David A.J. Richards, Conscience and Constitution: History, Theory, and Law of the Reconstruction Amendments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).


Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).


Orville Vernon burton and Armand Derfner, Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021), 84-111.


Desmond Jagmohan, “In His Day: Awareness of Wilson’s Duplicity,” Perspectives on Politics 14, no. 3 (September 2016), 762-3.


Roger Biles, The South and the New Deal (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1994).


David A. Nichols, A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008).


Steven Livingston, Kennedy and King: The President, The Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights (New York: Hachette Books, 2017).