Slavery, Civil War, & Reconstruction

In Summary

Primary sources on slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction from JMC programs for teachers.

“Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”

George Mason

Constitutional Convention Debates


Despite the declaration that all men are created equal and entitled to certain unalienable rights, slavery persisted through the Founding Era. It intensified even after the importation of slaves was prohibited in 1808 and by the time Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, there were nearly 4 million people held in slavery across the United States. The Civil War ravaged the nation and eventually resulted in the emancipation of all slaves. The decade following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, saw tremendous improvements in rights protections for black Americans and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. Learn more about the Reconstruction amendments on their respective JMC Discovery Pages.

JMC Resources

Slavery and the American Founding


In Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he blames King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself” by engaging in the slave trade and bringing slavery to the colonies. Even though that clause was removed from the final version, the issue of slavery was not ignored by the founders. The sources here show that even though many of the founders owned slaves themselves and did not abolish it at the time of the founding, they were not oblivious to the injustice of the institution.


Patrick Henry letter to Robert Pleasants, 1773


Thomas Jefferson’s First Draft of the Declaration of Independence, 1776


Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, excerpt


Slavery Provisions in the Constitution, 1787

Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3

Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1

Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3


Benjamin Franklin, “Address from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery,” 1789


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Before the Civil War


In the years following the ratification of the Constitution and the first few presidencies, the issue of slavery began to divide the country severely. Jefferson describes the precarious situation the United States faced in this letter to John Holmes.


Thomas Jefferson letter to John Holmes, 1820


As the U.S. expanded westward and new territories were admitted to the Union as states, the expansion of slavery was hotly contested. Eventually, several southern states decided to secede from the Union to preserve the institution of slavery against Congressional interference. Calhoun argues that the government has no authority to prevent slavery from existing in new states. Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case goes further to claim that Black people are inherently inferior to white people and can never be citizens of the United States. Douglass advocates for the Constitution as a tool to eliminate slavery from the Union.


John C. Calhoun, “Speech on the Oregon Bill,” 1848


Dred Scott v. Sandford, 1856


Frederick Douglass, “The Constitution of the U.S.: Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?” 1860

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Ulysses S. Grant Civil War

The Civil War


A few weeks before the Battle of Fort Sumter, the first battle of the Civil War, Alexander Stephens gave his infamous Cornerstone Speech. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States, explains the many ways the constitution of the Confederacy is superior to the United States Constitution, primarily that it is founded on the idea that black people are inferior to white people.


Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” 1861


Lincoln’s presidency took place almost entirely during the Civil War. Two of his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural Address, share a similar message regarding the outcome of the war. In both speeches, Lincoln emphasizes the survival of the Union as his primary goal.


The Gettysburg Address, 1863


Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, 1865

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Following the end of the Civil War, legislation in the Reconstruction era abolished slavery and guaranteed many new rights for black Americans. Among those rights was the right to bear arms. The excerpts in the document below are examples of explicit protections for black Americas to be able to defend themselves.


Reconstruction and the Second Amendment


Robert Dale Owen was a prominent Indiana Democrat in the 1840s and 1850s and vocal advocate of abolition and equality for black Americans. Later, he was appointed to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission, which preceded the Freedman’s Bureau. In the article below, Owen describes his attempt to pass his version of the Fourteenth Amendment. He recounts the enormity of the situation and details his conversations with Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican also in favor of federal support for black Americans.


Robert Dale Owen, “Political Results from the Varioloid,” 1875

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