Over half the slaves in the United States worked on large plantations, and about one fourth worked on plantations with fifty or more slaves. Slaves who worked in houses were often dressed well, as an expression of the owners wealth and prestige. Slaves who worked in the fields, however, were given serviceable, but hardly comfortable or attractive material for making clothing. Small children wore clothing very similar in shape and texture to burlap bags, and were often given no shoes. Food for slaves was simple, consisting mainly of rations of cornmeal, pork fat, molasses, and sometimes coffee.
Slaves worked from dawn to dusk, taking only short breaks for meals. In large plantations, overseers were hired to keep slaves working at the pace the master desired. Although there were masters and overseers who treated slaves with at least a small degree of human respect, people in authority were not generally known for their kindness or use of gentle persuasion.
Many slaveowners used physical means such as whipping and emotional punishments such as the selling of close relatives (including parents, spouses and children) to distant farms. Underlying the entire slave system was the inherent hypocrisy of American citizens, who had fought two wars to assert their right to liberty, denying the basic human rights of other people by owning them. Even the kindest and most respectful slaveowner was still a slaveowner.
One of the tools that African American and White abolitionists used to help those living in slavery was the Underground Railroad, a secret organization designed to help slaves escape from captivity to freedom. Conductors, the most famous being Harriet Tubman, helped African American slaves escape from Southern farms and plantations. The long trip north would take place at night, while days were spent in hiding in swamps, forests and bushes. Individuals and families sympathetic to the cause would offer their homes as shelter for the runaways, and specific stops along the route were planned well in advance. Although the journey was seriously dangerous, many people, including the 300 led by Tubman, made it to safety in the North. While some slaves tried to escape on their own, the careful organization of the railroad and the preparation of its conductors made the Underground Railroad a somewhat safer option.
One of the most remarkable racial incidents of the period, historically obscure until recent years, was the Amistad trial. On July 2, 1839, the Spanish ship Amistad, sailing from Cuba with a full load of slaves from parts of Africa, was the site of a slave mutiny, led by Cinque. The mutineers killed the entire crew, except for two people. The ship was captured off Long Island by the USS Washington. The people who claimed ownership of the Africans filed to have their property returned. Roger Baldwin defended the individuals in court, and the US government was surprised when Judge Andrew T. Judson ruled in their favor, on the basis that the African men, women and children had been illegally kidnapped. The US government appealed the decision all the way to the US Supreme Court, where former President John Quincy Adams defended Cinque and his colleagues. The Supreme Court upheld the lower courts rulings, and the group of Africans were free. Unfortunately, it took a long time for any of them to return to Africa, and it is not clear how easily they were able to find their families and return to their former lives.
Abolitionists hailed the victory in the Court, but were soon brought back to the realities of the sad state of the nation. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which required non-slave states to assist slaveowners in re-enslaving runaway slaves who had escaped to free areas. Anyone found helping a fugitive slave was fined a large sum. Some runaway slaves in the North had to flee to Canada for safety. Despite strong protests, Richard Henry Dana, a lawyer and author of Two Years Before the Mast, offered free counsel to African Americans in Boston who were charged under the Fugitive Slave Act. Many people in the free states refused to obey the Fugitive Slave Law, however, and the Underground Railroad continued to function, although with greater stealth.
Free Blacks in Philadelphia had established churches, associations and social improvement societies dating to the eighteenth century. Other cities, including New York and Boston, also had established communities of free African Americans, many who had been former slaves in those states or who had escaped from slavery in other states. These communities had their own newspapers, including Frederick Douglass North Star, and supported the Underground Railroad. Many formed new societies to end slavery or change discriminatory practices in the North, sometimes working with white abolitionists, such as the Grimke sisters and William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator.
The rights given to free African Americans varied from state to state. Some property rights were available, but voting and serving on juries were generally not allowed. There were several prominent wealthy African American families in the Northeast, who sent their children to schools like Oberlin College or overseas to be educated. (Oberlin College, founded as a coeducational institution in 1833, was the first college to actively recruit African-American students.) Most African Americans in the North, however, belonged to the working class, many working as domestics or laborers. Some families were able to save money and send their children to school, and a number of bright African Americans, including many women, became teachers across the country. Nevertheless, racial discrimination prevented many from entering skilled professions, since professional licensing associations across the North placed restrictions on membership. According to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1838, almost one fourth of Philadelphias free black artisans were unable to work in their field because of prejudice against them. This percentage increased until it reached about 38% in 1850. Many of the factories in the North did not hire African Americans, especially when Irish-American labor was available.
Until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 at least, free Blacks in the North and Northwest were much less threatened with enslavement than free Blacks in the South and Southwest. Nevertheless, many African Americans in the North faced humiliation and attack because of their race. Racially-based insults were not uncommon, and African Americans were often compelled to accept such insults without retort because of their need for employment. In addition, as the free Black population in the North increased, many Northern racists began agitating for more restraints on the rights of African Americans. Laws restricting political, social and property rights were passed,, including curfews. Crimes against African Americans were not always prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and legal counsel was not always available for those accused of a crime (as was the case for most poor Americans). Angry individuals and mobs, often stimulated by economic hardship, hassled African Americans. One of the most dramatic incidents occurred in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1829, when mobs of angry white people attacked free African Americans, forcing many of them to leave their homes and flee to Canada.
In the South, free African Americans lived very much in limbo. While they were not slaves, they were not actually free. They could not vote, except in Tennessee, North Carolina and parts of Louisiana; and Tennessee and North Carolina took away their right to vote in the 1830s. Those free Blacks who would have wanted to fight for the freedom of their enslaved brothers and sisters faced the risk of being enslaved themselves in retaliation. Free Blacks in the South generally could not attend schools, and were banned from the militia, many public facilities and certain jobs. In addition to verbal and physical abuse, against which they had virtually no hope of legal recourse, free African Americans were subject to curfews and registration systems and other policies to restrict their rights. While they were usually allowed to make contracts, get married, bring legal suits to court and hold property, African Americans in the South were not allowed to testify against Whites in court, or to sit on juries. If an African American were convicted of a crime, he or she was very likely to be given a harsh penalty, much harsher than would be leveled if the convict had been white.
Thus, the condition of African Americans in the United States was already far more complex than simply being enslaved or being free. The social, political and economic status of African Americans was far from ideal, in the free North and well as in the slave South. Even after the Civil War, when slavery was abolished, the complexity remained. This war was marked by a series of bloodless skirmishes on the border between Maine and Canada. This border had never been clearly defined and thus was disputed by both sides. President Van Buren sent General Winfield Scott to negotiate a deal. Scott was able to arrange a truce.