by Dana Saxon
Two days after the Continental Congress officially determined the United States would declare independence from Great Britain, the final wording of the Declaration was approved on the 4th of July 1776. The Declaration was signed in August and delivered to Great Britain in November 1776.
Although the United States of America became an independent nation in 1776, those “freed” Americans continued to enslave my ancestors for nearly 100 more years.
While I see the Declaration of Independence as irrelevant to me and my history, several measures were passed between 1776 and 1865 (when the Civil War concluded) that did have a bearing on the lives of my ancestors.
12th of July 1787 – Three-fifths Compromise
In 1787, 11 years after US independence, Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved James Madison’s recommendation for determining a state’s representation in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although northerners believed enslaved Black people should be regarded as property, warranting no representation in Congress, southerners argued that Black people enslaved in their states should be counted along with the whites (in an effort to increase southern representation rather than an acknowledgement of a Black person’s humanity).
The “Three-fifths Compromise” clause allowed a state to count three fifths of each Black person in determining political representation in the House. In political effect, a Black person was equal to three fifths of a white person.
1793 – the (first) Fugitive Slave Act
While enslaved people constantly sought their freedom through resistance and escape, Congress enacted the first of two Fugitive Slave Acts in 1793. The law authorized local governments to seize and return escaped “slaves” to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight.
1794 – Invention of the Cotton Gin
Eli Whitney received a patent for his cotton gin invention in 1794. The cotton gin made cotton a major industry, dramatically increasing the amount of cotton a farm could produce, and sharply increasing the need for slave labor in southern states.
As explained by history.com, “Although the cotton gin made cotton processing less labor-intensive, it helped planters earn greater profits, prompting them to grow larger crops, which in turn required more people. Because slavery was the cheapest form of labor, cotton farmers simply acquired more slaves.”
1808 – Abolition of the African slave trade
When more than 4 million African people were enslaved in the US south, Congress voted to abolish the African slave trade, effective January 1, 1808. While this meant it was no longer legal to bring African people into the US as slaves, the widespread trade of enslaved people within the South was not prohibited. In spite of the new law, the enslaved population was at no risk of dwindling, with Black children inheriting the enslaved status of their parents (in the case of free and/or white fathers, the status of the mother was inherited).
1850 – Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Adding additional provisions to the first Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the 1850 law levied even harsher punishments against those who interfered in the capture of enslaved people. Expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act was in response to growing efforts to help enslaved people find freedom, including the well-organized network of the Underground Railroad. Although the Acts received widespread resistance in northern states, they were not officially repealed by Congress until June 28, 1864, near the end of the Civil War.
1852 – Frederick Douglass rejects the 4th of July
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland, later escaping to find freedom in New York. In 1852, he spoke to a group of NY abolitionists about the 4th of July. While he saw it as a holiday for white Americans, he argued that enslaved, formerly enslaved, and free Black people should view the holiday as a day of mourning.
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
2015 – Freedom continues to elude
You’ll never catch me celebrating the 4th of July. But on that day when we’re actually free, I’ll be sure to light up the barbecue.