Slavery and its extension into the new western territories plunged the United States into a terrible and bloody civil war in the 1860s, but the story did not start or end with the war. By the 1840s, the United States was, as Abraham Lincoln notably described, “a house divided against itself.” Slavery had ceased to exist in the northern section of the country for decades leading up to the war, while it had grown ever more intimately entwined in the culture and economy of the southern part. The entire nation profited from the institution in many ways, from small personal acts such as adding sugar to sweeten a drink or dessert to the massive economic changes being wrought by the textile mills of New England. Nonetheless, it was clear that a divide had grown politically and culturally between the sections. After the triumph of the United States in the Civil War, Americans told themselves and the following generations that this stark divide had always existed and that northerners had always fought slavery’s existence. This narrative took root despite the evidence that no section could claim innocence when it came to the nation’s original sin and that the number of people who actually advocated for the immediate end of enslavement remained very small well into the war itself.
The first Africans in what became the United States were brought to Virginia in 1619. Although their legal status is uncertain, chattel slavery was firmly entrenched as the primary labor source in that colony by the end of the century. The thirteen colonies in North America that later rebelled and formed their own nation were then just a small part of a relatively new, but rapidly growing empire. As that British Empire grew around the Atlantic Ocean, enslaved labor became the basis of the economy, and in many areas, society. The sugar islands of the Caribbean soon emerged as the most valuable colonies in the competing European Empires. Those small bits of land were massive engines of profit, which dwarfed mainland colonies in value by the dawn of the 1700s, and those engines ran on the bodies, blood, and sweat of the enslaved. Despite English law not supporting slavery at the center of the empire, a state that was confirmed with the Somerset Case of 1772, the empire sanctioned its existence until 1833. The British Empire simply could not have existed without it.
In North America, slavery existed in every colony at the time of the American Revolution. It was finally put on the road to extinction in Massachusetts in 1783 by a court decision citing the state’s recent constitution. Despite that decision, there is evidence that people were still kept in bondage for at least another decade.
Today, we can access this history through the house and people associated with Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site over its long history. In the following series of articles, we will examine in detail specific periods of intersection between the history of slavery and the history of this Cambridge mansion. Among the first topics we will tackle will be the Vassall family, the people responsible for the house’s construction, and the people they enslaved here; George Washington and his lifelong relationship with the institution; and the Antebellum efforts of the Longfellows and their friends to finally rid the nation of the great stain on its character and the tensions that resulted in New England society. Please follow us on this journey of discovery.