Maryland Abolishes Slavery

June 24, 1864 (Friday)

Since the abolition of slavery in Washington, DC in April of 1862, it was clear that Maryland, herself still a slave state, would follow. Once Lincoln released his Emancipation Proclamation, it was a near certainty. There was no going back.

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Through 1863, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was debated. Maryland, like Delaware and Kentucky, of course had the option of simply waiting to see if it would pass. But instead, Maryland began to slouch toward freedom.

Starting on April 27, 1864, Maryland’s Constitutional Convention convened in Annapolis to bring the state squarely under the banner of Union. Though she had never seceded, she was ready to renew her vows.

Among the myriad points brought forward, the abolition of slavery was easily the most controversial. With it came a slew of other questions. If the slaves were freed, would their owners receive compensation? If so, who would pay? What of those now serving time in prison for freeing the slaves? Would they be pardoned?

Most importantly, to those assembled, how would the newly freed black people be managed? How would they be represented in the House of Delegates?

The basic tenant, that slavery be abolished, was put forward on June 17th that “That hereafter, in this State, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except in punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: and all persons held to service or labor as slaves are hereby declared free.”

This was debated, with each side giving the tried and true arguments for and against. Both sides, naturally, used the Holy Bible either as proof that God intended for some men to be slaves or that God never intended such a thing at all.

As Maryland historian William Starr Myers explained:

“It is hardly necessary to review the various speeches, as the usual arguments were set forth by both sides, and though most ably presented, were largely a re-statement of those heard throughout the nation during the preceding hundred years. For instance, the minority would absolutely justify slavery by long quotations from the Bible, and the majority, on the other hand, would insist that the American slave system differed radically from that acknowledged by the Scriptures.

In addition, these latter members denounced the institution as immoral, unjust, and an incubus upon the life of the state. Ancient and modern law, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States, the writings of the founders of the Republic, Supreme Court decisions, and various enactments since the formation of the Union—in fact, every conceivable authority or argument of any time or age was skilfully advanced by the advocates of the respective sides of the question.”

Those in favor of slavery, realizing they were on the losing end of history, tried their best to whittle away whatever rights were about to be given to the black population. They demanded that black people be barred from moving into the state. They tried to make it illegal to hire a black person, and even offered to “help” find them places to live outside of Maryland’s borders.

Some, taking more of a middle ground, wanted to free the slaves only if the Federal government compensate the former owners for their troubles. This so-called compromise pleased nobody at all.

Finally, after the ad nauseam arguments and debate, on this date the Convention voted upon the act. It was, not surprisingly split down party lines with fifty-three Republicans voting for it and twenty-seven Democrats voting against the emancipation of slavery.

When the final draft of the Constitution was ratified by the narrowest of margins on November 1st, 1864, slavery would be dead within the borders of Maryland. This meant that those on the losing end would have to wage a fierce struggle not against slavery, but against black people.

They would fight not only for compensation, but for the right to have apprenticeships where they could hire black children to “train” them while not having to pay them a dime. Neither would they have to teach them to read or write. Before the Constitution was voted upon, this nasty bit of rhetoric would be tacked onto it, only to have more level heads prevail and strike it off a few weeks later.

One needs only to look at the history of post-Civil War race relations in Maryland to understand that even though slavery was abolished on this date, the future would be incredibly dark for the state’s black population.1



  1. Sources: Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century by Barbara Jeanne Fields; Prince George’s County and the Civil War: Life on the Border by Nathania A. Branch Miles; The Maryland Constitution of 1864 by William Starr Myers. []
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