On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This executive order freed only a few of the millions of slaves living in the United States. But it was a big step toward ending slavery in the United States. For the 150th anniversary of this important event, here's a look back at how Scientific American, now 167 years old, treated the subject of slavery in its pages.

Many of our readers have wondered whether it is (and was) appropriate for Scientific American to cover slavery. We asked this question ourselves in April 2002:

Does the discussion of it [slavery] belong in a science magazine?...Ultimately the answer is yes.

[SA Perspectives: “The Peculiar Institution," by the Editors; Scientific American, April 2002]


The slavery that existed in the United States until 1865 was perfectly legal in some states and illegal in others. Almost all slaves were Africans or of African descent. The slaves were largely used to provide labor: domestic labor and farm labor, especially for growing, picking and processing tobacco and cotton. (Remember, farm machinery and domestic appliances were either horse-powered or steam-powered and were not as advanced as they are now.)


In March 1846 we said:

We do deprecate slavery in all its forms.

Bravo! Here's a simple, direct statement against slavery by our editors of the mid-19th century. Unfortunately we didn't really mean it. The article continues:

If any of our Southern friends should become alarmed by this caption, and commencement of an essay on the subject, they may learn in the sequel, that their system is not particularly alluded to, but that the evil of slavery prevails more extensively than people generally are aware of.

Our puritanical Yankee forebears were really concerned with other sinful behaviors. Here they are, from the same article:

Vain and foolish conformance to the various needless and useless fashions, in furniture, dress, and style of living; fashion and style which, so far from being requisite or conducive to either health, intelligence, or happiness, often ruin the naturally healthy constitution, producing dyspepsia and consumption and substitute nonsensical etiquette, vitiated theatrical taste, and pernicious romantic sentiment in place of rational intelligence; and continual chagrin and anxious embarrassment in place of happiness and contentment. This is a species of slavery, exceedingly prevalent, and none the less evil on account of its being voluntary.

One sentence even implies that if slave-holders were good and decent, the system of slavery itself might be good and decent:

It is admitted by all, that the extent of the evil accompanying slavery in any form, depends much on the character of the master or slave-holder.

[Scientific American, March 19, 1846]


One problem with ending slavery was the widespread prejudice against free African-Americans. Even some people who wanted to free the slaves did not want freed slaves living among them. This short article from December 1846 seems a little smug at the discomfiture of the abolitionists:

The Randolph Slaves.

We mentioned some months since that a large number of colored people, formerly the slaves of John Randolph, had passed through Cincinnati, on their way to Mercer County, Ohio, where land, provisions, and farming utensils had been prepared for them. But we did not mention that on their arrival on their own land, the people of Mercer Co., even those who had sold them the land etc., raised a mob and drove them off, and they were constrained to seek unconditional service among the more friendly white families in different parts of the state. The abolition papers are now comforting themselves by turning the apparently adverse circumstances to good fortune, on the ground that the negroes are acquiring a course of useful instruction in agricultural pursuits of which they were entirely ignorant (having been accustomed to raising tobacco) and which is indispensable to their success in farming for themselves.

[Scientific American, December 26, 1846]


There was no doubt that the editors were appalled at the violence inherent in the system of slavery. This short note from Scientific American in March 1846 reports an excerpt from a Southern paper, and is accompanied by a commentary from our editors:

A Dignified Calling.--There are several branches of business practiced in the Eastern States, which, though truly honest, and as such, honorable, but which are nevertheless esteemed rather low business such, for instance, as clam-digging, dog-killing, hog-skinning, etc., but the business advertised by William Cambrel, in a Southern paper, is in comparison excessively contemptible; and, without doubt, this advertiser is most heartily despised even by those who occasionally employ him:

"Negro Dogs.--The undersigned having bought the entire pack of Negro Dogs (of the Hay's & Allen stock), he now purposes to catch runaway negroes. His charges will be three dollars per day for hunting, and fifteen dollars for catching a runaway. He resides 3 1/2 miles north of Livingston, near the lower Jones' Bluff road, Wm. Cambrel."

[Scientific American, March 5, 1846]


This article is a travelogue by "Our Special Correspondent," someone loosely affiliated with the magazine. It breezily talks about how people farm in the South and in the North. It also includes this surprising observation on African-Americans:

In Tennessee we saw the first slaves at work, in gangs of from two or three up to twenty. Men and women were both plowing and hoeing together, all dressed in coarse, white cotton, or that which was once white. Their movements were decidedly sluggish. There is no doubt that the negro is adapted to a hot climate. I have been told (and the assertion has been repeated to me during this ride) that sometimes, in the middle of August, when the negroes stop at noon, instead of going into the shade, they build a fire right in the open field, in order to enjoy its heat in addition to that of the sun! The negro is a child of the tropics.

[Scientific American, June 23, 1860]

This nugget of anthropological drivel appears to have been a faithful report of the ignorant beliefs of the time. After all, the Mississippi declaration of secession from 1861 stated that African-Americans were needed to work in the fields in the South because "none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun."

[A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union, 1861, at http://avalon.law.yale.edu]


The census of 1860 was published in an issue of April 1861. It showed a population in the United States of 20 million people in the North, and 13 million in the South. The figure for the south includes 4 million people who were enslaved.

[Scientific American, April 6, 1861]


Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in November 1860. Yet before he was inaugurated as president in March 1861, seven states declared they were leaving the United States. The seceded states objected mostly to the efforts of Northern states to curtail slavery where it existed and prevent its spread to new territories where slavery did not exist. Before war broke out, there were several months of frantic attempts at compromise. Scientific American did its very best to stay away from the argument about slavery and the right of the South to have its "peculiar institution" (as slavery has sometimes been called). Our article from April 1861, says:

Our Secession Troubles

The troubles to which we allude have had their origin in partisan questions, and it is almost impossible to discuss, or even allude to them, without hitting some sore sport or treading on somebody's corns.

When we commenced this journal sixteen years ago, we determined unflinchingly to devote our time, talent and energies to the progress of the arts and sciences, eschewing religious and political controversies altogether.

In reference to the peculiar institution [the term sometimes used for slavery in the South], about which there is so much strife, the public mind seems to have become so very touchy, that to state even ordinary scientific or mechanical facts bearing upon it, or to make an innocent indirect allusion to it or is champions, pro. or con. is sure to get somebody by the ears.

[Scientific American, April 13, 1861]


From an issue in April 1861, before war actually broke out, there was much exasperation about the politics that had caused such a deep division. There doesn't seem to have been concern about the slaves:

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States, it brought to mind an invention patented by him some years previous. The thought occurred to us that the fact would interest our readers, and, in publishing an engraving of it in our columns, we also expressed the hope that he might have better success in governing the country than he appeared to have had in introducing his invention.

No sooner had our paper appeared which contained the engraving of Mr. Lincoln's craft, than some Northern correspondent took the matter up, and accused us of undertaking to cast a slur upon "Honest Old Abe"....The matter, however, did not end here, for in a few days afterward we received letters from the South, threatening, on the same state of facts, to stop the paper, "because we rejoiced over the election of a Black Republican rail-splitter."

The conclusion of the article was that everyone should ignore political reality and just get back to work:

We will offer one panacea for the national disorder, which was suggested to us the other day by a worthy mechanic from Roxbury, Mass....We asked him the time-honored question, "How is business in your town ?" He replied "'twas very bad some time ago, but we have nothing to complain of now. A few weeks ago we resolved to read no more political papers and to go to work. Since that time we have had much less trouble, and a good deal better times." We hope the hint will not be lost to the community in general.

[Scientific American, April 13, 1861]


Scientific American was a magazine of invention and science. A large part of the business of the magazine was to patent inventions, many of which were for farming and agriculture. One invention, from Macon, Mississippi, was a cotton-picking machine. It was illustrated in May 1858. Evidently there was some negative reaction to it, as we note in the editorial in April 1861:

Some months ago, to please the notion of an inventor in preparing an engraving of his cotton seed planter, and with a view to show its operation, we represented the figure of a healthy looking negro in the act of operating the machine. Presently some one of our Northern readers wrote to us in high dudgeon, charging that we were burlesquing the colored race, and cottoning to the South.

[Scientific American, April 13, 1861]


The bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter on April 14 inaugurated the Civil War. This article from April 27, 1861 has an exasperated tone, implying that nothing was worth fighting about if it threatened prosperity, not even the plight of the slaves:

Civil War Inaugurated

Reluctantly we recall the deplorable fact that civil war has actually broken out in our own country, where peace, happiness and financial prosperity have so long existed. For some time past a feeling of animosity has prevailed in some of the remote Southern States against the people of the Northern States, who have been charged with imbibing hostile feelings toward the South, for the sentiments there existing on the subject of African slavery.

Soon after the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidential Chair, the citizens of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas formed themselves into a Southern Confederacy, and after meeting in convention, they adopted a constitution; and elected Hon. Jefferson Davis, formerly member of Congress from Mississippi, President of the Confederated States. The first step of these Secessionists was the seizure of various forts, arsenals, custom houses, and other public buildings belonging to the Federal Government, and their occupation in opposition to the will of the Federal authorities.

[Scientific American, April 27, 1861]


The tone of the issue of one week later, May 4, 1861, is distinctly different. Certainly the public response was enthusiastically in favor of war. The magazine's response was now also in favor. But not out of concern for slaves, but because of the question of democracy and the Union:

For the first time, we saw large bodies of armed men moving down Broadway in response to the call of the Federal Government, stating that the national flag had been struck to the dust by those who were once its friends, and required to be vindicated against further assault at the hands of a rebellious organization.

Following the attack upon Fort Sumter, and the threat of the Secretary of War of the Confederate States that the flag adopted by them should wave over the capitol of the nation, the whole North is thoroughly aroused, and such enthusiasm to uphold the honor of the flag has never before been witnessed in this country since the days of Washington. The great conservative city of New York comes to the rescue of the government in this its hour of peril with astonishing alacrity, and will pour out its men and money like water to uphold the Federal authority.

It is indeed sad to see brethren of the same country rushing to arms against each other; but the heart of even a traitor or a coward cannot but feel a throb of brave and loyal devotion to see the call of the government so promptly obeyed.

[Scientific American, May 4, 1861]


The question about where slaves could live after they were freed was heavily influenced by widespread prejudice against African-Americans. Remember the article about the "Randolph slaves" from December 1846? One answer to the problem was to encourage African-Americans to leave the country and settle in "colonies" such as Liberia in Africa. The article from May 4, 1861, enthusiastically reports:

A colony is now organizing in this city under the charge of the Rev. Henry Hiland Garnett[sic], an able and energetic minister of the Presbyterian Church, this city, who will soon proceed to Abbeakuta [southwest Nigeria] with colored mechanics and machinery and other implements necessary to found a colony there. A liberal treaty has already been formed with the king, and he promises the most ample protection and support to the colonists. This is no idle scheme--it is in the hands of some of the shrewdest and wisest men in the city, and will be pushed forward with zeal and fidelity.

[Scientific American, May 4, 1861]

But the vast majority of free and enslaved African Americans did not want to leave home. Four short years later, in 1865 the same Henry Highland Garnet "became the first black minister to preach a sermon in the hall of the House of Representatives. He used the occasion to claim for his people 'every right of American citizenship'" [From "The Fiery Trial," by Eric Foner. W. W. Norton, 2010].


We tried to explain to our foreign readers the cause of the war in an editorial on May 11, 1861. We do not mention slaves or slavery:

The South having lost an election which they went into, and imagining some great wrong, commenced to defy the government which had never injured them in the slightest degree, when, lo and behold, civil war is upon us! Because we refuse longer to be kicked and cuffed about by them, and are not willing to give up all our forts, and even the Federal Capital itself, from which they seceded. Jefferson Davis, who has been plotting the overthrow of the government for years, would be perfectly satisfied if we would give up everything, and submit to the degradation of allowing the President of the United States to set up his government on a drumhead.

The article rounds out with this underestimation:

The entire North is aroused, and should it cost her a hundred thousand human lives, and a hundred millions of dollars, the government will be sustained.

[Scientific American, May 11, 1861]

The actual number of deaths was at least six times greater. The cost was at least 40 times greater.


It seems our editors were keen to end the war and get back to business. An editorial from May 25, 1861 says that South Carolina (which had been the first to secede), if it returned to the Union, would be free to continue the institution of slavery:

The Federal government...says to the Southern people, 'Obey the laws, and you shall have, as heretofore, all the protection to life and property that you desire.' The government could do no less; it seeks to do no more; and all this talk about subjugation is mere claptrap. If South Carolina will but obey the laws, as the great States of New York and Pennsylvania are now doing, not a single right belonging to her people would be withheld. She will have a Governor of her own choice, two Senators in Congress, and her proper quota of Representatives. Federal judges will execute the laws, the mails will be carried as usual, her slave property respected, and insurrection suppressed, if need be, by the Federal government. Could anything be more reasonable?

[Scientific American, May 25, 1861]


Letters sent to the magazine, then as now, undoubtedly came from every part of the social and political spectrum. In 1861 we were accused of being "abolitionists," a charge that was huffily denied. Bear in mind, though, that in 1861 the label "abolitionist" was more appropriately applied to for someone on the extreme end of the antislavery spectrum. There were other beliefs in favor of ending the institution of slavery by a more gradual approach. It is difficult to ascertain the beliefs of the editors as they did not publish a definitive set of writings on the subject. So it is up to us to guess the reality by "reading between the lines" of snippets gleaned from over the years. These letters from June 1861 accuse the opposition of belonging to the most extreme position--a common tactic then as it is now:

From a reader in Petersburg, Virginia:

You say we of the Middle States are beside ourselves. For what? For contending for our constitutional rights, and quitting your corrupt, rotten and rascally government, governed by a mean, vile abolitionist, who tramples on the constitution as he does the dirt he walks upon. Yet you say you are all for the "Stars and Stripes." Well, we of the South are just as unanimous against the "Stars and Stripes" as you abolitionists are for them, and we never intend to live under your "Stars and Stripes" again. You never can conquer or subdue us. We will fight--every man, woman and child of us--as long as we live, and will teach our children, from generation to generation, to hate and fight a Yankee worse than hell and the devil. I tell you our negroes will fight you all nearly as unanimous as their masters; for they, too, know the meanest masters in the South are Yankees who have settled among us. You may think these statements not correct, but when your mean, low, mercenary soldiers invade the South you will then see what I have written you is true.

From a reader in Mobile, Alabama:

You will please stop my Scientific American. I want no communication in any shape with abolitionists. I will never patronize anyone that will sustain Lincoln and his blood-thirsty, Heaven-daring crew.

Our editors responded, sounding somewhat irritated:

Our correspondent having failed to give us his name, we are unable to stop his paper. If, however, he wishes us to cease only on account of our supposed abolition sentiments, we shall doubtless be able to continue our intercourse with him for some time to come. It is a matter of surprise to us that many Southern people cannot tolerate a supporter of the Federal government without denouncing him as an abolitionist. Knowing this charge to be false, not only with reference to ourselves, but also in reference to our people generally, we might be content to pay no attention to it; but the charge is persistently made to influence the whole population of the South against the North in a most unworthy manner, and deserves to be rebuked.

[Scientific American, June 8, 1861]


Southern states held fast to the notion that demand for cotton in the U.S. and across the world (especially in England) would mean an early end to the Union blockade of trade, recognition of the Confederate States of America, and an end to war. The editors here not only chided the South about this belief, but included a note of derision about abolitionists.

We recently published an article setting forth the conviction that if the struggle should be a prolonged one, it would put an end to the preeminence of the cotton States in the supply of this important staple. For this assertion one or two of our subscribers in the cotton States are denouncing us as enemies to the South. It will ultimately appear, when the events now transpiring have reached their practical solution, that those who have "precipitated the South into revolution" will have done more to uproot their institutions than all the noisy abolitionists to be found in the country.

[Scientific American, June 1, 1861]


There were some who wanted emancipation of the slaves because it was the right thing to do. There were some who believed that freeing the slaves would make it harder for the South to continue fighting the war. Either way, support grew for a bill that would confiscate property and free African-Americans who were the slaves of those fighting against the Union. Our article from July 1862 says:

The confiscation bill has finally passed both Houses of Congress by a large majority, and only wants the President's signature to be made a law of the land. It provides that if the rebels do not return to their allegiance within sixty days, their property, excepting slaves, shall be confiscated to the government, and their slaves shall be set free. This is the most important measure that has been adopted in this country since the Declaration of Independence. It is simply saying to the rebels, "We have been trying to coax you back for more than a year, and now the question of power is to be tried between us. If you are strong enough to fight the whole power of the North and to hold your slaves down at the same time, you may succeed in your mad enterprise, but if you are not, then shall your plantations be taken from you and given to our soldiers, and your negroes, shall be set to work for them instead of for you."

[Scientific American, July 26, 1862]

The article doesn't say whether the plantation hands would be working for "our soldiers" as paid or slave labor.


The act only freed those slaves owned by Confederates fighting against the Union. Many in the country saw it as the first step in freeing the slaves. In this commentary from December 1862 our editors saw it as a way of ending the war while being fair to Southerners. The slaves seem to be of secondary consideration:

"Compensated Emancipation."

The President urges at great length, what he terms "compensated emancipation" of slavery. This important subject seems to override all others in his estimate, hence, he devotes much more attention to it than to any other public question. He proposes to inaugurate the great jubilee with the year 1900, by payment of the owners of slaves as a mutual concession on both sides, and as a matter of justice to those who are owners of this species of property. It being quite evident that the war between slavery and freedom will continue to be waged with increased vigor, the President hopes to modify its intensity, by fixing upon a certain period, when the institution shall forever cease. He thinks this policy will shorten the war, and secure justice to all concerned; while, at the same, the country will be saved from the effects of violent and sudden changes in its domestic arrangements. This view of the case strikes us as humane, and if the more radical portion of the two sections would but accept it, as a ground of settlement, peace would again bless us; but so intensely bitter have these contending elements become, that we fear no such compromise would be acceptable or satisfactory.

[Scientific American, December 13, 1862]


In New York City anger at the war and the newly instituted draft caused riots that quickly degenerated into race riots. The white rioters chose to blame the African Americans for causing the war and for poor economic conditions. The violence directed against free blacks horrified the editors, as this article from August 1863 attests:

The city and county are as liable for damages inflicted on the colored people of this metropolis, as they are for all other losses suffered by our citizens during the late riot.

The energetic and philanthropic action of the merchants and business men of the city, goes very far to redeem the stain cast upon our good name by the infamous acts of the rioters, and the miserable politicians who were concerned In the late demonstration.

They will now see, and let them learn a lesson from it if they can, that the majority of the citizens of this metropolis, so far from siding with them in their acts of rapine and murder, instinctively loathe them, and hasten to relieve the sufferings of their poor victims by all the means in their power. The wildest savage that ever existed in Abyssinia would scorn to descend to the depths of depravity exhibited in this city during the late riot towards a helpless people, whose only offence was that their faces were not so white as those of the black· hearted assassins who attacked and murdered so many in our public thoroughfares.

[Scientific American, August 1, 1863]


One argument against slavery was based not on moral grounds but on economic grounds. Many believed free labor was far more efficient. Our editors made this argument in favor of emancipation in an article on economics in September 1864:

No estimate of further resources of the country furthermore can be considered complete, which fails to take into account the great augmentation of values which is sure to accrue in time to the South from the substitution of free for slave labor. This matter is set in a clear light by the following statement, which any one who doubts can verify for himself by referring to the official statistics of the census of 1860. If the product per head of the population in the Slave States had been the same in 1859 that it was in the Free States, there would have been added to the aggregate national wealth returned at that time the additional value $1,531,631,000--a sum nearly equal to the entire national debt, June, 1864.

[Scientific American, September 24, 1864]


In 1865 the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by the Senate and the House, outlawing slavery. Even before it was adopted, this reader from New York commented on labor and the end of slavery:

Thus a new era has dawned. Slavery, with its snailish conveniences, is gone forever. And thousands of the hands that had heretofore picked the cotton in its season, and did nothing the balance of the year, will not be available hereafter. For if the negro is really free, he has the same right that any other freeman has to support his wife and children, without their being compelled to work in the field.

[Scientific American, August 19, 1865]


The end of the war and the freedom of the slaves meant a speedy return to the business of invention and making money, which was the focus of the magazine to begin with. This editorial from June 1865 notes the tremendous social change resulting from 4,000,000 freed slaves:

Buckle, in his learned "History of Civilization," says, that all the great reforms have been the removal of some obstruction to human freedom. Such a reform, more radical and thorough in the scope of its operation, and wider in extent than any which preceded it, has swept over our Southern States, converting 4,000,000 of the inhabitants from simple chattels into freemen.

And even breathes a sigh of relief that everyone can get back to work (although the "skilled laborers" mostly turned out to be carpetbaggers):

Now all these obstructions are removed, and no man can estimate the results; he whose imagination is capable of the boldest flight will come nearest to the truth. A vast horde of skilled laborers from the Northern States and Europe will pour into the South, and mining, manufacturing and mechanical industry will spring at once into life and vigor; the ribs of the mountains will be blasted asunder; the streams will be turned into mill courses; cities, canals and railroads will be constructed, and wealth will be accumulated with a rapidity unparalleled in the history of mankind.

[Scientific American, June 10, 1865]


In the 19th century the issue of ending slavery in the United States was more difficult than it might seem, as it is complex today worldwide [see "The Social Psychology of Modern Slavery," by Kevin Bales, Scientific American, April 2002]. I would have been pleased if at some point one of our forebears at Scientific American had seized the high moral ground and thunderously denounced slavery as a "monstrous injustice" (as Abraham Lincoln said in a speech in Peoria, Illinois, in October 1854). Unfortunately we see instead an ambivalence and a reluctance to comment in print on the question of slaves and slavery. The attitude seems to be that for matters outside of science, technology and invention, the political and moral wrangling was best left to others.



What are the moral implications of being able to legally "own" another person? We can look outside of Scientific American at a text from a meeting of "abolitionists" (people who wanted to completely abolish slavery) held in Illinois in October 1837. Here is what the abolitionists believed a slave did not have, according to the minutes of the meeting:

1. The right to be recognized and treated by all, and at all times, as an intelligent, rational, moral, accountable, and immortal being, — in other words, as a man. [note: It took even longer for people to recognize that "man" here should be "person," to include both men and women.]

2. The right of knowledge in all matters essential to duty and happiness.

3. The rights of conscience and of speech.

4. The right of forming and enjoying all those social relations which are founded in the nature of man, and essential to his welfare and happiness. [note: Slave families were not considered to exist legally--children and spouses could be separated from their family at the whim of the slave-owner]

5. The right of personal chastity.

6. The right to possess the avails [note: meaning wages and payment] of his own corporeal and intellectual powers, and whatever may be lawfully given them by others.

7. The right of protection against personal injury, or the loss of life.

8. The right of being esteemed and treated in society, and of enjoying its advantages according to their intellectual and moral worth.

SOURCE: Notes from an abolitionist meeting in 1837: Proceedings of the Illinois Anti-Slavery Convention. October 1837 (Supplement to the Alton Observer).