Slavery in the
Slavery has appeared in many forms throughout its
long history. Slaves have served in capacities as diverse as concubines,
warriors, servants, craftsmen, tutors, and victims of ritual sacrifice. In the
Slavery has played a central role in the history of
The Introduction of Slavery
There was nothing inevitable about the use of black
slaves. Although Dutch traders brought 20 Africans to
Although some Native American slaves existed in
every colony, the number was limited. Indian men balked at performing
agricultural labor, which they regarded as women's work, and colonists
complained that they were "haughty" and made poor slaves. Even more
important, the settlers found it more convenient to sell Native Americans
captured in war to planters in the
Far more important as a form of labor than Indian
slavery was white indentured servitude. Most indentured servants consisted of
poor Europeans who, desiring to escape harsh conditions and take advantage of
fabled opportunities in
For a variety of reasons, foremost among them
improved conditions in
The transatlantic slave
trade produced one of the largest forced migrations in
history. From the early sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century,
between 10 and 11 million Africans were torn from their homes, herded onto
ships where they were sometimes so tightly packed that they could barely move,
and deposited in a strange new land. (Since others died in transit,
Advertisement for Slave Auction, 1829
This poster advertised slaves for sale or temporary hire in the early 1800s. Auctions often separated family members from one another, and many slaves never saw their loved ones again.
Slavery in the Colonial Era
Slavery spread quickly in the American colonies. At
first the legal status of Africans in
Slaves performed numerous tasks, from clearing the
forest to serving as guides, trappers, craftsmen, nurses, and house servants,
but they were most essential as agricultural laborers and most numerous where
landowners sought to grow staple crops for market. The most important of these
crops consisted of tobacco in the upper South (Maryland, Virginia, North
Carolina) and rice in the lower South (South Carolina and Georgia); farther
south still, on Caribbean islands such as Barbados, Jamaica, and Saint-Domingue, sugar was
an even more valuable slave-grown commodity. Slaves also worked on large
wheat-producing estates in
By the mid-eighteenth century American slavery had acquired a number of distinctive features. Well over 90 percent of American slaves lived in the South, where demographic conditions contrasted sharply with those to both the south and the north. In Caribbean colonies such as Jamaica and Saint-Domingue, blacks outnumbered whites by more than ten to one and slaves often lived on huge estates whose inhabitants numbered in the hundreds; in the Northern colonies, blacks were few and slaves were typically held in small groups of less than five. The South, by contrast, was neither overwhelmingly white nor overwhelmingly black: slaves formed a large minority of the population (in some areas, of course, they formed the majority), and despite regional variations, most slaves lived on small and medium-sized holdings containing between 5 and 50 slaves.
A second distinctive feature was the rapid
"Americanization" of both masters and slaves. English colonists
quickly came to feel "at home" on their American holdings. Few sought
to make quick killings on their planting ventures and then retire to a life of
This shift from African to African American was
closely related to a third distinctive characteristic of American slavery that
was in many ways the most important of all: in contrast to most other slaves in
The Revolutionary Challenge
Throughout most of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among white Americans was virtually nonexistent. Settlers in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries came from a sharply stratified society in which the upper classes savagely exploited members of the "lower orders"; lacking a later generation's belief in natural human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement of Africans. As they sought to mold a docile labor force, these planters resorted to harshly repressive measures that included liberal use of whippings and brandings.
Gradually, as slavery became more entrenched, changes occurred in the way masters looked on their slaves (and themselves). Many second-generation masters, who unlike their parents had grown up with slaves, came to regard them as inferior members of their extended families, and to look upon themselves as kindly patriarchs who, like benevolent despots, ruled their "people" firmly but fairly and looked after their needs. Such slave owners continued to rely heavily on the lash (and other forms of punishment) for discipline, and few slaves saw their owners as the kindly guardians that they proclaimed themselves to be. Still, the most extreme forms of physical abuse became less common over the course the eighteenth century, at the same time that many slave owners accepted the idea that they should treat their slaves humanely.
Some slave owners went further. The last third of the eighteenth century saw the first widespread questioning of slavery by white Americans. This questioning was boosted by the American Revolution, which sparked a sharp increase in egalitarian thinking. Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, while slaveholders, were profoundly troubled by slavery; leery of rash actions, they initiated a series of cautious acts that they thought would lead to slavery's gradual abolition.
These acts included measures in all states north of
Nevertheless, the Revolutionary-era challenge to
slavery proved successful only in the North, where the investment in slaves was
small. The antislavery movement never made much headway in
Slavery in the Antebellum Era
During the antebellum (pre-Civil War) years slavery
expanded aggressively along with the
As slavery grew, so too did its diversity. Slavery varied according to region, crops, and size of holdings. On farms and small plantations most slaves came in frequent contact with their owners, but on very large plantations, where slave owners often employed overseers, slaves might rarely see their masters. Some owners left their holdings entirely in the care of subordinates, usually hired white overseers but sometimes slaves. A few slave owners were even black themselves: a small percentage of free blacks owned slaves, in some cases essentially as a fiction so that they could protect family members, but more often to profit, like other slaveholders, from unfree labor. Most slaves on large holdings worked in gangs, under the supervision of overseers and (slave) drivers. Some, however, especially in the coastal region of South Carolina and Georgia, labored under the "task" system: assigned a certain amount of work to complete in a day, they received less supervision than gang laborers and were free to use their time as they wished once they had completed their daily assignments. In addition to performing fieldwork, slaves served as house servants, nurses, midwives, carpenters, blacksmiths, drivers, preachers, gardeners, and handymen.
Despite such variations, there were a number of
dominant trends. First, slavery was overwhelmingly rural: in 1860 only about 5
percent of all slaves lived in towns of at least 2500 persons. Second, although
some slaves lived on giant estates and others on small farms, the norm was in
between: in 1860 about one-half of all slaves lived on holdings of 10 to 49,
with one-quarter on smaller and one-quarter on larger units. (Holdings tended
to be bigger in the
Southern slaveholders took an active role in managing their human property. Viewing themselves as the slaves' guardians, they stressed the degree to which they cared for their "people." The character of such care varied, but in purely material terms food, clothing, housing, medical attention it was generally better in the antebellum than in the colonial period and (judging by measurable criteria such as slave height and life expectancy) better in the American South than in the Caribbean or Brazil. Although young children were often malnourished, most working slaves received a steady supply of pork and corn which, if lacking in nutritional balance (about which antebellum Americans knew nothing), provided sufficient calories to fuel their labor, especially when supplemented with produce that slaves raised on the garden plots that they were often allotted. Clothing and housing were crude but functional: slaves typically received four coarse "suits" per year (pants and shirts for men, dresses for women, long shirts for children) and lived in small wooden cabins, one to a family. Wealthy slave owners often sent for physicians to treat slaves who became ill; given the state of medical knowledge, however, such treatment which could range from providing various concoctions to "bleeding" a patient often did as much harm as good.
Masters intervened continuously in the lives of
their slaves, from directing their labor to approving (and disapproving)
marriages. Some masters made elaborate written "rules" and most
engaged in constant meddling directing, nagging, threatening, and punishing.
Many took advantage of their position to exploit slave women sexually. What
slaves hated most about slavery was not the hard work to which they were
subjected (most people in the rural
Slave Life and Slave Resistance
Such autonomy was not totally lacking. In the quarters the collection of slave cabins that on large plantations resembled a miniature village slaves developed their own way of life. The degree of social independence available to slaves was not constant: throughout the South, a continuing power struggle raged in which slaves strove to increase and masters strove to limit this independence. The character and resolution of this struggle in turn depended on a host of factors, from size of holdings and organization of production to residence and disposition of masters. Masters rarely were able, however, to shape the lives of their slaves as fully as they wanted.
Away from the view of owners and overseers, slaves lived their own lives. They made friends and made love, played and prayed, sang, told stories, cooked, joked, quarreled, and engaged in the necessary chores of day-to-day living, from cleaning house, cooking, and sewing to working on their garden plots. Especially important as anchors of the slaves' lives were their families and their religion.
Throughout the South, the family defined the actual living arrangements of slaves: most slaves lived together in nuclear families mother, father, children. The security and stability of these families faced severe challenges: no state law recognized marriage among slaves, masters rather than parents had legal authority over slave children, and the possibility of forced separation, through sale, hung over every family. (Such separations were especially frequent in the slave-exporting states of the upper South.) Still, despite their tenuous status, families served as the slaves' most basic refuge, the center of private lives that owners could never fully control.
Religion served as a second refuge. Although African slaves usually clung to their native religions, and many slave owners in the early colonial period were leery of those who sought to convert their slaves to Christianity (in part because of fears that converted slaves would have to be freed), during the antebellum years Christianity was increasingly central to the slaves' cultural life. Many slaves were converted during the religious revivals that swept the South in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Slaves typically belonged to the same denominations as white Southerners Baptists and Methodists were the largest groups and some masters encouraged their "people" to come to the white church, where they usually sat in a special "slave gallery" and received advice about being obedient to their masters. In the quarters, however, there developed a parallel ("invisible") church controlled by the slaves themselves, who listened to sermons delivered by their own preachers. Not all slaves had access to these preachers and not all accepted their message, but for many, religion served as a great comfort in a hostile world.
If their families and religion helped slaves to
avoid total control by their owners, slaves also more directly challenged that
control through active resistance. The limits of such resistance must be kept
in mind. Unlike slaves in Saint-Domingue, who rose up
against their French masters in bloody rebellion and established the black
Lower-level resistance was both more widespread and more successful. This included "silent sabotage," or foot dragging, by slaves who pretended to be sick, feigned difficulty understanding instructions, and "accidentally" misused tools and animals. It also included small-scale resistance by individuals who fought back physically at times successfully against what they regarded as unjust treatment. But the most common form of resistance was flight. About 1000 slaves per year managed to escape to the North during the late antebellum period (most from the upper South), but this represented only the tip of the iceberg, since for every slave who made it to freedom, several more tried. Other fugitives remained within the South, heading for cities or swamps, or hiding out near their plantations for days or weeks before either returning voluntarily or being tracked down and captured. On a continuing basis, slaves "voted with their feet" against slavery.
Like all people, slaves felt diverse, overlapping attachments. They identified as members of families, parishioners of churches, residents of particular farms and plantations, and members of an exploited class, the fruits of whose labor were appropriated by their owners. They also identified as African Americans and saw themselves as an oppressed people. Because the vast majority of blacks in the antebellum South were slaves, the line separating black from white approximated that separating slave from free, and the class exploitation of slave by master often appeared indistinguishable from the racial oppression of black by white. Racial identification drew support not only from common African origins and the close ties that often existed between slaves and free blacks but also from the virulent racism of many nonslaveholding whites that made it easy for slaves to look upon whites in general as their oppressors. Early African American cultural identity was forged in the crucible of slavery.
Sectional Tensions over Slavery
Slavery was an increasingly Southern institution.
Abolition of slavery in the North, begun in the Revolutionary era and largely
complete by the 1830s, divided the
In fact, the slave economy grew rapidly, enriched by
the spectacular increase of cotton cultivation to meet the burgeoning demand of
Northern and European textile manufacturers. But Southern economic growth was
based largely on putting more acreage under cultivation; the South did not
undergo the kind of industrial revolution that was beginning to transform the
North, and the South remained almost entirely rural. In 1860 there were only
five Southern cities with more than 50,000 inhabitants (only one of which,
But the biggest gap between North and South was ideological. As Northern states abolished slavery and then saw the growth of a small but articulate abolitionist movement, Southern white spokesmen from politicians to ministers, newspaper editors, and authors rallied around slavery as the bedrock of Southern society. Defenders of slavery developed a wide range of arguments to buttress their cause, from those that stressed the institution's "practical" necessity to those that depicted it as a "positive good." They made heavy use of religious themes, pointing to the biblical "curse of Ham" to explain the origins of black bondage and portraying slavery as part of God's plan for civilizing a primitive, heathen people.
Racial justifications were especially prevalent among proslavery arguments, in part because of the widespread racism that united most white Americans and in part because such arguments were especially effective in appealing to the majority of Southern whites who did not own slaves. The extreme "scientific" version of these arguments purported to prove that blacks were so physiologically different from whites that they amounted to a different species (or, in the reformulation of some theoreticians, were the products of a separate creation). Such an approach violated the Christian sensibilities of too many Southern whites, however, to become a central staple of proslavery propaganda. Far more common were brief, unscientific, and vaguely supported assertions that blacks were by nature different, inferior, and therefore unsuited for freedom. Hardworking, loyal, and productive under loving but firm direction (i.e., slavery), they supposedly lacked the intellectual capacity for independent existence and in freedom would quickly degenerate, perhaps even fall into extinction.
During the 1840s and 1850s Southern spokesmen increasingly based their case for slavery on social arguments that contrasted the harmonious, orderly, religious, and conservative society that supposedly existed in the South with the tumultuous, heretical, and mercenary ways of a North torn apart by radical reform, individualism, class conflict, and worst of all abolitionism. Insisting that Southern slaves were treated far better than Northern wage laborers, proslavery ideologues developed a biting critique of free-labor capitalism ("wage-slavery") as cruel, exploitative, and selfish, and pointed to the degraded condition of supposedly free British paupers and Irish peasants. This defense in many ways represented the mirror image of the "free-labor" argument increasingly prevalent in the North: as free-labor spokesmen argued that slavery kept the South backward, poor, inefficient, and degraded, proslavery advocates retorted that only slavery could save the South (and the world) from the evils of modernity run wild.
From the mid-1840s the struggle over slavery became more and more central to American politics. Northerners committed to "free soil" (the idea that new, western territories should be reserved exclusively for free white settlers) clashed repeatedly with Southern spokesmen who insisted that any limitation on slavery's expansion represented unconstitutional meddling with the Southern order and a grave affront to Southern honor. In 1860 the election of Abraham Lincoln as president on a free-soil platform set off a major political and constitutional crisis, as seven states in the Deep South seceded from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America; the start of hostilities between the United States and the rebel Confederates in April 1861 led to the additional secession of four states in the upper South. (Four other slave states Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri remained in the Union, as did the new state of West Virginia, which split off from Virginia.)
Emancipation and After
Ironically, although Southern politicians supported
secession in order to preserve slavery, their action led instead to slavery's
death. As the war dragged on, Northern war aims gradually shifted from
Slavery ended for hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks well before the Confederate surrender, as Union troops occupied larger and larger areas of the South and as increasing numbers of slaves fled from their owners and sought refuge within Union lines. In Union-occupied areas of the South, blacks experienced a rehearsal for Reconstruction, as federal officials experimented with various forms of free and semifree labor and as Northern missionaries established schools to help turn slaves into citizens. The freedpeople's enthusiasm for education, in turn, created a powerful impression among Northern whites and contributed to their growing determination that the war must yield what President Lincoln termed "a new birth of freedom."
This goal received symbolic recognition with the Emancipation Proclamation that
Despite the overthrow of slavery, at war's end the future status of the former slaves remained unclear and resolving that status remained at the center of the nation's political agenda. An intense struggle ensued, as freedpeople strove for economic security, social autonomy, and civil rights; former slave owners sought to preserve their old prerogatives; and Northern politicians divided among themselves over the proper course of Reconstruction. The compromise that resulted from this struggle yielded an unprecedented although temporary national commitment to turn former slaves into citizens, anchored by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Reconstruction Acts of 1867. Together, these measures provided basic civil rights to former slaves, enfranchised black males, and imposed a largely self-administered democratization process on the former Confederate states, under federal supervision.
Emancipation brought many tangible rewards. Among the most obvious was a significant increase in personal freedom that came with no longer being someone else's property: whatever hardships they faced, free blacks could not be forcibly sold away from their loved ones. But emancipation did not bring full equality, and many of the most striking gains of Reconstruction including the substantial political power that African Americans were briefly able to exercise were soon lost. In the decades after Reconstruction African Americans experienced continued poverty and exploitation and a rising tide of violence at the hands of whites determined to reimpose black subordination. They also experienced new forms of discrimination, spearheaded by a variety of state laws that instituted rigid racial segregation in virtually all areas of life and that (in violation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments) effectively disfranchised black voters. The struggle to overcome the bitter legacy of slavery would be long and arduous.