The Origins and Growth of Slavery in America

How did slavery come to America, and why did it grow in the 1800s?

The most brutal institution in American history, slavery existed in the United States from the early 17th century until 1865, when Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment shortly after the Union victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. By that point, more than 4 million African-American slaves lived in the United States. Although their communities thrived and multiplied, these people were subject to harsh living conditions and enjoyed none of the rights or freedoms so fiercely protected by white Americans.

Native Americans were the first enslaved people in North America. Many aboriginal societies had practiced different forms of slavery for thousands of years before they had ever seen Europeans. The practice, however, represented a temporary condition and was used more as a badge of status than a moneymaking enterprise. Most Indian slaves were women and children either purchased or captured as prizes in warfare. Some were adopted into their new tribe over time, their offspring being free persons who could even rise to positions of leadership. Slavery, therefore, was not a hereditary condition, nor was it based on race.

Europeans continued the practice of enslaving Indians after their arrival in the New World in the late 15th century. Spanish, English, and French colonists broadened the scope of Indian slavery by selling Indians, including men, into bondage in other colonies as punishment for warfare or rebellion. The Spanish in particular created a vast system of slave labor in its colonies in Latin America.

The English and French enslaved Native Americans much less frequently and seldom held Indian slaves to labor among them. Rather, they sold Indian captives south to the West Indies, as Connecticut colonists did to surviving Native American women and children following the Pequot War of 1636-1637, which virtually annihilated the Pequots from New England. In general, the British colonists found it difficult to enslave Native Americans, who had great opportunities to escape from bondage and rejoin their tribes.

The system of chattel slavery (the personal ownership of a slave) that developed in the New World and focused on African Americans was different than the slavery practiced against Native Americans. The first group of African slaves, numbering four men and women, arrived aboard a Dutch ship at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.

English planters like John Rolfe quickly realized the enormous profits to be had from importing unfree laborers. Rolfe’s introduction of a viable tobacco plant in Virginia served as a major impetus for the adoption of African slavery as the region’s main labor system. Tobacco was an extremely labor-intensive crop, requiring field hands to spend long hours bending over plants under the blazing hot sun. Most whites proved entirely unsuited for this labor, in part because they were unused to such hot and humid weather conditions and in part because they flat out refused to do such work. Some white indentured servants were forced to work in the fields, but as the 17th century progressed, it proved more and more difficult to convince Europeans to immigrate under these conditions.

African slaves solved many of these problems. Physically, Africans were more used to such brutal weather conditions and capable of laboring in them for longer periods than whites. As African slaves represented a diversity of nations and spoke a wide variety of languages, they also found it difficult to communicate with one another and organize resistance to their forced bondage. And unlike the Native Americans, Africans were too far from their homeland to run away from their white masters. Finally, some West African leaders proved extremely receptive to the idea of selling other Africans into slavery for profit, so that most of the kidnapping of Africans and forcing them into bondage was actually done by other Africans, requiring even less effort on the part of whites to perpetuate the system. For all these reasons, African slavery quickly emerged as a desirable and profitable labor system.

Throughout the course of the 17th century, the various British North American colonies erected a series of laws and social conventions that served to establish African slavery at the heart of colonial society, particularly in the South. Although African slavery spread to all of the colonies, it never took hold in the northern colonies as it did in the southern, primarily because of the nature of the work required. Northern colonies were populated with small family farms, and the rocky terrain proved inhospitable for crops like tobacco. Slaves certainly existed in the northern colonies but not in nearly such large numbers as in their southern counterparts.

During the colonial period, nowhere did slavery become more firmly entrenched than in Virginia, and the slave system that Virginia developed during this period served as a model for all other slave societies in the years to come. At first, in the 1620s, the rules governing slavery were ill-defined, and some masters treated the Africans more like indentured servants than slaves. Several Africans even labored for specified amounts of time and then secured their freedom. By the 1640s, however, the idea that African slavery should be both perpetual and hereditary had begun to take hold, as the labor required to keep large plantations functioning and profitable grew scarce and the price of slaves rose.

The Virginia House of Burgesses passed a series of laws in the second half of the 17th century that legitimized African slavery. Perhaps most important, the legislature grounded slavery on a strict definition of race, ensuring that anyone with even as little as one-eighth of African blood was likely to be a slave. The laws also clearly classified slaves as property, according them no rights or protections under the law. Masters were free to do with their slaves as they pleased. Although the legislature would pass other laws in the coming decades to refine the slave-labor system, its essentials were in place by 1700.

By that point, slavery was firmly established as the primary labor system of the South. White indentured servants from Europe became increasingly scarce, while African imports rose dramatically beginning in 1680. New England shipping firms profited immensely from the trade by transporting Africans from their homeland to America. Known as the Middle Passage, the journey across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships was a brutal one, with the Africans being held below decks, chained together in cramped conditions, and suffering from disease, starvation, and outrageously poor sanitary conditions. Although mortality rates on the Middle Passage were alarmingly high, most Africans reached North America and were quickly sold into perpetual bondage with no hope of ever attaining their freedom or returning home.

Note that most of the captured slaves did NOT come to the modern day United States

Despite the often cruel conditions of slavery, American slaves enjoyed a higher standard of living than any other enslaved people, and even higher than many of the laboring, free classes around the world. Natural increase of the American slave population, through high birth rates and relatively low death rates, was marked throughout slavery’s existence.

By the outbreak of the American Revolution, more than half a million slaves lived in the British colonies, almost all of them in the South. As tobacco proved less and less profitable, however, slavery seemed to be on the decline. The delegates at the Continental Congress even briefly discussed abolishing slavery, although strenuous objections from Southern delegates, whose constituents had enormous sums tied up in slave property, brought such talk to a close quickly.

The idea that the colonists could be fighting the British for their freedom at the same time they held half a million people in bondage troubled many Americans, but the issue of race played a tremendous role in ignoring this contradction. For centuries, Africans had been seen as an inferior people, and most white Americans, in both the North and South, managed to convince themselves that slaves were better off and better cared for in bondage than they would be with their freedom.

Agreeing with the belief that slavery was an important aspect of American life, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention included the institution of slavery in the U.S. Constitution in 1787 (without using the word ‘slave’).  This ensured slavery’s continuance in the United States despite any qualms Americans might be feeling about it. However, the convention did incorporate a ban on the international slave trade, to be implemented in 1808. This ban on importation did little to lessen the strength of slavery as an institution, however, as the slave population in America was thriving by itself, and the lack of new imports served to keep the price of slaves high.

By this point, slavery had geographically split the country, with the Southern states relying on it heavily while many of the Northern states abolished it or passed laws to phase it out. Many Americans in both regions thought that slavery would eventually disappear from the entire country, as it was becoming less profitable for Southern tobacco planters.

In 1794, however, Eli Whitney introduced the cotton gin, a labor-saving machine that transformed cotton from a ridiculously high-labor crop into a profitable one. Growing cotton still required a tremendous amount of labor, but its rewards proved greater after the advent of the cotton gin.

Almost immediately, settlers pushed into the southwest to establish large cotton plantations in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. Into these new regions, they took thousands of slaves, purchased from failing tobacco planters in Virginia who were happy to convert their slave property into ready cash. Suddenly, the institution of slavery was reborn, reestablishing itself as the backbone of Southern financial interests once again. With the South emerging as one of the chief cotton regions of the world, slavery was more entrenched than ever.

The spread of slavery to new states ignited a “fire bell in the night,” according to the elderly Thomas Jefferson in 1820. Jefferson in the 1770s had attempted to put slavery on a course of destruction. However, by the first decades of the 19th century, Jefferson, like other leading Southern statesmen, proclaimed the need to protect the institution to save the Southern way of life. Indeed, slavery became the most abiding and powerful symbol of that way of life.

Increasingly, Northern and Southern politicians came to view each other as members of a hostile camp, representing two opposing images of American life: one based on free labor and the other based on slave labor. As a result, the issue of admitting new states that either prohibited slavery or allowed it emerged as one of vital political significance. Southerners saw the admission of a free state as a visible sign of growing Northern political power, and vice versa. The advent of a vocal and controversial abolition movement in the North only heightened Southern fears of a plot to destroy slavery and the South’s political power.

By the year of 1860, the final year of the antebellum era, the nation was divided, primarily because of the issue of the expansion of slavery.  What will solve the conflict?  The Civil War …

Excerpts from “Slavery.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.

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