Slavery in the United States

Figure 1.--Here is a photograph of five generations of a black family. They were all boen on the plantation of J. J. Smith, Beaufort, S.C. The photograph was taken by T. H. O'Sullivan in 1862. Suported by the U.S. Navy, the Federal forces were beginning to seize coastal areas around Charleston. This means that these blacks were in an area controlled by the Union, however, President Lincoln had not yet issued the Imancipation Proclamation. Source: Library of Congress. LC-B8171-152-A

One of the most significant institution in United States history was slavery. Slavery helped build America. It is a major reason why America developed differently than Europe. It is also a major cause of the disparities that now exist among Americas (much greater than in Europe), and the roots of major social problems are rooted in slvevery. Two historians write that the legacy os slavery, "... remains in the history and heritage of the South that it shaped, in the culture of the North, where its memory was long denied, in the national economy for which it provided much of the foundation, and in the political and social system it prfoundly influenced." [Horton and Horton] Despite the importance of slavery in the Americam epoch, slavery until recently has been a subjected avoided by American historians. To the extent that slavery was addressed, it tended to be discussed in terms that accepted the southern myth of idelic plantation life and benign white masters struggling to deal with lazy, workers that had a child-like mentality. This has changed in recent years as historians produce more realistic treement of slavery. One area in which progress has been disappointing is school textbooks. The egregiously racist treatment has been removed from textboks, but for the most part school textbooks still give little attention to slavery and the discussion presented is usually not illuuminating. One problem here is the economics of school textbooks and the need to meet the editorial demands of large states. Here Texas is a particular problem. American schools have attempted to deal with the racial issue bu designating February as Black History Month. Unfortunately rarely does Black History Month address slavery. Rather it generally amounts to an innoucous effort to point out Blacks who have contributed to America which do little to explain social inequities in America. The avoidance of slavery is not just a matter of white unwillingness to address slavery, but many Black educators also seem reluctant.


One of the most significant institution in United States history was slavery. Slavery helped build America. Slaverry is often thought of as a footnote in American hisdtory. It infact was one of the cental issues in American life and was fundamental in the economic development of the United States. It is a major reason why America developed differently than Europe. Slavery is also one of the principal cause of modern American social problems. It is also a major cause of the disparities that now exist among Americas (much greater than in Europe), and the roots of major social problems are rooted in slvevery. Two historians write that the legacy os slavery, "... remains in the history and heritage of the South that it shaped, in the culture of the North, where its memory was long denied, in the national economy for which it provided much of the foundation, and in the political and social system it prfoundly influenced." [Horton and Horton]

Historical Treatment

Despite the importance of slavery in the Americam epoch, slavery until recently has been a subjected avoided by American historians. To the extent that slavery was addressed, it tended to be discussed in terms that accepted the southern myth of idelic plantation life and benign white masters struggling to deal with lazy, workers that had a child-like mentality. This has changed in recent years as historians produce more realistic treement of slavery. One area in which progress has been disappointing is school textbooks. The egregiously racist treatment has been removed from textboks, but for the most part school textbooks still give little attention to slavery and the discussion presented is usually not illuuminating. One problem here is the economics of school textbooks and the need to meet the editorial demands of large states. Here Texas is a particular problem. American schools have attempted to deal with the racial issue bu designating February as Black History Month. Unfortunately rarely does Black History Month address slavery. Rather it generally amounts to an innoucous effort to point out Blacks who have contributed to America which do little to explain social inequities in America. The avoidance of slavery is not just a matter of white unwillingness to address slavery, but many black educators have also seem reluctant, in some cases ashamed or even rekuctant to discuss slavery. This has changed with the modern generation of black historians..

Historical Trends

The first blacks arrived in what is now the United States soon after the English and Dutch colonies weee established along the eastern seabord. There was considerable uncertainty about their legal status. Initially they were treated more lkike inentured servants, an important institution in early colonial America. The fitst southern colony where blacks appeared was Jamestown which became Virginia. They were brought by Dutch traders. (1619). They were then introduced to Duth New Amsterdam (1624). The Dutch played an important role because of their Aftrican trading posts. The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Because of the insistence on slavery by the southern colonies, a comprise was reached. Slavery was not codified into the Federal Constitution, but it was also not prohibited. American donestic politics in the first half of the 19th century was dominated by the issue of slavery. America was unable to find a political solution to slavery. The primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. It was the War that utimately ended slavery in America. President Lincoln in practical terms ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). The proclamation based on executive authority was on limited and tenuous grounds. Thus the abolition of slavery was only ultimately achieved with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865).

African Slave Trade

The Spanish and Portuguese turned to Africans as a labor source for theiir colonies. Millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic and sold into slavery in the Americas. Slavery in earlier epochs had no racial connotations. With the growth of the African slave trade, slavery in the Western mind became associated with race as with the collapse of Native American populations, it was Africans who were enslaved in huge numbers. European Christian who would not have tolerated the enslavement of other Europeans found little objection to enslaving black Africans. With the foundation of English colonies, Africans were also brought to North America. Most were set to work on the of the plantations of the American South.


Most Afro-Americans have, however, have descended from peoples brought to America by force as part of the Atlantic slave trade. The great majority thus came from West and Central Africa. Some of the first slaves came from what is modern Senegal and Gambia. Gradually slaves were accessed from locations further south alonf the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. And finally slaves began flowing in from cental Africa (Kingdom of the Kongo). This included some slaves from Angola. [Lovejoy] Slaves from southern Africa largely went to Brazil, in part becuse of geography and also because Angola and Mozambique were Portuguese colonies. Some Angolans did reach America, but most came from West Africa. Slaves from East Africa were mostly involved with the Arab slave trade network. Slave masters in certain areas durng the 18th century often had preferences as to the origins of slaves. These prefereces varied from place to place. For the most part such references gradually declined with the ending of the slave trade (1807). This meant that slaves in the newer trans-Apalachin southern states (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas) primarily were related to slaves in the original southern colonies. Some slavers managed to bring in new Africans, but this gradually declined over time. By the tome of Emancipation (1863) few slave masters or slaves had any idea about orgins. Here Alex Haley's ground-breaking book Roots helped to raise interest anong Afro-Americans as to their origins. Here DNA work can provide indicators, however, most modern Afro-Americans are descended from ancestos who have intermarried without any concern for origins and thus have mixed tribal backgrounds. There was for more than a century no practical say of tracing origins, but now with DNA origins can be traced.


The numbers of Africans tranported to the New World is not known with any accuracy. Scholars debate the actual numbers. The American Constitution included provisions ending the slave trade and the British Royal Navy played a major in supressing it in the 19th century. Thus by about 1840 the slave trade to the New World had been reduced to relatively small numbers. Scholars believe, however, that about 10-15 million Africans were transported to the New World. While scholars may debate the actual figure, most will agree that the 10-15 million is a reasonable numerical range. This is a staggering figure as it far exceeds the number of Europeans who came to the New World. (The number of Europeans increased substantially beginning in the 1840s with the Irish because of the Potato Famine and many other countries after the Civil War.) What is staggering about this figure is that European immigration to the Americas before 1840 totaled only about 2 million. Here figures are again not precise, but much more reliable than data on African slaves. The obvious question is why was the European population in the Americas so much higher if in fact so many more Africans were transported to the New World. The answer is unavoidable. Huge numbers of Africans died both in the Middle (Atlantic) passage to the Americas and as a result of overwork and abuse as slave plantation labor. No fact more eloquently puts to lie the long held myth that slavery in the Americas was benign. But here we are talking about conditions where most od the slaves went--the sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. Here the conditions were virtually genocidal and the sugar planters required a constant influx of captive Africans to continue operations. The history of slavery in the United States was different. As a result of climate, America did not have sugar plantations. Rather cotton plantations became the major and most profitable employer of slave labor and only in the 19th century. A very small portion of the captive Africans were imorted into the United States. Less than 5 percent of the Africans brought to the Americas in the Atlntic slave trade were destined for what is now the United States. [Thomas] And while slvery by its very nature is repugnant, slavery in the United sttes was not genocidal. The Congress banned importation of slaves as soon as it was allowed to do so by the Constitution (1807). Yet the slave population grew because it was self sustaining.

Legal Status

African slaves were regarded as property. Laws were enacted that gave owners total power over slaves, including the right to kill their slaves.


As the slavery system developed, increasingly draconian penalties were developed for enforcing the system and descipling slaves. Here there were differences among states, especially the northern and southern states. General speaking the law systems that developed in the South authorized the slave owners to descipline their slaves as they saw fit. Here there was one major difference between the unitially more developed slave system in the Caribbean than in the American colonies. The Caribbean islands were mstly quite small with no where to run. America offered a western fortier and later northern refuges. Thus running away became, besides resisring a master, one of the worst crimes a slave could commit. Penalties variesd among states and among masters. A normal range of punishments would be whipping, branding, cutting off ears, mameing, and even castration. The later two were not preferred as they reduced the value of the slave to his owner and tended to be used as last resorts. The seveity of these punishments reflects both the brutality of the slave system and the fact that slaves were resisting the system to the extent they could. There were ways that slaves could resist besides running away. The owners feared poisoning, but such instance were probably more fear than actual incidents. Setting fire to barns and other property owned by slave masters was probably more common and diffcult for the owner to identify a culprit. Although rare,there were slave rebellions. South Carolina law required white men to carry guns to church. AsSunday was a day if rest, it was considered the most likely day for a slave rebellion to break out.


Slave women were generally incouraged by their masters to have children as slaves were a valuable commodity who could be sold if not needed by the owner. The average price of a slave in the mid-19th century was about $600, a very considerable sum over $10,000 in 2002. (See the Inflation Calculator for such calculations.) The conditions under hich slaves lived and work under mean that their life span was less than was prevalent among whites. This was especially true among field workers on the plantations of the ddep South. Planters and other slave owners encouraged their slaves to produce children. After the early 19th century, America no longer permitted the importation of slaves. Slaves were a very valuable commodity. Slave girls were often expected to begin bearing children by about age 13. It was not uncommon for slave women to have had several children by about age 20. Some owners promised women slaves their freedom if they produced a set number of children and a common number was fifteen. It hould be remembered that having a child was a much more dangerous undertaking for a woman than is the case today. Young women might be offerd for sale as "good breeding stock" much as one would advertise a farm animal. Some owners operated breeding farms to produce children for sale.

Slave Families

Slaves were often allowed to choose their own partners. These slave familie had no legal status, but they lived under the same roof, raised children, and attmpted to protect each oher within the limits of their abilities. The often brutal treatment at the hands of slave owners severely undermined family life. Enslaved women were subject to sexual exploitation at the hands of their owners. Slaves lived in constant fear that partners are children might be sold away with no choice of reunion or evn communication. Historical records suggest that most slaves were sold at least once in their lives. Children i particular were commonly sold and separated from their parents.


Practices concerning the slave children variedy widely, both by region and the personal attitudes of their owners. Frederick Douglass claims that where he was raised in Maryland that the practice was "to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor." Probably more common was to wait until the child was aporoaching adolescence and had more value as a potential worker. Many slave accounts indicate that their early lives were happy before they reached an age at which they began to realize that they were some one's property. Slave children began to work at an early age, most were given tasks by the time they reached 5 years if nit early. The young children might ran errands or carry water and food to field hands. By the age of 7-8 years they were commonly given more responsible tasks. Unfortunatrely only a few slaves have left us accounts of their childhood. One scholar has written a wonderful account of what children endured for the younger reader. [Diouf]


In assigning chores to slave children, the owners did not have to worry about school. Most slave states had laws making it a crime to teach slaves to read or write. In the South even private titoring was prohibited. These laws were generally passed as a measure to prevent communication among slaves to make a potential slave uprising, like Nat Turner's Rebellion, impossible. Despite the difficulties, a small number if slaves did learn to read and write, ysually because a kindly white person took an interest in them. Often these were children that had been fathered by white slave oeners. The best example is of coure Frederick Douglas. Even in the North African-Ameruican children often had trouble gaining access to public schools. Educating black children even in free northern states was a very contentious issue until the Civil War.

Living Conditions

One important issue to consider in any assessment of slavery is living conditions,including food, medical care, and housing. Here there are many difficulties in making the assessmet. Much of the avilable information is ancedotal accounts, some the least reliable of all types of information. Much of it comes from abolitionist sources. This is good in the sence wothout the Abolitionists we would not have mny reports on American slaves during the Ante-Bellum era. But ba in the sence that the reports came from sources attempting to paint as bleak a picture as possible. we also have a range of personal accounts which while not unbiased appear to Provide realistc accounts of slave life. One of the few reliable sources of statistical data was the statistics collcted by the Federal Government in regulating the inter-state trade in slaves. Congress pased a law requiring ship captains to subit data on slaves they carried. It was designed to help enforce the ban on imprting slaves. Here we have data which provises weight ad height data by ages or at least approximations. Here the data has to be used carefully. Comparisons with the overall white popukation is prbably unfair. Comparison with white farm labor or smallscale farmers would provide for meaningful insghts, but such data is often not available. Another important source of statistical data are plantation book keeping. A planters single most important cost besides purchasing slaves (who were often inherited) was feeding them. As a result, the planter often recorded detaile information about food in the plantation records.

Food and nutrition

The substantial majority pf slaves were held in the Deep South and used for plantation labor, nost importntly but not entirely to produce cotton. Thus any consideration of food and nutrition has to primrily deal with the the situation on these plantations. Slave plantation diets were very similar throughout the Deep South. There were several reasons for this. The geographic confouration of the Deep South was at swath of territory from the Carolinas/Georgia west to Texas. The enviromental conditions on the plantations thus shared many similarities such as crops which could be grown. And basic ecomony meant that the slaves were fed what could be produced on the plantation. And as the planters focused on one crop, cotton, the economics of the plantations were essentilly the same. Slave diets were primarily based on corn meal (used for corn bread and gruel) and meat (fatty pork). One sources say that slaves got little meat and was deficient in protein. Plantation records reveal that this is not true and they received subsyantial quantities of meat. One source reports that the standard ration for a working adult on one plantation was 1 peck (8 dry quarts or a quarter busshel) of grain (corn) abd 4 pounds of meat as a weekly ration. [Taylor, p. 139.] Children and the elderly received less. Rations might also include lard, molasses, peas, greens, and flour. The quantities were fairly standard. Economy meant that the slaves were no given more than they needed. And to provide less than was needed bread discontent and the ability of the slaves to do a good days work. Most slaves were given a small plot to add to their diet. This was common because it allowed the slaves to feed thmselves at no cost to the planter. Here the slaves could grow vegetables, beans, sweet potatoes (yams) and other items to vary their diet. The choice was up to the indiuvidual. One source says that greens had little appeal, but we can not yet confirn this. All of this varied from plantation to plantation as well as how the food was distributed. Available photographs of slaves during and immediately after the Civil War suggest that they were reasonabnly fed. We do not see many fat or skinny slaves, including the children, in the photographic record. And available height and weight data suggest similarities with the white population, except for children. [Steckel] Althous as adults, slaves seem to have caught up, poor nutrition at this critical stage of development is an important factor to note. The weekly food ratio was normally distributed every Saturday. Readers are reminded in assessing slave diets not to compare them with the bounty of the modern gricery store, but to comparable 19th century groups such as low-income small scale farmers.

Medical care

Slaves lived at a time before most modern medical procedures were developed. The butchery and lack of hygene of Civil War doctors gives a good idea of meducal care in the United States before emancipation. There is some basic health data. We have addressed heighth and weight under food nd nutrition above. Therevis also some infant mortality data. While the data is limited, it does suggest that infant mortality was about twice that of the white population. We suggest that this was not a valid comparison and more reasinavle would be the subset of low income white farmers. As far as we know, such data does not exist. We suspect that if it did, the disparity betweem slave and white child mortalities would not be as great, but there sill probably would have been adifference. Perhaps readers will have some insights here. Not only was slave infant nortality higher, but birth weights were also lower. Here the primary causes were the lack of pre-nantal care and the savilability of milk. Pregnnt slave women were expected to work and this seems to have included women in the advanced stages of pregnancy. This probably varied from plantation to plantaion, but just at what point they were excused from field work, if at all, we are not sure. It presumably varied from plantation to plantation. After birth, slave mothers seem to have weaned their babies far sooner than white children, we think primarily because they were expected to resume field work. This seems to have occured by bout 3 months. And after waning, slave children had little access to milk. And mannual feeding intriduced both unsanitary substitutes, but replacement like grul which was less nutritional. [Steckel, p. 732.] Early weaning also may have upset the baby's constitution at a time he shold continue receiving his mother's milk. The Deep South unlike the Northern states did not have a large dairy industry. On Deeo South plantations, milk production would have gone primrily to white chikdren and for cooking for the owner's and othr hite families. We beliece this is the primary reason slave babies were below white babies in height and weight. This not only had nutrituinal consequences, but the mother's milk als conained imprtant nutrients and disease resistant bodies. And while as adults, slaves as adult largely caught up with whites in weight and height, the nutritional defecit as young children must have had health consequences that as far as we know havevnever been studies in the extensive literatire on slavery. Another key medical indicator is longevity. But here we have not found any such data.



No examination of historical boys' clothing styles in America would be complete wihout an examination of slavery which was a legal institution until 1863-65. A sizeable number of Americans through the mid-1860s lived in slavery. These black Americans lived in the southern and border states. In many cases they were sold away from their mothers as slave families in America had no legal standing. HBC has very limited information on slavery and how slave children were dressed at this time, but it is an issue we hope to persue. There are limitations here as there are few photographs of slave children until he arrival of Federal troops in southern slave states.


The available imagery of African slavery in America is extremely revealing. There are almost no paintings of Afruican slaves from the ante-beleum South. A few paintings exist of freed slaves who had their portraits painted, but very few paintings were done of slaves by their masters. This was because their oiwners had no interest in spending money on slaves, but also because the South as the 19th century progressed became increasingly defenside as abolitionist sentiment grew. Few plantation owners wanted images of slavery. There is one exception here. Weakthy Southerners visited Europe before the War and when doing so often took personal slaves with them. Europeans unaccutomed to Blacks were intrigued and some portraits made in Euroipe included these slaves--often elaborately dressed. Portraits actually made in the outh, even by primitive artists to our knowledgfe, never included slaves in their portraits of wealthyb plantation owners. There exist today many images of happy, singing slaves picking cotton with a grand plantation in the background. These iages almost all come from the post-Civil War era as White Southerners began to perpetuate the Lost Cause theme, including the claim that Blacks were happy and well off on Southern plantations. There are like wise few photographs other than those taken in the 1860s as Federal troops moved south.

Revolutinary War (1775-81)

The great majority of slaves transported in the Atlantic slave trade went to Brazil and the Caribbean rather than the North American colonies, but there were slaves inthe American colonies, primarily the southern colonies. After the Revolutionary war began, British Torries began asking why it was that the largest slave owners in the colonies cried the the loudest for liberty. Some colonists including Jefferson tried with little success to blame Britain for slavery. Historians in recent years have begun to address the important role blacks played in the Civil War. Still not adequately described is the roles blacks played in the Revolutionary War. Blacks including slaves fought on both sides. Washington at first was horrified with the idea of arming blacks, but changed his mind as the realties of fighting the British emerged and he observed the contribution of his black soldiers. The British tried to attract blacks to their cause. This probably backfired as many whites, including whites that may have supported the British, were horified with the idea. This was one of the reasons that the British when they launched their southern strategy failed to encounter the support they had anticipated. After the Revolution as the need for a stronger national government emerged so did the issue of slavery. At the time of the Revolution, America was still a minor force in internatiinal affairs, only about 3 million people with no real army, mostly living along the coast of a great continent. The primary importance of America and its policies on slavery would be the great power that America would grow into during the 19th century.

Slavery in the North

At the time of the Revolution, as British colonies, slavery was legal. After the Revolution, northern legislators gradually abolished slavery. The laws varied as to timing and compensation. Pennsylvania passed the first law emancipating slaves in 1780. The process of emancipation had been completed by 1801. As a result, the Peensylvania-Maryland border, the Mason-Dixon Line, had become a very real dividing line between slave and free labor in the United States.

Cotton and Southern Slavery

Cotton is today the most widely used natural fiber in the manufacture of clothing. It has a number of qualities making it ideal for making textiles and clothing. It is a natural vegetable fiber--the most important textile raw material. This was not the case until late in the 18th century. The reason the shift to cotton occurred was technical advances in first manufacytuing textiles and second in the production of raw cotton. Cotton played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. The first industrial machines designed for mass production were developed to manufacture cotton textiles. This created a demand for raw cotton. American slavery was decling in importance inthe late 18th century. Many even in the South thought that it would eventually disappear as was happening in the North. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to Ely Whitney's cotton gin. Suddenly there was aay of supplying the Eyropean demand for cotton. The resulting efficiences changed the economies of cotton cultivation. New plantations were founded on King Cotton as Southern planters moved west into Alabama and Mississpi and eventually Texas. Huge profits could be made in cotton. But it was aabor intensive crop. This meant that large plantations and slave labor were the most effecient production system. A very subsrantial proprtion of American slaves were employed in the production of this single crop. Cotton became the orimary American export commodity, in effect financing America's early industrial development. The revitalization of the South's slave-based economy began a process that was to lead inexorably to Civil War. Cotton today continues to be the most important natural textile, still widely used in the production of clothing.

Slavery in the Border States

The nature of slavery varied dramtically in the 15 slave states at the time of the Civil War. The popular image is that of the plantation slaves in the Deep South (Cotton States) This is not unreasonable in that this is wear most Americam slaves were held, something like half of American slaves. And here about half the population was slaves. But even here not all the slaves were plantation hands. There were slaves in the cities that filled a wide range of roles. The vast majority were, however, field hands, This was all very different in the four Border States (Deleware, Maryland, Kenticky, and Missouri). Here slaves were a much smaller portion of the population. The huget rate was Kentucky (about 20 percent) and in Maryland and Missouri (about 10 percent). he slave population in Delware was insignificant. nd unlike the rest of the South, there were many free blacks in both Delware and Maryland. Througout the Border States slavery was dying out in the urban areas. And the slaves in the border states had many occupations and were not mostly fiekd hands as was the case in Deep South. They were more likely to have occupations more similar to the whute population, at least the working class. In addition, geography placed limits on the ability of slave owners ti mistraet their slaves. Running away was not a realistic proposition for the field hands of the Deep South. This was different matter for slaves in the Border States. The vast portion of the runaways traveling the Underground Railway camne from the Border States. As slavery w decling in the border states, some slave holders began selling their slaves as there was still a strong demand for field hands in the Deep South--hence the tem 'being sold down the river'. There were also divisions within the Border states. Maryland was in particular divided betwen the pro-slavery east and anti-salvery more mountaneous west. (The neighboring area of Virginia, suceeded from Virginia furing the Ciuvil War becoming West Virginia.) The Border States had extensive economic ties to the North, and not just cotton as ws the case of the Deep South. although were closer to the South cultyurally. As a result, as the United States moved toward Civil War, the Border Sates were split. And unlike the Deep South, slavery was not the burning issue and constitutiinality and states rights were more important. The substantial white population and the strategic position made the border states the key to victory. President Lincoln understood this, stating famously, "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." As a result, Lincoln held back and did not launch the War. President Davis did not and ordered Confederate forces in Charleston to fire on the Federal forces in Fort Sumter.

American Domestic Slave Trade

The founding fathers realized that slavery was an issue which would likely make agreement on a new constitution impossile. As a result, the Constitution generally avoided the issue and the term "slavery" does not appear in the constitution, although there are references to it. By not mentioning slavery, the instiution was essentially put in the hands of individual state governments. The new United States Constitution which was adopted in 1787, prohibited Congress from banning the importation of slaves before 1808. The Congress did just that on January 1, 1808 suggesting that there was considerable opposition to slavery and the slave trade early in the 19th century. To some extent this was because many still believed that slavery was a dieing institution. This was, however, not the case. The invention of the cotton gin and the Industrial Revolution in Europe created a huge demand for cotton. And the American South proved ideal for cotton production. This creasted a demand for slaves as new plantations were founded in the new southern sates west of the Atlantic seaboard. Thus at the same time the demand for slaves increased, the supply of slaves was theoretically restricted by the Federal Government. Slaves for the new plantations of the South would theoretically have to be descendants of the slaves already in America. This was not entirely the case because for years slaves were imported illegally. While importing slaves was banned, participation in the international slave trade or outfitting slaves trips was not outlawed. The slave trade was eventually ended primarily by the Royal Navy. Gradually a domestic slave trade developed and American slavery became self-sustaining. The domestic slave trade was conducted by both sea and overland routes. The overland slave trade generally developed from Tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas into the highly profitable plantations of the Deep South (Georgia, Alabama, Mississipi, and Louisiana). After the Texas War for Independence (1836) the slave trade extended into Texas.

The American Debate Over Slavery

The debate over slavery in the United States did not begin with the Constitutinal Convention (1787), but it was here that the issue first came to the fore. Some northern delegates were opposed to it. Southern delegates were committed to it. It became clear that there would be no Constitution without a compromise. The compromise was that a decission on the future of slavery wold be deferred. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as 2/3s of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. Subsequent history was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1820). This worked for over three decades until promoted by Seator Stephen Douglas Congress undid it with the Kansas-Nebrasks Act (1854). The result was rising tensions, "Bleeding Kansas", the and a the breakdown of compromise, John Brown's raid on the Federal arsenal, and at last a breakdown of comprosise and civil war.

Slave Redemptions

One subject that we do not hear a lot about in connection with American slavery is slave redemptions. This means buyin a slave's freedom. In the United States this by the 19th century this largely meant buying a slave in the South and bringing them north. This was because the ability for free blavks to live in the South, especially the Deep South, got increasingly more difficult as law increasingly restricted the lives of blacks. Some states even orohibited free blacks from living in the state, although ebforcement varied. Slave redemtion was a long established practice in slave socities. They do not seem to have been very common in America, although the information we have been able to find is very limited. The best known redeeemed slave is certainly Frederick Douglas. After he ran away, supporters of slavery mounted a series of attempts to kidnapp him so his friends finally purchased his freedom. We note some redeeded slave children. We are not entirely sure why these redemtions were so limited. We suspect the primary reason was that there was little support for free blacks locally in the South. Freed slaves in scocities like Rome could more readily assimilate into free society. Another problem was that in the 19th century, especially by the mid-19th century as the abolitionist movement grew in the North, the South grew increasingly defensive about slavery and the moral issues involved. A primary channel for redemtions would have been churches, but churches even began to split along reguonal grounds. Abd Southern states began to restrict the desiminations of books and perioficals printed in the North.

Free Blacks

The history of black Americans before the Civil War primarily focuses on slavery. While most blacks lived in the South as slaves, there were free blacks and not only in the northern strates. The northern states relatively soon after the Revolution abolished slavery. This was done state by state. While slavery was abolished, not all slaves were immeiately emancipated. Even when emancipated, blacks in the soiuth were not afforced full civil rights such as ther franchise. There was also resistance in allowing black children to attend public schools. Slavery was retained by the border and southern states. Even in the southern states there were free blacks. Some southern states passed laws requiring freed slaves to leave the state, but her enforcement was often uneven. We are not sure just how many free blacks there were in the South. One study of Virginia, estimates that nearly 10 percent of the state's black population was free. [Ely] This proportion of the population rather surprised me. I'm not sure about the proportion in other slave states. What is interesting about the free blacks in the South before the Civil War is that they had the right to own property. They also had access to the courts. This is not to say there was equal justice. Court records show that blacks did bring civil actions and at least in property mastters did receive some judiucual relif. [Ely] Another interesting aspect of free blacks in the South before the Civil War is that there were shared institutions. Free blacks for example attended churches with whites. Of course the churches were run by the whites. It is also true that men that attended church together also did business with each other. [Ely] Many of the interactions and shared institutions disappeared after the War.

Individual Accounts

There are some remarable accounts of slaves. They mostly come from the upper-South. There is virtually no accounts from deep-South plantation slaves. This is primarily because plantation slaves had little possibility to obtain any kind of education. Slaves in the upper-South had more possibilities. Some wee able to learn to read and write. There were oportunities to hire themselves out and start businesses and even gain their freedom. There are a few slave accounts. Modern interest in slavery has also produced some important accounts of slave families. One fascinating account is Sally Thomas (1787-185?). She managed as a slave to start her own business in Tenneseee and to free her three sons, all father by white men. Sally's story is fascinating on many levels. One we find especially poignent is the lack of interest and support she received from the boys' fathers in freeing their sons. We know how issues of race has affected people's outlook. But how it could affect a person's attitude toward their own children is starteling to our modrn sensibilities. There were slave owners that treated their slave children favorably. Some sent them north and or freed them. But as we see from Sally's historry, others took no interest. The details of her third son, James Thomas, are especially interesting. His father was John Catron (1786-1865) who was was a justice on the Tennesee Supreme Court. [Franklin and Schweninger] Andrew Jackson appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was one of the justices on the Taney Court who was responsible for the Dread Scott decession which ruled that blacks, even freed blacks, could not be citizens and enjoy the rights of citizens.

Slavery at the Eve of Civil War

American historians for years depicted slavery as an increasingly marginal economic system that carried within it the seeds of its destruction. Many contended that slavery in America would have ended without the War. One of the most important historians of slavery argued that an unprofitable relic, in efficient and unprofitable [Phillips]. He further added that while an economic cancer, slavery was needed as a method of racial control. This view persisted among Amercan historians into the 1960s. It is difficult to know how long slavery would have persisted in America without the War. It is, however, easily demonstable that slavery was not a dieing, unfrofitable system. Imoral should not be confused with inefficent. U.S. export date clearly shows that cotton shipments were the main American export in ante-bellum America and essentially financed the early stages of industrialization. There are many indicators showing just how effective slavery was in generating wealth. The richest Americans in ante-bellum America were southerers and the per-capita income in the South (among whites) was higher than in the north. The economic value of slavery was reflected in the net worth of slaves, an estimated $68 billion, an enormous anount in 1860, about 80 percent of the country's GNP. [Davis]

Militarization of Southern Society

Historians argue about how many Southerners owned slaves. Sevral author have attmpted toi quantufy this and various estimates exist. Probably over 80 percent of the white population ws involved in agriculture and the majority of those farms were large enough to justify at least one slave. Slaves wre expensive and farmers with small plots could not afford them. Asesments of the numbers of southerners benefitted from slavery has to incluse those who rented slaves. In ddition there wre urban slaves employed as workers and domestic servant. While prcise numbers are diffucult tgo calculte, it is clear that a very substantial portion of the southern population was involved in slavery and not just the planter class. Of course the politically unfluential planter class was particularly committed to protecting the institution of slavery. There was also support for slvery among many southerners who did not own slaves. The population of blacks in some areas and even whole states like Miusussippi exceded that of the white population. Slavery thus had huge consequences for and impact on Southern society. Some historians argue that the militarization of Southern society had very early origins. [Franklin, Militant.] But many of the arguments presented apply to the North as well as the South. Many poor whites who did not own slaves saw slavery as a needed institution to control the black population. And this concern led to the militarization of southern society. The Nat Turner Rebellion (1831) increased the militarization process. Many whites, especially plantation owners, lived in fear of a possivle slave rebellon. The Rebellion led to major changes in state slave laws and increased military preparations. Not only was more attention given to state militia, but loval slave patrols were expanded. A very substantial part of the white male population was involved exceot fo the very young and elderly. We have not yet found a well-researched estimate. But given the number of people involved with slavery and runaways or concerned about possible rebellion, it must have been very substantial. This probably was a factor in the superior Confederate military performance in the first 2 years of the War. Southern parents encouraged children emulate military bearing and admire military virtues to a far greater extent than northern parents. Future Confederate commanders like Philip Cooke, PGT Beauregard, and Joseph Johnston learned to admire the trappings of militarism from childhood. [Franklin, Militant.] One author writes, "By 1860 an entrenched southern militarism created an environment where southern young men held military careers in higher esteem than all others. Southern young men desiring a military career might seek appointment to West Point, but there remained too few places for too many young men. States created their own military academies, Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel most preeminent. Slowly but surely, southerners built a seemingly unparalleled militaristic identity they believed to be superior to their northern neighbors, culminating in the Civil War ...." [Smith]

The Civil War (1861-65)

Finally it was the Civil War that ended slavery in America. The War was the greatest crisis of the American Republic. It was brought on by slavery, but at first fought over the question of union. President Lincoln turned the War into a great crusade against slavery. What most Americans thought would last a few months dragged out for nearly 5 years. The lost of life and cost of the War was wihout prescident in American history. The irony was that while slavery was not inshrined in the Constitution, there was not practical way for President Lincoln and the Republicans to abolishing slavery given the political power of the southern slave states. Emancipation only became possible when the southern states seceeded. Without the civil War emancipation would not have occurred for decades and would probably not have included any granting of civil rights and citizenship.


The Emancipation Proclamation, one of the key documents in American history, was closely tied to the progress of the War. Like many other steps on race issues, it was not taken by Congress, but was a presidential proclamation. President Abraham Lincoln had wanted to act sooner on the slavery issue, but was afraid that Confederate victories would make emancipation look like an act of desperation. Only after the Federal victory at Antitem (October 1862), did he feel confident to proceed. President Lincoln on January 1, 1863 declared that all "... slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, ... then ... in rebellion ... forever free." It was a half measure to be sure. The slaves in the borer states were not freed. It did signal, however, a fundamental shift in Federal policy. The War was now to be fought, not only to preserve the Union, but to free the slaves. One of the interesting aspects of the Emancipation Proclamation is its very legalistic tone, in sharp contrast to the soaring retoric of his Gettysburg Address or the Second Inagural

Contemporary Discussions

The American scholarly discussion of slavery was until the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement, warped by the prominance of the Last Cause historians. We now know much more about slavey in America. Thus the basis exists for an informed discussion forthe first time in our history. And you often hear modern Civil Rights leaders promote the new nor a national discussion of the lingering impact of slavery. And along with that idea often comes the complaint that white people don't want that discussion. This is partially true, but it trur because many Afro-Americans do not want a wide-open discussion of race in America. They want to discuss slavery and its lingering impact. They want to only discuss, as Mrs. Obama phrases it, why America is a "mean" country. When the discussion of race veres away from victimization, many Afro-Americans, especially modern Civil Rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are much less interested in the discussion they so ardently advocate. When individuals suggest that the difficulties that Afro-Americans encounter in America are also the result of personal behavior (illegitimate babies, drug usage, limited effort at school, crime, popular culture, etc.) they are often outraged. The reaction to Bill Crosby's statements is a good example. But no other example makes this point more strongly than Jesse Jackon's statement that Senator Obama should be castrated because he dares raise the issue of behavior. That is hardly the words of an indivual who wants a discussion. It is not hard to see why many Americans choose to simply avoid any discussion of race. That it is a shame because it is a national discussion worth having.


Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

Diouf, Sylviane A. Growing Up in Slavery.

Ely, Melvin Patrick. Israel on the Appomattox.

Franklin, John Hope. The Militant South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956).

Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. In Search of the Promised Land.

Horton, James Oliver and Louis E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America (Oxford University Press, 2004), 254p.

Jacobs. Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861). This book was originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book was at first dismissed as a fabrication but is today widely considered factual.

Lovejoy, Paul E. Transformations in Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston: Little Brown, 1929). Phillips was a ground-breaking historian in many ways, turning for example, to the actual records of ante-bellum plantations. In part because of his fundamental racism, his conclusions are deeply flawed. His work was, however, for many years very influential.

Smith, Miles. Texas Christian University.

Steckel, Richard H. "A peculiar population: The nutrition, health, and mortality of American slaves from childhood to maturity," The Journal of Economic History Vol. 46, No. 3 (September, 1986), pp. 721-741. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Economic History Association.

Taylor, R.H. "Feeding slaves," The Journal of Negro History Vol. 9, No. 2 (April, 1924), pp. 139-143. Published by: Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade, The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1997).


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Created: May 25, 2002
Last updated: 5:27 PM 7/25/2016