Slavery in America

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Editor: John P. Resch
Date: 2005
Americans at War
From: Americans at War(Vol. 1: 1500-1815. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

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European explorers first enslaved individuals and groups native to the American continent during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in a drive for the accumulation of capital wealth. When indigenous slavery failed, systematically organized African slave-labor became integral to the complex economic systems of British mercantilism and Western capitalism. The voyages of European explorers made the trade in Africans, and the staples of their labor, top priorities in the exchange and development of European markets and wealth. Hence slavery emerged in the thirteen American colonies in relation to the development of the Western world. As W. E. B. DuBois notes in The Suppression of the Slave Trade to the United States, 1638–1870 (1965 [1898]), the colonies played a vital role in the Triangular Trade between Europe, North America, and Africa during the eighteenth century. The British maintained that the slave trade was the "very life of the colonies."

Africans themselves participated in trading other Africans who were enslaved, usually as a result of tribal wars on the continent. African slavery was not benign, but European and North American slavery were wholly different from what Africans understood slavery to be. American slavery was permanent rather than indentured; it could be inherited and passed from generation to generation; it was based on racial oppression; and it deemed its subjects to be the subhuman property of others.

After more than a century of Spanish domination, an unnamed Dutch man-of-war arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 with a cargo that included nearly two dozen Africans, commencing the slavery epoch in the British colonies. At best there are only estimates of the total number of African slaves imported through the tumultuous, one-way journey from Africa called the Middle Passage. The British alone imported roughly 300,000 Africans to the Americas between 1713 and 1733 after they were permitted by the Spanish to monopolize the colonial slave trade. Although the impact of the American Revolution brought the trade to a near halt, approximately 700,000 African slaves were imported to the United States by 1790. Aboard thousands of ships known as slavers, major shipping corporations from England, such as the Royal African Company, and independent ship merchants from various parts of Europe and North America imported two million African slaves to America between 1680 and 1790. And the slave population would increase significantly in the coming century. In 1781 there were about 575,000 slaves out of a total population of 3.5 million people in the United States.

The violence and trauma of the Middle Passage resulted in millions of Africans dying en route. Individuals were chained to each other by neck, hand, and foot in close quarters and crammed together in intolerable surroundings where they contracted fatal diseases, starved, and slept in human waste. The sick, including pregnant women, were routinely thrown in the Atlantic and drowned. Two of every five Africans died before boarding the slavers in the 1,000-mile marches from the interior of Africa to its coasts, and one in three died en route aboard them. Altogether, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries about twelve million Africans were taken from the African continent by force.


Slavery was a national institution in the new nation. However, many American leaders, including the framers of the U.S. Constitution and Thomas Jefferson, thought of slavery as an increasingly obsolete institution that would become unnecessary with the passing of a generation or two. After the American Revolution, slavery was dying in the Northern colonies and was presumably weakening in the middle and Southern colonies. The framers compromised, mainly in deference to political leaders from the Carolinas and Georgia, to prohibit the abolition of the slave trade before 1808 (Article I, Section 9; Article V). This suggests that of all the areas of interstate commerce that the new Congress was empowered to regulate, the Constitution did not permit thePage 170  |  Top of Article regulation of slave trading for a generation. Some scholars estimate that as many as 250,000 people may have been illegally imported as slaves between 1808 and the Civil War. More conservative estimates suggest roughly 35,000.

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1619 The first African slave imports arrive in Jamestown, Virginia.

1688 The Society of Friends/Quakers in Pennsylvania oppose slavery.

1698 South Carolina encourages the importation of white laborers as the proportion of imported blacks heightened concerns of public safety.

1712 Pennsylvania enacts a prohibition against the importation of blacks and Native Americans as a result of the discovery of "divers plots and insurrections." The state also charged twenty pounds per head for every imported Black person or Native American—Blacks from the West Indies excluded.

1776 The Declaration of Independence.

1787 Eighty black individuals petition the Massachusetts legislature to be returned to Africa.

1787 England relocates slaves from London to Sierra Leone in Africa for the purpose of introducing the Christian religion to the continent.

1787 The Northwest Ordinance prohibits slavery north of the Ohio River territories.

1787 The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia establishes slavery as a legally protected institution.

1789 The French Revolution occurs.

1791 Eli Whitney develops the Cotton Engine.

1791–1803 The Haitian Revolution occurs.

1800 The plot of Gabriel Prosser and one thousand others is aborted in Richmond, Virginia.

1803 The Louisiana Purchase results in part from the slave uprising in Hispaniola (Haiti).

1807–1808 Congress abolishes the slave trade in the United States. It continues illegally until slavery is abolished in the 1860s.

1811 Several hundred Louisiana slaves participate in attacks across several New Orleans plantations.

1812 The War of 1812 occurs between the United States and England.

1817 The American Colonization Society promotes relocating free blacks to Africa in order to strengthen slavery by depriving the slaves of potential anti-slavery leadership.

1820 The Missouri Compromise line divides the nation into slave and free states. This formula would settle most sectional hostilities until the decade before the Civil War.

1822 Denmark Vesey and as many as 9,000 individuals organize an attempt to take Charleston, South Carolina before it is betrayed and aborted.

1822 The American Colonization Society relocates free blacks to Liberia in Africa. Liberia is recognized as a country in 1840.

James Lance Taylor

Slavery was a major concern at the Constitutional Convention, especially for the two-dozen framers who actually owned slaves, including George Washington (with 200) and Virginia's George Mason (with more than 300). When Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson owned 175 people. Ironically, at the behest of the elder Franklin and in deference to Southern interests, Jefferson removed an antislavery paragraph accusing King George III of waging "cruel war against human nature itself," and of "violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither." Jefferson did not clarify his own participation in the "cruel war" against the Africans by means of their enslavement, but unlike John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams (who later represented the L'Amistad Africans), Jefferson, like most American presidents between 1787 and 1836, participated in slaveholding and trading. The framers also compromised by including a fraction of the Southern slave population (also known as the three-fifths clause) in the apportioning of congressional representatives and in the Electoral College (Article I, Sections 2 and 9); it also provided a fugitive slavePage 171  |  Top of Article clause requiring the return of runaway slaves (Article V, Section 2); it based taxing of slaves in a given state on the three-fifths criterion (Article I, Section 9); and it obligated the federal government to aid the Southern states in the event of slave uprisings and insurrections (Article I, Section 8; Article IV, Section 4). A concern with potential slave insurrections is implicated in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, explicitly stating that among its primary functions is to "insure domestic tranquility," and "provide for the common defense." Thus the American Constitution recognized the legality of slavery and compelled the federal government to defend it. This proved to be one of the major legacies of the Revolutionary War. The conflict over legalized slavery was to shape American identity and culture through the Civil War.

The slavery question was a highly contentious issue, and the factions were not strictly drawn along North and South sectional lines, as is commonly thought. Only after the publication of James Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention was it revealed how this single issue almost prevented the nation from forming into a federal republic. The equalitarian implications of the American Revolution led states such as New York (in 1799) and New Jersey (1804) to implement gradual abolition plans. They were soon joined by Virginia and North Carolina, but the trend did not extend as readily into the cotton colonies.


The invention of the cotton engine (known more commonly as the cotton 'gin) by northern inventor Eli Whitney in 1793 increased average annual bales (one thousand pounds) of cotton production from three thousand in 1791 to more than five million in 1860, to be sold on the European markets. The slave population would increase exponentially with annual cotton production. The surplus populations of African slaves in Virginia and South Carolina would increase the value of an individual slave who might be sold in other states and territories. Generally, an individual slave was valued at $200 in 1800 and increased to a value between $1,400 and $2,000 in 1860. Slavery and the slave trade were maintained in the U.S. to satisfy the planters and slaveholders' demands to increase the productivity in tobacco in Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky, rice and indigo in South Carolina, and especially cotton in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama.

There was ongoing anxiety over the potential for slave violence and insurrections, especially from the earliest African imports who continued to long for and view Africa as their homeland. In turn the treatment of these slaves in the large plantations of the Deep South states became increasingly brutal and violent. In the northern states, Africans were used mainly as domestics because the topography and environment were not conducive to the crops that thrived in the Chesapeake region and Deep South states. Exploited low-wage immigrant white workers, who had to compete with free labor, mostly despised northern slaves. New York had roughly 20,000 imported slaves in the late eighteenth century and incrementally continued to permit their importation until the Civil War. Pennsylvania was the seat of the earliest opposition to slavery as expressed by the Quaker Society of Friends, who in 1688 opposed the "traffic" in humans; it expressed continued opposition in 1712 after the discovery of slave insurrection plots in other Northern Colonies.


In the decades before the Civil War, many of the four million African slaves and the 300,000 nominally free blacks adopted different methods and approaches in support of abolition. As early as 1787 a group of eighty blacks petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for the right to return to Africa. In that same year, England relocated some of its ex-slaves to Sierra Leone in order to do missionary work there; in turn, an African-American ship captain named Paul Cuffee of New Bedford, Massachusetts, promoted emigration to Africa until his plan was interrupted by the War of 1812. Cuffee was able to relocate thirty-eight people to Sierra Leone in 1815. At the risk of bodily harm (thirty-nine whip lashes was the custom), some slaves deprived the planters and slaveholders of their labor through work slowdowns and stoppages, and others became fugitives. At least 300, led by Harriet Tubman, escaped through the Underground Railroad to the North and Canada, while others purchased their own freedom. Very few supported the American Colonization Society, which Kentucky congressman Henry Clay and others created in 1817. This society of prominent Americans was committed to relocating only free blacks to Liberia because of their militant antislavery activism. Established in 1822, with its capital Monrovia named after U.S. president James Monroe, 13,000 free blacks relocated to Liberia before the Civil War.

In 1827 individual African Americans such as Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm published the first African-American newspaper called Freedom's Journal, demanding that black people be allowed to make their case against slavery. The Abolitionist movement would emerge among white Bostonians in the 1830s after its leader William Lloyd Garrison read the incendiary Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) by David Walker, which called for abolition through insurrectionary violence if necessary. Garrison preferred the use of moral persuasion over violence. In his early public career, former slave Frederick Douglass aligned with Garrison and the Abolitionists, only later to support political abolitionism including voting, agitation, and, like Walker, violence if necessary. ThePage 172  |  Top of Article impending civil war would prove that abolition required more than legal remedies.


The promise of "domestic tranquility" was an ongoing concern in those states and territories that had majority or near-majority slave populations. At times, slave leaders rejected gradualist approaches to abolition, initiating hundreds of slave plots and near and actual insurrections. David Walker and most of the militant individuals (slave and free) who led insurrections used religious justifications in their calls to arms. Because of American blacks' numerical minority status and their Protestantism, systematic rebellions were less likely to occur in the United States than in other parts of the Americas and the Caribbean. The rarity of slave rebellions in the United States did little to ease concerns, however; in fact it was their potential to occur that constantly disturbed the South. From the time of the "French and Indian/Seven Years War" through the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution and the War of 1812, the Southern and Middle colonies were often paralyzed by the fear of real or rumored slave rebellions. During the "French and Indian" war against the British on the American continent between 1754 and 1756 (it spread to Europe until 1763), colonial officials such as Virginia's Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie felt compelled to leave troops throughout Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina out of concern for the part which blacks played in aiding the French in their few victories in the region. In 1763, Virginia's slave population was 170,000, constituting half its population, and later increasing to sixty percent. By 1778, Virginia passed an "Act to prevent the further importation of slaves." At the time of the American Revolution, South Carolina was unable to deploy its militia against the British out of fear that its slaves would rebel with the expectation that they would be manumitted by the British. The slaves were considered a domestic threat to the Southern states in every major military action leading up to the Civil War.

No single event created more fear among slaveholders and traders than the uprising of slaves in Haiti (French-ruled Hispaniola/Santo Domingo) against tens of thousands of French, Spanish, and British troops between 1791 and 1803. The success of this insurrection rendered the French-owned Louisiana Territory useless as a trading post from which Haiti's coveted banana crops could be imported and sold. In 1803, during Jefferson's administration, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon doubled its size and boundaries. The Haitian Revolution became a signal event that spread fear throughout the nation, especially as many of the French colonists and slaveholders fled from Haiti to South Carolina, spreading accounts of its violence. Leaders such as George Washington and a group of Southern Congressmen expressed serious concern that the Haitian rebels would next move to Jamaica and eventually, by way of Florida, to the American South.

The Haitian revolution inspired the famous aborted plots of "Black" Gabriel Prosser, of Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. In 1811 Louisiana witnessed a series of violent confrontations between local militia and rebellious slaves. The most notable of these occurred when between 400 and 500 armed individuals moved from plantation to plantation, killing the son of a slaveholder named Andry along the way, before being stopped by the U.S. army and local militia. Between 82 and 120 were executed on-site and after brief trials. Some of their bloodied bodies were put on display at the Andry plantation to ward off any future attempts at rebellion.

By 1819 half of the twenty-two states in the union were slave states and half free. Agitation among black people increased after 1820 because many of them understood the Missouri Compromise, which divided the free and slave states at the 36°30' parallel, to be the end of slavery as a national system. In 1822 a plot by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina to create an army of slaves, said to number 9,000, was thwarted. Nine years later, Nat Turner led a bloody insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. The Vesey plot and Nat Turner's massacre of his master and fifty-four other whites confirmed the rebellious antislavery mood of African Americans during the first half of the nineteenth century. They were willing to align militantly and militarily with any force, foreign or domestic, that would reward them with freedom.


Widely practiced in the Caribbean and South America by Europeans prior to the English settlement of North America, slavery was introduced in Virginia in 1619 as a source of labor. Thus began an institution that would have profound effects on American society and culture from its founding, through the War for Independence, the creation of the Constitution, and early years as a nation. At the beginning of the Revolution, slavery existed in all thirteen colonies. Its presence created a moral and philosophical dilemma for Americans who rebelled against English rule to prevent, as they proclaimed, being "enslaved" by British tyranny, and to secure their liberty.

During the Revolution slavery was a contentious issue, heightened by the need to recruit slaves and former slaves into the Continental Army. Whereas some Northern states abolished slavery during the Revolution, Southern states, which had large slave populations, did not. In order to create the Federal Union, the founders compromised on slavery by regarding slaves as property and by protecting the rights of owners of this property. On the

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The discovery of Nat Turner. In 1831 Nat led an insurrection in which he and seven other slaves killed his master, Joseph Travis, and the Travis family.  BETTMANN/CORBIS

The discovery of Nat Turner. In 1831 Nat led an insurrection in which he and seven other slaves killed his master, Joseph Travis, and the Travis family. © BETTMANN/CORBIS

other hand, the new nation also outlawed the extension of slavery to the Northwest Territory and provided for Congress's abolition of the African slave trade in 1807.

Slavery continued to create a moral dilemma for the new nation, which professed the ideals of natural rights and individual liberty while expanding the institution of slavery as more states were added to the Union following the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Slave conspiracies and uprisings required Southern states to maintain military readiness to defeat rebels. States implemented increasingly oppressive laws to deter rebellions. Slavery festered and divided the nation. While not a source of foreign wars, slavery remained a cause of sectional tension and conflict between slave and non-slave states, especially in the 1830s as antislavery sentiment grew into a fervent campaign by a small group of radicals to abolish slavery. The Civil War (1861–1865) provided the opportunity to do what the Founders had considered but failed to do—abolish slavery (through the Thirteenth Amendment), and to extend equal rights to freed slavesPage 174  |  Top of Article (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments). Victory over slavery marked the end of one era and also the beginning of another—the struggle to overcome inequalities and racism that are the legacies of slavery.


Aptheker, Herbert. To Be Free. New York: International Publishers, 1968.

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Revolts. New York: International Publishers, 1974.

Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States, 1638–1870 [1898]. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965.

Du Bois, W. E. Burghardt. The World and Africa [1946]. New York: International Publishers, 2003.

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: New Press, 1997.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3427300087