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Editors: David Bradley and Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Date: 1998
Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America
Publisher: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 802


Exploitative system of labor and social organization that subordinated AFRICAN AMERICANS—particularly in the SOUTHERN STATES—from the seventeenth century to the end of the CIVIL WAR.

Through much of human history certain classes of people have been forced to labor for the benefit of others as slaves. Persons held as slaves were typically regarded as property that could be bought and sold and they possessed few, if any, rights. In British North America, and later in the United States, slavery evolved into a system that melded slavery with race. After brief attempts to enslave AMERICAN INDIANS, British settlers turned exclusively to enslaving persons of African ancestry. By 1861 the words "slave" and "negro" were virtually synonymous.

Legally and practically, the institution of slavery was riddled with contradictions and ambiguities. Slaves were human beings who were accorded some legal rights; however, at the same time they were legally regarded as property, and legal codes gave property a privileged position. This contradiction forced slave owners to perform mental gymnastics in order to justify slavery morally when it came under attack in the late eighteenth century. This duality of person-property contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Beginnings of North American Slavery African American slavery began in the early seventeenth century. In 1619 a Dutch ship swapped twenty Africans for provisions at the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. These Africans were treated as indentured servants, but other Africans who followed them experienced varying degrees of freedom. In 1660 Virginia instituted a slave code that defined slavery. The code linked the legal status of children to that of their mothers, and that status extended throughout a person's lifetime. The code permitted white slave owners to profit from their lust by impregnating their slave women to produce new slave progeny.

During the seventeenth century, British landowners seemed to prefer white indentured servants over black Africans. However, the improved economic conditions and increased political stability in Restoration England after 1660 reduced the supply of white workers willing to migrate to North America as indentured servants. Under the indenture system, indentured servants were given full freedom after completing their terms of indentures. In contrast, under the slave system slaves were to work for their entire lives.

Historians have not fully agreed on why Africans, rather than other peoples, were enslaved. Several reasons may be advanced, however. Cultural factors played a large role. British settlers regarded Africans as "black"—a term symbolizing darkness and evil, and themselves as "white"—which symbolized purity or divinity. Cultural chauvinism also placed Africans at a disadvantage: The British regarded themselves as Christian and "civilized," while Africans were "hea-then" and "barbarian." Moreover, as Africans assumed increasing responsibility for menial labor in the colonies, British settlers came to associate such work with Africans.

White settlers had little trouble acquiring Africans to work as slaves. However, it proved more difficult to resolve the ethical and legal contradictions in regarding slaves simultaneously as human beings and property. In the theocentric world of the seventeenth century, acceptance of the idea that slaves possessed souls and could go to heavenPage 803  |  Top of Article constituted the highest recognition that they were indeed human beings. Nevertheless, in 1667, the Virginia Colony determined that slaves who became Christians did not become free persons. At the same time the courts could not readily give range to the full implications of slaves being persons without interfering with the property rights of their owners. For example, the laws allowed slave families to be split up when their members were sold separately.

Slave codes gradually developed legal fictions to protect the lives of slaves from wanton cruelty and from murder. The slaves themselves created certain customary rights in their relationships with individual masters. Slaves worked sufficiently hard to see that the agricultural or industrial enterprises of their masters continued to function, for slaves and masters alike had to eat. However, slaves could and did engage in work stoppages or slowdowns in the face of what the slaves themselves regarded as unacceptable treatment.

The Eighteenth Century The moral contractions posed by slavery continued to vex slave owners through the eighteenth century, a time in which North American slavery underwent critical transformations. Slavery always involved the constants of coercion and salability, but it varied in practice over time and in various places making the differences among different slave enterprises as important as the similarities. For example, slavery existed in New England, the mid-Atlantic Coast colonies, and the southern colonies, but there were important variations in the slave systems of each region.

In New England slaves played only a small role in the economy. They were fewer in number than in the southern colonies and they mostly worked as artisans or as hands on small family farms—often in relative isolation from other slaves. In the middle colonies, slaves sometimes were congregated in port cities such as New York or Philadelphia, where they worked as sailors and longshoremen. They had close contact with one another. In the Hudson Valley of New York, for example, slaves worked on large agricultural enterprises similar to those in the Deep South. In the Chesapeake Bay region slavery evolved slowly throughout the seventeenth century, while in the Carolinas, owners imported the system full-blown from Barbados. Slaves made up 70 percent of the Carolinas' population in 1720. Carolina slave codes were consequently harsh, limiting unsupervised slave gatherings and severely punishing rebellions. During the

Key Events in the History of African American Slavery

Key Events in the History of African American Slavery

Key Events in the History of African American Slavery
1619 Africans are brought to Virginia as indentured servants.
1641 Massachusetts Bay Colony legalizes slavery.
1662 Virginia legislature rules that offspring of mixed-race unions are slave or free according to the mother's status.
1667 Virginia rules that becoming a Christian does not make a slave free.
1691 Virginia restricts manumissions to prevent growth of a free black class.
1712 Slave revolt in New York inspires tougher slave codes and new restrictions on free black ownership of property.
1775 First abolitionist organization in the United States, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, is formed.
1777 Vermont becomes the first state to abolish slavery; North Carolina toughens restrictions on manumission.
1783 Massachusetts abolishes slavery by judicial decision.
1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibits slavery in the Northwest Territory.
1793 As northern states are abolishing slavery, invention of the cotton gin enhances cotton plantation productivity, making slavery much more profitable to maintain in the South; federal government passes Fugitive Slave Law.
1808 Importation of slaves into the United States is outlawed.
1820 Missouri Compromise admits Missouri to the Union as a slave state, while prohibiting slavery in northern states.
1822 Denmark Vesey leads a slave insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina.
1830 Slavery is virtually abolished throughout the North.
1831 Nat Turner leads massive slave revolt in Virginia.
1832 New England Anti-Slavery Society is organized.
1842 In Prigg v. Pennsylvania the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a state law against removing African Americans from the state by force to reenslave them because the law violates the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution.
1856 South Carolina governor James H. Adams argues for the repeal of the federal law prohibiting importation of slaves.
1857 Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision invalidates the Missouri Compromise and rules that residence in a free state does not make a slave free.
1859 John Brown stages raid on federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, to capture arms for his abolition work.
1861 Civil War begins.
1863 Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation.
1865 Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery throughout the United States.
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eighteenth century these regional differences persisted and contributed at the century's end to the gradual elimination of slavery from the New England and middle colonies and its confinement to the South.

Although Europe carried about twelve million Africans into slavery, barely a twentieth of these people were taken to British North America, or the late United States. Moreover, although the United States outlawed importing slaves in 1808, the county had the largest slave population in the world in 1860. Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, most of the slaves were male and were literally worked to death, making continual slave importation necessary. In contrast, ratio of men and women slaves in the United States had become even during the eighteenth century, allowing procreation to occur on a regular basis.

The equalization of male and female slave numbers compelled vital changes in slavery. It made possible slave families, although these lacked legal sanction. After 1750 an increasing majority of slaves in British North America were not born in Africa but in the New World. As a result—especially on large plantations—a creole slave culture evolved, one that allowed the slaves to survive the crushing trauma of enslavement. Slave parents reared children, taught them life skills through folk tales, and gave them a sense of identification—as human beings, as members of families, and as expatriates of Africa. In the process, regional and cultural distinctions imported from Africa yielded to amalgamation in the United States. Slaves retained an awareness of their African heritage, even as they imbibed European ways, creating a culture that was truly African American.

During the eighteenth century a racial caste system evolved, especially in the southern colonies. Although an anomalous class of free African Americans existed—mostly in cities—law and social custom presumed that persons with black skins were slaves until proven otherwise. Colonies passed harsh laws punishing MISCEGENATION, lest racial intermixing blur the lines of racial caste. To control free African Americans and respect the property rights of slave owners at the same time, laws governing emancipation became strict. In Virginia, for example, masters had the right to free their slaves, but freed slaves had twelve months to leave the state.

In part, this caste system reflected internal concerns in colonies with large slave majorities over-whelming local white control, but it crystallized further in response to the greatest challenge to slavery in the eighteenth century—the American Revolution. Among the inalienable RIGHTS specified in the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE that set colonies on the road to creating the United States, one finds "liberty," a right all people possessed. The owners of slaves struggled mightily among the apparent incongruities of liberty as a human right, slaves as persons, and their own interests in property and social control.

The northern states responded to moral and economic arguments against slavery and passed laws abolishing slavery within their own borders. In 1787 the national government passed the Northwest Ordinance, banning slavery from the federal territories north of the Ohio River. Over the next several decades slavery became an institution peculiar to the southern states. Free blacks in cities developed institutions such as CHURCHES that became voices for emancipation. Many whites assumed that slavery would soon come to an end after President Thomas JEFFERSON signed a bill ending the importation of slaves from abroad effective January 1, 1808.

From Independence to Civil War After the importation of slaves into the United States ended, slavery not only persisted, but also flourished. The development of the cotton gin, which separated seeds from cotton fiber, made cotton cultivation more profitable. Cotton cultivation expanded deep into the South, where armies of African American slaves busied themselves clearing lands for the planting and harvesting of this white gold. Slavery extended into the future states of Alabama and MISSISSIPPI, and even flourished in Kentucky, where slaves often labored to grow hemp for rope making.

One of the ironies of slavery in the period before the Civil War was that as planters gained greater wealth and power and the slave system matured, the slaves themselves enjoyed greater material comfort. Their housing and diets sometimes were comparable to those of average white southerners. However, the slave system itself hardened, adding new restrictions on slaves activities and making emancipation appear all but impossible. In Mississippi, for example, slaves could not congregate by themselves in groups of more than five. After Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion, in which sixty Virginia whites were slain, many states passed new laws or strengthened old ones that forbade the teaching of slaves to read.

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Law courts continued to grapple with questions about what rights slaves had. They generally agreed that the law protected slaves from being murdered or excessively punished. The courts did sentence white defendants who killed slaves and did not, as in colonial times, merely require convicted white murderers to compensate the owners of the slaves whom they killed. Although persons who committed crimes against slaves had much less to fear from the law than those who committed similar crimes against whites, violence against slaves met with swifter and surer justice in the antebellum South than in any other slave society at the time.

Even if courts assumed the responsibility for protecting the lives of slaves, in most other cases slaves did not enjoy basic human rights such as livelihood and control over their own persons. Because slaves remained the property of their masters, the masters had the right to all the bounty that the slaves's labor produced. Frederick DOUGLASS noted with disdain that when he had been a slave, he had to turn over his wages to his master in Baltimore. However, it was the crime of rape, which many women slaves endured, that was the most vexing violation of slaves' human rights. Female slaves were the private property of their masters, to be exploited as the masters saw fit. Ravished slave women had no recourse at law.

Not all interracial sexual relationships were coerced, however, and more than a few masters genuinely disdained sexual violence against slave women. Apart from murder and extreme material cruelty, the more positive treatment of slaves depended entirely on the goodwill of their masters.

Daily Life Under Slavery The rationale behind slavery involved economic productivity—particularly in agricultural work. Slave owners used their slaves in a variety of ways. Most slave owners had only a few slaves, who worked alongside them in their fields or houses. Many such slaves lived under the same roofs as their masters. On larger units of production, where twenty or more slaves resided, slavery took on a much different character. On larger farms slaves usually lived in special quarters with other slaves and were under less close supervision of their owners. They mended clothes, tilled garden plots, reared children, and engaged in religious exercises. Studies of slave life have noted that slaves developed a view of themselves quite distinct from those held by their masters. The slaves dreamed of freedom, identified contradictions in their masters' views of African Americans as perpetual slaves, and adjudged their masters guilty of egregious wrongs.

Slaves usually began working at sunup. Adult men and women tilled fields of cottons, tobacco, rice, and corn under the eyes of overseers and drivers—who were often trusted slaves. Masters organized slave labor in two general ways. In the gang system, groups of slaves performed ad hoc chores throughout the work day; in the task system, slaves were assigned specific jobs and were relieved of duty once those jobs were finished. Masters routinely ignored gender differences when they assigned tasks. All hands picked cotton, but men generally did the plowing, while the women did the hoeing.

Slaves too young to work were placed under the care of slaves too old to work. As early as age five, young slaves performed household chores or transported small items to the fields. By age twelve, most male slaves were assigned to the fields or to permanent duty in the big houses. Slave children often played with the children of their masters and learned through such interaction that their status differed greatly. For example, the male children of masters usually began wearing trousers around the age of five, while male slave children continued to wear over sized shirts as outer garments. Black and white children usually ceased to associate with each other by the time they were teenagers.

Many masters claimed that slavery was a more humane labor system than a system based on free labor because slaves were fed, clothed, and sheltered throughout their lives, even when they became too old to work. In practice, however, cradle-to-grave care was not always provided. Occasionally, masters simply allowed slaves to starve to death after they became too old to work productively.

Attempts at Reform During the 1850's some southerners attempted to reform the slave codes, to bring them into line with the inflated claims of slave owners that southern slavery was humane. Some southerners proposed repealing laws forbidding teaching slaves to read, as well as enacting new laws that would legitimize slave marriages. However, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 made continued discussion on these points moot.

In its essence, slavery involved slaves and masters in a relationship tied to the production of goods or produce in local areas. However, disputes over the perpetuation of slavery increasingly occupiedPage 807  |  Top of Article the national agenda and led ultimately to the secession of eleven southern states from the Union and a bloody civil war. In a legal sense, it was the duality of slave as person and slave as property that made slavery an issue with which the national government had to deal.

Although federal law in 1793 provided for the return of runaway slaves, whites in the free states increasingly refused to sanction their return to slavery. This reality compelled slave owners to draft stronger FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS and made northerners view the federal government as a creature of the slave owners. Moreover, as the United States expanded to the west, northern states sought to prevent extending slavery to the newly settled lands. Southerners pointed to the Fifth Amendment, which forbade Congress from making laws that seized property without due process of law, and argued that excluding slavery from federal territories was unconstitutional. In 1820 Congress had barred slavery from lands in the Louisiana Purchase above the line of 36° 30′ north latitude, as part of the Missouri Compromise.

In 1857 the U.S. SUPREME COURT issued a ruling on the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. In the DRED SCOTT CASE, the Court affirmed that Congress could not deny slave holders the right to take their property into any federal territory. In this case, the court ignored the human facet of slavery. In ruling that in the United States slaves "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect," the Court clearly sided with the notion that slaves were property. Moreover, the Court explicitly ruled that African Americans could not be citizens of the United States, even if individual states conferred citizenship on them. Many citizens in the free states rejected the Court's decision. In 1860 their votes elected the Republic Party candidate, Abraham LINCOLN, to the PRESIDENCY. The Republicans pledged to bar slavery from the federal territories, the Supreme Court's opinion notwithstanding. Seven states seceded from the Union immediately after Lincoln's election, a testimony to the power of the contradictory reality of human and property rights implicit in slavery to affect the stability of the United States.


Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. Surveys life in slave quarters and how their structures allowed slaves to survive slavery.

Boles, John B. Black Southerners, 1619-1869. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1984. Highly readable survey of slavery in the South.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Complete study of the Dred Scott case as a legal and political issue.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Mentor, 1987. The personal memoirs of four former slaves.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974. Penetrating Marxian analysis of slavery.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery, 1619-1877. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. Compares American slavery with that in other societies.

Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Emphasizes how slavery changed over time in a given place.

Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Complete analysis of the laws governing slavery.

—Edward R. Crowther

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3459600605