The most brutal institution in American history, slavery existed in the United States from the early 17th century until 1865, when Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment shortly after the Union victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. By that point, more than 4 million African-American slaves lived in the United States. Although their communities thrived and multiplied, these people were subject to harsh living conditions and enjoyed none of the rights or freedoms so fiercely protected by white Americans.
Native Americans were the first enslaved people in North America. Many aboriginal societies had practiced different forms of slavery for thousands of years before they had ever seen Europeans. The practice, however, represented a temporary condition and was used more as a badge of status than a moneymaking enterprise. Most Indian slaves were women and children either purchased or captured as prizes in warfare. Some were adopted into their new tribe over time, their offspring being free persons who could even rise to positions of leadership. Slavery, therefore, was not a hereditary condition, nor was it based on race.
Europeans continued the practice of enslaving Indians after their arrival in the New World in the late 15th century. Spanish, English, and French colonists broadened the scope of Indian slavery by selling Indians, including men, into bondage in other colonies as punishment for warfare or rebellion. The Spanish in particular erected a vast system of slave labor in its colonies in Latin America.
The English and French enslaved Native Americans much less frequently and seldom held Indian slaves to labor among them. Rather, they sold Indian captives south to the West Indies, as Connecticut colonists did to surviving Native American women and children following the Pequot War of 1636-1637, which virtually annihilated the Pequots from New England. In general, the British colonists found it difficult to enslave Native Americans, who had great opportunities to escape from bondage and rejoin their tribes.
The system of chattel slavery that developed in the New World and focused on African Americans was different than the slavery practiced against Native Americans. The first group of African slaves, numbering four men and women, arrived aboard a Dutch ship at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.
English planters like John Rolfe quickly realized the enormous profits to be had from importing unfree laborers. Rolfe's introduction of a viable tobacco plant in Virginia served as a major impetus for the adoption of African slavery as the region's main labor system. Tobacco was an extremely labor-intensive crop, requiring field hands to spend long hours bending over plants under the blazing hot sun. Most whites proved entirely unsuited for this labor, in part because they were unused to such hot and humid weather conditions and in part because they flat out refused to do such work. Some white indentured servants were forced to work in the fields, but as the 17th century progressed, it proved more and more difficult to convince Europeans to immigrate under these conditions.
African slaves solved many of these problems. Physically, Africans were more used to such brutal weather conditions and capable of laboring in them for longer periods than whites. As African slaves represented a diversity of nations and spoke a wide variety of languages, they also found it difficult to communicate with one another and organize resistance to their forced bondage. And unlike the Native Americans, Africans were too far from their homeland to run away from their white masters. Finally, some West African leaders proved extremely receptive to the idea of selling other Africans into slavery for profit, so that most of the kidnapping of Africans and forcing them into bondage was actually done by other Africans, requiring even less effort on the part of whites to perpetuate the system. For all these reasons, African slavery quickly emerged as a desirable and profitable labor system.
Throughout the course of the 17th century, the various British North American colonies erected a series of laws and social conventions that served to entrench African slavery at the heart of colonial society, particularly in the South. Although African slavery spread to all of the colonies, it never took hold in the northern colonies as it did in the southern, primarily because of the nature of the work required. Northern colonies were populated with small family farms, and the rocky terrain proved inhospitable for crops like tobacco. Slaves certainly existed in the northern colonies but not in nearly such large numbers as in their southern counterparts.
During the colonial period, nowhere did slavery become more firmly entrenched than in Virginia, and the slave system that Virginia developed during this period served as a model for all other slave societies in the years to come. At first, in the 1620s, the rules governing slavery were ill-defined, and some masters treated the Africans more like indentured servants than slaves. Several Africans even labored for specified amounts of time and then secured their freedom. By the 1640s, however, the idea that African slavery should be both perpetual and hereditary had begun to take hold, as the labor required to keep large plantations functioning and profitable grew scarce and the price of slaves rose.
The Virginia House of Burgesses passed a series of laws in the second half of the 17th century that legitimized African slavery. Perhaps most important, the legislature grounded slavery on a strict definition of race, ensuring that anyone with even as little as one-eighth of African blood was likely to be a slave. The laws also clearly classified slaves as property, according them no rights or protections under the law. Masters were free to do with their slaves as they pleased. Although the legislature would pass other laws in the coming decades to refine the slave-labor system, its essentials were in place by 1700.
By that point, slavery was firmly entrenched as the primary labor system of the South. White indentured servants from Europe became increasingly scarce, while African imports rose dramatically beginning in 1680. New England shipping firms profited immensely from the trade by transporting Africans from their homeland to America. Known as the Middle Passage, the journey across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships was a brutal one, with the Africans being held below decks, chained together in cramped conditions, and suffering from disease, starvation, and outrageously poor sanitary conditions. Although mortality rates on the Middle Passage were alarmingly high, most Africans reached North America and were quickly sold into perpetual bondage with no hope of ever attaining their freedom or returning home.
Once sold to their new masters, slaves were forced to assimilate into American life very quickly. They learned English with amazing speed and proved fast students of American culture as well. Often they were aided by other slaves working on the same plantation, who informally introduced the Africans to their new way of life. In the slave quarters, a whole new culture emerged that combined elements of African life with American features, giving rise to a unique African-American culture.
Living conditions for slaves were hard, with long work hours and little material comfort. Few masters recognized the sanctity of the slave family and sold off children from their parents, or vice versa, as they pleased. Slave marriages were not recognized by any white institution, either legal or religious, and masters, rather than slave parents, had the ultimate power to discipline slave children. Nevertheless, historians have recently conjectured that slave families did exist and managed to exert a tremendous influence on African-American life while avoiding the watchful eyes of white overlords.
Slaves were subject to harsh punishment for even minor offenses, depending on the character and temperament of each individual master. The relatively high purchase price for slaves did not protect them from mistreatment. If a master chose, he could even murder his slaves with impunity, although it would mark a significant financial loss for him if he did so. Whippings and beatings were not uncommon, however, and some masters became adept at inflicting physical punishments on their slaves that did not hinder their ability to work.
Slaves performed a wide variety of work in the South. The majority served as field hands or house servants. A privileged few were taught such trades as carpentry or blacksmithing. Some slaves even became preachers, presiding over many of the religious aspects of slave life.
Religion, in fact, was a pillar of African-American life during this period. Whites had long boasted that slavery allowed them an opportunity to Christianize African "heathens," and many whites actively encouraged the spread of religion among slaves, pushing in particular Biblical injunctions for slaves to obey their masters and accept their condition in life. As with other aspects of slave culture, African Americans accepted Christianity but modified it, combining with it some aspects of traditional African religions. Because slaves were prohibited by law from learning how to read or write, slave preachers played a particularly important role in African-American religion and were often the center of slave communities.
In recent years, historians have focused more and more attention on the dynamics of slave communities and whether or not the majority of slaves accepted their condition in life or worked to undermine their bondage. A series of slave rebellions and revolts throughout American history, most notably the Stono Rebellion of 1739 and Nat Turner's Rebellion of 1831, alarmed whites and illustrated that not all slaves complacently accepted their status. Currently, though, historians have been hypothesizing that a majority of slaves most likely sought to undermine the system through a series of small, passive aggressive acts—like working as slowly as possible in the fields or surreptitiously ruining crops. For many, such acts were the only way to show their discontent without suffering tremendous retribution at the hands of their masters.
Short of fomenting a rebellion, the most common measure to undermine the institution of slavery was for a slave to run away. Some fled to Native American communities in the West, which sometimes offered a haven for African Americans. Others made the arduous journey to Canada. Still others opted to take their chances in the North, hoping to melt into one of the many communities of free African Americans living in Northern cities.
The chance of recapture was extremely high, both for those in flight and those who fled to the North. Slaves caught attempting to run away met with particularly harsh punishments, sometimes even death, at the hands of Southern authorities. Some Southern communities even maintained slave patrols, complete with tracking dogs, to discourage runaways. Slave catchers—privately employed agents who returned slaves to their masters for a fee—were particularly feared among slaves for their brutality.
Despite the often cruel conditions of slavery, American slaves enjoyed a higher standard of living than any other enslaved people, and even higher than many of the laboring, free classes around the world. Natural increase of the American slave population, through high birth rates and relatively low death rates, was marked throughout slavery’s existence.
By the outbreak of the American Revolution, more than half a million slaves lived in the British colonies, almost all of them in the South. As tobacco proved less and less profitable, however, slavery seemed to be on the decline. The delegates at the Continental Congress even briefly discussed abolishing slavery, although strenuous objections from Southern delegates, whose constituents had enormous sums tied up in slave property, brought such talk to a close quickly.
The idea that the colonists could be fighting the British for their freedom at the same time they held half a million people in bondage troubled many Americans, but the issue of race played a tremendous role in assuaging their consciences. For centuries, Africans had been seen as an inferior people, and most white Americans, in both the North and South, managed to convince themselves that slaves were better off and better cared for in bondage than they would be with their freedom.
Adhering to the belief that slavery was an important aspect of American life, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention enshrined the institution of slavery in the U.S. Constitution in 1787, ensuring its continuance in the United States despite any qualms Americans might be feeling about it. However, the convention did incorporate a ban on the international slave trade, to be implemented in 1808. This ban on importation did little to lessen the strength of slavery as an institution, however, as the slave population in America was thriving under its own accord, and the lack of new imports served to keep the price of slaves high.
By this point, slavery had geographically split the country, with the Southern states relying on it heavily while many of the Northern states abolished it or passed laws to phase it out. Many Americans in both regions thought that slavery would eventually disappear from the entire country, as it was becoming less profitable for Southern tobacco planters.
In 1794, however, Eli Whitney introduced the cotton gin, a labor-saving machine that transformed cotton from a ridiculously high-labor crop into a profitable one. Growing cotton still required a tremendous amount of labor, but its rewards proved greater after the advent of the cotton gin.
Almost immediately, settlers pushed into the southwest to establish large cotton plantations in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. Into these new regions, they took thousands of slaves, purchased from failing tobacco planters in Virginia who were happy to convert their slave property into ready cash. Suddenly, the institution of slavery was reborn, reestablishing itself as the backbone of Southern financial interests once again. With the South emerging as one of the chief cotton regions of the world, slavery was more entrenched than ever.
The spread of slavery to new states ignited a “fire bell in the night,” according to the elderly Thomas Jefferson in 1820. Jefferson in the 1770s had attempted to put slavery on a course of destruction. However, by the first decades of the 19th century, Jefferson, like other leading Southern statesmen, proclaimed the need to protect the institution to save the Southern way of life. Indeed, slavery became the most abiding and powerful symbol of that way of life.
Increasingly, Northern and Southern politicians came to view each other as members of a hostile camp, representing two opposing images of American life: one based on free labor and the other based on slave labor. As a result, the issue of admitting new states that either prohibited slavery or allowed it emerged as one of vital political significance. Southerners saw the admission of a free state as a tangible sign of growing Northern political power, and vice versa. The advent of a vocal and controversial abolition movement in the North only heightened Southern fears of a plot to destroy slavery and the South's political power.
The result was increasing sectional tension between the two regions as more and more territories petitioned for statehood in the federal Union during the first half of the 19th century. The adoption of a series of compromises, most notably the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, only offered temporary relief for these tensions, which eventually culminated in the secession of 11 Southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
During the war, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln adhered to his position that the conflict was not over slavery but rather the issue of states' rights and the sanctity of the federal Union. In 1862, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the rebelling states. Although abolitionists praised the move, Lincoln still held that it had been a war measure, prompted by the fact that slaves were directly contributing to the South's fighting capabilities by manning the home front and freeing up more whites for service on the battlefield. The wording of the proclamation was also important, as it essentially only freed the slaves in areas not under the federal government's control, while leaving slaves in bondage in other regions.
Nevertheless, by the end of the war, the South's defeat brought slavery to a de facto end, as hundreds of thousands of slaves fled to the victorious Union troops. Congress officially declared slavery dead with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
The struggle for equal rights for African Americans was another whole issue, and one that most white Americans chose not to tackle in the aftermath of the war. By the end of Reconstruction, white Southerners had reestablished their control over African Americans through a series of laws and restrictions that severely curtailed their rights and opportunities. It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that African Americans were truly able to throw off this new form of control, which in many ways proved even more confining than the bondage of slavery.
MLA: “slavery.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.