We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal



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US History

A Brief History of the Institution of Slavery
From Indentured Servitude to Slavery…
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States, wrote these words in 1776. Ironically (and sadly) at that time, race-based slavery had already become an important part of American society. The first African slaves ever to be brought to the British colonies arrived in Jamestown, VA in 1619. However, during the first 50 years of the colonies, most of the “un-free” labor consisted of indentured servants.
Indentured servants were Europeans agreed to work for an employer for a fixed period of time (usually 3-7 years) in exchange for transportation across the Atlantic and food, clothing and shelter for the period of employment. Indentured servants had few legal rights. As word of the harsh conditions of North America spread back to Europe, a shortage of indentured servants emerged. Additionally, the indentured servants who had become free found it difficult to find work. This lead to rebellions (the largest of which resulted in Jamestown being burned to the ground in 1676). In 1680, slaves made up about 8% of the population of Virginia. In 1770, slaves accounted for 42% of the population. As the population of slaves increased, the population of indentured servants decreased.


Why did Americans begin using more slave labor and less indentured servants in the late 1600s/early 1700s? ______________________________________________________________________________

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By 1708, a majority of the residents of South Carolina were slaves (in 1860 there were 291,300 white residents compared to 412,320 slaves). Over the next 200 years approximately 20 million Africans were kidnapped from West Africa and forced to come to North and South America (only about 11 million survived the journey).




How do you think the white people living in South Carolina felt about being outnumbered by the slave population (a group of people that they were abusing)? ____________________

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These factors made race-based slavery far more attractive to employers (in both the north and the south). Employers never had to set their slaves free – they would be forced to work until they died. They would never face a labor shortage like they had with indentured servants. The people who were forced to come here from Africa looked, spoke and acted different from the Europeans who enslaved them. In some ways, it made it easier for the colonists to enslave the Africans because they saw them as “different and lesser” from themselves. The Africans were alien, foreign, unknowable.



It Didn’t Happen All At Once…
The institution of American slavery evolved, one law at a time, into the dehumanizing practice, that we now know.


  • In 1640, Massachusetts became the first colony to pass a law that officially legalized slavery (Vermont would become the first colony/sate to officially abolish it in 1777).

  • In 1680, Virginia passed a law that made it legal for a slave owner to kill his/her slaves. The colony also made it illegal for a slave to try to escape and if an enslaved person did attempt to escape, they could be legally killed.

  • In 1691 Virginia made it illegal to free a black slave unless that agreed to permanently leave the colony

  • South Carolina passed a law that stated all runaway slaves should be physically mutilated after being recaptured.

  • In 1705 the Virginia colonial government states that slaves were to be looked at as “chattel” (property) in the eyes of the law – not as people.

This is a small sample of the laws passed by the American colonies which eventually resulted in the horrific institution of slavery. Even African-Americans who were not slaves (known as free men at the time) were subjected to racist & unjust treatment under the law. About 8% of Africans living in the south were considered freeman. However, they could be sold into slavery very easily because they had no way of proving that they were truly free. Anthony Johnson, a former Virginian slave who gained his freedom, moved to Maryland in the mid-1600s and started a very profitable farm (over a 100 acres of land). When he died, the state of Maryland seized his land and told his children that they had no right to the land because they were “aliens.”


For the few days we are going to be studying the institution of slavery and its impat on race in America today. We will be reading excerpts from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. He escaped to freedom in 1838 and wrote the story of the horrific atrocities he witnessed and experienced at the hands of his owners. Published in 1845, this was one of the first books to expose Americans to the realities of slavery.
Questions to consider while we read this book:

  • Why is it important to study, in detail, the history of slavery?

  • Did racism cause slavery or is racism a result of slavery in the United States?

  • How were a minority of white slave owners able to maintain control over a much larger population of slaves?

  • What does Frederick Douglass’ story teach us about human nature?


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