Slavery played a central role in the history of the United States. It existed in all the English mainland colonies and came to dominate agricultural production in the states from Maryland south. Eight of the first 12 presidents of the United States were slave owners. Debate over slavery increasingly dominated American politics, leading eventually to the American Civil War, which finally brought slavery to an end. After emancipation, overcoming slavery's legacy remained a crucial issue in American history, from Reconstruction following the war, to the civil rights movement a century later.
Slavery has appeared throughout history in many forms and many places. Slaves have served in capacities as diverse as concubines, warriors, servants, craft workers, and tutors. In the Americas, however, slavery emerged as a system of forced labor designed for the production of staple crops. Depending on location, these crops included sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cotton; in the southern United States, by far the most important staples were tobacco and cotton.
Most of the agriculture in the southern United States during the early 19th century was dedicated to growing one crop-cotton. Most of the cotton crop was grown on large plantations that used black slave labor, such as this one on the Mississippi River.
There was nothing inevitable about the use of black slaves. Although 20 Africans were purchased in Jamestown, Virginia, as early as 1619, throughout most of the 17th century the number of Africans in the English mainland colonies (American Colonies) grew slowly. During those years, colonists experimented with two other sources of forced labor: Native American slaves and European indentured servants. The number of Native American slaves was limited in part because the Native Americans were in their homeland; they knew the terrain and could escape fairly easily. Although some Native American slaves existed in every colony the number was limited. The settlers found it easier to sell Native Americans captured in war to planters in the Caribbean than to turn them into slaves on their own terrain.
More important as a form of labor was indentured servitude. Most indentured servants were poor Europeans who wanted to escape harsh conditions and take advantage of opportunities in America. They traded four to seven years of their labor in exchange for the transatlantic passage. At first, indentured servants came mainly from England, but later they came increasingly from Ireland, Wales, and Germany. They were primarily, although not exclusively, young males. Once in the colonies, they were essentially temporary slaves; most served as agricultural workers although some, especially in the North, were taught skilled trades. During the 17th century, they performed most of the heavy labor in the Southern colonies and also provided the bulk of immigrants to those colonies.
~ Slave Trade ~
Because the labor needs of the rapidly growing colonies were increasing, this decline in servant migration produced a labor crisis. To meet it, landowners turned to African slaves, who from the 1680s began to replace indentured servants; in Virginia, for example, blacks, the great majority of whom were slaves, increased from about 7 percent of the population in 1680 to more than 40 percent by the mid-18th century. During the first half of the 17th century, the Netherlands and Portugal had dominated the African slave trade and the number of Africans available to English colonists was limited because the three countries competed for slave labor to produce crops in their American colonies. During the late 17th and 18th centuries, by contrast, naval superiority gave England a dominant position in the slave trade, and English traders transported millions of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean.
Since others died before boarding the ships, Africa's loss of population was even greater. By far the largest importers of slaves were Brazil and the Caribbean colonies; together, they received more than three-quarters of all Africans brought to the Americas. About 6 percent of the total (600,000 to 650,000 people) came to what is now the United States.