The Origins and Growth of Slavery in America
How did slavery come to America, and why did it grow in the 1800s?
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 created 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 (the personal ownership of a slave) 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 establish 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 established 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.
- Note that most of the captured slaves did NOT come to the modern day United States
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 ignoring this contradction. 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.
Agreeing with the belief that slavery was an important aspect of American life, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention included the institution of slavery in the U.S. Constitution in 1787 (without using the word ‘slave’). This ensured slavery’s 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 by itself, 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 visible 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.
By the year of 1860, the final year of the antebellum era, the nation was divided, primarily because of the issue of the expansion of slavery. What will solve the conflict? The Civil War …
Excerpts from “Slavery.” American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.
Although it was not their original intention, colonists in the New World gave birth to a modern form of slavery. Within the burgeoning colonies, slavery evolved far beyond what any other people in history had known or established — the enslavement for life of one race. Clearly, slavery was not the result of a single driving force. Looking at the events that originated in Jamestown, one can see a linear progression of circumstances that ultimately institutionalized slavery within the colonies. Through happenstance, the earliest Africans who landed in Jamestown were treated as indentured servants, meaning that their labor contract specified a fixed term of service to their master. Eventually, however, the legal status of Africans in America evolved into an enslavement system driven by economic need. It concluded with the systemization of slavery and racial prejudice on a scale unequaled in the Europe from which the colonists had emigrated.
Slavery was by no means a novel concept to western civilization when the first settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607. Driven by a need for large quantities of cheap labor, for centuries the Greeks and Romans enslaved prisoners of war, criminals, and those who had fallen into indebtedness. In those societies, however, the term of enslavement was not for life and race played no role. Slaves could be free after they had successfully completed a period of servitude; they could eventually rise to a position of higher station within the same society that had once enslaved them. Later, between the 9th and 15th centuries, the Europeans developed a history of serfdom, a form of servitude that bound peasants to the land they worked. Serfs, defined as “a member of a servile feudal class bound to the land and subject to the will of its owner,” found that the only compensation for their work, other than food and housing, was protection by the feudal lords in times of rebellion and war.(1)
This European world, however, had passed by the time of English colonization. Nevertheless, a large, landless, and poor population remained. Their status prompted the use of the indentured system, contracted labor for a set amount of time, to both provide the lower class with a means of transportation to the colonies and, for the upper class, a source of labor. Winthrop D. Jordan, a prominent historian of racial relations, explains that English immigrants were required to remain indentured for a term of “four to seven years or until the age of twenty-one.”(2)
Just as the indentured were making their way across the Atlantic, Africans were finding their way to Jamestown as well, although not by choice. In 1619, a British pirate ship had been sailing off the coast of Virginia. The English offered to trade the twenty Africans on board their ship for provisions with the settlers at Jamestown. Originally, the people of the twelve-year-old colony had no interest in the cargo being offered, but they eventually made the trade.
Because this first group of Africans landed in the colony by chance, it is reasonable to surmise that once traded successfully, word got out and more slave ships followed. Anthony Johnson is an excellent example of what might have occurred with the first Africans who arrived. According to T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, both professors of history, Johnson arrived on a slave ship in 1621, identified as “Antonio, a negro.”(3) Richard Bennett purchased him as an indentured servant(4). Antonio’s contract was for somewhere between fifteen and twenty years.(5) Sometime after 1625, he married Mary, an indentured African living, at that time, on the Bennett plantation; they had four sons.(6)
Times however, were difficult for both masters and servants. Virginia was facing economic challenges because people could not stay alive. Disease was killing the colonists during the first fifteen years. More than half of those who immigrated died of disease. According to Edmund Morgan, Emeritus Professor of History at Yale, the death rate during this time “was comparable to that found in England during the peak years of the plague.”(7) Another reason for the economic problems was that the colonists could not find a viable crop because of the swap- like terrain. People were acquiring land, but they simply could not do much with it. People only existed; they were not making any substantial money.
One crop that began to give some hope for a better economy was tobacco. The Virginia colony began to experiment with it in 1614. Settlers found that they lived in the right climate for this crop to grow and flourish. As the crop grew, people within the colony began smoking it and the demand for tobacco increased because colonists found it hard to resist. This created a relationship between the demand for tobacco and the labor to supply it. According to Jordan, “tobacco required labor that was cheap but not temporary, mobile but not independent, and tireless rather than skilled.”(8) These requirements set the stage for what would become American slavery.
The labor-intensive nature of tobacco was another reason it required a large work force. The crop was essentially a year round one that needed constant tending. Tobacco had to be trimmed often, de-bugged routinely, harvested when ripe, and prepared for sale. The crop ripened in mid-summer, the hottest months of the year. When harvesting the crop, the laborers had to cut it, trim it again, dry it, and bundle it for shipping. Once the entire process for the year’s crop was completed, the laborers had to ready the land for the next planting, which began in January.
Tobacco alone created a huge, almost desperate need within the colony for labor. The colonists had figured out a way to make money and improve the economy, but they could not turn the opportunity into a profitable reality for two major reasons. First, by 1650 there was an increasing reduction in the numbers of indentured servants due to deaths because of disease. Secondly, the contracts were expiring for those who had been indentured before tobacco began to boom for the colony. These former servants were becoming freemen, able to have their own land to grow the new economic opportunity. According to Morgan, the shortages in labor were also due to the “huge expansion of tobacco production, [which] helped to depress the price of tobacco and the earnings of the men who planted it.”(9) There were more settlers farming the crop and fewer of them were able to produce enough to sustain their farms financially due to the shortage of labor. The colonists had to find another way to achieve the success they felt they deserved and they began looking to the African slave trade as an answer to their dilemma. Morgan affirms this by saying, “Once Virginia’s heavy mortality ceased, an investment in slave labor was much more profitable than an investment in free labor.”(10) Jordan makes the comment that, “in the tobacco colonies it is possible to watch the Negro slavery develop, not pop up full-grown overnight.”(11) Jordan’s comment makes it clear that the eventual definition of slavery was not due to an immediate response to the need for labor based on race, but a progression of decisions based on an economic need that grew into slavery based on race.
The speed at which African slavery developed was tied to the economy and who was benefiting from the slave trade itself. Plantation owners, slave brokers, ship builders, and those who were operating the ports were all profiting. Jordan contends that, “It may be taken as a given that there would have been no enslavement without economic need, that is, without persistent demand for labor in under populated colonies.”(12) Nevertheless, slavery based upon a labor demand is different from slavery based upon race.
Between 1630 and 1640 the colony began to divide, not along class lines as before, but by skin color. An important turning point, according to Jordan, is John Punch, an African indentured servant. Punch ran away from his master and when caught, he was sentenced to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where.”(13) Other Africans suffered the same fate in the following years. This is a complicated period because while some Africans were being enslaved for life, others were able to purchase land and remain free. By the time Antonio and Mary were freed from their servitude in 1641, Antonio had taken the name Anthony Johnson. Within nine years, he had purchased 250 acres of land and a head of cattle.
The fact that Johnson and other free Africans were able to own land does not mean that whites thought of them as equal. Actually, a belief that Africans were inferior to whites was intensifying. When considering the Punch sentence, Jordan points out that “no white servant in any English colony, so far as is known, ever received a like sentence.”(14) Racism comes from fear. The legal decisions and laws restricting Africans within society made whites believe Africans should be feared. That which is feared must be controlled. Slavery would eventually become a system of control over slaves by the use of horrific violence.
Although changes in the treatment of Africans based on race was occurring, the need for labor remained a persistent issue. At this point, the explosion of the tobacco economy and the increase in the slave trade became interdependent. It is reasonable to assume that the loss of labor due to indentured contract expirations, caused landowners to seek new sources of labor. Servitude for life would serve their purposes.
Laws creating a slavery system began to appear for Africans. In 1661, the first law was passed changing servitude into slavery for life. One year later the law changed to include children born to slave mothers, making them slaves for life as well. While the laws were changing, Anthony Johnson was still living as a free man. He was living his life as a successful farmer and community member, proving that up until laws began to tighten, race was not the driving force in the progression of slavery. Jordan points out that Johnson “himself owned a slave.”(15) When more than four-fifths of his land burned, Johnson suffered a setback. He sold all but fifty acres, which his son Richard lived on and farmed. The rest of the Johnson family moved to Maryland to try to make a go of new opportunities to buy land. Anthony Johnson was unable to purchase property, but he did find a way to rent three hundred acres of land and farmed it until his death soon after. Breen points out “Johnson’s story vividly suggests, possibilities for advancement [for Negroes] existed in 1650 that by 1705 were only a memory.”(16)
While the Johnsons were making their way in Maryland, the laws in Virginia continued to change. In 1667, laws ensured that Christian baptism could not free a person from slavery. In that same year, laws passed which restricted any African or slave from possessing a firearm, made it illegal for Africans to leave their master’s land without a pass, and outlawed interracial marriage. Laws were passed which prohibited land ownership for slaves, established curfews for free Africans and slaves alike, and restricted public assembly among blacks. The laws were strategically put in place to ensure that at no time would any free African or slave be truly free. This became the foundation of what would become slave codes, which the colonies used, as Jordan points out, as a “maintenance of discipline.”(17) Jordan also makes the point that the laws were in place to “[tell] the white man, not the negro, what he must do. It was the white man who was required to…” enforce the laws.(18) By the “time of the revolution,” according to Jordan, every colony had passed laws to ensure “governance of Negroes.”(19)
After his father’s death, Richard had to go to probate court in Virginia to ensure his land would remain his. Appearing before an all-white jury, Richard found the law forbidding an African to own land enforced by the court. The jury took his land from him, land that had been in his family for more than thirty years, and then began selling it, in sections, to white men. The story of the Johnson family becomes a prism, through which the evolution of the American slavery system is clearly visible.
Slavery in the United States was not inevitable. At any point in time, any number of decisions could have been made to a different end. Yes, slavery rose up out of an economic necessity, but it became a racial issue when the demand for labor required justification. Those making the decisions at the time acted on the belief that one race was inferior to another. The linear progression of slavery in the original colony allows for the supposition that had the line curved in any direction at any time throughout history, the outcome would have been different.
1. American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Serf.”
2. Winthrop D. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the
United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974). 28.
3. T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on
Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.
4. Ibid., 8.
5. Ibid., 10.
7. Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of
American History, (June 1972): 19.
8. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 39.
9. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom,” 20.
10. Ibid., 25.
11. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 40.
12. Ibid., 50.
13. Ibid., 42.
15. Breen and Innes, “Myne Owne Ground,” 18.
16. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 59.
17. Ibid., 61.
18. Ibid., 59.
19. Ibid., 29.
Breen, T.H., and Stephen Innes. “Myne Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern
Shore, 1640-1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Jordan, Winthrop D. The Whiteman’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Morgan, Edmund. “Slavery and Freedom: The American Orthodox,” The Journal of American
History (June 1972): 5-29.