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Slavery in the United States

Form of slave labor which existed as a legal institution from the early years of the United States

Top 10 Slavery in the United States related articles

An animation showing when United States territories and states forbade or allowed slavery, 1789–1865
Slave auction block, Green Hill Plantation, Campbell County, Virginia, Historic American Buildings Survey

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel slavery, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America from its founding in 1776 until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Slavery was established throughout European colonization in the Americas. From early colonial days, it was practiced in Britain's colonies, including the Thirteen Colonies which formed the United States. Under the law, an enslaved person was treated as property and could be bought, sold, or given away. Slavery lasted in about half of U.S. states until 1865. As an economic system, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping and convict leasing.

By the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the status of enslaved people had been institutionalized as a racial caste associated with African ancestry.[1] During and immediately following the Revolution, abolitionist laws were passed in most Northern states and a movement developed to abolish slavery. The role of slavery under the U.S. Constitution (1789) was the most contentious issue during its drafting. Although the creators of the Constitution never used the word "slavery", the final document, through the three-fifths clause, gave slave-owners disproportionate political power.[2] All Northern states had abolished slavery in some way by 1805; sometimes, abolition was a gradual process, and hundreds of people were still enslaved in the Northern states as late as the 1840 Census. Some slaveowners, primarily in the Upper South, freed their slaves, and philanthropists and charitable groups bought and freed others. The Atlantic slave trade was outlawed by individual states beginning during the American Revolution. The import-trade was banned by Congress in 1808, although smuggling was common thereafter.[3][4]:7

The rapid expansion of the cotton industry in the Deep South after the invention of the cotton gin greatly increased demand for slave labor, and the Southern states continued as slave societies. The United States became ever more polarized over the issue of slavery, split into slave and free states. Driven by labor demands from new cotton plantations in the Deep South, the Upper South sold more than a million slaves who were taken to the Deep South. The total slave population in the South eventually reached four million.[5][6] As the United States expanded, the Southern states attempted to extend slavery into the new western territories to allow proslavery forces to maintain their power in the country. The new territories acquired by the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession were the subject of major political crises and compromises. By 1850, the newly rich, cotton-growing South was threatening to secede from the Union, and tensions continued to rise. Slavery was defended in the South as a "positive good", and the largest religious denominations split over the slavery issue into regional organizations of the North and South.

When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a platform of halting the expansion of slavery, seven slave states broke away to form the Confederacy. Shortly afterward, the Civil War began when Confederate forces attacked the US Army's Fort Sumter. Four additional slave states then joined the confederacy after Lincoln requested arms from them to make a retaliatory strike. Due to Union measures such as the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the war effectively ended slavery in most places. Following the Union victory, the institution was banned in the whole territory of the United States upon the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865.

Slavery in the United States Intro articles: 33


First enslavements

In 1508, Ponce de León established the Spanish settlement in Puerto Rico, which used the native Taínos for labor. The Taínos were largely exterminated by war, overwork, and diseases brought by the Spanish. In 1513, to supplement the dwindling Taíno population, the first enslaved African people were imported to Puerto Rico. Indian slavery was abolished in Spanish territories in 1542 with the New Laws.[7]

British colonists conducted enslaving raids in what is now Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and possibly Alabama.[8] The Charleston slave trade, which included both trading and direct raids by colonists,[9] was the largest among the British colonies in North America.[10] Between 1670 and 1715, between 24,000 and 51,000 captive Native Americans were exported from South Carolina—more than the number of Africans imported to the colonies of the future United States during the same period.[11][12] Additional enslaved Native Americans were exported from South Carolina to Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.[11] The historian Alan Gallay says, "the trade in Indian slaves was at the center of the English empire's development in the American South. The trade in Indian slaves was the most important factor affecting the South in the period 1670 to 1715"; intertribal wars to capture slaves destabilized English colonies, Florida and Louisiana.[11]

First continental African enslaved people

The first Africans enslaved within the continental United States arrived via Santo Domingo to the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Bay area of present-day South Carolina), founded by Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526.[13] The ill-fated colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership, during which the enslaved people revolted and fled the colony to seek refuge among local Native Americans. De Ayllón and many of the colonists died shortly afterwards of an epidemic and the colony was abandoned. The settlers and the enslaved people who had not escaped returned to Santo Domingo.[13]

On August 28, 1565, St. Augustine, Florida was founded by the Spanish conquistador Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles and he brought three enslaved Africans with him. During the 16th and 17th centuries, St. Augustine was the hub of the trade in enslaved people in Spanish colonial Florida and the first permanent settlement in what would become the continental United States to include enslaved Africans.[14] The first birth of an enslaved African in what is now the United States was Agustin, who was born there in 1606.[15]

Indentured servants

Decades later, in the early years of the Chesapeake Bay settlements, colonial officials found it difficult to attract and retain laborers under the harsh frontier conditions, and there was a high mortality rate.[16] Most laborers came from Britain as indentured laborers, signing contracts of indenture to pay with work for their passage, their upkeep, and their training, usually on a farm. The colonies had agricultural economies. These indentured laborers were often young people who intended to become permanent residents. In some cases, convicted criminals were transported to the colonies as indentured laborers, rather than being imprisoned. The indentured laborers were not slaves, but were required to work for four to seven years in Virginia to pay the cost of their passage and maintenance.[17] Many Germans, Scots-Irish, and Irish came to the colonies in the 18th century, settling in the backcountry of Pennsylvania and further south.[16]

Destination of enslaved Africans (1519–1867)[18]
Destination Percent
British mainland North America 3.7%
British Leeward Islands 3.2%
British Windward Islands and Trinidad (British 1797–1867) 3.8%
Jamaica (Spanish 1519–1655, British 1655–1867) 11.2%
Barbados (British) 5.1%
The Guianas (British, Dutch, French) 4.2%
French Windward Islands 3.1%
Saint-Domingue (French) 8.2%
Spanish mainland North and South America 4.4%
Spanish Caribbean islands 8.2%
Dutch Caribbean islands 1.3%
Northeastern Brazil (Portuguese) 9.3%
Bahia, Brazil (Portuguese) 10.7%
Southeastern Brazil (Portuguese) 21.1%
Elsewhere in the Americas 1.1%
Africa 1.4%

The first 19 or so Africans to reach the colonies that England was struggling to establish arrived in Point Comfort, Virginia, near Jamestown, in 1619, brought by British privateers who had seized them from a captured Portuguese slave ship.[19][20][21] Slaves were usually baptized in Africa before embarking. As English custom then considered baptized Christians exempt from slavery, colonists treated these Africans as indentured servants, and they joined about 1,000 English indentured servants already in the colony. At least some Africans were freed after a prescribed period and given the use of land and supplies by their former masters. The historian Ira Berlin noted that what he called the "charter generation" in the colonies was sometimes made up of mixed-race men (Atlantic Creoles) who were indentured servants, and whose ancestry was African and Iberian. They were descendants of African women and Portuguese or Spanish men who worked in African ports as traders or facilitators in the trade of enslaved people. For example, Anthony Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1621 from Angola as an indentured servant; he became free and a property owner, eventually buying and enslaving people himself. The transformation of the status of Africans, from indentured servitude to slaves in a racial caste which they could not leave or escape, happened over the next generation.

First slave laws

There were no laws regarding slavery early in Virginia's history, but in 1640, a Virginia court sentenced John Punch, an African, to life in servitude after he attempted to flee his service.[22] The two whites with whom he fled were sentenced only to an additional year of their indenture, and three years' service to the colony.[23] This marked the first de facto legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies, and was one of the first legal distinctions made between Europeans and Africans.[22][24]

Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia
Slaves shipped to those regions that are part of the present-day United States[25]
Date Slaves
1626–1650 824
1651–1675 0
1676–1700 3,327
1701–1725 3,277
1726–1750 34,004
1751–1775 84,580
1776–1800 67,443
1801–1825 109,545
1826–1850 1,850
1851–1875 476
Total 305,326

In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to authorize slavery through enacted law.[26] Massachusetts passed the Body of Liberties, which prohibited slavery in many instances but allowed people to be enslaved if they were captives of war, if they sold themselves into slavery or were purchased elsewhere, or if they were sentenced to slavery as punishment by the governing authority.[26] The Body of Liberties used the word "strangers" to refer to people bought and sold as slaves; they were generally not English subjects. Colonists came to equate this term with Native Americans and Africans.[27]

In 1654, John Casor, a black indentured servant in colonial Virginia, was the first man to be declared a slave in a civil case. He had claimed to an officer that his master, Anthony Johnson, himself a free black, had held him past his indenture term. A neighbor, Robert Parker, told Johnson that if he did not release Casor, he would testify in court to this fact. Under local laws, Johnson was at risk for losing some of his headright lands for violating the terms of indenture. Under duress, Johnson freed Casor. Casor entered into a seven years' indenture with Parker. Feeling cheated, Johnson sued Parker to repossess Casor. A Northampton County, Virginia court ruled for Johnson, declaring that Parker illegally was detaining Casor from his rightful master who legally held him "for the duration of his life".[28]

First inherited status laws

During the colonial period, the status of enslaved people was affected by interpretations related to the status of foreigners in England. England had no system of naturalizing immigrants to its island or its colonies. Since persons of African origins were not English subjects by birth, they were among those peoples considered foreigners and generally outside English common law. The colonies struggled with how to classify people born to foreigners and subjects. In 1656 Virginia, Elizabeth Key Grinstead, a mixed-race woman, successfully gained her freedom and that of her son in a challenge to her status by making her case as the baptized Christian daughter of the free Englishman Thomas Key. Her attorney was an English subject, which may have helped her case. (He was also the father of her mixed-race son, and the couple married after Key was freed.)[29]

Slaves on a South Carolina plantation (The Old Plantation, c. 1790)

Shortly after the Elizabeth Key trial and similar challenges, in 1662 the Virginia royal colony approved a law adopting the principle of partus sequitur ventrem (called partus, for short), stating that any children born in the colony would take the status of the mother. A child of an enslaved mother would be born into slavery, regardless if the father were a freeborn Englishman or Christian. This was a reversal of common law practice in England, which ruled that children of English subjects took the status of the father. The change institutionalized the skewed power relationships between those who enslaved people and enslaved women, freed white men from the legal responsibility to acknowledge or financially support their mixed-race children, and somewhat confined the open scandal of mixed-race children and miscegenation to within the slave quarters.

Increasing slave trade

In 1672, King Charles II rechartered the Royal African Company (it had initially been set up in 1660), as an English monopoly for the African slave and commodities trade. In 1698, by statute, the English parliament opened the trade to all English subjects.[30] The trade of enslaved people to the mid-Atlantic colonies increased substantially in the 1680s, and by 1710 the African population in Virginia had increased to 23,100 (42% of total); Maryland contained 8,000 Africans (14.5% of total).[31] In the early 18th century, England passed Spain and Portugal to become the world's leading trader of enslaved people.[32][33] From the early 18th century American merchants, especially in Charleston, South Carolina, challenged the monopoly of the Royal African Company, and Joseph Wragg and Benjamin Savage became the first independent traders of enslaved people to break through the monopoly by the 1730s.[34]

First religious status laws

The Virginia Slave codes of 1705 further defined as slaves those people imported from nations that were not Christian. Native Americans who were sold to colonists by other Native Americans (from rival tribes), or captured by Europeans during village raids, were also defined as slaves.[35] This codified the earlier principle of non-Christian foreigner enslavement.

First anti-slavery causes

Ledger of sale of 118 slaves, Charleston, South Carolina, c. 1754

In 1735, the Georgia Trustees enacted a law prohibiting slavery in the new colony, which had been established in 1733 to enable the "worthy poor" as well as persecuted European Protestants to have a new start. Slavery was then legal in the other twelve English colonies. Neighboring South Carolina had an economy based on the use of enslaved labor. The Georgia Trustees wanted to eliminate the risk of slave rebellions and make Georgia better able to defend against attacks from the Spanish to the south, who offered freedom to escaped enslaved people. James Edward Oglethorpe was the driving force behind the colony, and the only trustee to reside in Georgia. He opposed slavery on moral grounds as well as for pragmatic reasons, and vigorously defended the ban on slavery against fierce opposition from Carolina merchants of enslaved people and land speculators.[36][37][38]

The Protestant Scottish highlanders who settled what is now Darien, Georgia, added a moral anti-slavery argument, which became increasingly rare in the South, in their 1739 "Petition of the Inhabitants of New Inverness".[39] By 1750 Georgia authorized slavery in the colony because it had been unable to secure enough indentured servants as laborers. As economic conditions in England began to improve in the first half of the 18th century, workers had no reason to leave, especially to face the risks in the colonies.

Slavery in British colonies

During most of the British colonial period, slavery existed in all the colonies. People enslaved in the North typically worked as house servants, artisans, laborers and craftsmen, with the greater number in cities. Many men worked on the docks and in shipping. In 1703, more than 42 percent of New York City households enslaved people, the second-highest proportion of any city in the colonies, behind only Charleston, South Carolina.[40] But enslaved people were also used as agricultural workers in farm communities, including in areas of upstate New York and Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. By 1770 there were 397,924 Blacks in a population of 2.17 million. They were unevenly distributed. There were 14,867 in New England where they were 2.7% of the population; 34,679 in the mid-Atlantic colonies where they were 6% of the population (19,000 were in New York or 11%); and 347,378 in the five southern Colonies where they were 31% of the population[41]

The South developed an agricultural economy dependent on commodity crops. Its planters rapidly acquired a significantly higher number and proportion of enslaved people in the population overall, as its commodity crops were labor-intensive.[42] Early on, enslaved people in the South worked primarily on farms and plantations growing indigo, rice, and tobacco; cotton did not become a major crop until after the American Revolution and after the 1790s. Before then long-staple cotton was cultivated primarily on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 enabled the cultivation of short-staple cotton in a wide variety of mainland areas, leading to the development of large areas of the Deep South as cotton country in the 19th century. Rice cultivation and tobacco were very labor-intensive.[43] In 1720, about 65% of South Carolina's population was enslaved.[44] Planters (defined by historians in the Upper South as those who held twenty enslaved people or more) used enslaved workers to cultivate commodity crops. They also worked in the artisanal trades on large plantations and in many southern port cities. Backwoods subsistence farmers, the later wave of settlers in the 18th century who settled along the Appalachian Mountains and backcountry, seldom held enslaved people.

Some of the British colonies attempted to abolish the international slave trade, fearing that the importation of new Africans would be disruptive. Virginia bills to that effect were vetoed by the British Privy Council. Rhode Island forbade the import of enslaved people in 1774. All of the colonies except Georgia had banned or limited the African slave trade by 1786; Georgia did so in 1798. Some of these laws were later repealed.[45]

About 600,000 slaves were transported to America, or five percent of the twelve million slaves taken from Africa. About 310,000 of these persons were imported into the Thirteen Colonies before 1776: forty percent directly and the rest from the Caribbean.

Slaves transported to America:[46]

  • 1620–1700......21,000
  • 1701–1760....189,000
  • 1761–1770......63,000
  • 1771–1790......56,000
  • 1791–1800......79,000
  • 1801–1810....124,000[47]
  • 1810–1865......51,000
  • Total .............597,000

They constituted less than 5% of the twelve million enslaved people brought from Africa to the Americas. The great majority of enslaved Africans were transported to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and to Brazil. As life expectancy was short, their numbers had to be continually replenished. Life expectancy was much higher in the U.S., and the enslaved population was successful in reproduction. The number of enslaved people in the U.S. grew rapidly, reaching 4 million by the 1860 Census. From 1770 to 1860, the rate of natural growth of North American enslaved people was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and it was nearly twice as rapid as that of England.[48]

The number of enslaved and free Blacks rose from 759,000 (60,000 free) in the 1790 U.S. Census to 4,450,000 (11% free or 480,000), a 580% increase in the 1860 US Census. The white population grew from 3.2 million to 27 million, an increase of 1180% due to high birth rates and 4.5 million immigrants, overwhelmingly from Europe, 70% of whom arrived in the years 1840–1860. The percentage of the Black population went from 19.3% to 14.1%,[49] as follows: 1790: 757,208 .. 19.3% of population, of whom 697,681 (92%) were enslaved. 1860: 4,441,830 .. 14.1% of population, of whom 3,953,731 (89%) were enslaved.

Slavery in French Louisiana

Louisiana was founded as a French colony. Colonial officials in 1724 implemented Louis XIV of France's Code Noir, which regulated the slave trade and the institution of slavery in New France and French Caribbean colonies. This resulted in a different pattern of slavery in Louisiana, purchased in 1803, compared to the rest of the United States.[50] As written, the Code Noir gave some rights to slaves, including the right to marry. Although it authorized and codified cruel corporal punishment against slaves under certain conditions, it forbade slave owners from torturing them or separating married couples (or separating young children from their mothers). It also required the owners to instruct slaves in the Catholic faith.[51][52][53]

Together with a more permeable historic French system that allowed certain rights to gens de couleur libres (free people of color), who were often born to white fathers and their mixed-race concubines, a far higher percentage of African Americans in Louisiana were free as of the 1830 census (13.2% in Louisiana compared to 0.8% in Mississippi, whose population was dominated by white Anglo-Americans). Most of Louisiana's "third class" of free people of color, situated between the native-born French and mass of African slaves, lived in New Orleans.[51] The Louisiana free people of color were often literate and educated, with a significant number owning businesses, properties, and even slaves.[52][53] Although Code Noir forbade interracial marriages, interracial unions were widespread. Whether there was a formalized system of concubinage known as plaçage, is subject to debate. The mixed-race offspring (Creoles of color) from these unions were among those in the intermediate social caste of free people of color. The English colonies, in contrast, operated within a binary system that treated mulatto and black slaves equally under the law, and discriminated against equally if free. But many free people of African descent were mixed race.[50][53]

When the U.S. took over Louisiana, Americans from the Protestant South entered the territory and began to impose their norms. They officially discouraged interracial relationships (although white men continued to have unions with black women, both enslaved and free.) The Americanization of Louisiana gradually resulted in a binary system of race, causing free people of color to lose status as they were grouped with the slaves. They lost certain rights as they became classified by American whites as officially "black".[50][54]

Slavery in the United States Origins articles: 70

Revolutionary era

Origins and percentages of Africans
imported into British North America
and Louisiana (1700–1820)[55][56]
Amount %
(exceeds 100%)
West-central Africa (Kongo, N. Mbundu, S. Mbundu) 26.1
Bight of Biafra (Igbo, Tikar, Ibibio, Bamileke, Bubi) 24.4
Sierra Leone (Mende, Temne) 15.8
Senegambia (Mandinka, Fula, Wolof) 14.5
Gold Coast (Akan, Fon) 13.1
Windward Coast (Mandé, Kru) 5.2
Bight of Benin (Yoruba, Ewe, Fon, Allada and Mahi) 4.3
Southeast Africa (Macua, Malagasy) 1.8
Prince Estabrook memorial in front of Buckman Tavern on Lexington Green in Lexington, Massachusetts. Prince Estabrook, who was wounded in the Battle of Lexington and Concord was the first Black casualty of the Revolutionary War.

As historian Christopher L. Brown put it, slavery "had never been on the agenda in a serious way before," but the American Revolution "forced it to be a public question from there forward."[57][58]

Freedom offered as incentive by British

This postage stamp, which was created at the time of the Bicentennial, honors Salem Poor, who was an enslaved African American man who purchased his freedom, became a soldier, and rose to fame as a war hero during the Battle of Bunker Hill.[59]
Continental soldiers at Yorktown. On the left, an African American soldier of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.

While a small number of African slaves were kept and sold in England,[60] slavery in Great Britain had not been authorized by statute there. In 1772, it was made unenforceable at common law in England and Wales by a legal decision. The British role in the international slave trade continued until it abolished its slave trade in 1807. Slavery flourished in most of Britain's North American and Caribbean colonies, with many wealthy slave owners living in England and weilding considerable power.[61]

In early 1775 Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia and a slave-owner, wrote to Lord Dartmouth of his intent to free slaves owned by patriots in case of rebellion.[62] On November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore issued Lord Dunmore's Proclamation which declared martial law in Virginia[63] and promised freedom for any slaves of American patriots who would leave their masters and join the royal forces. Slaves owned by Loyalist masters, however, were unaffected by Dunmore's Proclamation. About 1500 slaves owned by patriots escaped and joined Dunmore's forces. Most died of disease before they could do any fighting. Three hundred of these freed slaves made it to freedom in Britain.[64]

Many slaves used the very disruption of war to escape their plantations and fade into cities or woods, or to the British lines. Upon their first sight of British vessels, thousands of slaves in Maryland and Virginia ran away from their owners.[65]:21 In South Carolina, nearly 25,000 slaves (30% of the total enslaved population) fled, migrated, or died during the war. Throughout the South, losses of slaves were high, with many due to escapes.[66] Slaves also escaped throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic, with many joining the British who had occupied New York.

In the closing months of the war the British evacuated freedmen and also removed slaves owned by loyalists. The British evacuated 20,000 freedmen from major coastal cities, transporting more than 3,000 for resettlement in Nova Scotia, where they were registered as Black loyalists and eventually granted land. They transported others to the Caribbean islands, and some to England. Over 5,000 enslaved Africans owned by loyalists were transported in 1782 with their owners from Savannah to Jamaica and St. Augustine, Florida (then a British colony). Similarly, over half of the Black people evacuated in 1782 from Charleston by the British to the West Indies and Florida were slaves owned by white loyalists.

Slaves and free blacks who helped the rebels

The rebels began to offer freedom as an incentive to motivate slaves to fight on their side. Washington authorized slaves to be freed who fought with the American Continental Army. Rhode Island started enlisting slaves in 1778, and promised compensation to owners whose slaves enlisted and survived to gain freedom.[67][68] During the course of the war, about one-fifth of the northern army was Black.[69] In 1781, Baron Closen, a German officer in the French Royal Deux-Ponts Regiment at the Battle of Yorktown, estimated the American army to be about one-quarter Black.[70] These men included both former slaves and Blacks born free. Thousands of free Blacks in the Northern states fought in the state militias and Continental Army. In the South, both sides offered freedom to slaves who would perform military service. Roughly 20,000 slaves fought in the American Revolution.[71][72][73][74][75]

The birth of abolitionism in the new United States

In the first two decades after the American Revolution, state legislatures and individuals took actions to free slaves. Northern states passed new constitutions that contained language about equal rights or specifically abolished slavery; some states, such as New York and New Jersey, where slavery was more widespread, passed laws by the end of the 18th century to abolish slavery incrementally. By 1804, all the Northern states had passed laws outlawing slavery, either immediately or over time. In New York, the last slaves were freed in 1827 (celebrated with a big July 4 parade). Indentured servitude (temporary slavery), which had been widespread in the colonies (half the population of Philadelphia had once been indentured servants), dropped dramatically, and disappeared by 1800. However, there were still forcibly indentured servants in New Jersey in 1860. No Southern state abolished slavery, but some individual owners, more than a handful, freed their slaves by personal decision, often providing for manumission in wills but sometimes filing deeds or court papers to free individuals. Numerous slaveholders who freed their slaves cited revolutionary ideals in their documents; others freed slaves as a promised reward for service. The number of free Blacks as a proportion of the Black population in the upper South increased from less than one percent to nearly ten percent between 1790 and 1810 as a result of these actions.[76][77][78][79][80][81][82][83][84][85]

Starting in 1777, the rebels outlawed the importation of slaves state by state. They all acted to end the international trade, but after the war it was later reopened in South Carolina and Georgia. In 1807 Congress acted on President Jefferson's advice and made importing slaves from abroad a federal crime, effective the first day that the Constitution permitted this prohibition: January 1, 1808.[86]

During the Revolution and in the following years, all states north of Maryland took steps towards abolishing slavery. In 1777, the Vermont Republic, which was still unrecognized by the United States, passed a state constitution prohibiting slavery. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, led in part by Benjamin Franklin, was founded in 1775, and in 1780, Pennsylvania began gradual abolition. In 1783, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Commonwealth v. Jennison that slavery was unconstitutional under the state's new 1780 constitution. New Hampshire began gradual emancipation in 1783, while Connecticut and Rhode Island followed in 1784. The New York Manumission Society was founded in 1785, and was led by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. New York state began gradual emancipation in 1799, and New Jersey followed in 1804.

Shortly after the Revolution, the Northwest Territory was established, by Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam (who had been George Washington's chief engineer). Both Cutler and Putnam came from Puritan New England. The Puritans strongly believed that slavery was morally wrong. Their influence on the issue of slavery was long-lasting, and this was provided significantly greater impetus by the Revolution. The Northwest Territory (which became Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota) doubled the size of the United States, and it was established at the insistence of Cutler and Putnam as "free soil" – no slavery. This was to prove crucial a few decades later. Had those states been slave states, and their electoral votes gone to Abraham Lincoln's main opponent, Lincoln would not have become President. The Civil War would not have been fought. Even if it eventually had been, the North might well have lost.[87][88][89][90]

Constitution of the United States

Slavery was a contentious issue in the writing and approval of the Constitution of the United States.[91] In it the words "slave" and "slavery" do not appear, although several provisions clearly refer to it. The Constitution did not prohibit slavery.[92]

Section 9 of Article I forbade the Federal government from preventing the importation of slaves, described as "such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit", for twenty years after the Constitution's ratification (until January 1, 1808).

The delegates approved Section 2 of Article IV, which prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled to them from another state, and required the return of chattel property to owners.[93]

Three-Fifths Compromise

In a section negotiated by James Madison of Virginia, Section 2 of Article I designated "other persons" (slaves) to be added to the total of the state's free population, at the rate of three-fifths of their total number, to establish the state's official population for the purposes of apportionment of Congressional representation and federal taxation.[94] This disproportionately strengthened the political power of Southern representatives, as three-fifths of the (non-voting) slave population was counted for Congressional apportionment and in the Electoral College.

In addition, many parts of the country were tied to the Southern economy. As the historian James Oliver Horton noted, prominent slaveholder politicians and the commodity crops of the South had a strong influence on United States politics and economy. Horton said,

in the 72 years between the election of George Washington and the election of Abraham Lincoln, 50 of those years [had] a slaveholder as president of the United States, and, for that whole period of time, there was never a person elected to a second term who was not a slaveholder.[32]

The power of Southern states in Congress lasted until the Civil War, affecting national policies, legislation, and appointments.[32] One result was that justices appointed to the Supreme Court were also primarily slave owners. The planter elite dominated the Southern Congressional delegations and the United States presidency for nearly fifty years.[32]

Slavery in the United States Revolutionary era articles: 42

1790 to 1860

Slave trade

The U.S. Constitution barred the federal government from prohibiting the importation of slaves for twenty years. Various states passed different restrictions on the international slave trade during that period; by 1808, the only state still allowing the importation of African slaves was South Carolina. After 1808, legal importation of slaves ceased, although there was smuggling via lawless Spanish Florida and the disputed Gulf Coast to the west.[95]:48–49[96]:138 This route all but ended after Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821 (but see Wanderer and Clotilda).

American slavery, in law and in practice ... exceed[s] every other in severity and cool atrocity.

— Isaac Knapp, Preface to Narrative of James Williams, an American slave, 1838.

The replacement for the importation of slaves from abroad was increased domestic production. Virginia and Maryland had little new agricultural development, and their need for slaves was mostly for replacements for decedents. Normal reproduction more than supplied these: Virginia and Maryland had surpluses of slaves. Their tobacco farms were "worn out"[97] and the climate was not suitable for cotton or sugar cane. The surplus was even greater because slaves were encouraged to reproduce (though they could not marry). The white supremacist Virginian Thomas Roderick Dew wrote in 1832 that Virginia was a "negro-raising state"; i.e. Virginia "produced" slaves.[98]:2 According to him, in 1832 Virginia exported "upwards of 6,000 slaves" per year, "a source of wealth to Virginia".[99]:198 Another writer gives the figure in 1836 as 40,000, earning for Virginia an estimated $24,000,000 per year.[99]:201 Where demand for slaves was the strongest in what was then the southwest of the country: Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and later Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Here there was abundant land suitable for plantation agriculture, which young men with some capital established. This was expansion of the white, monied population: younger men seeking their fortune.

The most valuable crop that could be grown on a plantation in that climate was cotton. That crop was labor-intensive, and the least-costly laborers were slaves. Demand for slaves exceeded the supply in the southwest; therefore slaves, never cheap if they were productive, went for a higher price. As portrayed in Uncle Tom's Cabin (the "original" cabin was in Maryland),[100] "selling South" was greatly feared. A recently (2018) publicized example of the practice of "selling South" is the 1838 sale by Jesuits of 272 slaves from Maryland, to plantations in Louisiana, to benefit Georgetown University, which "owes its existence" to this transaction.[101][102][103]

Traders responded to the demand, including John Armfield and his uncle Isaac Franklin, who were "reputed to have made over half a million dollars (in 19th-century value)" in the slave trade[97] (they did not handle the Jesuit transaction just mentioned). Setting up an office in what was then the District of Columbia, regional center of the slave trade, in Alexandria, "a major slave trading port for more than a century",[104] the two men went into business in 1828 buying slaves in the North and selling them in the South:

Cash in Market.

The subscribers having leased for a term of years the large three story brick house on Duke Street, in the town of Alexandria, D.C. formerly occupied by Gen. Young, we wish to purchase one hundred and fifty likely young negroes of both sexes, between the ages of 8 and 25 years. Persons who wish to sell will do well to give us a call, as we are determined to give more than any other purchasers that are in market, or that may hereafter come into market.

Any letters addressed to the subscribers through the Post Office at Alexandria, will be promptly attended to. For information, enquire at the above described house, as we can at all times be found there.


— advertisement in the Alexandria Phoenix Gazette, May 17, 1828[97]

This house on Duke Street houses the Freedom House Museum, with exhibits on the slave trade and the lives of slaves.

Armfield remained in Alexandria doing the purchasing, with agents in Richmond and Warrenton, Virginia, and Baltimore, Frederick, and Easton, Maryland (on Maryland's Eastern Shore, near Delaware). Franklin handled the selling out of New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi, with offices in St. Francisville and Vidalia, Louisiana. Their partnership grew to the point that when the partnership was dissolved in 1836 and the business sold, they owned six ships for the sole purpose of transporting slaves, with monthly and then biweekly sailings. (The ships carried agricultural products on the return trips.)[97] One of them, the Isaac Franklin, was built for them.[97]

Franklin and Armfield's Alexandria site was visited by various abolitionists, who have left detailed descriptions of it.[105] They concur in that Armfield, in contrast with Robert Lumpkin among others, was the most scrupulous of the major slave traders, who would not knowingly purchase kidnapped slaves or freedmen, and whose slaves were reasonably well treated while he owned them, at least at the Duke Street facility. Slaves appeared to concur in this relatively positive picture, asking that if they were to be sold, that they be sold to Armfield. However, Armfield frequently took children from their parents and sold them South.[97]

"Fancy ladies"

In the United States in the early 19th century, owners of female slaves could freely and legally use them as sexual objects. This follows free use of female slaves on slaving vessels by the crews.[106]:83

The slaveholder has it in his power, to violate the chastity of his slaves. And not a few are beastly enough to exercise such power. Hence it happens that, in some families, it is difficult to distinguish the free children from the slaves. It is sometimes the case, that the largest part of the master's own children are born, not of his wife, but of the wives and daughters of his slaves, whom he has basely prostituted as well as enslaved.[107]:38

"This vice, this bane of society, has already become so common, that it is scarcely esteemed a disgrace."[108]

"Fancy" was a code word which indicated that the girl or young woman was suitable for or trained for sexual use.[109]:56 In some cases, children were also abused in this manner. The sale of a 13-year-old "nearly a fancy" is documented.[110] Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr., bought his wife when she was 13.[111]:191

Furthermore, enslaved women who were old enough to bear children were encouraged to procreate, which raised their value as slaves, since their children would eventually provide labor or be sold, enriching the owners. Enslaved women were sometimes medically treated in order to enable or encourage their fertility.[112] The variations in skin color found in the United States make it obvious how often Black women were impregnated by whites.[113]:78–79 For example, in the 1850 Census, 75.4% of "free negros" in Florida were described as mulattos, of mixed race.[114]:2 Nevertheless, it is only very recently, with DNA studies, that any sort of reliable number can be provided, and the research has only begun. Light-skinned girls, who contrasted with the darker field workers, were preferred.[110][115]

The sexual use of Black slaves by either slave owners or by those who could purchase the temporary services of a slave took various forms. A slaveowner, or his teenage son, could go to the slave quarters area of the plantation and do what he wanted, usually in front of the rest of the slaves, or with minimal privacy. It was common for a "house" female (housekeeper, maid, cook, laundress, or nanny) to be raped by one or more members of the household. Houses of prostitution throughout the slave states were largely staffed by female slaves providing sexual services, to their owners' profit. There were a small number of free Black females engaged in prostitution, or concubinage, especially in New Orleans.[109]:41

Slave owners who engaged in sexual activity with female slaves "were often the elite of the community. They had little need to worry about public scorn." These relationships "appear to have been tolerated and in some cases even quietly accepted." "Southern women ... do not trouble themselves about it".[116] Franklin and Armfield, who were definitely the elite of the community, joked frequently in their letters about the Black women and girls they were raping. It never occurred to them that there was anything wrong in what they were doing.[117]

Light-skinned young girls were sold openly for sexual use; their price was much higher than that of a field hand.[109]:38, 55[118] Special markets for the fancy girl trade existed in New Orleans[109]:55 and Lexington, Kentucky.[119][120] Historian Philip Shaw describes an occasion when Abraham Lincoln and Allen Gentry witnessed such sales in New Orleans in 1828:

Gentry vividly remembered a day in New Orleans when he and the nineteen-year-old Lincoln came upon a slave market. Pausing to watch, Gentry recalled looking down at Lincoln's hands and seeing that he "doubled his fists tightly; his knuckles went white." Men wearing black coats and white hats buy field hands, "black and ugly," for $500 to 800. And then the real horror begins: "When the sale of "fancy girls" began, Lincoln, "unable to stand it any longer," muttered to Gentry "Allen that's a disgrace. If I ever get a lick at that thing I'll hit it hard."[121]

Those girls who were "considered educated and refined, were purchased by the wealthiest clients, usually plantation owners, to become personal sexual companions." "There was a great demand in New Orleans for 'fancy girls'."[122]

The issue which did come up frequently was the threat of sexual intercourse between Black males and white females. Just as the Black women were perceived as having "a trace of Africa, that supposedly incited passion and sexual wantonness",[109]:39 the men were perceived as savages, unable to control their lust, given an opportunity.[123]:212–213

Another approach to the question was offered by Quaker and Florida planter Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. He advocated, and personally practiced, deliberate racial mixing through marriage, as part of his proposed solution to the slavery issue: racial integration, called "amalgamation" at the time. In an 1829 Treatise, he stated that mixed-race people were healthier and often more beautiful, that interracial sex was hygienic, and slavery made it convenient.[111]:190 Because of these views, tolerated in Spanish Florida, he found it impossible to remain long in Territorial Florida, and moved with his slaves and multiple wives to a plantation in Haiti (now in the Dominican Republic). There were many others who less flagrantly practiced interracial, common-law marriages with slaves (see Partus sequitur ventrem).

Justifications in the South

"A necessary evil"

In the 19th century, proponents of slavery often defended the institution as a "necessary evil". At that time, it was feared that emancipation of Black slaves would have more harmful social and economic consequences than the continuation of slavery. On April 22, 1820, Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, wrote in a letter to John Holmes, that with slavery,

We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.[124]

The French writer and traveler Alexis de Tocqueville, in his influential Democracy in America (1835), expressed opposition to slavery while observing its effects on American society. He felt that a multiracial society without slavery was untenable, as he believed that prejudice against Blacks increased as they were granted more rights (for example, in northern states). He believed that the attitudes of white Southerners, and the concentration of the Black population in the South, were bringing the white and Black populations to a state of equilibrium, and were a danger to both races. Because of the racial differences between master and slave, he believed that the latter could not be emancipated.[125]

In a letter to President Franklin Pierce, dated December 27, 1856, Robert E. Lee wrote,

There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil. It is idle to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it is a greater evil to the white than to the colored race. While my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more deeply engaged for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically, and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things. How long their servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence.[126]

"A positive good"

However, as the abolitionist movement's agitation increased and the area developed for plantations expanded, apologies for slavery became more faint in the South. Leaders then described slavery as a beneficial scheme of labor management. John C. Calhoun, in a famous speech in the Senate in 1837, declared that slavery was "instead of an evil, a good – a positive good". Calhoun supported his view with the following reasoning: in every civilized society one portion of the community must live on the labor of another; learning, science, and the arts are built upon leisure; the African slave, kindly treated by his master and mistress and looked after in his old age, is better off than the free laborers of Europe; and under the slave system conflicts between capital and labor are avoided. The advantages of slavery in this respect, he concluded, "will become more and more manifest, if left undisturbed by interference from without, as the country advances in wealth and numbers".[127]

South Carolina Army officer, planter, and railroad executive James Gadsden called slavery "a social blessing" and abolitionists "the greatest curse of the nation".[128] Gadsden was in favor of South Carolina's secession in 1850, and was a leader in efforts to split California into two states, one slave and one free.

Other Southern writers who also began to portray slavery as a positive good were James Henry Hammond and George Fitzhugh. They presented several arguments to defend the practice of slavery in the South.[129] Hammond, like Calhoun, believed that slavery was needed to build the rest of society. In a speech to the Senate on March 4, 1858, Hammond developed his "Mudsill Theory," defending his view on slavery by stating: "Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government; and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill." Hammond believed that in every class one group must accomplish all the menial duties, because without them the leaders in society could not progress.[129] He argued that the hired laborers of the North were slaves too: "The difference ... is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment," while those in the North had to search for employment.[129]

George Fitzhugh used assumptions about white superiority to justify slavery, writing that, "the Negro is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child." In The Universal Law of Slavery, Fitzhugh argues that slavery provides everything necessary for life and that the slave is unable to survive in a free world because he is lazy, and cannot compete with the intelligent European white race. He states that "The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and in some sense, the freest people in the world."[130] Without the South, "He (slave) would become an insufferable burden to society" and "Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery."[130]

On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, delivered his Cornerstone Speech. He explained the differences between the Constitution of the Confederate States and the United States Constitution, laid out the cause for the American Civil War, as he saw it, and defended slavery:[131]

The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away ... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it – when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.[131]

This view of the Negro "race" was backed by pseudoscience.[132] The leading researcher was Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, inventor of the mental illnesses of drapetomania (the desire of a slave to run away) and dysaesthesia aethiopica ("rascality"), both cured by whipping. The Medical Association of Louisiana set up a committee, of which he was chair, to investigate "the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race". Their report, first delivered to the Medical Association in an address, was published in their journal,[133] and then reprinted in part in the widely circulated DeBow's Review.[134]

Proposed expansion of slavery

Whether or not slavery was to be limited to the Southern states that already had it, or whether it was to be permitted in new states made from the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and Mexican Cession, was a major issue in the 1840s and 1850s. Results included the Compromise of 1850 and the Bleeding Kansas period.

Also relatively well known are the proposals, including the Ostend Manifesto, to annex Cuba as a slave state. There was also talk of making slave states of Mexico, Nicaragua (see Walker affair), and other lands around the so-called Golden Circle. Less well known today (2019), though well known at the time, is that pro-slavery Southerners:

  • Wanted to reintroduce slavery in the Northern states, through federal action or Constitutional amendment making slavery legal nationwide, thus overriding state anti-slavery laws.[136][137] (See Crittenden Compromise.) This was described as "well underway" by 1858.[138]
  • Said openly that slavery should by no means be limited to Negros, since in their view it was beneficial. Northern white workers, who were allegedly "wage slaves" already, would allegedly have better lives if they were enslaved.[139]

While these ideas never got off the ground, they alarmed Northerners and contributed to the growing polarization of the country.

Abolitionism in the North

Slavery is a volcano, the fires of which cannot be quenched, nor its ravishes controlled. We already feel its convulsions, and if we sit idly gazing upon its flames, as they rise higher and higher, our happy republic will be buried in ruin, beneath its overwhelming energies.

— William Ellsworth, attorney for Prudence Crandall, 1834[140]:193–194

Beginning during the Revolution and in the first two decades of the postwar era, every state in the North abolished slavery. These were the first abolitionist laws in the Atlantic World.[141][142] However, the abolition of slavery did not necessarily mean that existing slaves became free. In some states they were forced to remain with their former owners as indentured servants: free in name only, although they could not be sold and thus families could not be split, and their children were born free. The end of slavery did not come in New York until July 4, 1827, when it was celebrated with a big parade.[143] However, in the 1830 census, the only state with no slaves was Vermont. In the 1840 census, there were still slaves in New Hampshire (1), Rhode Island (5), Connecticut (17), New York (4), Pennsylvania (64), Ohio (3), Indiana (3), Illinois (331), Iowa (16), and Wisconsin (11). There were none in these states in the 1850 census.[144]

In Massachusetts, slavery was successfully challenged in court in 1783 in a freedom suit by Quock Walker; he said that slavery was in contradiction to the state's new constitution of 1780 providing for equality of men. Freed slaves were subject to racial segregation and discrimination in the North, and in many cases they did not have the right to vote until ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.[145]

This portrait of Judge Samuel Sewall by John Smibert is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Massachusetts.

Most Northern states passed legislation for gradual abolition, first freeing children born to slave mothers (and requiring them to serve lengthy indentures to their mother's owners, often into their 20s as young adults). Pennsylvania's last ex-slaves were freed in 1847, Connecticut's in 1848, and while neither New Hampshire nor New Jersey had any slaves in the 1850 Census, and New Jersey only one and New Hampshire none in the 1860 Census, slavery was never prohibited in either state until ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865[146] (and New Jersey was one of the last states to ratify it).

Establishing the Northwest Territory as free soil – no slavery – by Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam proved to be crucial to the outcome of the Civil War.[87][88]

None of the Southern states abolished slavery before 1865, but it was not unusual for individual slaveholders in the South to free numerous slaves, often citing revolutionary ideals, in their wills. Methodist, Quaker, and Baptist preachers traveled in the South, appealing to slaveholders to manumit their slaves, and there were "manumission societies" in some Southern states. By 1810, the number and proportion of free blacks in the population of the United States had risen dramatically. Most free blacks lived in the North, but even in the Upper South, the proportion of free blacks went from less than one percent of all blacks to more than ten percent, even as the total number of slaves was increasing through imports.[147]

Thomas Jefferson proposed in 1784 to end slavery in all the territories, but his bill lost in the Congress by one vote. The territories south of the Ohio River (and Missouri) had authorized slavery.[148]

One of the early Puritan writings on this subject was "The Selling of Joseph," by Samuel Sewall in 1700. In it, Sewall condemned slavery and the slave trade and refuted many of the era's typical justifications for slavery.[149][150] The Puritan influence on slavery was still strong at the time of the American Revolution and up until the Civil War. Of America's first seven presidents, the two who did not own slaves, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, came from Puritan New England. They were wealthy enough to own slaves, but they chose not to because they felt it was morally wrong. In 1765, colonial leader Samuel Adams and his wife were given a slave girl as a gift. They immediately freed her. Just after the Revolution, in 1787, the Northwest Territory (which became the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) was opened up for settlement. The two men responsible for establishing this territory were Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam. They came from Puritan New England, and they insisted that this new territory, which doubled the size of the United States, was going to be "free soil" – no slavery. This was to prove crucial in the coming decades. If those states had become slave states, and their electoral votes had gone to Abraham Lincoln's main opponent, Lincoln would not have been elected president. The Civil War would not have been fought. Even if it eventually had been, the North would likely have lost.[87][88][89]

Statue of abolitionist and crusading minister Theodore Parker in front of the Theodore Parker Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the abolitionists, such as Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Frederick Douglass, repeatedly used the Puritan heritage of the country to bolster their cause. The most radical anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, invoked the Puritans and Puritan values over a thousand times. Parker, in urging New England Congressmen to support the abolition of slavery, wrote that "The son of the Puritan ... is sent to Congress to stand up for Truth and Right ..."[151][152]

Statue of prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the Highland Park Bowl in Rochester, New York. Douglass was a great admirer of Theodore Parker.

Northerners predominated in the westward movement into the Midwestern territory after the American Revolution; as the states were organized, they voted to prohibit slavery in their constitutions when they achieved statehood: Ohio in 1803, Indiana in 1816, and Illinois in 1818. What developed was a Northern block of free states united into one contiguous geographic area that generally shared an anti-slavery culture. The exceptions were the areas along the Ohio River settled by Southerners: the southern portions of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. Residents of those areas generally shared in Southern culture and attitudes. In addition, these areas were devoted to agriculture longer than the industrializing northern parts of these states, and some farmers used slave labor. In Illinois, for example, while the trade in slaves was prohibited, it was legal to bring slaves from Kentucky into Illinois and use them there, as long as the slaves left Illinois one day per year (they were "visiting"). The emancipation of slaves in the North led to the growth in the population of Northern free blacks, from several hundred in the 1770s to nearly 50,000 by 1810.[153]

Slavery in the United States 1790 to 1860 articles: 95