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U.S. slavery era

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Slaves imported to
American colonies[1]
Period Number
of slaves
1620 − 1700 21,000
1701 − 1760 189,000
1761 − 1770 63,000
1771 − 1790 56,000
1791 − 1800 79,000
1801 − 1810 124,000[2]
1811 − 1865 51,000
Total 583,000
See also: Black history

The U. S. slavery era began soon after Europeans first settled in what became the United States. All slaves were freed by 1865 during the Civil War, most by Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation but finally and completely by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

From about the 1640s until 1865, people of African descent were legally enslaved within the boundaries of the present United States by whites and also by Indians and free blacks. Some Indians were also held as slaves.[3]

About 585,000 slaves were imported into the U.S., or 5% of the 12 million slaves brought across from Africa. The great majority went to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and to Brazil, where life expectancy was short and the numbers had to be continually replenished. Life expectancy was much higher in the U.S. (because of better food, less disease, lighter work loads, and better medical care) so the numbers grew rapidly by excesses of births over deaths, reaching 4 million by the 1860 Census. From 1770 until 1860, the rate of natural growth of North American slaves was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and was nearly twice as rapid as that of England. [4]

Colonial America

The first record of Africans in colonial America is of a Dutch ship which brought twenty blacks recorded and sold them to the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 as indentured servants. Indentured servants had to work for a master for a fixed number of years and then were free, and these blacks were freed on schedule. Anthony Johnson eventually became a landowner on the Eastern Shore and a slave owner himself.

The transformation from indentured servitude to racial slavery happened gradually. There were no laws regarding slavery early in Virginia's history. The Virginia "Slave codes" of 1705 made clear the status of slaves. During the British colonial period, every colony had slavery. Those in the north were primarily house servants. Early on, slaves in the South worked on farms and plantations growing indigo, rice, and tobacco; cotton became a major crop after 1790s. Slaves were expensive and were used by rich farmers and plantation owners with commercial export-oriented operations on the best lands. The backwoods subsistence farmers seldom owned slaves.

Indians as slaves

During the 17th century, attempts at enslavement of Indians were made, but generally they refused to work. From 20,000 to 50,000 Indian slaves were exported to other colonies, especially the sugar islands of the Caribbean.[5]

After 1800, the Cherokees and other Indian tribes started buying and using black slaves, a practice they continued after being relocated to Indian Territory in the 1830s. In the American Civil War they sided with the Confederacy; their slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

1776 to 1850

Treatment of slaves

Slave codes authorized, or even required the use of violence, and were denounced by abolitionists for their brutality. Both slaves and free Negroes were regulated and had their movements monitored by slave patrols. Saves were at constant risk of losing members of their families if their owners decided to trade them for profit or to pay debts. Some slaves retaliated by murdering owners and overseers, burning barns, killing horses, or staging work slowdowns. [6]

Slaves were a very expensive investment and were fed, clothed, housed and provided medical care. It was common to pay bonuses at Christmas season and allowed slaves to keep earnings and gambling profits. (One slave, Denmark Vesey, won the lottery and bought his own freedom.) In many households, treatment of slaves varied with the slave's skin color. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned house servants had better clothing, food and housing.[7]


There was widespread sentiment during the American Revolution that slavery was a social evil (for the country as a whole and for the whites) and should eventually be abolished. All the Northern states passed emancipation acts between 1780 and 1804; most of these arranged for gradual emancipation and a special status for freedmen, so there were still a dozen "permanent apprentices" in New Jersey in 1860.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 declares all men "born free and equal"; the slave Quork Walker sued for his freedom on this basis and won his freedom, thus abolishing slavery in Massachusetts.

Throughout the first half of the 19th century, a movement to end slavery grew in strength throughout the United States. This reform took place amidst strong support of slavery among white Southerners, who began to refer to it as the "peculiar institution" in a defensive attempt to differentiate it from other examples of forced labor.

The large, well-funded American Colonization Society had an active program of shipping ex-slaves and free blacks who volunteered back to Africa to the American colony of Liberia.

After 1830, a religious movement led by William Lloyd Garrison declared slavery to be a personal sin and demanded the owners repent immediately and start the process of emancipation. The movement was highly controversial and was a factor in causing the American Civil War.

A very few abolitionists, such as John Brown, used armed force to foment uprisings among the slaves, as in Brown's failed 1859 insurrection in Virginia, which was joined by not a single slave.

Influential leaders of the abolition movement (1840-60) included:

Slave uprisings that used armed force (1700 - 1859) include:

  • New York Revolt of 1712
  • The Stono Rebellion (1739) in South Carolina
  • New York Slave Insurrection of 1741
  • Gabriel's Rebellion (1800) in Virginia
  • Louisiana Territory Slave Rebellion, led by Charles Deslandes (1811)
  • George Boxley Rebellion (1815) in Virginia
  • Fort Blount Revolt (1816) in Florida
  • Denmark Vesey uprising in Virginia (1822)
  • Nat Turner's Rebellion (1831) in Virginia

Rising tensions

The economic value of plantation slavery was transformed by heavy European demand for cotton cloth, the first product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and New England. Most of the world's cotton came from the U.S., thanks to the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s. The gin made raw cotton the major crop in a large swath of the South--in the region called the "Black Belt" from South Carolina due west to texas. The result was explosive growth in the cotton industry and a proportionate increase in the demand for slave labor in the South.

Just as demand for slaves was increasing, the international supply was made illegal. The Constitution in 1787 allowed a ban the importation of slaves after 1808 and 1807, pushed by Thomas Jefferson Congress made the international import or export of slaves a criminal act. There were no restriction on sales inside the U.S. Though there were some violations of this law, slavery in America became self-sustaining; the overland 'slave trade' from Virginia, and the Carolinas to Georgia, Alabama, and Texas continued for another half-century.

The Constitution required a fugitive slave law, and an effective one was finally passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. Every year a few hundred runaway slaves fled the South across the Ohio River to the North via the Underground Railroad. After 1854, Republicans fumed that Slave Power, especially the pro-slavery Democratic Party, controlled all three branches of the Federal government.

Because the Midwestern states decided in the 1820s not to allow slavery and because most Northeastern states became free states through local emancipation, a Northern bloc of free states solidified into one contiguous geographic area. The dividing line was the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon line (between slave-state Maryland and free-state Pennsylvania).

North and South grew further apart in 1845 with the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention on the premise that the Bible sanctions slavery and that it was acceptable for Christians to own slaves (the Southern Baptist Convention has since renounced this interpretation). This split was triggered by the opposition of northern Baptists to slavery, and in particular by the 1844 statement of the Home Mission Society declaring that a person could not be a missionary and still keep slaves as property. The Methodist and Presbyterian churches likewise divided north and south, so that by the late 1850s only the Democratic Party was a national institution, and it split in the 1860 election.

(PD) Map: Allen Johnson
Distribution of slaves in the United States in 1820
# Slaves # Free
 % free
Total US
 % black
of total
1790 697,681 59,527 757,208 7.9% 3,929,214 19%
1800 893,602 108,435 1,002,037 10.8% 5,308,483 19%
1810 1,191,362 186,446 1,377,808 13.5% 7,239,881 19%
1820 1,538,022 233,634 1,771,656 13.2% 9,638,453 18%
1830 2,009,043 319,599 2,328,642 13.7% 12,860,702 18%
1840 2,487,355 386,293 2,873,648 13.4% 17,063,353 17%
1850 3,204,313 434,495 3,638,808 11.9% 23,191,876 16%
1860 3,953,760 488,070 4,441,830 11.0% 31,443,321 14%
1870 0 4,880,009 4,880,009 100% 38,558,371 13%

Nat Turner, anti-literacy laws

In 1831, a bloody slave rebellion took place in Southampton County, Virginia. A slave named Nat Turner who was able to read and write and had "visions" led what became known as the Southampton Insurrection. On a murderous rampage without an apparent goal, Turner and his followers killed men, women and children, but were eventually subdued by the militia.

Nat Turner and many of his followers were hanged. They had accomplished little except to harm the relationship between the races and generate new fears among whites, an effect which spread far beyond the area of his violent acts. All across the South, new laws were enacted in the aftermath of the 1831 Turner Rebellion. Typical was the Virginia law against educating slaves, free blacks and mulattos. These laws were often defied by individuals, among whom is noted future Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, but they did so at risk to themselves.

Proslavery thought

The most articulate and influential spokesmen in favor of slavery was South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun (1782-1850). Calhoun was shaped by his own father, Patrick Calhoun, a prosperous backcountry slaveholder who supported the war but opposed ratification of federal Constitution. The father was a model of republican virtue who taught his son that one's standing in society depended not merely on one's commitment to the ideal of popular self government but also on the ownership of a substantial number of slaves. Flourishing in a world in which slaveholding was a badge of civilization, Calhoun saw little reason to question its morality as an adult; he never visited Europe. Calhoun had seen in South Carolina how the spread of slavery into his own frontier region had improved public morals by ridding the countryside of the shiftless poor whites who had once terrorized the law abiding middle class. Calhoun believed that slavery instilled in the white who remained a code of honor that blunted the disruptive potential of private gain and fostered the civic-mindedness that lay near the core of the republican creed. From such a standpoint, the expansion of slavery into the backcountry decreased the likelihood for social conflict and postponed the declension when money would become the only measure of self worth, as had happened in New England. Calhoun was thus firmly convinced that slavery was the key to the success of the American dream. [8]

On February 6, 1837, John C. Calhoun took the floor of the Senate to declare that slavery was a "positive good." Senator William Rives of Virginia had referred to slavery as an evil that might become a "lesser evil" in some circumstances. Calhoun believed that conceded too much to the abolitionists: "I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good. . . . I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other." A year later in the Senate (January 10, 1838), Calhoun repeated this defense of slavery as a "positive good": "Many in the South once believed that it was a moral and political evil; that folly and delusion are gone; we see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world." Calhoun rejected the belief of Southern moderates such as Henry Clay that all Americans could agree on the "opinion and feeling" that slavery was wrong, although they might disagree on the most practicable way to respond to that great wrong. Calhoun's constitutional ideas acted as a viable conservative alternative to Northern appeals to democracy, majority rule, and natural rights.

1850s to the Civil War

Bleeding Kansas

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act,1854, the border wars broke out in Kansas Territory, where the question of whether it would be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state was left to the inhabitants. The radical abolitionist John Brown was active in the mayhem and killing in "Bleeding Kansas." At the same time, fears that the Slave Power was seizing full control of the national government swept anti-slavery Republicans into office.

(PD) Drawing: Unknown
Simon Legree and Uncle Tom: A scene from Uncle Tom's Cabin, the famous 1851 abolitionist novel that galvanized Northern opinion against slavery.

Dred Scott

The Supreme Court tried to resolve the issue, but its 1857 Dred Scott decision only inflamed tempers. The deciding opinion claimed that slavery's presence in the Midwest was lawful (when owners crossed into free states)—further proof for Republicans like Abraham Lincoln that the Slave Power had seized control of the Supreme Court. The precedent of the decision had far-reaching ramifications, for the court defined "The words 'people of the United States' and 'citizens' are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing.", and then went on to say ""In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the declaration of independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people..." Thus this decision, in essence, denied personhood to African Americans that had been brought as slaves.

1860 presidential election

The divisions became fully exposed with the 1860 presidential election. The electorate split four ways. One party (the Southern Democrats) endorsed slavery. One (the Republicans) denounced it. One (the Northern Democrats) said democracy required the people themselves to decide on slavery locally. The fourth, the Constitutional Union Party said the survival of the Union was at stake and everything else should be compromised.

Lincoln, the Republican, won with a plurality of popular votes and a majority of electoral votes. Lincoln however, did not appear on the ballots of ten southern states: thus his election necessarily split the nation along sectional lines. Many slave owners in the South feared that the real intent of the Republicans was the abolition of slavery in states where it already existed, and that the sudden emancipation of 4 million slaves would be problematic for the slave owners and for the economy that drew its greatest profits from the labor of people who were not paid.

They also argued that banning slavery in new states would upset what they saw as a delicate balance of free states and slave states. Northern leaders like Lincoln had viewed the slavery interests as the "Slave Power" comprising a threat to republicanism and freedom in America, and promised to stop its geographical extension. Everyone believed slavery had to expand or fie, so the republicans were promising to slowly kill slavery. Southerns saw this as a basic violation of their rights and led seven states to secede from the Union and thus began the American Civil War. (Four more slave state seceded when Lincolon called on them for troops to invade the Confederacy; the slave states of Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware stayed in the Union.)

War and emancipation

The consequent American Civil War, beginning in 1861, led to the end of chattel slavery in America. Not long after the war broke out, through a legal maneuver credited to Union General Benjamin F. Butler, a lawyer by profession, slaves who came into Union "possession" were considered "contraband of war" and therefore, he ruled that they were not subject to return to Confederate owners as they had been before the War. Soon word spread, and many slaves sought refuge in Union territory, desiring to be declared "contraband." Many of the "contrabands" joined the Union Army as workers or troops, forming entire regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). Others went to refugee camps such as the Grand Contraband Camp near Fort Monroe or fled to northern cities. General Butler's interpretation was reinforced when the Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861, which declared that any property used by the Confederate military, including slaves, could be confiscated by Union forces.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, was a powerful move that promised freedom for slaves in the Confederacy as soon as the Union armies reached them. The proclamation made the abolition of slavery an official war goal that was implemented as the Union took territory from the Confederacy. According to the Census of 1860, this policy would free nearly four million slaves, or over 12% of the total population of the United States.

Slaves flocking to freedom with Union army, May 1863, Harper's Weekly, drawing by Thomas Nast

Tennessee and all of the border states (except Kentucky) abolished slavery by early 1865. Some slaves were freed by the operation of the Emancipation Proclamation as Union armies marched across the South. Emancipation as a reality came to the remaining southern slaves after the surrender of all Confederate troops in spring 1865. There still were over 250,000 slaves in Texas. They were freed as soon as word arrived of the collapse of the Confederacy, with the decisive day being June 19, 1865. "Juneteenth" as celebrated in Texas, commemorates the date when the news finally reached the last slaves at Galveston, Texas. Legally, the last 40,000 or so slaves were freed in Kentucky,[9] along with a thousand or so in Delaware and West Virginia by the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865.

Reconstruction to present

During Reconstruction, it was a serious question whether slavery had been permanently abolished or whether some form of semi-slavery would appear after the Union armies left. Republicans in Congress enfranchised freedmen, and disfranchised top Confederate leaders to prevent the revival of slavery, but historians have found no evidence that any such revical was ever contemplated.


On In 2007 the Virginia legislature passed a resolution acknowledging "with profound regret the involuntary servitude of Africans and the exploitation of Native Americans, and call for reconciliation among all Virginians."[10]


  1. Source: Miller and Smith, eds. Dictionary of American Slavery (1988) p . 678
  2. Includes 10,000 to Louiisiana before 1803.
  3. The U.S. took over Alaska in 1867 and ended slavery among the Tlingit tribe there.
  4. Michael Tadman, "The Demographic Cost of Sugar: Debates on Slave Societies and Natural Increase in the Americas," The American Historical Review Dec. 2000 105:5 online
  5. Alan Gallay, Alan, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1670-171 (2002).
  6. Genovese (1967)
  7. Genovese (1967)
  8. Irving Bartlett, John C. Calhoun (1994) p. 228
  9. E. Merton Coulter, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (1926) pp 268-70.
  10. O'Dell, Larry. Virginia Apologizes for Role in Slavery, Washington Post, 2007-02-25.