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Gender and Race

Gender and Race

Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson ...211
U.S. Congress ...223
Martha Ballard ...232

In the United States between 1783 and 1815, only white adult males enjoyed the full range of privileges of citizenship that almost all U.S. citizens take for granted in the twenty-first century. Neither African Americans nor women had the right to vote. Women were legally subordinate (lesser or inferior) to their husbands. African American slaves essentially had no rights or privileges. They were considered property, not human beings.

Slaves made up a large percentage of the population in early America. Of the four million inhabitants counted in the nation's first census in 1790, some seven hundred thousand, or almost 18 percent, were African American slaves. Most slaves lived in the Southern states, the largest numbers in Maryland and Virginia.

Black slaves were brought from Africa beginning in the 1600s. They primarily worked the tobacco and rice fields of the Southern Colonies—Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Prior to the American Revolution (1775–83), slavery was generally accepted in America. The Quakers of Pennsylvania were the primary group to speak out against slavery at that time. After the United States won its war for independence, slavery became a more common topic of political discussions. Many Americans began to question how a nation of free people could allow enslavement of others.

The first steps toward ending slavery in the United States occurred in the Northern states. In 1777, Vermont was the first territory to ban slavery altogether; Vermont was preparing to enter statehood and addressed the issue of slavery in its state constitution. Other Northern states followed. Most Northern states were in the process of banning slavery within their boundaries by the end of the American Revolution in 1783.

Nevertheless, African slaves were the largest group of immigrants entering the United States between 1783 and 1808. Over two hundred thousand slaves were brought to the United States from Africa during that period. Slave labor was viewed by many as essential due to the large tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugarcane plantations in the South. Congress banned slave importation at the beginning of 1808.

Many of the nation's Founding Fathers owned slaves. National hero and first U.S. president George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) owned many slaves; they lived and worked at Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. Fellow Virginian and third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9), who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," was a slave owner, too.

The first excerpt in this chapter is "A Letter to Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson's Response." Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) wrote the letter to then–Secretary of State Jefferson, and Jefferson wrote a reply to Banneker. Banneker was a free black man, not a slave, who lived in Maryland. He was a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. In 1791, Banneker helped survey the land along the Potomac River for the nation's new capital city, Washington. Later that year, he wrote Secretary Jefferson an eloquently worded letter pleading for the civil rights of blacks and an end to slavery.

The second excerpt is from "Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves," a bill passed by Congress in 1807. The act banned the importation of slaves into the United States beginning on January 1, 1808.

The third excerpt, from A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, shifts the focus to women. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, a woman's place was in the home, whether her home was in an eastern city, on rural farmland, on a Southern plantation, or on the frontier's edge. Women filled their lives with raising children, performing household duties, and caring for the sick.

The U.S. Constitution did not originally allow women to vote. Further, when a woman married, any property in her name passed to her husband. Women had almost no way to make an independent living, especially in rural areas. Typically, a woman would have one pregnancy every two years during her childbearing years (which is generally from late teens through early forties). An average household included at least five children, with many youth dying before birth, at birth, in infancy due to diseases such as yellow fever epidemics, and through accidental death and disease in early years. (Mothers, too, often died in childbirth, thus having much lower life expectancies than men for that time.) Births were supported by a number of female relatives and neighbors. Women known as midwives sometimes attended births, too; these were women who had assisted at a number of births and gained enough experience to help expectant mothers in the birthing process.

The third excerpt features passages from the diary of Maine midwife Martha Ballard. The diary allows twenty-first century Americans a rare glimpse into the day-to-day activities of a courageous and determined pioneer woman.

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