Slave Labor

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Slave Labor

Slave labor was vital to the economy both of Britain's North American colonies on the eve of the American Revolution and of the new nation. Most slaves toiled in obscurity, but the visible work other slaves did in prominent places—from making the colonial port towns go to building the independent Republic's new capital in Washington, D.C.—underscored their economic importance. But if the significance of slave labor to the economy as a whole was a constant, the years between the late colonial and early antebellum eras witnessed sweeping changes in the type and scope of the work. And given that labor molded the entire life—in nonworking as well as working hours—of every enslaved person, the transformations of slave labor shaped the lives of millions of black as well as white Americans.

broad changes

The Revolutionary and early national periods witnessed a massive growth in the American slave population as well as in the population as a whole. At the time of the American Revolution, roughly 1 in 5 Americans—just under 500,000—was of African descent, the vast majority of these enslaved. By the 1820 census, the enslaved population had more than tripled to over 1.5 million. (There were 1.8 million black Americans altogether, however, with 13 percent of this total being free.) However, the general population had grown so quickly between 1770 and 1820 that the proportion of slaves had dropped to 1 in 6, and African Americans made up 18 percent of the American people.

The geographic outlines of American slave labor also shifted dramatically in this half century. In the Revolutionary era, almost all slaves, along with their masters, lived in settlements hugging the Atlantic coast. They could be found in every colony, however, and in significant numbers in the northern port towns and the mid-Atlantic countryside as well as on southern plantations and farms. By 1820, the abolition of slavery in the North, though gradual, was well under way. This took longer in parts of the mid-Atlantic than elsewhere in the North. In the greater New York City area, for instance, slaves were still a central component of the labor force well into the nineteenth century. When New York State and New Jersey passed gradual abolition acts in 1799 and 1804 respectively, about one-third of all households in New York City and the surrounding countryside employed slave labor. By the 1820s, the transition to free labor was advanced but not complete. Meanwhile, southern plantation and farm agriculture had spread to the Mississippi River and beyond. Slave labor had become a "peculiar," sectional institution, but it gained more territory in the South than it lost in the North.

Sectionalization was not the only alteration in slavery's place in the American economy and society. In the colonies, African bondage was only one of many forms of unfree labor. Indentured servants and convicts from Britain, as well as bound apprentices, all worked alongside slaves. But in the 1780s, the newly independent nation was not about to continue accepting shipments of convicts from the erstwhile mother country. And legal changes in the early Republic struck down indentured servitude and gave new rights to apprentices, making all white people (except home-grown criminals) free. This left black slaves essentially alone in the category of unfree labor by the 1820s.

upper south

As abolition proceeded in the North, the Chesapeake states and their western satellites became the northern boundary of slave labor. But while the labor regime transmogrified in the face of crop changes and ideological attack, it hardly wilted. Indeed, it remained entrenched in old bastions like Virginia and expanded to Kentucky, Tennessee, and beyond in the early Republic. Slave labor thus demonstrated its durability and adaptability.

In the decades surrounding the Revolution, Virginia and Maryland transformed themselves from predominantly tobacco colonies to predominantly grain-producing states. As tobacco proved its ability both to exhaust the soil and to plunge planters deeper in debt as its price stagnated, slaveholders explored the possibilities of wheat and other grain crops. Those possibilities were great, especially in the form of exports to the hungry, war-torn Europe of the late eighteenth century.

As the crop changed, so did most Chesapeake slaves' labor regime. Tobacco had required painstaking year-round labor, but wheat did not. The latter did, however, bring in its train all manner of new tasks relating to maintaining draft animals (which planters were using in more abundance with the crop change) and to transporting, processing, and marketing flour. This switch imparted much greater variety to most slaves' work routines, requiring that they learn new skills and become jacks of many trades.

The lack of demand for year-round intensive work on a staple crop, however, convinced many Chesapeake slaveholders that they were now saddled with an excess slave population. For some masters, this made the antislavery ideas circulating in the Revolutionary era seem like common sense. These men and women manumitted their slaves in large numbers; ten thousand went free in Virginia alone in the 1780s. Maryland and especially Delaware saw an even greater proportion of slave laborers manumitted; by 1820 free people made up 27 percent of the black population in the former and 74 percent in the latter.

But other slaveholders saw a more lucrative way of unloading these surplus hands as slave labor expanded across the South in the early Republic. To be sure, the slave population of the Chesapeake grew in the period between 1770 and 1820. Virginia's quadrupled in that time, and the Old Dominion still had more slaves than any other state at the time of the Civil War. But the Chesapeake also supplied the rising domestic slave trade. "Movement," as historian Ira Berlin has phrased it, "became the defining feature of black life in the postwar Chesapeake" (Many Thousands Gone, p. 267). This included the growing practice of hiring slave laborers in pursuits both urban and rural, industrial and agriculture; but the main form of movement was a new migration to the interior South.

One place masters and slave traders dragged enslaved workers was the newly settled region directly to the west. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, white Americans poured into Kentucky and Tennessee, utilizing slave labor to establish and run new operations there. These were overwhelmingly agricultural as they were in the Chesapeake, but they took different forms. Kentucky, for instance, replaced Virginia as the epicenter of American tobacco cultivation and also made a name for itself producing hemp. The slaves' lives changed to suit the new crops as well as the exigencies of settling new territory.

deep south

The Lower South became the Deep South in the early national era. Rice cultivation in coastal South Carolina and Georgia was the main experience of slaves south of the tobacco colonies, but their lives in the new nation centered on cotton cultivation in new states and the up-country of the older states. As in the Upper South, the long-settled region's slave population persisted, but it also formed a terminus of the domestic slave traffic.

In both the colonial and the early national low country of South Carolina and Georgia, rice was king. Like all crops, its unique rhythms and conditions patterned the lives of the slaves working it. The combined effects of drudgery in knee-deep water and a pestilential disease environment, for instance, made for a higher mortality rate amongst slaves on rice plantations than obtained anywhere else except the sugar parishes of Louisiana.

Moreover, the low country's slave population hammered out a distinctive form of labor: the task system. Low country masters and overseers found that the difficulty of supervising their large black majority militated against working their slaves in gangs from sunup to sundown as in the archetypal model of American slavery. They therefore assigned their workers plots of land to cultivate every day. Once that task was complete, the slave's time was his or her own. The tasks were not easily completed for most slaves. But this system did allow a certain autonomy for slaves both during working hours and afterward; indeed, for some it increased the number of hours not spent working for the master. Some of these turned this time to growing their own produce, which they traded in local markets both clandestine and open.

But by the early nineteenth century, the main event for slave labor in the United States was neither rice nor tobacco nor wheat; it was cotton. Aided by a new gin that allowed for easier processing, cotton culture spread rapidly in the up-country of South Carolina and Georgia in the 1790s and 1800s, then in subsequent decades to newly conquered territories in the interior—what would become the heart of the Cotton Kingdom in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana.

The rising planters of the cotton frontier employed slave labor in carving out plantations in the new regions. They required mostly young and mostly male laborers to clear trees and brush in preparation for planting. Even such workers managed to clear only twelve acres every four months, so this stage stretched laboriously on for a long time. Furthermore, it was a new type of work for slaves who had worked staple crops before moving to the cotton frontier. Accordingly both their lives and communities had been forcibly restructured.

The adjustments were by no means finished once cotton cultivation was under way. The low country task system extended to cotton in some of these new settings, but gangs of slaves predominated, forcing migrants from the Lower South into new rhythms. Furthermore, whether from the Upper or Lower South, slaves had to learn new skills to cultivate and harvest cotton. The new work routines, together with the separation slaves experienced from kin and familiar surroundings, rendered forced entrance into the Cotton Kingdom a bitter experience. It was a trauma that as many as a million African Americans would endure before the Civil War.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; African Americans: Free Blacks in the South; Cotton; Emancipation and Manumission; Slavery: Slave Life; Slavery: Slave Trade, Domestic .


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——. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

White, Shane. Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770–1810. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Matthew Mason