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Slavery: Overview

Slavery: Overview

During the Revolutionary era an array of forces combined to strike a powerful blow against the institution of slavery. Foremost among them was a burgeoning and well-articulated, Quaker-led, religious attack on slavery. This religious opposition combined with the political philosophy of natural rights embedded in the Declaration of Independence, as well as a growing anti-British sentiment, increasingly associated with human traffic between Africa and Britain's colonies, to produce a Revolutionary philosophy that espoused not only freedom from British oppression, but also political and personal freedom

for all Americans. The demands for freedom from British "enslavement" were not lost on those who were locked in slavery. During the political and military conflict, enslaved African Americans acted in ways that further loosened the bonds of slavery and forced a national reevaluation of the place of slavery in national life. What had appeared to be a smooth and unwavering development of human slavery was halted in some parts of the new country; in others it was stopped in its tracks. Where slavery did not end immediately or gradually, it would receive more legal and political support in the new nation than it had ever enjoyed under British supervision.

Resistance to British authority was intense in cities like Boston and Philadelphia, which were also centers of agitation against the international slave trade. Before the 1770s, few American voices had been raised against slavery, and those most frequently heard were directed not at domestic slavery but at the African slave trade. The quick and easy convergence of anti-British and antislavery sentiment brought thousands to the cause of antislavery. American patriotism, as Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence had revealed, could accommodate a throbbing antislavery vein. The early activism of the Quakers and other religious groups, such as the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania, Methodists in the Chesapeake region, and Baptists in New England, provided the physical and moral platform on which a more radical antislavery could be built. At the same time, however, Revolutionary agitation also came from planters in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, as well as slaveholders with smaller holdings in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Slavery was of course legal in all of the thirteen colonies when they declared independence from Britain, and the overwhelming majority of Patriot masters saw no contradiction between fighting for their own liberty and continuing to hold other people as slaves. Indeed, many masters would have said that their liberty was tied to their status as owners of property, including slaves.

Military leaders on both sides of the conflict soon recognized the benefits of recruiting enslaved African Americans into their ranks as soldiers, sailors, or ancillary workers. African Americans were equally quick at sensing an opportunity to win their freedom. Many slaves in Virginia answered Lord Dunmore's call in November 1775 to join the British army to help suppress their Patriot masters. This was the first of many ironies attached to the status of slavery during the Revolution: freedom for slaves was as likely or more likely to come from the "tyranny" of Britain than the "liberty" of the American cause.

On the other hand, in New England hundreds of slaves and free blacks answered the call to fight the British, and in so doing helped destroy slavery in that region. Initially General George Washington was shocked by the black faces among his troops. A Virginia planter who owned a considerable number of slaves, he could not fathom the idea of arming black men. By the end of the war he had come to rely on his black soldiers. At Yorktown he relied on a mostly black unit to charge a key British position. Indeed, military necessity made armed black soldiers a common sight throughout the duration of conflict. In return for enlisting, slaves received freedom, sometimes freedom for their families, and a vague promise of more.

The war undermined slavery throughout the North. By the end of the war Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and what would become the fourteenth state, Vermont, had adopted constitutional provisions to abolish slavery. Pennsylvania had passed a gradual abolition act that would end slavery over a number of years. Connecticut and Rhode Island passed similar laws in 1784. In the next two decades New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804) passed similar legislation. The slow pace of abolition in those two states reflected both conservative politics

and a larger slave population. In 1790 New York had more than 21,000 slaves and New Jersey more than 11,000.

In the South thousands of slaves escaped to freedom during the war, while thousands more joined the British or, less frequently, the American Army, to gain their freedom. In 1782 Virginia allowed masters the right to free their slaves, and the state's free black population grew rapidly, from about 2,000 in 1780 to over 30,000 by 1810. For most southern slaves, however, the Revolution meant little. The rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that southern whites claimed for themselves were not available for their slaves.

the rise of slavery

In 1790, 94 percent of the 698,000 slaves in the United States lived in what would emerge, in the coming decades, as "the South." In spite of this crucial demographic, the frequent denunciations of slavery by Southern political leaders suggested a general move toward the curtailment of human slavery. It soon became clear to antislavery Northerners, however, that the southern slaveholders' position on slavery and abolition was fundamentally at odds with their own. For Southerners, the "evil of its continuation had to be compared with the problem and consequences of its abolition" (MacLeod, p. 29). However powerful the moral or political impetus, pragmatic considerations predominated.

Leading Southerners, like Virginia's Patrick Henry, for example, were, as Henry put it, "drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them." A fellow slaveholder, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, was adamant that "without them South Carolina would soon be a desert waste." These and other Southern states, having witnessed firsthand the fighting ability of their slave population, were uniquely concerned about the economic and social cost of emancipation. Supporters of slavery were soon equating emancipation with economic disaster, personal danger, and social chaos. Not surprisingly, the moderates in Southern legislatures were those who considered it unnecessary to reopen the African slave trade. There was little support for measures that would undermine rather than repair and strengthen the institution of slavery.

Although not completely absent in the South, antislavery sentiment took on a distinct hue. One of the South's leading antislavery supporters was St. George Tucker of Virginia, who advocated for equal justice for free black Americans yet like most slaveholders in the South supported black removal. If black people were to remain in the North it would be as second-class citizens; in the South, they had to be enslaved. The natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence would not apply in any meaningful way to the masses of black Americans, slave or free.

revolutionary ideals and economic and political realities

In compromising their principles of human freedom in the new and egalitarian society, the founding fathers created a constitutional legal order that protected both black slavery and white male supremacy. The very principles that had propelled and supported the Revolutionary struggle and struck a body blow to the institution of slavery would succumb to the exigencies of nation building. Although the United States Constitution never mentioned the words "slaves" or "slavery," it acknowledged and protected the property rights of slaveholders. Among the several compromises was the federal ratio (Article I, section 2). Better known as the three-fifths clause, this provision counted slaves on a three-fifths basis in allocating representation in Congress and also in allocating votes in the electoral college. The three-fifths clause would give the South extra political muscle in Congress and provide the margin of victory in the vote over the Missouri Compromise in the House of Representatives. More important, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson's electoral college victory in 1800 came from the presidential electors created by the three-fifths clause.

The federal ratio gave to the slave states a voting power in the House of Representatives and in the electoral college (ultimately responsible for the election of the president) far beyond that to which their free population entitled them. Effectively, every 20,000 free white persons with 50,000 slaves controlled the political representation equal to 50,000 free white persons outside the slave states. The antislavery promise of the Revolution was sacrificed in the name of national unity.

In addition to the three-fifths clause, the Constitution protected the rights of masters to recover runaway slaves through the fugitive slave clause, prohibited taxes on exports such as tobacco and rice (which Southerners viewed as a way of taxing slavery), and guaranteed that the national government would suppress insurrections and rebellions (which included slave rebellions). The Constitution prohibited Congress from ending the African slave trade for at least twenty years but did not guarantee an end to it after that. In the heated debate over this clause, Connecticut's Oliver Ellsworth explained that he would support the demands of the Deep South, because "What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the states are the best judges of their particular interest."

Most important, the Constitution created a government of limited powers, and those powers did not include the regulation of the domestic institutions of the states, which included slavery. As General Pinckney told the South Carolina House of Representatives, "We have a security that the general government can never emancipate them, for no such authority is granted and it is admitted, on all hands, that the general government has no powers but what are expressly granted by the Constitution, and that all rights not expressed were reserved by the several states." While the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia to write the Constitution, the Congress meeting under the Articles of Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance, which prohibited slavery in the territories north of the Ohio River and implicitly allowed slavery in the territories south of the river.

When the new government was established under the Constitution, slavery was firmly entrenched in the nation. With a total population of just under four million, the new nation had about 700,000 slaves, almost all of them concentrated in the states south of Pennsylvania.

plantation slavery in the south

In Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Virginia, plantation owners faced different demands. Tobacco farmers in the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia increasingly turned to wheat as a money crop—the labor needs associated with growing this grain, when combined with liberalized ideas on slavery and freedom, sometimes led to a willingness to end the slave trade. During the mild agricultural depression of the 1780s and early 1790s, these sentiments grew as there actually seemed to be a regionwide surplus of black slaves. It was a different picture farther south, where the flight of tens of thousands of bondsmen to British and Spanish lines had caused a substantial decline in the number of black workers available to tend damaged and neglected plantations. Here, agricultural output suffered, causing the production of tobacco, rice, and indigo to fall well below prewar levels. In the rice and indigo regions of the Carolinas and Georgia, the desire to replace wartime slave losses and rebuild levees and rice irrigation canals triggered a demand to keep the African trade open.

In 1793 Eli Whitney of Connecticut, while visiting the Georgia plantation of Nathaniel Greene, made a simple refinement of the old roller gin and thus removed the main obstacle to large-scale production of cotton in the Southern states. The early spread of cotton was slow but steady as farmers made the adjustment from other more familiar staples. Between 1800 and 1808 the Deep South would import about 100,000 new slaves from Africa to help satisfy its seemingly insatiable demand for more laborers. The nation would gain another 30,000 slaves through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The closing of the African slave trade in 1808 shut off legal importations, although the nation would gain another 10,000 slaves with the acquisition of Florida in 1821. After 1808, however, cotton production in the United States was so widespread that planters demanded more labor, and an illegal African slave trade brought perhaps another thousand slaves a year to the nation. The high birth rate among slaves, as well as the last burst of legal importations, led to a growing slave population. Between 1790 and 1830 the slave population nearly tripled, from about 700,000 to over two million.

The expansion of cotton into the Old South-west—Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—led to a huge migration of slaves and masters. Some slaves were moved west as their owners abandoned depleted land in the east for the rich soil of the Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta. Other slaves were simply sold away, marched west in chains to carve out plantations in the emerging Cotton Kingdom. Mississippi, for example, had about 3,000 slaves in 1800 and over 65,000 by 1830; Louisiana went from 34,000 slaves to 109,000 in the same period. Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas were the main sources of slave migration, and the main importing states were first Kentucky and Tennessee and later, with the opening of the West, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. So rapid was the expansion of cotton production, with its insatiable demand for black labor, that in a few short years parts of the South became unrecognizable. Many areas that only a generation earlier had been characterized by white family farms were drawn into cotton cultivation and slavery. One result of this change was a decline in the number of manumissions and the slow disappearance of antislavery sentiment in the region.

westward expansion

Despite the constitutional agreement on slavery, the subject was never far from the center of most political issues. The slave rebellion in St. Domingue (Haiti) and the ever-present specter of slave rebellion at home struck a chord at all levels of American society. It gave the enslaved hope of their own liberation, buoyed the growing band of antislavers, and deeply disturbed slaveholders who imagined themselves surrounded by would-be rebels. The Gabriel Prosser slave insurrection in Richmond, Virginia, in August 1800 only added to the national tension and intruded in the upcoming elections. Southerners were quick to distinguish their man, Jefferson, who owned slaves, from incumbent President John Adams, who did not. Jefferson did not discourage this new development, authorizing his leading spokesman in South Carolina to point out his conviction that the Constitution "has not empowered the federal legislature to touch in the remotest degree the question respecting the condition of property of slaves in any of the states."

With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Jefferson's first major act as president, the United States more than doubled its boundaries, and once again the issue of slavery in the nation crept slowly to center stage. Of course, the South shared Jefferson's excitement at the opportunity to extend the nation's frontier so far, so quickly. Whereas slaveholders envisioned a "boundless agrarian empire," most people in the North had in mind an expanding nation of family farms, towns, and cities. Indeed, the years from 1810 to 1819 saw the population of the trans-Appalachian region more than double, and five new states joined the Union.

the missouri crisis

In 1790 some 47 percent of the nation's population lived in the slave states. Excluding the slave population, the region constituted only a little more than a third of the whole. Thus, aided by the growing number of black slaves, a third of the nation's white population controlled 46 percent of the seats in the House of Congress. By 1820 the region's share was still a high 42 percent despite the decline in the relative size of the slave states' white population. The near political parity was a direct result of the federal ratio, without which the slave states would have had a clear minority status and far less influence in Congress and the electoral college. In 1820 the slave states had twenty more seats in the House of Representatives than they otherwise would have had if their slaves had not been counted toward their representation. As Senator Rufus King of New York argued, under the unfair rule of slave representation, the vote of five Southerners was equal to that of seven Northerners in selecting both the president and members of the House.

On the eve of Missouri's application for entrance into the Union as a slave state, the Senate had an equal number of senators representing free and slave states. Missouri's entrance would tip the balance in favor of the slave states and so upset the equilibrium in the Senate. There was no obvious reason why the Southern politicians should have anticipated any difficulty with Missouri's application. That the territory's constitution protected slavery caused no great alarm. Slavery had been legal in Missouri under both the French and Spanish. As a part of the Louisiana Purchase, the United States government had guaranteed the preservation of slavery. Between 1803 and 1819, therefore, slavery had been a legitimate part of the American Missouri. Indeed, prior to 1819, Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796), Louisiana (1812), and Mississippi (1817) had all gained admission with little discussion. Even the recent admission of Alabama in December 1819 had presented few problems.

Missouri's entrance caused such a stir in part because Missouri's petition for statehood was the first attempt to allow slavery in a state that lay north of the implicit dividing line of the Ohio River established by the Northwest Ordinance. As Missouri lay directly west of Illinois, a free state created out of the Old Northwest Territory from which Congress had barred slavery in 1787, it appeared to some people that its admission as a slave state would take slavery beyond its traditional bounds. For the first time since the constitutional debates, supporters of slavery and its expansion would face a sustained attack on the institution. Southern politicians took a stand and made a public and passionate defense of their system of slavery; in so doing they deepened their region's commitment to the institution. For the second time, the slave states declined the opportunity to begin the process of gradually loosening their attachment to human slavery and chose instead to tighten their grip on what would become known as "the peculiar institution." The main element in the compromise reached over Missouri's entrance into the Union was that the nation would be formally divided into free states and slave states.

Slave rebellions, such as the Haitian Revolution abroad and Gabriel's rebellion at home, made Southerners increasingly fearful of any antislavery agitation. In the 1820s the forces for and against slavery became increasingly entrenched. The publication of the Appeal (1829) by David Walker, a free black man, encouraging the enslaved to rise up and throw off their chains, and radical abolitionism under the leadership of William Lloyd Garrison threatened the institution of slavery. When slave rebel Nat Turner led his band of the enslaved against their enslavers, Virginia's response was brutal. After a short period of postrebellion calm, Virginia legislators conducted a debate on the states' future attachment to human slavery not unlike those that had taken place four decades earlier in Northern states.

While Virginians argued over slavery, the political and moral center of Southern leadership and its defense of slavery shifted to South Carolina. Under the leadership of John C. Calhoun and a growing band of Southern nationalists, Southern slaveholders pursued a "positive good" defense, which originated in the 1820s, in an articulation of the general benefits of slavery. This defense would soon become Southern orthodoxy. In a desperate need to retain their influence in the national political arena and so protect their institution, Southern leaders would shift the battleground to the western territories and employ a new strategy: the geographical extension of slavery.


The ideology of revolution had a profound impact on the institution of slavery. It triggered the first national debate that pulled together nascent antislavery individuals and groups and witnessed the geographical fall and rise of the institution. Revolutionary ideology allowed religious folk to combine their Christian principles with the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. This offered large numbers of the enslaved the opportunity to aspire to freedom and armed their supporters with a powerful new political weapon. Wartime cracks appeared in a system, which under the British government had not yet coalesced into a social system driven by racial subordination. What was the racial norm in regions of the South was largely unfamiliar in most areas of the North. Revolutionary ideology shook slaveholder and slave alike, sharply dividing the country. Indeed, by 1819, when the nation engaged in a second national debate on slavery, it could only agree to formalize the status quo and require supporters of slavery and its expansion to provide a positive justification for what they now considered a fixture on the American economic, political, and racial landscape. The new nation had drifted a long way from the lofty ideals of its Revolution.

See alsoAbolition of Slavery in the North; African Americans: Overview; African Americans: African American Responses to Slavery and Race; Antislavery; Articles of Confederation; Constitutional Convention; Cotton; Cotton Gin; Emancipation and Manumission; Gabriel's Rebellion; Haitian Revolution; Louisiana Purchase; Missouri Compromise; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Plantation, The; Revolution: Slavery and Blacks in the Revolution; Vesey Rebellion .


Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998.

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 2nd ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

Frey, Sylvia R. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Hudson, Larry E. To Have and to Hold: Slave Work and Family Life in Antebellum South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

MacLeod, Duncan. Slavery, Race, and the American Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1947.

McManus, Edgar J. Black Bondage in the North. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1973, 2001.

Nash, Gary B. Race and Revolution. Madison, Wisc.: Madison House, 1990.

Nieman, Donald G. Promises to Keep: African-Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

Larry E. Hudson Jr.

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