Slavery and the American South

views updated

Slavery and the American South

When America's Founding Fathers (the country's earliest leaders) established the United States in the late 1700s, they decided to build the new nation on principles of freedom and liberty for its people. But during America's first years of existence, the country's leaders decided not to extend those freedoms to a small but growing segment of the population. The new nation's slaves, who had been removed from Africa by force or born into captivity in the "New World," were denied the rights that their white masters enjoyed, even though they contributed a great deal to America's agricultural economy. These slaves continued to be treated as property, even as the nation's white leaders were working to build an otherwise democratic government.

Many of America's early political leaders did not like slavery, but they recognized that slaves were used extensively by farmers in the new nation's Southern states. Knowing that it would cause an uproar if slavery was outlawed, the creators of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified (officially approved) in 1788, basically avoided dealing with the issue. Instead, they took small steps to limit slavery, hoping that the practice would eventually die out on its own. But rather than fading away, slavery in the American South increased dramatically. Within a few years of Eli Whitney's 1793 invention of the cotton gin, the region's economy became completely dependent on the production of cotton. Slaves became the primary work force in the production of this valuable crop, and the practice of slavery became even more ingrained in the Southern way of life.

Slavery in early America

Early European settlers brought the first African slaves to North America in the 1600s. As these colonists worked to carve a new life out of the wilderness, they found slaves handy to have around. African slaves could be used to plant and harvest crops, clear land, build houses and shops, and take care of household chores. In addition, the owners of these slaves did not have to pay them wages or provide them with anything other than the bare necessities for survival. Finally, the black skin of slaves instantly identified them, making it impossible for them to hide among the free white population.

Throughout the remainder of the 1600s, the early colonists continued to use slaves. As time went on, the colonists passed a number of laws that ensured the continued growth of slavery. In 1671, for example, Maryland legislators passed a law stating that even if a slave was a Christian, he or she would remain the property of his or her owner. In 1700, New York passed legislation that made runaway slaves subject to the death penalty. That same year, Virginia ruled that slaves were "real estate" and passed laws that called for severe punishment for people found guilty of marrying or having sexual relations with a member of another race.

By the early 1700s, slavery was an important part of early colonial economies. This was especially true in the Southern colonies, which used slaves to produce crops like tobacco, rice, and sugar for European markets. The number of slaves increased, too, as children born to slaves were forced into the same life that their mothers and fathers endured.

As time passed, however, growing numbers of people began to feel that enslaving people of other races was morally wrong. Religious groups in the Northern colonies, such as the Quakers, who helped settle Pennsylvania, began to protest against the slave trade. Further south, white people formed a number of organizations that urged slaveholders to grant freedom to their slaves. Political leaders expressed anxiety about slavery as well, citing both moral objections and practical concerns about the soundness of slavery-based economies. Some politicians and merchants in the Northern colonies became convinced that Southern plantation (large farm) owners were building a society that was not as efficient and prosperous as it could be. These critics argued that the South should follow the North's example and invest in new businesses and industries rather than relying upon slave-based agriculture. Some people even argued that slave labor was more costly to slaveowners than a free labor force would be, since slaveholders had to pay the cost of food and shelter for their slaves. By the mid-1700s, antislavery feelings were evident in most of the American colonies.

In the 1760s and early 1770s, the issue of slavery took a back seat as England and France fought each other for control of the North American mainland east of the Mississippi River. England eventually assumed command of much of this region, only to find itself confronted with a rebellion within its own colonies. By the early 1780s, these colonies had freed themselves from English control through the War for Independence, or Revolutionary War (1775–83). With the war behind them, the leaders of these colonies turned to the monumental task of deciding exactly what sort of nation the United States was going to be. As they discussed the framework for their new country, they quickly realized that it was going to be difficult to address the issue of slavery in a way that would be acceptable to everyone.

Slavery and the Constitution

In 1787, leaders from the original colonies met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the purpose of producing a Constitution that would unite all thirteen colonies into one country. (The thirteen colonies were Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.) The delegates in attendance knew that slavery was a delicate topic that would have to be handled with care, especially since divisions between Northern and Southern states on the issue seemed to widen with each passing day. In the previous few years, a number of Northern states had formally abolished slavery within their borders, and all of the Northern states had banned future importation (bringing in from another country) of slaves. Southern reliance on slavery held steady, though, and delegates from that region warned their Northern counterparts that they would fight any effort to outlaw slavery.

In the end, the Constitution that was ratified by America's Founding Fathers did not tackle the issue of slavery head-on. Instead, the delegates agreed to compromise. For example, Southern delegates agreed to make a huge section of land that had been ceded (legally transferred) to the United States in 1783 by Great Britain completely off-limits to the slave trade. Several new states (Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and parts of Minnesota) were eventually formed out of this region, known as the Northwest Territory. The South also agreed to a clause that would outlaw the importation of slaves from Africa (but not slavery itself) in 1808, twenty years down the road.

In return, Northern delegates agreed to allow slavery to remain in place in the South for at least twenty years before examining the issue again. In addition, representatives of the Northern states agreed that even though slaves would not be allowed to vote, each slave would be counted in the census as three-fifths of a person. (The census is the government's official calculation of the entire population.) The slavery compromise was an important victory for slaveholding states, because each state's representation in the U.S. Congress—and thus its political power—was determined by the size of its population. Other clauses of the Constitution instituted taxes on slave "property" and made it easier for slaveholders to regain custody of runaway slaves.

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788. Its creators knew that the document provided for the continuation of slavery in America for at least another twenty years. This fact bothered many of the Constitution's creators, who felt that the institution of slavery cast a dark shadow over the new nation's supposed ideals of liberty and equality. Even leaders like eventual presidents Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and George Washington (1732–1799), who themselves owned slaves, recognized that slavery was an evil practice that should be eliminated. But they were also aware of the South's dependence on slavery, and they desperately wanted to keep the states united. Moreover, many people in both the North and the South felt that the "peculiar institution," as slavery was sometimes called, was likely to die out on its own. By the early 1790s, some white Southerners were joining their Northern brothers in speaking out against the evils of slavery. In addition, many observers predicted that as Southern states diversified their economies in the coming years (adding industries other than cotton to the mix), their reliance on slave labor would diminish. Finally, antislavery forces took comfort in the South's agreement to suspend importation of African slaves in 1808. They viewed this agreement as a sign that even the South saw that its dependence on slavery could not last forever.

"King Cotton"

In 1793, however, a Yankee (Northerner) named Eli Whitney (1765–1825) unveiled a new invention that took the world by storm. The invention, a simple machine called the cotton gin, revolutionized the cotton-growing industry. Before the introduction of Whitney's cotton gin, processing or cleaning of cotton crops (separating the seeds from the cotton fiber that was used to make clothing and other goods) was a tedious, time-consuming task. Mindful of cotton's production difficulties, most Southern farmers grew other crops, even though the soil and climate in the American South was ideal for cotton production. But textile mills in Europe and Northern states were making loud demands for the crop.

With the arrival of the cotton gin, which effectively separated seeds from cotton fibers, plantation owners (known as planters) could suddenly process far greater quantities of the valuable crop than ever before. All across the South, small farms and sprawling plantations alike switched to cotton production. From 1790 to 1820, production of cotton in the United States increased from 3,000 bales to 400,000 bales a year (each bale weighed about 500 pounds), with nearly all of it originating in the Deep South. By the 1830s, cotton was America's leading export product, and the value of cotton exports eventually exceeded the value of all other American exports combined. By 1860, cotton exports were worth $191 million, 57 percent of the total value of all American exports. Demand for cotton products continued to grow throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and planters all across the South become wealthy on "King Cotton," as the crop came to be called.

The cotton gin dramatically increased the amount of money flowing into the Southern economy, but it also renewed the dying institution of slavery. Cotton producers needed laborers to plant and pick the huge quantities of cotton intended for markets in Great Britain, France, and New England, so slaves were assigned to take care of this physically demanding work. As cotton production increased, so too did Southern dependence on slave labor. From 1790 to 1810, the number of African slaves on American soil increased by 70 percent. The number of enslaved Americans continued to rise throughout the 1820s and 1830s, even after importation of foreign slaves ended in 1808. By 1860, the census counted nearly four million slaves in America, and it was clear that the institution of slavery had become completely interwoven in the fabric of Southern society.

The resurgence of slavery in the American South depressed many people, from common citizens to political leaders. They recognized that with each passing year, it would become harder and harder for the Southern states to abandon slavery and establish a free society. Reviewing the situation, Thomas Jefferson compared slavery to a dangerous wolf: "We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

Life as a slave

Cotton delivered great wealth to Southern plantation owners, who subsequently created a comfortable society for themselves. During the first half of the nineteenth century, white Southerners developed a culture that emphasized ideals of refinement, elegance, and old-fashioned chivalry (the medieval knightly qualities of honor, courage, helping the weak, and protecting women). Even many of its poorer white citizens embraced romantic notions of the nature of Southern life in its towns and on its plantations.

Most slaves, of course, had a far different view of life in the South. The majority of slaves worked on large farms and plantations, where they were often forced to maintain a physically punishing work schedule in the fields. Slaves who lived in the towns and cities of the South were sometimes more fortunate. Those who were skilled carpenters or masons sometimes received monetary payment for their work, and they were less likely to be mistreated by their owners. "A city slave," wrote black leader Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895), "enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the whip-driven slave on the plantation." Nonetheless, even the most successful slave carpenter remained at the mercy of his master and the larger white society in which he lived.

Another factor in how slaves were treated was the temperament (behavior) of the master they served. Since slaves were valuable, slaveholders generally made sure that they were provided with basic food, clothing, and shelter. In addition, some Southern masters were relatively kind to their slaves. They avoided separating members of slave families and tried to create environments in which their slaves could be relatively comfortable. But other masters treated their slaves like livestock. Some slaveholders whipped or beat slaves who displeased them for practically any reason. One Georgia slaveowner, for instance, noted that he once whipped a slave "for not bringing over milk for my coffee, [forcing me] to take it without." Slaveholders also sometimes sold slaves to buyers who lived hundreds of miles away, with no regard for the agony that such actions caused to family members left behind. Slaves who tried to run away or who rebelled against their masters in any way ran the risk of being killed. As each generation of black boys and girls grew to maturity in the American South, they learned that whites held complete power over their lives.

Forced to endure injustice and humiliation on a daily basis, slaves sometimes became so angry and frustrated that they resorted to violence. In 1800, for example, a slave named Gabriel Prosser (c. 1776–1800) and more than one hundred followers nearly succeeded in executing an attack on Richmond, Virginia, only to be discovered at the last minute. Prosser, his brother, and more than two dozen other slaves were hanged for their role in the plot, even though one of the rebels pointed out that "I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer had he been taken by the British and put to trial. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause." Twenty-two years later, a freed slave named Denmark Vesey (c. 1767–1822), who could not bear to see the continued enslavement of other blacks, organized a violent plot against the white citizens of Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey's plan, which included burning the city and killing as many whites as possible, unraveled after a slave informed white authorities about it. Vesey and thirty-six other blacks were subsequently hanged for their involvement in the plot.

Both of these plots struck fear into the hearts of white Southerners. But the rebellion that caused the most panic in slaveholding states was an 1831 slave revolt in Virginia led by a slave named Nat Turner (1800–1831). One August night, Turner and a small band of followers murdered the family that owned them, then roamed the countryside, adding dozens of angry slaves to their group along the way. The poorly organized rebellion was crushed in less than two days, and Turner and a number of his followers were eventually executed, but the revolt frightened white communities all across the South. In the days following the "Turner Rebellion," state legislatures throughout the Southern United States passed strict new laws designed to tighten the chains of slavery around the throats of all blacks. Despite the execution of Turner and the institution of these new laws, though, whites' perennial fears of a widespread slave rebellion increased.

Two different economies

The South's growing dependence on cotton and slave labor during the first half of the nineteenth century eventually affected all aspects of Southern life. With each passing year, the production of cotton and other crops became ever more vital to the economic well-being of Southern states. As a result, a large percentage of the region's population continued to live in rural areas, and few cities of any great size developed. Some factories eventually appeared on Southern soil, and a small number of railroads, canals, and roads were in place by mid-century, but agriculture remained the cornerstone of Southern wealth.

The South's reliance on agriculture made it difficult for the region to attract whites from the North or Europe. After all, slaves took care of most of the farmwork, and the slow pace of industrialization (the development of new business) in Southern cities meant that factory jobs were scarce. As a result, the size of the white population in the South did not change very much, even as the number of enslaved blacks continued to rise.

The economic situation in the North was far different. By the mid-1800s, cities all across the Northern United States were feeling the effects of the "Industrial Revolution." The Industrial Revolution was a term used to describe a period of major social and economic changes that took place around the world. During this period, amazing inventions and new technologies enabled people to establish factories of mass production and introduce new machines and products. In contrast to the South, which was content to maintain its agriculture-based way of life, the North used these advances to build economies that relied on manufacturing, shipping, and other industries in addition to agriculture.

The North proved to be an ideal region for industrialization for several reasons. For one thing, local and state governments in the Northern United States worked very hard to build an extensive transportation network of railroads, canals, and roads. These transportation options made it much easier for businesses to deliver products to their customers. In addition, many of the Northern states were blessed with an abundance of important natural resources like coal, iron, and timber. These materials were very important in the development of new industries. A growing system of laws also helped Northern businesses prosper, providing them with legal protection in their business dealings. Finally, the North placed greater emphasis on educational issues than did the South, and its higher literacy rate made it more attractive to a range of businesses. All of these factors combined with manufacturing advances to create money-making opportunities for small businesses and giant corporations alike.

As the North became increasingly industrialized, the daily character of life in the North changed as well. The populations of many towns and cities exploded, as families that had previously supported themselves by farming rushed to grab factory jobs. Immigration to Northern states from Europe surged, too, as tens of thousands of poor people from Ireland, England, Germany, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and other nations traveled to America every year in search of a better life. Many of these immigrants headed out for America's western territories after arriving on U.S. shores. But millions of others settled in the slums of big Northern cities like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, where they toiled in factories and shipyards. By 1860, immigration had boosted the population in America's Northern states to nearly eighteen million. By contrast, only nine million people lived in the American South, and nearly four million of those people were slaves.

Words to Know

Founding Fathers political and community leaders who established the United States after the War for Independence in 1776; this term is often specifically used for the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787

Industrialization a process by which factories and manufacturing become very important to the economy of a country or region

Plantation a large estate dedicated to farming

Quakers a religious group that strongly opposed slavery and violence of any kind

People to Know

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) primary author of America's Declaration of Independence; third president of the United States, 1801–9

Nat Turner (1800–1831) American slave who led violent slave rebellion in 1831

Eli Whitney (1765–1825) American inventor whose inventions included the cotton gin

Quakers Lead Opposition to Slavery

Of the various religious denominations that protested against slavery in America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the most effective group was probably the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. The Society of Friends is a religious body that was founded in England in the seventeenth century by a minister named George Fox (1624–1691). Unhappy with the rules and beliefs of the Church of England, which dominated religion in that country, Fox started a new religion based on pacifism, meditation, and the belief that people could find understanding and guidance directly from the Holy Spirit.

Persecuted in England for their beliefs, the Quakers immigrated to the distant corners of the world in order to practice their religion in peace. Quaker settlements were established in Asia, Africa, and in northeastern North America. During the eighteenth century, a Pennsylvania colony established by English colonialist William Penn (1644–1718) became a stronghold of Quaker life.

Members of the Society of Friends who lived in America recognized that the practice of slavery was an immoral one. Their strong belief in the equality of all people, no matter what their race or background, led Quaker leaders to organize the first formal protests against slavery on American soil. In 1688, Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, publicly demonstrated against the slave trade, the first of many such Quaker protests. In 1775, Quakers living in Philadelphia organized the world's first antislavery society.

The Quakers sustained their opposition to slavery throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, providing the abolitionist movement (which advocated that slavery be abolished) with many of its most effective leaders. Motivated by their certainty that the practice of slavery violated basic Christian values, members of the Society of Friends were consistently among the most well-spoken, persuasive, and dedicated of abolitionist voices. As Philadelphia Quaker Anthony Benezet (1713–1784) stated in 1754, "To live in ease and plenty, by the toil of those, whom violence and cruelty have put in our power, is neither consistent with Christianity nor common justice; and we have good reason to believe, draws down the displeasure of heaven."

Thomas Jefferson, the Slaveowner Who Wrote the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson is one of the most famous figures in American history. He was a brilliant man who served his country remarkably well in many important capacities—including an eight-year stint (1801–9) as the United States' third president. He also wrote America's Declaration of Independence, which explains the nation's democratic ideals and values and continues to be hailed as its most important document. Yet Jefferson, who wrote in the Declaration that "all men are created equal," was also a slaveholder for much of his life, despite his belief that slavery was morally wrong. This puzzling contradiction between the antislavery convictions and the slaveowning practices of one of America's greatest political leaders continues to fascinate modern-day historians.

Born and raised in Virginia, Jefferson was a wealthy plantation owner who kept a number of slaves. But even as he profited from the labor of his slaves, Jefferson recognized that enslavement of other people was immoral. By 1776, when he emerged as a revolutionary leader in America's War of Independence from England, he was so convinced of the evils of the slave trade that he included strongly worded criticisms of the practice in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

To Jefferson's dismay, representatives of the rebellious American colonies eliminated his antislavery remarks and changed other parts of his Declaration when they gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 for the First Continental Congress. But the democratic spirit of his historic document remained intact. When it was unanimously approved by the Congress on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence immediately came to be seen as the symbolic core of the new nation's dreams and ideals.

One of the most frequently cited sections of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Other writings by Jefferson provide ample evidence that he believed that blacks were as entitled to these rights as were whites, even though he did not think that blacks had the same mental abilities as whites. Despite these convictions, however, he continued to use slaves on his plantation and in factories that he owned. In addition, he sold slaves on at least two occasions, and recent deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing (a sort of genetic "fingerprint" that everyone carries in their blood) indicates that he likely had a long-term sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (1773–1835), which produced several children.

Historians have long debated the reasons for Jefferson's inability to abandon a practice that he knew was morally wrong. Some people claim that his financial dependence on slave labor kept him in the slaveholder camp. Others say that his desire to retain his high place in Southern society played a part in his continued ownership of slaves. In any event, the issue of slavery haunted Jefferson throughout his life, even as he helped guide America through its first years of independence. "All his adult life, Thomas Jefferson . . . tossed and turned in an agony of ambivalence [simultaneously conflicting feelings] over the dilemma of slavery and freedom," wrote biographer Willard Sterne Randall in Thomas Jefferson: A Life. "Repeatedly he sought to have public institutions relieve him of the burden of his conscience while he tried to avoid giving offense to his close-knit family and the slaveowning society of his beloved Virginia. He knew slavery was evil, he called it evil and spoke out against it in a series of public forums, but he would only push so far—and then he would fall back on a way of life utterly dependent on slave labor."

Remembrances of Slavery

The treatment of slaves in America differed a great deal, depending on the temperament of their masters. Some slaves were provided with comfortable housing and ample food for their families, and in the years following the Civil War, some former slaves recalled their masters as kindly or considerate. But thousands of other remembrances painted a far darker picture of life as a slave. The following three accounts all show how brutal the practice of slavery could be on those who were kept in bondage:

My master used to throw me in a buck and whip me. He would put my hands together and tie them. Then he would strip me naked. Then he would make me squat down. Then he would run a stick through behind my knees and in front of my elbows. My knee was up against my chest. My hands was tied together just in front of my shins. The stick between my arms and my knees held me in a squat. That's what they call a buck. You couldn't stand up and you couldn't get your feet out. You couldn't do nothing but just squat there and take what he put on. You couldn't move no way at all. Just try to. You just fall over on one side and have to stay there till you were turned over by him. He would whip me on one side till that was sore and full of blood and then he would whip me on the other side till that was all tore up. . . . [My mistress] took a bull whip once. The bull whip had a piece of iron in the handle of it—and she got mad. She was so mad she took the whip and hit me over the head with the butt end of it and the blood flew. It ran all down my back and dripped off my heels.—Ella Wilson, an ex-slave interviewed in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project, from To Be a Slave, edited by Julius Lester, 1968.

I knew a man who would let his slaves carry on a [religious church] meeting for a while, but when they got a little happy, the overseer would come and whip them. I have known him whip a woman with 400 lashes, because she said she was happy. This was to scare religion out of them, because he thought he wouldn't be able to get anything out of them if they were religious. . . . Such things are common. There are cases that are much worse than these. There was a man in our neighborhood who belonged to a Mr. Briscoe. They treated him so bad that he ran away, and him and his wife was gone for six months, and lived out in the canebreaks. They hunted him with the hounds of Bullen, a great negro-hunter. The dogs pushed him so that he and two others ran out, and they ran them right across a bayou, right across our road, and they catched one right at the edge of the water, and hamstrung him and tore him all to pieces.—Isaac Throgmorton, an ex-slave quoted in American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission Interviews, 1863.

Yes, I saw some pretty hard things during slave times. At Glasgow, Missouri, I saw a woman sold away from her husband. She had a two months' old baby in her arms and was crying. A driver asked her what she was bellowing about. She said she didn't want to leave her husband. He told her to shut up, but she couldn't and he snatched her little baby from her and threw it into a pen full of hogs. That sounds like a strange story, but I saw it. . . . No wonder God sent war on this nation!. . . The slaveholders were warned time and again to let the black man go, but they hardened their hearts and would not, until finally the wrath of God was poured out upon them and the sword of the great North fell upon their first-born. Many of the slaves were kindly treated, but God alone knows what those had to endure who fell into the hands of men destitute of [totally lacking in] mercy. The curse has passed; may it return no more forever.—L. M. Mills, an ex-slave quoted in the Philadelphia Sunday Item, July 24, 1892.

About this article

Slavery and the American South

Updated About content Print Article


Slavery and the American South