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Slavery is the unconditional servitude of one individual to another. A slave is usually acquired by purchase and legally described as chattel or a tangible form of movable property. For much of human history, slavery has constituted an important dimension of social and occupational organization. The word slavery originated with the sale of Slavs to the Black Sea region during the ninth century. Slavery existed in European society until the nineteenth century, and it was the principal source of labor during the process of European colonization.

Some forms of slavery existed among the indigenous societies in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. However, the reconstruction of the Americas after 1492 led to a system of slavery quite unprecedented in human experience. Slavery in the Americas was a patently artificial social and political construct, not a natural condition. It was a specific organizational response to a specific labor scarcity. African slavery in the Americas, then, was a relatively recent development in the course of human historyand quite exceptional in the universal history of slave societies.

Slavery was also a form of power relations, so slaves by and large did not have an equal voice in articulating a view of their condition. Their actions, however, spoke loudly of their innermost thoughts and represented their reflections on, and reactions to, the world in which they found themselves. Columbus thought the people he encountered in the Caribbean in 1492 might make good slaves, as he seemed to infer in his log of October 10, 1492, when he wrote: "They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think that they can easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases Our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highness when I depart, in order that they may learn our language" (Columbus, p. 77).

Blacks in the New World

Nevertheless, the first Africans who accompanied the early Spanish explorers were not all slaves. Some were free (such as Pedro Alonso Niño, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his third voyage); and others were servants.

Nuflo de Olano, who accompanied Vasco Nuñez de Balboa across the Isthmus of Panama was, however, a slave. So were Juan Valiente and several others who traveled and fought with Hernán Cortés in Mexico, or the Pizarro brothers in Peru, or Pánfilo de Narváez in Florida. Those blacks who sailed with Columbus on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492 were free men, and their descendants presumably were as free as any other Spanish colonist in the Americas. Other blacks who accompanied the early Spanish conquistadores might have been servile, but they were not true slaves as the term was later understood. Estebanicodescribed as "Andrés Dorantes' black Moorish slave"accompanied Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca in his amazing journey around the Gulf of Mexico and overland across the Southwest to Mexico City in the late 1520s and 1530s. Estebanico learned several local Indian languages with consummate ease, and he posed, along with his companions, as holy men gifted with healing powers (Weber, p. 44). The chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes several "blacks" who accompanied Hernán Cortés to Mexicoone of whom brought wheat to the New World, and another (a follower of Pánfilo de Narváez) who introduced smallpox among the Indians, with lethal results (Castillo, 1979). Of the 168 men who followed Francisco Pizarro to Peru in 1532 and captured the Inca at Cajamarca, at least two were black: Juan García, born in Old Castile, served the expedition as a piper and crier, and Miguel Ruiz, born in Seville, was a part of the cavalry and probably received a double portion of the spoils, as did all those who had horses.

A significant proportion of the nonwhite inhabitants of the American slave societies were not the direct descendants of slaves. That is to say, they were not freedmen, or the descendants of freedmen, but free men and women who could trace their free status through several generations. They comprised a growing segment of the American Creole population. These forever-free people formed an important part of the history of American slave societies, of the constantly negotiated and changing world of masters and slaves.

Less ambiguous was the remarkable case of the slaves and their community of El Cobre in eastern Cuba, described by Olga Portuondo Zúñiga in La virgen de la Caridad del Cobre: símbolo de cubanía (1995) and by María Elena Díaz in The Virgin, The King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre (2000). In El Cobre, the original copper mining company went bankrupt in 1670 and the slaves (as well as the physical property, such as machinery, lands, and buildings) reverted to the monarchy of Castile. The slaves of El Cobre became royal slaves with significant traditional privileges, and apparently they knew these privileges better than the officials at the royal court. The slaves successfully exploited Spanish laws and customs to establish a viable self-governing community in which their town council supervised free people. Surely this was a most anomalous situation in the American slave system: enslaved people with more extensive privileges than freeholders. When the residents eventually lost their autonomy in 1780, a compromise with the copper company established a peculiar category called "wage slaves," and those residents who had not purchased their freedomor had it purchased for them in the intervening yearsfell into this category. The mining company nominally recovered its slaves after more than a hundred years of litigation, but it was forced to pay wages to the slaves as though they were regularly hired free laborers.

Indeed, between 1502 and 1518, Spain shipped hundreds of black slaves from Iberia to the fledgling American colonies. These slaves, called ladinos, were born in Iberia, in communities of Africans found between Málaga and Huelva in southern Iberia. As such, they were Roman Catholic in religion and Hispanic in culture. In the Americas they worked in the mines of Hispaniola, Mexico, and Peru; dived for pearls off the Venezuelan coast; helped to build the new cities and towns; and supplemented the faltering Indian population everywhere the Spanish established settlements. From this early population, a growing community of free nonwhite, nonindigenous people developed throughout the Americas. These descendants of various mixtures of population were unique to the colonial experience in the Americas.

The Slave Trade

The transatlantic slave trade formally began in 1518, when King Charles I of Spain sanctioned the direct importation of Africans to his colonies in the Americas, finally acknowledging that the potential supply of indigenous slaves was inadequate to maintain the economic viability of his fledgling overseas colonies. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese started to import Africans to Brazil to create a plantation society and establish an Atlantic bulwark against other Europeans intruding along the coast. As the demand for labor grew, the number of Africans imported as slaves increased, and manual labor throughout the Americas eventually became virtually synonymous with the enslavement of Africans. The transatlantic slave trade became a lucrative international enterprise, and by the time it ended, around 1870, more than ten million Africans had been forcibly transported and made slaves in the Americas. Many millions more died in Africa or at sea in transit to the Americas.

The slave trade responded to an interrelated series of factors operating across Africa, at the supply side, and also in the Americas, at the market level. The trade can be divided into four phases, strongly influenced by the development of colonialism throughout the hemisphere. In the first phase, lasting to about 1620, the Americas were the domain of the Spanish and the Portuguese. These Iberian powers introduced about 125,000 slaves to the Americas, with some 75,000 (or 27 percent of African slave exports of the period) to the Spanish colonies, and about 50,000 (18 percent of the trade) to Brazil. This was a relatively small flow of about 1,000 slaves per year, most of whom were supplied from Portuguese forts along the West African coast. But slavery in the towns, farms, and mines of the Americas then employed less African slaves (about 45 percent of the total Atlantic trade) than in the tropical African islands of Fernando Po and Sâo Tomé, Europe proper, or the islands of the Madeiras, Cape Verdes, and the Azores (about 55 percent of trade). Indeed, the small island of Sâo Tomé alone received more than 76,000 African slaves during the period, exceeding the entire American market.

The second phase of the transatlantic slave trade lasted from 1620 to about 1700 and saw the distribution of approximately 1,350,000 slaves throughout the Americas, with an additional 25,000 or so going to Europe. During this phase, the Americas became the main destination of enslaved Africans. The trade was marked by greater geographical distribution and the development of a more varied supply pattern. The European component of the trade eventually dwindled to less than 2 percent. Instead, Brazil assumed the premier position as a slave destination, receiving nearly 42 percent of all Africans sold on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean. Spanish America received about 22 percent, distributed principally in Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Central America, and the Andean regions of South America. The English Caribbean colonies bought more than 263,000 slaves, or 20 percent of the volume sold in the Americas. The French Caribbean imported about 156,000 slaves, or 12 percent; and the small islands of the Dutch Caribbean bought another 40,000 slaves, or 3 percent of slaves sold throughout the Americas.

During this phase, a social and demographic metamorphosis occurred, brought about by the sugar revolutions in various parts of the tropical Americas. By the end of the period, the Americas were divided between a number of rival European colonies, all successfully establishing plantation colonies for the production and export of tropical staple crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugar, indigo, and rice. Slaves became perhaps the most important commercial commodity in transatlantic trade, as well as the desired form of labor on American plantations.

Even more important, slavery evolved into a complex system of labor, commerce, and society that was legally, socially, and ethnically distinct from other forms of servitude, and that was almost always applied to the condition of nonfree Africans. Two patterns of colonies developed throughout the western hemisphere: colonies designed as microcosms of European societies and colonies designed primarily for the efficient production of export commodities. The first group of colonies constituted the settler colonies. In these colonies, slaves constituted a minority of the population and did not necessarily represent the dominant labor sector. In the second group were exploitation plantation colonies, marked by their overwhelming proportion of nonfree members, and in which slavery formed the dominant labor system.

The period between 1701 and 1810 represented the maturation of the slave system in the Americas. This third phase witnessed the apogee of both the transatlantic slave trade and the system of American slavery. Altogether, nearly six million Africansamounting to nearly 60 percent of the entire transatlantic slave tradearrived in American ports. Brazil continued to be the dominant recipient country, accounting for nearly two million Africans, or 31 percent, of the trade during this period. The British Caribbean plantations (mainly on Barbados and Jamaica) received almost a million and a half slaves, accounting for 23 percent of the trade. The French Antilles (mainly Saint-Domingue on western Hispaniola, Martinique, and Guadeloupe) imported almost as many, accounting for 22 percent of the trade. The Spanish Caribbean (mainly Cuba) imported more than 500,000 slaves, or 9.6 percent of the trade. The Dutch Caribbean accounted for nearly 8 percent of the trade, but most of those slaves were re-exported to other areas of the New World. The British North American colonies imported slightly more than 300,000, or slightly less than 6 percent of the trade, while the small Danish colonies of the Caribbean bought about 25,000 slaves, a rather minuscule proportion of the slaves sold in the Americas during this period.

Opposition to Slavery

The eighteenth century formed the watershed in the system of American slavery. Although individuals, and even groups such as the Quakers, had always opposed slavery and the slave trade, general disapproval to the system gained strength during the later eighteenth century, primarily due to the growth of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on rationality, and British Evangelical Protestantism. Opposition to slavery became increasingly more coordinated in England, and it eventually had a profound impact, with the abolition of the English slave trade in 1807. Before that, prodded by Granville Sharp and other abolitionists, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield declared slavery illegal in Great Britain in 1772, giving enormous impetus to the British antislavery movement. The British legal ruling, in time, freed about 15,000 slaves who were then in Britain with their colonial masters, who estimated their "property loss" at approximately £700,000.

In 1776 the British philosopher and economist Adam Smith declared in his classic study The Wealth of Nations that the system of slavery represented an uneconomical use of land and resources, since slaves cost more to maintain than free workers. By the 1780s the British Parliament was considering a series of bills dealing with the legality of the slave trade, and several of the recently independent former North American coloniesthen part of the United States of Americabegan to abolish slavery within their local jurisdictions. After 1808when Great Britain and the United States legally abolished their component of the transatlantic slave tradethe English initiated a campaign to end all slave trading across the Atlantic, and to replace slave trading within Africa with other forms of legal trade. Through a series of outright bribes, diplomatic pressure, and naval blockades, the trade gradually came to an end around 1870.

But slavery was not only attacked from above. At the same time that European governments contemplated administrative measures against slavery and the slave trade, the implacable opposition of the enslaved in the overseas colonies increased the overall costs of maintaining the system of slavery. Slave revolts, conspiracies, and rumors of revolts engendered widespread fear among owners and administrators. Small bands of runaway slaves formed stable black communities, legally recognized by their imperial powers in difficult geographical locations such as Esmeraldas in Ecuador, the Colombian coastal areas, Palmares in Brazil, and in the impenetrable mountains of Jamaica. Then, in 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue/Haiti, taking their cue somewhat from the French Revolution, staged a successful revolt under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture (17431803) and a number of other local leaders. The radical French commissioner in the colony, Léger Félicité Sonthonax (17631813) saw the futility of trying to defeat the local revolt and declared the emancipation of all slaves and their immediate admission to full citizenship (1793), a move ratified the following year by

the revolutionary government in Paris, which extended the emancipation to all French colonies. Napoleon Bonaparte revoked the decree of emancipation in 1802, but he failed to make it stick in Saint-Domingue, where the former slaves and their free colored allies declared the independence of Haitithe second free state in the Americasin 1804.

The fourth and final phase of the transatlantic trade lasted from about 1810 to 1870. During that phase approximately two million Africans were sold as slaves in a greatly reduced area of the Americas. With its trade legal until 1850, Brazil imported some 1,145,400 Africans, or about 60 percent of all slaves sold in the Americas after 1810. The Spanish Antillesmainly Cuba and Puerto Ricoimported more than 600,000 Africans (32 percent), the great majority of them illegally introduced to Cuba after an Anglo-Spanish treaty to abolish the Spanish slave trade in 1817. The French Antilles imported approximately 96,000 slaves, about 5 percent of all slaves sold during that period, mainly for the small sugar plantations of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The southern United States also imported about 50,000 slaves, or slightly less than 3 percent of all slaves sold, despite formally agreeing to end their international slave trade in 1807.

Conditions of Slavery

The system of slavery in the Americas was generally restrictive and harsh, but significant variations characterized the daily lives of slaves. The exhaustive demands of the plantation societies in parts of the Caribbean and Brazil, combined with skewed sexual balances among the slaves, resulted in excessively high mortality rates, unusually low fertility rates, and, consequently, a steady demand for imported Africans to maintain the required labor forces. The recovery of the indigenous populations in places such as Mexico and the Andean highlands led to the use of other systems of coerced labor, somewhat reducing the reliance on African slaves in these areas. Frontiers of grazing economies such as the llanos of Venezuela, the southern parts of Brazil, and the pampas of Argentina and Uruguay required only modest supplies of labor, so that African slaves constituted a small proportion of the local population. Only in the United States did the slave population reproduce itself dramatically over the years, supplying most of the internal demand for slave labor during the nineteenth century.

In general, death rates were highest for slaves engaged in sugar production, especially on newly opened areas of the tropics, and lowest among domestic urban workers, except during periodical outbreaks of epidemic diseases.

The Abolition of the Slave Systems

The attack on the slave trade paralleled growing attacks on the system of slavery throughout the Americas. The selfdirected abolition from below that occurred in Saint-Domingue in 1793 was not repeated elsewhere, however. Instead, a combination of internal and external events eventually determined the course of abolition throughout the region. The issue of slavery became a part of the struggle for political independence for the mainland Spanish American colonies. Chile (1823), Mexico, and the new Central America States (1824), abolished slavery immediately after their wars of independence from Spain. The British government abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1834, effectively ending the institution in 1838. Uruguay legally emancipated its few remaining slaves in 1842. The French government ended slavery in the French Antilles in 1848. Colombia effectively abolished slavery in 1851, with Ecuador following in 1852, Argentina in 1853, and Peru and Venezuela in 1854. The United States of America abolished slavery after the U.S. Civil War in 1865. Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 and in Cuba in 1886. Finally, Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.

Slavery Scholarship and the Place of the Slave in the World

The topic of slavery has attracted the attention of a very large number of writers. Before the 1950s, writers tended to view slavery as a monolithic institution. Then, as now, there was much discussion of slavery, and less of the slaves themselves. Standard influential American studies, such as U. B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery (1918) and Life and Labor in the Old South (1929), Kenneth M. Stampp's The Peculiar Institution (1956), and Stanley Elkins' Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959), misleadingly described slaves as passive participants to their own cruel denigration and outrageous exploitation. In Phillips's world, everyone was sublimely happy. In the world of Stampp and Elkins, they were not happybut neither could they help themselves. Apparently neither Stampp nor Elkins read much outside their narrow fieldor if they did, they discounted it. Certainly the then available scholarship of Eric Williams, C. L. R. James, or Elsa V. Goveia is not evident in their works. Herbert Aptheker in American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), Gunnar Myrdal in An American Dilemma (1944), and Frank Tannenbaum in Slave and Citizen (1946) had tried, in those three intellectually stimulating works, to modify the overall picture, but without much success.

Then, in 1956, Goveia published an outstanding book, Slave Society in the British Leeward Islands at the End of the Eighteenth Century. As Francisco Scarano notes of Goveia's work: "Goveia's sensitive and profound study of slave society in the British Leewards is doubtless one of the great works of Caribbean history in any language. The Guyanese historian revealed the ways in which, in a racialized slave society, the imperative of slave subordination permeated all contexts of social interaction, from legal system to education and from religion to leisure. Everything was predicated on the violence necessary to maintain slavocratic order" (Scarano, p. 260). Goveia's approach inculcated the slaves with agency, a fundamental quality of which earlier writers seemed incredibly unaware. Slaves continuously acted in, as well as reacted to, the world in which they existed.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the maturing of Caribbean historiography, combined with the civil rights revolution in the United States, provided a renewed impetus for more sophisticated writings about slaves and slavery across the Americas. The quality of the debate improved noticeably, and comparative history threw refreshing new insights on some of the old problems. Slaves were seen as an inescapable and integral part of the world they fashioned, not some freak sideshow of helpless, subordinated individuals.

From the Caribbean came a rich outpouring of seminal works, all paying inordinate attention to the essential role of slaves in creating the new American experience. A selective list would include: Franklin W. Knight, Slave Society in Cuba during the Nineteenth Century (1970); Edward Brathwaite, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 17701820 (1971); Pedro Deschamps Chapeaux, El Negro en la economía habanera del siglo XIX (1971); Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 16241713 (1972); Richard Sheridan, Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 16231775 (1973); José Luciano Franco, Los palenques de negros cimarrones (1973); B. W. Higman, Slave Population and Economy in Jamaica, 18071833 (1976); Michael Craton, Searching for the Invisible Man: Slaves and Plantation Life in Jamaica (1978); Manuel Moreno Fraginals, El ingenio. Complejo económico, social cubano del azúcar (1978); Guillermo Baralt, Esclavos rebeldes: conspiraciones y sublevaciones de esclavos en Puerto Rico (17951873) (1981); Léo Elizabeth, L'abolition de l'esclavage à la Martinique (1983); Hilary Beckles, Black Rebellion in Barbados: The Struggle against Slavery, 16271838 (1984); Rebecca Scott, Slave Emancipation in Cuba: The Transition to Free Labor (1984); Barry Gaspar, Bondmen and Rebels: A Study of Master-Slave Relations in Antigua, with Implications for Colonial British America (1985); and David Eltis, Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (1987). In addition to these outstanding monographs, a flood of outstanding articles appeared simultaneously in various journals, especially in Slavery and Abolition, and in papers read at annual meetings of the Association of Caribbean Historians.

In the United States, too, the attention given to slavery increased enormously in volume and improved tremendously in sophistication after 1970. Among the new studies were: Carl Degler, Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (1971); John Blassingame, The Slave Community (1972); Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (1974) and From Rebellion to Revolution (1979); Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (1974); Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975); David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 17701823 (1975); Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1976); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1977); Seymour Drescher, Econocide. British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (1977); Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (1978); Daniel Littlefield, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (1981); James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982); Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982); R. J. M. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 18301860 (1983); and Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 17761848 (1988).

Giving agency to the slaves allowed for a realization that overt and bloody revolt was not the only, much less the major, form of resistance to the institution of slavery. Just as the poor do not accept their poverty, slaves did not accept slavery. Michael Craton points out, in his General History of the Caribbean, that "slave resistance was as inevitable as slavery itself. Slaves 'naturally' resisted their enslavement because slavery was fundamentally unnatural. Slave resistance of one kind or another was a constant feature of slavery. Only the forms varied across time and place, according to circumstances and opportunities, mutating in rhythm to an internal dynamic, if not also in relation to the larger historical context. If slave resistance was endemic, it was overt only in special circumstances" (p. 222).

Overt rebellion was, of course, the most dramatic objection to slavery by far as Barry Gaspar and David Geggus illustrate in A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean. Michael Craton provided a detailed catalogue of Caribbean slave revolts in Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (1982), although he retreated and reformulated his original views in his later publication in the UNESCO General History, Volume III, which appeared in 1997. Excellent accounts of the various large-scale revolts include: C. L. R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938), Thomas Ott, The Haitian Revolution,

17891804 (1973), and David Geggus, Slavery, War, and Revolution: The British Occupation of Saint Domingue 17931798 (1982)all dealing with Haiti; Emilia Viotti da Costa, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (1994), on the largest revolt in the history of Guyana; Robert L. Paquette, Sugar Is Made with Blood: The Conspiracy of La Escalera and the Conflict between Empires over Slavery in Cuba (1988); Mary Turner, Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 17871834 (1982); Anne Pérotin-Dumon, Entre patriote sous les tropiques La Guadeloupe, la colonization et la Révolution (1985); and Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004) and A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 17871804 (2004).

Most rebellions started with small conspiracies, and planters were often prone to exact tremendous retribution based on their paranoid fear of the ultimate consequences of such revolts. This is exactly what happened in 1843 in Matanzas, Cuba (a place-name that, ironically, translates as "the place of the killings"). It was there that the authorities murdered hundreds of slaves and free people of color, some in cold blood, because they felt that some slaves were about to start a rebellion.

Other forms of resistance were more prevalent, more endemic, than outright revolt. Certainly more pervasive in time and place were deliberate absences from work and running away. This perennial absconding took two forms. The first was a mass desertion of slaves who left deliberately with no intention ever to return. Refugees who followed this course sometimes formed independent communities in the relatively inaccessible hills near plantations and towns, operating in a symbiotic relationship with established colonial society. Such mass desertion was called gran marronage, and it gave rise to the various Maroon communities all across the Americas. In Spanish these communities were called palenques, and in Brazil they were referred to as quilombos or mocambos. Some Maroon communities lasted only briefly. Others lasted for centuries, as was the case with the Jamaica Maroons. Determined communities in Bahia and Palmares in Brazil, in Esmeraldas in Ecuador, in Maracaibo in Venezuela, and in Le Maniel in French Saint Domingue lasted for decades.

Concomitant with gran marronage was the more individual occurrence called petit marronage, the spontaneous decision of an individual slave to leave his master for a short period. Petit marronage reflected the strong individual will of the slave to resist forced or unpleasant labor, to procrastinate, or to defy authority. It was never designed to create a viable alternate to the slave society, as was the case with the Maroons. At its most serious, petit marronage remained a personal conflict between master and slave.

Other forms of slave resistance were equally personal and vindictive. Suicide among slaves was endemic in the American slave society. Domestic slaves poisoned themselves and their masters. Across the Caribbean, whites spoke often in fear of the magical powers of slaves who they suspected of having cast spells on them. Slaves also malingered and feigned ignorance, pretended not to understand the common plantation language of their drivers, broke farm equipment, killed or maimed cattle, set fires to cane fields at harvest time, destroyed cane carts and milling machinery, or even sold the produce produced on the plantations. By these various forms of industrial action slaves sabotaged the production and productivity of the plantations and increased the overall cost of the system to their owners.

It is extremely difficult to determine what constituted conscious modes of resistance and what actions resulted from the inadvertent consequence of random carelessness on the part of the slaves. But abundant evidence exists to suggest that slaves were largely in command of their world, even when they lacked the force to alter it.

Of course, writers such as Gordon K. Lewis, in Main Currents in Caribbean Thought, and Michael Craton, in his contribution in the General History of the Caribbean, tend to evaluate all actions of slaves as part of a conscious pattern of resistance. Lewis divides resistance into three categories:

(1) The category of patterns of accommodation and of habits of learned survival in the daily experience of plantation life: this involved the whole gamut of slave response, short of escape and rebellion, to the general slavery situation, and included everything from feigned ignorance, malingering, sabotage, slowed-down work habits, suicide, and poisoning of masters, on to the endless invention of attitudes that reflected a general war of psychological tensions and stresses between both sides in the master-slave relationship; (2) The category of alternative life-style: this category included the manifold ways whereby the slave populations nourished and developed their own autonomous world of culturein the areas, variously, of family, religion, language, song and dance, and even economic organization; and (3) The category of escape and open revolt.

Writers such as Lewis and Craton clearly view the entire existence of slave life as a form of resistancea necessary precondition to a life in freedom, but also a vital manifestation of one's dignity and humanity. As Viotti da Costa writes: "Creating a black community in the slave quarters and holding on to traditions represented resistance to slavery because slavery implied not only the subordination and exploitation of one social group by another, but also the confrontation of two ethnic groups. The slave could resist in different ways: as a slave to his master, as a black man to a white man, and as an African to the Europeans. In the context cultural resistance could be interpreted as a form of social protest" (p. 301).

Nevertheless, viewing the slave systems as merely an enduring inescapable pattern of coercion and resistance is rather narrow and constricting. It fails to do full justice to the dynamic and nuanced world of the American slave systems. Such a narrow view perpetuates an indelible victim mentality and fails to reflect the totality of slavery throughout the Americas. It minimizes the monumental resilience, the astonishing creativity and dynamic contribution of Africans and their descendants in the making of the modern world.

Some of the activities of Africans and their descendants cannot be easily categorized, described, or analyzed within the restrictive bipolar forms of accommodation or resistance. Indeed, a great number of people described as Africans or as African slaves in the Americas were not in any way coerced. Their lot was quite removed from that of plantation field slaves, especially in the later years of the American slave system. The condition of slavery varied too much across the Americas to be neatly categorized. Moreover, it was never a static institution. It changed enormously through time, and even in the same locality.

See also Abolition; Maroon Societies in the Caribbean; Palmares; Runaway Slaves in Latin America and the Caribbean; Runaway Slaves in the United States; Slave Trade; Slavery and the Constitution; Toussaint-Louverture


Columbus, Christopher. The Log of Christopher Columbus, translated by Robert H. Fuson. Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing Company, 1987.

Craton, Michael. "Forms of Resistance to Slavery." In General History of the Caribbean, vol. III, Slave Societies of the Caribbean, edited by Franklin W. Knight. New York: UNESCO, 1997.

Díaz del Castillo, Bernal. The True History of the Conquest of Mexico: Written in the Year 1568, translated by Maurice Keating. London, 1800. Facsimile edition, La Jolla, Calif.: Renaissance Press, 1979.

Díaz, María Elena. The Virgin, The King, and the Royal Slaves of El Cobre. Negotiating Freedom in Colonial Cuba, 16701780. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Geggus, David. "Slavery, War, and Revolution in the Greater Caribbean." In A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean, edited by David Gaspar and David Geggus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Lewis, Gordon K. Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in its Ideological Aspects, 14921900. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Lockhart, James. The Men of Cajamarca. A Social and Biographical Study of the First Conquerors of Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1972.

Scarano, Francisco A. "Slavery and Emancipation in Caribbean History." In General History of the Caribbean, vol. VI, Methodology and Historiography of the Caribbean, edited by B. W. Higman. London: UNESCO, 1999.

Viotti da Costa, Emilia. "Slave Images and Realities." In Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies, edited by Vera Rubin and Arthur Tuden. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1977.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

West, Steven M. Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2005.

Zúñiga, Olga Portuondo. La virgen de la Caridad del Cobre: símbolo de cubanía. Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente, 1995.

franklin w. knight (2005)


views updated May 29 2018


A civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.


At some point in history, slavery has plagued nearly every part of the world. From ancient Greece to the modern Americas, innumerable governments have sanctioned the complete control of certain persons for the benefit of other persons, usually under the guise of social, mercantile, and technological progress.

The U.S. legacy of slavery began in the early seventeenth century. However, the stage for U.S. slavery was set as early as the fourteenth century, when the rich nations of Spain and Portugal began to capture Africans for enslavement in Europe. When Spain, Portugal, and other European countries conquered and laid claim to the New World of the Caribbean and West Indies in the late sixteenth century, they brought along the practice of slavery. Eventually, slavery expanded to the north, to colonial America.

The first Africans in colonial America were brought to Jamestown by a Dutch ship in 1619. These 20 Africans were indentured servants, which meant that they were to work for a certain period of time in exchange for transportation and room and board. They were assigned land after their service and were considered free Negroes. Nonetheless, their settlement was involuntary.

The status of Africans in colonial America underwent a rapid evolution after 1619. One early judicial decision signaled the change in European attitudes toward Africans. In 1640, three Virginia servants—two Europeans and one African—escaped from their masters. Upon recapture, a Virginia court ordered the Euro pean servants to serve their master for one more year and the African servant to serve his master, or his master's assigns, for the rest of his life.

Amistad: Mutiny on a Slave Ship

African slaves occasionally revolted against their masters, and the result was usually severe punishment for the slaves. The mutiny of fifty-four slaves on the Spanish ship Amistad in 1839 proved an exception, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court granted the slaves their freedom and allowed them to return to Africa.

The fifty-four Africans were kidnapped in West Africa, near modern-day Sierra Leone, and illegally sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were transported to Cuba, fraudulently classified as native Cuban slaves, and sold to two Spaniards. The slaves were then loaded on the schooner Amistad, which set sail for Haiti.

Three days into the journey, the slaves mutinied. Led by Sengbe Pieh, known to the Spanish crew as Cinque, the slaves unshackled themselves, killed the captain and the cook, and forced all but two of the crew to leave the ship. The Africans demanded to be returned to their homeland, but the crew tricked them and sailed toward the United States. In August 1839 the ship was towed into Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York.

Cinque and the others were charged with murder and piracy. A group of abolitionists formed the Amistad Committee, which organized a legal defense that sought the slaves' freedom. U.S. President martin van buren, pressed by Spain to return the slaves without trial, hoped the court would find the slaves guilty and order them returned to Cuba. The federal circuit court dismissed the murder and piracy charges because the acts had occurred outside the jurisdiction of the United States. It referred the case to the federal district court for trial to determine if the slaves must be returned to Cuba.

At the trial the slaves argued that there was no legal basis for returning them to Cuba because the importation of slaves from Africa was illegal under Spanish law. The district court agreed, ruling that the Africans were free and should be transported home. Van Buren ordered an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court.

Former president john quincy adams represented the slaves before the Supreme Court, making an impassioned argument for their freedom. The Court, in United States v. Libellants of Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (15 Pet. 518), 10 L. Ed. 826, affirmed the district court and agreed that the Africans were free persons. By the end of 1841, thirty-five of the Amistad survivors had sailed for Sierra Leone; the rest remained in the United States.

further readings

Wood, Gary V. 2004. Heir to the Fathers: John Quincy Adams and the Spirit of Constitutional Government. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

As early as 1641, colonial Massachusetts rec ognized slavery as a legal institution, announcing in its Body of Liberties that "[t]here shall never be any bond slaverie … unless it be lawful Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us." Twenty years later, just two generations after the arrival of the first Africans in colonial America, the first statute recognizing African slavery was passed in Virginia.

In the mid-1600s, Virginia colonists began to take note of the phenomenal agricultural production occurring in the Caribbean and West Indies. The extreme labor demands and savage punishments of European colonists there had depleted the population of productive Amerindian slaves, but those same colonists were continuing to prosper. By purchasing masses of able-bodied pubescent and adult Africans, the colonists avoided waiting for a slave population to increase by native birth, and in the scramble for quick, easy, and substantial profits in the New World, this strategy gave them an edge. Virginia colonists, eager to achieve the same prosperity, endeavored to sanction African slavery.

In 1661, Virginia colonists enacted a law that legitimized African slavery and provided that the status of an African child would be determined by the status of its mother. If the mother of a child was a slave, then her child was doomed to slavery. In the following years, colonial Virginia passed more laws that severely restricted the rights of African slaves and expanded the rights of owners of African slaves. Each of the original colonies eventually followed Virginia's lead by enacting similar laws that promoted or recognized the enslavement of Africans.

Most of the first African slaves were captured in Africa by the Dutch or by fellow Africans. They were then manacled and delivered in crowded, brutal conditions across the Atlantic Ocean by the Dutch West India Company, an organization formed in Holland for the sole purpose of trafficking in slaves. English companies such as the East India Company and the Royal African Company also contributed to the seventeenth-century American slave trade. Although untold numbers of Africans died en route, the profitable slave trade so increased the African slave population in America that by the late 1600s, European colonists were already beginning to anticipate insurrections and slave revolts. By 1750, populations of displaced Africans would range from an estimated 550 in New Hampshire to over 101,000 in Virginia.

From the beginning, African slaves resisted their servitude by running away, fighting back, poisoning food, and plotting revolts. The first Europeans to openly denounce slavery and work for its abolition were Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, who were concentrated in Pennsylvania. As early as 1688, the Quakers publicly declared that slavery was at odds with Christianity. Along with other European abolitionists, they actively worked to help African slaves escape their owners.

The legal treatment of African slaves varied slightly from colony to colony according to the area's economic structure. Northern colonies such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island relied on the export of various local commodities such as fish, liquor, and dairy products, so their involvement with African slavery was in large part limited to slave trading. Nonetheless, the New England colonies sanctioned the use of slave labor, and they enacted codes that prevented African slaves from exercising such basic rights as freedom of association and movement. Though generally regarded as less harsh than those of such southern colonies as Virginia and the Carolinas, the New England slave codes nevertheless legalized the enslavement of Africans.

The middle colonies—New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey—also had codes that promoted the slave industry and deprived African slaves of most basic rights. Laws were often tailored especially for African slaves. In New York, for example, any slave found 40 miles north of Albany was presumed to be escaping to Canada and could be executed upon the oath of two witnesses. In New York City, slaves could not appear on the street after dark without a lighted lantern. From 1700 to 1740, growth of the African slave population in New York outdistanced growth of the European population and gave the city the largest slave population in the region. Many of these slaves provided domestic service to wealthy families. Except in New York, slavery in the middle colonies was not widespread, because the commercial economies and small-scale agriculture practiced by the Germans, Swedes, and Danes in this region did not require it. Further, many settlers in the rural areas of the middle colonies were morally opposed to slavery. Neither of these conditions prevailed in the southern colonies.

Georgia was originally established as a slavery-free English colony in 1733, but the prohibition against slavery was repealed in 1750 after repeated entreaties from European settlers. The economies of colonial Virginia, Maryland, and North and South Carolina centered on large-scale agricultural production. The vast majority of the South's colonial agrarians profited at first from the sale of tobacco, rice, and indigo. These products were planted, cultivated, and harvested exclusively by African slaves on vast farms known as plantations. Plantation production relied on manual labor and in order to be successful required huge numbers of workers, and thus the southern colonies found their needs met by the widespread enslavement of Africans.

Because of the importance of slavery to the plantation-based economies, slave codes in the southern colonies were made quite elaborate. For example, South Carolina prevented slave owners from working their slaves for more than 15 hours a day in spring and summer and more than 14 hours a day in fall and winter. Slave owners were also warned against undue cruelty to slaves. At the same time, Europeans were not allowed to teach African slaves to read or write; freedom of movement was severely restricted for slaves; liquor could not be sold to slaves; and whippings, mutilations, and other forms of punishment for slaves were explicitly authorized by law.


The U. S. government enacted the thirteenth amendment to abolish slavery, but it has never formally apologized to African Americans for their enslavement nor offered financial reparations to compensate them for their peonage. Since the end of the u.s. civil war there have been occasional calls by African Americans for reparations, but political and legal efforts have always failed. However, in the 1990s a new movement for slavery reparations began to coalesce, led by a group of scholars and lawyers. This group has been encouraged by the payment of reparations to Jewish Holocaust victims by German corporations that employed slave labor and by the U.S. government's payment of $60,000 to every Japanese American person held in detention camps during world war ii. Nevertheless, the slavery reparations issue arouses strong emotions in those opposed to the idea. In addition, legal doctrines make the prospect of court victories unlikely.

The idea of reparations is rooted in the field order issued by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman as he conquered several Southern states during the last months of the Civil War. Sherman's order authorized the distribution of 40 acres of Southern land to each freed slave and the loan of a government mule to work the land. The promise of "40 acres and a mule" proved illusory, however, as Congress failed to ratify such a program. In short order Southern whites reclaimed their land and Southern blacks became sharecroppers, renting out land in return for a meager financial return.

A reparations lawsuit against the U.S. treasury department was dismissed in 1915, but in the 1920s marcus garvey made reparations part of his Black Nationalist program. In the 1950s and 1960s Elijah Muhammad, leader of the nation of islam, preached black separatism and called on the government to give blacks land as reparations for slavery. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s reparations were ignored, with leaders focusing on political and civil equality. However, by the late 1960s a new, more radical form of Black nationalism started to emphasize the need for economic justice. In 1969 James Forman issued a "Black Manifesto" that demanded $500 million as reparations "due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed, and persecuted." Again, reparations were ignored and the issue appeared dead. It was resurrected, however, in 1989 when Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a resolution that sought to establish a commission that would study reparations for African Americans. The resolution went nowhere, but Conyers has continued to introduce it every year, to no avail.

The modern debate over reparations began in earnest with the publication of Randall M. Robinson's bestseller, The Debt: What America Owes Blacks. Robinson argued that the value of slave labor over the course of 246 years of American slavery easily reached into the trillions of dollars. He noted that slaves picked and processed cotton, which fueled commerce and industry throughout the United States. Robinson called on the government to establish independent community trust funds that would distribute money into the community to fund black-owned businesses and to fund education and training programs. He disavowed the direct payment of reparations to individuals. Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree and other lawyers and scholars joined Robinson to form the Reparations Coordinating Committee. The committee has explored suing the U.S. government, and in 2002 it filed suit against several U.S. corporations that allegedly profited from slavery during the nineteenth century. A 2001 California law has aided the group's efforts, for it requires all insurance companies doing business in California to report on any policies issued to slave-holders prior to 1865. A number of prominent companies revealed in their 2002 filings that they had issued slave insurance and thereby profited from slavery.

The debate over reparations has divided along racial lines. A 2002 opinion poll found that 80 percent of African Americans endorsed a formal apology for slavery from the U.S. government and 67 percent were in favor of monetary reparations. This contrasted sharply with white respondents; 30 percent of whites supported an apology while only 4 percent thought that monetary compensation was appropriate. Opposition to reparations falls into three main arguments. First, opponents note that all former slaves are dead and that living descendants do not deserve payments for their ancestors' losses. This is quite different from the U.S. government's payments to living Japanese Americans for their detention during World War II. A second objection is more practical: who would get the money and how much would each person receive? Critics point out that some African Americans were not slaves before the Civil War and that other blacks immigrated to the United States since the abolition of slavery. It would be exceedingly difficult to sort out the descendants of slaves. A third objection centers on making current white Americans liable for the sins of the past. Critics note that millions of people entered the United States from Europe, Asia, and South American between 1865 and today. These individuals, as well as the descendants of non-slaveholding Americans, should not be forced to pay their tax dollars to compensate for a reprehensible system they had nothing to do with. In addition, some African-American scholars have voiced concerns about the symbolic consequences of seeking reparations. They contend that this cause reinforces the role of blacks as victims and looks to the past rather than the future.

Proponents of reparations respond by arguing that financial compensation will not go to individuals, thus eliminating the practical difficulties of identifying claimants. They also contend that slavery, along with the 100 years of repression and discrimination following the Civil War, have directly injured African Americans living today. They point out that the U.S. government is an ongoing organization that is responsible for its actions, whether or not individuals were present at the time of the actions in question. Finally, they believe that while the money is important, the demand for restitution will encourage the healing of old wounds.

Most commentators believe that reparations will not be achieved through the legal system, due to many substantive and procedural doctrines. In Cato v. United States, 70 F.3d 1103 (9th Cir. 1995), a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit that sought reparations and an apology from the U.S. government. The court found that it had no jurisdiction to consider the case. First, private citizens cannot sue the federal government under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Second, the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit because they could not show they were personally injured by slavery. The court made clear that generalized class-based grievances cannot be heard in a court of law. The court concluded that the plaintiffs should press their claims with Congress. Based on this ruling, many commentators have expressed skepticism that the 2002 lawsuit against several corporations would succeed. The companies will also be able to demonstrate that prior to the Civil War slavery was legal.

further readings

Horowitz, David. 2001. Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery. New York: Encounter.

Robinson, Randall W. 2000. The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Dutton.

——. 2000. The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe Each Other. New York: Dutton.

Winbush, Raymond. 2003. Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations. New York: Amistad.


Civil Rights Movement; Emancipation Proclamation; Reconstruction.

The laws regarding slaves reflected the terrorism and paternalism of slavery. A slave had a nebulous right to self-defense, but a slave owner was allowed to restrain and punish a slave with impunity. A slave owner could not beat a slave publicly, but a slave could not avoid punishment for a crime committed at an owner's command. A free Negro could not voluntarily submit to slavery for a price, and Europeans were not allowed to subject a free African to slavery by treating one as a slave for any length of time. Every African was presumed to be a slave, however, until she or he could prove otherwise. This presumption was abolished in the northern states shortly after the United States won its independence from England, but it remained unchanged in the southern states until the end of the u.s. civil war.

Not all Africans were slaves. Some free Africans had bought their freedom, some were the descendants of Jamestown's first free African servants, some had escaped their owner, and some had been freed, or manumitted, by their owner. A slave owner could not free a slave if doing so left the slave unable to pay his or her debts. Some statutes allowed a slave owner to free only slaves who could work and support themselves, and other statutes required a slave owner to provide continuing financial support to freed slaves.

In some areas in the South, manumission of a slave was illegal, but the law did not prevent a slave owner from sending or taking slaves to another state to set them free. In states where manumission was legal, an owner could free a slave by executing a deed declaring the slave's liberty. Generally, the deed had to be filed in a county clerk's office or authorized or proved in court. Some states allowed for the manumission of slaves in the slave owner's will. A gift of land to a slave by a slave owner was often held to be a manumission of the slave, since only a free individual could own land. A manumitted slave was entitled to work for wages and to own land and personal property through acquisition or inheritance.

After the United States won the war of independence, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey all passed legislation that gradually abolished slavery. These northern states, inspired mostly by the revolutionary, liberal philosophies of the period, began advocating expanding notions of freedom that were being rejected in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

In May 1787, delegations from each of the 13 colonies began to meet in Philadelphia to devise a federal constitution. The Constitutional Convention was to begin on May 14, but few representatives had arrived by then, and it was postponed. On May 25, seven states were represented, and the convention began. Delegates from the various colonies continued to arrive through June, with the last ones coming from New Hampshire on July 22, four days before the convention was adjourned. Slavery was just one topic on a very long agenda.

The abolition of the U.S. enslavement of Africans was not seriously entertained at the convention. Virginia's george mason and many delegates from the northern states argued against any recognition of slavery in the Constitution, but the overriding concern at the convention was to unify the states under a system of government that left substantial control of social and political questions to the individual states. It seemed clear to the majority of the representatives that a country founded on individual freedoms could not participate in slave trading, but it was equally clear that if the widespread enslavement of Africans by the southern states were prohibited by the new federal government, there would be no United States.

North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia insisted that a state's right to import slaves be left untouched. Delegates from other states argued for the abolition of slavery, and still other delegates wanted no hint of the practice included in the Constitution. A committee comprising one delegate from each state was dispatched to settle the issue. The committee returned with a constitutional clause, couched in the negative, that made slave trade vulnerable to prohibition after the year 1800. The strange set of bedfellows produced by this issue—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia were against the clause—illustrated the variety of considerations at play.

After further debate and modification by the entire convention, the Slave Trade Clause was inserted into Section 9 of Article I: "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight." Attached to this language was another clause that allowed for the imposition of a tax or duty on such importation, not to exceed $10 for "each Person" (read, "each Slave").

The one other opaque reference to slavery in the Constitution was the so-called Three-fifths Compromise. In Article I, Section 2, the Framers wrote that the population of a state, for purposes of determining taxation and representation in the House of Representatives, would be measured by counting the "Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." This language struggled mightily to avoid the mention of African slavery but was understood as allowing the southern states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person in a government census.

This method of population measurement, three-fifths, was actually developed by Congress in 1783, during debate over state representation in the federal government. The northern states opposed the inclusion of African slaves in the determination of population because the southern states contained thousands of African slaves who played no part in the political process. The southern states argued that a state's African slave population reflected its true power and wealth, which should in turn be reflected in its federal representation. The northern states eventually compromised with the southern states to allow five African slaves to equal three free men for purposes of population determinations and federal representation.

At the Constitutional Convention, standing alone, the three-fifths proviso did not immediately satisfy the majority of states. Opposition to the measure was not organized: no single cause unified the dissatisfied states, and no split occurred between slave states and free states. Opposition also was not based on the morality of counting slaves as less than full citizens: very little wrangling took place over this concern, and an amendment to count slaves as whole persons was rejected by a vote of 8–2. Eventually, the three-fifths ratio was adopted for the Constitution, but only after direct taxation of the states was also tied to state population. Thus, the only compromise regarding the recognition of African slaves grew from struggles over money and political power, not a concern over morality. A showdown between the slave states and the free states over African slavery never occurred. Although the United States was to cease the purchase and sale of slaves, the practice of slavery in the southern states survived the Constitutional Convention.

While all this politicking was taking place, the land in the southern states was fast becoming infertile. Farmers and plantation owners realized they needed to diversify their crops to save the soil. Shortly after the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the southern states sought the development of a cotton gin in order to convert agricultural production from rice, tobacco, and indigo to cotton. The cotton gin, which mechanically extracted cotton seeds, was eventually designed by Eli Whitney and Phineas Miller in 1792. The production of cotton did not require large start-up funds, and with the cotton gin for seed removal, African slaves had more time for cultivation. These changes all added up to large profits for southern plantation owners. With the help of New England slave traders, the plantation owners imported African slaves by the tens of thousands in the years following the Constitutional Convention. Nevertheless, in March 1807, Congress passed a law prohibiting the importation of African slaves. Effective January 1, 1808, in fulfillment of the suggestion contained in Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution, the U.S. slave trade officially ended. But a state's right to sanction slavery did not.

In the early 1800s, the United States was expanding, and the question of slavery began to consume the country. In 1819, leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a bill that would allow the Missouri Territory to enter the Union as a slave state. Although northern legislators outnumbered southern legislators at the time, House Speaker henry clay, of Kentucky, arranged an accord between enough congressional members to pass a version of the bill that admitted Missouri as a slave state. In exchange for legal slavery in Missouri, the southern legislators agreed to limit the northern boundaries of slavery to the same latitude as the southern boundary of Missouri. Thus were the terms of the missouri compromise of 1820, which became a watershed in the U.S. experience with slavery.

In its constitution, Missouri declared it would not allow slaves to be emancipated without their owner's consent. Furthermore, free African Americans were not allowed to enter the state. Antislavery congress members objected to the latter clause on the ground that it violated the federal Constitution's mandate that "the Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of Citizens in the several States" (art. IV, § 2). African Americans had, after all, gained citizenship in the northern states.

Again Clay maneuvered votes in Congress. Missouri agreed not to discriminate against citizens from other states, but did so in a resolution that was abstract and unclear and left unsettled the question of precisely who was a citizen of the several states. In 1821, Missouri's constitution was approved, and Missouri was officially a slave state.

Once Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine was admitted as a free state; the Senate had refused to accept Maine until the House altered its position on Missouri. As a result, in 1821, the Union consisted of 12 free states, 12 slaves states, and a deepening divide between the two.

European settlements pressed westward. After the United States acquired the Southwest by force in the Mexican War, it again faced the question of slavery. In 1850, Congress altered the geographic limits on slavery established by the Missouri Compromise. California was admitted as a free state, but the Utah and New Mexico Territories were opened to slavery. The kansas-nebraska act of 1854 further eroded the dictates of the Missouri Compromise by admitting slavery in those territories.

One particular case brought by a slave came to a head in the 1850s and caught the attention of the Republican presidential candidate for the 1860 election, former Illinois congressman abraham lincoln. In dred scott v. sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857), Dred Scott sued the widow of his deceased owner in Missouri state court, asking for his freedom. The dispute began in 1834 and ended with an 1857 Supreme Court decision confirming Scott's slave status. The decision galvanized abolitionists in the north, and Lincoln railed against the decision in his campaign for the presidency. The decision also strengthened the resolve of pro-slavery forces in the South. As the struggle for power between slavers and emancipators intensified, the geographic lines proscribing slavery, drawn and redrawn, were fast becoming battle lines.

In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on an anti-slavery platform, and like-minded Republicans gained a majority in Congress. In February 1861, with the abolition of slavery imminent, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee soon followed suit. Before Lincoln's inauguration in March, the Confederacy was in place. On April 12, the Confederates attacked South Carolina's Fort Sumter, and the U.S. internal war over the issue of slavery had begun.

Many early American colonists had believed they were justified in enslaving Africans because Africans were not Christians. After the American Revolution, as the country became polarized over the issue of slavery, slavery supporters in the South worked to clear the southern states of anti-slavery leaders and their forces. One abolitionist, for example, was beaten, tarred and feathered, set afire, doused in water, and whipped. As late as the 1820s, more than one hundred abolitionist groups operated in the slave states, but by the 1840s, virtually none was left. Slavers in the southern states also began to cultivate more ambitious rationales for African slavery. Slavery supporters cited essays written by the ancient Greek philosopher aristotle that declared that slavery was the natural order of things.

Aristotle had claimed that slaves were slaves because they had allowed themselves to become enslaved. This was just and right, his theory continued, because if those with strong bodies (Africans, to U.S. slavers) performed the labor, those with upright bodies (European colonists and their descendants) would have the time and energy for technological and economic advancement. U.S. slavery enthusiasts expanded on the theories of Aristotle and other philosophers to explain that it was the Africans' lot in life to be slaves because it was inherent in their nature to be servile and hardworking. Other southern slavers forwent any philosophy of slavery and simply enjoyed the luxuries realized through the enslavement of Africans.

Throughout the Civil War, President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress were busy passing federal legislation on the subject of slavery. On August 6, 1861, Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which allowed the United States to lay claim to any property used in insurrection against it. Under this act, slaves who served in the Confederate army were to be set free upon capture by Union forces. In June 1862, Lincoln signed a bill passed by Congress that abolished slavery in all territories owned by the federal government. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, which declared that all slaves in the United States were free persons and that they were to remain free persons.

In April 1865, the Confederate army surrendered to the Union forces. This event touched off a flurry of constitutional amendments. The thirteenth amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified by Congress on December 6, 1865. The fourteenth amendment, ratified July 9, 1868, was designed to, in part, establish former slaves as full citizens and ensure that no African American would be deprived of any of the privileges and immunities that come with citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment also deleted the offensive three-fifths ratio from the measurement of populations in Section 2 of Article I, and declared that debts relating to the loss or emancipation of slaves were illegal and void. The fifteenth amendment, ratified February 3, 1870, gave male African Americans and male former slaves the right to vote.

African slavery in the United States continued to haunt the country long after its abolition. In the North, segregation of African Americans from the European populations was a reality, if not sanctioned by law. Beginning in the 1880s, many southern states enacted black codes, or jim crow laws, which restricted the freedom of movement and expression of African Americans and enforced their segregation from the rest of society.

Contemporary Issues Surrounding Slavery

Notions of slavery in the United States have expanded to include any situation in which one person controls the life, liberty, and fortune of another person. All forms of slavery are now widely recognized as inherently immoral and thoroughly evil. Slavery still occurs in various forms, but when it does, accused offenders are aggressively prosecuted. Federal statutes punish by fine or imprisonment the enticement of per sons into slavery (18 U.S.C.A. § 1583), and the holding to or selling of persons into involuntary servitude (§ 1584). In addition, whoso ever builds a ship for slave carriage, serves on a ship carrying slaves, or owns a slave-carrying ship will be fined or imprisoned under 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1582, 1586, and 1587, respectively.

The statute 18 U.S.C.A. § 1581 prohibits peonage, which is involuntary servitude for the payment of a debt. Labor camps are perhaps the most common violators of the law against peon age. The operators of some labor camps keep victims for work in fields through impoverished conditions, threats, acts of violence, and alcohol consumption. Offenders often provide rudi mentary shelter to migrant workers and demand work in return, which can constitute involun tary servitude. An individual can also be con victed of sale into involuntary servitude for delivering victims under false pretenses to such labor camps.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, much of the debate surrounding slavery related to movements urging the U.S. government to pay reparations to descendants of slaves. Supporters of this movement suggest that cash payments made to these descendants is justified to compensate the victims of slavery for years of hardship, harm, and indignities. Local governments in such cities as Dallas, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland have urged Congress to consider this form of payment. Opponents of reparations note that the costs of reparations, if given to the extent that some supporters urge, would cost the federal government trillions of dollars. More over, many critics question how these cash payments would be made and how recipients would be identified for receiving them.

further readings

Azmy, Baher. 2002. "Unshackling the Thirteenth Amendment: Modern Slavery and a Reconstructed Civil Rights Agenda. Fordham Law Review 71 (December).

Harris, Leslie M. 2003. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Morgan, Edmund S. 2003. American Slavery—American Freedom. New York: Norton.

Posner, Eric A., and Adrian Vermeule. 2003. "Reparations for Slavery and Other Historical Injustices." Columbia Law Review 103 (April).

Sealey, Geraldine. 2000. "Atoning for Slavery." Available online at <> (accessed October 4, 2003).

United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. 2001. Slavery Throughout the World: Hearing before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, One Hundred Sixth Congress, Second Session, September 28, 2000. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.


Celia, a Slave; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Acts; Constitution of the United States; Douglass, Frederick; Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; Indenture; Ku Klux Klan; Ku Klux Klan Act; Prigg v. Pennsylvania; Republican Party; States' Rights; Taney, Roger Brooke. See also primary documents in "Slavery" section of Appendix.

Slavery (issue)

views updated May 23 2018


The Portuguese were the first Europeans to enslave Africans. They began this practice during their explorations of the West African Coast in the fifteenth century. They usually acquired their slaves from other Africans and took them back to Europe where they were employed as servants or laborers.

Christopher Columbus opened the New World to Europeans in 1492, and soon Spain, Portugal, and other European states had established colonies. Regardless of whether the Europeans concentrated on mining precious metals (as the Spanish did), grew and refined sugar cane (as was true of virtually all the European powers), or settled down to grow staple agricultural exports (as in the English case), they soon had to confront the need for labor. The Spanish and, later, the English attempted to enslave American Indians, but that did not work well (in part because the lack of immunity to European diseases decimated the native populations), so they began to import laborers from Africa.

Actually, the English colonists turned first to their own poverty-stricken population of peasants who had been driven off the land by the conversion of crop land into sheep pasture during the sixteenth century. This displacement of the English peasantry was called the enclosure movement. It produced an army of desperate and angry peasants who wandered the English countryside looking for work, poaching game on the gentry's land, or engaging in robbery, for which many were hanged. Of the peasants who remained in England a good number would eventually make up the country's wage labor force as textile manufacturing changed England from an agricultural to an industrial economy. But tens of thousands of poor Britons also immigrated to the New World as indentured servants. Tobacco farming was profitable but labor-intensive and the Chesapeake colonies of Virginia, Carolina, and Maryland employed these bonded laborers. Until the late seventeenth century, most of the work force in the English mainland colonies were indentured servants, working an average of seven years to pay off the debt of ship passage. Some of these bonded servants eventually became prosperous in the America; many died from overwork, disease, and mistreatment, or else, after their debt was paid, migrated to the back country and lived as subsistence farmers.

By the last quarter of the seventeenth century, an improving employment picture in England dried up the stream of available indentured servants. The practice of many white servants of escaping and passing themselves off as independent laborers or small farmers as well as the fact that many of the popular protests and rebellions in the New World, like Bacon's Rebellion (16751676) involved poor former indentured servants, also led the colonial elite to consider an alternative labor source.

That source was African slaves. A lucrative system known as Triangular Trade provided this new labor source. Traders took rum, guns, powder, and

statesholders with 1-9 slavesholders with 10-20 slavesholders with 20-50 slavesholders with 50-100 slavesholders with 100-500 slavesholders with 500-1000 slavesholders with over 1000 slavestotal slave-holderstotal slaves
source: united states census, agriculture of the united states in 1860, p. 247.
alabama21,7935,9064,3441,341346  33,730435,080
arkansas9411425610   1,149111,115
delaware56225     5871,798
florida3,36897660315847  5,15261,745
georgia27,1917,5305,0491,1022111 41,084462,198
kentucky31,8195,2711,485637  38,645225,483
louisiana14,8863,2222,3491,0295434 22,033331,726
maryland11,2031,7187479916  13,78387,189
mississippi19,5595,4894,2201,3593151 30,943436,631
missouri21,3802,400502344  24,320114,931
north carolina24,5206,0733,321611133  34,658331,059
south carolina16,1995,2103,6461,1974417126,701402,406
tennessee28,3895,5232,55033547  36,844275,719
texas16,2923,4231,82728254  21,878182,566
virginia37,5778,7744,917746114  52,128490,865

trinkets to Africa where they were exchanged for slaves. The slaves were shipped below decks to the West Indies where they were sold. Then the traders hauled cargoes of sugar, and other products to North America, where the sugar was converted to rum, or else they sailed back to Europe. The trip to the New World was hideous for the slaves. They were packed into the slave ships like sardines and many died en route. This infamous leg of the Triangular Trade was known as the Middle Passage. In this fashion the slave trade continued for 300 years and millions of people were deported from Africa in the process.

Slavery may have been introduced in the English colonies as early as 1619 when a Dutch trading vessel brought 20 Africans to the Jamestown Colony. (Historians disagree on whether this particular group of Africans was enslaved or not.) At any rate, towards the end of the century as the settlers' tobacco plantations grew larger, their need for workers also grew and they found that Africans better served their needs. Africans could not pass themselves off as free men and their total subjugation meant that their exploitation was governed by cold calculation of how hard to work them.

In the Caribbean the cost of replacing slaves who died from overwork was low enough that it made economic sense to work the slave to death. That calculus of exploitation worked the other way in the mainland colonies. Slaves were sometimes worked to death, but the price of replacing slaves was high enough that they were often allowed enough food and just enough sleep to live an abbreviated life-span and even to replace their numbers through informal families in the slave quarters.

Between 1620 and 1670, through court decisions and legislative actions, African servitude was made permanent and the institution of slavery was born. It was based not only on the need for labor but also on the ideology of white supremacy. The British colonists clearly regarded the Africans as inferior.

By 1700 there were about 27,000 African slaves in British North America, a number which represented approximately 10 percent of the population. South Carolina had the greatest number of slaves, followed by Virginia. The number of slaves was relatively small in North Carolina, the Middle Colonies, and New England. The demand for slaves intensified in the eighteenth century because of the expansion of agriculture. In Virginia, for example, the number of slaves increased from 12,000 in 1708 to 120,000 in 1756. The slave trade also continued to expand and it was estimated that more than five million slaves were imported into all areas of the New World during the eighteenth century.

As the number of slaves increased, fear of uprisings intensified. By 1700 all the colonies had laws known as Slave Codes which governed the status of the slaves. Slaves were considered property, had no rights, and could be killed for misbehavior. There was no legal limit on lashings. These laws also restricted the movement for slaves, for example, under the Virginia Code, no slave could leave the plantation without permission.

Fear of resistance was not unfounded. There was an aborted slave revolt in Virginia in 1687, and a bloody uprising in New York in 1712. There were several outbreaks of violence in South Carolina in the 1720s and 1730s, and in 1741 panic swept New York City when it was rumored that slaves and poor whites were conspiring to seize control of the city. The New York City conspiracy did not materialize but more than 150 people were arrested and many of them were executed.

Anti-slavery sentiment on the part of whites emerged in the late 1600s. The Pennsylvania Quakers issued a formal denunciation of slavery known as the "Germantown Statement" in 1687 and anti-slavery pamphlets began to appear during the eighteenth century. One of the best known of the early pamphleteers was John Woolman. And in 1775 Benjamin Franklin (17061790), Thomas Paine (17371809), and James Otis (17251783) founded the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society.

The American Revolution (17751783) created a paradox with respect to slavery. The Declaration of Independence stated that "all men are created equal," but this was clearly not true in America where, in 1776, there were nearly 500,000 slaves. Moreover many Revolutionary leaders, including George Washington (17321799) and Thomas Jefferson (17431826), owned slaves. Even though they were critical of the institution of slavery they believed Africans to be inferior to whites and freed very few of their slaves during the struggle. Even so there were some changes after the war. Between 1777 and 1786 all of the northern states provided for either the immediate abolition, or gradual emancipation, of slaves. Moreover the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory (the area that eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin). These changes resulted from a combination of economic and humanitarian forces. Slavery was not profitable in those areas where there were no large plantations and there were those who believed deeply that the practice was immoral.

But, at the same time cotton production was expanding in the South. When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, cotton farming became more profitable and the demand for slaves in that region suddenly increased. At the same time, southerners began to defend slavery as a virtuous institution rather than a necessary evil. As cotton culture expanded it came to be concentrated in the Lower SouthSouth Carolina, Western Georgia, North Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. By 1840 there were about 2.5 million slaves in the South, most of them concentrated in these states.

Cotton production continued to rise and by 1860 it represented 57 percent of all U.S. exports. This in turn led to an increased demand for slaves. Even though the importation of slaves was illegal after 1808, it is estimated that at least 300,000 were smuggled into the country between 1807 and 1860. Slaves were also bred, like cattle. A vigorous internal slave trade developed in which thousands of human beings were sold at auction.

Both the militant defense of slavery and militant opposition began to appear in the 1820s. Southerners argued that they had a constitutional right to hold property, including slaves. Southern pro-slavery advocates went on to quote Bible passages that mentioned the existence of slavery in Old Testament days. Others argued that a menial class was a requirement upon which to build civilized societyindeed, they held that slavery was the very condition of democracy in the South. And, of course, southern apologists for slavery also propounded the white supremacist doctrine that Blacks were perfectly suited to their subordinate role because they were physically strong and mentally inferior.

The anti-slavery movement evolved from the moderate pipe-dream of re-colonizing emancipated blacks in Liberia, in Africa. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1817, included prominent figures like James Madison and John Marshall. It proposed to free the slaves, compensate the owners, and return the freed slaves to Africa. But the size of the slave population even in 1830 precluded such a solution. Still, by publishing newspapers and pamphlets, the American Colonization Society at least began the process of education and advocacy of freeing the slaves.

A more radical solution was simply the immediate freeing of the slaves. This was the demand of the "abolitionist" movement that grew up around William Lloyd Garrison, of Massachusetts. Beginning in 1831, Garrison and his associates published The Liberator and broadcast the demand that slavery be ended immediately, by force if necessary, and without any compensation to the slave owners. In 1832 Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society and helped to found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. These developments evoked fear and hatred in the South. Nonetheless, the abolitionist movement grew rapidly and was very active. It sponsored lectures on the subject. It sent the eloquent former slave, Frederick Douglass to England to spread the abolitionist message there.

Abolitionism was the culmination of a generation of reform movements: the temperance movement, the "asylum" movement for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, and the protest movement against the forcible relocation of the Cherokee Indian nation. The abolitionist movement was the biggest and most passionate of these reform movements. It was also uncompromising: at one point, Garrison publicly burned a copy of the Constitution because it had made provisions for slavery. By 1840 there were 250,000 abolitionists organized into 2,000 clubs or societies in fifteen states. Meanwhile, however, the institution of slavery continued to grow. By 1860 there were nearly four million slaves in North America.

If there was to be a resolution of the slavery issue, most people expected it to come through the political system. In the end, the political system failed to solve the problem or contain the explosive force of the slavery issue, but for a time it looked as though it might succeed. Political leaders like "the Great Compromiser," Henry Clay, approached the slavery issue optimistically as a series of questions that might be balanced off against one another. Indeed, almost since the founding of the nation, the process of bringing new states into the union had been guided by the unwritten principle of balancing the admission of free and slave states. It was this spirit of patching together a compromise that animated the architects of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the elements of which were that Missouri was brought in as a slave state; Maine was separated off from Massachusetts and admitted as a free state; and no more slave states were to be carved out of territory north of the southern boundary of Missouri.

The issue of slavery drove politics from 1820 to the Civil War. Throughout this period the pro-slavery southerners demanded that their "property rights" (to own slaves) be protected by the government through measures such as fugitive slave laws. This recalled the words of John Locke, the most influential philosopher for the generation that made the American Revolution. Locke declared that all men, as an essential condition of being human, had the "inalienable" rightin society as in the "state of nature," to defend their "life, liberty, and property." In drafting the "Declaration of Independence" in 1776, Thomas Jefferson had air-brushed that phrase to read "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But, regardless of that cosmetic change, the slavery issue forced the nation to decide which was the more important ingredient of humanityliberty or property. It was the controversy over Missouri's application to join the union as a slave state that led the aging Thomas Jefferson to declare that the slavery question was like a "fire-bell in the night," waking the nation to the possibility of secession.

Slavery endured because it was profitable to the owners of slaves even though its presence inhibited the diversification of the Southern economy. Thus it was probably inevitable that the institution would be ended only by force. It was not until April 1865, when the Civil War ended, that slavery was declared dead. Its demise was finally promulgated in the U.S. Constitution with the ratification of the thirteenth Amendment in 1866.

See also: Africans Arrive in Virginia, Henry Clay, Indentured Servants, Missouri Compromise,


Curtin, Phillip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Fogel, Robert William. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: New York, 1989.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Goode, Kenneth G. From Africa to the United States and then . . . A Concise Afro-American History. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1969.

Robinson, Donald L. Slavery in the Structure of American Politics, 17651820. New York: Norton, 1979.

Sorin, Gerald. Abolitionism; A New Perspective. New York: Praeger, 1972.

Stevenson, Brenda E. Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.


views updated Jun 11 2018


SLAVERY. What does it mean to dehumanize a human being? To ponder this question is to approach some definition of slavery, one of the most extreme forms of dehumanization. We know enough about life in the antebellum South to know that slaves resisted dehumanization, that they created a folk culture, a family structure, and a spiritual life that blunted the dehumanizing force of slavery. What was it, then, that made slavery slavery?

The problem of slavery, and not just in the American South, was that it defined slaves as outsiders within the very societies of which they were a part. In America this meant that although the slaves got married and formed families, their families were not legally sanctioned and were therefore liable to be torn apart at the will of the master. Put differently, the slave family had no social standing. From youth to old age, from sunup to sundown, slaves spent the bulk of their waking lives at work, for slavery in America was nothing if not a system of labor exploitation. Yet the slaves had no right whatsoever to claim the fruits of their labor. This was "social death," and to the extent that humans are social beings, slavery was a profoundly dehumanizing experience.

What it means to be socially dead, an outsider, varies depending on how a society defines social life. Over the course of slavery's two and a half centuries of life in what became the United States, Americans developed a very specific understanding of social life. In so doing, they were specifying the definition of slavery in America. They saw membership in society in terms of rights, thereby defining the slaves as rightless.

To be sure, social death did not extinguish the slaves' cultural life. The slaves sometimes accumulated small amounts of property, for example, but they had no right to their property independent of the master's will. They bought and sold merchandise, they hired out their labor, but their contracts had no legal standing. In their sacred songs, their profane folktales, and in their explicit complaints, the slaves articulated their dissatisfaction with slavery. But they had no right to publish, to speak, or to assemble. They had no standing in the public sphere, just as their private lives had no legal protection. Thus the distinction between public and private—a central attribute of American society beginning in the eighteenth century—did not apply to the slaves. In all of these ways American slavery dehumanized its victims by depriving them of social standing, without which we cannot be fully human.

Origins of American Slavery

Slavery was largely incompatible with the organic societies of medieval Europe. After the collapse of ancient slavery human bondage persisted on the margins of medieval Europe, first on the islands of the eastern Mediterranean and later in the coastal areas of southern Europe. But western slavery did not revive until the feudal economies declined, opening up opportunities for European merchants and adventurers who were freed from the constraints that prevailed elsewhere. Over the course of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries Europe's consciousness of itself expanded to the point where no "Europeans" were considered "outsiders," and as such available for enslavement. This was a far cry from conditions in Africa, where a much more local conception of social membership made Africans subject to enslavement by other Africans. Thus, during those same centuries, entrepreneurs—first from Spain and Portugal and later from Holland and England—took to the seas and plugged themselves into Africa's highly developed system of slavery, transforming it into a vast Atlantic slave trade.

Finally, the collapse of an organically unified conception of European society, reflected in the Protestant Reformation's destruction of the "one true church," paved the way for the critical liberal distinction between the public and private spheres of life. Modern slavery flourished in this setting, for the slaveholders ironically required the freedom of civil society to establish the slave societies of the Atlantic world. Thus did the slave societies of the Americas grow up alongside, and as part of, the development of liberal capitalism. This is what distinguished "modern" slavery from its predecessors in antiquity.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

The Atlantic slave trade was in some ways an extension of a much older Mediterranean slave trade. Over the course of the late Middle Ages slave-based sugar plantations spread from Turkey to the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, and westward to coastal regions of southern France and Spain before breaking out into the Atlantic and spreading southward to the Azores, Madeira, and São Tomé. To some extent this line of expansion followed the source of slaves, for by the time sugar was being planted on the islands of the Mediterranean, Arab traders were transporting sub-Saharan Africans across the desert to sell them as slave laborers in southern and eastern Europe. Thus as Europe expanded it grew increasingly dependent

on the continued willingness of Africans to enslave one another.

When the Spanish and the Portuguese first encountered West Africans the Europeans were too weak to establish plantations on the African mainland. But by establishing slavery on the island off the African coast—Madiera, the Azores, and São Tomé—the Europeans created the network of connections with Africans that later allowed them to expand their operations into a vast transatlantic slave trade. Thwarted on the African mainland the Europeans turned westward, leaping across the Atlantic to establish sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean. Over the course of several hundred years, European and colonial slavers purchased approximately thirteen million slaves from their African captors. Perhaps eleven million of those Africans survived the Atlantic crossing to be put to work on the farms and plantations of the New World.

Slavery and the slave trade grew as the economy of western Europe expanded and developed. It peaked in the eighteenth century, when a "consumer revolution" centered in England and North America created unprecedented demand for the commodities produced by slaves, especially sugar. Indeed, the history of slavery in the Americas can be written in terms of the rise and fall of a series of sugar economies, first in Brazil, and then on a succession of Caribbean islands beginning with Jamaica and ending, in the nineteenth century, with Cuba. By the time the British got around the establishing permanent settlements on the North American mainland, the Atlantic slave trade that fed the booming sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean was fully operational. If the English colonists in Virginia, Maryland, and elsewhere chose to develop slave economies of their own, the means to do so were readily at hand.

From "Societies with Slaves" to "Slave Societies"

In 1776 slavery was legal in every one of the thirteen colonies that declared its independence from Great Britain. Most of the leading ministers in Puritan Massachusetts had been slave owners. By the second quarter of the eighteenth century a significant percentage of the population of New York City was enslaved, and in 1712 several dozen of that city's slaves openly rebelled. By then there were substantial numbers of slaves in Newport, Rhode Island, which was rapidly becoming a center for the North American slave trade. To the south, African slaves first arrived in the Chesapeake region of Virginia and Maryland in

1619. Slaves appeared in the Carolinas a generation or two later. The ubiquity of slavery in eighteenth century America was not unusual, however: slaves had been present in human societies throughout history, and colonial America was no exception.

What made the colonies—and ultimately the American South—exceptional was the fact that the Chesapeake and lowcountry South Carolina and Georgia became full-scale slave societies rather than merely societies with slaves. Slave societies are rare things in human history, and so its emergence in North America is one of the most important historical developments of the eighteenth century. Slave society, not slavery, is what distinguished the northern colonies from the southern colonies and explains why slavery was abolished in the northern states but persisted in the South. Thus the emergence of slave society, rather than the emergence of slavery itself, is the first major turning point in the history of American slavery.

In the Chesapeake slave society developed fairly slowly. For most of the seventeenth century African slaves in Maryland and Virginia numbered in the hundreds. When English settlers first discovered the profitable potential of large-scale tobacco production, their first source of labor was indentured servants, most of them from Great Britain. Thus, tobacco planting was an established business when, in the late seventeenth century, the English economy improved and the supply of indentured servants dried up. It was only then that Chesapeake planters turned to African slaves in large numbers. Between 1680 and 1720 the Chesapeake was transformed from a society with slaves to a slave society. In those same years, a slave society based on rice planting was constructed in the Carolina lowcountry.

By 1750 the economy and society of both the Chesapeake and the lowcountry were based on slavery. But the two regions differed in significant ways. Tobacco plantations were relatively small; they could be run efficiently with twenty or thirty slaves. Rice plantations were most efficient with fifty slaves or more, whereas the sugar plantations of the Caribbean—and later Louisiana—required so much initial capital that they were most efficient when they had a hundred slaves or more. Because tobacco required some care to cultivate, slaves were organized in gangs that were directly supervised either by the master, an overseer, or a slave driver. Rice planting, by contrast, demanded certain skills but it did not require direct supervision. So in the Carolina lowcountry, slave labor was organized under a "task" system, with individual slaves assigned a certain task every day and left largely on their own to complete it.

Because of these distinctions, slave life in the eighteenth-century lowcountry differed in important ways from slave life in the Chesapeake. Large rice plantations made it easier for slaves to form families of their own. On the other hand, high death rates in the lowcountry destabilized the families that did form. Smaller farms meant that tobacco slaves were much more likely to marry "away" from their home plantations, with all the disruptions and difficulties that such marriages inevitably entailed. On the other hand, Chesapeake slave families were less disrupted by disease and death than were the slave families of the Carolina lowcountry.

Because sugar cane was such a labor-intensive crop, sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean were death traps for slaves; they required constant infusions of new laborers imported from Africa. But sugar could not grow in Virginia or Carolina; and the relative health of slaves working the crops grown there made a family life among slaves possible. As a result, the slave population of the North American colonies developed the ability to reproduce itself naturally over the course of the eighteenth century. In the tobacco regions the slaves achieved a fairly robust rate of population growth, whereas the rice slaves did little more than reproduce their numbers. As a result, the expansion of the rice economy required substantial imports of African slaves throughout the eighteenth century, whereas in the Chesapeake the slave population was largely native-born after 1750. The high density of blacks, combined with sustained African immigration, created a distinctive culture in the coastal lowcountry, a culture marked by its own "gullah" dialect and the persistence of significant African traditions. In Virginia and Maryland, by contrast, a largely native-born population and smaller plantations led to an English-speaking slave community that was more assimilated to the culture of the English settlers.

Although the rice plantations grew more technologically sophisticated, and therefore more productive, over the course of the eighteenth century, the rice culture itself was largely restricted to the lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. The tobacco culture of the Chesapeake proved more adaptable. In the upper South, planters shifted readily to wheat production when the tobacco economy faltered. But more important, the tobacco pattern spread at the end of the century into the inland regions of the lower South, where it facilitated the expansion of short-staple cotton. Thus the form slave society took in the colonial Chesapeake—relatively small plantations, a gang labor system, relatively high birth rates, and a native-born slave population—became the model upon which the cotton economy of the nineteenth century depended. Before that happened, however, the American Revolution had dramatically altered the history of slavery in the United States.

Slavery and the American Revolution

The American Revolution had a profound but ambiguous effect on the history of slavery in the United States. It established the terms of a ferocious debate, without precedent in history, over the morality of slavery itself. It resulted in the creation of the first sizable communities of free blacks in the United States. It made slavery into a sectional institution by abolishing or restricting it in the North while protecting it in the South. And by defining a "citizen" of the new nation as the bearer of certain basic rights, it definitively established the status of American slaves as rightless.

As soon as the conflict between the colonies and Great Britain erupted, the English began to encourage southern slaves to rebel against their masters. Thousands of slaves took advantage of the British offer, thereby transforming the war for independence into a civil war in the southern colonies. As a result, southern slaveholders came to associate their struggle for freedom from Great Britain with the struggle to preserve slavery. The slaves, meanwhile, began to define freedom as the acquisition of rights.

Some of the revolutionary changes had important social consequences. For example, the revolutionary commitment to fundamental human equality inspired the abolition of slavery in every northern state between 1776 and 1804. In the upper South the same ideology, combined with the relative weakness of the slave economy, prompted a wave of manumissions (formal emancipations) in Virginia and Maryland. Northern abolition and southern manumissions together produced the first major communities of free blacks in the United States.

There were important legal changes as well. Slave codes across the South were revised to reflect the liberal humanist injunction against cruelty: some of the most barbaric punishments of slaves were eliminated and the wanton murder of a slave was made illegal for the first time. The new Constitution gave Congress the power to ban, by a simple majority vote, the entire nation from participating in the Atlantic slave trade after 1808. In addition the first U.S. Congress reenacted a Northwest Ordinance, first passed by the Continental Congress, substantially restricting the western expansion of slavery in the northern states. All of these developments reflected the sudden and dramatic emergence of an antislavery sentiment that was new to the world.

But the Revolution did not abolish slavery everywhere, and in important ways it reinforced the slave societies of the South even as it eliminated the last societies with slaves in the North. Humanizing the slave codes made slavery less barbaric, for example, but also more tolerable. More important, the new Constitution recognized and protected slavery without ever actually using the word "slave." It included a fugitive slave clause and two "three-fifths" clauses that gave the southern states a discount on their tax liabilities and enhanced representation in the House of Representatives. Finally, the same liberal ideology that provided so many Americans with a novel argument against slavery became the basis for an equally novel proslavery argument. The rights of property in slaves, the claim that slaves were happy, that they were not treated with cruelty, that they were less productive than free laborers: all of these sentiments drew on the same principles of politics and political economy that inspired the Revolution. They became the mainstays of a developing proslavery ideology.

The Westward Expansion of the Slave Economy

Beginning in the 1790s, a previously moribund slavery came roaring back to life. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented

a machine that made the cultivation of short-staple cotton profitable. Almost immediately the cotton economy began a relentless expansion that continued for more than half a century and eventually provided the catalyst for the Civil War.

The cotton boom commenced with the migration of slaveholders from the upper South down the Piedmont plateau into South Carolina and Georgia. By 1800 slave-holders were spilling across the Appalachians planting tobacco in Kentucky and Tennessee and cotton in Georgia and Alabama. The population of Alabama and Mississippi, 40,000 in 1810, leaped to 200,000 in 1820 and kept growing until it reached over 1.6 million by 1860. By then cotton and slavery had crossed the Mississippi River into Louisiana, parts of Missouri, and Texas. In those same years slave plantations in Kentucky and Tennessee expanded their production of tobacco and to a lesser extent, hemp. And in southern Louisiana the rise of the cotton kingdom was paralleled by the rise in huge, heavily capitalized sugar plantations.

But rice, tobacco, and sugar could not match the dynamism and scope of short-staple cotton. Indeed, cotton quickly established itself as the nation's leading export, in both tons and dollars. Although its growth was erratic—slowing in the 1820s and again in the early 1840s—it never stopped. And far from stagnating, the cotton economy was never more vibrant than it was in the 1850s. Thus on the eve of the Civil War many white Southerners were persuaded that "Cotton is King" and could never be dethroned.

The consequences of slavery's expansion were not confined to economic history, however. For both free and enslaved Southerners, the cotton boom had powerful effects on social and cultural life. Among the slaveholders, the cotton boom bred an aggressively expansionist ethos that influenced everything from family life to national politics. Wives and mothers complained about the men who were prepared to pull up stakes and move westward in search of new opportunities. Sons were urged to leave their towns and families to start up new plantations further west. And slaveholding presidents, including Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, carried these expansionist convictions with them to Washington, D.C., provoking wars and international confrontations all for the sake of facilitating slavery's expansion. But it was the slaves whose lives, families, and communities were most profoundly disrupted by the rise of the cotton kingdom.

The Deterioration of Slave Life

In the second half of the eighteenth century the lives of most slaves improved. Infant mortality rates among slaves declined; the average height of adult slaves rose, indicating an adequate level of nutrition. With that the slaves reached a healthy rate of natural population growth, the ratio of men to women evened out, and it was possible for most slaves to form families of their own. In addition, the American Revolution had inspired many masters in the upper South to free their slaves, and for the vast majority who remained in bondage the laws of slavery became

somewhat less severe. After 1800, however, this progress came to a halt, and in some ways reversed itself.

In the nineteenth century the conditions of slave life deteriorated. Beginning in the 1790s the state legislatures made it harder and harder for masters to manumit (free) their slaves, further choking the already narrow chances the slaves had of gaining their freedom. After 1830 most southern states passed laws making it a crime to teach a slave to read, adding legally enforced illiteracy to the attributes of enslavement. The health of the slaves declined as well. The number of low-birth-weight infants increased, and the average height of the slaves fell—both of them indications of deteriorating levels of nutrition. With the rise of the sugar plantations of Louisiana, a new and particularly ferocious form of slavery established a foothold in the Old South. Sugar plantations had a well-deserved reputation for almost literally working the slaves to death. They averaged a stunning population decline of about 14 percent each decade. But sugar planting was so profitable that it could survive and prosper anyway, thanks to an internal slave trade that provided Louisiana planters with a steady supply of replacement laborers.

The growth of the internal slave trade in the antebellum South made the systematic destruction of African American families a defining element of the slave system. In colonial times, when new slaves were imported through the Atlantic slave trade, the internal trade was small. But with the expansion of the cotton economy after 1790 and the closing of the Atlantic trade in 1808, a robust market in slaves developed. At first Virginia and Maryland but later South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee exported their slaves to the newer slave states further west and south. Eventually even Alabama and Mississippi became net exporters of slaves. Between 1790 and 1860 nearly a million slaves were exported from one part of the South to another, making it one of the largest forced migrations in human history. Between one third and one half of these slaves did not migrate with their masters but were sold through the interstate slave trade.

Slaveholders protested that they sold family members apart from one another only when absolutely necessary. But "necessity" was a flexible concept in the Old South. When the cotton economy was booming and slave prices were high, for example, it became more "necessary" to sell slaves. Furthermore, the ages of the slaves put up for sale suggest that husbands were regularly sold away from wives and children were regularly sold away from parents. The paradox was appalling: cotton cultivation was healthy enough to sustain a natural growth of the slave population through the creation of slave families, but the expansion of the cotton economy broke up those families by the tens of thousands. The forced sale of a close relative became a nearly universal experience for the slaves of the Old South.

The Plantation Regime

Since the late eighteenth century, Americans both North and South accepted that slave labor was less efficient than free labor. Even the slave owners agreed that a slave lacked the incentives to diligent labor that motivated the free worker. Slaves could not be promoted for hard work or fired for poor work. They did not get raises. Harder work did not bring more food, better clothing, a finer home. The slaves could not accumulate savings hoping to buy farms of their own; they could not work with the aim of winning their ultimate freedom; nor could they work to insure that their children's lives would be easier than theirs. Lacking the normal incentives of free labor, the slaves were universally dismissed as lackluster and inefficient workers.

And yet the slave economy grew at impressive, even spectacular rates in the nineteenth century. The returns on investment in slave plantations were comparable to the returns on businesses in the North. Despite the ups and downs of the market for slave-produced commodities, slavery was by and large a profitable system in the Old South. This was no accident. The slaveholders organized their farms and plantations to be as productive as possible. They constructed a managerial hierarchy to oversee the daily labor of the slaves. They employed the latest techniques in crop rotation and manuring. They planted corn and raised livestock that complemented the cash crops, thus keeping the slaves both busy and adequately nourished.

Any free farmer could have done as much, but the slaveholders had advantages that counteracted the weaknesses of their labor system. They put otherwise "unproductive" slaves to work. Slave children went to work at an earlier age than free children, for example. And elderly slaves too old for fieldwork were put in charge of minding very small children and preparing the meals for all the slaves. These and other economies of scale turned a labor system that was in theory unproductive and inefficient into what was, in practice, one of the great economic successes of the nineteenth century.

On a well managed plantation the slaves were kept busy year round, fixing tools and repairing buildings during the winter season, tending to the corn when the cotton was taken care of, slaughtering the hogs after the last of the cotton was ginned. Since most slaves lived on units with twenty or more slaves, most were introduced to some form of systematic management. Slave "drivers" acted as foremen to oversee the gangs in the fields. On larger plantations overseers were hired to manage day to day operations. The larger the plantation the more common it was for particular slaves to specialize in various forms of skilled labor. The "well managed plantation," the slaveholders agreed, took into consideration not simply the amount of cotton produced, but the overall productivity of the farm's operations.

Yet the fact remained that the slaves lacked the incentive to care very much or work very hard to maximize the master's profits. As a result, much of the management of slaves was aimed at forcing them to do what they did not really care about. This was the underlying tension of the master-slave relationship. It was the reason almost all masters resorted to physical punishment. In the final analysis, the efficiency of southern slavery, and the resentment of the slaves, was driven by the whip.

Slave Culture

Slaves responded to the hardships and disruptions of their lives through the medium of a distinctive culture whose roots were in part African and in part American but whose basic outlines were shaped by the experience of slavery itself.

Slave culture developed in several distinct stages. Over the course of the eighteenth century, as the slave population stabilized and the majority of slaves became native-born, a variety of African dialects gave way to English as the language through which most American slaves communicated with one another. A native-born slave population in turn depended on the existence of slave families.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, a growing number of slaves converted to evangelical Christianity and by 1860 Protestantism was the dominant religion of enslaved African Americans.

Despite the fact that most slaves eventually spoke English and practiced Christianity, elements of West African culture persisted. In some parts of the South, such as lowcountry South Carolina and southern Louisiana, the African influence could be strong. The mystical practices of voodoo common among Louisiana slaves, for example, were only one example of African cultural practices that survived in the Old South. More generally, slaves continued to put their faith in the conjurers and potions that were a part of the mystical life of West Africans. Other African cultural traces could be found in the slaves' funeral practices, their marriage ceremonies, and in the way they treated the sick and the dying. Slave music evinced a rhythmic complexity more common to West Africa than to western Europe. And slave dancing, which masters commonly dismissed as mere wild gyrations, were more often a legacy of African traditions such as the "ring shout."

Even the fact that the slaves spoke English, formed families, and practiced Christianity did not mean that they had simply absorbed the culture of their masters. In important ways the slaves used their language to construct a folk culture of rituals, music, and storytelling that reflected the continuing influence of African traditions and that remained very much the culture of slaves rather than masters. The slaves reckoned kinship more broadly and more flexibly than did their masters, providing some measure of emotional protection from the disruptions of family life. Nor was slave Christianity a mere carbon copy of the religion of the masters. Slaves did not distinguish the sacred from the profane as sharply as their owners did; they empathized more with the Moses of the Old Testament, who led his people out of bondage, than with the New Testament Epistles of St. Paul, which exhorted slaves to obey their masters.

For the masters, however, slave culture was as important for what it lacked as for what it contained. Try as they might, the slaveholders could not overcome the structural constraints of a labor system that gave the slaves no reason to respond to the bourgeois injunctions to diligence, thrift, and sobriety. Slave culture was distinguished less by the persistence of African traditions than by its distance from the culture of the masters.

The Culture of the Masters

Years ago, a pioneering historian of the Old South wrote that slavery was "less a business than a life; it made fewer fortunes than it made men." Maybe so. But slavery made more than its share of fortunes: in 1860 almost all of the richest counties in America were located in the South. And the men who made those fortunes did not do so by lolling about on their verandas, sipping mint juleps and reading the Old South's version of the daily racing form.

The slaveholders were a hard-nosed and aggressive lot. Those who inherited their plantations added to their wealth by buying second and third plantations. Sometimes they pulled up stakes, moved west, and built more plantations. Slaveholders who started with a handful of slaves often used their professional careers to subsidize their accumulation of more land and more slaves. It was the rare planter whose wealth did not entail careful management of his farm, constant supervision of his slaves, and a keen eye for a chance to expand his operations or move on.

Because successful slave ownership was hard work, the planters liked to think that they had arrived at their exalted social standing not by the advantages of privileged upbringings but through their steady adherence to the bourgeois virtues of thrift, diligence, and sobriety. No doubt a few generations of wealth smoothed out the rough edges on many a planter family, and the temptation to fancy themselves aristocrats of a sort could become irresistible. But the demands of the slave economy and the plantation regime could not be ignored: to lose sight of the bottom line was to risk financial and social ruin.

Faced with rising antislavery criticism from the North, the slaveholders looked to their experience and filtered it through the prevailing political culture to produce a provocative series of proslavery arguments. If cruelty was immoral, the slaveholders insisted that the slaves were well treated and that brutality was frowned upon. If happiness rested upon a decent standard of living, the slaves were so well treated that they were among the happiest people on earth. Only as slaves did Africans, who would otherwise languish in heathenism, have access to the word of God. Although slave labor was in principle less efficient than free labor, southern slavery put an otherwise unproductive race of people to work in an otherwise unproductive climate, thereby creating wealth and civilization where it could not otherwise have existed. In a culture that sentimentalized the family, the slaveholders increasingly insisted that the families of slaves were protected against all unnecessary disruption. Thus by the standards of liberal society—the immorality of cruelty, the universal right to happiness, freedom to worship, the sanctity of the family, the productivity of labor, and the progress of civilization—southern slave society measured up.

Or so the slaveholders claimed. Northerners—enough of them, anyway—thought differently. As the relentless expansion of the slave states pushed against the equally relentless expansion of the free states, the two regions sharpened their arguments as well as their weapons. When the war came North, with more guns and more machines and more free men to put in uniform, suppressed the slaveholders' rebellion and put down slavery to boot. Thus did American slave society, wealthier and more powerful than ever, come to its violent and irreversible end.


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

Blassingame, John. W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Rev. and enl. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Chaplin, Joyce E. An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730–1815. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Dusinberre, William. Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Fogel, Robert William. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: Norton, 1989.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Morris, Thomas D. Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Knopf, 1982.

———. Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor As Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: Appleton, 1918. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.

Smith, Mark. Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.


See alsoMiddle Passage ; Plantation System of the South ; Triangular Trade ; andvol. 9:Emancipation Proclamation ; Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom ; Sociology for the South ; The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It ; A House Divided ; Text of the Pro-Slavery Argument .


views updated May 29 2018









It has been common for many generations to begin essays on American slavery by noting how commonplace slavery is: It is sanctioned in the Old Testament and has appeared in some form throughout recorded human history, from ancient Egypt to the capture and enslavement of European Christians by Muslims in the Middle Ages to the present. Writers also commonly note that slavery existed in Africa, that Africans sold other Africans into slavery, andthough this is a relatively recent addition to the stock essaythat western Europeans ended slavery in a relatively short compass, from about the time of the American Revolution, when northern states began to adopt abolition statutes, through the 1860s.

All of this is true. However, the emphasis has important political implications. For that picture of slavery makes it look natural. It employs the everybody does it argument to demystify a practice of immense horror. In fact, those arguments were employed with great facility by proslavery thinkers to justify the continuation of the institution. During debates over the Fugitive Slave Act, Senator John Bell of Kentucky said that slavery has been contributing in a hundred various forms and modes, through a period of thousands of years, to the amelioration of the condition of mankind generally, though sometimes abused and perverted, as all human institutions, even those of religion, are (U.S. Congress 1850, 1105).

Senator Bell (who ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States in 1860) found that slavery was still contributing to advance the cause of civilization through, if you please, having its origins in individual cupidity, still mysteriously working out a general good (U.S. Congress 1850, 1105). He went so far as to reason from there that slavery was not inconsistent with Gods law.

Moreover, saying that every society engaged in slavery is misleading. The nature of African American slavery was different in kind from slavery in many other societies. This is frequently lost on those who seek to make African American slavery look commonplace and thus minimize the nature of the harm. Grecian and Roman slavery was nonracial and temporary, for example. The children of people enslaved in one generation might rise to the ranks of free people, and slaves were incorporated into the society more generally.

It is now becoming more common to emphasize other parts of the institution of slavery that resulted in the forced migration of 11 million people to America, nearly one-half million of whom came to English-speaking North America from the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. (The importation of slaves into the United States was outlawed in 1808, although some people were imported illegally after that.) The institution built on centuries of European experience with slavery. Slavery survived in parts of Spain through the 1500s; soon slavery spread to Spains colonies in America. In fact, in 1495 Columbus brought 500 Native American slaves back to Spain. But there were important differences. The slavery that developed in the Americas was brutally violent and perpetual. Slaves were often isolated from free people and left with no hope of having even their children escape from slavery.

The institution was revived and expanded in light of extraordinary needs for labor. Violence permeated it, including the forced separation of families, wars of conquest in Africa encouraged by the European market for humans, the middle passage to America, and brutalization on plantations in America.


Many historians debate the origins of slavery: in European practices such as slavery in Spain in the 1400s, in a legal tradition that stretched back to Roman law, in cultural patterns that encompassed slavery in the Old Testament, in economic needs, and in race prejudices. The legal traditions came largely from Spainand through Spanish law, from Roman law. European-imposed slavery came ashore in the West Indies in the late 1400s and early 1500s, then spread from the Caribbean to the mainland. Historians have spent much time trying to discern how and when slavery came to British North America. The first black people brought to Virginia in the 1620s seem to have had a status similar to that of indentured servitude, where they worked for a limited period of time and then became free. But by the 1660s, it appears that a system of inherited slavery had emerged in Virginia and elsewhere in mainland British North America. Childrens status followed that of their mothers, so the offspring of slave mothers were also slaves. The best answer as to why appears to be that a combination of economic interests, racism, and cultural practices created the American slave system. And while race lies at the center of the institution of slavery, not all blacks were slaves. No whites were slaves, either.

And yet the human spirit longed to be free, even as the system of slavery grew in British North America and statutory laws grew up around it. In 1739 the Stono Rebellion took place along the coast of South Carolina. Something like sixty slaves began the rebellion by stealing weapons along the Stono River. In the wake of the rebellion, the statutory law of South Carolina became harsher and working conditions deteriorated. Shortly afterward, in 1741, there was an alleged plot by slaves in New York City, where 10 percent of the population was enslaved. The extent of the plot remains in dispute, but more than two dozen slaves were executed in the aftermath.


Even as the slave population and the importance of slavery as a labor system were increasing, many in British North America began thinking in the Enlightenments terms of a universal right to freedom. American revolutionists gave consideration to the terms of slavery. In a draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included the slave trade as one of the offenses of the English Crown, but that indictment was subsequently removed. Like the delegates to the Continental Congress, Americans at the time of the Revolution were more generally unwilling to act on antislavery values. One of the great paradoxes of American history is the question of how Americans could fight a war based on the idea of freedom while still maintaining slavery. Or, in the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson, How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

There was, then, in the ideology of republicanism popular in early Americathat conjunction of faith in widely spread property holdings, independence from economic dependency, and political independence as wella strange relationship with slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe drew out the contradiction in her 1852 novel Uncle Toms Cabin when a boy beat his slave. The boys uncle asked whether that was consistent with the republican principle that men are born free and equal. The boys father said that the phrase was

[o]ne of Tom Jeffersons pieces of French sentiment and humbug. Its perfectly ridiculous to have that going the rounds among us, to this day. we can see plainly enough that all men are not born free, nor born equal; they are born anything else. For my part, I think half this republican talk sheer humbug. It is the educated, the intelligent, the wealthy, the refined, who ought to have equal rights and not the canaille. (Stowe 1852, p. 74)

Such an exchange pointed out one of the abolitionists arguments: that slaveholders cared little for the equality of anyone, white or black. Some abolitionists argued, instead, that the slavery of Africans was but a step on the way to further inequality.

Historian Edmund Morgans 1975 book, American Slavery, American Freedom, takes up the paradox of Americans claims for freedom in the Revolution and their concomitant respect for slavery. His answer is that slavery provided the social and intellectual setting for whites freedom. In essence, slaves made it economically possible for white men to have democracy. Moreover, the presence of slavery alerted white men to how awful servitude might beand thus led them to be vigilant in the protection of their rights. This draws in some ways from the insight of South Carolina senator James Henry Hammond, who spoke in 1858 about slaves as the mudsill class who made white freedom and equality possible. Though Hammond turned to this argument as a basis for continuing slavery, later historians have used his theory for insight into the nature of political ideology and slavery. In essence, they looked to Hammond to decode why slavery, so inconsistent with the American language of freedom, had such a powerful hold on the minds of white men.


In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the institution of slavery grew in popularity in the United States, even as the movement opposing slavery also grew. In the northern states, gradual abolition plans began the process of ending slavery. For example, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania passed statutes that would emancipate slaves born afterward, following a period of apprenticeship. The statutes also freed slaves brought into the states. Thus, by about the middle of the nineteenth century, no more slaves would live in those states; those who were enslaved prior to the enactments would have died, and the others would have been freed. One effect of this was to encourage owners to sell their slaves to southern states, where they and their children would continue to be slaves.

The Enlightenment continued to have some adherents. Thomas Jefferson noted in 1784 in his Notes on the State of Virginia that The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever (Jefferson 1984, pp. 288-289). Events elsewhere also contributed to the debate over slavery. In Haiti, Enlightenment ideas and the human impulses to resist slavery led to a revolution among the half-million slaves in 1791, which resulted by 1803 in the end of slavery in Haiti. The free black state was close to alone in the world; the United States would not receive an ambassador from Haiti or even recognize Haiti. The revolution included extraordinary violence. Hundreds of whites died; some white refugees fled from Haiti to South Carolina, where they provided living reminders of what might happen in a slave society. The United Kingdom ended slavery in its colonies in 1833, at a great financial cost, following decades of abolitionist agitation.


There remains substantial question about the origins of antislavery sentiments. They grew in conjunction with the development of the market economy, which has led some historians to ask, What is the relationship between capitalism and abolitionism? One might think at first that there is some tension, in that the institution of slavery seems to have been a fairly effective way of obtaining (relatively) inexpensive labor. Anyone wondering about how important slavery was in the development of the southern agricultural economy might perform a simple experiment: Spend an afternoonjust an afternoonworking in a field in Alabama in July. Then ask, would anyone perform this kind of labor unless forced to do so?

However, the market economy seems to have had a positive effect on antislavery sentiments; in part it made people aware of their fellow humans, in part it led to competition with free labor. Thus, free laborers had both sentimental and economic reasons for opposing slavery. That did not necessarily mean that white voters always welcomed the idea of recently freed slaves living in their community; but for reasons of self-interest, they often had a desire to end slavery. In these cases, the economic interests of many voters merged with the humanitarian sentiments of others to give strength to the antislavery cause, even as proponents of property rights in the South clung tightly to the institution.

One might also consider that Adam Smith was the author of an important treatise, Theory of Moral Sentiments, as well as The Wealth of Nations. As the market economy led the way for the development of middle-class sentiments that recognized the need for promotion of humanity (Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin is a prominent example here), it also led the way for economic competition by free workers with slavery. The Republican Partys slogan in the 1850s, for example, was Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.

W. E. B. Du Bois discussed this in his 1935 book Black Reconstruction, one of the most important works ever written on slavery and its aftermath. The book was an important corrective to the then-dominant school of historical scholarship that relegated slavery to the sidelines in the discussion of the Civil War and that decried the domination of the South by corrupt and lawless Yankees and blacks during Reconstruction. Du Bois dealt with the differing meanings of slavery for white workersthe impact of slave labor on driving down wages, as well as the presence of free black workers in driving down wages. Du Bois wrote, for example, that white immigrants blamed blacks for the cheap price of labor. The result was race war; riots took place which were at first simply the flaming hostility of groups of laborers fighting for bread and butter (Du Bois 1935, p. 18). Du Bois pointed out the complex relationship between white workers and slaves and free blacks, which made it sometimes difficult to tell how voters would define and express their preferences.


In the United States there was other action. Congress outlawed the importation of slaves from outside the United States in 1808 (the earliest date permitted under the Constitution). That had the effect of increasing the prices of enslaved people and also encouraging better treatment because of their increased value. The controversy over the extension of slavery to newly acquired territories continued as well. The Northwest Ordinance of 1789 had prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory (including Ohio and Michigan), which Virginia had ceded to the United States. Southern states worried that if free states were admitted, the South would gradually lose political power. In 1820, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in territories north of Missouris southern border. For a while that contained discord over slavery. Thomas Jefferson wrotewith great foresightabout the compromise that this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. He predicted that although sectional divisions over slavery were quelled for the time being, a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper (Ford 1904-1905, vol. 12, pp. 158-160).

Subsequent events proved Jefferson correct. By the early 1830s, the politics of slavery grew more divisive. Nat Turners August 1831 rebellion in southern Virginia led to the deaths of at least fifty-five white peopleand to a serious debate in the Virginia legislature about a gradual abolition plan. The plan failed, narrowly; in other southern states, there was growing reluctance even to discuss the possibility of termination of slavery. In 1835, when abolitionists attempted to use the U.S. mail to deliver abolitionist literature, southern states further closed ranks. After 1835, there was little serious antislavery talk in the South; the nation was on a course toward Civil War and then, emancipation.

After 1835, southern congressmen imposed the gag rule, which prohibited discussion of the abolition of slavery (or even the receipt of abolitionist petitions) in Congress. Southerners seem to have made an already degrading slavery harsher as well, for instance, by taking seriously statutes prohibiting the teaching of slaves how to read and by generally policing slaves more closely than they had before. Moreover, in the nineteenth century southern states moved to make emancipation of slaves harder and in some cases to require them to leave the states shortly after receiving freedom. College professors in southern institutions wrote important proslavery tracts, including Thomas R. Dew of William and Mary, Albert Taylor Bledsoe of the University of Virginia, R. H. Rivers of Alabama Wesleyan College (now the University of North Alabama), and William Smith of Randolph Macon College. Staples of the proslavery argument were that slavery was ubiquitous in history and that slave societies profited greatly from the institution. They concluded that slavery was not a drag on society but a principle cause of civilization. Moreover, they argued that economic and social stability required slavery. They pointed to Haiti and suggested the dangers to white society from the abolition of slavery.

In 1850, Congress again passed a comprehensive compromise (known as the Compromise of 1850) that, among other things, required northern states to assist in the return of fugitive slaves. But that could not settle the issue for long. The Supreme Court invalidated the Missouri Compromise in 1857 in the Dred Scott case, as it attempted to install southern constitutional thinking on slavery as the law of the land. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln won election, and shortly thereafter South Carolina, fearing for the future viability of slavery, seceded. Other southern states followed and the Civil War began in 1861. During the secession discussions, southern politicians frequently spoke about the importance of preservation of slavery, and some advocated the reopening of the slave trade.


Slavery was present in Spanish and French America, as well as in English-speaking America. In Spanish and French America, unlike English-speaking America, there seems to have been intermarriage between owners and slaves, and slaves seem to have had more formal legal protection. That has led to much discussion of whether the slave systems of Spanish and French America were more benign than in English-speaking America. There was, as many have pointed out, extraordinary violence in the slave systems throughout the Americas. After the Civil War finally ended slavery throughout the nation in 1865, slavery continued for a few more years in other parts of the Americas. Brazil finally ended slavery in 1888, which marked its termination in the Americas.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Cox, Oliver C.; Declaration of Independence, U.S.; Engerman, Stanley; Fogel, Robert; Freedom; Haitian Revolution; Human Rights; Jefferson, Thomas; Liberation Movements; Liberty; Lincoln, Abraham; Liverpool Slave Trade; Migration; Race; Racial Classification; Racism; Republicanism; Revolution; Slave Mode of Production; Slave-Gun Cycle; Smith, Adam; Social Movements; Stigma; U.S. Civil War; Williams, Eric


Davis, David Brion. 2006. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1935. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Russell and Russell.

Ford, Paul Leicester, coll. and ed. 1904-1905. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 12. New York and London: G. P. Putnams Sons.

Gross, Ariela. 2000. Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harris, Leslie. 2003. In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Library of America, Literary Classics of the United States.

Jordan, Winthrop. 1968. White over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Morgan, Edmund S. 1975. American SlaveryAmerican Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton.

Roediger, David. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London and New York: Verso.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. 1852. Uncle Toms Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Boston: John P. Jewett.

Tannenbaum, Frank. 1947. Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas. New York: Knopf.

U.S. Congress. 1850. Congressional Globe, 31st Cong., 1st sess., July 6.

Watson, Alan. 1989. Slave Law in the Americas. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Williams, Eric. 1994. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Alfred L. Brophy


views updated Jun 08 2018


The practice of forcing people to work without compensation can be traced to societies across the globe, and accounts of slavery can be found among the earliest writings and records from some of the oldest known civilizations. The Bible, the text that for millions of Americans is the sacred foundation of national principles, offers numerous allusions to slavery. The Old and New Testaments acknowledge master-and-slave relationships with a general proclivity of acceptance. Throughout the Old Testament the prevalence of slavery is evident through the numerous references to slaves and masters. Celebrated patriarchs such as Abraham, Moses, and Solomon held slaves. For Moses the rules of enslavement are in part divinely sanctioned. It is God who instructs Moses that servants who are bought must be circumcised before they can be accepted at the Passover meal (Exodus 12:43–44). God further instructs Moses that he can buy bondsmen and bondswomen from among the heathens, but of his fellow Israelites who are poor, he can only hire them as servants—they cannot be bought as bondservants (Leviticus 25:39–46).

The pervasiveness of slavery in the Bible is a reminder that while slavery is almost universally proclaimed unjust and inhuman today, it has a long and somewhat remarkable history. While the Bible and Christianity served as the foundation of American abolitionist rhetoric, they just as readily served the rhetoric of proslavery advocates. Proponents of slavery frequently alluded to the New Testament call for servants to be obedient to their masters (Titus 2:9). These apparent biblical sanctions of slavery were cast against other scriptures cited by critics of slavery to show the un-Christian nature of the practice. However, reminders of Christ's call to treat others as you would have them treat you (Matthew 7:12) or the proclamations in the Old and New Testaments of God's deliverance of the meek did little to disturb the convictions of proslavery advocates. In addition to the ambiguous contribution of religion to the reading of slavery in America, the classical civilizations that influenced American thought further clouded this discussion. While ancient Greek and Roman societies were the foundation of neoclassical notions of civilization that informed colonial American thought, the Greeks and Romans also sanctioned slavery while they concurrently espoused high ideals about citizenship and the human spirit.

With the practices and ideals of the ancient world as their guide, early Americans created and negotiated a world of contrasting realities. One was the reality of a post–Revolutionary War call to guarantee liberty and equal rights for citizens of the new nation; the other was the reality of a social and legal system that relegated slaves (who by the close of the eighteenth century were overwhelmingly black) to bondage and exploitation. The master-slave dichotomy that emerged in America was, at least in its form, not unlike the hierarchy Moses outlined in Leviticus: those who were among the chosen or privileged were protected from bondage, but those who ranked among the outsiders (blacks in the case of American society, heathens in the case of Moses' society) were candidates for bondage. The social hierarchy that emerged out of American slavery was reminiscent of the caste societies in numerous slaveholding civilizations; however, in America the centrality of race and the generational nature of slavery produced a system of bondage unparalleled in its time for longevity and for its brutal legacy.

In ancient civilizations of the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa as well as Greece and Rome, slavery was commonly the consequence suffered by prisoners of war, convicted criminals, and victims of personal and political disputes. The enslaved could find themselves relegated to any number of duties, including work as house servants, concubines, soldiers, and laborers. While the enslaved in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages were usually condemned to lifelong servitude, in general their plight was not transgenerational. In fact, in some instances slaves were educated and could serve as tutors and teachers or, as in the case of the ancient Roman playwright Terence, could become celebrated and revered members of society. Slavery in America was different, however. American slavery did not begin as a race-based caste system, but by the close of the seventeenth century Native Americans and whites were no longer good candidates for the long-term, labor-intensive needs of plantation owners. Given their darker skin and their alienation, Africans proved better suited to the planters' labor needs. With their contrasting physical appearance and the absence of kinship or community roots in the New World, enslaved Africans could not easily escape. Moreover, with laws that decreed slavery a lifetime condition that was passed on to offspring, black slaves became a regenerating source of free workers for America's plantations.


The transatlantic slave trade did not mark the birth of slavery on the African continent or the removal of enslaved Africans to distant places. Arab traders predated their Iberian trade rivals by centuries in the trafficking of Africans. When the Portuguese and Spanish began transporting blacks to Europe as slaves in the 1500s, Arabs had been exporting African slaves across the Sahara for centuries. Up to this point these dealings in African slave trading resembled those that took place throughout Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Slaves were the product of various circumstances, and they varied in ethnicity and skin color. Arabs did not limit their trade to dark-skinned Africans, for example, and at varying times they enslaved and traded people from Africa to Europe to Asia.

On the African continent slavery was commonplace. Among sub-Saharan Africans the enslaved were often the products of war. In contrast to the slave system that emerged in the Americas, slavery here was not an agricultural chattel system instituted to maintain plantation estates. It was not based on skin color, and its effect was not generational; indeed, the offspring of these slaves were not cast into slavery and in many instances the slaves were integrated into the family and community. With the influx of Portuguese traders along the west coast of Africa in the 1500s and the succeeding centuries of western trade and colonization on the continent, African slavery became the well-spring of horrors for those in Africa as well as those forced to make the transatlantic voyage. Those enslaved on the continent faced the ever-increasing threat of being thrown into the transatlantic slave market. As the demand for laborers escalated in the Americas, the chances increased dramatically for those enslaved in Africa to become cargo on one of the many voyages between Africa and the Americas.

The transatlantic slave trade fueled the slave market in Africa and the removal of millions from Africa to the Americas, a centuries-long human ill maintained in order to answer the labor needs of white planters in the New World. The United States was not the leading agent in the trafficking of Africans; however, slavery in America grew into a major economic and social system. By the dawn of the nineteenth century the economy of the southern states, and thus that of the nation, was rooted in the agricultural system of chattel labor. The economic health of plantations rested in the right of planters to hold fellow humans without their consent and to demand their labor without paying them wages. This tenuous master-slave relationship informed the emergence of American society in both the North and the South. In the South, most blacks were enslaved and most worked as agricultural laborers. While they lived in close proximity to their masters and other whites, legal and social codes relegated blacks to outcast status. In general, whites did not recognize blacks as having fundamental human rights and needs and presumed that theydid not have the intellectual and moral capacity to comprehend the motives and actions of their white enslavers.

Though slavery had ended in the North by the 1820s, the experience of northern free blacks was not overwhelmingly better than that of their southern counterparts. At the conclusion of the colonists' fight for independence there were free blacks able to trace their ancestry back to several generations of free blacks. This, however, left them no more secure than those freed blacks of less impressive ancestry, nor did it distinguish them significantly from first-generation slaves or their offspring. Free blacks had the burden of proving they were free; they were excluded from long-standing and meaningful employment; and in the North and South, they faced restrictions in housing and education. Whether free in the North or the South, blacks in the United States suffered the effects of a slave system that created a monolithic identity of blackness and whiteness. Whiteness signaled freedom and privilege, while blackness marked the opposite; whether slave or free, the place of blacks in American society grew out of this black-white dichotomy. Free blacks faced constant reminders that their freedom was limited: from laws that restricted their movement, that excluded them from legal protection and privileges, and that often against reality gave them their identity, free blacks understood well that their status was simply a step above those in bondage. In America, slavery and blackness were considered one and the same.


While the authors of the Constitution proclaimed the new nation a united one, the issue of slavery was a point of divisiveness from the start. From the removal of Thomas Jefferson's criticism of British participation in the slave trade in his early draft of the Declaration of Independence to the North-South compromise of determining legislative representation (agreement to give slaves a three-fifths count in state population tal-lies), northern and southern interests were not one on the issue of slavery. Moreover, with objections to slavery articulated by Quakers and free blacks long before colonists declared themselves the United States, abolitionism was bound to become a powerful political and social force. With their outpouring of appeals to the public as well as the support that many offered the Underground Railroad, antislavery proponents made a long-lasting, peaceful compromise impossible.

In general, the very presence of free blacks further heightened the uneasy existence of slavery in America. In a society that equated slavery to blackness, the presence of a free black—and oftentimes vocal—population threatened constructed boundaries of place and identity. How could slaves be made to be content with their lot when free blacks served as a constant and real reminder that blackness did not mean one was inherently destined or suited only for servitude? This circumstance also fueled a fear of slaves that would provoke many masters to treat slaves in ways unimaginably harsh. Slavery served to highlight the distinct divide between rhetoric and reality in America's national identity. The Founding Fathers' proclamations of a hardworking, ambitious, and self-made American citizenry clashed severely with the aristocratic picture of wealthy white planters whose fortunes were derived from the involuntary labor of blacks. It was difficult to distinguish between the wealthy gentry of Britain and their planter counterparts in America. The freedom, liberty, and inalienable rights claimed with such conviction by the Founding Fathers was notably denied to slaves, and it was this blatant hypocrisy that nineteenth-century black writers would repeatedly highlight in their works.


An ever-present reminder of America's inhumanity and hypocrisy, slavery has haunted the imaginations of American writers from pre-Revolutionary days to the present. The musings of early writers and thinkers—black, Native American, and white—on the subject of slavery informed the discourse on slavery in the nineteenth century. In poetry, letters, diaries, short stories, biographies, folktales, and essays, slavery was repeatedly a subject of reflection and contention, and in politics it marked America's continued struggle to negotiate the differences between rhetoric and reality. With the dawn of Jacksonian democracy in the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson's claims of allegiance to democratic principles and work ethics once again highlighted the exclusion of slaves and Native Americans from these noble ideals. Touting himself as a common man and a representative of the masses, Jackson was a popular two-term (1829–1837) president. A slave owner himself, however, Jackson supported the slave-holding interests of the wealthy and powerful circle in which he lived.

Today the most widely read and celebrated nineteenth-century writings on slavery are those that highlighted the evils of the institution. There is little readership, even in institutions of higher learning, for nineteenth-century proslavery writings. Modern readers should remember, however, that antislavery publications were a response not only to the practice of slavery but also to the denigrating representations of blacks in books, magazines, and newspapers. E. N. Elliott's 1860 collection of essays Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments was among numerous such proslavery publications. In works such as Elliott's, blacks were regularly represented as docile, content, childlike beings content with their lot. Plantation owners were often depicted as paternal figures who provided the slaves the necessary material provisions for daily living. Many essayists, poets, and fiction writers represented slavery as an innocuous oddity in American life, and many others were simply silent on this practice. Silence could have been the result of any number of factors. Some authors may have decided that the muddied logistics of slavery threatened the distinct division of good and evil they hoped to portray; for others, slavery and slaves were simply topics that did not warrant artistic or philosophical introspection. The inattentiveness to slavery in some northern writings may have been informed by the lack of physical proximity. Distance often insulates communities from practices and ideals they might find unacceptable, thereby leaving their thinkers and artists free to focus on more regional or abstract matters. For many New England writers, however, the geographical distance between New England and the South was not enough to lull them into silence.

In addition to the persistent spirit of abolitionism in early-nineteenth-century America, the active and vocal free black community in the North helped to keep slavery at the forefront of social and moral discourse. Early in their history as slaves in the New World, blacks passed on orally their stories of enslavement, and some, who were either literate or worked through transcribers, were able to have their experiences written. These accounts of slaves and former slaves became known as slave narratives. The most celebrated of these works was Frederick Douglass's (1818–1895) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Douglass's personal account became the hallmark abolitionist publication, but it was by no means the first. Although few in number, manuscripts and publications of slave accounts dating back to colonial America demonstrate the early efforts of blacks to give voice and history to their experiences. The length of these documents varies from a few pages to a few hundred pages. In a few cases these written voices were not in English but in the Arabic language that some slaves spoke and wrote.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century blacks were writing and publishing poetry, narratives, and speeches, demonstrating their capacity for literacy and their understanding of its importance. It was not until 1827, however, that the first African American newspaper was founded. Freedom's Journal was a significant accomplishment and contribution to the future of African American activism. In contrast to the individual emphasis of single-authored works, a newspaper made possible the publication of multiple voices and experiences and provided an additional medium to disseminate news and information throughout black communities. Freedom's Journal was born as Jacksonian democracy began its rise; it represented the determination of blacks to have a voice in a world and under a leadership that continued to deny their humanity.

In 1829 the black activist David Walker published Walker's Appeal, a tract that simultaneously called on enslaved blacks to rise up against slavery and answered the rising democratic rhetoric among whites of this era. Organized in four articles with a preamble, Walker's Appeal instantly called to mind the U.S. Constitution. Walker placed particular emphasis on answering Thomas Jefferson's published denunciations of blacks and his speculations on their humanness. He challenged Jefferson's allegedly objective observations and charged that, on the contrary, as arbiters of a democracy that was not catholic in practice, Jefferson and America's Founding Fathers compromised their own constructs of white civility and humanity. Walker reminded his readers of America's failure to live up to its proclamations of liberty and freedom. Like the Founding Fathers who called for revolution against the tyrant mother country, Walker called on his brethren in bondage to rebel. In the same year of Walker's riotous tract, the less fiery George Moses Horton (c. 1798–c. 1880), a slave poet of North Carolina, composed "On Liberty and Slavery." While absent the revolutionary call found in Walker's Appeal, Horton's poem nevertheless suggests that the slave's appeal is connected to a fundamental constitutional ideal. In six of ten stanzas Horton identifies liberty at the core of the slave's yearning. It is "Dear Liberty" that will come and free him from bondage and open the door to opportunity.

In the midst of black voices indicting America for its hypocrisy and Jacksonians singing the praises of their liberty-granting nation, a circle of northern white women activists emerged. These women merged their interests in women's rights and abolitionism and became a formidable force in the fight against slavery. While New England's leading writer and public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), did not at first appear especially inclined to encourage public criticism of slavery, many of his female counterparts thrust themselves into the debate with little constraint. Four years prior to "The American Scholar" (1837), Emerson's now celebrated address before a Cambridge audience, his fellow New Englander Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880) published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833). In this pamphlet Child did not simply appeal to her audience's Christian sensibilities; more provocatively, she proclaimed the equality of blacks and indicted fellow northern whites for their part in an institution that defied fundamental principles of Americanness. Child maintained that with their systematic denial of citizenship rights to blacks in the North, northern whites were no less unprincipled than southern planters. The denial of citizenship rights to blacks in the North reified denigrating perceptions of them that validated proslavery propaganda.

Child was among the more radical of her circle; nevertheless, appeals from numerous New England women activists would follow. Among these were Angelina Grimké's 1836 pamphlet Appeal to the Christian Women of the South and, more than a decade later, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851–1852), the fictional appeal that Abraham Lincoln lauded for garnering northern sentiment for the slaves. The abolitionist enthusiasm of his female contemporaries did not take root in Emerson, whose most celebrated works failed to address the more pressing and controversial issues of his day. In his hallmark meditations on the American self, "The American Scholar" and "Self-Reliance" (1841), Emerson criticized Americans for their failure to distinguish themselves from their former tyrants (British) and from the stifling ways and ideas of the Old World (Europe). He called on Americans to find their own way, search their own hearts, to discover what was uniquely American. He argued that the core of the American self was that individual who explored his own soul, his own mind, and then, by his own labor, brought his visions to reality. While Emerson chided Americans for their dependence on Europeans for their understanding and vision, he ignored one of America's most pervasive and striking practices of dependency. Slavery, the dependence on the forced labor of others for the realization of one's vision, was a glaring contradiction to self-reliance. In the two works that would become his signature treatise on Americanness, however, Emerson was remarkably silent on this matter.

While many of his female contemporaries in 1830s and 1840s New England were outspoken abolitionists, Emerson's public addresses that touched on the issue of slavery were for the most part guarded and indirect. In this respect, Emerson's celebrated transcendentalist contemporary Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) offered a more resonant abolitionist voice. Among his numerous antislavery tracts, Thoreau's "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854) and "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849; often referred to by the title "Civil Disobedience") highlight his strict criticisms of America for its participation in and support of what he deemed an innately undemocratic and uncivilized institution. Among Emerson's other celebrated literary contemporaries, however, the critique of slavery was mute at best. The New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorne and the southerner Edgar Allan Poe were not abolitionist sympathizers. While there are critics of Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1856) who argue that it is a criticism of the transnational evil into which slavery had grown, the story's ending leaves an ambiguous read at best. The world is restored to white order with the slaves horrifically put to death. While the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, has been disturbed to the point of self-imposed isolation, his American counterpart, Captain Delano, seems especially relieved that his world has been reclaimed. Were the slaves justified in their insurrection and killing of the Spanish captain, or were their acts simply the manifestation of their nature? Melville offers no certain answer, thereby leaving proponents of slavery a handy and often used anecdote about black-white violent encounters.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892), the self-proclaimed bard of Emerson's call for a unique American poetics, answered Emerson in 1855 with the publication of Leaves of Grass. Whitman's work was not an abolitionist endeavor, but his poetic portrait on the diversity of the American self included blacks as equals among God's great human creations. Whitman does not make explicit antislavery appeals; however, in lines 183–192 of "Song of Myself," Whitman's narrator recalls his encounter with a runaway slave. Undoubtedly the narrator's offer of refuge to the runaway stood out for many readers in the mid-1800s. Whitman's suggestion of the rightness of such an act was not an uncontroversial stand. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had created a greater rift between northerners and southerners. The enactment of this law affirmed the right of southerners to pursue and apprehend runaway slaves in free states. Whitman's passing tale of an offer of refuge to a runaway highlighted the sentiment of many abolitionists who disregarded the law and continued to assist runaways.

By the mid-1800s slavery's most important liter-ary legacy was the slave narrative. Published slave narratives in antebellum America became almost formulaic: the story told was the narrator's journey from slavery to freedom, and this outer layer of narrative usually consisted of additional narrative layers. This could include the narrator's concurrent spiritual narrative, the narrator's journey from intellectual darkness to enlightenment, or the narrator's bildungsroman. Although preceded and followed by numerous others, Douglass's 1845 Narrative has remained one of the most recognized works in American literature. Perhaps part of Narrative's popular appeal for its early white readership was its recognizable form. Readers were more easily drawn in because his was the story of a male slave: this offered the convenience of avoiding the more delicate and distasteful details of sexual exploitation that might surface in the accounts of female slaves. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs's (1813–1897) autobiographical account of enslavement, highlights the alienation awarded black women narrators who failed to gloss over this slave experience. Unlike Douglass, who simply offered speculation that his father was his master, Jacobs recorded with some detail her familial connection to whites of respectable ancestry. Moreover, Douglass's tale ends in marriage to a black woman, so that even if his father was white, his marriage confirms his place among blacks. Jacobs's story does not end in marriage, but it does conclude with Jacobs as mother of two illegitimate children, fathered by her white lover—a well-respected member of the community.

Rebecca Harding Davis's (1831–1910) short novel Life in the Iron Mills (1861) exemplifies the entrenched place of slavery in the American psyche. In this story of immigrant mill workers in West Virginia, Davis painted the picture of their despairing and exploited lives by drawing parallels to chattel slavery. The mill workers are white and free, but Davis wanted to show that their victimization bore uncomfortable resemblances to that of slaves in the south. Davis set her tale in a slave-bordering state, reminding readers of the close proximity between those who were supposedly white and free to those who were black and enslaved. With descriptions of the environment and the immigrants that also inspire images of slavery and the enslaved, Davis challenged America's noble claims of liberty and opportunity for its citizens. If whites were being relegated to conditions that almost collapsed their identity into black-ness/servitude, what was the future of Americanness and the American dream? Davis's pondering was not singular, nor was it confined to an isolated historical moment. Many white authors of her time would ask this question through their works, and many after have continued to cast questions about white identity and privilege against the backdrop of American slavery and its legacy.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans;Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl;Life in the Iron Mills;Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass;Proslavery Writing; Slave Narratives; Slave Rebellions; Uncle Tom's Cabin


Secondary Works

Bennett, Lerone Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of BlackAmerica. 6th ed. Chicago: Johnson, 1987.

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: ATradition within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. The Origins of African AmericanLiterature, 1680–1865. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Conniff, Michael L., and Thomas J. Davis. Africans in theAmericas: A History of the Black Diaspora. New York: St. Martin's, 1994.

Dillon, Merton L. Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves andTheir Allies, 1619–1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.

Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African MuslimsEnslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas: TheEnglish in Comparative Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: TheTransformation of African Identities in the Colonial Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Inikori, Joseph E. "Slavery in Africa and the Transatlantic Slave Trade." In The African Diaspora, edited by Alusine Jalloh and Stephen E. Maizlish, pp. 39–72. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness:Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Meier, August, and Elliott M. Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto. New York: Hill and Wang, 1969.

Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and "Race" in New England, 1780–1860. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Morgan, Edmund S. The Birth of the Republic 1763–1789. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery 1619–1877. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Sanders, Ronald. Lost Tribes and Promised Lands: The Origins of American Racism. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Segal, Roland. Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Stamp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Thornton, John K. "The African Experience of the '20 and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia in 1619." William and Mary Quarterly 50, no. 3 (1998): 421–434.

Elizabeth J. West


views updated May 14 2018


The slave as outsider

Slave supply

The uses of slaves

Slaves and masters

Slavery and Marxist theory


In classical Roman law, slavery was defined asan institution “whereby someone is subject to the dominium ofanother contrary to nature” (Digest Dominium can betranslated as “power,” but the idea of property is alsoimplied. This definition may be accepted as universally applicablewithout the controversial phrase, “contrary to nature.”Distinctions then have to be drawn according to the owner (whether anindividual, a corporate institution, the state, or a god), accordingto the existence or nonexistence of certain “rights” ofthe slave (such as the claim to eventual manumission, or statutoryfreedom), and according to the social structure within which slaveryfunctioned. However, the property element remains essential. Allforms of labor on behalf of another, whether “free” or“unfree,” place the man who labors in the power ofanother; what separates the slave from the rest, including the serfor peon, is the totality of his powerlessness in principle, and forthat the idea of property is juristically the key—hence the term“chattel slave.”

For a sociological analysis, however,equal stress must be given to the slave’s deracination. Thelaw may declare him, in a formal way, powerless and rightless; one reason the law is enforceable is that he lacks anycounterweight or support, whether from a religious institution, from a kinship group, from his own state or nation, or even from other depressed groups within the society in which he has become a slave.Legally he is not a person. Yet he is a human being, and therefore a purely juristic analysis in terms of property, though necessary, isnot sufficient.

Conceptually, every man has available to him, oris denied, a bundle of rights and obligations as diverse as freedomof movement, the right to the fruits of his labor, the right to marryand establish a family, the obligation (or right) of militaryservice, the right to look after his soul. It is not normally thecase that a man possesses either all of them or none; hence the rangeand variety of personal statuses found in different societies, and,within limits, even inside a single society, are very considerable.One may speak of a spectrum of statuses between the two extremes ofabsolute rightlessness and of absolute freedom to exercise all rightsat all times (Finley 1964). The latter has never existed, nor has theformer, although the position of the slave in the American South camevery near to it. In between the two extremes, precisely as in aspectrum, there is much shading and overlapping, which the servilevocabulary reflects.

Within the spectrum there are lines ofdemarcation. Throughout most of human history, labor for others hasbeen performed in large part under conditions of dependence orbondage; that is to say, the relation between the man who works andhis master or employer rested neither on ties of kinship nor on avoluntary, revocable contract of employment, but rather on birth intoa class of dependents, on debt, or on some other precondition whichby custom and law automatically removed from the dependent, usuallyfor a long term or for life, some measure of his freedom of choiceand action. “The concept of labor as a salable commodity,apart from the person of the seller, is relatively recent in thehistory of civilization” (Lasker 1950, p. 114). In allsocieties in which dependent labor is common, regardless of thevariations within that broad class of persons, one main demarcationline is between the dependents and the others.

Slavery is aspecies of dependent labor and not the genus. Slaves were to be foundin many societies in which other kinds of dependent labor—debtbondsmen, clients, helots, serfs, Babylonian mush-kenu, Chinesek’o, Indian Sudras—were common, just as they coexisted withfree labor. However, slavery attained its greatest functionalsignificance,and usually its greatest numerical strength, insocieties in which other, less total varieties of bondage had eitherdisappeared or had never existed. The distinction is particularlysharp as between genuine slave societies—classical Greece (exceptSparta) and Rome, the American South and the Caribbean—on the onehand, and slave-owning societies as found in the ancient Near East(including Egypt), India, or China, on the other hand. Only whenslaves became the main dependent labor force was the concept ofpersonal freedom first articulated (in classical Greece), and wordswere then created or adapted to express that idea. It is literallyimpossible to translate the word “freedom” directlyinto ancient Babylonian or classical Chinese, and modern Europeanlanguages cannot render mushkenum or k’o.

The slave as outsider

Speculations about the origins of slavery have tended tooverlook the specific character of slavery within the broadercategory of dependent labor. Thus, Nieboer (1900, especially pp. 6-7,419-430) correctly stresses “division of labor” andscarce resources (including scarce manpower) as necessary conditions,but he misses the point that the needs were usually met in early andtraditional societies by such institutions as clientage or helotagerather than by slavery, as they have again been met in many areas invery modern times after the abolition of slavery (Kloosterboer 1960,chapter 14).

The slave is an outsider: that alone permits notonly his uprooting but also his reduction from a person to a thingwhich can be owned. Insiders en masse cannot be so totallytransformed; no community could survive that. Thus, free Greeks whowished to dispose of unwanted children were compelled to resort tothe fiction that they had “exposed” them (that is,abandoned them in a deserted place); the earliest Roman law codeexplicitly provided that if a Roman were subject to enslavement as apunishment, he had to be sold abroad (Levy-Bruhl 1931); Islamic lawalways laid down, and usually enforced, the rule that no born Muslimcould be enslaved.

Any hypothesis about the origins of slaverymust therefore explain how and why a given society turned tooutsiders either to supplement or to replace its existing laborforce. Supplementation on a small scale, such as the retention offemale captives, seems both very ancient and very widespread andpresents no analytical problems. But the shift to slavery in afundamental sense, as a substantial labor force employed inproduction, is a radical step. The explanations cannot be identicalin all instances, because of profound differences in thesocial structures and economic systems. However, there were alwayspresent not only a sufficient material and technical level and aconcentration of power which made possible safe procurement ofoutsiders in sufficient numbers but also the failure,unacceptability, or unavailability of other kinds of labor.

The trauma of enslavement, often entailing great physical suffering aswell as severe psychological damage, set up a chain reaction in thebehavior of both the slaves and their masters, in which the potentialor actual employment of naked force was a permanent and inescapablefactor (Elkins 1959). These behavior patterns and their underlyingpsychology were reinforced by the slave’s lack of essentialhuman ties of kin and community. Free sexual access to slaves marksthem off from all other persons as much as their juridicalclassification as property. On the other hand, not all societies wentas far as the American South in the absolute denial to the slave of ade facto family of his own. There slavery was complete, so to speak,and the slave’s deprivation was extended to the nextgeneration; he lost all control not only over his productive activitybut also over his reproduction. In consequence, being born intoslavery meant being born an outsider, too.

Prejudice. Prejudices of color, race, nationality, and religion were deeplyinvolved in slavery, not only as ideological justification but alsoas influences on its institutional development. “Slavery wasnot born of racism,” writes Williams (1944, p. 7),“rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”However, the question must be asked whether the very idea ofenslavement could have been thought of without the extremedistinction between groups, and therefore prejudice, in which“race” in a very loose sense was the criterion. To besure, Greeks^enslaved Greeks from other city-states, for example, andreligious conversion, whether to Christianity or to Islam, did notnormally release a slave. Nor did community solidarity always preventpenal bondage from sliding into genuine slavery (Pulleyblank 1958, p.204). These are minor aberrations, however. If one could compilestatistics of the number of slaves throughout history according totheir origins, the proportion of racial, national, and religiousoutsiders would be overwhelming. Prejudice was certainly an importantfactor in the Southern American colonies when they decreed, in the1660s, that henceforth all Negroes, but no whites, who were imported should be slaves and not indentured servants.

Prejudice had itslimits, however. For example,it never interfered with sexualrelations. It allowed Portuguese officials and missionaries to condone Negro slavery in Brazil while they struggled energetically toemancipate the Amerindians (Boxer 1963, chapter 3; Davis 1966,chapter 8). Slaves drawn from culturally advanced peoples, such asthe Hellenized Syrians in Rome, were regularly employed in suchoccupations as medicine and education. The most remarkable groups ofelite slaves—the Mamelukes and Janissaries—illustrate all aspects of the slave outsider. In each generation the Mamelukes were purchasedas children outside Islam, were given a rigorous and lengthyreligious and military training, and were freed when ready formilitary service. A closed corps was thus created; their only ties were to themselves and their patron (ex-owner), and their eliteposition was not transmissible to their own children (Ayalon 1960).

Slave supply

The procurement of a continuous and numerous supply of slaves depended above all on warfare. In early and simple societies, that usually meant raids by the slave-owning society on its source of supply. Even under more advanced conditions, when societies of more or less equal power and culture adjoined eachother, regular warfare and raiding may also have been stimulated, atleast in part, by the desire for slaves. However, greater stability of supply and greater numbers were ensured in the New World and evento a considerable extent in ancient and medieval times by a more indirect link with war. Neither Portugal nor England made war regularly in Africa in order to meet the demand in the Americas for slaves. The initial act of capture was left to the Africans themselves or to so-called pirates, as it had been left in antiquity to Scythians, Phrygians, and others. In short, the active cooperationof “native” chieftains and tribesmen was critical, and equally so was the role of professional slave traders as themiddlemen.

Slave traders often appear as ambiguous figures. The Southern judge who wrote that “the calling of a slavetraderwas always hateful, odious, even among slave holders themselves” (Bancroft [1931] 1959, p. 366) was expressing one common judgment, but not the only one, for in England at the sametime “his business was a recognized road to gentility”(Davis 1966, p. 154). In all countries his financial and governmental backers and his customers were thoroughly “respectable” figures in the community, and the high value of his services wasalways acknowledged. The suggestion that for a century or more the Roman Senate made no serious effort to suppress piracy in the eastern Mediterranean is probably sound, just as there can be littledoubt about influential, though not unchallenged, support for the extensive illicit trade in slaves which followed British abolition after the Napoleonic Wars.

After warfare, breeding was the major source of supply. This is a subject on which much research remains tobe done, the results of which will probably confirm the view that nosimple generalization is possible. Certainly the often cited“law” that a slave population never reproduces itselfis fictitious. In the United States the slaves did better than that,providing a very considerable increase. The question is intimately bound up with many social and economic factors and not with supposedly necessary demographic consequences (biological orotherwise) of the slave status. At one extreme there were conditionssuch as prevailed in the silver-mining district of Athens, where theslaves were almost all males and therefore could not reproducethemselves. At the other extreme there was the systematic, profitablebreeding in the poorer regions of the American South (Conrad &Meyer 1958). In between these extremes, there was a great range ofpossibilities, conditioned by, among other things, the prevailingrules regarding the inheritance of slave status. These rules appearbewildering in their variety, but much the commonest was that thechild took the mother’s status.

The uses of slaves

Theactual numbers of slaves in any society are rarely known. TheAmerican South provides the decisive exception, and there the figuresshow an upper limit far below the often repeated exaggerations, suchas the 400,000 claimed for ancient Athens. In 1860 slightly fewerthan one-third of the population of the American slave states wereslaves. Furthermore, “nearly three-fourths of all freeSoutherners had no connection with slavery through either family tiesor direct ownership. The ’typical’ Southerner was notonly a small farmer but also a nonslaveholder” (Stampp 1956,p. 30). What counts in evaluating the place of slavery in any societyis, therefore, not absolute totals or proportions, but ratherlocation and function. If the economic and political elite dependedprimarily on slave labor for basic production, then one may speak ofa slave society. It does not matter, in such situations, whether asmany as three-fourths were not slaveholders, or whether slavery wasfairly widespread outside the elite in domestic or othernonproductive roles.

Wherever there are slaves, they will befound indomestic (and therefore also sexual) roles. Such roles havetheir own spectrum, ranging from the “drawers of water”and meanest prostitutes to domestics who were occupationally employedby their craftsmen-owners and to eunuchal grand viziers and haremfavorites. If, however, this is the social location of most of theslaves, then it must follow that other kinds of dependent (or, onoccasion, free) labor together with independent peasants andcraftsmen constitute the productive labor force. That was the case inthe ancient Near East, China, India, and medieval Europe andByzantium as well as the Islamic world of the same period, and it isstill the case in Saudi Arabia.

The economics of slavery.Slavery, then, is transformed as an institution when slaves play anessential role in the economy. Historically that has meant, in thefirst instance, their role in agriculture. Slavery has beenaccommodated to the large estate under radically differentconditions: the Roman latifundia did not practice the monoculture ofthe modern plantation, and they existed within an essentiallyprecapitalist economy. However, both types of estate produced for themarket, and they both existed alongside widespread free smallholding. That both slaves and free men did identical work wasirrelevant; what mattered was the condition of the work, or rather,on whose behalf and under what (and whose) controls it was carriedon. In slave societies hired labor was rare and slave labor the rulewhenever an enterprise was too big for a family to conduct unaided.That rule extended from agriculture to manufacture and mining, andsometimes even to commerce and finance. In this article it isimpossible to examine in detail these other uses of slaves, becauseof all the complexities involved and the extent to which they varyfrom society to society. A number of variables are involved: thepoverty of the soil, as in Athens and other Greek cities; the specialposition of a particular region within an international network ofeconomic relations, as in the American South; or the special role ofthe state as a large consumer of manufactures, as in the later Romanand Byzantine empires.

As an economic institution, slavery was“profitable"; this can be asserted with confidence, despitefrequent attempts to deny it. In the strict sense of the term, thequestion of profitability does not enter into an evaluation ofdomestic slaves, court eunuchs and concubines, or Mamelukes. Nor isthere any value in hypothetical arguments about whether or not Romansenators could have managed their latifundia even more profitablywith some other kind of labor force. They made very large fortunes for centuries on end, and there is no other way to calculatethe economics of slavery in a precapitalist society. As for theAmerican South, it can no longer be seriously questioned that slaveplantations were profitable “in a strict accountingsense” (Genovese 1965, p. 280), whatever the effects ofslavery on further economic growth within a competitive worldeconomy. In the accounting, it is important to give proper weight tothe profitability of slave breeding in the agriculturally poorerregions. In addition, there were the profits of the slave trade,which might or might not accrue to members of the slaveholdingsociety itself.

Slaves and masters

The difficulties inproperly understanding the personality and the psychology of theslave are obvious. Neither the remarks by contemporary writers(whether slaveholders or outside reporters) nor the relatively fewdocuments emanating from slaves themselves can be taken at facevalue. Yet a special slave psychology must have developed (speakingin group terms, of course). In order to survive as human beings,slaves had to adapt to their new state of deracination by developingnew psychological features and new focuses of attachment, includingtheir overseers and masters. Slave elites, whether individualoverseers or whole groups of slaves and freedmen (ex-slaves), such asthe imperial familia in Rome or the Mamelukes in Egypt, serveto exemplify how far adaptation and acceptance could be pushed undercertain conditions. The slave-type—the clever schemer of Greek andRoman comedy or the childlike, indolent, amoral Sambo familiar toAmerican literature and popular humor—is no doubt a stereotype and acaricature, but, as Elkins (1959, chapter 3) has argued, it cannot bea pure invention out of nothing.

Slave rebellions. Theslave was a “troublesome property” (Stampp 1956,chapter 3). In its most extreme form, “beingtroublesome” meant revolt, but large-scale revolt is extremelydifficult to organize and has, in fact, been a relatively rarephenomenon in the history of slavery. Throughout classical antiquitythere were only three revolts of any mark, each involving 100,000 ormore slaves, and all concentrated within the short time span of135-70 B.C. Common to all three were the presence of certainnecessary conditions, including a severe breakdown of the socialorder and the concentration of large numbers of slaves with commonnationality, language, and culture, among them men with unusualpotentialities of leadership (Vogt 1957). It is important to contrastthe ancient chattel slaves with the helots (in Sparta andelsewhere)in this respect: the latter were permanently mutinous in anorganized way, presumably because they belonged to a class ofdependent labor which retained the normal human ties of solidaritywith kin and community. The Caribbean throughout the eighteenth andearly nineteenth centuries was also an area of persistent revolt. Inthe United States, under conditions which differed above all by beingnoncolonial, not a single serious revolt ever occurred; for example,the “Turner cataclysm” of 1831 was a purely localaffair lasting a few months from its inception (with only three daysof actual fighting) and involving only some hundreds of men (Aptheker1943, chapter 12).

“Being troublesome,” in sum,usually meant something much less than outright rebellion, such asflight, sabotage, theft, and inefficiency. None of these isexpressible in quantitative terms or easy to evaluate. There isAmerican evidence to support the famous judgment of the economistCairnes (1862) that slave labor was on the lowest level of skillbecause slaves were both uneducated and uncooperative (Genovese 1965,chapter 2). On the other hand, the possibilities of“loyalty,” which is equally immeasurable, cannot beignored. In contrast to American slaves, the slaves of ancient Greeceand Rome were regularly and successfully employed in the most highlyskilled occupations. Relative mildness or harshness of treatmentcannot be a sufficient explanation of such variations, which must liedeep in the social structure and in psychology. Likewise, variationsin the practice of manumission, in the place of freedmen in thesociety, and in the accompanying psychology require complexexplanations.

Attitudes of the masters. In the ancientworld the institution of slavery was never challenged, despite thenotion that it was “contrary to nature.” No seriousargument was ever put forward for the abolition of slavery in ancientGreece and Rome (as distinct from relative liberality in freeingindividual slaves), on moral or any other grounds; this was also thecase in India, China, and the Islamic world. Nor did Christianitychange the fundamental attitude after it became the official and moreor less universal religion of both the western and eastern halves ofthe Roman Empire. Slavery declined sharply at the end of antiquity,but for reasons having nothing to do with moral ideas. Furthermore,it was in the Christian states in southern and southwestern Europethat slavery was considerably revived in the late Middle Ages(Verlinden 1955), and it was among the Christian conquerors of theNew World that it received its newest and most vigorous re-creation.Paradoxically, it was then that the most powerful andpersistent claims were put forward for the“naturalness” of slavery, with ample quotation from theBible, and that moral arguments for the abolition of slaverywere fully mustered for the first time.

The whole subject of thepsychological effects of slavery calls urgently for furtherinvestigation— from the side of the masters (including the free poorwho themselves owned no slaves) as well as from the side of theslaves. The need to be brutal, ideologically as well as physically,must have had repercussions on the master’s psyche. The easysexual access to slave women influenced all attitudes toward sex andwomen: witness the quasi-chivalric ideology of Southern womanhood.Furthermore, the identification of certain forms of physical laborwith slavery, including the essential labor in agriculture, had itseffects on the free man’s choice of employment and on hisspirit of enterprise generally. More often than not, the majority offree farmers and craftsmen, out of necessity, performed labor similarto that of the slave. Even then, however, there were subtle effectson the directions into which creative talents and energies werechanneled, and there were certain employments into which it wasextremely difficult to move the free poor when they were needed.Policy makers in underdeveloped countries are still coming up againstjust such resistance (McLoughlin 1962), although it usually followsthe abolition of forms of dependent labor other than slavery.

Slavery and Marxist theory

Marxist theory, by its very nature,has assigned a unique historical position to slavery. History isviewed as a progress through a number of stages, each geneticallydetermined within its predecessor and each founded on a particularmode of production (social relations of production), of which one isslavery. In the past half century, in particular, the way in whichhistorical analysis was enmeshed in, not to say dominated by, currentpolitical discussions produced among orthodox Marxists a rigid,universal, unilinear scheme of development in five stages: primitivecommunism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. Even theancient Near East and ancient China, it was held, were slavesocieties, and there were persistent but wholly unsuccessful effortsto discover general laws or general features common to all slavesocieties.

However, scattered through Marx’s writings downto the early 1860s there are also brief, not fully developedreferences to an “Asiatic mode of production.” His onlyattempt to examine this systematically was in one section of a bulkymanuscript written in 1857-1858 but not publisheduntil 1939-1941 andnot widely known before the 1950s. In this sophisticated account, theAsiatic mode of production is characterized as one in which there wasno private property in the land and in which a despotic governmentruled over the village communities, whose members were in a conditionof “general slavery” and who were therefore not slavesin the chattel sense at all. Publication of this work has sparked avery intense new discussion, following a hiatus of nearly ageneration (PeCirka 1964). The discussion is still in an early andfluid state, but the general trend seems clear. It is argued that thestages of evolution in European history from which the traditionalscheme was constructed do not constitute a model for world history atall but were, on the contrary, a unique development. As a corollary,the “Asiatic” mode of production has been found onother continents as well, for example in Bronze Age Greece and amongthe Incas. The place of slavery in Marxist theory thus seems to beundergoing a redefinition to fit a multilinear pattern ofdevelopment.

M. I. Finley

[See also Asian Society, article on Southeast Asia; Internment And Custody.]


No serious full-scale history of slavery exists in one book. Thehooks and articles listed here, with the bibliographies they include,cover the field quite thoroughly. For classical antiquity, Wallon 1847 is still valuable for its rich documentation. The one modernbook on antiquity, Westermann 1955, is recognized to beunsatisfactory; a better, though not systematic, introduction will befound in the 11 articles collected in Finley 1960. For the fullestsurvey of modern views since the work of David Hume, with a Marxistcritique, see Lentsman 1963, Part 1. On the historiography of American slavery, see Elkins 1959, Chapter 1, and the massiveliterature cited in the notes in Davis 1966; for the new discussioninitiated by Elkins, see Sio 1965. On the unresolved controversyabout Latin American, and especially Brazilian, slavery, see Elkins 1959 for the view that there has been considerable amelioration, ascontrasted with North American slavery, and Davis 1966, Chapter 8,for the opposing view. Summaries of current Marxist discussions ofthe “Asiatic mode of production,” with particularreference to slavery, will be found in Pecirka 1964 and Chesneaux1965, both of whom write as Marxists. An important stimulant of this discussion has been the publication of Marx 1857-1858.

Aptheker,Herbert 1943 American Negro Slave Revolts. New York: Columbia Univ.Press.

Ayalon, David 1960 Studies in Al-Jabartl. Part I: Notes onthe Transformation of Mamluk Society in Egypt Under the Ottomans.Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 3:148-174,275-325. → Provides references to Ayalon’s otherarticles on the Mamelukes.

Bancroft, Frederic (1931) 1959 SlaveTrading in the Old South. New York: Ungar.

Boxer, Charles R. 1963 Race Relations in the Portuguese Colonial Empire: 1415-1825. Oxford:Clarendon.

Browning, R. 1958 Rabstvo v vizantilskoiimperil: 600-1200 (Slavery in the Byzantine Empire: 600-1200).Vizantiiskii vremennik 14:38-55.

Buckland, William W. 1908 The Roman Law of Slavery: The Condition of the Slave in Private Law From Augustus to Justinian. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Cairnes, John E.(1862) 1863 The Slave Power: Its Character, Career, and ProbableDesigns; Being an Attempt to Explain the Real Issues Involved in theAmerican Contest. 3d ed. New York: Carleton.

Chanana, Dev Raj(1960) 1961 Slavery in Ancient India, as Depicted in Pali and Sanskrit Texts. London: Collet.

Chesneaux, Jean 1965 Ou en est ladiscussion sur le mode de production asiatique? Pensee 122:40-59.

Conrad, Alfred H.; and Meyer, John R. 1958 The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South. Journal of Political Economy66:95-130, 442-443.

Davis, David Brion 1966 The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Elkins, Stanley M. (1959) 1963 Slavery: A Problem in AmericanInstitutional and Intellectual Life. New York: Universal Library.

Filler, Louis (1960) 1963 The Crusade Against Slavery: 1830-1860.New York: Harper.

Finley, M. I. (editor) 1960 Slavery inClassical Antiquity: Views and Controversies. Cambridge: Heffer.

Finley, M. I. 1964 Between Slavery and Freedom. ComparativeStudies in Society and History 6:233-249.

Genovese, Eugene D.1965 The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy andSociety of the Slave South. New York: Pantheon.

Hadjinicolaou-Marava, Anne 1950 Recherches sur la vie des esclavesdans le monde byzantin. Athens: L’Institut Francais.

Kurd,John C. 1858-1862 The Law of Freedom and Bondage in the UnitedStates. 2, vols. Boston: Little.

Ianni, Octavio 1962 Asmetamorfoses do escravo: Apo-geu e crise da escravatura no Brazilmeridional. Sao Paulo (Brazil): Difusao Europeia do Livro.

James,Cyril L. R. (1938) 1963 The Black Jacobins: ToussaintL’Ouverture and the Santo Domingo Revolution. 2d ed. rev. NewYork: Random House.

Kloostehboer, Willemina 1960 InvoluntaryLabour Since the Abolition of Slavery: A Survey of Compulsory LibourThroughout the World. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill.

Laskeh, Bruno1950 Human Bondage in Southeast Asia. Chapel Hill: Univ. of NorthCarolina Press.

Lentsman, Iakov A. 1963 Rabstvo v mikenskoi igom-erovskoi Gretsii (Slavery in Mycenaean and Homeric Greece).Moscow: Akademiia Nauk Sssr. → Translated into German by MariaBrauer-Pospelova as Ja. A. Lencman, Die Sklaverei im mykenischen undhomerischen Griechenland, and published in 1966 by Steiner.

Levy-Bruhl, H. (1931) 1960 Theorie de 1’esclavage. Pages151-169 in M. I. Finley (editor), Slavery in Classical Antiquity:Views and Controversies. Cambridge: Heffer. → First publishedas “Esquisse d’une theorie sociologique de1’esclavage a Rome.”

McLoucHun, Peter F. M. 1962Economic Development and the Heritage of Slavery in the SudanRepublic. Africa 32:355-391.

Marx, Karl (1857-1858) 1965Pre-capitalist Economic Formations. Edited by E. J. Hobsbawm. NewYork: International Publishers. → A partial translationofMarx’s posthumously published Grundrisse der Kritik derpolitischen Okonomie.

Mendelsohn, Isaac 1949 Slavery in theAncient Near East: A Comparative Study of Slavery in Babylonia,Assyria, Syria and Palestine; From the Middle of the Third Millenniumto the End of the First Millennium. Oxford Univ. Press.

Nieboer,Herman J. (1900) 1910 Slavery as an Industrial System: EthnologicalResearches. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Pecirka, J. 1964 Die sowjetischenDiskussionen uber die asiatische Produktionsweise und tiber dieSklaven-halterformation. Eirene: Studia graeca et latina (Prague)3:147-169.

Pokora, Timoteus 1963 Existierte in China eineSklav-enhaltergesellschaft? Archiv orientdlni 31:353-363.

Puixeyblank, E. G. 1958 The Origins and Nature of Chattel Slaveryin China. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient1:185-220.

Siegel, Bernard J. 1945 Some MethodologicalConsiderations for a Comparative Study of Slavery. AmericanAnthropologist New Series 47:357-392.

Sio, Arnold A. 1965Interpretations of Slavery: The Slave Status in the Americas.Comparative Studies in Society and History 7:289-308.

Stampp,Kenneth M. 1956 The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellumSouth. New York: Knopf.

Urbach, Efraim E. (1960) 1964 The LawsRegarding Slavery as a Source for Social History of the Period of theSecond Temple, the Mishnah and Talmud. Volume 1, pages 1-94 inLondon, Institute of Jewish Studies, Papers of the Institute ....Edited by J. G. Weiss. Jerusalem: Hebrew Univ., Magnes Press;distributed by the Oxford Univ. Press. → First published inHebrew in the journal Zion.

Verlinden, Charles 1955L’esclavage dans I’Europe medievale. I: Peninsuleiberique-France. Bruges (Belgium): Tempel.

Vogt, J. (1957) 1965Struktur der antiken Sklaven-kriege. Pages 20-60 in J. Vogt,Sklaverei und Hu-manitdt. Historia, Einzelschriften, Heft 8.Wiesbaden (Germany): Steiner.

Wade, Richard C. 1964 Slavery inthe Cities: The South 1820-1860. Oxford Univ. Press.

Wallon,Henri (1847) 1879 Histoire de 1’esclavage dans Vantiquite. 2ded. 3 vols. Paris: Hachette.

Westermann, William L. 1955 TheSlave Systems of Greek and Roman Antiquity. Philadelphia: AmericanPhilosophical Society.

Wilbur, Clarence M. 1943 Slavery in ChinaDuring the Former Han Dynasty: 206 B.C.-A.D. 25. Field Museum ofNatural History, Anthropological Series, Vol. 34. Chicago: TheMuseum.

Williams, Eric (1944) 1961 Capitalism and Slavery. NewYork: Russell & Russell.


views updated May 21 2018


biblical law

The Hebrew term for slave, 'eved (pl. 'avadim), is a direct derivation from the verb ʿbd, "to work"; thus, the "slave" is only a worker or servant. The eved differs from the hired worker (sakhir) in three respects: he receives no wages for his work; he is a member of his master's household (cf. Gen. 24:2; Lev. 22:11; and see below); and his master exercises patria potestas over him; for example, the master may choose a wife for the slave and retains ownership of her (Ex. 21:4) and he has proprietary rights in him (see below).


The following classes of 'avadim are to be distinguished:

hebrew slaves

A Hebrew could not become a slave unless by order of the court (for which see under Criminals, below) or by giving himself voluntarily into bondage (for which see under Paupers, etc., below; Yad, Avadim 1:1). Other slaves were always recruited from outside the nation. It has been opined that the epithet "'eved 'ivri," and the laws relating to Hebrew slaves (Ex. 21:2–6) would apply also to such non-Jewish slaves as were born into the household as the offspring of alien slaves (see, for instance, Saalschuetz, Das Mosaische Recht (1853), ch. 101).

alien slaves

"Of the nations that are round about you, of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondwomen. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them may ye buy and of their families that are with you which they have begotten in your land; and they may be your possession" (Lev. 25:44–45).

paupers and debtors

A debtor who is unable to pay his debts may give himself in bondage to his creditor (cf. Lev. 25:39; Prov. 22:7; see also ii Kings 4:1; Isa. 50:1; Amos 2:6, 8:6; Neh. 5:5). According to other opinions, the verse in Leviticus 25:39 deals with an ordinary pauper who sold himself and the debtor's bondage was against strict law, although it happened from time to time in practice (see Elon, Ḥerut ha-Perat, 1–10, and n. 9; *Execution (Civil)).


A thief who is unable to make restitution is "sold for his theft" (Ex. 22:2).

prisoners of war

It would appear from Numbers 31:26–27 and Deuteronomy 20:10–11 that prisoners of war could be, and were, taken into bondage, but it has been contended that no prisoners of war were ever taken into private slavery (Kaufmann, Y., Toledot 1 (1937), 651).

female slaves

A father may sell his daughter into slavery (Ex. 21:7), usually apparently for household duties and eventual marriage (Ex. 21:7–11).

children of slaves

The Bible mentions "the son of thy handmaid" (Ex. 23:12), "he that is born in the house" (Gen. 17:12, 13; Lev. 22:11), indicating that the status of slaves devolved upon their children.

Termination of Bondage

hebrew slaves

Hebrew slaves serve six years only and must be freed in the seventh (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12). "And when thou lettest him go free from thee, thou shalt not let him go empty; thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy threshing floor, and out of thy wine-press; of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee" (Deut. 15:13–14; and see *Ha'anakah). This short period of bondage conditioned the price of slaves: there is some indication of their market value in the provision that if an ox killed a slave, the owner of the ox must pay 30 shekels of silver to the master of the slave (Ex. 21:32). Whatever the master may have paid for the slave, "It shall not seem hard unto thee, when thou lettest him go free from thee; for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath he served thee six years" (Deut. 15:18). If the slave refuses to go free and wishes to stay on in his master's service, then the master pierces his ear with an awl and in this way the slave is bonded to him forever (Ex. 21:5–6; Deut. 15:16–17). If a Hebrew slave has been sold to an alien, he must be redeemed at once; he then enters into the redeemer's service, which terminates with the jubilee year (Lev. 25:47–54).

alien slaves

Alien slaves serve in perpetuity: "Ye may make them an inheritance for your children after you, to hold for a possession, of them ye may take your bondmen forever" (Lev. 25:46). The same rule would appear to apply to prisoners of war.


Whatever the amount of debt for which the debtor sold himself he must be freed on the first ensuing jubilee year (Lev. 25:40). The same is true of a pauper. In that year he regains his lands and holdings (Lev. 25:10, 13) and can go back to his family and ancestral home (Lev. 25:41).

female slaves

Female slaves sold into bondage by their fathers go free if their master's sons deny them their matrimonial rights (Ex. 21:11).

Slaves must be released for grievous bodily injury caused to them: the master must let the slave go free "for his eye's sake" or "for his tooth's sake" (Ex. 21:26–27), if either be gouged out or knocked out by him.

Status of Slaves

Slaves are members of the master's household, and as such enjoy the benefit and are liable to the duty of keeping the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10, 23:12; Deut. 5:14–15) and holidays (Deut. 16:11–14, 12:18). They must be circumcised (Gen. 17:12–13); partake of Passover sacrifices when circumcised (Ex. 12:44), as distinguished from resident hirelings (Ex. 12:45); and may inherit the master's estate where there is no direct issue (Gen. 15:3) or perhaps even where there is (Prov. 17:2). Although slaves are the master's property (Lev. 22:11, etc.), they may acquire and hold property of their own; a slave who "prospers," i.e., can afford it, may redeem himself (Lev. 25:29; instances of property held by slaves are to be found in ii Sam. 9:10; 16:4; 19:18, 30; cf. i Sam. 9:8). The killing of a slave is punishable in the same way as that of any freeman, even if the act is committed by the master (Ex. 21:20).

Treatment of Slaves

In the case of a pauper who sells himself into slavery or a man who is redeemed from bondage to a stranger, no distinction may be made between a slave and a hired laborer (Lev. 25:40, 53). A master may not rule ruthlessly over these slaves (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53) nor ill-treat them (Deut. 23:17); Ben Sira adds: "If thou treat him ill and he proceeds to run away, in what way shalt thou find him?" (Ecclus. 33:31). A master may chastise his slave to a reasonable extent (Ecclus. 33:26) but not wound him (Ex. 21:26–27). The workload of a slave should never exceed his physical strength (Ecclus. 33:28–29). A fugitive slave must not be turned over to his master but given refuge (Deut. 23:16). There was no similar rule prevailing in neighboring countries (cf. i Kings 2:39–40). The *abduction of a person for sale into bondage is a capital offense (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). In general, "thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 15:15), and that you are now the slaves of God Who redeemed you from Egypt (Lev. 25:55).

Implementation of Slavery Laws

From a report in Jeremiah (34:8–16) it would appear that the laws relating to the release of Hebrew slaves after six years' service were not implemented in practice: King Zedekiah had to make a "covenant" with the people that every man should let his slaves go free "at the end of seven years"; but hardly had the people released their slaves than they turned round and brought them back into subjection. In retribution for the failure to grant liberty to slaves, God would proclaim liberty "unto the sword, unto the pestilence, and unto the famine"; "and I will make you a horror unto all the kingdoms of the earth" (Jer. 34:17). According to Ezra (2:64–65) and Nehemiah (7:67), it would appear that in addition to the 42,360 people returning from Babylonia there were 7,337 slaves, male and female, and another 245 (or 200) musicians.

talmudic law

Opinions are divided among modern scholars whether and to what extent slavery was practiced in post-biblical times. There is repeated mention of Tebi, the slave of Rabban Gamaliel (Ber. 2:7; Pes. 7:2; Suk. 2:1), and a freed slave formerly belonging to Tobiah the physician (rh 1:7) is also mentioned. In amoraic sources there are reports of cases of men selling themselves into slavery as gladiators (Git. 46b–47a), apparently from dire necessity (tj, Git. 4:9). There is a strong talmudic tradition to the effect that all bondage of Hebrew slaves had ceased with the cessation of jubilee years (Git. 65a; Kid. 69a; Ar. 29a; Maim. Yad, Avadim 2:10), which would mean that from the period of the Second Temple the practice of slavery was at any rate confined to non-Hebrew slaves.


hebrew slaves

The term eved Ivri is reserved for, and identified with, a thief unable to make restitution who is sold for his theft or a pauper who sold himself into bondage (Kid. 14b; Yad, Avadim 1:1). This implies that a Hebrew slave may not be resold. The earlier Mishnah provides that a Hebrew slave may be acquired by the payment of money or the delivery of a deed of sale (Kid. 1:2).

female hebrew slaves

Many provisions applying to slaves in general do not apply to female slaves. Thus, a woman may not sell herself into slavery (Mekh. Nezikin 3; Yad, Avadim 1:2), nor is a woman thief sold into slavery, even though she cannot make restitution (Sot. 3:8; Yad, Genevah 3:12). Contrary to an express scriptural provision (Deut. 15:17), a female slave's ear may not be pierced (Sif. Deut. 122; Kid. 17b; Yad, Avadim 3:13). The female Hebrew slave can only be a minor below the age of 12 years whom her father (not her mother: Sot. 3:8; Sot. 23b) has sold into bondage (Ex. 21:7; Ket. 3:8; Yad, Avadim 4:1); he may do so only when he has no other means of subsistence left (Tosef. Ar. 5:7; Mekh. Sb-Y 21:7; Yad, Avadim 4:2) and must redeem her as soon as he has the means (Kid. 18a; Yad, loc. cit.).

non-hebrew slaves

Non-Hebrew slaves (eved Kena'ani) may be acquired by the payment of money, the delivery of a deed of sale, or three years' undisturbed possession (Kid. 1:3; bb 3:1) – to which were later added barter or exchange, and the physical taking into possession (Kid. 22b; Yad, Avadim 5:1; Sh. Ar., yd 267:25).

Terminations of Bondage

hebrew slaves

As well as release after six years' service or the beginning of the jubilee year, five more possibilities were added. The slave may redeem himself by paying his master part of the purchase price proportionate to the period served; for example, if he had been bought for 60 dinars and had served four years, he could redeem himself by paying 20 dinars, the whole period of service being six years. The redemption money is paid by a third person, either to the slave or to the master, on condition that it is used only for the redemption (Kid. 1:2; Yad, Avadim 2:8). A slave may be released by a deed of release delivered by his master (Kid. 16a; Yad, Avadim 2:12). He is released on the death of his master, provided the master left no male descendants (Kid. 17b; Yad, loc. cit.). Where the slave has had his ear pierced, he is released on the death of his master, irrespective of the master's surviving issue (Kid. 1:2; Kid. 17b; Yad, Avadim 3:7). Where the master is a non-Jew or a *ger, the slave is released on his death (Kid. 17b; Yad, loc. cit.).

female hebrew slaves

The provisions relating to release after six years' service, in the jubilee year, by payment, or by deed, also apply to female slaves. In addition, their bondage is terminated when the slave comes of age, i.e., shows "signs" of puberty (simanim: Kid. 1:2; Yad, Avadim 4:5; also see Legal Capacity), and by the death of the master, irrespective of the issue he left (Kid. 17b; Yad, Avadim 4:6).

alien slaves

For alien slaves the bondage is terminated in various fashions. Release may be by payment of money, the price demanded by the master being paid to him by a third party, either directly or through the slave (Kid. 1:3; Yad, Avadim 5:2). A deed of release may be delivered by the master (Kid. 1:3; Yad, Avadim 5:3). A verbal release, or a promise of release, is not sufficient in itself, but the court may enforce it by compelling the master to deliver a deed (Sh. Ar., yd 267:73–74). The slave is freed if the master causes him grievous bodily injury: the two biblical instances of gouging out the eye and knocking out the tooth are multiplied, and a long list of eligible injuries has been laid down (Kid. 24b–25a; Yad, Avadim 5:4–14; Sh. Ar., yd 267:27–39). While the list in the codes was intended to be exhaustive, the better rule seems to be that all injuries leaving any permanent disfigurement are included (Kid. 24a). The rule is confined to non-Hebrew slaves only (Mekh. Nezikin 9); injuries inflicted on Hebrew slaves, male or female, are dealt with as injuries to freemen (bk 8:3; Yad, Ḥovel 4:13 and Avadim 4:6). A slave may also be released if his master bequeaths him all his property (Pe'ah 3:8; Git. 8b–9a; Yad, Avadim 7:9; yd 267:57). By marriage to a freewoman, or by his de facto recognition, in the presence of his master, as a free Jew (e.g., using phylacteries and reading the Torah in public; Git. 39b–40a; Yad, Avadim 8:17; yd 267:70) a slave obtained his freedom. Marriage to the master's daughter seems to have been a not infrequent means to emancipation (Pes. 113a).

Status of Slaves

Discussions went on for centuries whether slaves, qua property, are to be regarded as belonging to the category of movables or immovables; Gulak (Yesodei 1 (1922), 92) held that originally they were likened to land and only much later to personal property. In effect, they were likened to land as regards modes of *acquisition (money, deed, possession: Kid. 1:3), and in that they could not be the subject of *theft or *ona'ah or bailment (see *Shomerim; Sifra Be-Har 7:3; bm 4:9), but in other respects were treated as movables (cf. Tos. to bb 150a s.v.avda; Rashbambb 68a s.v.ella; and see Herzog Institute, 1 (1936), 92–95. For the discussions on this question, see bk 12a; bb 68a, 150a; Yev. 99a; Git. 39a; tj, Kid. 1:3; etc.). Slaves may be mortgaged (Git. 4:4; bk 11b; Ḥm 117:5; yd 267:68; and see *Pledge). Slaves could be authorized to act as *agents for their masters, and for certain purposes were so authorized by law or custom (Tosef. bk 11:2–7; bk 119a; bm 96a, 99a; bm 8:3; Tosef. Pes. 7:4; Er. 7:6; tj, Er. 7:6; Ma'as. Sh. 4:4; etc.). Slaves could not act as agents for *divorce (Git. 23b). Slaves could hold property of their own (Tosef. Ar. 1:2; Shek. 1:5; Pes. 8:2, 88b; Yev. 66a; tj, Yev. 7:1; Tosef. bk 11:1; bb 51b–52a; Sanh. 91a, 105a; Ket. 28a; Meg. 16a; etc.), but they could not dispose of their property by *will (Rashi and Tos. to Nazir 61b). A slave must be circumcised (Shab. 135b; Yad, Milah 1:3; yd 267:1).

A slave is not answerable for his *torts, but when he comes into property after his release he may be held liable in damages for torts committed during bondage (bk 8:4). A slave has the right to stay in the Land of Israel, and may not be sold for export (Git. 4:6). If he is with his master abroad, he may compel him to take him to the land of Israel (Ket. 110b; Yad, Avadim 8:9; yd 267:84), and he may flee with impunity to the Land of Israel, the prohibition on extradition (Deut. 23:16) being applicable to him (Git. 45a; Yad, Avadim 8:10; yd 267:85).

A slave may not be sold to a non-Jew: such sale is tantamount to the slave's release, and the vendor may be ordered by the court to repay the buyer not only the price he received but as much as tenfold of the price as a fine. When the slave is redeemed in this way, he does not return to the vendor but goes free (Git. 4:6; Git. 44a–45a; Yad, Avadim 8:1; yd 267:80). Any slave – except a pauper who sold himself in bondage – can be married by his master to a non-Jewish female slave (Kid. 14b; Ker. 11a; Yad, Avadim 3:12). A bastard (*mamzer) can legitimize his issue by marrying a female slave: her son would be a slave by birth and would become a pure freeman on his release (Kid. 3:13). A slave who has been jointly owned by two masters and is released by one becomes half-slave half-freeman; the remaining master may also be compelled by the court to release him (Git. 4:5; Yad, Avadim 7:7; yd 267:62–63).

Treatment of Slaves

The biblical "for to the double of the hire of a hireling hath heserved thee six years" (Deut. 15:18) was interpreted as allowing slaves to be given double the work of hired laborers: while the latter work only during daytime, slaves may be required to work also at night (Sif. Deut. 123). The Talmud (Kid. 15a) states that this merely gives the master the right to give the slave a bondwoman in order to beget children. There is some early authority to the effect that a slave has no right to maintenance which can be enforced in law, notwithstanding his obligation to work (Git. 1:6; Git. 12a), the biblical "he fareth well with thee" (Deut. 15:16) being attributed to Hebrew slaves only (Kid. 22a). However, the predominant view, as expressed by Maimonides, is: "It is permissible to work the slave hard; but while this is the law, the ways of ethics and prudence are that the master should be just and merciful, not make the yoke too heavy on his slave, and not press him too hard; and that he should give him of all food and drink. And thus the early sages used to do – they gave their slaves of everything they ate and drank themselves, and had food served to their slaves even before partaking of it themselves… Slaves may not be maltreated or offended – the law destined them for service, not for humiliation. Do not shout at them or be angry with them, but hear them out, as it is written [Job 31:13–14]: 'If I did despise the cause of my man-servant or maid-servant when they contended with me, what then shall I do when God riseth up? and when He remembereth what shall I answer?'" (Yad, Avadim 9:8; and cf. yd 267:17). In another context, Maimonides says of the laws relating to slavery that they are all "mercy, compassion, and forbearance": "You are in duty bound to see that your slave makes progress; you must benefit him and must not hurt him with words. He ought to rise and advance with you, be with you in the place you chose for yourself, and when fortune is good to you, do not grudge him his portion" (Guide 3:39).

post-talmudic law

Slavery became practically extinct in the Diaspora, and was prohibited except insofar as the secular laws allowed it, for instance, where rulers sold tax defaulters into bondage or offered prisoners of war for sale into slavery (Yad, Avadim 9:4; Tur and Sh. Ar., yd 267:18). However, it was laid down that even these "slaves" ought not to be treated as such, except if they did not conduct themselves properly (Yad, Avadim 1:8; yd 267:16). An incident related in the Talmud (bm 73b) was relied on as a precedent for the proposition that bondage may be imposed as punishment for misconduct (yd 267:15).


Z. Kahn, L'Esclavage selon la Bible et le Talmud (1867; Ger. tr., 1888, Heb. tr., 1892); M. Olitzki, in: mwj, 16 (1889), 73–83; M. Mielziener, The Institution of Slavery Among the Ancient Hebrews (1894); D. Farbstein, Das Recht der unfreien und der freien Arbeiter nach juedisch-talmudischem Recht (1896); S. Rubin, in: Festschrift… Schwarz (1917), 211–29; idem, Das talmudische Recht auf den verschiedenen Stufen seiner Entwicklung mit dem roemischen verglichen und dargestellt, 1 (Die Slaverei, 1920); J.L. Zuri, Mishpat ha-Talmud, 1 (1921), 29–31; 5 (1921), 122–33; Gulak, Yesodei, 1 (1922), 35, 38, 92; 3 (1922), 67; M. Lurje, Studien zur Geschichte der wirtschaftlichen und sozialen Verhaeltnisse im israelitisch-juedischen Reiche (1927), 49–55; A. Gulak, in: Tarbiz, 1 (1930), 20–26; 2 (1930–31), 246; Herzog Instit, 1 (1936), 414 (index), s.v.; 2 (1939), 314 (index), s.v.; S. Assaf, Be-Oholei Ya'akov (1943), 223–56; J. Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East (1949); et, 1 (19513), 74f., 77, 333f.; 2 (1949), 29–33, 320–2; 5 (1953), 727–42; 12 (1967), 720f., 738; M. Higger, in: Mazkeret… Herzog (1962), 520–3; S. Zeitlin, in: jqr, 53 (1962/63), 185–218; E.E. Urbach, The Laws Regarding Slavery as a Source for the Social History of the Period of the Second Temple, the Mishnah and Talmud (1964); M. Elon, Ḥerut ha-Perat be-Darkhei Geviyyat Ḥov ba-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1964), 1–17; B. Cohen, Jewish and Roman Law, 1 (1966), 159–278; 2 (1966), 772–7; K.E.R. Pickard, The Kidnapped and the Ransomed (1970). add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:179f., 264, 272, 277, 286, 299, 315, 326, 345, 390, 412, 433f., 468, 483–84, 489, 535, 604, 749f., 813; 2:845, 885, 992f., 1108f.; 3:1367f.; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:200f., 309, 320, 326, 339, 357, 376, 415, 473, 2:504, 528f., 571, 588f., 596, 651, 748, 924f., 996; 3:1033, 1079, 1200f., 1333; 4:1631; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest) (1986), 2:317–19.

[Haim Hermann Cohn]


views updated May 23 2018


Scholarship on the lives of enslaved Black women in the United States and the Caribbean emphasizes the multidimensionality of their roles in two polarized spheres, the dynamic slave community and the plantation economy. Studies of slavery are cogent to discussions of gender because they help to problematize the historiography of women and highlight the effects of enterprise on gender identities. A historical examination of Black women under the regime of slavery points to the disunity and incoherence of feminine identity. Slavery set a social precedent by the ways in which Black women occupied at once gender-less and engendered spaces as workers and reproducers of labor. Foremost, enslaved women were defined as labor units and, indeed, slavery transformed gender relations, ironically testifying to the equality of men and women.


The accumulationist drive of slavery created a binary gender order, one that lauded the virtues of white femininity and the other that defeminized Black women, measuring their worth in terms of their functionality as laborers and as conduits for reproduction. Black women were unequivocally central to slave economies and any understanding of this history requires a triangular analysis of race, gender, and labor extraction as interlinking points of oppression. Moreover, histories that center Black women show that Black women's expressions of dissidence during slavery were ubiquitous and vital to the survival of enslaved communities.

The labor requirements of plantation slavery shifted gender representations and constructed Black women primarily as property with productive value. Enslaved women worked as domestics, artisans, farmers, and petty traders. They dominated the ranks of the household labor economy as well as the labor pool of field gangs. Thrust into the brutality of chattel slavery, Black women were recognized as a "versatile and flexible form of capital" (Beckles 1989, p. 3). Slave owners differentiated between skilled and unskilled labor and established hierarchical categories of household occupations, such as housekeepers and domestics. This occupational ladder awarded greater autonomy to some Black women and increased the vulnerability of others to sexual and physical abuse. Slave women served as seamstresses, cooks, and washerwomen, while also being held responsible for the suckling or nursing and weaning white children.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese argues the importance of the plantation household as an "indispensable unit of analysis because it operated as a site of production and reproduction" (1988, p. 85). Within the slaveholder's household, relations between white women and Black women were framed by the objective position of white women as "economic actors" (Fox-Genovese 1988, p. 43; Beckles 2001, p. 220). Field women comprised the majority of the plantation workforce because "gender mattered little in the production of raw commodities in New World Slavery" (Morrisey 1989, p. 31). Black bondwomen in the Caribbean weeded, hoed soil, and planted and cut sugarcane, whereas in the Carolinas and Georgia, they were the principal cultivators of rice. Yet, as historian Marietta Morrisey explains, in spite of the perceived "interchangeability of male and female slaves to slaveholders," some measure of gender stratification characterized the labor organization of plantation slavery in the Caribbean (Morrisey 1989, p. 79).

Despite dehumanizing working conditions, Black women struggled to carve out spaces for "quasi-autonomous economic activities" (Wood 1995). In the Caribbean they cultivated "gardens" and in the American South they grew "patches" for household consumption and for petty commerce. These "hucksters," "market women," and vendors were central to the informal economies found among slave populations (Beckles 1989). Southern bondwomen farmed corn, peanuts, tobacco, melons, pumpkins, beans, cabbage and benne (sesame seed) and kept poultry. Furthermore, they produced household goods such as utensils and other commodities for sale. Highly visible in the markets of South Carolina, slave women contributed to the robust informal economy of the slave community. These patterns of autonomous economic initiatives were some of the survival strategies enslaved Black women employed for the reproduction of their households during slavery.

A comradeship formed between Black women and men because of the "all hands" labor policy that joined both sexes in fieldwork (Wood 1995). Betty Wood (1995) argues that in the Southeast, a sexual division of labor was most commonly a feature of semiurban or urban centers where the majority of slave women were domestics, but that the comradeship between bondmen and bondwomen was also identifiable within the slave-based informal economies. In the Caribbean slave women cultivated food for their families and were essential to the internal slave economy as producers and sellers. Despite the visible egalitarianism surrounding productive activities between Black men and women, it did not diminish the impact of gender ideologies imposed by white patriarchy.

Rationalizations in support of hegemonic masculinity strengthened under slavery, and Black women were forced to navigate multilayered systems of gender oppression. On the sugar plantations of Barbados, Black women were the "primary source of labor reproduction" (Beckles 1989, p. 2). As "breeding women" or "breeding wenches," enslaved women were the focus of slave management, and their fertility was a calculated variable to capitalization (Beckles 1989, p. 92). Therefore, slavery was a gendered experience that included an expressed "woman's policy" that illustrated just how fundamentally Black women were at "the base of the system" (Beckles 1989, p. 29). Black female bodies were under constant surveillance, sequestered within a "geography of containment" (Camp 2004, p. 28). Black maternity was pivotal to slavery, and mixed-raced children were evidence of the systematic interference of Black women's sexuality by white men.

Enslaved Black women suffered an enormity of gynecological ailments, and miscarriages were common. Intent on exerting some biological autonomy, enslaved women used infusions of herbs to induce abortion and regulate their fertility. Even as some Black women practiced "gynecological resistance," Black motherhood could not be disentangled from slavery's profit margin (Beckles 1989, p. 158). Slave women did not acquiesce to their subordination as sexual units of production but used family life as a space for multifarious resistance. The endemic sexual abuse of female slaves was often camouflaged by the projection of hypersexuality onto Black women and a deviant sexuality onto Black men.


Black female slaves struggled within a "context of duality," where multiple households depended on their labor (Bush 1990, p. 8). Early studies emphasized the matrifocality of slave families, but later scholars found that there was diversity in family arrangements within slave communities. In the United States Black family life during postemancipation was often identified as dysfunctional, damaged by a "culture of poverty" and headed by matriarchal women with peripheral Black men. Instead, traditional "conjugal domestic units" were more the norm than the exception under slavery (Morissey 1991, p. 274). Various forms of coresidential kinship, extended families, fictive kin, and mother-child units characterized Black families. Slaves practiced monogamy, polygamy, and serial monogamy within single and multigenerational households. Conjugal relationships were "unable to conform to dominant ideological patterns," as Black women were excluded from gender norms (Davis 1981, p. 12). In her assessment Angela Y. Davis contended that the oppressive practices of slavery constituted a "negative equality," which in turn helped to develop egalitarianism between Black men and women (Davis 1981, p. 18). Clearly, Black women were advocates for their families and committed to "subversive community work" (Jones 1985, p. 8). Any discussion of slave family forms has to be contextualized with reference to the forces of class, race, and gender dynamics as well as Black women's tactics for family survival.

Black women waged, to varying degrees, an everyday subaltern resistance. Strong women were targeted as potential insurgents and provocateurs. Black women led work stoppages, appropriated goods and food, engaged in infrastructural sabotage, performed self-induced abortions, and participated in marronage, armed resistance, cultural resistance, and knowledge attainment including clandestine literacy. They were not immune from physical punishment such as floggings, whippings, brandings, mutilations, hangings, or punitive rape. The institutionalization of rape was instrumental to systems of control of Black women. Consistently, the exerted agency of Black women was criminalized, and a common terrain of resistance was Black women's bodies. Bondwomen engaged in antihegemonic practices that precipitated the social and community activism undertaken by Black women following emancipation. Hilary Beckles explained that "anti-slavery mentalities preceded the plantation" and thus a counterperspective to the legitimatizing ideologies for slavery emerged among captive African women before they arrived in North America (Beckles 1998, p. 45).

Truancy, escape, and marronage were the most recognizable forms of physical resistance to the institution of slavery. Historical antislavery activists, such as Nanny from Jamaica and Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth from the United States are iconic figures of female resistance. Whereas women were "key protagonists of social and biological regeneration" within maroon communities, the high valuation of women did not preclude the formation of gender hierarchies (Steady 1981, p. 457). Enslaved women were critical to the "culture of opposition" that existed in juxtaposition to a culture of degradation (Camp 2004).


A review of slavery advances the discourse on gender because it disaggregates women as a category and empowers the subjectivity of Black women. Black literature commenced with the slave narrative, and these early texts extolled the power of literacy. Black women's subjectivity emerged through slave narratives, refracting resistance through orality. Slave narratives were testimonies that exposed the intimacies of injustice. DoVeanna Fulton refers to these expressions as "oral resistance" that valorizes Black female subjectivity. Narratives implicated slavery as "crystallizing Black women's experiences of oppression" and articulated a rebuttal to oppression (2006, p. 6). Autobiographical narratives authored by Black women and oral life stories point to a "Black feminist epistemology" (Hill Collins 1990). The corpus of slave narratives include Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (writing as Linda Brent, 1861), Narrative of Sojourner Truth, A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York (1850), Letters of Phyllis Wheatley, the Negro Slave Poet of Boston (1864), Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1864), and collected interviews from the Works Progress Administration. Slave testimonies contested the depersonalization experienced by women and cracked the unnatural silences forced on them. Toni Morrison, author of the novel Beloved, explains that her writing process draws on a "literary archeology" to access the interiority of Black female subjectivity. Her writing accentuates an emotional memory that is interwoven with imagination, whereby she "extends, fills in and complements slave autobiographical narratives" (Morrison 1998, p. 199). Cultural memory and emotional memory reaffirm identity and reclaim agency. These diverse "liberatory narratives" interrogated the parameters of freedom and illuminated the journey from "objectification to subjectivity" (Davis 2004, p. 305).

Black women were "quadruply burdened" by the hazards of slavery, reproduction, gender oppression, and racial oppression (Gaspar and Hine 1996, p. 210). Because slavery was "female focused," an appraisal of the productive lives of Black women is of paramount importance (Beckles 1998, Davis 1981). Slavery was a seminal process that "invented" new ethnic, cultural, political, and gender identities. American slavery set the tone for future movements where peoples of African descent fought to "define their collective identity and address the structure of hierarchy" (Mullings 1997, p. 132). Theorizing about the impact of slavery on contemporary gender relations requires that conceptual models are employed that "capture the multiple jeopardy of the interacting processes that face Black women" (King 1988, p. 47). The greater objective parity between Black men and women has been decisive in configuring family life and recasting gender ideologies.

The histories of Black women throughout the Caribbean and the United States demonstrate the "metalanguage of race" and how it shapes multiple identities discursively and ideologically (Higginbotham 1992). The experience of "simultaneous oppressions" informs a "Black women's standpoint" and draws on the distinctive histories of Black women (Hill Collins 1990). Slavery was an extreme example of the trajectory of race in relation to other systems of power. In sum, slavery as an institution was embedded with paradoxical ideologies and practices, and its importance lies in its demonstration of how gender identity cannot be extricated from relations of race, community, culture, and class.

see also Family; Gender, Theories of; Hierarchy.


Anim-Addo, Joan. 2004. "Sister Goose's Sisters: African Caribbean Women's Nineteenth Century Testimony." Women: A Cultural Review. 15(1): 35-56.

Beckles, Hilary McD. 1989. Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Black Women in Barbados. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Beckles, Hilary McD. 1998. "Historicizing Slavery in West Indian Feminisms." Feminist Review 59: 34-56.

Beckles, Hilary McD. 1999. Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society. Kingston, Jamaica: M. Wiener.

Beckles, Hilary McD. 2001. "Freeing Slavery: Gender Paradigms in the Social History of Caribbean Slavery." In Slavery, Freedom and Gender: The Dynamics of Caribbean Society, ed. Brian L. Moore, B.W. Higman, Carl Campbell, and Patrick Bryan. Barbados: University of West Indies Press.

Bush, Barbara. 1990. Slave Women in Caribbean Society 1650–1838. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Camp, Stephanie M. H. 2004. Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Carby, Hazel. 1982. "White Women Listen: Black Feminism and the Boundaries of Sisterhood." In The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain. London: Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.

Davis, Angela Y. 1981. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Vintage Books.

Davis, Amanda Y. 2004. "Review of The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery and Gender in Contemporary Black Women's Fiction." MELUS 29(2): 302-305.

Dill, Bonnie Thornton. 1979. "The Dialectics of Black Womanhood." Signs 4(3): 543-555.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. 1988. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Fulton, DoVeanna. 2006. Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women's Narrative of Slavery. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Gaspar, David Barry, and Darlene Clark Hine. 1996. More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. 1992. "African-American Women's History and the Metalanguage of Race." Signs 17(2): 251-274.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Jones, Jacqueline. 1985. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family from Slavery to the Present. New York: Basic Books.

King, Deborah. 1988. "Multiple Jeopardy, Multiple Consciousness: The Context of a Black Feminist Ideology." Signs 14(1): 42-72.

Mitchell, Angelyn. 2002. The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, and Gender in Contemporary Black Women's Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Morrisey, Marietta. 1989. Slave Women in the New World: Gender Stratification in the Caribbean. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Morrisey, Marietta. 1991. "Women's Work, Family Formation, and Reproduction among Caribbean Slaves." In Caribbean Slave Society and Economy, ed. Hilary Beckles and Verene Sheperd. New York: New Press.

Morrison, Toni. 1998. "The Site of Memory." In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Rev edition, ed. William Zinsser. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mullings, Leith. 1986. "Uneven Development: Class, Race, and Gender in the United States before 1900." In Women's Work: Development and the Division of Labor by Gender, ed. Eleanor Leacock and Helen I. Safa. South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Mullings, Leith. 1997. On Our Own Terms: Race, Class, and Gender in the Lives of African-American Women. New York: Routledge.

Patterson, Tiffany Ruby. 1999. "Gender, Slavery, and the Making of New World Identities." Gender and History 11(2): 373-378.

Steady, Filomina Chioma, ed. 1981. The Black Woman Cross-Culturally. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.

Wood, Betty. 1995. Women's Work, Men's Work: The Informal Slave Economies of Low Country Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Young, Hershini Bhana. 2005. "Inheriting the Criminalized Black Body: Race, Gender, and Slavery in Eva's Man." African American Review 39(3): 377-393.

                                                      Sayida Self


views updated May 29 2018


Understanding the origins, justification, and economy of slavery is crucial to understanding American society, the coming of the Civil War, and the effect of that war on American culture and identity. Chattel slavery has existed throughout world history, and U.S. slavery grew out of older European and African forms of enslavement. Yet slavery in the United States was distinctive for two important reasons. First, there have been relatively few true slave societies (as opposed to societies with slaves) in world history: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Brazil, the Caribbean and the United States. Second, among these only the last three were based on race. Thus the slave system in place in the United States from about the mid-seventeenth century until the war's end was one of only three societies in world history to be a race-based slave society.

how slavery was justified

Slavery began in what would become the United States with the importation of twenty enslaved Africans into Virginia in 1619. Given the universality of slavery, its legitimacy was rarely questioned or explained. By the 1660s, English settlers clearly believed that enslavement was a normal, if unfortunate, position in society for which Africans and their descendants were perfectly and naturally suited. However, racism—far from being the original justification for American slavery—emerged over time. In the early seventeenth century, English colonists used a longstanding rationale for enslavement: Africans were not Christian. Because enslaved Africans sometimes converted to Christianity in order to be freed, this definition created a good deal of fluidity in early Virginia. Some Africans were enslaved, but others were not. Some slaves were freed for exemplary service, whereas others were enslaved for life. Some even enjoyed social mobility, becoming not only free but landowners and slaveholders.

In the mid-seventeenth century, Virginia's lawmakers passed laws that shifted the reason for enslavement from heathenism to Africanness, and they made enslavement lifelong. These laws connecting enslavement with place of origin provided the legal foundation for ideas about race that persist today by associating a degraded status (enslavement) with descent. By the end of the seventeenth century the linkage of Africanness or blackness with deserved enslavement was solid. Racism gained more weight over the eighteenth century as the growing trend toward rationalism sought to catalogue the world and its people.

The spread of Enlightenment thought during the eighteenth century changed this view of slavery. The Enlightenment's insistence on human rights and equality inspired an age of revolution in the late eighteenth century; the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the Haitian Revolution were all inspired in part by these ideals. In the 1740s, a spiritual movement swept the American colonies. The Great Awakening preached the importance of a direct experience of God's love, the value of expressing spiritual rapture, and the equal worth of all souls before God. In addition, the slow rise of industrial capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the North caused some to question slavery's devaluation of competition, its degradation of work, and the absence of wages as incentive.

For all these reasons, a small minority of Americans began to question the validity of slavery; and by the late eighteenth century, a group of Philadelphians had formed the world's first antislavery society. Upon its heels followed organizations in New York, Boston, Baltimore and other cities throughout the North. Among this first generation of abolitionists it was commonplace for elite white men to form organizations that excluded white women and all black persons. Women's and black organizations were formed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and by about 1830, these groups came together in a second-generation abolitionist movement. The first generation had fought (successfully) for an end to the African slave trade, which ceased in 1808, and for the gradual abolition of slavery in the North. The second generation distinguished itself by working interracially in societies that included both women and men, and demanding immediate abolition; the most radical also promoted rights for black Americans.

Though abolitionists remained few in number, they were a vocal group that made it difficult for slaveholders (and to a certain extent, non-slaveholders) to unthinkingly accept the legitimacy of slavery. Increasingly, slave-holders had to explain what before had scarcely been questioned. Slowly the idea that slavery was a natural but unfortunate status died out, and the idea of paternalism took its place.

Paternalism idealized slavery as a family-like institution, which had a protective (if demanding) father-figure at the head of the household and many dependents (a wife, children, and slaves) below him. In exchange for care, protection and support, paternalists expected obedience and deference; some even hoped for love. They preferred to think of themselves as kind custodians of a childlike and dependent race rather than as cruel oppressors of their fellow men. Paternalism was also a method of control: It was the kid glove over the iron fist of violence that enforced the Old South's social order. For when slaveholders' provision of food and clothing, medical care, time off for holidays and the occasional frolic failed to garner the submission they expected, most used the lash without hesitation.

how the system brought wealth to the united states

Racial slavery brought great wealth to the nation. The skills of West Africans in rice cultivation made South Carolina's planters among the richest in the Americas, and Louisiana's sugar barons were not far behind them. But it was King Cotton that brought the greatest profits. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, an instrument that separated seed from the cotton lint that could be used to make thread and cloth. Cotton could now be processed sixty times faster than before, and production boomed. Not only did cotton become the nation's first-ranked export, but its dollar value was greater than that of all other American exports combined. Cotton was key to social mobility in the Old South, and slaves were key to cotton. Just as the non-landowner often aspired to landownership and then to the ownership of larger tracts of land, so the non-slaveholder hoped one day to own a few slaves, and perhaps in time to become the master of many.

Throughout the colonial period, slavery could be found in every colony. The profits from cotton, sugar, tobacco, and rice fed many parts of southern society. The slave trade needed slave traders, landlords to house slaves being transported to market, cook-shops to feed them, doctors to inspect them and treat their illnesses, insurance agents to insure their lives, and notaries public to notarize sales. Southern cities and states profited from slave sales, which they taxed.

Northern businesses and farms also counted on slavery for some of their revenues. Northern insurance companies, too, insured the lives of slaves in the market, and northern as well as southern banks collected interest on loans granted to slave traders to procure their initial shipments of slaves. The textile mills of the North would have ground to a halt without the constant supply of slave-grown cotton that went into the factory-made cloth and clothing. Many of the earliest contributions to elite northern universities came from those who made their money buying and selling human chattels. Northern farmers sold food crops to feed the slaves of the Caribbean, and barrels to hold the sugar they produced.

why most white southerners embraced slavery

Most southern whites did not own slaves. In some places as few as one-quarter of all landowners owned slaves, in others no more than half did; and in mountainous areas, where plantations could not thrive, hardly any were slave-holders. In spite of this, many supported slavery. By the antebellum period, feelings of contempt and hatred for blacks were widespread among white southerners. Underlying the belief in white supremacy was the assumed existence of a common white identity, an identity that gained much of its essence from the existence of black slavery. The nineteenth century exhibited the full development of racist thought in everything from limericks, ephemera, and minstrel shows to politics and the law. Common whites, though subjugated to and held in contempt by slaveholding whites, nonetheless overwhelmingly supported slavery, for though they may have resented elite whites, they despised enslaved blacks more.

Black slavery also provided an economic and social "mudsill," as slaveholder, Governor and Senator James Henry Hammond put it in a famous speech he made in 1858—a drudge class at the bottom of society that elevated whites and freed them from the worst work. By the antebellum period, few white southerners could imagine any method of farming that would approach the level of agricultural production possible through forced labor. Ambitious whites sought to improve their financial situation by climbing through the ranks of slaveownership. In this way, slavery provided the most basic tool for social and economic mobility in the South as well as opportunities for whites in the supporting trades of slave trader, overseer, preacher, and doctor. Only in the mountainous regions of the South did support for slavery and slaveholding flag.

laws regulating slave behavior and the treatment of slaves

Southern law enshrined racist beliefs; indeed, even before racist beliefs were widespread and consistent in

southern society, the law led the way in giving slavery a racial basis and then separating enslaved blacks from the rest of society. The behavior of slaves was strictly controlled: They were barred from learning to read and write, working in printing offices, drinking, gathering after dark, bearing arms, gathering in large numbers, traveling without a pass, or running away (whether permanently or temporarily). Slaves lacked legal personhood; consequently, they could not testify against whites (but only against blacks), and crimes against their persons were treated as trespasses against their owners. The law also restricted the actions of whites in regard to slaves: It did not permit them to help slaves run away, sell them alcohol, teach them to read or write, or intermarry with them. Laws also limited and governed the conditions of manumission and taxation.

family, community, survival

Thus dramatically separated from much of the rest of American society, enslaved Americans lived largely in a world unto themselves—though it was a world profoundly shaped by the European and American Indian cultures around and within slave society. By the early nineteenth century, most slaves in the United States had been born on American soil, not in Africa. These native-born blacks had known only slavery, as had their parents and perhaps even their grandparents. Thus, syncretism occurred through which enslaved people became a new people, a people with a very strong identity as such. At the same time, enslaved communities were rife with conflict between women and men, between those with power or property that others lacked, between the faithful and the secular—all the ordinary conflicts that can erupt between individuals.

During the Great Awakening, U.S. slaves converted to Christianity in large numbers, drawn to the Old Testament's message of sympathy for the downtrodden and deliverance from oppression and suffering. Afro-Christianity continued to be an important source of spiritual strength and social rejuvenation for generations. Alongside, and sometimes overlapping, this faith were social and healing practices that mixed African traditions with Christianity and to a much lesser degree, Islam. In Louisiana, this mixture was often formalized as Voudoun, whereas throughout the rest of the South, it remained informal. Whatever its form, spirituality offered courage and hope to the enslaved.

For almost all American slaves, the family was a source of both sustenance and suffering. Only a minority lived in nuclear families; many couples were separated either by the sale of the husband or wife in the slave market or by living "abroad" from one another—living on different farms. Enslaved families adapted to the vicissitudes forced upon them. Extended family relationships were vital and compensated, in part, for missing family members, who were remembered in naming practices and oral culture.

slavery and the civil war

In writing the U.S. Constitution, slavery was one topic among many that delegates to the Constitutional Congress had to address. After some debate, they decided to count each slave as three-fifths of a person in determining population for apportionment of state representation in Congress, to eliminate the external slave trade in 1808, and to impose a fugitive slave law that required that runaway slaves be returned to their owners. Thus, slavery was included in the Constitution. However, many northern states passed laws to begin the process of gradually emancipating slaves. Many northern slaveholders sold their slaves to the South where slavery was extremely profitable.

Because of the extra representation their states gained from counting three-fifths of slaveholders' human property, slavery gave southern elites disproportionate power in Congress. This power extended into other branches of government: Until the Civil War, southern slaveholders dominated the presidency and the Supreme Court, and most northerners who occupied those offices were pro-slavery as well.

During the 1850s, as the question of the expansion of slavery into new western territories was debated in Congress and on the streets, the perspective of many formerly neutral northerners began to shift. Increasingly, they came to see slaveholders as a "slave power" whose influence was spreading—not only within the traditional realm of the nation's political sphere, but into the West and even into the North, to the great consternation of growing numbers of northerners. Not to be mistaken for a conflict over the morality of slavery itself, the Civil War was the culmination of mounting tensions between southerners who believed each new state had the right to decide whether or not it would allow slavery and northerners who were increasingly resentful of the extending reach of the slave power.

During the years of the Civil War, the institution of slavery slowly fell apart. As the Union army advanced into parts of the Confederacy, many slaveholders fled into the Confederate interior. In coastal South Carolina, the land abandoned by planters was quickly claimed by those who had worked it for generations. After the war's end, landowners and Union officials found the task of prying the land away from the freedpeople difficult.

From the beginning of war onward, slaves ran away by the thousands. After a few years of war and flight, the Union army desperately needed a uniform policy for either sending the "contrabands of war" back to their owners (a policy objected to by many as aiding the enemy) or keeping them and using them in the army. A reluctant Abraham Lincoln was increasingly convinced of the need to arm these fugitives as well as the free blacks of the North clamoring for inclusion, and in 1863 he announced the Emancipation Proclamation, in part to satisfy the military need for men. The Proclamation freed enslaved people in the Confederacy, and paved the way for a general emancipation at the end of the war in 1865.

Slavery was at the heart of the issues that led to the outbreak of Civil War in April 1861. Whereas a probable majority of Americans accepted the existence of slavery in southern states, many opposed its expansion into new states and territories. And among slaveholding societies, the United States was unique in going to war to resolve the question of slavery and of how the nation would define itself. The end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 resolved that question forever.

Stephanie M. H. Camp

See also:Abolitionists; African Americans (Freed People); Compromise of 1850; Douglass, Frederick; Emancipation Proclamation; FarmingOccupation of the South; Tubman, Harriet; Uncle Tom's Cabin.

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