Slavery in the United States

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An animation showing when United States territories and states forbade or allowed slavery, 1789–1861
Slave auction block, Green Hill Plantation, Campbell County, Virginia, Historic American Buildings Survey

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human slavery in the United States. Slaves were mostly Africans and African Americans. Slavery existed in the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery existed in British America from early colonial days. Slavery was legal in all Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It lasted in about half the states until 1865. This was when it was banned in the entire country by the Thirteenth Amendment.

By the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783), slaves had been institutionalized as a racial caste. The caste associated with African ancestry.[1] When the United States Constitution was ratified in 1789, a small number of free people of color were able to vote. This was because they were men who owned property.[2] During and shortly after the Revolutionary War, abolitionist laws were passed in most Northern states, and there was a movement created to end slavery. Slave states tried to extend slavery into new Western territories. They wanted to do this to keep their share of political power in the country. Southern leaders also wanted to annex Cuba as a slave territory. The United States became split over the issue of slavery. It was split into slave and free states. The Mason–Dixon line divided the country. The line divided (free) Pennsylvania from (slave) Maryland.

While Jefferson was president, Congress prohibited the importation of slaves, effective 1808. Although smuggling (illegal importing) through Spanish Florida was common.[3][4] Slave trading within the United States, however, continued at a fast pace. This was because there was a need for labor due to the creation of cotton plantations in the Deep South. New communities of African-American culture were created in the Deep South. There were 4 million slaves in the Deep South before they were set free.[5][6]

Colonial America[change | change source]

The first Africans came to the New World with Christopher Columbus in 1492. An African crew member named Juan Las Canaries was on Columbus's ship. Shortly after, the first enslavement happened in what would later be the United States. In 1508, Ponce de Leon created the first settlement near present-day San Juan. He started enslaving the indigenous Tainos. In 1513, to supplement the decreasing number of Tainos people, the first African slaves were imported to Puerto Rico.[7]

Destination of enslaved Africans (1519–1867)[8]
Destination Percentage
British mainland North America 3.7%
British Leeward Islands 3.2%
British Windward Islands and Trinidad (British 1797–1867) 3.8%
Jamaica (Spanish 1519–1655, British 1655–1867) 11.2%
Barbados (British) 5.1%
The Guianas (British, Dutch, French) 4.2%
French Windward Islands 3.1%
Saint-Domingue (French) 8.2%
Spanish mainland North and South America 4.4%
Spanish Caribbean islands 8.2%
Dutch Caribbean islands 1.3%
Northeast Brazil (Portuguese) 9.3%
Bahia, Brazil (Portuguese) 10.7%
Southeast Brazil (Portuguese) 21.1%
Elsewhere in the Americas 1.1%
Africa 1.4%

The first African slaves in the continental United States came via Santo Domingo to the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Bay area of present-day South Carolina). It was created by Spanish explorer Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526.[9]

The colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership. During the fight, the slaves revolted, and they ran away from the colony to hide among local Native Americans. De Ayllón and many of the colonists died shortly after from a sickness. The colony was abandoned. The settlers and the slaves who didn't run away went back to Haiti, from where they came.[9]

On August 28, 1565, St. Augustine, Florida was created by the Spanish conquistador Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. He brought three African slaves with him. During the 16th and 17th centuries, St. Augustine was the where a lot of the slave trade in Spanish colonial Florida happened. It was the first permanent settlement in the continental United States to have African slaves.[10]

60 years later, in the early years of the Chesapeake Bay settlements, colonial officials found it difficult to convince people to come and work for them. This was because the weather and environment of the settlements was very harsh. There was a very high chance that people would die.[11] Most people came from Great Britain as indentured laborers. They signed contracts that said they would pay with work for their transportation, their upkeep, and their training, usually on a farm. The colonies had agricultural economies. These people were often young people who wanted to become permanent residents. In some cases, convicted criminals were sent to the colonies as indentured laborers, rather than being sent to prison. These people were not slaves, but they were required to work for four to seven years in Virginia to pay for the cost of their transportation and maintenance.[12] Many Germans, Scots-Irish, and Irish came to the colonies in the 18th century, settling in the backcountry of Pennsylvania and further south.[11]

The first 19 or so Africans to reach the English colonies arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. They were brought by English privateers who had seized them from a captured Portuguese slave ship.[13][14][15] Slaves were usually baptized in Africa before sending them. As English custom then considered baptized Christians exempt from slavery, colonists treated these Africans as indentured servants. The African indentured servants joined about 1,000 English indentured servants already in the colony. The Africans were freed after a period of time. They were also given the use of land and supplies by their former masters.

Slaves shipped to those regions that are part of the present-day United States[16]
Date Slaves
1620–1650 824
1651–1675 0
1676–1700 3,327
1701–1725 3,277
1726–1750 34,004
1751–1775 84,580
1776–1800 67,443
1801–1825 109,545
1826–1850 1,850
1851–1866 476
Total 305,326


There were no laws about slavery in Virginia's early history. However, in 1640, a Virginia court sentenced John Punch, an African, to slavery. This was because he tried to run away from his service.[17] He ran away with two white people. The two white people were sentenced only to one more year of their indenture, and three years' service to the colony.[18] This is the first legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies. It was one of the first legal distinctions made between Europeans and Africans.[17][19]

Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia

In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to allow slavery through law.[20] Massachusetts passed the Body of Liberties. It banned slavery in many cases, but it allowed slaves to be held if they were prisoners of war, if they sold themselves into slavery or were bought somewhere else, or if they were sentenced to slavery as punishment by the government.[20] The Body of Liberties used the word "strangers" to refer to people bought and sold as slaves; they were generally not English subjects. Colonists believed this term referred to Native Americans and Africans.[21]

During most of the British colonial period, slavery existed in all the colonies. Slaves in the North usually worked as house servants, artisans, laborers, and craftsmen. Most were in cities. Many men worked on the docks and in shipping. In 1703, more than 42 percent of New York City households had slaves. New York City had the second-highest proportion of slaves of any city in the colonies after Charleston, South Carolina.[22] Slaves were also used as agricultural workers in farming communities. This included areas of upstate New York and Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. By 1770 there were 397,924 Blacks in a population of 2,170 million. They were not spread out evenly. There were 14,867 in New England where they were 2.7% of the population; 34,679 in the mid-Atlantic colonies where they were 6% of the population (19,000 were in New York or 11%); and 347,378 in the five southern colonies where they were 31% of the population.[23]

The South developed an agricultural economy. It relied on commodity crops. Its planters quickly got more slaves. This was because its commodity crops were labor-intensive.[24]

Barbary pirates[change | change source]

Barbary pirates from North Africa started taking North American colonists as early as 1625.[25] Around 700 Americans were held as slaves between 1785 and 1815.[26] Some captives used their experiences as a North African slave to criticize slavery in the United States, such as William Ray in his book Horrors of Slavery.[27]

The Barbary problem directly led to the creation of the United States Navy in March 1794. While the United States was able to create peace treaties, these required the United States to pay tribute for protection from attack. Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government annual spending in 1800.[28] The First Barbary War in 1801 and the Second Barbary War in 1815 led to better peace terms ending tribute payments.

Blacks who owned slaves[change | change source]

Some slave owners were black. An African former indentured servant who settled in Virginia in 1621, Anthony Johnson, became one of the earliest documented slave owners in the mainland American colonies. This was documented when he won a civil lawsuit to own a man named John Casor.[29] In 1830, there were 3,775 black slave owners in the South. They owned a total of 12,760 slaves.[30] 80% of the black slave owners lived in Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland.

References[change | change source]

  1. Wood, Peter (2003). "The Birth of Race-Based Slavery". Slate. (May 19, 2015): Reprinted from "Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America" by Peter H. Wood with permission from Oxford University Press. ©1996, 2003. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/05/why_america_adopted_race_based_slavery.html. 
  2. Walton Jr, Hanes; Puckett, Sherman C.; Deskins, Donald R., eds. (2012). "Chapter 4". The African American Electorate: A Statistical History. I. CQ Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-087289508-9.
  3. Smith, Julia Floyd (1973). Slavery and Plantation Growth in Antebellum Florida, 1821–1860. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. pp. 44–46. ISBN 978-0-8130-0323-8.
  4. McDonough, Gary W. (1993). The Florida Negro. A Federal Writers' Project Legacy. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 978-0878055883.
  5. Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and David Eltis, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University. Based on "records for 27,233 voyages that set out to obtain slaves for the Americas". Stephen Behrendt (1999). "Transatlantic Slave Trade". Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 978-0-465-00071-5.
  6. Introduction – Social Aspects of the Civil War Archived July 14, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, National Park Service.
  7. "A vision of Puerto Rico". Retrieved 25 February 2019.
  8. Behrendt, Stephen (2005). "Transatlantic Slave Trade". In Appiah, Kwame Anthony; Gates Jr., Henry Louis (eds.). Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. 5 (Second ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-19-517055-9. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Robert Wright, Richard (1941). "Negro Companions of the Spanish Explorers". Phylon 2 (4). 
  10. "St. Augustine, Florida founded". Retrieved 25 February 2019.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Richard Hofstadter, "White Servitude", n.d., Montgomery College. Retrieved January 11, 2012.
  12. 1.Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2013), 59.
  13. "African Americans at Jamestown". National Park Service. February 26, 2015. Retrieved 4 June 2019. Arrival of "20 and odd" Africans in late August 1619, not aboard a Dutch ship as reported by John Rolfe, but an English warship, White Lion, sailing with a letters of marque issued to the English Captain Jope by the Protestant Dutch Prince Maurice, son of William of Orange. A letters of marque legally permitted the White Lion to sail as a privateer attacking any Spanish or Portuguese ships it encountered. The 20 and odd Africans were captives removed from the Portuguese slave ship, San Juan Bautista, following an encounter the ship had with the White Lion and her consort, the Treasurer, another English ship, while attempting to deliver its African prisoners to Mexico. Rolfe's reporting the White Lion as a Dutch warship was a clever ruse to transfer blame away from the English for piracy of the slave ship to the Dutch.
  14. Rein, Lisa (September 3, 2006). "Mystery of Va.'s First Slaves Is Unlocked 400 Years Later". The Washington Post. Retrieved 4 June 2019.
  15. Knight, Kathryn (2010). "The First Africans". Historic Jamestowne. Retrieved 4 June 2019. Nearing her destination, the slave ship was attacked by two English privateers, the White Lion and the Treasurer, in the Gulf of Mexico and robbed of 50-60 Africans.
  16. "Assessing the Slave Trade: Estimates". The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Donoghue, John (2010). Out of the Land of Bondage": The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition. The American Historical Review.
  18. Higginbotham, A. Leon (1975). In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780195027457.
  19. Tom Costa (2011). "Runaway Slaves and Servants in Colonial Virginia". Encyclopedia Virginia.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Higginbotham, A. Leon (1975). In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. Greenwood Press. ISBN 9780195027457.
  21. William M. Wiecek (1977). "the Statutory Law of Slavery and Race in the Thirteen Mainland Colonies of British America". The William and Mary Quarterly 34 (2): 258–280. doi:10.2307/1925316. 
  22. "Slavery in New York", The Nation, November 7, 2005
  23. Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, 2003
  24. "The First Black Americans" Archived February 2, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Hashaw, Tim; US News and World Report, 1/21/07
  25. "White Slaves, African Masters". University of Chicago Press
  26. Adams, Charles Hansford (2005). The Narrative of Robert Adams: A Barbary Captive. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. xlv–xlvi. ISBN 978-0-521-60373-7.
  27. Horrors of Slavery: or, The American Tars in Tripoli, 1808.
  28. Oren, Michael B. (November 3, 2005). "The Middle East and the Making of the United States, 1776 to 1815". Retrieved February 18, 2007.
  29. Breen, T. H. (2004). "Myne Owne Ground" : Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 13–15. ISBN 978-0-19-972905-0.
  30. Conlin, Joseph (2011). The American Past: A Survey of American History. Cengage Learning. p. 370. ISBN 978-1-111-34339-2.

Bibliography[change | change source]

National and comparative studies[change | change source]

State and local studies[change | change source]

  • Fields, Barbara J. Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland During the Nineteenth Century Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Jewett, Clayton E. and John O. Allen; Slavery in the South: A State-By-State History Greenwood Press, 2004
  • Jennison, Watson W. Cultivating Race: The Expansion of Slavery in Georgia, 1750–1860 (University Press of Kentucky; 2012)
  • Kulikoff, Alan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800 University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Minges, Patrick N.; Slavery in the Cherokee Nation: The Keetoowah Society and the Defining of a People, 1855–1867 2003 deals with Indian slave owners.
  • Mohr, Clarence L. On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia University of Georgia Press, 1986.
  • Mutti Burke, Diane (2010). On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815–1865. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 978-0-8203-3683-1.
  • Mooney, Chase C. Slavery in Tennessee Indiana University Press, 1957.
  • Olwell, Robert. Masters, Slaves, & Subjects: The Culture of Power in the South Carolina Low Country, 1740–1790 Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Reidy, Joseph P. From Slavery to Agrarian Capitalism in the Cotton Plantation South, Central Georgia, 1800–1880 University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
  • Ripley, C. Peter. Slaves and Freemen in Civil War Louisiana Louisiana State University Press, 1976.
  • Rivers, Larry Eugene. Slavery in Florida: Territorial Days to Emancipation University Press of Florida, 2000.
  • Sellers, James Benson; Slavery in Alabama University of Alabama Press, 1950
  • Sydnor, Charles S. Slavery in Mississippi. 1933
  • Takagi, Midori. Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782–1865 University Press of Virginia, 1999.
  • Taylor, Joe Gray. Negro Slavery in Louisiana. Louisiana Historical Society, 1963.
  • Trexler, Harrison Anthony. Slavery in Missouri, 1804–1865 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1914) online edition
  • Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion W.W. Norton & Company, 1974.

Video[change | change source]

Historiography[change | change source]

  • Ayers, Edward L. "The American Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction on the World Stage," OAH Magazine of History, January 2006, Vol. 20, Issue 1, pp. 54–60
  • Berlin, Ira. "American Slavery in History and Memory and the Search for Social Justice," Journal of American History, March 2004, Vol. 90, Issue 4, pp. 1251–1268
  • Boles, John B. and Evelyn T. Nolen, eds., Interpreting Southern History: Historiographical Essays in Honor of Sanford W. Higginbotham (1987).
  • Brown, Vincent. "Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery," American Historical Review, December 2009, Vol. 114, Issue 5, pp. 1231–49, examined historical and sociological studies since the influential 1982 book Slavery and Social Death by American sociologist Orlando Patterson
  • Campbell, Gwyn. "Children and slavery in the new world: A review," Slavery & Abolition, August 2006, Vol. 27, Issue 2, pp. 261–85
  • Dirck, Brian. "Changing Perspectives on Lincoln, Race, and Slavery," OAH Magazine of History, October 2007, Vol. 21, Issue 4, pp. 9–12
  • Farrow, Anne; Lang, Joel; Frank, Jenifer. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. Ballantine Books, 2006 ISBN 0-345-46783-3
  • Fogel, Robert W. The Slavery Debates, 1952–1990: A Retrospective (2007)
  • Ford, Lacy K. (2009). Deliver Us from Evil. The Slavery Question in the Old South. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195118094.
  • Frey, Sylvia R. "The Visible Church: Historiography of African American Religion since Raboteau," Slavery & Abolition, January 2008, Vol. 29 Issue 1, pp. 83–110
  • Hettle, Wallace. "White Society in the Old South: The Literary Evidence Reconsidered," Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South, Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 13, Issue 3/4, pp 29–44
  • King, Richard H. "Marxism and the Slave South", American Quarterly 29 (1977), 117–31. focus on Genovese
  • Kolchin, Peter. "American Historians and Antebellum Southern Slavery, 1959–1984", in William J. Cooper, Michael F. Holt, and John McCardell, eds., A Master's Due: Essays in Honor of David Herbert Donald (1985), 87–111
  • Laurie, Bruce. "Workers, Abolitionists, and the Historians: A Historiographical Perspective," Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, Winter 2008, Vol. 5, Issue 4, pp. 17–55
  • Neely Jr., Mark E. "Lincoln, Slavery, and the Nation," Journal of American History, September 2009, Vol. 96 Issue 2, pp. 456–58
  • Parish; Peter J. Slavery: History and Historians Westview Press. 1989
  • Penningroth, Dylan. "Writing Slavery's History," OAH Magazine of History, April 2009, Vol. 23 Issue 2, pp. 13–20, basic overview
  • Rael, Patrick. Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015.
  • Sidbury, James. "Globalization, Creolization, and the Not-So-Peculiar Institution," Journal of Southern History, August 2007, Vol. 73, Issue 3, pp. 617–30, on colonial era
  • Stuckey, P. Sterling. "Reflections on the Scholarship of African Origins and Influence in American Slavery," Journal of African American History, Fall 2006, Vol. 91 Issue 4, pp. 425–443
  • Sweet, John Wood. "The Subject of the Slave Trade: Recent Currents in the Histories of the Atlantic, Great Britain, and Western Africa," Early American Studies, An Interdisciplinary Journal, Spring 2009, Vol. 7 Issue 1, pp. 1–45
  • Tadman, Michael. "The Reputation of the Slave Trader in Southern History and the Social Memory of the South," American Nineteenth Century History, September 2007, Vol. 8, Issue 3, pp. 247–71
  • Tulloch, Hugh. The Debate on the American Civil War Era (1998), ch. 2–4

Primary sources[change | change source]

More reading[change | change source]

Scholarly books[change | change source]

Scholarly pages[change | change source]

Oral histories and autobiographies of ex-slaves[change | change source]

IncidentsInTheLifeOfASlaveGirl.jpg

Literary and cultural criticism[change | change source]

Documentary movies[change | change source]

  • Kovgan, A. Ray, J. Browne, K. (Director). (2008). Traces of the Trade [Video file]. California Newsreel.[1]

Other websites[change | change source]

  • "Traces of the Trade". Traces of the Trade. Retrieved 2019-03-19.