HISTORY OF SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES
Slavery in the United States has a long and complex history. While, most people think about the era of slavery in the United States during 19th century, it actually began much earlier. As such, slavery had been practised in the region since the time of the British Colonies in America. Most of the slaves in the United States were Africans, which were transported to the New World as part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Regardless, slavery in the United States lasted until the events of the American Civil War and the eventual passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The history of slavery in the United States is often associated with many other related topics, including: Fugitive Slave Acts, Underground Railroad, American Abolitionist Movement, Bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry.
SLAVERY IN COLONIAL AMERICA
Slavery in the New World first began with the events of the Age of Exploration. For instance, many of the European explorers who undertook the voyages of the Age of Exploration either enslaved the indigenous people that they encountered or brought slaves with them. An example of this is Christopher Columbus and his first journey to the New World in 1492. On his first voyage, Columbus came into contact with indigenous people in the Caribbean and commented that “they ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them”. Many explorers and settlers after Columbus enslaved indigenous people of the New World, including on the modern territory of the United States.
However, the indigenous people of the New World struggled to carry out the tasks that the settlers wanted them to due to several factors. First, the indigenous people suffered terribly from European diseases and many died during the early years of European colonization. Second, the indigenous people were not accustomed to the farming and industrial work that they were being asked to complete. Because of this, European settlers began importing workers into the New World colonies.
First, indentured laborers from Europe were brought to the colonies of the New World. Indentured laborers were generally young people from Europe who came to the New World and worked until they had paid off the debt they had gained from crossing the Atlantic Ocean. This was especially true in the early colonies of the United States. For example, many English, Irish, Scottish and German indentured workers came to the colonies of the New World seeking a better life for themselves. While the European indentured laborers proved to be successful in the New World, they did not necessarily meet the demand required by the settlers in the colonies. As such, yet another source of labor was needed.
European settlers brought many African slaves with them to the colonies of the New World. In general, this was part of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Atlantic Slave Trade began in the mid-15th century, and reached its peak in the 18th century. It finally concluded near the end of the 19th century. During the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, approximately 12 million Africans were put on slave ships, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and sold into slavery. Of this 12 million, approximately 600,000 were transported to the United States, which means that about 5% of all African slaves from the Atlantic Slave Trade were brought to America. This process first began in the early colonies of America but continued well into the 19th century. In fact, African slavery in the United States became an important feature of early America.
The first example of African slaves in the British Colonies of America was in 1619 when 19 slaves were brought to the Jamestown settlement in the Colony of Virginia. While this was the first example, it certainly was not the last, as all of the original Thirteen Colonies of America had slavery at some point. With this said, some of the colonies used slaves more extensively than the others. For instance, in the 1770s the Northern colonies slaves made up only about 3% of the total population of the region. Whereas, in the Middle colonies slaves made up about 6% of the total population, and in the Southern colonies slaves made up as much as 31%. Regardless, slavery in Colonial American was a major economic factor at the time. For example, slaves often carried out work that was financially beneficial to the slave and property owners. This was especially true in the South where large agricultural plantations were established that operated mostly with slave labor. More specifically, throughout the 18th century, slaves worked on these plantations by carrying out basic farming duties and assisting in the agricultural operation of the plantation.
At the time, the most common crops were rice, indigo and tobacco. These crops were especially labor intensive and as such, African slave labor made the most economical sense for many of the plantation owners. It should be noted that cotton did not become an important crop in the American Colonies until decades later, with the invention of the Cotton Gin. The economics of slavery were so profitable for business owners in the United States that the practise of slavery considerably throughout the 19th century. For instance, in 1790, there were approximately 800,000 African slaves living in the United States. However, by 1860, there were nearly 4 million African slaves, with most being in the Southern states.
SLAVERY IN EARLY AMERICA
Slavery in the United States grew particularly powerful during the timeframe of the late 18th century until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. This was especially true in the Southern states, where slavery was commonly used on agricultural plantations. This time period is often referred to as the ‘Antebellum Period’.
Slavery in the United States continued throughout the years of the American Revolution, which occurred from 1765 until 1783. However, the practise of slavery increased quite dramatically in the years that followed. For instance, the issue of slavery played a role in the development of the United States Constitution, which occurred from 1787 until 1789. More specifically, the Three-Fifths Compromise was a major issue in the Constitution and created a divide between the Northern and Southern states. In short, the Three-Fifths Compromise, which was negotiated by James Madison, counted slaves at a rate of ‘three-fifths’ in terms of the population of the total state. Since most slaves lived in the Southern states at the time, this gave the Southern states a higher degree of representation in American politics. This was controversial, as it helped created the divide between the Northern and Southern states in the decades before the outbreak of the American Civil War.
Furthermore, slavery in the Southern states remained in operation due to the continuation of the Atlantic Slave Trade from Africa. For instance, some states allowed the importation of slaves well into the early 1800s. As well, several American states began to produce so many slaves from reproduction that they were able to sell slaves to other states. For example, Virginia was supposedly producing so many slaves by the 1830s, that it was able to operate a profitable slave-selling industry. Throughout the period of the 1830s, the demand for slaves grew due to the introduction of the cotton industry in states such as: Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Cotton became an important crop in the Southern states and was heavily reliant on the practise of slavery. In fact, the harvesting of cotton was extremely labor-intensive, and the use of slaves allowed it to be a profitable industry by keeping labor costs low for plantation owners. Furthermore, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney helped advance the cotton industry in the United States. The cotton gin was a machine that could quickly separate cotton fibers from seeds in order to create cotton items such as clothing and linens. Before the invention of the cotton gin, cotton production and processing was a very slow process, requiring lots of hard manual work. However, the cotton gin led to several main innovations. First, the machine helped to boost productivity and increased cotton usage. Second, the cotton gin helped to increase production of cotton in the United States, and made cotton into a profitable crop. Third, the machine helped to strengthen the United States' economy and laid the foundations for the slave trade.
While slavery remained quite popular in the South states, many Northerners began to openly oppose it. For instance, at the end of the 18th century, the American Abolitionist Movement began to grow in popularity in the North. The American Abolitionist Movement is described in more detail below. The Southern states argued in favor of maintaining slavery as a means of controlling the large and growing population of African slaves. Furthermore, slavery was an important aspect of the economics of the Southern states, and the plantation owners wanted to maintain this position.
AMERICAN ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT
While the Antebellum Period is known for the growth of slavery in the Southern states, it is also known for the emergence and growth of the American Abolitionist Movement. The American Abolitionist Movement is the name for the advancements made in the United States towards ending the practise of slavery. The American Abolitionist Movement is considered to have occurred from the late 1700s until 1865 when the American government abolished slavery following the end of the American Civil War. The following section provides a brief overview of the American Abolitionist Movement. Click the links to read a more detailed summary of the event.
Early movements against slavery in America first emerged from devout religious groups, including the Quakers. The Quakers were a protestant group of Christians, who objected to slavery on spiritual grounds. For instance, an early example of abolitionism in America was the creation of the first American abolitionist organization, which was called the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. The organization was founded on April 14th, 1775, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was primarily led by Quakers.
Another major event in the history of the American Abolitionist Movement was the creation of Liberia and the actions of the American Colonization Society. The American Colonization Society was an organization first established in 1816 with the goal of transporting freed African American slaves to Africa. At the time, many people viewed returning freed slaves to Africa as preferable to allowing them to live free in the United States. This however, did not stop the main push for the Abolitionist Movement in the United States, as many argued that the freed slaves should be allowed to stay and live freely in America. In fact, some abolitionists were critical of the idea of forcing freed slaves to migrate back to Africa.
Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, the calls for abolition grew. However, while some argued in favor of immediate abolition, others argued that it should occur more slowly. In fact, one of the most influential people related to the American Abolitionist Movement was Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass is one of the most significant figures in American History, and is remembered today as an important advocate against slavery and was a leader in the abolitionist movement of the United States. In fact, after being freed from slavery himself, Frederick Douglass became known for his public speaking and his ability to intelligently debate a variety a topics.
Throughout the early and mid-1800s, the abolitionist movement in the United States led to other developments, including the Underground Railroad. In general, the Underground Railroad was a system under which slaves from the Southern United States could escape into the Northern United States and Canada. It involved a series of routes, networks, and safe houses that escaped slaves could use as they travelled from the plantations in the south, to their freedom in the north. As well, many of the escaped slaves were aided by abolitionists who disagreed with the practise of slavery in the United States. For example, one of the most famous figures of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman. It is generally accepted that as many as 100,000 slaves escaped their situation through the Underground Railroad by the middle of the 19th century. The Underground Railroad and the overall American Abolitionist Movement were spurred on by the terrible treatment of slaves in the United States. In general, slaves faced numerous types of abuse and sought to escape their situation. Click here to read more about the life of slaves in the United States.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 was a major event in both the American Civil War and the American Abolitionist Movement. In fact, the Kansas-Nebraska Act is known for being one of the key causes of the Civil War. The bill dealt with the hotly debated topic of whether newly created states would allow slavery or not. The addition of both Kansas and Nebraska to the United States was considered important to completing the Transcontinental Railroad, but it enflamed the issue of slavery. In fact, it led to the violent outbursts referred to as ‘Bleeding Kansas’. In short, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed states to choose for themselves whether slavery would be allowed and repealed the earlier Missouri Compromise.
The next major event in the build up to the American Civil War and the fight to end slavery was the raid by John Brown in 1859. John Brown was an abolitionist who argued in favor of using violence to bring about the end of slavery in the United States. He had first gained recognition for his actions in the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ violence that erupted in the buildup to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Regardless, John Brown is also famous for his raid on Harpers Ferry from October 16th to the 18th in 1859. Harpers Ferry is a small town in Virginia that is home to a federal arsenal, which Brown aimed to invade. His plan was to lead his army into the armory, steal the guns and ammunition, and lead the slaves of the area into freedom with the backing of his newly found weaponry. Unfortunately for Brown and the men that followed him, the plan failed. In the end, Brown was arrested and sentenced to hang on December 2nd, 1859. John Brown’s raid was a pivotal moment in American history and foreshadowed the looming violence of the American Civil War. In fact, on the day of his execution John Brown famously stated “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
AMERICAN CIVIL WAR & THE END OF SLAVERY IN THE UNITED STATES
The American Civil War first began in 1861 and continued until 1865. It was one of the most significant events in all of American history and had a profound impact on the development of the United States. At its heart, the American Civil War was the result of growing tensions between the Northern states and Southern states on the issue of slavery. In general, the American Civil War involved the Northern states (also referred to as the ‘Union’) and the Southern states (also referred to as the ‘Confederacy’) fighting in many different major and bloody conflicts. However, another important event that occurred during this time that was significant to the American Abolitionist Movement was the Emancipation Proclamation.
In short, the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by United States President Abraham Lincoln in regards to the issue of slavery in the Confederate States. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22nd, 1862, and it became effective as of January 1st of 1863. It declared that all slaves held in Confederate States were free. While the Civil War was not over yet, it essentially gave freedom to any slaves that were able to escape captivity in the Confederate States. This was an important step in the Abolitionist Movement as it foreshadowed the end of slavery that was to occur at the end of the Civil War. The violence and bloodshed of the American Civil War continued until 1865 when the Civil War ended with the surrender of the Confederate Generals. For example, most historians view the end of the Civil War as April 9th, 1865. This is when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. The end of the American Civil War was significant in the history of slavery in the United States because it essentially led to the end of the practise and resulted in freedom for over four million African American slaves.
The final important events in the history of the slavery in the United States was the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteen Amendment of the American Constitution. Together, they are often referred to as the ‘Reconstruction Amendments’ since they dealt with issues resulting from the end of the American Civil War and the period of Reconstruction in the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment, which was ratified on December 18th in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified three years later on July 9th in 1868, dealt with citizenship rights and equal protection under the law for former slaves. The Fifteenth Amendment, which was ratified five years later on February 3rd in 1870, protected the right to vote for people especially in relation to former slaves. Altogether, the three amendments were important in the American Abolitionist Movement, in that they finalized the fight to end slavery and the mistreatment of slaves in the United States. In fact, historians consider the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 to be the end of the American Abolitionist Movement.
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