Slavery Reading
excerpted from Africans in America

Although there was some hope immediately after the Revolution that the ideals of independence and equality would extend to the black American population, this hope died with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. With the gin (short for engine), raw cotton could be quickly cleaned; Suddenly cotton became a profitable crop, transforming the southern economy and changing the dynamics of slavery. The first federal census of 1790 counted 697,897 slaves; by 1810, there were 1.2 million slaves, a 70 percent increase.

Slavery spread from the seaboard to some of the new western territories and states as new cotton fields were planted, and by 1830 it thrived in more than half the continent. Within 10 years after the cotton gin was put into use, the value of the total United States crop leaped from $150,000 to more than $8 million. This success of this plantation crop made it much more difficult for slaves to purchase their freedom or obtain it through the good will of their masters. Cotton became the foundation for the developing textile industry in New England, spurring the industrial revolution which transformed America in the 19th century.

From 1790 to 1810, close to 100,000 slaves moved to the new cotton lands to the south and west. From 1810 until the Civil War, 100,000 slaves were forced westward each decade -- a half million in total. As cotton cultivation spread, slaveholders in the tobacco belt, whose crop was no longer profitable, made huge profits by selling their slaves. This domestic slave trade devastated black families. American-born slaves were torn from the plantations they had known all their lives, placed in shackles and force-marched hundreds of miles away from their loved ones.

Since the 1790s, abolitionists had been demanding that the United States put an end to its international slave trade. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, the Quakers in New York, and other organizations presented anti-slave trade memorials to Congress. In January 1800, free black people in Philadelphia petitioned Congress to end the trade. In the meantime, though, the cotton boom spurred slaves imported from Africa: 20,000 came to Georgia and South Carolina in 1803 alone. Finally, on January 1, 1808, Congress did officially ban the international slave trade, a right granted it under the terms of the U.S. Constitution. Black communities throughout the country celebrated the long-awaited event. Absalom Jones gave a sermon at Philadelphia's African Church, commemorating the day as one of thanksgiving. Even following the ban, however, an illegal international slave trade continued.

The cotton boom and the resulting demand for slaves brought increased danger for northern free blacks: the possibility of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. The practice of kidnapping was frighteningly widespread. The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act enabled any white person to claim a black person as a fugitive, unless another white person testified otherwise. Blacks were not allowed to testify against whites in court according to southern law. Absalom Jones petitioned Congress for the protection of free blacks, to no avail. Children were highly vulnerable to kidnapping rings. Often indentured and living away from their parents, they could disappear without anyone noticing, since their employers assumed they had gone to their families. And since children changed so much as they grew, there was little likelihood of their being recognized and rescued after years of slavery. Many southern slaveowners took a "no questions asked" approach to purchasing slaves. Kidnapped free blacks joined the slaves who had been imported into the lower South, where they were work conditions were difficult and unhealthy.

The spread of slavery westward led to bitter debate in Congress, as new states entering the Union could tip the balance between proslavery and free voting blocs. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 resolved a crisis over the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and for a while, established a boundary for slave lands westward across the Louisiana purchase territories. But as the century progressed, the spirit of compromise would prove increasingly fragile.

In 1818, Denmark Vesey, a member of the African church in Charleston, decided it was time for blacks to lose their shackles. The former property of a slave-ship captain, Vesey had first-hand experience of slavery's brutality. He carefully planned the revolt for four years, with the help of Gullah Jack, a conjurer from Angola. But they were betrayed by a Charleston slave in May of 1822, and the revolt was over before it began. The conspirators were brought to trial, 35 were executed and 42 were deported. News of the planned revolt, which had involved thousands of people, including many trusted servants, shocked the South. In Charleston, the AME church was torn down to restrict communication and autonomy among blacks.

In 1831, Nat Turner's Rebellion broke out near Jerusalem, Virginia. Turner, born in 1800, saw religious visions from an early age and preached to other slaves. In August of 1831, he believed God sanctioned him to strike back against the white oppressors. Without a definite plan to guide them, Turner and seven other slaves began to kill, entering their master's chamber in the middle of the night. Vowing to kill all whites, the slaves brutally murdered men, women, and children during a bloody 36-hour rampage. The insurrection grew to over 40 men. At least 57 whites were bludgeoned, stabbed, and hacked to death. Close to 1,000 Virginia and federal military troops were called out, and at least 100 innocent blacks were killed. Over 50 suspected rebels were caught immediately, but Turner remained at large for almost two months. When finally brought to trial and hanged, Turner was defiant and unrepentant, still believing he had been empowered by God to kill. In the aftermath of the rebellion, a hysterical climate reigned in the South, leading to mob lynching and false accusations of conspiracy.

As westward expansion took hold, the question of whether the United States would be a proslavery or antislavery nation took on new importance. In the North, antislavery forces included abolitionists, who wanted a future without slavery so that black people could be free, and Free Soil advocates, who resented having to compete with owners of slave-tended plantations for use of new lands. White Southern planters wanted a future for themselves and their prosperous way of life, which depended on the institution of slavery.

In the thirty years leading up to the Civil War, tensions in the country mounted over the issue of slavery. By 1830, there were more than 2 million slaves in the United States, worth over a billion dollars (compared to annual federal revenues of less than 25 million). And their numbers were growing. During the 1830s alone, the migration of slaves to the lower South increased the slave population in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas from 530,404 to 943,881.

Even with this enormous expansion of slavery, 75 percent of white southerners did not own slaves. Of those who did, the vast majority owned no more than 20. The bulk of the enormous wealth produced by slave-grown cotton rested in the hands of a few planters. A significant portion of the Northern industrial economy rested on slave-grown cotton as well, and this contributed to northerners' hostility to the abolitionist movement.

The majority of slaves lived on cotton plantations, where they often worked under the supervision of black drivers and white overseers from dawn to dusk, and sometimes longer. Some slaves on rice plantations worked under a task system where if they finished a certain amount of work at the end of the day, they were free to tend their own gardens. Slaves did skilled and unskilled work: the heavy physical labor of clearing the land and tending the crops as well as building houses and ironsmithing. Household slaves cooked, cleaned, and nursed the master's children.

Unsanitary living conditions and inadequate nutrition led to illness, which was compounded by hard labor. In the swampy, coastal rice regions of South Carolina and Georgia, the prevalence of malaria led to high rates of child mortality. Slave women had to endure sexual exploitation, often bearing the children of their masters and overseers. Slaves were disciplined by whipping, imprisonment, torture, and mutilation -- sometimes leading to death -- and being sold off. Under the southern Slave Codes, they were considered property and could not testify against a white person in court. Families could at any time be separated; children could be sold away.

Despite the terrible difficulties of living under slavery, and perhaps because of them, slaves formed strong communities within the plantation's boundaries. Isolated from the larger world, these communities of families supported each other, maintaining many African cultural practices, including music, dance and rituals. Many practiced Christianity with strong African influences. Nonetheless, they knew that at any time their family and community could be disrupted.

The relationship between masters and slaves was complex. Many slaveowners justified their exploitation of slaves by assuming that they were unintelligent and incapable of deep feeling, or by proclaiming that they were like members of the family, fed, clothed, and sheltered. The institution of slavery had negative effects on slaveowners, as well as on slaves.

In 1830, the total slave population in the U.S. was more than 2 million (U.S. Census), worth over a billion dollars to their owners. The economic importance of slavery increased in the years leading up to the Civil War. Although in the North, a gradual process of emancipation had taken place after the Revolutionary War, in the South, the number and importance of slaves increased with the rise of the cotton industry. President Andrew Jackson removed the Native Americans living in the lower South to less desirable land out west, thus opening roughly 25 million more acres to cotton cultivation.

Northern businessmen were involved in shipping the cotton and running the mills that produced cotton fabric, providing wealth for a few and jobs and products for many more. Washington, D.C. became a major center for the domestic slave trade, with a slaveholding president, and with Congress voting in a "gag rule" in the 1830s, which prevented abolitionist petitions from even being read on the floor. Arguments in favor of slavery centered on the economic importance of cotton, the "positive good" theory that slave labor was necessary for the nation's progress, the "scientifically proved" inferiority of the Negro, the belief that the slave class was necessary for the cultural development of the ruling class, and the belief that slaves were better off materially than free blacks or white workers and that the "school of slavery" civilized the "barbarians." Because blackness was associated with inferiority, even whites who did not own slaves benefited from slavery, since it made them feel part of the ruling class.

Although they often worked together, the relationship between black and white abolitionists was complex. Both groups hated slavery and fought for emancipation, but the struggle was much more personal for black abolitionists, who wanted not only their freedom but equal rights as well. Many white abolitionists, while decrying slavery, could not accept blacks as their equals.

David Walker, the son of a free black mother and a slave father, pushed the abolitionist movement into militancy in 1829 when he published David Walker's Appeal. He sent it south sewn into the linings of clothing black sailors bought at his Boston used-clothing store. His scathing denunciation of slavery used the language of the Declaration of Independence, especially the claim to the right of revolution, to urge slaves to rise up against their masters, causing frightened slaveholders to pass laws prohibiting blacks from learning to read and write.

William Lloyd Garrison published the Liberator, a radical anti-slavery newspaper, from 1831 until after the end of the Civil War in 1865. One of the few whites to support Walker's Appeal, he favored a non-violent, pacifist approach known as moral suasion; if people could be persuaded of the immorality of slavery, they would change their ways. Garrison used incendiary language to advocate the immediate emancipation of all slaves and their legal equality in every way with the country's white citizens. Some southerners alleged a link between the Liberator and the August, 1831 slave uprising in Virginia, led by Nat Turner, in which over 55 whites were killed.

Women played a strong role in the abolitionist movement, often breaking new ground for women as well as for blacks. By the mid-1830s, abolitionists engaged in heated debates over whether women should participate in "male" activities for the sake of the cause. In fact, the idea for the first convention for women's rights, held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, grew out of women abolitionists' dissatisfaction with the limitations placed on their role.

In 1831, Maria Stewart began to write essays and make speeches against slavery, promoting educational and economic self-sufficiency for blacks. The first black woman, or woman of any color, to speak on political issues in public, Stewart gave her last public speech in 1833 before retiring to work only in women's organizations. Although her career was short, it set the stage for the African American women speakers who followed: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, among others. Since more direct participation in the public arena was fraught with difficulties and danger, many women assisted the movement by boycotting slave-produced goods and organizing fairs and food sales to raise money for the cause.

Pennsylvania Hall was the site in 1838 of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women. As 3,000 white and black women gathered to hear prominent abolitionists such as Maria Weston Chapman and Angelina Grimké Weld, the speakers' voices were drowned out by the mob which had gathered outside. When the women emerged, arms linked in solidarity, they were stoned and insulted. The mob returned the following day and burned the hall, which had been inaugurated only three days earlier, to the ground.

Henry Highland Garnet, a well-educated clergyman born a slave, issued his incendiary Call to Rebellion at the 1843 National Negro Convention in Buffalo, New York. His speech, which encouraged slaves to rise up against their masters rather than wait for political solutions to their plight, was not endorsed by the committee.

Frederick Douglass, who spoke after Garnet at the Convention, denounced the idea of a violent rebellion. Douglass, an eloquent ex-slave from Maryland, was the leading African American spokesperson of the time. Although he had been Garrison's protégé and friend, they eventually had a public and dramatic falling out over differing interpretations of the Constitution. Whereas Garrison regarded the Constitution as a pro-slavery document, even going so far as to publicly burn it, Douglass took the wording of the Constitution to imply federal authority to either restrict or destroy slavery.

When asked to give a speech on The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro he told his white audience, "This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn." The split between Douglass and Garrison mirrored the uneasy alliance between black and white abolitionists as blacks more and more demanded leadership in the movement.

Harriet Jacobs endured seven years of hiding in an attic crawl space in order to escape the terror and misery of her life as a slave. "I lived in that little dismal hole, almost deprived of light and air, and with no space to move my limbs, for nearly seven years.... Yet I would have chosen this, rather than my lot as a slave." Jacobs chose her prison rather than continue living in fear of her master's repeated sexual threats. She needed to escape, but she dared not leave her children. Through a peephole, she watched her children growing up. In 1842, friends helped her escape to Philadelphia, where her daughter had already been taken. Jacobs later wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under a pseudonym. When her memoir was published, its graphic description of abuse of slave women was unique among slave narratives and was shocking to American readers.

For many fugitive slaves, the perils of escape were increased by the uncertainty of what life held for them in the free states, should they succeed. The Underground Railroad was a support network providing assistance to runaway slaves. Fugitives were led by "conductors" along the path north, to "stations" where they could eat and rest out of sight during the day. Harriet Tubman, who had escaped slavery at age 29, returned to the South 19 times to lead other slaves to freedom.

Some fugitive slaves risked recapture by telling their stories. When Frederick Douglass published his autobiography in 1845, it became an international bestseller. Other slave narratives , such as Josiah Henson's, sold thousands of copies as well. These personal descriptions of life under slavery made it impossible for the injustice of slavery to be ignored and allowed the writers to publicly confront their former masters in writing. The message of the slave narratives was furthered enormously by the immense popularity of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, with 300,000 copies printed in 1852 alone.

When California, one of the territories gained by the U.S. in the Mexican War, petitioned to become a state, the controversy over whether slavery should exist in these new territories of the Southwest led to the Compromise of 1850. After a heated debate in Congress, it was decided that California would be a free state but in return, slaveholders were promised a much more stringent Fugitive Slave Act. Under this law, any bystander, white or black, could be forced to assist in the capture of a fugitive slave. Special commissioners were awarded $10 for each fugitive returned to slavery and only $5 for those who were acquitted. Blacks who had been living in freedom for years were hunted down by slaveholders armed with the new law.

Despite the actions of abolitionists, life for free blacks was far from idyllic, due to northern racism. Most free blacks lived in racial enclaves in the major cities of the North: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati. There, poor living conditions led to disease and death. In a Philadelphia study in 1846, practically all poor black infants died shortly after birth. Even wealthy blacks were prohibited from living in white neighborhoods due to whites' fear of declining property values.

African Americans were either refused admission to, or segregated in, hotels, restaurants, and theaters. Blacks had limited work and educational opportunities. They were often denied access to public transportation in cities, and allowed on trains only in "Jim Crow" segregated cars. They were also denied civil rights, such as the right to vote and the right to testify in court in many states, thus leaving them open to attack by thieves and mobs, and to being captured and sold by slave catchers. Black men and women were routinely attacked in the streets, and from 1820 to 1850, black churches, schools and homes were looted and burned in riots in major cities throughout the North, forcing many blacks to flee to Canada.

Northern blacks were forced to live in a white man's democracy, and while not legally enslaved, subject to definition by their race. In their all-black communities, they continued to build their own churches and schools and to develop vigilance committees to protect members of the black community from hostility and violence.

The Kansas-Nebraska act in 1854 brought antislavery and proslavery proponents head-to-head in a battle over the status of Kansas. Slavery had been prohibited in the Great Plains territories under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Nebraska territory was divided into north and south, and the question of whether slavery would be legal in either part was left to popular referendum.

The southern part, Kansas, soon became a battleground. Free-Soil settlers were recruited from the northeast, while secret societies on the Missouri border vowed to combat these "negro thieves." Most of the northern settlers were not abolitionists, but members of the Free Soil movement, a group of homesteaders who wanted to keep slaveholders and blacks, whether free or enslaved, from competing with them for land. The clash between proslavery and antislavery forces led to a series of violent outbreaks that historians have called Bleeding Kansas, a preview of the Civil War. More than 50 men died before Kansas declared itself a free state.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the birth of the Republican Party, which promoted an anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution. Abolitionists found a home within this larger political organization that, while not abolitionist, was against the spread of slavery.

The debate over free versus slave territories reached a new pitch with the case of Dred Scott. In 1847 Dred Scott sued for his freedom on the grounds that his master had brought him to live in free land. Ten years later his case was decided by the Supreme Court, which handed down the infamous decision that Scott could not sue because he was not a citizen of the United States and that no one of African origin could ever become a citizen.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney justified his decision by insisting that the Founders believed that African Americans were "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." The controversial decision invalidated the idea of a free state, since any slave brought North by his or her owner would remain trapped in a legal state of bondage. Abraham Lincoln used the Dred Scott case to launch his bid for the U.S. Senate on June 16, 1858.

The raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, organized by militant abolitionist John Brown, was a precursor to the Civil War. Brown's audacious plan was to raid a federal arsenal and use the arms to lead a slave revolt. His attack on the federal government became his last stand, as Frederick Douglass had prophesied when Brown had asked him to join in. "I told him, and these were my words, that he was going into a perfect steel trap and that once in he would never get out alive."

Brown and his 21 men, five of whom were black, succeeded in capturing the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (in the part that would become West Virginia). But word of the raid spread fast, and by morning farmers and militia men had descended on the raiders, followed by federal troops. In the bloody battle that followed, ten of Brown's men were killed, and seven were captured to stand trial, including Brown himself, who was later hung. Brown was immediately heralded as a martyr to the abolitionist cause. Throughout the North, thousands flooded churches, meeting halls, and city streets to mourn his death and proclaim him a hero. The song "John Brown's Body" resounded in black churches. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau eulogized him in verse."

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who was committed to keeping slavery out of the new western territories, was elected president. Southerners saw this commitment as threat to their way of life, for they knew that to survive as an institution, slavery would need to expand into new lands. South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by six more southern states by February 1861. When Lincoln delivered his inaugural address on March 4, 1861 to a nation divided, he was determined to maintain the Union, but he refused to make any concession to the South on the question of slavery. Lincoln did not make concessions to the abolitionists either. He stated that he had no intention of ending slavery where it already existed, or of repealing the Fugitive Slave Act. His intent was to stop slavery from spreading; in Lincoln's mind, this would be enough to kill it.

This is what Southerners believed too, and what they feared. Announcing that the only dispute was that "one section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended," Lincoln stated that the Union was indissoluble, and pressed for reconciliation. "I am loath to close," he said at the end of his speech. "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." With the attack by Confederate artillery on Fort Sumter in South Carolina on April 12, and Lincoln's call for volunteers to put down the rebellion, America's divided house fell.

Black men rushed to join the Union army in 1861, but they were turned away, since Lincoln thought their conscription would alienate Northern whites and the border slave states which had remained loyal. At a Boston meeting, blacks passed a resolution: "Our feelings urge us to say to our countrymen that we are ready to stand by and defend our Government as the equals of its white defenders; to do so with 'our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,' for the sake of freedom, and as good citizens; and we ask you to modify your laws, that we may enlist, -- that full scope may be given to the patriotic feelings burning in the colored man's breast."

As Union forces moved south, they were met by fleeing slaves. Since there was no official policy regarding fugitive slaves, their fate was left to the discretion of individual commanders. The passage of the Confiscation Act of August 6, 1861 provided that any property used in insurrection against the United States was to be taken as contraband, and when that property was slaves, they were to be set free. In December 1862, Rufus Saxton, head of the Department of the South, declared that black families were to be given two acres of abandoned lands for their own use, provided that they raised a certain amount of cotton for the government. However, only a small amount of land was allotted for ex-slave use. Superintendents were appointed to look after the well-being of blacks, but while some performed their duty, others did not. Many fugitives ended up living in contraband camps, where suffering and death led to an estimated 25 percent death rate from 1862 to 1864.

For Lincoln, the purpose of the war was to preserve the Union. He proposed a gradual emancipation of slaves, with compensation to their owners, and favored colonizing freed slaves to other parts of the world. His slow, cautious approach angered abolitionists, who demanded immediate emancipation. Abolitionist groups created relief organizations such as the National Freedmen's Relief Association to provide food, clothing, and education to the newly freed blacks. Education for blacks gradually reached all areas occupied by Union troops.

With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declared all slaves in areas rebelling against the United States to be free on January 1, 1863. (One million slaves in Union territory remained officially enslaved). Many slaves in the South did not even hear about the proclamation until months later. And many of those who did hear of it were forced to continue as slaves without Union soldiers to enforce the edict. Slavery was ultimately abolished by the passage and ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

With the advent of the Emancipation Proclamation, black troops were finally allowed to join the fight. Black soldiers were also recruited for the Confederate army beginning in 1863. At first, black Union soldiers were unfairly treated, given inferior arms, relegated to fatigue duty, and paid less than half of what white soldiers were. Some black soldiers refused any pay for 18 months to protest the unfair treatment, and were eventually granted equal pay and improved conditions. More than 200,000 blacks fought for the Union, and 38,000 died, the majority of disease.

After four years of fighting, and the death of 617,000 Americans, the Civil War came to a close with the surrender of the Confederate Army in 1865. The end of the war marked the end of 250 years of slavery in North America and the beginning of a new era of freedom for African Americans. But the questions raised by the abolitionist movement, of whether we can live as a multi-racial society, are still with us well over a century later.

"Africans in America." PBS. WGBH and PBS Online, 1 Jan. 1998. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <>.