Colonial Slavery Essay
While there are many misconceptions about this time period in American history, some of the most egregious surround the institution of slavery in the mainland colonies of British North America. It is common to read back into colonial times an understanding of slavery that is based on conditions that existed just prior to the Civil War. It is also important to understand slavery as an historical institution that changed over time and differed from place to place. To that end, one of the most common misconceptions is that slavery was a uniquely or distinctively Southern institution prior to the American Revolution.
Slavery in Pre-Revolution America
In the 13 mainland colonies of British North America, slavery was not the peculiar institution of the South. This development would occur after the American Revolution and during the first decades of the 19th century. Although slaves had been sold in the American colonies since at least 1619, slave labor did not come to represent a significant proportion of the labor force in any part of North America until the last quarter of the 17th century. After that time, the numbers of slaves grew exponentially. By 1776, African Americans comprised about 20% of the entire population in the 13 mainland colonies.
The North American mainland was a relatively minor destination in the global slave-trading network.
This figure, however, masks important regional differences. It is important to remember that the North American mainland was a relatively minor destination in the global slave-trading network. Less than 4% of all African slaves were sent to North America. The vast majority of enslaved people ended up in sugar-producing regions of Brazil and the West Indies. On the mainland British colonies, the demand for labor varied by region. In contrast to the middle and New England colonies, the Southern colonies chose to export labor-intensive crops: tobacco in Chesapeake (Virginia and Maryland) and rice and indigo in South Carolina, which were believed to be very profitable.
Large vs. Small Plantations
By the time of the American Revolution, slaves comprised about 60% of South Carolina's total population and 40% of Virginia's. While most enslaved people in the Chesapeake labored on small farms, many of those in South Carolina lived on large plantations with a large number of slaves. By 1750, one third of all low-country South Carolina slaves lived on units with 50 or more slaves. Ironically, those who lived on larger plantations were often allowed to complete their tasks for the day and then spend the rest of their time as they liked, free from white supervision. Those on smaller farms, however, often found themselves working side-by-side with their white masters, hired white laborers, and only a small number of slaves. As a result, they faced more scrutiny from whites, were expected to labor for the entire day, and had fewer opportunities to interact with other enslaved African Americans.
Slaves in the Urban North
Although the largest percentages of slaves were found in the South, slavery did exist in the middle and Northern colonies. The overall percentage of slaves in New England was only 2-3%, but in cities such as Boston and Newport, 20-25% percent of the population consisted of enslaved laborers. Other large cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, also supported significant enslaved populations. Although enslaved people in cities and towns were not needed as agricultural workers, they were employed in a variety of other capacities: domestic servants, artisans, craftsmen, sailors, dock workers, laundresses, and coachmen. Particularly in urban areas, owners often hired out their skilled enslaved workers and collected their wages. Others were used as household servants and demonstrated high social status. Whatever the case, slaves were considered property that could be bought and sold. Slaves thus constituted a portion of the owners' overall wealth. Although Southern slaveholders had a deeper investment in slaves than Northerners, many Northerners, too, had significant portions of their wealth tied up in their ownership of enslaved people.
Revolution Rhetoric and Redefining Slavery
Once colonists started protesting against their own enslavement, it was hard to deny the fundamental contradiction that slavery established.
The widespread ownership of slaves had significant implications. During the battles with Britain during the 1760s and 1770s, American Patriots argued that taxing the colonies without their consent reduced the colonists to the status of slaves. Since individuals in all the colonies owned slaves, this rhetoric had enormous emotional resonance throughout the colonies and helped turn the colonists against the mother county. Moreover, once colonists started protesting against their own enslavement, it was hard to deny the fundamental contradiction that slavery established: enslavement for black people and freedom for white people. Awareness of this contradiction forced white Americans to look at slavery in a new light. If Americans chose to continue to enslave black people, they would have to devise new arguments to justify slavery. It was at this time that arguments about blacks' inherent racial inferiority emerged to rationalize the institution.
This divergence in approach . . . was arguably the fork in the road that ultimately led the country to the sectional divisions that culminated in the . . . Civil War.
Nonetheless, during and immediately after the American Revolution, many individuals in both the North and the South took their revolutionary ideals seriously and concluded that slavery was unjust. They freed, or manumitted, their slaves. Yet each state decided for itself how to handle the issue. Northern states passed laws, or enacted judicial rulings, that either eliminated slavery immediately or put slavery on the road to gradual extinction. The story was different in the South. Because Southern states had a much deeper economic investment in slavery, they resisted any efforts to eliminate slavery within their boundaries. Although some (but not all) of the Southern states allowed individual owners to manumit their slaves if they chose, no Southern state passed legislation that ended slavery completely, either immediately or gradually. This divergence in approach was significant, as it began the time during which slavery would disappear from the North and become uniquely associated with the South. This moment was arguably the fork in the road that ultimately led the country to the sectional divisions that culminated in the coming of the Civil War.
“They worked the cotton plantations of Mississippi and in the tobacco fields of Virginia, in Alabama’s rich black belt, in Louisiana’s sugar parishes, and in the disease-ridden rice swamps of Georgia and South Carolina”(Buckmaster, 153). Most slaves were worked extremely hard, because they had the job of cultivating the crops on the plantations. It began before daybreak and lasted until dark, five and sometimes six days a week. “An Alabama man said ‘Sunup to sundown was for field Negroes.’ Men and women alike were roused at four or five a.m., generally by the blowing of a horn or the ringing of a bell” (Goodman, 18). By daybreak, the slaves were already working under the control of Negro drivers and white overseers. They plowed, hoed, picked, and performed the labors appropriate to the season of whatever they were harvesting. For example, during the harvest season on a sugar plantation, slaves were worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. That is longer hours than convicts were permitted to work in several of the Southern states (DuBois, 35). This was not only limited to sugar. Cotton and tobacco workers had the same harsh hours in the hot southern sun.
Even children were put to work on the plantations. “By the age of six or seven, children were ready to do odd jobs around the plantation-picking up trash in the yard, raking leaves, tending a garden patch, minding babies, carrying water to the fields. By the age of ten, they were likely to be in the fields themselves, classed as “quarter hands” (McCague, 35).
Often there were health problems among the slaves in early America. “The combination of hard, sometimes exhausting toil and inferior diet, scanty clothing and unsanitary housing led, predictably, to health problems” (Goodman, 31). This caused a problem for slave owners, because they wanted the most efficiency out of their slaves as possible. In some places doctors were called in to treat blacks as well as whites. The slave trade played an important role in the growth of the American colonies. Without the trading of slaves in the seventeenth century, American plantations would not have prospered into the export empire that they were.
Buckmaster, Henrietta. Let My People Go. Boston: Beacon Press, 1941. Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. DuBois, William Edward Burghardt. The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Goodman, Walter. Black Bondage: the Life of Slaves in the South. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969. Howard, Richard. Black Cargo. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972. McCague, James. The Long Bondage 1441-1815. Illinois: Garrard Publishing Company, 1972. Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution. New York: Borzoi Books, 1982.