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American Slavery

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American Slavery

The institution of slavery in America is a wound in history that still festers in modern American society. So pervasive and ingrained in American society and economics, beginning with the nation's creation, it took the American Civil War to eradicate. What were the origins of American slavery? How was American slavery affected by the American Revolution? Did the slaves ever fight back? How did slavery influence the early American republic? And how did American slavery end?

Origins of American Slavery and Native American Slavery in the Colonies

Slavery began in North America with the Spanish in the 1500s, attempting to enslave the Americas' indigenous populations. However, Spain abolished the enslavement of indigenous peoples in 1542. A century later, as the English began to expand their colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America, they too began to enslave indigenous populations. Native American slavey in the colonies was relatively short-lived, ending in the early 1700s due to rapidly declining indigenous populations from disease and warfare and a lack of necessary skills with consumer crops such as sugarcane and rice.

Chattel Slavery: the enslavement and owning of a person and their offspring, who are able to be bought and sold, and forced into labor without wages.

Though the English attempted enslavement of indigenous tribes, in 1619, the first African slaves were brought to the colony of Jamestown. During this time of early colonization, slavery was not necessarily permanent and not specifically about race. As mentioned, slaves included indigenous peoples, Africans, populations from the Caribbean islands, and indentured servants from England and Europe. However, incrementally over the colonial period, to be a slave meant to be black. This was caused by the demand for enslaved labor in the colonies, especially in the South, the access to the Atlantic slave trade, religious implications, and expanding status laws and codes in the colonies defining who could and could not be a slave.

Throughout most of the history of the British American Colonies, slavery was prevalent in all thirteen colonies. The first colony to codify slavery in law was Massachusetts in 1641.

With the expansion and solidification of the Triangular trade networks across the Atlantic between the colonies, England, Europe, and Africa, access to African slaves increased, and their cost decreased. The fifty years leading up to the American Revolution (1760 to 1783) saw nearly ten times the number of African slaves brought to the colonies than in the first decades of British colonization.

American Slavery / A map showing the number and percentage of slaves in the 13 American colonies / StudySmarterFigure 1: This map shows the percentage and number of slaves in each of the 13 American Colonies

Slave Rebellions

As the number and percentage of the population of enslaved Africans increased in America, so did the number and frequency of slave rebellions. Slave rebellions happened often, but few - usually the successful or ones dealt with most harshly - are the slave rebellions known. This is because of a few factors, most slaves were not literate (in many colonies and states, it was illegal to educate slaves) so white enslavers would have only recorded rebellions. White enslavers would not have the incentive to record slave rebellions or spread the news about them for fear of inciting other slave riots and uprisings. Nevertheless, there are several famous and infamous slave rebellions throughout American history:

Slave Rebellions in U.S. History

Rebellion Name:

Year:

Description

New York Slave Revolt

1712

In the early 1700s, New York City had one of the largest slave populations in the colonies, as the city was a major port on the east coast.

On April 6, 1712, a group of 23 black slaves gathered near the New York City slave market and burned buildings, killing nine white settlers who attempted to put out the fires and capture the men.

All the slaves were eventually captured and returned to their enslavers. In response, the colonial authorities arrested nearly seventy slaves. Some were on trial; twenty-one were sentenced to death, executed by burning at stake.

Stono Rebellion

1739

A slave revolt that began in South Carolina on September 9, 1739, is one of the largest slave revolts in the southern states.

Led by an African slave named Jemmy, a group of nearly sixty African slaves revolted, killed more than twenty whites, and began a march south to Florida, seeking emancipation by the Spanish governor of the colony.

The group made it nearly thirty miles, collecting other slaves as they passed plantations, but they were met by a militia and destroyed. Most who were captured were executed.

Gabriel’s Rebellion

1800

Famous for a rebellion that never happened. Gabriel Prosser was an educated enslaved blacksmith in Richmond, Virginia. He and nearly twenty-five others planned a rebellion for the summer of 1800, and he used the sentiments of the Declaration of Independence as his means of rallying support.

However, the plans of their revolt were leaked, and Gabriel and his conspirators were arrested and executed.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion

1831

Led by Nat Turner, this rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, began in August 1831. Turner and approximately 70 other enslaved Africans revolted, some on horseback, riding from plantation to plantation freeing the slaves and killing their white owners.

Turner and his forces killed nearly sixty people before a militia suppressed their rebellion. Turner himself managed to escape and elude capture for nearly two months.

Most of the conspirators were captured and executed, including Turner.

American Slavery / A wood carving print of the Nat Turner Revolt / StudySmarterFigure 2: A woodcarving print from 1831 depicting the Nat Turner Rebellion

American Revolution: Slavery

It is through the American Revolution that the hypocrisy of American Slavery takes root. Before the war broke out between the Americans and the British, the rhetoric used by the American Patriots on liberty, natural rights, and individual freedoms rang true to many of the enslaved peoples in the colonies.

Gabriel's Rebellion, listed in the above table, was partially inspired by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the rights and freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution.

During the war, the British and the Americans offered individual emancipation to entice slaves to fight for their side. The British offered freedom to any slaves who would leave their masters to fight alongside them. The British promise also had the effect of causing unrest among the slaves, in turn causing issues for the enslavers. Many slaves would run away from their plantations during the war seeking freedom.

The Americans also offered freedom for service in the Army. George Washington established a policy that any slave who fought with the Americans would be freed. Some states established policies of paying owners for their slave’s freedom in return for the slave’s service in the military.

It is through these actions that the hypocrisy of American Slavery was born. That a nation founded on the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would also allow states to uphold the institution of slavery. Though never directly addressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, or the U.S. Constitution, these documents also did not address universal freedoms and rights.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade

Though never directly addressed, slavery was indirectly addressed in the U.S. Constitution. To find a solution to the issue of representation of the states in Congress, the Three Fifths Compromise was struck. This allowed three-fifths of the slave population of a state to be counted towards the state's total population, thus increasing the number of representatives the state would be allotted in the House of Representatives. In return for this compromise that greatly benefited the southern states, the South agreed to a federal prohibition of the importation of slaves by 1808.

The legal importation of slaves stopped in 1808, but the number of enslaved people in America grew through domestic growth. After the prohibition of importing new slaves, plantation owners turned towards breeding and selling their slaves. Even with limited illegal smuggling of new slaves, domestic growth saw a rapid increase in the number of slaves in the United States.

The American Revolution and the abolition of the slave trade influenced several northern states who moved to ban slavery in their territory. By the 1810s and 1820s, most northern states had abolished slavery. It created a political environment in Congress that pitted northern senators and Congressmen who were abolitionists against the pro-slave south.

The Missouri Compromise

With the balance of power in Congress divided between slave and free, any new legislation, admission of new states, or acquisition of territory brought up the debate over abolition.

In 1818, Missouri applied for access to the United States. Part of the requirements for admission is to have a written state constitution that ensures a republican form of government. The institution of slavery was allowed under the Missouri constitution.

By the time Missouri applied for statehood, the House of Representatives was controlled by a northern majority that began to use its political power to curtail the expansion of slavery. White southerners panicked. They were worried about the large influx of north members of Congress and the open talk of stopping the use of slaves in the United States.

To show their commitment to the service of enslaved labor, southerners used their power in the Senate - where they held half of the seats- to withhold statehood from Maine. Maine's territory was under Massachusetts's jurisdiction since colonial times and was petitioning to separate from Massachusetts through statehood.

This deadlock between Missouri versus Maine and the House versus the Senate began a heated debate over slavery.

The compromise that was struck would again quell the discussion, but it only pushed the issue of slavery towards a greater and more violent end. The compromise allowed Missouri to enter as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and any states created in the remaining territory above the 39-degree latitude would be free.

American Slavery: Summary

The institution of slavery in the United States, has its roots in North America well before the nation existed. The most divisive and reprehensible policy and institution in American history, slavery is arguable also the most influential. Slaves built the United States. Though the north abolished slavery before the south, the northern industrial centers relied on the textiles and crops of the south, labored by slaves. Slaves were used to build the infrastructure of the nation, including the early railroads, national road networks, and government buildings.

The United States, through debate and policy, had several instances in which slavery could have been addressed and abolished, but instead, compromises were found. From 1820 to 1860, national politics teetered on these compromises until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, the main cause: slavery, and how the view on this practice permeated every of part of American society: its economics, politics, and culture. It took a war that lasted four years to eradicate the institution of slavery from the nation. Through the emancipation proclamation during the war, and the requirement for Confederate states to ratify the 13th Amendment during Reconstruction, slavery ended in practice in the United States. It would take decades to centuries to heal the wounds of slavery, and arguably, the nation is still working through the effects of slavery to this day.

American Slavery - Key takeaways

  • Slavery began in North America with the Spanish in the 1500s, attempting to enslave the Americas' indigenous populations.
  • Though the English attempted enslavement of indigenous tribes, in 1619, the first African slaves were brought to the colony of Jamestown. During this time of early colonization, slavery was not necessarily permanent and not specifically about race.
  • Incrementally over the colonial period, to be a slave meant to be black. This was caused by the demand for enslaved labor in the colonies, especially in the South, the access to the Atlantic slave trade, religious implications, and expanding status laws and codes in the colonies defining who could and could not be a slave.
  • With the expansion and solidification of the Triangular trade networks across the Atlantic between the colonies, England, Europe, and Africa, access to African slaves increased, and their cost decreased. The fifty years leading up to the American Revolution (1760 to 1783) saw nearly ten times the number of African slaves brought to the colonies than in the first decades of British colonization.
  • As the number and percentage of the population of enslaved Africans increased in America, so did the number and frequency of slave rebellions.
  • It is through the American Revolution that the hypocrisy of American Slavery takes root. Before the war broke out between the Americans and the British, the rhetoric used by the American Patriots on liberty, natural rights, and individual freedoms rang true to many of the enslaved peoples in the colonies.
  • The institution of slavery in the United States, has its roots in North America well before the nation existed. The most divisive and reprehensible policy and institution in American history, slavery is arguable also the most influential.

Frequently Asked Questions about American Slavery

Many northern states began to abolish slavery and in the south, though slavery was disrupted by the war, southern states strengthened the institution of slavery. 

The first African slaves arrived at the colony of Jamestown in 1619

William Lloyd Garrison 

With the expansion and solidification of the Triangular trade networks across the Atlantic between the colonies, England, Europe, and Africa, access to African slaves increased, and their cost decreased. The fifty years leading up to the American Revolution (1760 to 1783) saw nearly ten times the number of African slaves brought to the colonies than in the first decades of British colonization.  

Final American Slavery Quiz

Question

What year was the importation of slaves officially abolished in the US?

Show answer

Answer

1808

Show question

Question

Which English trial served as a catalyst of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade?


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Answer

Stewart v Somerset in 1771.

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Question

What was the first abolitionist petition within the British colonies? 


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Answer

The Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery in 1688. 

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Question

What Christian sect was commonly at the forefront of the abolitionist movement in the US and Great Britain?


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Answer

The Quakers

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Question

When did Great Britain abolish the slave trade?

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Answer

In 1807, with the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

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Question

Why didn’t the slave trade end with the US Constitution?

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Answer

The constitution contained a clause that stated that the government could not limit the importation of slaves until twenty years after the constitution took effect.

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Question

When were slaves imported to America?

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Answer

Between 1565 and 1807.

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Question

Which war would ultimate end slavery in the United States?

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Answer

The American Civil War.

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Question

What role did guns play in the slave trade in West Africa?

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Answer

Europeans traded guns for slaves. The introduction of guns also facilitated an era of warfare between African communities, with conquered tribes being sold into slavery by their captors. 

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Question

How did the American Revolutionary War provide an escape for some slaves?

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Answer

In the fray of war, many slaves in the southern states were able to escape to the north. Others were able to gain their freedom in exchange for fighting alongside the Patriots. 

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Question

Approximately how many Africans were abducted into the slave trade?

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Answer

12 million.

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Question

What territory did the state of Missouri come from? 

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Answer

The Louisiana Purchase

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Question

Which other southern states, who supported the institution of slavery, were admitted as states before Missouri? 

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Answer

Louisiana 

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Question

Who was the northern congressmen to first object to Missouri's application due to slavery in the state Constitution? 

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Answer

Congressmen Tallmadge of New York 

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Question

Which of the following was not an argument used by southern states in favor of slavery during the debate over Missouri's admission? 

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Answer

"equal rights" 

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Question

Which northern territory was seeking statehood at the same time as Missouri? 

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Answer

Maine 

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Question

Which state had formally controlled the territory of Maine? 

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Answer

Massachusetts

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Question

Which Congressman proposed the compromise to end the deadlock over Missouri and Maine's statehood? 

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Answer

Henry Clay 

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Question

What are the key points of the Missouri Compromise? 

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Answer

Maine would be admitted in 1821 as a free state

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Question

What was the immediate impact of the Missouri Compromise? 

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Answer

For other states admitted to the U.S., the same process would be followed to maintain a balance of slave v. free states in Congress. 

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Question

What was the long term impact of the Missouri Compromise? 

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Answer

The fate of the western lands, enslaved peoples, and the Union itself was now irrevocably connected. 

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Question

What did the American Colonization Society do? 

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Answer

An organization created in 1816 by members of the Virginia legislature and other prominent white Virginians to promote and support the efforts to migrate free African Americans back to Africa. 

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Question

Which of the following did not influence the creation of the American Colonisation Society? 

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Answer

The growing number of slaves in the United States 

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Question

Which of the following U.S. politicians were supporters of the American Colonisation Society? 

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Answer

Thomas Jefferson 

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Question

Which U.S. President also served as the president of the American Colonisation Society in the 1830s? 

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Answer

James Madison 

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Question

Which of the following was not a goal of the American Colonisation society 

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Answer

None of the Above were the goals 

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Question

Which African nation was founded by the collective colonies of the American Colonisation Society? 

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Answer

Liberia 

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Question

True or False: The American Colonisation Society was granted the entire territory that would become Liberia. 

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Answer

False, Liberia was created by uniting the many ACS colonies in 1857

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Question

Who created the American Colonisation Society? 

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Answer

Charles Mercer and Robert Finley 

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Question

Which pacifist religious group had strong support of the American Colonisation Society? 

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Answer

The Quakers

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Question

What prominent abolitionist and former slave strongly opposed the American Colonisation Society? 

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Answer

Frederick Douglass

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Question

Which European nation was the first to bring the institution of enslaved labor to North America? 

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Answer

Spain 

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Question

Both English colonies and Spanish colonies in North America began using enslaved labor from where? 

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Answer

Indigenous populations 

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Question

What year did the first African slaves arrive in the American colonies? 

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Answer

1619 in Jamestown 

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Question

True or False: in the British American Colonies, slavery was only permitted in the southern colonies. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Which British American colony was the first to codify slavery into law? 

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Answer

Massachusetts 

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Question

What caused the rapid increase in the use and sale of African slaves in the American colonies? 

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Answer

The Atlantic Slave trade from the triangular trade networks. 

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Question

Which slave rebellion was inspired by the rhetoric of the American Revolution? 

Show answer

Answer

Gabriel's Rebellion 

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Question

What and when was one of the largest slave rebellions to occur in the American colonies? 

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Answer

The Stono Rebellion of 1739 

Show question

Question

Who established a policy allowing a slave to purchase their freedom for service in the Continental Army? 

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Answer

George Washington 

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Question

What year was the slave trade abolished in the United States? 

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Answer

1808

Show question

Question

True or False: After the abolition of the slave trade in the United States, the population of enslaved Africans in the U.S. declined. 

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

What piece of legislation attempted to maintain the political balance of free verses slave state representation in Congress? 

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Answer

The Missouri Compromise 

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Question

What event ended the institution of slavery in the United States? 

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Answer

The American Civil War

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Question

What piece of legislation ended slavery in the United States? 

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Answer

The 13th Amendment 

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