Myths & Misunderstandings

Myths and Misunderstandings: Slavery in the United States

Myths and Misunderstandings

Earlier this summer, comments on one of our Facebook posts sparked a larger conversation about recurring debates about the Civil War. We asked our visitors, social media audiences, and staff to generate a list of the questions or topics about the Civil War that they think are the most misunderstood. In providing answers to these, our goal is to do the research for you, consulting with primary sources, leading historians, and the latest scholarship, and distill it into something you can read quickly over a cup of coffee. Join us every other week for the next installment of this new blog series: Myths and Misunderstandings.                                            

“Slavery happened all over the world and throughout time, so slavery in the United States isn’t anything new or different. Why is this such a big deal?”

While it’s true that slavery has existed in many forms throughout history, on the eve of the American Civil War, the United States was the most powerful slaveholding society on Earth. That power reflected the unique development of the institution of slavery over the two centuries leading up to the Civil War. Four qualities marked American slavery: the growth of the enslaved population outside of the slave trade, the “heritable” status of the mother, the permanence of servitude, and the chattel principle.

The first recorded instance of the trade of African people in what would become the United States occurred in late August 1619. Planter John Rolfe wrote of a Dutch trading ship (actually English pirate ship) that ventured up the James River and exchanged food and supplies for “20 and odd Negroes” at Old Point Comfort in what is now Hampton, Virginia.

By 1619, the importation of African people into the Americas was already well established by the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch, with the English officially joining in 1672. England’s Royal African Company transported about 5% of the total transatlantic slave trade—in other words, the forced migration of about 500,000 people into its own colonies. Because the southern colonies were so close to the well-established Caribbean slave trade, the majority of these enslaved people were brought from the West Indies to what would become the southern United States.

Beginning in the 1650s, in response to demographic and economic change, and the threat from Bacon’s Rebellion, the Virginia legislature passed race-based laws limiting the rights of black people regardless of free or unfree status. The legislature codified two of the key elements of American slavery: a black servant was enslaved for life, and any child born of an enslaved woman was automatically enslaved. These laws took hold across the colonies and developed in tandem with market capitalism, creating “chattel” slavery—the treatment of human beings as commodities; products to be bought, sold, given, inherited.

Between 1619 and the late 1700s, labor in the British colonies transitioned from mainly white European indentured servants to enslaved black people [Footnote 1]. Masters put enslaved black people to work everywhere from fields to factories; on ships and in homes. The enslaved population relative to white people varied dramatically; small in the northern colonies, outnumbering white people in some southern counties.

Compared with enslaved populations in Central and South America, the male to female ratio in the British colonies was fairly balanced. Among other factors, eventually including forced pregnancies, this fertility led to a growth in the population of enslaved people in the colonies. This positive birth rate of the enslaved population is unique to American slavery. In much of the rest of the slaveholding world at the time, enslaved people were born in Africa and forced into slavery often as young adults. An enslaved person in the British colonies could have been the third, fourth, even fifth generation born in the colonies.

As slavery grew in every British colony, so too did revolutionary sentiments. With the ideal that “all men are created equal,” many people realized the irony of chattel slavery. Some slaveowners freed their enslaved people on principle, and this led to a growing divide within the new nation.

What some saw as an opportunity to end slavery, others saw as a vital time to protect the institution now firmly entrenched in the new American economy. The U.S. Constitution made no explicit mention of slavery, but implicitly allowed it with the 3/5ths Compromise (Article I, Section II, Paragraph III): representation in Congress was calculated by adding the number of free people to “three fifths of all other Persons.” Article IV, Section II also allowed for the return of  a “person held to service or labour in one state, escaping into another.” The Constitution (Article I, Section IX, Paragraph I) also prohibited the federal government from ending the international slave trade until 1808. At the turn of the 19th century, many northern states began the process of gradual emancipation, freeing enslaved people over time. While the country as a whole benefited from slavery, this juxtaposition of a powerful free society and a powerful slave society coexisting under one government only occurred in the United States.

Despite the decline of enslaved labor in the North, hopes for the gradual abolition of slavery elsewhere in the U.S. faded by the 1820s. After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the production of cotton and use of enslaved people as labor exploded across the South. The United States annually produced 3,000 bales of cotton in 1790 compared with over 4 million bales per year in 1860. In the mid-19th century, cotton was the leading export of the American economy and was worth more than all other U.S. exports combined. In this sense, American slavery powered the global economic engine as the institution adapted itself into the industrial revolution.

Even with the end of America’s legal participation in the international slave trade in 1808, the domestic slave trade only grew, as enslaved families and communities were broken up to send many deeper south. Many of these sales occurred in Richmond, the second-largest center of domestic slave trade after New Orleans. Between 1808 and 1860, the enslaved population of the United States surpassed the enslaved population of the rest of the Americas combined. As more Americans began to settle farther south and west, sectional tensions arose over the issue of slavery: would it be allowed in new states?

With a national economy thoroughly powered by the thriving institution of slavery, internal struggle within the United States over slavery’s future sparked into civil war in April 1861. At that time, slavery was all but abolished in the North, while 4 million people were enslaved in the South [Footnote 2], about a third of the southern population. This was roughly the same proportion of the enslaved population in 1790, representing a population increase of approximately 600%, tripling in size between 1810 and 1860.

Many enslaved people across the South seized their freedom during the War, but it would take the ratification of the 13th Amendment to officially end the institution of chattel slavery in the United States in December 1865–the first instance of slavery ending immediately and without compensation to former slaveowners.

Footnote 1: There were some key differences between indentured servitude and slavery. Indentured servitude involved the element of choice, a short term (3-10 years, with more for punishment), and only white people could participate. Stay tuned for a future Myths and Misunderstandings blog post about the comparison between slavery and indentured servitude.

Footnote 2: Slave states included Union states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware.