The history of slavery in North America began in 1619, when slave traders aboard a Dutch man-of-war exchanged the Africans being carried for food in Jamestown Virginia. The continued growth of tobacco as a cash crop and decline in the number of Europeans willing to come to the Americas as indentured servants made African slaves an attractive option to landowners. Once on American soil, slaves faced harsh and inhuman treatment. They were treated as property to be bought and sold freely, faced brutal working conditions and often faced poor living conditions. Even children weren’t spared from the treatment, often being forced to work in the fields from sun up to sundown from as early as age 12. Slavery continued to be an adopted and institutionalized practice in the United States until the year 1863, when Abraham Lincoln declared, “that all persons held as slaves within the rebellious areas are, and henceforward shall be free” in the Emancipation Proclamation. While the issuance of the proclamation didn’t end slavery immediately it set in motion the complete abolition of slavery in the United States. It is believed that approximately 12 million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas between the 16th and 18th centuries, with approximately 600 to 650 thousand of them arriving in the United States. By the time that slavery was abolished there were close to four million slaves in America and had created a legacy that would continue to effect the country far into the future.
While the physical institution is no longer in place, it is clear that the history of slavery still has far reaching effects on today’s society. When it was still legal and being practiced in America, the immediate outcome of slavery was the destruction of the family structure, exploitation of African-Americans for the financial gain of white slave owners and the systematic dehumanization of slaves. As a result, today there are visible economic and wealth disparities between blacks and whites, a more fragmented and fragile family structure amongst African-Americans, and a history of racism and bigotry that continues to plague the country.
Historians trace the history of slavery in the United States to more than one-hundred years before the Declaration of Independence (1776). That means that slavery was, in some parts of the colonies and later the United States, legal for over three-hundred years.
Slavery in the US Constitution
Though slavery existed throughout much of the colonial period, by the time the founding fathers started drafting the US Constitution tensions around slavery were high. On the theory that pushing for an end to slavery would fracture the new nation, the Founding Fathers drafted several parts of the Constitution with the temporary preservation of slavery in the US in mind. Click the links below to learn more:
• Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1—preserving importation of slave for 20 years post ratification of Constitution
• Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 —3/5th’s Compromise
• Article 5—Prohibiting Amendments until 1808
• Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 —Fugitive Slave Clause
Born Into Slavery—Partus Sequitur Ventrem
Though slavery was not invented by British or Spanish colonists, a unique aspect of slavery in the United States is our adoption of a principle known as partus sequitur ventrem, a latin phrase that stands for the principle that the children of a enslaved woman are themselves born as slaves and owned by their mother’s master. Under this system slavery in the U.S. was a perpetual institution, meaning that when slaves were brought over from Africa, their descendents and their decendent’s decendents were sentenced to an unending term of slavery with no legal hope to win their freedom.
To learn more about the enslavement of Blacks in the US check out the links below.
LOC—Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives fro the Federal Writers’ Project
• Provides over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery, collected between 1936–1938. Also contains more than 500 color and black and white photos of former slaves.
LOC–From Slaver to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection (1822–1909)
• “Presents 396 pamphlets from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, published from 1822 through 1909, by African-American authors and others who wrote about slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics. The materials range from personal accounts and public orations to organizational reports and legislative speeches. Among the authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Kelly Miller, Charles Sumner, Mary Church Terrell, and Booker T. Washington.”
Slavery and the Courts:
LOC—Slaves and the Courts: 1740–1860
•“Contains just over a hundred pamphlets and books (published between 1772 and 1889) concerning the difficult and troubling experiences of African and African-American slaves in the American colonies and the United States. The documents, most from the Law Library and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress, comprise an assortment of trials and cases, reports, arguments, accounts, examinations of cases and decisions, proceedings, journals, a letter, and other works of historical importance. Of the cases presented here, most took place in America and a few in Great Britain. Among the voices heard are those of some of the defendants and plaintiffs themselves as well as those of abolitionists, presidents, politicians, slave owners, fugitive and free territory slaves, lawyers and judges, and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Significant names include John Quincy Adams, Roger B. Taney, John C. Calhoun, Salmon P. Chase, Dred Scott, William H. Seward, Prudence Crandall, Theodore Parker, Jonathan Walker, Daniel Drayton, Castner Hanway, Francis Scott Key, William L. Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Denmark Vesey, and John Brown.”
PBS—Men, Women & Gender Portal
• Provides interactive historical overview of gendered realties of slavery. Explores both similarities and differences in work, parenthood, and ownership and bodily autonomy.
End of Black Slavery
Slavery officially ended in the US with passage of the 13th Amendment. Prior to the 13th Amendment, President Abraham Lincoln signed what we now know as the Emancipation Proclamation. Contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the US. Instead, the Proclamation ended slavery in the Confederate states—the states that attempted to break away from the Union in the Civil War.
In addition to passing the 13th amendment, in the years after the Civil War Congress also passed other amendments to the Constitution as a way to secure full citizenship rights for newly freed black Americans. These amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments—are known as the Reconstruction Amendments.
Watch a video explaining what the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments) do.
Though Slavery of African Americans is perhaps best known today as the most prevalent form of slavery at any given time in US history, slavery in the US was not unique to Blacks.
White Enslavement of Native Americans
As part of White colonizing efforts in the New World, often times Native Americans were captured, bought, and sold in the slave trade. Historians trace the enslavement of various Native American peoples as far back as Portuguese contact with the Americas —Native Americans traded prisoners of war in exchange for goods—and the practice of econmienda —a system of labor employed by the Spanish crown under which a certain number of native laborers were transferred to the Spanish for a set term, in exchange for the labor the Spanish promised to protect the Indian tribe it contracted with from warring tribes.
Enslavement of Native Americans was also pervasive in Spanish occupied lands in the West that now form the state of California. Under the California Mission system —a series of religious and military outposts established along the coast of California—Native Americans in the surrounding areas were placed into ten year terms of service under the mission which were often extended indefinitely. Though the Franciscans—the Catholic religious order that ran the missions—officially revoked this practice in the 1830’s, enslavement continued in some form until 1867, three years after the 13th Amendment was passed.
As you have already learned, slavery in the US has a complicated history. Though you may have learned in your History classes about notions of white supremacy and white against black racial bias, the enslavement of African Americans was not just practiced by Whites.
Records show that in 1809 the Cherokee held upwards of 600 black slaves. By 1835 this number rose to just under 1,600, and by 1860 this number reached an estimated 4,000.
The enslavement of African Americans by the Cherokee and other Indian tribes stands as testament to the complicated history of slavery in the United States.