African American Slavery Before the Civil War


by John E. Hansan, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This entry is a composite of several descriptions of early slavery in the U.S.  The sources are noted at the end of the document.


Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society 1795

Official medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society 1795

Introduction: In 1619, the first African slave ships had arrived in Jamestown. In appealing to basic human liberty, the American Revolution against Britain’s King George III, which began in 1776, put the institution of slavery into sharp focus. Many of the Founding Fathers assailed slavery, singling out the slave trade from Africa for particular condemnation. Several of the founders, however, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason, were slave owners.

The first captives came to the Western Hemisphere in the early 1500s. Twenty African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. A series of complex colonial laws began to relegate the status of Africans and their descendants to slavery. The United States outlawed the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, but the domestic slave trade and illegal importation continued for several decades.

From about 1619 until 1865, people of African descent were legally enslaved in the United States. The economic prosperity of early America and the accumulation of wealth by some families was made possible in large part by the free labor afforded by slavery. Over a half million Africans were brought over from Africa during the slave trade, but because laws declared the children of slaves to be slaves, the slave population in the United States grew to 4 million by the 1860 Census.

At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the slave trade emerged as an acrimonious issue. Finally, a compromise was reached with the Southern states that guaranteed the continuance of the slave trade for 20 years after the adoption of the Constitution. That deal set the earliest expiration date as 1808 — which Congress met.

In the southern states, slaves were an essential part of the economic system (e.g., working on large plantations that produced cotton, tobacco and rice). Slaves were considered “property” and men, women and children were sold or traded, without regard to his/her family.

• slaves with dark skins usually worked in the fields and slaves with lighter skins worked in the homes of the owners

• slaves could own nothing and were forced to live in shacks and eat whatever was given to them by their masters

• slaves received no education and could legally be punished for not following orders or not performing up to the standards of their masters

Slavery was eventually abolished in 1863-65 with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation; it legally ended with the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.

The Early Years of Slavery in the U.S.

 During the course of the slave trade, millions of Africans became involuntary immigrants to the New World. Some African captives resisted enslavement by fleeing from slave forts on the West African coast. Others mutinied on board slave trading vessels, or cast themselves into the ocean. In the New World there were those who ran away from their owners, ran away among the Indians, formed maroon societies, revolted, feigned sickness, or participated in work slow downs. Some sought and succeeded in gaining liberty through various legal means such as “good service” to their masters, self-purchase, or military service. Still others seemingly acquiesced and learned to survive in servitude.

The European, American, and African slave traders engaged in the lucrative trade in humans, and the politicians and businessmen who supported them, did not intend to put into motion a chain of events that would motivate the captives and their descendants to fight for full citizenship in the United States of America. But they did. When Thomas Jefferson penned the words, “All men are created equal,” he could not possibly have envisioned how literally his own slaves and others would take his words. African Americans repeatedly questioned how their owners could consider themselves noble in their own fight for independence from England while simultaneously believing that it was wrong for slaves to do the same.

imagesThe fugitive slave laws were laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another state or territory. The idea of the fugitive slave law was derived from the Fugitive Slave Clause which is in the United States Constitution (Article IV,  Section 2, Paragraph 3). It was thought that forcing states to deliver escaped slaves to slaveowners violated states rights due to state sovereignty and was believed that seizing state property should not be left up to the states. The Fugitive Slave Clause states that escaped slaves “shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due”, which abridged state rights because retrieving slaves was a form of retrieving private property. After the compromise of 1850, the Supreme Court made slavery a protected institution and arranged a series of laws that allowed slavery in the new territories and forced officials in Free States to give a hearing to slaveholders without a jury.

As the colonies grew and settlers expanded into other areas, slavery continued in the English territories and in former Dutch territories like New Amsterdam, which became New York.

Serious attempts at formulating a uniform policy for the recapture of escaped slaves began under the Articles of Confederation of the United States in 1785.

The 1875 Attempt

There were two attempts at implementing a fugitive slave law in the Congress of the Confederation in order to provide slave owners with a way of recapturing escaped slaves.

The Ordinance of 1784 was drafted by a Congressional committee headed by Thomas Jefferson, and its provisions applied to all United States territory west of the original 13 states. The original version was read to Congress on March 1, 1784, and it contained a clause stating:

That after the year 1800 of the Christian Era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty.

This was removed prior to final enactment of the ordinance on 23 April 1784. However, the issue did not die there, and on 6 April 1785 Rufus King  introduced a resolution to re-implement the slavery prohibition in the 1784 ordinance, containing a fugitive slave provision in the hope that this would reduce opposition to the objective of the resolution. The resolution contained the phrase:

Provided always, that upon the escape of any person into any of the states described in the said resolve of Congress of the 23d day of April, 1784, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the thirteen original states, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and carried back to the person claiming his labor or service as aforesaid, this resolve notwithstanding.

The unsuccessful resolution was the first attempt to include a fugitive slave provision in U.S. legislation.

While the original 1784 ordinance applied to all U.S. territory that was not a part of any existing state (and thus, to all future states), the 1787 ordinance applied only to the Northwest Territory.

Fugitive Slave Act – 1793

When Congress created “An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters,” or more commonly known as the Fugitive Slave Act, they were responding to slave owners’ need to protect their property rights, as written into the 1787 Constitution. Article IV of the Constitution required the federal government to go after runaway slaves. The 1793 Fugitive Slave Act was the mechanism by which the government did that, and it was only at this point the government could pursue runaway slaves in any state or territory, and ensure slave owners of their property rights.

Fugitive Slave Act – 1793

Chap. VII.—An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters.
Section 1.  Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That whenever the executive authority of any state in the Union, or of either of the territories northwest or south of the river Ohio, shall demand any person as a fugitive from justice, of the executive authority of any such state or territory to which such person shall have fled, and shall moreover produce the copy of an indictment found, or an affidavit made before a magistrate of any state or territory as aforesaid, charging the person so demanded, with having committed treason, felony or other crime, certified as authentic by the governor or chief magistrate of the state or territory from whence the person so charged fled,  it shall be the duty of the executive authority of the state or territory to which such person shall have fled, to cause him or her to be arrested and secured, and notice of the arrest to be given to the executive authority making such demand, or to the agent of such authority appointed to receive the fugitive, and to cause the fugitive to be delivered to such agent when he shall appear:  But if no such agent shall appear within six months from the time of the arrest, the prisoner may be discharged.  And all costs or expenses incurred in the apprehending, securing, and transmitting such fugitive to the state or territory making such demand, shall be paid by such state or territory.
Sec. 2.  And be it further enacted, That any agent, appointed as aforesaid, who shall receive the fugitive into his custody, shall be empowered to transport him or her to the state or territory from which he or she shall have fled.  And if any person or persons shall by force set at liberty, or rescue the fugitive from such agent while transporting, as aforesaid, the person or persons so offending shall, on conviction, be fined not exceeding five hundred dollars, and be imprisoned not exceeding one year.
Sec. 3.  And be it also enacted, That when a person held to labour in any of the United States, or in either of the territories on the northwest or south of the river Ohio, under the laws thereof, shall escape into any other of the said states or territory, the person to whom such labour or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labour, (b) and to take him or her before any judge of the circuit or district courts of the United States, residing or being within the state, or being any magistrate of a county, city or town corporate, wherein such seizure or arrest shall be made, and upon proof to the satisfaction of such judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such state or territory, that the person so seized or arrested, doth, under the laws of the state or territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labour to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labour, to the state or territory from which he or she fled.
Sec. 4.  And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent or attorney in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labour, or shall rescue such fugitive from such claimant, his agent or attorney when so arrested pursuant to the authority herein given or declared; or shall harbor or conceal such person after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labour, as aforesaid, shall for either of the said offences, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars.  Which penalty may be recovered by and for the benefit of such claimant, by the action of debt, in any court proper to try the same; saving moreover to the person claiming such labour or service, his right of action for or on account of the said injuries or either of them.
Approved, February 12, 1793. Source: Statutes at Large, 2nd Congress, 2nd Session, Ch. 7, p. 302.

Later Years of Slavery

African Americans had been enslaved in what became the United States since early in the 17th century. Even so, by the time of the American Revolution and eventual adoption of the new Constitution in 1787, slavery was actually a dying institution. As part of the compromises that allowed the Constitution to be written and adopted, the founders agreed to end the importation of slaves into the United States by 1808.

slave3-sfSpanBy 1800 or so, however, African American slavery was once again a thriving institution, especially in the Southern United States. One of the primary reasons for the reinvigoration of slavery was the invention and rapid widespread adoption of the cotton gin. This machine allowed Southern planters to grow a variety of cotton–short staple cotton–that was especially well suited to the climate of the Deep South. The bottle neck in growing this crop had always been the labor needed to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers. But Eli Whitney’s gin made it much easier and more economical to do. This fact made cotton production much more profitable and hence very attractive to planters and farmers in the South. Still, growing cotton was very labor intensive and cotton growers needed a large supply of labor to tend the fields. African American slaves supplied this labor.

It is important to remember, however, that not all slaves worked on large cotton plantations. African American slaves also worked in many other types of agriculture, including tobacco, hemp (for rope-making), corn, and livestock. Many slaves also worked in Southern cities, working at a variety of skilled trades as well as common laborers. It was not unusual for slaves working in the cities to put away enough money to buy their freedom. Indeed, Southern cities, as well as many in the North, had large so-called free black populations.

Group of "Contrabands", May 14, 1862

Group of “Contrabands”, May 14, 1862

A slave’s day usually consisted of long hours of physical labor. For a field hand, the workday usually began before dawn and ended well after sunset, often with a two-hour break for the noon meal. Many free white farmers in the South (and North) also put in very long work-days, but the great difference was they were working for themselves and controlled their own work time. African American slaves had no such control and they worked under constant supervision and the threat of physical punishment by their overseers. Indeed, no matter how kindly a slave owner might have been, the slaves did not possess that which Americans most prized: their freedom.

Despite overall harsh conditions and the absence of freedom, slaves were not just powerless victims of their owners and the slave system. Slave families and communities became very important institutions. Slaves on large plantations also lived in a community that extended well beyond the family and in many cases beyond the single plantation or farm. The slave cabins (or “quarters”) provided one of the few places where slaves could be more or less free from constant supervision by slave overseers. There the slaves created a vibrant social and cultural life beyond the reach of their masters.

While no rational person would wish to be a slave, the slaves were active agents in their own lives. And though their lives were circumscribed in many significant ways, they sought to make the best of their circumstances. They succeeded to a remarkable extent, a testimonial to the endurance of the human spirit.


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