The practice of African slavery in the 18th and the 19th centuries dramatically helped to shape our emerging nation. As a matter of fact, if not for slavery our nation would not be what it is today.
In the colonies during the 1700’s, the production of sugar, coffee and tobacco created a demand for human labor. At first Native Indians seemed to be the logical source for human labor, but European diseases ravaged the native populations, and Indians being more at home in their native land than even the colonizers, the colonizers found them difficult to control. (Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black; The Peoples of Early America, 1982, pg. 145) The most available people, and at a cheap cost to landowners, were Africans.
The reasons for a slave-based agricultural economy in the South during the 18th and 19th centuries are two-fold. First, English entry into the African slave trade gave the Southern planters an opportunity to purchase slaves more readily and more cheaply than before. Cheap labor was what every tobacco or rice planter sought, and when the price of slave labor dipped below that of indentured labor, the demand for black slaves increased. Secondly, the supply of white servants from England began to dry up in the late seventeenth century, and those who did cross the Atlantic were spread among the growing colonies. (Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black; The Peoples of Early America, 1982, pg. 149)
There were differences between the North and South of how slavery was viewed and how slaves were utilized. For example, in the South during the 1700’s, slaves represented about one-fifth of the total population and were the backbone of the agricultural work force. In the North, however, slavery existed only occasionally. Labor-intensive crops were not grown in these areas and harsh winters halted farming for a considerable part of each year. (Nash, Gary B. Red, White, and Black; The Peoples of Early America, 1982, pg. 150) In the South, slaves were considered to be property no different than their owners’ horses or cattle while in the North slaves oftentimes worked side by side with, or in the homes of, their owners.
Since, in the South, slaves were considered to be no better or intelligent than their farm animals, they were often worked from sun-up to sundown. Slaves did not live long lives since it was cheaper for their owners to work them to death and purchase new slaves than it was to feed and care for the ones they had. The North on the other hand, for the most part, felt that slavery was inhumane and wanted it abolished.
Slaves were fewer in the North, and they were not stripped of all of their rights. Religion and education were believed to be beneficial to slaves, unlike the South where the ratio of slaves to whites was reversed. After 1710, for example, slaves outnumbered whites in South Carolina. Whites were afraid and felt that if slaves were educated they might rebel and organize or plot against them. As a result, punishment for offenses was very harsh.
It was the enslavement of blacks that permitted the full development of southern businesses, whether tobacco or wheat, rice or indigo. By 1700, black slavery provided the majority of field workers on major tobacco plantations. Most southerners came to equate their ability to make money with their right to hold slaves. By the 1800’s, slavery was far more than an efficient system for getting the crops in and turning a profit. Social status, as well as economic success, depended on the ownership of land and slaves. In the south physical labor came to lack the dignity it was accorded in the North. (Wolf, Stephanie Grauman. As Various as their Land, 1993, pgs. 164-165)
The southern colonies did not feel that their economy would continue to prosper if not for slave labor, and they felt this so strongly they threatened to not ratify the constitution if slavery was to be abolished. In trying to unify the Union, the northern colonies decided to not press the issue of abolishing slavery.
During the creation of our Constitution, delegates were concerned about how slaves should be counted in a state’s population. Since many northern states wanted to end slavery and many southern states wanted slavery to continue, a compromise needed to be reached. This compromise was that every five slaves would be counted as three people. In addition, the delegates agreed to end slave trading with other countries in 1808. (McMillan/McGraw-Hill. United States: Adventures In Time and Place, 2001, pg.351) Without this compromise, the delegates from the southern states may have left the convention and there would have been no constitution. (McMillan/McGraw-Hill. United States: Adventures In Time and Place, 2001, pg. 353)
By the middle 1800’s, the land of the United States had nearly reached its present size. However, our growing country became increasingly divided on one issue, and that was slavery. Most immigrants who came to the United States found work in shops and factories in the North, and working conditions were often unhealthy and unsafe. Cotton plantations in the South, though, produced most of the South’s wealth. It was slaves that performed the backbreaking work on these plantations.
Supporters of slavery pointed out that cotton made up about half of all the good exported from the United States. They also argued that enslaved people were better off than immigrants who worked in the North. Others people saw slavery as an unjust and terrible cruelty.
Although, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was opposed to the spread of slavery, to preserve the Union he promised to leave slavery alone where it already existed. If no new slave states were admitted to the union, however, free states would be a majority in Congress, and the South would lose its political power. If Lincoln were to be elected, some southern states threatened to secede, and upon Lincoln winning the presidency, South Carolina did, in fact, vote to secede. By March of 1861 South Carolina, along with Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas had all formed their own country called the Confederate States of America.
Division between the north and the south became so deep that another compromise could not be reached and the union was split. It was not until the Civil War began and Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that as of January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves within any state… in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforth, and forever free.” This, however, did not apply to slave states that had stayed in the Union. What had been a struggle to preserve the Union now became a battle to end slavery. (McMillan/McGraw-Hill. United States: Adventures In Time and Place, 2001, pg. 478)
Although the Civil War put an end to the debate over slavery, it did not yet make African Americans truly free. Since the Civil War, African Americans have had to fight for equal rights as whites, and prove themselves over and over again to be deserving of that equality. Since that time, our nation has been on a continuous journey for true equality for all of its people, including African Americans.