Slavery: An American Institution

Slavery is a dark stain on America’s past. The “peculiar institution” lasted far longer in the United States than it did elsewhere in the world, and became solidly entrenched in American politics, culture, and economics during the first century of America’s existence. From the time the union was formed, slavery was a contentious issue that created sectionalism. While several northern states limited

or banned slavery altogether, the southern states held tight to the institution. Slaveholding states resisted all attempts by the federal government to impose rules or injunctions. Regional differences between slaveholding and free states directly led to the Civil War in the 1860s. Yet the legacy of slavery lived on long after the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified after the end of the war in 1865, abolished slavery for good. The 14th and 15th Amendments then guaranteed freed slaves citizenship, equal protection under the law, and for males, the right to vote. However, slavery had created an epidemic of racism that continues to haunt American society.

A ban on slave importation was set for 1808 at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, essentially extending the international slave trade another twenty years. By this early point in American history, slavery had not yet become as contentious an issue as it would several decades later, especially after religious revivalist movement called the Great Awakening swept through the nation. Moreover, European nations one by one abolished the trade, setting the stage for an eventual international moratorium. While the Americans attempted to enslave the Native Americans, ultimately most slaves in the United States were of African descent. The three-fifths rule was one of the initial compromises made at the Constitutional Convention, a compromise that illustrated the extent of sectionalism and the peculiar politics of slavery. For political and tax reasons, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a free man. Thus, while slavery was definitely an economic issue, it was also a politically-charged one, even before 1800. Fugitive slave laws, proportionate representation in congress, the Electoral College, control over trade, control over slave rebellions, and federalism were all political issues that were related to slavery.

In 1790, the first American census was taken, revealing that 757,000 blacks resided in the United States, about 19-20 percent of the total population. Of these African slaves, only 8 or 9 percent were free. Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were among the earliest states to abolish slavery. Traditionally, the former English colonies, which became the New England states, were anti-slavery, whereas the Southern agricultural states which had fewer ties to the mother country, maintained their way of life. Especially after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, slave-owning was a hugely profitable enterprise for the plantation owner. Raw materials like cotton and tobacco grown in the south would be shipped to the northern states and to Europe. Thus, even though many of the northern states had abolished slavery, their economy was indirectly linked to the “peculiar institution.” Virginia had the most slaves of any other state. From 1756 till 1790, Virginia had actually doubled its slave population from 100,000 to 200,000. More than half of all persons of African descent lived in Virginia or Maryland by the 1790s (Becker). In contrast, some New England states like New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont, had no slaves on record.

The abolitionist movement began in the eighteenth century. One of the first known formal abolitionist societies was founded in Philadelphia by a freedman named Richard Allen. The Free African Society was one of Allen’s projects; the other was the African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the first fully African-American churches that responded to the ban on blacks in some “white” churches. Even among southerners, abolitionism went hand-in-hand with religion, even though many slave owners defended the “peculiar institution” by referring to the Bible. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention of 1845 publicly proclaimed that slavery was a Biblically-sanctioned practice, a view that was not universally shared among American Baptist societies and was expressly opposed by Baptists in the American north. The first Great Awakening in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries became a harbinger of the later, more vocal and radical abolitionist movements. The Maryland Abolition Society was another early abolitionist group. Some abolitionist movements espoused violent means to obtain full freedom for slaves, and John Brown is one of the most notorious advocates of radical means.

In 1817, a group of wealthy white males founded the American Colonization Society (ACS). The ACS had an abolitionist platform but a fundamentally racist agenda. While the main objective of the ACS was to eventually free the slaves, members also wanted to deport all blacks to an African colony. Called Liberia after the Latin word for “free,” the colony was created by the ACS for the express purpose of creating a second exodus of freed slaves, many of whom were born on American soil. Some members of the ACS might have been more staunch abolitionists, but for the most part the ACS feared that freed slaves would incite rebellions and not integrate well into mainstream American society. The ACS was a highly controversial organization that was opposed by both pro- and anti-slavery elements.

Slave revolts and rebellions were an integral part of the movement toward abolition. Denmark Vesey’s Uprising in 1822 was one of the larger early uprisings. Although many uprisings like his failed, they drew attention to the slave trade and exposed its cruelty. A more successful uprising was Nat Turner’s 1831 Revolt. However, notorious revolts like these resulted in backlash, as slave owners only became crueler, instating ever tighter rules and restrictions on their slaves to prevent future rebellions. Moreover, the fugitive slave laws became a major federal political issue.

Life for freed slaves and free blacks in the north was mostly better than life in shackles in the south. However, free blacks contended with racial prejudice and poverty. Many African-Americans fought in wars like the War of 1812 but were still not permitted to participate in politics. Through writing and subversive nonviolent political activity, many freed slaves and free blacks propelled the Underground Railroad, organized rebellions, and otherwise contributed to the abolitionist movement. Among whites, religious women tended to be among the most outspoken of abolitionists. Radical abolitionists generally called for a total and immediate emancipation for all slaves throughout all states. More temperate minds noted the rampant sectionalism that was driving apart the United States.

Sectionalism culminated in the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. When the Union succeeded and Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were freed on the books. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1865, ending the practice of slavery. The South responded through so-called Black Codes, which caused Congress to pass the 14th Amendment in 1868. The 14th Amendment reversed the Dred Scott decision and extended equal protection to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” Still, private organizations were permitted to discriminate and then Plessy versus Ferguson made segregation legal. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1870, stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In response to the 15th Amendment, systematic attempts to prevent blacks from voting ranged from radical intimidation a la KKK to poll taxes. Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and even decades after, blacks in the United States still suffered from diminished political and economic representation.

Works Cited

Alvarez, Carlos. “Anti-slavery Movement: American Colonization Society.” Online at <>.
Becker, Eddie. “Chronology on the History of Slavery and Racism.” 1999. Online at <>.
“Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period.” African American Odyssey. Online at <>.
“History of Slavery in the United States.” Online at <>.
Lee, R. “The History Guy: Slave Rebellions and Uprisings in the U.S.” 2001. Online at .