Slavery in America

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Slavery was practiced throughout the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and African-American slaves helped build the economic foundations of the new nation.

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 solidified the central importance of slavery to the South’s economy.

By the mid-19th century, America’s westward expansion, along with a growing abolition movement in the North, would provoke a great debate over slavery that would tear the nation apart in the bloody American Civil War (1861-65).

After 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 Africans ashore at the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, slavery spread throughout the American colonies.

Though it is impossible to give accurate figures, some historians have estimated that 6 to 7 million slaves were imported to the New World during the 18th century alone, depriving the African continent of some of its healthiest and ablest men and women.

After the American Revolution (1775-83), many colonists began to link the oppression of black slaves to their own oppression by the British, and to call for slavery’s abolition.

In 1793, a young Yankee schoolteacher named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a simple mechanized device that efficiently removed the seeds.

His device was widely copied, and within a few years the South would transition from the large-scale production of tobacco to that of cotton, a switch that reinforced the region’s dependence on slave labor.

As the West opened up, the Southern states believed they needed to keep a balance between the numbers of slave and Free states, in order to maintain a balance of power in Congress.

The new territories acquired from Britain, France, and Mexico were the subject of major political compromises.

By 1850, the newly rich cotton-growing South was threatening to secede from the Union, and tensions continued to rise.

With church ministers under pressure to preach slavery doctrine conforming to the local politics, the Baptist and Methodist churches split into regional organizations.

When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a platform of no new slave states, the South finally broke away to form the Confederacy, this marked the start of the Civil War, which caused a huge disruption of the slave economy, with many slaves either escaping or being liberated by the Union armies.

During most of the British colonial period, slavery existed in all the colonies.

People enslaved in the North typically worked as house servants, artisans, laborers and craftsmen, with the greater number in cities.

The South depended on an agricultural economy, and it had a significantly higher number and proportion of slaves in the population, as its commodity crops were labor intensive.

Early on, enslaved people in the South worked primarily in agriculture, on farms and plantations growing indigo, rice, and tobacco; cotton became a major crop after the 1790s.

The invention of the cotton gin enabled the cultivation of short-staple cotton in a wide variety of areas, leading to the development of the Deep South as cotton country.

Tobacco was very labor intensive, as was rice cultivation.

In South Carolina in 1720, about 65% of the population consisted of enslaved people.

Planters (defined by historians as those who held 20 enslaved people or more) used enslaved workers to cultivate commodity crops.

They also worked in the artisanal trades on large plantations and in many southern cities.

Backwoods subsistence farmers, the later wave of settlers in the 18th century who settled along the Appalachian Mountains and backcountry, seldom held enslaved people.