Slavery in America: Genesis, Contributions, and Issues


Slavery in America began in 1619 when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, to produce an extremely lucrative cash crop of tobacco. Soon it spread to the other American colonies and remained in practice throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. While African-American slaves helped build the economic foundations of the new nation, they played a crucial role in the economic prosperity of the American South after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793.

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). Though the Union victory freed the nation’s 4 million slaves, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history, from the tumultuous years of Reconstruction (1865–77) to the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1960s, a century after emancipation.

Why did slavery become a widespread practice and then became an institution in the USA?

Slavery as a practice and then as an institution developed in the British colonies of the Americas and then in the USA gradually over a period. In the early years of the colonial settlement of the Americas, most labourers came from Britain as indentured servants, having signed contracts of indenture to pay with work usually on a farm intending to become permanent residents. In some cases, convicted criminals were transported to the colonies as indentured servants, rather than being imprisoned. Many Germans, Scots-Irish, and Irish came to the colonies in the 18th century to avoid famines.

However, the genesis of slavery as a practice and then as an institution was the wide gap that started widening between the supply of indentured labour from Europe, and the rapidly increasing demand for the labour force to work in the cotton plantations of the southern half of American colonies. There was thus a need to find alternative sources to fill the ever-increasing gap between the supply and demand of the labour force

1. High Mortality Rate of Indentured Labour

Settlement in the British American colonies was not an easy task for indentured labour due to the extreme climate and less than satisfactory working conditions. Soon colonial officials found it difficult to attract and retain labourers under these harsh frontier conditions, and there was a high mortality rate among these indentured labourers, necessitating their replacement with African slave labour which was common all around the colonial world.

2. Better Economic Conditions in the UK

As the British Empire started expanding, particularly in Asia and Africa, economic conditions in England began to improve in the first half of the 18th century, and workers had no reason to leave, especially to face the risks in the colonies. This again resulted in a shortage of labour force in the British colonies of America

3. Introduction of Labour Intensive Crops in South

The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 enabled the cultivation of short-staple cotton in a wide variety of mainland areas, leading in the 19th century to the development of large areas of the Deep South as a cotton country. Tobacco was very labour-intensive, as was rice cultivation. In South Carolina in 1720, about 65% of the population consisted of enslaved people.

4. Conducive Environment for Slavery

Unfortunately, the prevailing socio-economic and political environment in the colonies was very conducive to the prevalence of slavery as a norm. Owning slaves was a symbol of status among the colonists who were the persecuted poor people in their home countries but were now emerging as a Nuovo rich class in the British colonies. The writ of the state, which was captured by these land and slave-owning classes, was very lax rather than encouraged slavery while the judicial system gave legal cover to the institution of slavery by sentencing African slaves who attempted to flee his service. Colony after colony enacted laws to regulate the buying selling and owning of slaves. In 1662 the Virginia royal colony approved a law adopting the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, stating that any children born in the colony would take the status of the mother. A child of an enslaved mother would be born into slavery, regardless of whether the father was a freeborn Englishman or Christian.

5. Favourable Global Environment for Slaver Trade

6. Globally slave trade was a thriving business in which the African tribal chiefs played a very crucial role by capturing people of other tribes and selling them to European buyers. Slaves were considered a perfect commodity like other commodities for international trade

What are Slavery’s Contributions to the Political Economy of the USA?

Slavery has played an extremely crucial role in the evolution of what is USA today. Besides increasing population because of high birth rates among African Americans notwithstanding their high mortality rates, it has changed the racial mix of the present American population. Now descendants of the slaves are almost 12 % of total American residents-It means every 8th USA citizen is a descendant of those Africans who was forcibly brought to the USA 200 years ago. They are responsible for the economic growth the USA had been able to achieve throughout its pre-and post-independence existence. They not only supplied the labour force but were also the consumers of these goods and services produced. Politically, they were one of the reasons for the political divide leading to the Civil War. The social divide in America is black and white instead of ethnic or tribal.

How and why Slavery was abolished?

Slavery didn’t end with the end of the Civil War; efforts to abolish it started a long time ago for multiple reasons, not all of them altruistic

1. Fear of Disruption

Fearing that the importation of slaves from Africa at a massive rate was creating social tensions in society, some of the British colonies attempted to abolish the international slave trade. Life expectancy was much higher in the U.S., and the enslaved population was successful in reproduction. The number of enslaved people in the US grew rapidly, reaching 4 million by the 1860 Census. From 1770 until 1860, the rate of natural growth of North American enslaved people was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and it was nearly twice as rapid as that of England. Thus, starting in 1786 colony after colony started banning or limiting the African slave trade.

2. Purchase of Louisiana

Louisiana founded as a French colony was purchased in 1803 by the Thirteen Colonies. Its French colonial officials had in 1724 implemented Louis XIV of France’s Code Noir, which regulated the slave trade and the institution of slavery. Consequently, it resulted in a different pattern of slavery in Louisiana. Not only a far higher percentage of African Americans in Louisiana were free, but they also were often literate, had gained education, and a considerable number owned businesses, properties, and even slaves. When the US took over Louisiana, Americans from the Protestant South entered the territory and began to impose their norms and officially discouraged interracial relationships. The Americanization of Louisiana gradually resulted in free people of colour losing status as they were grouped with the slaves. They lost certain rights as they became classified by American whites as officially “black” creating resentment among them which was instrumental in starting an underground resistance movement against slavery

3. Global Campaign against Slavery

Slavery in Great Britain had never been authorized by statute. In 1772 it was made partially unenforceable at common law in Great Britain by a legal decision although the large British role in the international slave trade continued until 1807. However, all those slave owners who were living in England were bought out in 1833 and the slaves they owned were emancipated. After Great Britain and the United States outlawed the international slave trade in 1807, British slave trade suppression activities began in 1808 through diplomatic efforts and the formation of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron. In 1842, the relationship with Britain was formalized, and the two countries jointly ran the Blockade of Africa with their navies.

4. Escapades of Slaves

American War of Independence in the 1770s provided a golden opportunity for many slaves to break the shackles of slavery. On November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation promising freedom for any slaves of American patriots who would leave their masters and join the royal forces although slaves owned by the Loyalist masters were unaffected by this proclamation. About 1500 slaves owned by the Patriots escaped and joined Dunmore’s forces. Three hundred of these freed slaves made it to freedom in Britain. Free blacks and other antislavery northerners had begun helping fugitive slaves escape from southern plantations to the North via a loose network of safe houses as early as the 1780s.

Its success helped spread abolitionist feelings in the North. Many slaves used the very disruption of war to escape their plantations and fade into cities or woods. Slaves and free blacks who fought on the side of rebels during the Revolutionary War were promised freedom by George Washington. During the war, about one-fifth of the northern army was black. By freeing some 3 million black slaves in the rebel states, the Emancipation Proclamation deprived the Confederacy of the bulk of its labour forces and put international public opinion strongly on the Union side.

5. Political Resentment of the North against Slavery

Section 2 of Article I of the American Constitution designated slaves to be added to the total of the state’s free population, at the rate of three-fifths of their total number, to establish the state’s official population for apportionment of Congressional representation and federal taxation. It became a very contentious issue as it disproportionately strengthened the political power of Southern representatives, as three-fifths of the (non-voting) slave population was counted for Congressional apportionment.

Prominent slaveholder politicians and the commodity crops of the South had a strong influence on United States politics and economy. In the 72 years between the election of George Washington and the election of Abraham Lincoln, 50 of those years had a slaveholder as president of the United States, and, for that whole period, there was never a person elected to a second term who was not a slaveholder. This increased power of southern states in Congress for decades, affecting national policies and legislation was resented by the northern political, industrial, and the commercial elite

6. Individual Enlightened Feelings

After the American Revolution (1775–83), many colonists (particularly in the North, where slavery was relatively unimportant to the economy) began to link the oppression of black slaves to their oppression by the British and to call for slavery’s abolition. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, abolitionism, a movement to end slavery, grew in strength; most abolitionist societies and supporters were in the North. They worked to raise awareness about the evils of slavery and to build support for abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was an international bestseller and aroused popular sentiment against slavery.

While many abolitionists based their activism on the belief that slaveholding was a sin, others were more inclined to the non-religious “free labour” argument, which held that slaveholding was regressive, inefficient, and made little economic sense. Barbary pirates from North Africa began to seize North American colonists as early as 1625, and roughly 700 Americans were held captive in this region as slaves between 1785 and 1815. Some captives used their experiences as North African slaves to criticize slavery in the United States, such as William Ray in his book Horrors of Slavery

What is the Post Emancipation Condition of Blacks?

The 13th Amendment, adopted late in 1865, officially abolished slavery, but freed blacks’ status in the post-war South remained precarious, and significant challenges awaited during the Reconstruction period (1865–77). Former slaves received the rights of citizenship and the “equal protection” of the Constitution in the 14th Amendment (1868) and the right to vote in the 15th (1870), but the provisions of the Constitution were often ignored or violated, and it was difficult for former slaves to gain a foothold in the post-war economy thanks to restrictive black codes and regressive contractual arrangements such as sharecropping.

Despite seeing an unprecedented degree of black participation in American political life, Reconstruction was ultimately frustrating for African Americans, and the rebirth of white supremacy–including the rise of racist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan–had triumphed in the South by 1877. Almost a century later, resistance to the lingering racism and discrimination in America that began during the slavery era would lead to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which would achieve the greatest political and social gains for blacks since Reconstruction.

What is the Significance of the issue of Slavery in America?

Slavery has played an extremely crucial role in the evolution of what is USA today. Besides increasing population because of high birth rates among African Americans notwithstanding their high mortality rates, it has changed the racial mix of the present American population. Now descendants of the slaves are almost — — — — % of total American residents-It means every — — th USA citizen is a descendant of those who was forcibly brought to the USA 200 years ago. They are responsible for the economic growth the USA had been able to achieve throughout its pre-and post-independence existence. Politically, they were one of the reasons for the political divide leading to the Civil War. The social divide in America is black and white instead of ethnic or tribal.

1. Economic Prosperity

No doubt, Colonial America and its successor the USA had been blessed by nature with unlimited resources. However, left to themselves, the colonists would never have expanded their territory or developed it the way it is now. Suffice it to say it was the sacrifices of the millions of African slaves and their offspring who made the USA the biggest economic powerhouse in the world. They not only supplied the labour force but were also the consumers of these goods and services produced.

2. Political Divide

Slavery politically divided the country into pro-slavery South and anti-slavery North. In 1850, another tenuous compromise was negotiated to resolve the question of territory won during the Mexican War. Four years later, however, the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened all new territories to slavery by asserting the rule of popular sovereignty over congressional edict, leading pro-and anti-slavery forces to battle it out (with much bloodshed) in the new state of Kansas. Outrage in the North over the Kansas-Nebraska Act spelt the downfall of the old Whig Party and the birth of a new, all-northern Republican Party

3. Social Stratification

It initially created social stratification in the society by creating slave-owning elite vs commercial middle classes. Later, this converted into a black vs white at the national level which is still the distinguishing feature of American society. Although the USA is a melting pot in which hundreds of racial and ethnic groups are losing their identities and transforming themselves into an American nation, the racial tension between whites and blacks exists in several layers. Despite all their economic mainstreaming, constitutional guarantees of equality, and other socioeconomic measures at the state level, black still feel marginalized at the personal and social levels. Their patterns of friendship reflect this division

4. Civil War

Saying that the American Civil War was fought only on the issue of slavery is a travesty of history. Like any other momentous event, it was the result of the interplay of diverse socioeconomic and political factors-long term as well as short-term. Though Lincoln’s antislavery views were well established, the central Union war aim at first was not to abolish slavery but to preserve the United States as a nation. Abolition became a war aim only later, due to military necessity, growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North, and the self-emancipation of many African Americans who fled enslavement as Union troops swept through the South. However, slavery did play a prominent part by providing an emotional, moral, and even religious underpinning to the civil war on both sides. Behind this battle cry, different parties were fighting for their vested interests.

5. Creation of the American Navy

Barbary pirates from North Africa began to seize North American colonists as early as 1625, and roughly 700 Americans were held captive in this region as slaves between 1785 and 1815. While the United States managed to secure peace treaties, these obliged it to pay tribute for protection from attack. Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of the United States government’s annual expenditures in 1800. It led directly to the creation of the United States Navy in March 1794The First Barbary War in 1801 and the Second Barbary War in 1815 led to more favourable peace terms ending the payment of tribute.

6. Marginalisation of African-Americans

Across the South, white legislatures enacted harsh new laws to curtail the already limited rights of African Americans. Virginia prohibited blacks, free or slave, from practising preaching, prohibited blacks from owning firearms, and forbade anyone to teach slaves or free blacks how to read. It specified heavy penalties for both students and teachers if slaves were educated, including whippings or jail. Every assemblage of black for instruction in reading or writing, or in the nighttime for any purpose, was declared as an unlawful assembly.

Any justice could issue his warrant to any office or other person, requiring him to enter any place where such assemblage was, and seize any negro therein; and he, or any other justice, could order such could be punished with stripes. This deprivation for blacks is still adversely affecting the economic empowerment of blacks in the USA forcing a significant minority of them to adopt illegal means to earn their livelihoods; some have joined armed gangs to express their frustration. That’s why most of the prison population in the USA comprises blacks.

Was Slavery an American Economic Engine? Contrary View

Whether slavery in the U.S., while morally wrong, was nonetheless an “economically productive” practice that helped form the foundation of American capitalism.

Positive Effects of Slavery

  1. Slavery generated substantial wealth for its practitioners. The income generated by enslaved labour was much higher than its financial costs. This difference is estimated to have been $4 billion as of 1860. Annual expected returns were 7% to 10% per year, which would be an impressive performance even today.

Negative Effects of Slavery

Yet such assessments of efficiency and productivity consider only the perspective of the enslavers.

  1. Emotional Costs: Any proper analysis should include, for example, the emotional pain of being torn away from one’s family. It should recognize the pervasive coercion — even outside of work hours — required to maintain the high output of enslaved people, who produced in 35 minutes what their free northern counterparts did in an hour.


Debates about the role of slavery in American political and economic development reveal that emancipation didn’t destroy an efficient system and lead to economic decline. On the contrary: Freedom, which for too many remains elusive, is the engine of economic growth.



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