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The Evolution of American Slavery Essay

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Updated: Apr 15th, 2019

This paper aims to discuss the evolution of such social phenomenon as slavery in the United States. In particular, it is necessary to explain why it became associated primarily with black people. Secondly, we need to show how it changed with time passing and how slaves tried to cope with this experience.

Overall, it is possible for us to advance a thesis that the origins of black slavery should be sought in the economic development of American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and especially the fact that it was based on agriculture.

First, we need to need say that the first colonizers, who settled in North America, were most engaged in the production and export of coffee, sugar, cotton, and tobacco as the climate and soil of those lands was perfectly suitable for these crops (Foner, 22). These activities required cheap labor force, and the easiest way to procure these workers was to bring slaves from Africa. One should bear in mind that slavery existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans.

More importantly, human trafficking was a common source of income for many people (Foner, 22). This is the key reason why slavery is now associated mostly with black people. It has to be admitted that there were also the so-called white slaves: they were mostly British or German people, who were forced to work for a planter, but they had a right to ransom themselves out slavery, whereas African people were not allowed to do that.

Some Indian Americans were also enslaved but such cases were not very widespread especially in comparison with the number of black slaves. The key reason is that Indians were perceived as a different race, but not an inferior one. Apart from that, European colonizers were reluctant to come into conflict with them as they could put up a violent resistance, whereas Black people did not have such an opportunity.

Secondly, one should not overlook racial and religious prejudices against African slaves, especially in the seventeenth century. They were regarded as subhuman individuals or at least someone, who was inferior to Europeans (Foner, 132). The very ideology of slavery was based on the premise that Africans were created to serve superior races, i.e. Europeans. Certainly, there were intellectuals, who objected to this standpoint, but they were not numerous at least at that time.

The abolitionist movement intensifies only in the early years of the nineteenth century when industrial revolution was already under way and there was no need so slave labor. Thus, political and social views of that period linked slavery with a particular race.

Having no civil rights, black slaves could not protect themselves from the cruelty of their owners. Therefore, they tried to work ways of shielding themselves against this injustice. There were two forms of such resistance: passive and active ones. As far as passive resistance was concerned, we need to say that African slaves found consolation in their language and culture (Foner, 143). For example, they spoke Gullah[1], and built houses that resembled their own homes in Africa.

However, the key issue is that they began to live in very small and secluded communities, to which slave-owners did not have access. Religion and especially Christianity also helped them to guard themselves against their oppressors. To a large extent, it gave them a spiritual comfort or the belief that in the afterlife there will be no suffering. Apart from that, it gave them hope that sometime they would manage to break free (Foner, 417).

It should be mentioned that life of urban and rural slaves was different. Those slaves, who lived in villages, were forced to work in very harsh working conditions; their work was based mostly on backbreaking physical labor. In contrast, urban slaves often worked as craftsmen who had to possess well-developed technical skills (Foner, 412). Again, we need to stress an idea that that industrial revolution made the slave labor less necessary.

For example, such inventions as spinning wheel or steam engine helped to reduce the number of workforce, needed for the same task. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the US cities became more industrialized and as a result, the living conditions of many slaves improved. Certainly, they had to give their wages to their holders but they acquired a higher degree of independence (Foner, 412). Overall, one can argue that the industrial revolution undermined the very institution of slavery.

When discussing passive resistance of African slaves, one should not overlook the works of such intellectuals as Olaudah Equiano, Ignatious Sancho or Frederick Douglass, all of whom we once slaves but managed to regain their freedom. The books and articles, written by these people emphasized the cruelty of slavery and it’s brutal nature (Foner, 428). They showed that African people have the same feelings, emotions and needs as Europeans do.

One should not assume that culture, language, and family were the only means of resistance to slavery; as in many cases it took more active forms. We can mention Turner’s rebellion that broke out in Virginia. In 1831, Nat Turner[2] and his followers revolted against their owners and killed more than sixty white people (Foner, 421). One can as well remember German Coast uprising that took place in 1811 and left two slave-owners dead.

Naturally, each of these insurgencies was suppressed and those, who had been responsible for them, were executed. Nonetheless, they clearly illustrated an idea that slavery ownership could not remain unpunished and that a constantly suppressed person was rather likely to strike back. These revolts contributed to a shift in the public opinion: American society understood that slavery had to be abolished; otherwise it would lead to relentless feud between black and white people.

Attempts to escape from slavery were another form of active resistance. According to the rough estimations, at least one thousand people managed to reach the Northern states or even Canada (Foner, 419). This also greatly intensified the movement of abolitionism. On the whole, this active and passive resistance of African slaves culminated into the American Civil War which completely uprooted the institution of slavery.

As we can see, such phenomenon as black slavery came into existence due to several economic, political, religious and philosophical factors. Despite the fact that it was full abolished in 1865, it left an indelible trace in the memory of American people and the process of American Reconstruction that began after the Civil War, still goes on.

Works Cited

Foner Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History. NY W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.


  1. The language that combined dialects of several African languages along with English. The majority of white people could not understand it
  2. A slave, who despite his social status, received good education
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