United States, Overview of American Slavery (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The study of slavery in the United States is particularly difficult. One finds it horrifying to think of their family members considered no more than property, their lives worth only an appraised or taxable monetary value. But this is the world that the African American genealogist will enter, and be forced to confront, in the quest to learn more of their ancestors’ lives. Knowledge of the history of American slavery will provide the necessary context to successfully research within this era.

The use of African slaves by Europeans began shortly after the Spanish and Portuguese explorations of the western coast of Africa in the 15th century. These explorers traded European goods for slaves held by the dominant tribes on the African coast. As the European presence in the Caribbean grew, the slave trade grew with it, as did the importation of African slaves into the Caribbean sugar plantations.

When the British colony of Jamestown was established in 1607, the British began to transfer their system of slavery from their own Caribbean colonies to the new American colonies. The hardships encountered during the founding of these settlements in the relative wilderness resulted in a sparse free working force. During the first several decades, therefore, both black and white laborers were brought into the North American colonies under a system of indentures, whereby they worked under a master for a given period of time. Midway through the seventeenth century, though, African slaves began to be viewed as slaves for life, probably due to both racial and religious prejudice.

By 1700, the British transatlantic slave trade developed into one part of the so-called Triangle Trade. This trade consisted of three parts, as its name suggests: Trade goods from Europe were sent to Africa and traded with the native Africans there for slaves; the slaves were sent to North America and Caribbean plantations where they were used to produce sugar, cotton, and other American commodities; and finally, these commodities were sent to Europe for consumption there. The transport of the slaves from Africa to the Americas is what is called the Middle Passage.

Triangle Trade


“Triangle_trade2.png,” image, Wikimedia Commons  Used under Creative Commons license.

During the eighteenth century, a divide grew between the northern and southern colonies. For several reasons, large plantations developed more prominently in the south than in the north, where small farms were more dominant and international commerce began to grow. The southern colonies thus became more reliant on slave labor and commercial agriculture, and the northern colonies became less so.

By the time the American Revolution started, there was a dramatic difference between northern and southern cultures with regard to slavery. An abolitionist movement began to develop in the north, with some of the northern colonies moving toward abolition of slavery altogether. On the other hand, due to the growing demand for southern goods, several slave-trading companies were located in New England, serving as a domestic substitute for Europe’s traditional role in the Triangle Trade—though this role was still dominated by foreign companies.

As mentioned, though, attitudes toward slavery were beginning to change. Even some southerners felt that slavery was immoral, though it was a purely hypothetical objection. Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, listed among King George’s sins the dependence of the south on the institution of slavery, in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence that was not ratified.

During the Revolution, both slaves and free people of color served in the military. In some cases, slaves who participated were rewarded with their freedom. Beyond this, several colonies began passing laws either immediately or gradually abolishing slavery altogether, beginning with Vermont, which abolished slavery in 1777. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island followed, enacting laws of gradual emancipation over the next decade.

After the colonies achieved their freedom from English rule, during the development of the Constitution, debates ensued over the status of African Americans and the slave trade. In the end, compromises were made, and the Constitution mentioned these issues in several provisions.

The most famous of these provisions was the 3/5 Clause. Discussing how the population of each state was to be determined for purposes of congressional representation and taxation, the Constitution instructed to add, “to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” In other words, each slave was counted as three-fifths of a person.

Another of the provisions included in the Constitution guaranteed the right to repossess runaway or fugitive slaves. A few years later, in 1793, Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act, which provided the mechanism for the enforcement of this right. This act made it legal to pursue runaway slaves across state lines, and created penalties for both runaway slaves and any free man—black or white—who aided their escape.

A final provision included in the Constitution prevented the U.S. Congress from making any laws banning or abolishing the slave trade until 1808.

The 1790 federal census, the first under the auspices of the U.S. Constitution, reported a total population of almost four million people. Of these, there were almost 700,000 slaves reported, and only about 60,000 “other free people,” a designation that counted both free African Americans and native Americans.

The cotton gin was invented in 1793. Often touted as the first step toward the later industrialization of the United States, the cotton gin also served to increase the hold of slavery in the south. By automating the processing of cotton, the gin allowed more cotton to be processed in a shorter amount of time. The higher output of cotton broadened its market, thus widening its demand. In order to meet the increased demand, southern slave owners began importing more slaves from the north and east, and working them much harder. “King Cotton,” as it was called, ruled the south.

On 1 January 1808, the U.S. Congress banned the importation of slaves. And yet, over the ensuing decades, the number of slaves in the south did not decrease. Through natural means and trade with the northern states that were slowly abolishing slavery, the supply of new slaves continued to grow exponentially. There was also no shortage of unscrupulous ship owners, who continued to smuggle new slaves from Africa into the United States. Federal criminal courts record prosecutions for the illicit slave trade up through the advent of the Civil War.

By 1819, the number of “free states” that had already abolished slavery and “slave states” that had not was balanced. This era was also a period of expansion westward for the United States. As new territories were settled and organized into new states, the growing political strength of northern abolitionists brought the issue of slavery in these new states to the forefront. In 1820, Congress passed the “Missouri Compromise.” This act created a division on the 36th parallel: states admitted south of this line would allow slavery; states north of it would not. A Second Missouri Compromise was enacted the following year, by which Missouri, which was north of this parallel, was admitted as a slave state, and Maine was admitted as a free state.

These compromises did not end the debate over slavery, however. After the defeat of Mexico in the Mexican-American War, and the ensuing U.S. control over new territory such as California and New Mexico, another compromise was negotiated. The “Compromise of 1850” enacted a series a bills whereby

  1. California was admitted to the Union as a free state;
  2. Texas received compensation for relinquishing their claim to land west of the Rio Grand, in what became New Mexico;
  3. the New Mexico Territory would enter the Union without designation as a free state or a slave states;
  4. the domestic slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia; and
  5. a new Fugitive Slave Law was passed, requiring all U.S. citizens to aid in returning runaway slaves, regardless of the legality of slavery in the particular state.

Other compromises also addressed the “slavery issue,” but none was able to hold off the coming tragedy.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.