Slavery in America: Cotton, Slave Trade and the Southern Response

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  • 0:05 The Paradox of…
  • 2:50 The Spread of Slavery
  • 4:12 The Slave Trade
  • 6:31 Revolts
  • 7:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

The United Sates was conceived on the idea of freedom and the rights of all people, but early on, an institution took hold that was the exact opposite of that idea. In this lesson, find out the roots of slavery in the States, how it took hold, how slaves lived, and how they resisted the bonds of slavery.

The Paradox of American Slavery

In the great American experiment, no idea was more central than the idea of freedom. Freedom is central to the concept of the U.S. Yet, in the nation's beginning, it had an institution which was the antithesis of its primary founding principal - freedom.

Even Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness, was a slave owner. He actually wrote several items about slavery and how it didn't fit with the ideals the nation was founded on, yet he only freed two of his own slaves during his lifetime. He did, however, free five more of his slaves in his will and let three run away without pursuit. It is believed that he allowed the escapes because he may have been their father. In this lesson, we will look at the institution of slavery, including the roots of American slavery, the slave trade, life for slaves, and slave uprisings.

How did slavery take root in a free nation?

The first slaves arrived in the colonies in 1619.
First Slaves North America

Slavery has been around forever, but it wasn't a major institution at the beginning of things in the colonies. Long before African slavery came to what is today the U.S., the Portuguese and Spanish had already brought Africans to South America and Latin America. In 1619, the first Africans were brought to the colony of Jamestown by the Dutch.

Why not enslave the native population?

Native Americans were new to being exposed to European disease; they were likely to catch them. They were on their home turf and could escape more easily. They also had political allies that could fight against the slave holders.

Why did they use enslaved Africans?

Slavery had earlier taken hold in the Caribbean. It only took 2-6 weeks to get to the colonies from the Caribbean. Other factors included:

  • Experience - they had previous experience and knowledge working in sugar and rice production.
  • Immunity from diseases - they were less likely to get sick due to prolonged contact over centuries.
  • Low escape possibilities - they did not know the land, had no allies, and were highly visible because of skin color.

Early on, Africans were not seen only as slaves in the colonies. Let's look at Anthony Johnson. He was an African indentured servant brought to the colonies in the 1620s. He obtained his freedom and purchased 250 acres of land in Virginia. He was the first to hold an African slave in mainland America and had at least one white indentured servant. It was 1660 before colonists began viewing Africans as strictly slaves. In 1670, after his death, the court ruled that as a black man, Anthony was an alien and could not own land. Therefore, the land was taken by the colony.

The Spread of Slavery

How did slavery spread in the colonies?

New England colonies had no large plantations, so slaves lived in cities and on small farms. Gradually, slavery was abolished in New England. Local slavery was not integral to their economy. The Chesapeake Bay colonies had large tobacco plantations; it became the center of the domestic slave trade. The Carolinas and Georgia had large rice and cotton plantations. So, slavery became well entrenched in the lifestyle and economy there.

How did cotton become king and make slavery a major American institution?

The cotton gin, which was invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney. It made cotton the most important cash crop in the U.S. Cotton, and its reliance on slave labor, spread from Virginia to the South and West until it filled the Southern U.S.

The invention of the cotton gin created a huge demand for slave labor.
Slavery Cotton Gin

In 1860, at the height of slavery, 25% of all Southerners owned slaves. Of that 25%, 52% owned 1-5 slaves, 35% owned 6-9 slaves, 11% owned 20-99 slaves, and 1% owned 100 or more slaves. Those who owned 20 or more slaves, about 3% of the entire white population, controlled the social, political, and economic power of the South.

The Slave Trade

How did African slaves find themselves in the New World?

After capture, usually by African enemies and later African slave traders, people were packed tightly into slave ships. The death rate of the passengers was 50%. The ships followed the middle passage of the Triangle Trade.

The Triangle Trade route was the flow of raw material from American colonies to Europe followed by manufactured goods leaving Europe for African Markets. Those manufactured items were traded for enslaved Africans, who were transported on the middle passage to the American colonies.

Destination, auction, and seasoning

Most Africans landed in Brazil. Very few actually landed in North America. Slaves were auctioned off to the highest bidder, then were put through a process of 'seasoning' to get them ready for work. They learned a European language. They were given a European name and were shown work expectations.

Slaves were brought to North America in boats and sold at auctions.
Slave Auctions

How did slaves live?

Slaves could not read or write, and it was illegal for them to learn. Some did illegally, but keeping education away from a subjugated people is one big way to keep them down. The inability to write makes it difficult to organize and plan with other groups. Most slaves did have Sundays off, and they went to church. Slave holders needed slaves to stay healthy, and they needed to convince others they were godly. Giving the Sabbath off helped with both of these.

The slave codes were rules for all slaves. They included that slaves could not: leave their home without a pass, carry a weapon, gather in groups, own property, legally marry, defend themselves against a white person, or speak in court.


Slaves were often brutally punished for misbehaving. Punishments including whipping, branding, being sold, gagged, and just about any other way to inhumanely treat a person were used.

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