Slavery in Early America: Characteristics & Opposition

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  • 0:03 Early America
  • 0:34 Origins of American Slavery
  • 3:10 Growth of American Slavery
  • 5:03 Rising Tensions Over Slavery
  • 7:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The institution of slavery in early America was a source of both economic profits and divisive tensions. It began as a peculiar institution of colonial society and blossomed into a sectional issue that threatened to destroy the young United States.

Early America

When the first settlers arrived on the shores of North America, they found a vast continent that was free of European institutions. Over time, as the European presence increased, new traditions began and flourished in the colonies of Great Britain. One of those imported institutions was slavery, something that began primarily in the Southern colonies in the late 1600s. Let's learn more about the presence, growth and characteristics of slavery in early American history.

Origins of American Slavery

Much of the early settlement of the United States was driven by issues, such as religious freedom and striving for economic success. Many settlers to the British colonies in North America sought a better life and were of varying social classes and economic backgrounds, meaning that some who settled in the Americas were better off than others. As a result, the practice of indentured servitude, where an individual would act as a servant for a period of time to either pay off a debt or earn money or land, was widespread in early settlements. This was one way for some to finance their journey to the New World. Yet, with the introduction of slavery, indentured servitude began to fade away.

The characteristics of slavery in early Colonial America were both similar and different from indentured servitude. The obvious similarity was that both practices saw someone of a lower social class serving someone of a higher class. However, slavery was very different in many ways. Most notably, slavery was involuntary, hereditary and lifelong: you couldn't earn your way out of slavery, and the servitude was passed through generations, as your children would be slaves as well. Additionally, slaves were generally brought in from faraway places, such as Africa, meaning that slaves were of a different race and nationality than those whom they served.

Despite these racial differences, early slavery began largely as an economic institution. Colonists in early America needed labor to produce an economic profit. In the Southern colonies, the need was much greater, as the climate and region was much more suited to rice, cotton and other staple crops that required a large workforce. Slavery still existed in the Northern colonies but to a much lesser degree than in the South. Throughout the 1600s and into the 1700s, slavery grew in strength in the colonies, as it was increasingly given legal protection.

Slavery continued to grow in the British colonies because of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which transported African slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, where many of them worked hard labor on sugar plantations. The conditions in the Caribbean were horrible, and many slaves who remained there died of disease. Of those slaves who were brought to the American colonies, the population was able to grow on its own, as the slaves did not die as quickly from disease and terrible work conditions.

Growth of American Slavery

The most significant contribution to slavery in Early America came from an invention. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, revolutionizing how cotton was grown, picked and sold, making it much more profitable than before. The cotton gin worked to separate cotton from its seeds, allowing it to be processed much quicker, and thus, it enabled farmers and plantation owners to grow and sell cotton with a much greater profit. This only further cemented slavery's place in the South, as it added a greater economic benefit to an already profitable institution.

With the American Revolution, great changes came to North America. The British colonies became states and an American nation. Whereas the years leading up to the Revolution saw slavery gaining increasingly greater legal protection in the South, the institution became weaker in the North as abolitionists, who sought to end slavery, began to grow in number and Northern states began passing laws to either restrict or abolish slavery. This early abolition movement was rooted in religious groups, mostly located in the North.

The U.S. Constitution, the central document of the United States government, afforded a few protections for slavery, such as permitting the slave trade to continue at least another 20 years, protecting the right of slave owners to reclaim fugitive slaves and declaring that slaves counted as property and would represent three-fifths of a person for census and representation purposes in Congress. Yet, in the years after the Constitution, with the cotton gin and the rise of cotton profits, the South clung to slavery more than ever while numerous Northern states were abolishing it.

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