What is Slavery? - Definition & Abolition

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  • 0:00 Definition of Slavery
  • 0:42 Slavery in the United States
  • 1:26 United States Abolitionists
  • 2:25 The End of U.S. Slavery
  • 3:16 Slavery in the Constitution
  • 4:04 Learning Outcomes
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson defines slavery and discusses the battle to end it in the United States. Learn more about how slavery was abolished in America and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Slavery

Slavery is a system that includes forced labor in which people are held against their will. Slaves don't have the freedom to make decisions about their work because they are bought and sold like property. Working conditions are generally very poor for slaves and, in many cases, they are physically abused if they do not follow their owners' directions. Slaves can be men, women, and even young children. Before the United States won the Revolutionary War and was officially recognized as an independent nation in 1783, Africans were forced to come to America to work as slaves.

Slavery in the United States

Slavery was part of American society through the end of the Civil War. Slaves could be found throughout the country, but there were many more slaves in the South. Southern plantation owners and farmers relied heavily on slaves for labor and believed that they needed slaves to keep their economy strong. Crops, such as tobacco and cotton, were an important part of the Southern economy. However, they were also difficult to grow because of the number of people needed for planting and harvesting. The economy in the North relied much more on manufacturing and industry. Over time, slavery was eliminated in the North, which was made possible, in part, by the region's minimal reliance on slave labor.

United States Abolitionists

Abolitionists were both whites and African Americans who fought to end slavery. Even though they had the same goal, they did not all use the same methods. Some abolitionists, such as John Brown, believed that slavery could only be ended by force. Brown said that slavery was a violent system and that violence was needed to eliminate it. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, used his excellent speech and writing abilities to speak out against slavery. William Lloyd Garrison started an important weekly anti-slavery newspaper and founded the American Anti-Slavery Society. Harriet Tubman, also a former slave, helped other slaves using the Underground Railroad, which was a secret network that helped slaves escape to the Northern states. Regardless of the approach to ending slavery, being an abolitionist could be very dangerous, and they were often attacked by pro-slavery activists.

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