The History of Slavery in the United States

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Slavery can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss being that it is one of the worst forms of exploitation ever experienced in the history of America, but it is part of the American History that is the very backbone of what we will call the United States of America. The study of slavery in America is the central topic in this paper. Despite the fact that it the process of slavery was not good, America would not be what it is today. This paper will use numerous sources among them journals, textbooks, and reliable websites so that a clear understanding of the topic can be made. The paper will consider what slavery came to be, how and why it left and the kind of influence it left behind.


The United States was not the first country to use slavery to get ahead. "African slave trade long proceeded European settlement in the new world."The Spanish and Portuguese too depended on slavery. "West Africans were selling slaves to traders from the Mediterranean and Portuguese as early as the eighteenth century. In the sixteenth century, the market for slave increased dramatically as a result of the growing European demand for sugar cane. At first, the Portuguese were the primary slave traders until the Dutch won control over the market in the seventeenth century, then later in the eighteenth century, the English took over. Slavery spread like a virus far beyond its origins by 1700s in the Caribbean and South America and into the English colonies. Slavery has affected the United States from the early 1600s and its impacts are still felt today. Whether it is something as simple as the food we consume or the music we listen to, or something serious as the strong racism instilled in our society still 153 years later, it affects us hence making it a relevant topic. This study will cover the impact of the introduction of slavery and the way it came to be in the United States, the people who fought against slavery such as Abraham Lincoln, and the awful racism and culture brought to the country partly due to slavery influencing the society.

How slavery came to the United States

Slavery derived essentially from the failure of indentured servants and the increasing demands for sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Indentured servants are people who sell themselves willingly into what is considered as a slave for a temporary amount of time that is, about four to seven years in exchange of money, land, and passage to the New World. Indentured servitude appeared in Virginia by 1620. It was initially used to transport European workers to the new world. Over time, indentured servitude became an essential part of the new world's economy and society, it is estimated that between one half and two-thirds of the white immigrants who came to the British colonies in the 1630s came under the indenture.

The Virginia colony was an economic success built on tobacco which was a labor-intensive crop. The demand for tobacco grew immensely leading masters to treating indentured servants harshly, only caring if they lived through the years left in their contracts, “and thus worked them from “can” (can see or sunrise) to “can’t (can’t see or sundown)”, leading to a rebellious behavior from the indentured servants. Furthermore, servants began running away from their masters, causing a problem with production. It costs a great deal of money for the masters to have bounty hunters attempt to catch the indentured servants, therefore some masters would just let them go depending on the number of years left on the servant’s contract. This set up just was not working anymore as demands grew. Servants, after finishing their sentences, were left poor and homeless, begging and stealing.

The European settlers built their society on the back of suppressing and exploiting the Natives as much as possible, ultimately leading to the Bacon’s Rebellion. Sir William Berkley, the governor of Virginia dominated politics for more than thirty years. During his time as governor, he crushed an Indian uprising in 1644, leading the defeated natives to agree to a treaty, handling over territory east of the mountains to England and established a boundary west of the mountains in which settlement was prohibited[1]. Virginia's population grew and by 1652 settlers established three countries in the territory set aside for the Indians. By 1670, the vote for delegates to the House of Burgesses was now restricted to landowners. Resentment for the governor grew in the newly settled land of the west, creating conflict led by Nathanial Bacon. Bacon asked the Berkley to send militia to when fighting between west settlers and natives increased. Berkley refused so Bacon gathered an army of backcountry men and launched unsuccessful pursuits of the natives. The Berkley called Bacon a rebel, leading to bacon Turing his forces to the Berkley. Bacon drove the governor into exile and then suddenly died of dysentery. The rebellion "revealed the bitterness of the completion of rival white elites"as well as making the elites "recognize the common interest in quelling social unrest from below. That was among the reasons that they increased African Slave Trade to fulfill their need for labor. African slaves did not need to be released after a fixed term hence did not threaten to become an unstable, landless class.

How and why slavery left

It did not take long before slavery begun to be condemned in the United States of America. American Colonization Society (ACS) is remembered for fighting for the abolition of slavery in the states of America since it was against the human rights and it lowered the human dignity. ACS was formed in 1816 by Robert Finley and it fought for the migration of free African Americans to the African continent. This society faced opposition from some African Americans such as James Forten and David Walker who perceived colonization as a way of protecting slavery and taking away the blacks who were born in the United States. The likes of James Forten and David Walker preferred equal rights at home rather than being transported back to Africa[2]. However, ACS got support from some religious movements and missionary efforts. A major problem during this time was diseases of which the Liberian immigrants were the most affected as they recorded the highest mortality rates inaccurately recorded human history. It is recorded that out of the 4,571 emigrants who were fled to Liberia between 1820 and 1843, only 1,819 survived.

The evangelists and Quakers supported the abolition of slavery and they believed that Africans were more comfortable in their continent that in a foreign land. Some slaveholders in the Maryland branch interpreted repatriation as one way of removing free blacks to avoid a rebellion by slaves. The American Colonization Society was supported mainly by slave owners in the region of Virginia. Additionally, American presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison also supported this society. Their support was felt in 1821 when those slaves who faced legislation restrictions in the United States were moved to Liberia. About twenty years thereafter, the colony of Liberia continued to grow and gained economic stability and in 1847, the colony was declared an independent state by the legislature of Liberia. The ACS was largely involved in the development of Liberia until the declaration of independence. By 1867, about 13,000 African Americans were assisted by the ACS to migrate to Liberia.

The American Civil War also explains the process and reasons behind the end of slavery. The American Civil War began in 1861 leading to an end of chattel slavery in the United States. It did not take long before the war sprout, through acceptable maneuver to Union General Benjamin Butler; the slaves who came into the Union “possession” were regarded as not suitable in the war. General Butler, a profession lawyer, commanded that they were not to return to Confederate owners as they have been prior to the outbreak of the war[3]. The result of this was that many slaves sought refuge in the territory of the Union and they wanted to be termed as contraband. Several other contrabands joined the Union Army to act as troops or workers. Other slaves sought refuge in camps such as the Grand Contraband Camp while others chose to flee to northern cities. The interpretation of General Butler was embarked when the congress legalized the Confiscation Act of 1861 which stated that any property in use by the Confederate military slaves inclusive could be confiscated by the forces of the union.

When the war began, some commanders of the war thought that they were supposed to report back the slaves that had escaped to their owners. However, by 1862, the war seemed to take long and now the big question was how to deal with the slaves. It has to be noted that slavery supported the southern economy and the military effort. Now, it became hard to protect the slaves because of their associated benefits while blockading Southern commerce and destroying production in the South[4]. The confusion led to George W. Julian, a congressman to remove a speech in 1862 in which he was recorded saying that slaves cannot be neutral, they are either laborers or soldiers because if they are left neutral, they will be allies of the rebels or of the union[5]. Julian together with other Radical Republicans pressured Lincoln to quickly emancipate the slaves. On the other hand, moderate Republicans supported gradual, compensated emancipation and colonization.

Important to note is that as a result of the Union Measures such as the Confiscation Acts and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slavery was put to an end by the war. Abolition of slavery was effective with the end of the American Civil War. The war officially ended in 1865 and the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted in other regions of the South that still held slaves as captives. For a couple of months, slavery continued in other locations in America and this led to federal troops to land in Texas in June 1865 to enforce the emancipation.

The Thirteenth Amendment which abolished slavery although allowed it only to be used as punishment was passed by the Senate in April 1864 and later by the House of Representatives in January 1865. However, the amendment was not effective until it gained a three-quarter support of the states which took place on December 6, 1865, upon ratification by Georgia. On this date, all the remaining slaves were officially declared free. This means that the slaves in West Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Washington, Kansas, Tennessee, Delaware, and other regions were officially declared legally free. Not all slave owners were satisfied with this move of the abolition of slavery. Some as the American historian R.R. Palmer suggests argued that abolition of slavery without compensation to their legal owners was a violation of individual property rights and hence they needed a form of compensation. However, other historians such as Robert E Right suggest that it would be economically cheap given that there are minimal cases of deaths if the federal government had purchased and set free all slaves. Whichever the argument that may have erupted after the abolition of slavery, what remains clear is that the act is a total violation of human rights that cannot be compensated with any material or monetary goods.

African influence

Slave trade had a lot of influence in the way of life of Africans. First, slavery had an influence on African music. Slave trade led to a meeting between two music traditions and it was a basis for Afro-Americans religious songs and music. In captivity, the slaves were allowed by their supervisors to sing. This is because the singing made them overcome the monotony in the work out hence raising the work ethic. The plantation songs are said to have begun in this manner. The work out songs functioned as stimulants and at the same time, they functioned as a means of communication[6]. Through the songs, the slaves learned about topical occurrences, narratives and the gospel that is, the word of God. These work songs became common among the Blacks in America and they are the foundation of what is now known as the Afro American music. Another consideration is ring-shouts which were a West-African music tradition that was common in the new country. The rhythms and free display of ring-shouts gave a new insight into the American music and they still exist in some parts of the United States.

The spirituals and calypso also became popular as a result of the slave trade. Quite interesting to note is that the meeting between West-African and American music happened in Cuba and Bahama-islands and as a result of the meeting, there was the emergence of a new form of Negroid religious songs on Bahama-islands and Jamaica. These songs are normally sung on Pidgin-English and they mostly have social and political themes. Negro spirituals are almost the same class as jazz music which is the most familiar form of black music. These songs included the Africans' religious beliefs and they became tools of showing the world the horrible situation that Africans were undergoing in slavery. The African Gospel music is also a product of the slave trade. The gospel music started in a religious environment in the African churches and quickly the songs gained popularity. Gospel songs have their roots in the Negro spirituals, folk hymns, jubilee songs, and blues. However, the gospel existed even before the Africans started incorporating it into their cultures. These songs were unique because their text and melody were self-composed, they included aspects of harmony, they were solely written in major tones and they were accompanied by instruments. The instruments used were guitars, trumpets and drums and their creation were spontaneous.

The slave trade also had an influence on food. Salve ship cargoes transported crops from Africa to North America so that the enslaved Africans would consume when they were in the process of transportation. These crops later came to gain popularity on the American diet because they were rich in some nutrients. They included rice, oak, Tania and black-eyed peas. Cassava, yams and lima beans were largely grown in Africa and they were also introduced in America due to slavery. These crops were associated with Africans because they were their stable food. For instance, yams were the Africans’ staple food and they were fed to enslaved Africans. The Whites gained interest in these foods and they started planting some in the plantations. A good example is black-eyed peas which were used as slave foods as they were fed to enslaved Africans in the Caribbean[7]. This crop was easily cultivated as a basic food and its cultivation spread far and it reached Florida in 1700. Due to its popularity, it was introduced in the tables of Whites and Blacks in North Carolina in the 1730s.

Africans on the other hand also benefited from the slave trade as they changed their eating habits. From the West Coast of Africa, the slaves came back with a variety of foods across the ocean. Some Africans had gained experience in cooking or preparing delicious meals by adding ingredients that reflect the American diet. Those Africans who were forced to live with their masters and prepare for them meals were able to create foods that blended the African and American culture so that it could be tasty. When they were set free, they came back home with these cooking skills. Also, Africans gained insight on how to cultivate crops. For example, Africans learned that some crops needed to be cultivated in plenty that is, large-scale farming and not subsistence farming. Food farming was now done with a commercial motive and not a domestic motive as most Africans did before.

The most affected part of Africans as far as slave trade is concerned is their culture. The negative impacts of the slave trade on African culture outdo the positive impacts. Slavery tore African families apart and many families lost their young members to the trade. Those who were captured were the energetic youths who played significant roles in their communities. The method of capturing slaves that were used also destroyed the relationship between different ethnic groups and kingdoms as one kingdom could be used to raid another kingdom and acquire slaves hence creating enmity between the ethnic groups and kingdoms. Also, depopulation of the African continent had a negative impact on culture. The people who were captured could have performed several roles in the community. The trade ensures that there is a loss of many artisans, philosophers, traders and skilled laborers who were beneficial in their communities[8]. This resulted in a slow economic and cultural growth hence the growth of the existing population was hindered. It is vital to note that younger and stronger people were the most involved in slavery hence their opportunity to raise children of their own and in the context of the culture was damaged.


As seen, the slave trade may have benefited the Americans but its consequences were negative. African slaves were the most involved in this trade as they were shipped from their continent to America to work as laborers in plantations and industries. Their stay in the foreign land was not interesting as they underwent severe torture in form of beatings, poor feeding, rape, and even murder. Through the efforts of some societies such as the American Colonization Society and other activists, there was the abolition of the slave trade. The impacts the slavery had on the Americans and Africans are still felt today.


Carrington, Selwyn H. H. The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1775-1810. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003.

DeCorse, Christopher R. West Africa During the Atlantic Slave Trade: Archaeological Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. ACLS Humanities E-Book. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.

Linderman, Gerald. Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War. Free Press, 2014.

Long, Lisa A. Rehabilitating Bodies Health, History, and the American Civil War. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Morgan, Philip D. "The cultural implications of the Atlantic slave trade: African regional origins, American destinations, and new world developments."Slavery & Abolition 18, no. 1 (2013), 122-145.

Nunn, Nathan. "The Long-Term Effects of Africa's Slave Trades*."Quarterly Journal of Economics 123, no. 1 (2008), 139-176. doi:10.1162/qjec.2008.123.1.139.

Richardson, David, and Stephen D. Behrendt. "The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History Revised edition."History 92, no. 305 (2007). doi:10.1111/j.1468-229x.2007.388_11. X.

[1] Nathan Nunn, "The Long-Term Effects of Africa's Slave Trades*,"Quarterly Journal of Economics

123, no. 1 (2008): xx, doi:10.1162/qjec.2008.123.1.139.

[2] David Richardson and Stephen D. Behrendt, "The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History Revised edition,"History 92, no. 305 (2007): xx, doi:10.1111/j.1468-229x.2007.388_11. x.

[3] Lisa A Long, Rehabilitating Bodies Health, History, and the American Civil War (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 97.

[4] Philip D. Morgan, "The cultural implications of the Atlantic slave trade: African regional origins, American destinations and new world developments,"Slavery & Abolition 18, no. 1 (2013): 128.

[5] Gerald Linderman, Embattled Courage: The Experience of Combat in the American Civil War (Free Press, 2014), 117.

[6] Christopher R DeCorse, West Africa During the Atlantic Slave Trade: Archaeological Perspectives

(London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016), 64.

[7] Christopher Ehret, The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 (ACLS Humanities E-Book. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 218.

[8] Selwyn H. H Carrington, The Sugar Industry and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1775-1810

(Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2003), 1175.

November 24, 2023


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