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Slavery The fact that slavery should exist in the United States was an anomaly, for the law of England when the colonies were planted recognized neither chattel slavery nor villeinage. Yet forced labor was not unknown in England: the apprentice must serve his seven years, and take such floggings as his master saw fit; the hired servant must carry out his contract for his term of service; the convicts, often including political offenders, were slaves of the state and sometimes sold to private owners over-seas. The colonists claimed these rights over some of their white fellows, and, in addition, had a large class of redemptioners, who agreed that their services should be sold for a brief term of years to pay their passage-money, and of indented or indentured servants brought by their masters under legal obligation to serve for a term of years and subject to the same penalties of branding, whipping, and mutilation as negro slaves. These forms of servitude, however, were limited in duration, and transmitted no claim to the servants children. The presumption of law was always that a white person was free.
Rather by way of experiment than with any confidence in their usefulness, in 1619 the Virginians began to import African Negroes, first from the West Indies; later by a steady direct trade from Africa. For a century the trade was small: in 1700 there were not more than twenty or twenty-five thousand Negro slaves in all the colonies, which was perhaps a twelfth of the total population; with little sacrifice or disturbance it was still possible to stop the traffic and to free the inchoate nation from a terrible race and labor problem. People in these latter days have tried to prove that our ancestors made some effort to check slavery, by calling attention to early prohibitive statutes of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and to the foundation of Georgia as a free colony; but in Massachusetts and Rhode Island these enactments were dead letters, for slaves were imported, sold, and their offspring born in slavery. Efforts were, however, made in several of the colonies to restrict the slave-trade, but rarely from humanitarian objections; the colonial statutes were either intended to keep out a dangerous class or to secure some of the profits by laying a tax on the trade. Whatever the reasons, these acts were systematically disallowed by the British government, and the trade went on unrestricted down to the Revolution. On the ordinary principle that the English statute law, in existence when the colonies were founded, applied to the colonists, slavery would have had no legal standing anywhere in the empire; but in all the colonies local enactments recognized and protected slave property, and criminal statutes established special offences which could be committed only by slaves, and set up special tribunals for the summary trial of slaves.
These slave codes, of which many parts lasted till 1865, bear witness to the ever-present danger of negro insurrection, of which there are about twenty-five recorded instances previous to the Revolution, the best known being the so-called New York Slave Plot of 1741, which resulted in the transportation of eighty negroes, the hanging of eighteen whites and negroes, and the judicial burning at the stake of thirteen more. Yet at this day it seems probable that the whole thing was simply one of those panics which sometimes sweep over a whole community. In every one of the British colonies in America, however, slavery was legal by positive law when the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and continued unless altered by the later state government. Even more unsettling was white rioting in Maryland against leading families, supporting the Revolution, who were suspected of hoarding needed commodities.
The class hatred of some of these disloyal people was expressed by one man who said it was better for the people to lay down their arms and pay the duties and taxes laid upon them by King and Parliament than to be brought into slavery and to be commanded and ordered about as they were. Although slavery thus became the presumptive status of every Negro, most of the colonies by law, and all by practice, recognized the existence of free Negroes, though security had to be given that freed slaves should not become a public charge. The numerous instances of indented servants who, at the expiration of their service, became free members of the community seems to have had a favorable effect upon the status of free negroes, who were allowed property rights, and in all the colonies except Georgia and South Carolina could vote, provided they had the required property or tax qualification. Though the legal status of slavery was as firmly established as inheritance of property or private ownership of land, objections to it on moral and ethical grounds were always plenty; and during and after the Revolution it lost much of its prestige because it did not seem to pay.
In New England, to hold slaves was a mark of dignity rather than of profit; in the middle colonies they never rose to more than a twelfth of the population; and in the south the staple crops of wheat, tobacco, indigo, and rice could not give them all profitable employment. The rise of cotton planting and the effect on the industry of the south and on its attitude towards slavery has already been discussed in this series. Its chief effect was to intensify the feeling that, whatever its ills, slavery was a fixed, unalterable, economic fact an institution. Although the greater part of the slaves imported into the United States continued to be transported by British ships and sold for British slave dealers, the slave trade speedily regained its important role in the New England economy. But a new element was introduced an element that was a direct outcome of the Revolutionary War and of the social and political ideals which it had fostered.
From early colonial times there had been some opposition to slavery and the slave trade, but it had been of little effect against the accepted mores of the time and the rich profits resulting from the trade. When the colonies gained their independence after basing their claims upon inalienable human rights, the idealists in England, as well as in America gained a new and effective weapon. Condemnation of the slave trade became open and vocal, especially in New England, and within a few years attained a power that spelled the doom of the legal slave trade. The major effect of America attaining its independence from the Great Britain was to continue the traffic in African human beings, and also to cut down competition, increase profits, and thereby make the trade even more attractive. Although public sentiment against the trade must have been strong for such measures to pass, the merchants, ship-owners, and planters who profited from the slave trade were not greatly handicapped in their operations; they merely sought new markets or resorted to smuggling. Prohibitory laws would have been difficult to enforce even had the states possessed adequate maritime police forces.
In all the states, and particularly in New England, large numbers of otherwise respectable and law-abiding people saw nothing reprehensible in smuggling. The post-Revolutionary generation had been raised in an atmosphere in which smuggling was deemed a necessary and defensible practice. As a result of the Royal Governments attempts in the early 1770 s to enforce the Sugar Acts and other unpopular restrictive laws, the whole commercial atmosphere of the colonies was surcharged with illicit trade in one form or another. Furthermore, many respectable people saw nothing immoral in the African slave trade, and so the commerce in Negroes continued. In the northern states, the combination of blacks in the military, the lack of powerful economic need for slaves, and the rhetoric of Revolution led to the end of slavery -- but very slowly.
As late as 1810, thirty thousand blacks, one-fourth of the black population of the North, remained slaves. In 1840 there were still a thousand slaves in the North. In the upper South, there were more free Negroes than before, leading to more control legislation. In fact, the slave trade flourished; respectable merchants and ship-owners amassed fortunes; and thousands of Africans, laboring for respectable planters, contributed to the expanding cotton economy of the South. In the newly independent United States the northern states all abolished slavery within their own borders, and even in the plantation states of the South sentiment against slavery was widespread and vocal. Civil War it was money and profit, not the movement against slavery that was uppermost in the priorities of the men who ran the country.
It has presented to the world the absurd spectacle of a deadly civil war for the abolition of Negro slavery while the majority of the while population, those who have created all the wealth of the nation, arc compelled to suffer under a bondage infinitely more galling and humiliating. It has allowed the capitalists, as a class, to appropriate annually 5 / 6 of the entire production of the country. In the Constitutional Convention, drawing up the articles of government for the new country, the provision for the abolition of the slave trade at a specified time passed without any serious opposition. With the ideals and aspirations of the American Revolution and the French Revolution transforming the way men thought, slavery seemed to be on the way out. Bibliography: Dudley, William. American Slavery.
San Diego, CA: Green haven Press, 2000 Haskins, James; Kathleen, Benson. Bound for America. New York: Lothrop, Lee, & Shepard, 1999 Zinn, Howard. A Peoples History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980 Zinn, Howard.
A Peoples History of the United States, Ch. 5. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980
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Research essay sample on History Of The United States Slave Trade