Slavery in the United States
â€œâ€˜Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses
come; but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!â€™ If we shall suppose that
American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must
needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now
wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as
the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any
departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always
ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty
scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all
the wealth piled by the bond-manâ€™s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil
shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by
another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it
must be said â€˜the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogetherâ€™.â€
Most people have little idea how slavery in the United States actually worked. Though
slavery existed in the British North American colonies for more than a century before the United
States declared independence in 1776, and though slavery continued to exist in the United States
during its first 89 years of national existence through the end of the Civil War in 1865, of what
slavery consisted–how many slaves there were, where they lived, what their conditions and
circumstances were, how they lived, and how the system of slavery functioned–is not well
It is not, indeed, too much to say that popular impressions in many of these areas and–at
least as leading scholars present them–significant empirical findings appear not infrequently to
be almost opposed. I rely here largely on the landmark work of Robert Fogel, Nobel laureate in
economics from the University of Chicago, primarily in his book with Stanley Engerman on the
economics of slavery in the United States, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro
Slavery (1974), as modified by Fogel in Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of
American Slavery (1989).
Most economic historians agree with Fogel and Engermanâ€™s essential conclusion: slavery
in the United States was an economically profitable system in the short and even intermediate
term. Slave holders had a pecuniary incentive to treat slaves well enough to obtain maximum
income from them, and most slave holders treated their slaves to maximize their economic
production. I here also consider Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin for its role in symbolizing and molding
concepts of slavery in the United States, and trace development of political events concerning
and discussion of slavery in the United States in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
Slavery was widely practiced for almost all of recorded history in almost all parts of the
world. In ancient Greece, slaves were denied rights that citizens had. These denied rights
included, on the basis of manumission decrees that former slaves received, â€œlegal status as a
protected member of the community,â€ â€œimmunity from arbitrary arrest,â€ the â€œright to work at
whatever he desires to do,â€ and â€œthe right to movement according to his own choice.â€ 1 Slavery
was also widely practiced in ancient Rome. It has been estimated that during the first two
centuries of the Roman Empire as many as three of every four residents in the Italian peninsula
Slavery was much practiced outside of Europe. In ancient China, many rich families had
slaves, and the royal court and aristocracy possessed abundant slaves. Slavery was practiced in
the Arabian peninsula and in Africa for hundreds, even thousands, of years. It is thought that
more black African slaves may have crossed the Sahara Desert, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean
between the 7th and 20th centuries than crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas between the
16th and 19th centuries.
Slavery of black Americans in the Americas commenced soon after the discovery and
initial colonization of the â€œNew Worldâ€ by Europeans in the late 15th and 16th centuries.
Following historical patterns established mostly by Africans and Arabs, almost all black African
slaves were captured or conquered by black Africans in battle. They were then traded, often
through Muslim intermediaries, to in the case of the Americas slave traders from European
nations, preeminently Portugal, England, France, and the Netherlands. Black slaves went
primarily to the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English colonies in South and North America.
Almost 10 million slaves survived transit to the Americas in the three centuries between
1550 and 1850, when the great bulk of slaves from Africa was captured and transported against
their wills. Twelve million captured black Africans started the journey, so the mortality rate in
transit approached one-fifth.
Only a small minority of black African slaves transported to the Americas wound up in
the English colonies that became the United States–about 6 percent, or 600,000 slaves. By
country or area, the distribution of slaves to the New World was approximately as follows:2
Figure 1. Slave Imports to the New World
! ! ! Portuguese America, Brazil 38%
! ! ! Spanish Americas, Caribbean 17%
! ! ! French Caribbean! ! 17%
! ! ! English Caribbean! ! 17%
1 In Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 20.
2 Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro
Slavery (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1974), 14.
! ! ! English continental colonies, U.S. 6%
! ! ! Dutch, other 6%
About 94% of slaves imported to the Americas went elsewhere than to the British continental
colonies in North America that became the United States and subsequently to the United States.
Brazil was by far the largest single importer of slaves. The large majority of slaves not
transported to Brazil became slaves in the Caribbean in one of the colonies of a number of
European countries, primarily Spain, England, and France.
Slavery in the United States is usually dated to 1619, when 20 blacks were purchased
from a Dutch vessel by a member of the Jamestown colony, which at this time was the only
English colony in what would become the United States. The Plymouth colony of the Pilgrims
would not be founded until the next year. Thus, as Benjamin Quarles wrote, except for Native
Americans, African Americans are Americaâ€™s â€œoldest ethnic minority.â€ With the exception of the
English settlers at Jamestown, African Americansâ€™ â€œroots in the original 13 colonies sink deeper
than those of any other group from across the Atlantic.â€ 3
Relatively few slaves were imported to the English colonies in continental North America
in the 1600s. In 1700, there were about 27,000 African Americans in the colonies that would
become the United States out of a total population of about 275,000. At this point in national
prehistory, African Americans thus constituted about 10 percent of the population. About 15,000
had been born in Africa or the Caribbean; the remaining 12,000 or so were born in what would
become the United States. In most of the decades between 1620 and 1700, no more than about
100 African slaves were acquired each year in the United States, until the 1680s and 1690s,
when, during the 1690s, the average number of slaves purchased each year grew to about 600.4
The status of these early African Americans was somewhat different that what later black
slaves would experience. Some, if not most, of the first few thousand blacks transported during
the 1600s to what became the United States were treated more as indentured servants than
subsequently became the case, and many eventually received freedom. As much as one-quarter
of the black population in Virginia and Maryland in the 1660s may have been free.5 However, by
the later decades of the 1600s, semi-indentured servant status for blacks became no longer the
case. The system of permanent and intergenerational bondage for black slaves came into
existence. Nonetheless, at the time of the first national census in 1790, close to 8 percent of the
approximately 750,000 African Americans in the United States were free, close to 60,000 people.
By way of contrast to the system of slavery that developed in the British continental
colonies, there was a much higher mortality rate among slaves in the Caribbean Islands and
3 Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Making of America (New York, NY: Collier, 1964), 7.
4 Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 21-23, 25.
5 Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 38, 52.
elsewhere in North and South America. As seen, of the 94 percent or so of slaves imported to the
New World during the 16th through 19th centuries other than to what became the United States
in 1776, the overwhelming majority went to the Caribbean and Brazil (relatively few went to the
mainland possessions of Spain in the Americas). Conditions in almost all of the European
colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil were hellish. While there was a substantial natural increase
of blacks in the British continental colonies in North America, there was a substantial natural
decrease, through higher adult mortality rates, in New World colonies elsewhere.
Sugar was, through the 18th century, the primary commodity that slave plantations
produced in most of the New World. The mortality rate among slaves in the Caribbean and
elsewhere, largely as a result of disease, was exceedingly high (as was the case among European
settlers in these areas). As Fogel and Engerman remark: â€œIn the British and French West Indies,
in Dutch Guiana, and in Brazil, the death rate of slaves was so high, and the birthrate so low, that
these territories could not sustain their population levels without large and continuous
importations of Africans.â€ 6
Colonies elsewhere in the Americas actually experienced declining population, without
the importation of new slaves. Though what became the United States and then the United States
accounted for only about 6 percent of slave imports to the New World, by 1825 slaves in the
Untied States accounted for about 36 percent of slaves in the Americas.7 While this figure
includes a relatively small number of slaves and their descendants who previously were in
Spanish Florida or French Louisiana, nevertheless, that the black slave population increased
naturally more in the United States than elsewhere in the western hemisphere is certain.
Indeed, the rate of natural increase among slaves in the United States was higher than the
rate of natural increase in the population of any European country, and nearly twice that of
England. The rate of natural increase among slaves in the United States was perhaps the highest
of any slave society in history. As hard as it may be to believe, the natural rate of increase among
African Americans in the United States during slavery may have been among the highest for any
substantial group in the world for an extended period to that point.8
As mentioned at the outset, Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin played and continues to play a significant
role in shaping conceptions of slavery in the United States–it certainly symbolizes many of these
conceptions. Southern slavery became a major issue in the United States in the first half of the
6 Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 25.
7 Ibid., 28.
8 Michael Tadman, â€œThe Demographic Cost of Sugar: Debates on Slave Societies and Natural Increase in
the Americas,â€ American Historical Review (December 2000), 1534-1535: â€œThe North American slave
experience is perhaps even more remarkable when compared with free white populations…. By the 1850s,
the rate of natural increase was higher even that that of the white population of the United States. This
was a remarkable outcome because, as Thomas Malthus suggested as early as 1798, white Americans
expanded with a rapidity â€˜probabl[y] without parallel in historyâ€™â€ (ibid.).
19th century. From the beginning, slavery was very disproportionately practiced in southern
colonies. Of the approximately 750,000 African Americans who lived in the United States at the
time of the first census in 1790, more than 90 percent lived in the south. About 60 percent of the
relatively few African Americans living outside the south were free in 1790; this figure was
fewer than 5 percent in the south. As a result of the much greater number of African Americans
in the south, though, there was a greater absolute number of free African Americans in the south
than the north.
Between 1777 and 1783, while the war for American independence was being fought, the
New England states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut passed laws banning
slavery. To this list, of the original 13 colonies, were added the middle Atlantic states of
Pennsylvania in 1780, New York in 1799, and New Jersey in 1804. Of the original 13 colonies, 6
were slave states and the 6 above, and New Hampshire, became free. The 6 slave states of the
original 13 states were Maryland and Delaware (which did not fight for the Confederacy) and
Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
At the first census in 1790, the population of the United States was approximately 3.9
million, of whom the 750,000 African Americans constituted 19.3 percent. Of this 19.3 percent,
1.5 percent of the whole population of the United States were free African Americans and 17.8
percent of the whole population were African American slaves. Of the total population in the
north in 1790, 3.4 percent were black. In the southern states, 35.2 percent of the population were
When the Northwest Ordinance passed in 1787 under the Articles of Confederation–
allowing for future states from Ohio to part of Minnesota–slavery was banned in the Northwest
Territory on the basis of a proposal made by Thomas Jefferson. The United States Constitution,
drafted in 1787, allowed the importation of slaves to be restricted by Congress in 1808 and
provided that slaves (though not free African Americans, who would be counted fully) would be
counted at three-fifths of their total number for purposes of determining state representation in
the House of Representatives.
Slavery was waning in the United States until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (short
for enâ€œginâ€e) in 1793, which allowed for vastly increased production of cotton. The perspective
of slavery in the United States through the Revolutionary War was more that it was a necessary
evil (more in the north) and that it was an economic necessity (more in the south) than became
the case. The perspective was not so much–as it became in the first half of the 19th century–that
slavery was a moral evil (as it came to be viewed in the north), or that it was a moral good (as it
came to be viewed in the south). To be sure, there were always crosscurrents, and different views
were represented in different areas at different times.9 But relative emphases changed over time.
There was not as sharp a distinction between north and south in the 18th century as there became
in the first decades of the 19th century.
The cotton gin changed everything–an example of the influence of technology on social
organization and structure. Suddenly, there was a highly valuable agricultural product capable of
great and almost limitless expansion. Slavery was transformed ideologically from a necessary
evil probably going out of existence eventually (most of the American foundersâ€™ view) to the
cornerstone of a highly profitable industry localized in the south and creating a new style of life,
the large plantation system. Previously, units of agricultural production utilizing slaves were not
as large as they then became.
About 3,000 bales of cotton were produced in the United States in 1790 (a bale weighs
about 500 pounds). By 1801, 100,000 bales of cotton were produced. This figure reached almost
4 million just before the Civil War. In 1800, the United States exported $5 million of cotton,
about 7 percent of national exports. In 1860, the United States exported $191 million of cotton,
about 57 percent of national exports.10
The period of greatest absolute expansion of slavery in the United States was from 1800
to 1860. In 1800, there were about 850,000 slaves in the south. In 1860, there were more than 3.8
million. While the proportion of African Americans declined in the north between 1800 and
1860, to 1.7 percent, the proportion increased slightly in the south, to 36.8 percent.
With the acquisition of the Louisiana territory in 1803, the question arose whether new
states in this territory would be slave or free. No longer was it the case, as it had been in 1787
with the Northwest Ordinance, of banning slavery from future states for moral and practical
reasons. The question increasingly became, what sort of future should the United States have–
slave or free? The south increasingly said the former and the north, the latter.
The first half of the 19th century was the era of â€œKing Cotton,â€ one of the most desirable
products in newly industrializing Europe and America. The southâ€™s climate was ideal for growing
cotton. But African Americans did not merely produce cotton on southern plantations. They grew
many other crops, tended livestock, participated in all aspects of agricultural production and
management, and often were artisans in towns and cities. Some free African Americans even
owned slaves. The caricature of all African Americans, even in the south, merely picking cotton
on plantations is false.
9 Much of the original support for banning slavery in northern states in the 18th century came mostly not
from individuals morally opposed to slavery, but from those opposed to more African Americans in their
states. As early as the 17th century, laws were passed in several northern colonies regulating and
restricting the conduct of African Americans, slave and free. Laws banning slavery in northern states
resulted in the movement of slave-holders and slaves to southern states.
10 Bruce Catton, The American Heritage Short History of the Civil War (New York, NY: Dell, 1960), 11.
The period in which the most slaves were imported to the United States was the 25 years
from the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 until Congress banned the importation of slaves
from outside the United States pursuant to the Constitution in 1808. During this quarter of a
century, close to 10,000 slaves were imported from Africa each year. Indeed, about as many
slaves were brought to the United States during these 25 years as during the whole previous
period since 1619.11
While Fogel and Engerman do not provide data on the average number of generations the
typical adult African Americanâ€™s family had been in the United States in 1865, a rough idea can
be inferred from their work. As late as 1750, about two in five blacks in the British continental
colonies had been transported to them, and the total population of African Americans in the
continental colonies was about 250,000 out of a total population (black and white) of about 1.2
million. The period of greatest importation of slaves to the colonies–before the Revolutionary
War period, when importation was disrupted–was the 1760s, when about 60,000 slaves were
transported to what became the United States.
Given that the median age of an African American slave mother when she first gave birth
was close to 21, this would indicate that the duration of a slave generation was perhaps about 25
years (the average age of slave mothers at their first birth was 22.5).12 Based upon comparisons
among the number of African Americans brought to the continental colonies, the percentage of
foreign-born Africans in the total African American population, and the number of African
Americans in different years in the colonies and then the United States, it can be estimated that
the average number of generations a typical adult African American and his forebears had lived
in the United States in 1865 was his own and the four preceding it, a total of five generation, 125
years back in time, to 1740.
As late as 1810, about 20 percent of African Americans had been born outside of the
United States, a figure that had been constant for 30 years. Since virtually all African American
children were born in the United States, and the median age was young, this would indicate that
about two-thirds of the adult, chid-bearing population in this period would have been born in the
United States, and about one-third outside of it (with fathers more likely to be born outside the
United States than mothers). As late as 1810, about two-thirds of African American children in
the United States would have had, on average, one parent who was born outside of it. In 1750,
the typical African American child born in the British continental colonies would have had one
parent and three grandparents not born there. Strong links to Africa lasted throughout almost all
of the slave period in the United States.
Slavery was big business in the south. The economy was a slave economy. Though
African Americans constituted merely 37 percent of the population in the south in 1860, because
African American women worked and white women did not, African Americans began working
11 Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 24-25.
12 Ibid., 137-138.
at a younger age than whites, and African Americans worked to a later age than whites and did
not live as long after they stopped working, slaves comprised about half, or slightly more, of
workers throughout the south. Free African Americans were perhaps another 3 or 4 percent of the
workforce across the south, often in towns and cities.
Thus, all African Americans, free and slave, constituted perhaps 55 to 60 percent of
workers in the south. In states with higher percentages of African Americans, the workforce
participation proportion was even higher. Interestingly, states with lower total percentages of
African Americans tended to have higher percentages of free African Americans, and vice versa.
Much white labor was expended in areas of plantation operation, and transportation of raw
products from plantations and of finished goods to them. The south was more rural, agrarian, and
agricultural, and less urban and industrialized, than the north. There were substantially fewer
miles of railroads in the south than in the north.
It was just a matter of time before the passions ignited over the issue of slavery would
burst forth in civil war. Slavery became less feasible as more African Americans and their
families had been in the United States for a longer period of time. Moreover, slavery was
inconsistent with the principles and ideals of the American founding documents. Everyone is
created equal. Government exists to serve the people. The force of technology on the
development of society is well exemplified by the Civil War. Had it not been for technological
innovation, slavery might have gradually dwindled and disappeared in the United States, as was
generally foreseen at the founding.
Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin played a major role in shaping northern opinions of slavery in the
years leading up to the Civil War. Originally published in serial form, the work was published as
a book in 1852 and was an immediate sensation. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold in
The story of Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin is now unfortunately often misunderstood. To be called
an â€œUncle Tomâ€ is, for most African Americans, a slur. An â€œUncle Tomâ€ is considered for
African Americans to be a lackey of whites, or even a traitor to African Americans. But this
picture does not do justice to the character Uncle Tom at all.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was a Christian, and she wrote Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin from the
perspective of its final scene. It is therefore worthwhile to turn first to this final scene in order to
understand her purposes in writing the novel and the nobility of Uncle Tomâ€™s character.
Uncle Tom is as Christ-like a character as portrayed in fiction. He is ultimately sold to as
evil a slaveowner as can be imagined, Simon Legree, in the deep and invisible south. Any
degradation and punishment that can be inflicted on Uncle Tom is inflicted, because of Legreeâ€™s
evilness. Legree wishes to see African American men and women suffer just because of the color
of their skin. Legree will even suffer loss of profit in order to see pain inflicted upon African
Americans. He hates Uncle Tom most of all because he will not budge in his devotion to Jesus.
Legree decides that Uncle Tom must die:
When a heavy weight presses the soul to the lowest level at which
endurance is possible, there is an instant and desperate effort of every physical
and moral nerve to throw off the weight; and hence the heaviest anguish often
precedes a return tide of joy and courage. So was it now with Tom. The atheistic
taunts of his cruel master sunk his before dejected soul to the lowest ebb; and,
though the hand of faith still held to the eternal rock, it was a numb, despairing
grasp. Tom sat, like one stunned, at the fire. Suddenly everything around him
seemed to fade, and a vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted
and bleeding. Tom gazed, in awe and wonder, at the majestic patience of the
face; … his soul woke, as, with floods of emotion, he stretched out his hands and
fell upon his knees,–when, gradually, the vision changed: the sharp thorns
became rays of glory; and, in splendor inconceivable, he saw that same face
bending compassionately toward him …
â€˜I hate him!â€™ said Legree, that night, as he sat up in his bed; â€˜I hate him!
And isnâ€™t he MINE? Canâ€™t I do what I like with him? …â€™ And Legree clenched his
fist, and shook it, as if he had something in his hands that he could rend in
â€˜Well, Tom!â€™ said Legree, walking up, and seizing him grimly by the collar
of his coat, and speaking through his teeth, in a paroxysm of determined rage, â€˜do
you know Iâ€™ve made up my mind to KILL you?â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s very likely, Masâ€™r,â€™ said Tom, calmly …
Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man
has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear. What brother-man and brotherChristian must suffer, cannot be told us, even in our secret chamber, it so harrows
the soul! And yet, oh my country! These things are done under the shadow of thy
â€˜Heâ€™s most gone, Masâ€™r,â€™ said Sambo, touched, in spite of himself, by the
patience of his victim.
â€˜Pay away …! Give it to him!–give it to him!â€™ shouted Legree. â€˜Iâ€™ll take
every drop of blood he has …â€™
Tom opened his eyes … â€˜there ainâ€™t no more ye can do! I forgive ye, with
all my soul!â€™ and he fainted entirely away.13
Uncle Tomâ€™s death is meant to parallel Christâ€™s crucifixion.
13 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly (New York, NY: Penguin, 1986
), 554, 578, 582-584.
When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe during the Civil War, he said that she was â€œthe little
lady who made this big war.â€ 14 Ann Douglas writes of Stowe and Uncle Tomâ€™s Cabin: â€œNo
woman before or since Stowe has so successfully written a novel designed to stir up the nation in
the cause of the major issue of the day. In March 1850, when John C. Calhoun expressed his
wishes as to what the new â€˜compromiseâ€™ should ensure the South, he demanded that the United
States â€˜cease the agitation of the slave question.â€™ Daniel Webster backed him, and so, less openly,
did Stoweâ€™s own father. Stowe defied the male establishment, picked up her pen, and helped to
make what had been the protest of only a small minority of abolitionists the concern, even the
preoccupation, of hundreds of thousands of Americans.â€ 15
Slavery in the United States was economically profitable. During the King Cotton era in
the first half of the 19th century, slavery expanded as never before. There was a great movement
of slaves with their owners to the new lands that were becoming cultivated to the west of the
Slave families were usually not separated. Perhaps 10 to 20 percent of slave families
were separated. Fogel and Engerman summarize evidence with respect to family separation and
related issues: â€œThe belief that slave-breeding, sexual exploitation, and promiscuity destroyed the
black family is a myth. The family was the basic unit of social organization under slavery. It was
to the economic interest of planters to encourage the stability of slave families and most of them
did so. Most slave sales were either of whole families or of individuals who were at an age when
it would have been normal for them to have left the family.â€ Fogel and Engerman also write that
â€œavailable evidence indicates that about 84 percent of slaves engaged in the westward movement
migrated with their owners.â€ 16
Fogel and Engerman analyze, among many other sources, slave sale records from the
New Orleans slave market from 1804 to 1862–New Orleans was much the largest interregional
slave trading market and accounted for about one-third of the interstate slave trade. These
records indicate that about six-sevenths of sales of slaves older than age 14 involved unmarried
individuals, and of the one-seventh of slaves sold who had been married, some were sold as
couples or with family members and some were widowed or separated. Fogel and Engerman also
14 Abraham Lincoln in ibid., p. 19.
15 Ann Douglas, ibid, p. 13.
16 Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 5, 48. Furthermore, since about 84 percent of the interregional
slave movement occurred with owners, and since about six-sevenths of interregional slave sales involved
unmarried individuals: â€œIt is probable that about 2 percent of the marriages of slaves involved in the
westward trek were destroyed by the process of migration. Nor is it … clear that the destabilizing effects
of the westward migration on marriages was significantly greater among blacks than it was among
whitesâ€ (ibid., 49); cf. Robert W. Fogel, Ralph A. Galantine, and Richard L. Manning (eds.), Without
Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery–Evidence and Methods (New York, NY: W.
W. Norton, 1992), 195-196.
present data that the sale of children without their parents (particularly without their mothers)
was unusual, and may be able mostly to be accounted for by the sale of orphans.17
Slavery reached full force in the British continental colonies and then in the United States
for about a century, from 1760 to 1860. In 1760, there were close to 350,000 slaves in what
became the United States; by 1800, this figure reached 850,000; in 1860, there were 3.8 million
slaves in the United States. By contrast, in 1720, there were not yet 100,000 slaves in the
continental colonies. More than 90 percent of the slaves in what became the United States and
then in the United States for the entire period between 1619 and 1865 lived during some of the
years between 1800 and 1865.
Slavery in the English continental colonies and the United States did not remain exactly
the same during the 246 years it was practiced. Slavery expanded to it greatest geographical
extent in the 1800s, when it extended from the original southern states on the eastern seaboard to
Texas in the west, through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri,
Arkansas, and Louisiana. The median size of a plantation (the size of a plantation such that half
of slaves lived on plantations with fewer slaves and half lived on plantations with more) was
fewer than 20 slaves in the colonial era for tobacco, and rose in the first half of the 1800s on
cotton plantations to 35 slaves. Approximately 64 percent of slaves in the United States in 1850
lived on cotton plantations.18
Slaves were maximally exploited laborers–workers who did not require pay. Their
position without legal protection led to their exploitation, but also to profits for their owners.
Slavery in the southern United States led to its economic and political underdevelopment
compared to the north and its inevitable defeat in the Civil War.
17 Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross, 49-50.
18 Robert William Fogel, Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery (New
York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1989), 30-31.
Slavery in the United States