Slavery in America before the Civil War

The significance of America’s legacy of slavery—its so-called original sin—has been debated since the earliest days of the founding of the country. America has undoubtedly had positive impacts on the world—such as popularizing the idea of natural rights and being at the forefront of spreading political freedom and improved living conditions throughout the world. But in spite of that, patriotism is said to be hypocritical by those on the left of the political spectrum. Many say the positive impact of America is irretrievably tainted in light of the compromise on slavery that was necessary during America’s founding era to unite the country.

One such critic, Nikole Hannah-Jones, says in her 1619 Project that we should reconsider the traditional date of America’s founding, July 4, 1776. She claims that America was really founded in 1619, the year the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown. Ironically, as with so much of American history, this was the same year democracy was first introduced in the colonies with the Virginia General Assembly. For critics like Hannah-Jones, slavery of Africans was the essential characteristic of America—a continuous tradition from 1619 through to how their descendants are treated today.

People should interpret the facts for themselves, but there are a number of things that can be concisely stated that reveal a different context, i.e., that slavery was not a continuous tradition—that there were different eras of slavery whose essential characteristics are sufficiently different that they should be viewed as different eras. This writing won’t survey the whole history of slavery in America but instead will focus on the culprit—the especially notorious and cruel era of slavery responsible for much of the continuing debate: the antebellum period (meaning, “before the [Civil] War”), which was characterized by, among other things, the massive exploitation of slave labor to produce raw cotton—and will especially feature some relevant comments from the historian Paul Johnson’s, A History of the American People.

Although we recognize the antebellum period of slavery by a number of different features, the earliest mark in history is probably the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. This date is crucial to remember as it comes after the dates of the significant American Founding Documents: the federal Constitution was drafted in 1787, ratified in 1788, became effective in 1789, the first ten amendments were ratified in 1791, and then finally, the cotton gin was invented in 1793. About the significance of the cotton gin, Johnson tells us that, “until the end of the 18th century, the human race had always been unsuitably clothed in garments which were difficult to wash and therefore filthy. Cotton offered an escape from this misery, worn next to the skin in cold countries, as a complete garment in hot ones. The trouble with cotton was its expense . . . but [after the cotton gin] there was a price to be paid, and the black slaves paid it.” (307-308).

Furthermore, cotton was especially grown in the Deep South, but those territories weren’t even acquired by the United States until after its founding. Johnson tells us that “the Old South—the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia—was not suited to growing cotton on a large scale; if anything, it was tobacco country. The new states [Andrew] Jackson’s ruthlessness brought into being, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, now constituted the Deep South where cotton was king” (310). Spain didn’t relinquish its claim to the Mississippi territory until 1795 and the Mississippi territory wasn’t organized until 1798. The Alabama territory was carved out of the Mississippi territory in 1817 when Mississippi became a state. And of course, it is more commonly known that Louisiana was part of the territory that was purchased from France in 1803.

For a broad view of the development of the cotton industry in the southern states, Johnson gives us some statistics: “in 1810 Britain was consuming 79 million pounds of raw cotton, of which 48 percent came from the American South. Twenty years later, imports were 248 million [pounds], 70 percent coming from the South. In 1860 the total was over 1,000 million pounds, 92 percent from Southern plantations” (308-9).

Another important feature of antebellum slavery was the criminalization of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808—the earliest year permitted by the Constitution, although all the states had banned that trade by 1803 (311). Granted, a black market in transatlantic slaves based in Cuba continued through the antebellum period, but the ban nonetheless had the effect of creating an industry in the South for breeding slaves. According to Johnson, “slave-breeding now became the chief source of revenue on many of the old tobacco plantations” (311). Indeed, the historian John McPherson tells us in his seminal single-volume work on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom, that “in contrast to the United States, slave economies in most other parts of the western hemisphere reached their peak development while the African slave trade flourished” (37).

Matthew Karp writes about a later development in his This Vast Southern Empire: in 1833, Britain outlawed slavery in all of its colonies. Prior to this, Southerners saw British global influence as at least neutral to slavery, if not actually beneficial. After 1833, Southerners increasingly saw British antislavery policy as a ploy to promote British interests in the East at the expense of slave-produced exports from the American South. Because of this, the Southerners became obsessed with controlling America's foreign policy, which could only be done with the executive branch of the federal government, which they more-or-less controlled until the election of 1860. So, when the Republicans won control of the executive branch in the 1860 elections, Southerners decided that they were going to have their own foreign policy. Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln decided that they were not.

Although some of these facts are mentioned in the 1619 Project, these implications are not discussed: slavery was not simply a continuous tradition from the first slaves that arrived in 1619 through the rest of American history. Slavery in America radically changed for the worse after the founding such that the founders could have plausibly expected the institution to wither away. As Johnson tells us, “Religion would have swept away slavery in America without difficulty early in the 19th century but for one thing: cotton. It was this little, two-syllable word which turned American slave-holding into a mighty political force and so made the Civil War inevitable” (307).

Derek Hanusch is a political science major at the University of Washington.

Editor’s Note: Slavery is dealt with extensively in the FreedomCivics curriculum, especially in Sessions 3, 6, 7, and 15.

FreedomCivics® is a 20-session curriculum that includes discussion questions, activities, resources, quizzes, and a final exam. For more information about the course, please visit or contact us with the information below.

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