Life Under Slavery

King Cotton

The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney (in the 1790's) led to an explosion in cotton production, a huge rise in the slave population, and the rapid expansion of slave territory to the Mississippi and, by 1850, beyond into the Southwest. The slave population rose to 1/3rd of the total population in the South. Victory in the Mexican War during the late 1840's and the acquisition of huge territories in what would become California, Arizona, and New Mexico raised the prospect of another huge expansion of American slavery. 

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Slave vs. Free States in 1860

During the boom years of the first half of the 19th century, cotton was king. England's steam powered cotton mills demanded raw material, and the American South soon provided nearly 75% of world production. Raw cotton exports measured 50% of all American trade. Investment in slaves was the single biggest asset in all of America, outstripping factories, banks and railroads combined. New Orleans, over night, became the second biggest trading center in the country. The going rate for a slave in the 1840's was five hundred dollars, a huge amount of money, and the price would go up as the Civil War approached.

Northern manufacturers and merchants participated in the slave economy and shared in its profits. Profits from slavery financed industrial development in the North, and trade with the Midwest resulting from the opening of the Erie Canal led to New York City's rise to prominence.

These huge profits in the cotton trade had important effects on Southern culture.

Everyone tried to hit it big in the cotton trade. To do so, you needed land and slaves. Slave ownership became a prerequisite for entry into the highest levels of society where the aristocracy dominated state politics. The Southern economy produced fabulous wealth, but it lacked diversity: there was no industry, no technological progress, and no urban growth. These economic factors would eventually doom the South in the coming conflict with the North.

The Pro-Slavery Argument:

The huge rise in the slave population created a corresponding hardening in owners' attitudes towards any attempt to reform the 'peculiar institution'. There was just too much money to be made, and the increasing numbers of slaves heightened white anxieties about the possibility of a slave rebellion. Repression of slaves became more severe, taboos against reading and writing were tightened, and fugitive slave laws made harsher. 

At the same time, though, slave owners had to articulate a humane justification for the institution in order to resist Northern efforts to circumscribe the expansion of slavery. Southern politicians developed a 'paternalist ethos' which glorified their hierarchical agrarian society. They argued that slavery, far from being a destructive social system, actually enabled a truly civilized life style quite different from the competitive capitalist society in the North. Men, they argued, could not be truly free without the foundation of slavery. Freedom was not a natural right. It was a privilege, not an entitlement. Slavery was the normal and natural basis of the greatest societies, from the Greeks to the Romans to ... their own. Hierarchies predominated in nature, so why not in society? Slavery created the most equal society possible... for whites... because it prevented the growth of an unskilled labor class. 

And slavery was, supposedly, a humane institution. Negro slaves were 'happy' because their kind masters protected them from the harsher life endured by the white Northern poor who labored through the boom and bust cycles of a capitalist economy and suffered in impoversihed slums. Would blacks have been better off there? In the South, according to this argument, slaves labored in exchange for cradle to grave security. Their paternalistic masters provided food, clothing and shelter; they provided guidance and firm discipline; and they cared for slaves in their old age.

Slave Culture: 

The reality of slavery was, of course, quite different. Originally, American slaves were not a single people. They came from many different cultures, spoke different languages, and practiced different religions. Over a period of centuries, though, a slave culture had emerged in the South, formed not by kinship, language or even 'race', but by the conditions of slavery itself.

Slave identity was formed by the fact of racial exploitation; by cultural differences between slave and master; and by diverging religious beliefs and practices. The most basic principle taught by this culture was that white prejudice against blacks was entrenched and enduring, so blacks had to move carefully in this hostile environment. (Escott)

Slaves faced a life of incessant toil mandated by the constant threat of brutal punishment and family separation. Slaves had no legal rights. Therefore, no slave could bring a suit against a white, nor could he or she testify against a white in a court of law. Slaves could not sign legal contracts, own property, or possess a firearm. Slaves had no right to meet, no right to move, no right to choose a marriage partner, and no right to learn how to read and write.

Even so, conditions for slaves in America were not as harsh as those in the sugar plantations of the West Indies and Brazil where slaves continued to be worked to death while their numbers were replenished by the constant importation of new slaves. American slaves had a better diet and were not exposed to as many tropical diseases. The rising prices for slaves in America encouraged masters to care for their "goods".

Slave Labor:

Slaves did not just pick cotton and harvest rice or sugar cane. They supplied much of the labor which built America's infrastructure: its buildings, roads, railroad tracks,and bridges. Slaves worked in iron and coal mines. They worked on the docks and in factories. 

Most slaves, though, worked in gangs in the plantation fields under drivers whose primary concern was maximizing profits. 75% of women and 90% of men were field laborers. Slave drivers maintained order through force: the whip and the club. They also maintained control by encouraging divisions between field laborers and house servants, and, most effectively, they held over the heads of slaves the constant threat of sale which meant separation from family and community. (Foner)

Racial Exploitation:

The psychological destructiveness of slavery was perhaps more pernicious than its physical destructiveness. Whites used racial bigotry in an attempt to shape black identity itself to conform to a demeaning and pervasive stereotype. Whites defined blacks as separate, inferior, and sub-human. Whites came to see the fact of slavery as rigid and unbending, and laws were changed during the nineteenth century to make the chances of escaping slavery nearly non-existent. By constantly reinforcing simple racial differences, whites evoked hostility, particularly among poor whites, and reinforced caste status. 

Forms of Resistance:

Slaves engaged in various methods of physical resistance. They engaged in sabotage by deliberately doing poor work, breaking tools, disrupting plantation routine, feigning sickness, laming farm animals, and stealing property. Many slaves ran away from the plantation following the North Star to Canada, assisted by Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. More often, they hid out in local wilds. Most disturbing to the whites, the threat of slave rebellion persisted throughout the entire history of slavery and grew during the decades leading to the Civil War. 

During the 18th c. successful rebellions had taken place in the Virgin Islands, Guadaloupe and Jamaica, and these revolts inspired a major uprising in Florida (the Stono Rebellion). A brutal slave revolt in Haiti (1801) led by Touissant l'Overture first established control of the island and then defeated successive invasions from England and France (the super powers of the early 19th c.) Touissant's military victories eventually led to Napoleon's decision to give up the idea of a New World empire. His decisions led to the negotiations which resulted in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. During the 19th c. major slave rebellions occurred in Louisiana (1811), in Charleston, South Carolina led by Denmark Vescey (1822), and in North Carolina led by Nat Turner (1831). (Foner)

However, the greatest challenge of resisting slavery was psychological. Slaves had to find psychological resources within the self, family, and community to reject white judgments of them and create their own mental and moral world.

Psychological Resistance:

Slaves resisted the psychological damage of slavery in several ways. The desire for freedom was never forgotten. The central intention of slave religious rituals was to free the spirit. They looked forward to the day when they could transform their condition in the political and economic order.  The fact of oppression created racial solidarity: loyalty, cooperation and mutual aid between slaves who might have been strangers. Slaves also developed their own distinctive dress, music and dance: hair styles (corn rows, plaits, cloth ties, head kerchiefs); banjos and drums; striking and unusual dance styles which were vigorous, athletic, and sensual, featuring complicated rhythms and intense emotional outbursts.

African Religious Beliefs

Although forced to convert to Christianity by owners, slaves protected African based belief systems. Their religion was animistic: they believed that the spirit world was interconnected with the living world of nature, and contact between the two worlds was not only possible but a normal aspect of living. Slaves participated in ancestor worship: they believed that the dead exist with a foot in both realms until theyhave  fulfilled their destiny on earth. Religious rituals enabled connections between the living and the dead through possession by spirits and outer body experiences. "Hoodoo" or "Voodoo" magic was particularly prevalent in communities with recent immigrants from Africa ( on rice and sugar plantations). "Conjur men" could cast spells using magic ingredients (hair, fingernails, tacks, dry insects, worms, batwings, and such). These medicine men commanded great respect in slave communities. Slave women too were skilled at the use of herbal remedies and commanded great respect in a society struggling against disease without the benefit of enlightened science: medicines included roots, herbs, plants, teas, snakeskins and magical practices included wearing coins and other talismans to ward off disease. Slaves also engaged in secret prayer meetings in which they sought contact with their God's spirit.

Religious ritual helped slaves formulate an imaginative space in their lives in which they could formulate a moral system and envision a justice different from the white man's. Religious rituals provided solace and emotional release from the mental torture of slavery. These rituals also asserted a spiritual affirmation of their humanity (Escott


Give Me Liberty! (2005) by Eric Foner:  chapter 4 "Slavery, Freedom and The Struggle for Empire" chapter 5 The Peculiar Institution (119-133) (385- )
Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth Century Slave Narratives (1979) Paul D. Escott,  UNC Press. Chapter 4 "Bases of a Black Culture"