Slavery is Not an American Creation
By Tom Morrow
Human slavery goes back to beyond Biblical times … probably to pre-historic eras. Those Egyptian pyramids weren’t built by union labor, nor were edifices of worship by the Mayan, Inca, and Aztecs. Slavery may have raised its ugly head in the U.S. during the 17th century, but it was prevalent around the globe for centuries before.
In America, slavery that had occurred during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries today remains a contentious issue and plays a major role in the history and evolution of the U.S. Our distasteful human slavery triggered a revolution, a civil war, numerous civil rights movements and over the past century and well to the present, countless events of civil unrest and rioting.
In 1501, the Spanish colonists were the first Europeans to use African slaves here in the New World on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba. In 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés brought the first slaves to Mexico. A labor shortage there led to African slaves being imported as they were not susceptible to smallpox. Slavery and indentured servitude in the United States became legal institutions, primarily of African-Americans.
Many European white men and women came to North America during the 17th and 18th centuries as “indentured servants,” a form of slavery. Indentured servitude was a time-definite court sentence to satisfy a debt or minor crime. One of England’s infamous examples of slavery was the penal colony of Australia, usually a life sentence.
But even indentured servitude had its limits. After 1640, in the colony of Virginia white planters started to ignore the expiration of indentured contracts and keep their servants as slaves “for life.” However, in a 1655 slavery challenge a court ruled that a black man could not be granted ownership of another black man. This was the first instance of a judicial determination concerning slavery in the 13 English Colonies. The court held that a person who had committed no crime could not be held in servitude for life. During the 18th and 19th centuries, after the U.S. gained independence from the British and before the end of the American Civil War, slavery had been practiced in British America from early colonial days and was legal in all 13 Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
After the American Revolution, the United States became polarized over the issue of slavery, geographically divided by the Mason-Dixon survey line which separated free Pennsylvania from slave states Maryland and Delaware. During the Thomas Jefferson administration, Congress prohibited any more importation of slaves, effective as of 1808, although smuggling of slaves continued. Domestic slave trading continued at a rapid pace, driven by labor demands for the development of cotton plantations in the southern states. The new territories acquired from Britain, France, and Mexico were the subject of major political compromises. By 1850, the cotton-growing southern states were threatening to secede from the Union. Those new states attempted to extend slavery into the new western territories (Texas, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska to keep a balance of political power in Washington, D.C. They were only partially successful.
The treatment of slaves in the United States varied widely depending on conditions, times, and places. Slaves were punished by whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding and imprisonment. Treatment was usually harsher on large plantations, which were often managed by overseers and owned by absentee slaveholders.
More than 1 million slaves were sold from the upper Southern states, which had a surplus of labor, and taken to the Deep South in a forced migration, splitting up many families. New communities of African-American culture were developed in the Deep South, and the total slave population eventually reached 4 million. In the 19th century, proponents of slavery admitted, but often defended, the institution as a “necessary evil.”
The largest religious denominations, the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, split over the slavery issue into regional organizations of the North and South. When President Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a Republican platform of halting the expansion of slavery, one-third of Southern families owned slaves. As such, seven states broke away to form the Confederate States of America. The first six states to secede, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana held the greatest number of slaves. Civil war broke out often pitting brother against brother. Once the war ended the issue of slavery became illegal and all slaves were freed.
While the institution of slavery officially ended with the American Civil War, the controversy accompanying the subject continues to haunt us. Today’s argument in U.S. society continues with no end in sight. Historical revisionists wants to keep the subject front and center at all levels of education and society. On the other hand, abolitionists want to forget and move on. Neither will win. It’s an argument that will never be settled and it will continue to divide our nation.