Slavery played a pivotal role in the making of the United States.
It grew from a handful of Africans who landed in Virginia in 1619 to over four million African-Americans that would not be emancipated until the Civil War. For over 200 years, this peculiar institution would serve as part of the foundation of American wealth, “ underwriting the country’s industrial revolution and enabling it to project its power into the rest of the world. ” To understand this, it is necessary to discuss the actual impact slavery had on the economy of early America. As previously stated, slavery in America began in the colony of Virginia, when three indentured servants – one black and two whites – fled their employers. Once apprehended, all three had their indenture contracts extended, but not in the same manner.
The white servants just had extra years tacked on to their original contract. The black servant, however, was made to be a lifetime servant to his employer. One area in which slavery would impact would be the agriculture-based economy of the southern colonies, more specifically the production and exportation of cash crops such as tobacco, cotton, rice, and indigo. However, these particular crops were labor-intensive, meaning they required a great deal of attention and care. Initially, white indentured servants and Native American slaves worked the early farms and plantations of the South.
But as economic conditions improved in England and Ireland, where a great deal of white indentured servants came from, there were less white laborers to work the farms. This problem was solved with the importation and enslavement of more Africans. Their hard labor in the fields of these farms and plantations would result in an increased production of the various cash crops, thus improving the wealth of the farmers and plantations, which in turn would lead to their buying more slaves. Clearly, without the institution of the slavery, southern colonies would not have been able to increase their wealth. Another area affected by slavery was the trade system that was used by the colonies, particularly the New England colonies.
Known as the triangular trade system, it was created for the purpose of dealing with the economic imbalance between the colonies and England. Because they imported more than they exported, the colonists were in a great deal of debt. Hence the trade system they utilized, which involved the following: “ New Englanders shipped rum to the west coast of Africa, where they bartered for slaves; took the slaves on the Middle Passage to the West Indies, and returned home with various commodities…” In short, they traded alcohol for humans, and made quite a profit from doing so. They also maintained economic ties to their mother country of England, while improving the economy of the colonies. A final area that slavery impacted was the Industrial Revolution.
An important aspect of that revolution was the creation of the textile industry. Within that industry, the most important tool was cotton, which was produced in the southern colonies. As previously stated, the production of cotton was very labor-intensive. Initially, it was a slow-going process, particularly at harvest time.
The cotton would be hand picked and then go through a cleaning process to remove seeds before being baled and exported. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 speeded this process up immensely. This allowed for an increased production of cotton, which in turn resulted in a large supply that could be sent to the textile factories in the North to be turned into cloth. As a result, the colonists would not be completely dependent on getting their clothes and other materials from England and Europe. Furthermore, the domestic economy of the colonies began to boom, resulting in increased wealth for slave owners. Clearly, slavery played an important role within colonial economics.
Yet, it also played a role in the political and social development of the colonies. When the colonies revolted against English rule, one aspect they emphasized was the fact that they were free men and therefore, had rights and liberties they were entitled to. For this freedom, they fought the American Revolution. Yet, when the war came to an end, there was still an entire segment of their society that was enslaved. The irony was not lost on many of the politicians of the day, including the author of the Declaration of Independence – Thomas Jefferson. In the years after the war, he would make the observation that slavery would not be done away with in a simple manner, but would require much bloodshed to extinguish it.
Before this bloodshed occurred, there would the passage of various acts that were all an attempt to control the impact that slavery had on America. First was the Northwest Ordinance, passed the same year the Constitutional Convention was held. It prevented the spread of slavery in the Northwest Territory, and would later prohibit slavery in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Following the passage of the Constitution would be the implementation of the First Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed slave owners to cross state lines to retrieve runaway slaves. It also made it a criminal offense for anyone to help a runaway slave. Other laws concerning slavery include the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which made slavery illegal in the Louisiana territory north of the Missouri border.
It also enabled Missouri to be admitted as a slave state, while Maine was admitted as a free state. Another major compromise occurred in 1850. It allowed California to be admitted as a free state, while Utah and New Mexico were admitted as slave states. However, the slave trade would be banned in the District of Columbia. Also, in 1850, the second Fugitive Slave Law was passed, and it would be enforced the federal government.
The last two major pieces of legislation before the outbreak of the civil war would be the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the people of each state the opportunity to decide for themselves if their respective states would be slave or free. Three years later, the Dred Scott decision would be passed, stating that all slaves, ex-slaves, and descendants of slaves were not to be considered citizens of the United States. During the course of the Civil War, several important laws would be passed. First was the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in territories that were under Union control. Following the war would be the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. The first would abolish slavery completely; the second would grant citizenship to blacks, and the third would give them the vote.
However, in the years following the Civil War, these last two amendments were not adhered to. It would remain so until the Civil Rights Movement, which would ultimately give African Americans – many of whom were descendents of slaves – the rights they should have had from the days of the American Revolution. Socially, the institution of slavery would forever affect race relations in America. Slavery in America was based simply on ignorance and stereotypes concerning blacks. For those who owned slaves, they were seen as nothing more than barbaric heathens with a sub-par intelligence, fit for nothing but life as a servant. However, there were several abolitionist groups that felt differently.
Taking the moral high road, they believed that every human, including blacks, deserved to be treated with dignity and respect. Yet, neither side believed that blacks could live in America with whites peacefully. Clearly then, whether one owned a slave or did not, the moral sin of discrimination and prejudice toward blacks still existed. Ultimately, slavery not only impacted America economically, it also affected it politically, socially, and culturally. Thus, its legacy is something of a double-edged sword: while it allowed an entire section of the country to flourish, thus allowing the overall economy of the entire country to flourish, it left behind an unresolved issue that continues to affect American society today.