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 in 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. 

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.

Northern manufacturers and merchants participated in the slave economy and shared in its profits.  Profits from slavery financed industrial development in the North and, with 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 pre-requisite for entry into the highest levels of society from which 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 were 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 suffered through the boom and bust cycles of the capitalist economy in impoverished city 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 culture was formed by:

- the fact of racial exploitation
- cultural differences between slave and master.
- diverging religious beliefs and practices (Escott)

Basic principles taught by this culture:

- white prejudice against blacks was entrenched and enduring
- blacks had to move carefully in this hostile environment. (Escott)

The material and legal conditions under which slaved lived:

- incessant toil
- the threat of brutal punishment and family separation
- no legal rights: no suits against whites, no testimony against whites, no contracts, no property rights, no firearms, no right to have meetings, no right to move, no rights to choose a marriage partner, even no right to learn how to read and write

Even so, slavery in America was not as harsh as in the West Indies or Brazil:

- better diet
- fewer tropical diseases
- rising prices for slaves encouraged masters to invest in 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 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 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 defined blacks as separate, inferior, and sub-human creatures.
- 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.
- Simple racial differences constantly evoked hostility and reinforced caste status.
- Whites used bigotry to shape black identity itself to conform to a demeaning and pervasive stereotype.

Forms of Resistance:

Slaves engaged in various methods of physical resistance:

- sabotage: deliberately doing poor work, breaking tools, disrupting plantation routine, feigning sickness, laming farm animals, and theft
- running away: following the North Star to Canada, assisted by Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad. More often, hiding out in local wilds.
- rebellion: The threat of slave rebellion persisted throughout the entire history of slavery.

- During the 18th c. successful rebellions took place in the Virgin Islands, Guadaloupe and Jamaica, and these revolts inspired a major uprising in Florida (the Stono Rebellion). 
- Later a slave revolt in Haiti (1801) led by Touissant l'Overture annihilated Napoleon's fleet and army in the West Indies and led to the negotiations which resulted in the Louisiana Purchase. 
- In the 19th c. major 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 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:

- The Desire for Freedom: never forgotten, central intention of religious rituals: freeing the spirit and looking forward to the day when they could transform their condition in the political and economic realms

- Racial Solidarity: the fact of oppression created loyalty, cooperation and mutual aid between slaves who might have been strangers

- 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.

Slaves on a Virginia plantation (The Old Plantation, c. 1790)

- African Belief Systems

- Animism: the spirit world interconnected with the living world of nature, and contact between the two was not only possible but a normal aspect of living. 
- Ancestor Worship: the dead exist with a foot in both realms until they fulfill their destiny on earth (purgatory).Religious rituals enabled connections between the living and the dead: possession by spirits or outer body experiences
- Conjuration: "Hoodoo" or "Voodoo" magic was particularly prevalent in communities with recent immigrants from Africa (rice and sugar plantations) But "conjur men" who could cast hands or spells using magic ingredients (hair, fingernails, tacks, dry insects, worms, batwings, and such) commanded great respect in slave communities.
- Herbal Medicine: slave women also were skilled at the use of herbal remedies and commanded great respect in a society struggling against disease without the benefit of enlightened science: roots, herbs, plants, teas; snakeskin; wearing coins to ward off disease.
- Religion: Secret prayer meetings in which slaves sought contact with their God's spirit:

- Religious ritual helped slaves formulate the 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. 
- Religious 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"