History of Slavery in America

History of Slavery in America

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The history of slavery in America began with the arrival of the first slave in North America in 1619 and ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Colonists practiced slavery in all thirteen colonies, and they regarded slaves as property that could be bought, sold, or given away. Then, with the end of the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Southern states replaced slavery with sharecropping and convict leasing.

After the Revolution, the states passed abolitionist laws in most Northern states, and a movement to abolish slavery took root. Indeed, slavery was the most contentious issue in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. Although its framers never referred to “slavery”, the Constitution’s “three-fifths clause” gave slave states political power by increasing their congressional representation. Though the North had abolished slavery by 1805, Northern states still enslaved hundreds of people as late as 1840. As some slave owners in the Upper South began to emancipate their slaves, abolitionist groups, charities, and philanthropists bought and freed others. And as the states outlawed the Atlantic slave trade during the Revolution, Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808. But widespread smuggling continued.

The cotton industry in the Deep South grew rapidly after the invention of the cotton gin, which greatly increased the demand for slave labor. Driven by the demands for slaves from new cotton plantations in the Deep South, the Upper South sold more than a million slaves away to new owners down-river. In all, the total slave population in the South reached four million, and Southern states became ever more entrenched as slave societies.  As the United States moved West, Southern states demanded their right to practice slavery in the new territories. This arose from their determination to maintain the balance of power in Congress between free states and free states. Soon, the United States would grow dramatically with the Louisiana Purchase and the territories won by the United States from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. In consequence, the role of slavery in American expansion became the subject of crises and compromises. And the South, newly rich with cotton fortunes and defending slavery as a “positive good”, would threaten to secede from the Union.

When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election on a platform of ending the expansion of slavery, the slave states began to break away to form the Confederacy. Shortly afterward, the Civil War began with the Confederate attack on the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor in South Carolina. While the Emancipation Proclamation and Union victory in the war effectively ended the slave trade, Reconstruction would see debt slavery and convict leasing persist. It wasn’t until 1954 that the last white slaver was imprisoned.

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