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The United Sates was conceived on the idea of freedom and the rights of all people, but early on, an institution took hold that was the exact opposite of that idea. In this lesson, find out the roots of slavery in the States, how it took hold, how slaves lived, and how they resisted the bonds of slavery.

The Paradox of American Slavery

In the great American experiment, no idea was more central than the idea of freedom. Freedom is central to the concept of the U.S. Yet, in the nation’s beginning, it had an institution which was the antithesis of its primary founding principal – freedom.

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Even Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-of-happiness, was a slave owner. He actually wrote several items about slavery and how it didn’t fit with the ideals the nation was founded on, yet he only freed two of his own slaves during his lifetime. He did, however, free five more of his slaves in his will and let three run away without pursuit. It is believed that he allowed the escapes because he may have been their father. In this lesson, we will look at the institution of slavery, including the roots of American slavery, the slave trade, life for slaves, and slave uprisings.

How did slavery take root in a free nation?

The first slaves arrived in the colonies in 1619.
First Slaves North America

Slavery has been around forever, but it wasn’t a major institution at the beginning of things in the colonies. Long before African slavery came to what is today the U.

S., the Portuguese and Spanish had already brought Africans to South America and Latin America. In 1619, the first Africans were brought to the colony of Jamestown by the Dutch.

Why not enslave the native population?

Native Americans were new to being exposed to European disease; they were likely to catch them. They were on their home turf and could escape more easily. They also had political allies that could fight against the slave holders.

Why did they use enslaved Africans?

Slavery had earlier taken hold in the Caribbean. It only took 2-6 weeks to get to the colonies from the Caribbean. Other factors included:

  • Experience – they had previous experience and knowledge working in sugar and rice production.
  • Immunity from diseases – they were less likely to get sick due to prolonged contact over centuries.

  • Low escape possibilities – they did not know the land, had no allies, and were highly visible because of skin color.

Early on, Africans were not seen only as slaves in the colonies. Let’s look at Anthony Johnson. He was an African indentured servant brought to the colonies in the 1620s. He obtained his freedom and purchased 250 acres of land in Virginia. He was the first to hold an African slave in mainland America and had at least one white indentured servant.

It was 1660 before colonists began viewing Africans as strictly slaves. In 1670, after his death, the court ruled that as a black man, Anthony was an alien and could not own land. Therefore, the land was taken by the colony.

The Spread of Slavery

How did slavery spread in the colonies?

New England colonies had no large plantations, so slaves lived in cities and on small farms. Gradually, slavery was abolished in New England. Local slavery was not integral to their economy.

The Chesapeake Bay colonies had large tobacco plantations; it became the center of the domestic slave trade. The Carolinas and Georgia had large rice and cotton plantations. So, slavery became well entrenched in the lifestyle and economy there.

How did cotton become king and make slavery a major American institution?

The cotton gin. It was invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney. It made cotton the most important cash crop in the U.S.

Cotton, and its reliance on slave labor, spread from Virginia to the South and West until it filled the Southern U.S.

The invention of the cotton gin created a huge demand for slave labor.

Slavery Cotton Gin

In 1860, at the height of slavery, 25% of all Southerners owned slaves. Of that 25%, 52% owned 1-5 slaves, 35% owned 6-9 slaves, 11% owned 20-99 slaves, and 1% owned 100 or more slaves. Those who owned 20 or more slaves, about 3% of the entire white population, controlled the social, political, and economic power of the South.

The Slave Trade

How did African slaves find themselves in the New World?

After capture, usually by African enemies and later African slave traders, people were packed tightly into slave ships. The death rate of the passengers was 50%. The ships followed the middle passage of the Triangle Trade.The Triangle Trade route was the flow of raw material from American colonies to Europe followed by manufactured goods leaving Europe for African Markets.

Those manufactured items were traded for enslaved Africans, who were transported on the middle passage to the American colonies.

Destination, auction, and seasoning

Most Africans landed in Brazil. Very few actually landed in North America. Slaves were auctioned off to the highest bidder, then were put through a process of ‘seasoning’ to get them ready for work. They learned a European language. They were given a European name and were shown work expectations.

Slaves were brought to North America in boats and sold at auctions.
Slave Auctions

How did slaves live?

Slaves could not read or write, and it was illegal for them to learn.

Some did illegally, but keeping education away from a subjugated people is one big way to keep them down. The inability to write makes it difficult to organize and plan with other groups. Most slaves did have Sundays off, and they went to church. Slave holders needed slaves to stay healthy, and they needed to convince others they were godly. Giving the Sabbath off helped with both of these.The slave codes were rules for all slaves. They included that slaves could not: leave their home without a pass, carry a weapon, gather in groups, own property, legally marry, defend themselves against a white person, or speak in court.


Slaves were often brutally punished for misbehaving. Punishments including whipping, branding, being sold, gagged, and just about any other way to inhumanely treat a person were used.

How did slaves resist?

One way was flight. Slaves would run away. Another that’s close is truancy. A slave would run away for a short amount of time, and then then they would come back.

Other forms of resistance included:

  • Refusal to reproduce – enslaved women would refuse to have children.
  • Covert action – slaves would sometimes kill livestock, destroy crops, start fires, steal stuff, break tools, poison food, and do pretty much do anything to throw a wrench in the slavery machine.


There were four major slave revolts:

  • The Stono Rebellion was a failed revolt in South Carolina in 1739.
  • Gabriel Prosser led a failed revolt in Virginia in 1800.

  • Denmark Vesey led a failed revolt in South Carolina in 1822.
  • Nat Turner killed 60 white people in Virginia in 1831.

Let’s look more closely at Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.First, Denmark Vesey – he was a slave in the Caribbean before coming to the United States. His name was originally Telemaque.

He bought his freedom and began planning a slave rebellion that would have been second to none. Someone leaked the plan. Vesey and the other planners were caught, tried, and executed. Later, great abolitionists, like Fredrick Douglass, would use Denmark Vesey’s memory to rally support for the Civil War.In 1831, Nat Turner got his rebellion off the ground. In Virginia, Turner built support for his uprising in Southampton County. Sixty whites were killed.

It was the largest uprising before the Civil War. At least 100 slaves and free African-Americans were killed, and after the revolt was put down, Nat Turner and 55 others accused of being a part of the revolt were executed. At least 200 more were killed by militias and white mobs in response to the uprising.

Lesson Summary

Slavery is an institution that countered every ideal the United States was founded on.

Yet, it took root and actually was, in many ways, the economic backbone of the States’ early economy.The cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney and made cotton a valuable crop.Slaves were brought to the Americas on the middle passage of the Triangle Trade route.Some slaves and freemen, like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, did revolt.

Learning Outcomes

After watching this video, you’ll be able to:

  • Trace the history of how slavery started in America
  • Explain how slavery spread throughout America, particularly with the advent of the cotton gin
  • Describe how slaves were brought in, sold, and punished, as well as how they lived
  • Summarize the slave revolts led by Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner

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