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National Expansion and Reform
Pre-Civil War African-American Slavery
Overview Documents

African Americans had been enslaved in what became the United States since early in the 17th century. Even so, by the time of the American Revolution and eventual adoption of the new Constitution in 1787, slavery was actually a dying institution. As part of the compromises that allowed the Constitution to be written and adopted, the founders agreed to end the importation of slaves into the United States by 1808.

By 1800 or so, however, African American slavery was once again a thriving institution, especially in the Southern United States. One of the primary reasons for the reinvigoration of slavery was the invention and rapid widespread adoption of the cotton gin. This machine allowed Southern planters to grow a variety of cotton--short staple cotton--that was especially well suited to the climate of the Deep South. The bottle neck in growing this crop had always been the labor needed to remove the seeds from the cotton fibers. But Eli Whitney's gin made it much easier and more economical to do. This fact made cotton production much more profitable and hence very attractive to planters and farmers in the South. Still, growing cotton was very labor intensive and cotton growers needed a large supply of labor to tend the fields. African American slaves supplied this labor.

It is important to remember, however, that not all slaves worked on large cotton plantations. African American slaves also worked in many other types of agriculture, including tobacco, hemp (for rope-making), corn, and livestock. Many slaves also worked in Southern cities, working at a variety of skilled trades as well as common laborers. It was not unusual for slaves working in the cities to put away enough money to buy their freedom. Indeed, Southern cities, as well as many in the North, had large so-called free black populations.

A slave's day usually consisted of long hours of physical labor. For a field hand, the workday usually began before dawn and ended well after sunset, often with a two-hour break for the noon meal. Many free white farmers in the South (and North) also put in very long work-days, but the great difference was they were working for themselves and controlled their own work time. African American slaves had no such control and they worked under constant supervision and the threat of physical punishment by their overseers. Indeed, no matter how kindly a slave owner might have been, the slaves did not possess that which Americans most prizedãtheir freedom.

Despite overall harsh conditions and the absence of freedom, slaves were not just powerless victims of their owners and the slave system. Slave families and communities became very important institutions. Slaves on large plantations also lived in a community that extended well beyond the family and in many cases beyond the single plantation or farm. The slave cabins (or "quarters") provided one of the few places where slaves could be more or less free from constant supervision by slave overseers. There the slaves created a vibrant social and cultural life beyond the reach of their masters.

While no rational person would wish to be a slave, the slaves were active agents in their own lives. And though their lives were circumscribed in many significant ways, they sought to make the best of their circumstances. They succeeded to a remarkable extent, a testimonial to the endurance of the human spirit.

When searching American Memory for additional primary sources on this topic, use such terms as slave(s), slavery, plantation(s), and Negro, among others.
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