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Millions of Americans were impoverished by force during the period from the early 1600s to 1865 in the system of slavery that existed throughout the thirteen American colonies and the first states of the United States of America. The “peculiar institution,” as Southern whites called the institution of slavery, expanded particularly during the Antebellum years (1790-1861) to include four million slaves working in Southern states. The majority of these slaves had no civil rights, property, income, or freedom of movement and lived in brutal poverty subject to the whims and generosity of their white masters.
Slavery had a long history by the time it was introduced in North America. The ancient Greeks and Romans enslaved enemy women and children as the spoils of war. During the European Middle Ages, agricultural workers were tied to the land and to permanent poverty in the system of serfdom. The Spanish conquerors of Central and South America enslaved the native peoples. In Africa, warring tribes captured and enslaved each other. African chiefs sold war captives to European traders who packed the holds of their ships with as much human cargo as possible, crossed the Atlantic to the New World, and sold those humans who remained alive to planters of the Caribbean and American South, who were hungry for inexpensive labor.
The majority of slaves in North America worked on southern plantations, engaged in daily, grueling labor tending cash crops such as tobacco, sugar, rice, and cotton. Field hands lived in shacks on plantations, had meager diets, wore rags for clothing, and were subject to malnutrition and disease. Life expectancy was low for these permanently impoverished people, made poor by force rather than by choice. Although in the antebellum north there existed a growing impoverished class of proletariat living in cities and working for low wages in factories, these workers at least had some degree of choice as to where they wished to live and how they wished to earn their money. Few slaves were given those choices, remaining bound to land, work, and poverty their entire lives. Slavery had existed sporadically in the Northern colonies before the Revolutionary War, but upon independence and the end of war, the Northern states outlawed or otherwise limited slavery so that by 1800 slavery was restricted to Southern states. After 1800, as the North went through the Industrial Revolution, finding free wage labor adequate to suit the needs of the factory system, the South continued to depend upon agriculture. Southern plantation owners, responding to increasing demand for cotton fiber coming from Northern factories producing cloth goods, increased the numbers of slaves working on their plantations, making slavery a viable economic—if not moral or social—institution. The Industrial Revolution therefore indirectly contributed to the expansion of slavery in the decades preceding the Civil War.
Notwithstanding the utter poverty of their material existence, slaves worked to enrich their lives in other ways. Although husband and wives and their children were sometimes split up at an auction or sale, this was the exception rather than the rule. Slave families experienced paternal and maternal care, love and passion, and sharing of discomfort, hunger, and humiliation, providing a counter to utter hopelessness. Experiencing not only the poverty of their material lives but also poverty of the spirit—that is, humility and the necessity of relying on God—slaves were very religious, and Christianity came to dominate Southern African American culture.
- Blassingame, John, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford, 1979);
- Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974);
- Stampp, Kenneth, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Random House, 1956).
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