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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave

Frederick Douglass

Critical Essays Slavery in the United States

The first African to arrive in the New World is believed to have accompanied Christopher Columbus on one of his voyages to the Americas; African slaves began arriving shortly after 1492. There are records of slaves being in Haiti by 1501. The first blacks arrived in the British colonies almost 200 years before Douglass was born. In August 1619, twenty blacks arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, not as slaves but as indentured servants. These workers were freed after an indentured period of servitude, often seven years. Poor whites from Europe also came to the colonies as indentured servants. Their indentured service was regarded as payment for their voyage across the Atlantic. But while these whites chose to be indentured workers, the Africans were forcibly brought here. However, the number of Africans in the colonies was relatively small throughout the seventeenth century. Toward the end of that century, Africans were brought to North America as slaves in larger numbers. The establishment of large plantations in the South encouraged the import of African slaves who were deemed more cost effective than indentured servants, and more hardy and able to resist European diseases than Native Americans.

Although African slaves were sent mainly to the South, some ended up in the North, as well. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut were the leading Northern slave colonies. At the beginning of the American Revolution, there were an estimated 16,000 slaves in New England. In all the colonies, there were probably about a half-million slaves at that time.

The weather and soil conditions in the North prevented plantation-oriented agriculture. Northern slaves in the pre-Revolutionary era were employed as skilled and unskilled workers on farms and ships and in factories and shipyards. Agriculture was the predominant industry in the South, and slaves were deemed the cheapest, reliable labor for working the land. Two types of work plan were imposed on slaves: the Gang Plan and the Task System. In the former, large groups of slaves toiled in the fields under the supervision of an overseer. In the latter, slaves were given individual tasks to fulfill. Urban slaves tended to work under the Task System. In the South, only favored slaves were excused from toiling in the fields. As you may recall, the slaves on Colonel Lloyd's plantation thought it was an honor to run errands and perform assigned tasks around the big plantation manor.

Because British law did not specify the status of slaves, the colonists created their own slave codes, and these codes varied from state to state. In general, they denied civil rights to slaves, and punishment meted out to slaves was often harsher than that given to whites for the same crime. In effect, there were two different legal codes — one for whites, another for blacks.

The end of the Revolutionary War saw the beginning of a large increase in the number of freed blacks. About 5,000 blacks who fought against the British during the war were emancipated by their masters. Following independence, many Northern states instituted universal emancipation within their states. As a result, the number of freed blacks grew rapidly, as did the restrictive codes placed on them. Freed blacks were immediately seen as an economic threat to Northern whites, and these written and/or unspoken codes were designed to keep blacks subservient. Douglass, for example, was a victim of Northern racism when he attempted — and failed — to find work as a caulker in New Bedford even though he was well qualified and had his own tools.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the question of slavery remained a thorny political issue in the United States. Because the anti-slavery movement in the North was itself divided, a united front against Southern interests never materialized — until the outbreak of the Civil War. Anti-slavery activists belonged to different political camps. The Garrison camp reminded its followers of a higher moral law, that of God, and demanded immediate cessation of slavery on moral grounds. Another faction, the Liberty party, sought to change the status of slaves through reform, through working within the political system. The Free-Soil party, which evolved from the Liberty party, while retaining an anti-slavery platform, wanted to forbid slavery only in the new states and territories.

The Fugitive Slave Act was part of a last-ditch attempt to preserve the Union. Instead, it intensified the differences between the North and South. In 1854, Northern Whigs, anti-slavery Democrats, and Free-Soil party members assembled in Ripon, Wisconsin, to form a new political organization, the Republican party. The anti-slavery forces greeted the nomination and subsequent election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 as politically positive for their cause. The Southern states, however, reacted by moving toward secession. In February 1861, the Southern states chose Jefferson Davis as the Provisional President of the Confederate States. With the attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina by Confederate troops on April 12, 1861, the Civil War began.