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Antebellum Period Southerners and Slavery


The Antebellum Period is an era in American history that was characterized by slavery and the slave trade. The period was witnessed just before the civil war of 1812, although historians believe that it extended in the years after the war. [1]It was the time when American society was divided into those in support of and against slavery. During the same period, America was slowly shifting into industrialization. While the Northern part of the country began manufacturing, the Southerners focused on cotton plantations and agricultural production. At that time, industrialization increased the demand for cheap labor. [2] Slaves provided a free workforce during this era hence they were highly preferred by farmers and white settlers. In this case, slavery was widespread for Southerners since they owned most of the plantations. The South relied on slavery for economic prosperity and used the wealth acquired from plantations with slaves as laborers to justify slavery and the slave trade.

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History and Background Information

Slavery refers to a system whereby they are owned as property by other people. The Slave trade can be compared to the human trafficking menace in the modern-day. Slavery in the US commenced as early as the 17th century and continued to spread all over the country’s states. [3] The main reason why the practice was prevalent during the Antebellum period is that slaves provided the cheap labor that could be used in sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations. Despite the horror and adversity associated with the term slavery, it is evident that they played an enormous role in the growth of many world economies at the turn of the 18th century.

During the Antebellum period, the main sources of slavery were either Native Americans or poor white servants who originated mainly from Europe. Although it was a lucrative kind of trade, it had its limitations. Native Americans could easily escape from their areas of work because they were familiar with the terrain where they worked. [4] The poor whites, on the other hand, were considered free after working for a few years as a result of decreased indentured servitude. In most cases, African Americans were segregated on the basis of their skin color, race, or ethnic identity. Blackness was a symbol of evil, a sign of danger and repulsion. [5] This statement basically depicts how being black was considered a curse and white a blessing. Blacks and whites were not allowed to live together, interact with each other, or even have sexual relations with each other. Being black was a taboo, a vice unwanted by society.

Antebellum Period and Industrialization

Between the late 19th Century to early 20th Century, the USA was significantly transformed from merely being a rural dilapidated agrarian society to being an industrial economy. The massive growth was observed in the fields of Communication, Science, Mechanization, and Transportation. Industrialists and scientists collaborated and they were able to develop innovations as a result of harnessing electrical energy. [6] As industrialization expanded, the demand for human labor grew hence; the slave trade thrived. Immigrants were aiming at exploiting the employment opportunities being offered by the newly established industries.

Laborers working environment was characterized by dangerous machines. The factories employed use of enormous hats facilitated mass production of commodities. [7] These were often hazardous. They were contained in small spaces that lacked proper ventilation. The machines produced both toxic fumes and excessive heat which harmed the laborers. According to the textbook about 35000 workers were killed as a result of industrial accidents in 1900.[8] During the same year, about 500,000 laborers were maimed in factory accidents.[9] There was also increased air and water pollution as a result of the industrial revolution.

Besides, laborers endured long working hours in the factories. An average worker was expected to continuously work for a minimum of 10 hours a day. Human labor was provided 6 days a week. Prolonged working hours resulted in illness and extreme fatigue among the workers.[10] Children who resided in the factories worked even up to 18 hours daily. Thirdly, workers were paid low wages and salaries despite the long and strenuous working hours. The majority of the profits obtained from the factories were shared by the factory owners. The rise of mechanization resulted in skilled manpower replacing the unskilled laborers for much less pay. Technological advancement also paved way for machines to replace human input. Unskilled workers were therefore left to compete for small tasks that completed the manufacturing process.

Pay among the workers varied in terms of both age and gender.[11] An average employee earned about 6 dollars on a good week.[12] This was way below a family’s living wage contributing to the continuous poverty cycle within workers.

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Settlers and Slavery

Another important characteristic and evidence of the link between the Antebellum and slaves are how settlers were involving child workers during the period. Due to the growth of factories, the demand for cheap readily available labor grew and as a result, many children found themselves drawn into the labor force. Adult wages were so low that minors were forced to provide labor to aid their parents in making ends meet. According to the National Achieves there were roughly 1.7 million children under the age of 15 providing labor in American factories. Truancy was also a common occurrence during these times.[13] As a result of the poor working conditions accorded to the children provided, they developed various ailments and conditions such as stunted growth, spinal curvature, Tuberculosis, and even contagious diseases.

Mineworkers also faced precarious conditions in their working environments. Occasionally rocks toppled and fell on top of workers crushing them to death. Powder and smoke emanating from mines caused the workers to suffer from lung-related ailments e.g. the “black lung.” [14]In some industries for example the garment industry, workers were not allowed to converse and interact with each other during working hours. Cloth could be stacked in high piles such that workers could not see each other eye to eye. If the job was not complete during the stipulate time one was not paid. In 1911, one of the country’s worst industrial accidents ever to occur took place in the Triangle shirts factory[15]A bin that contained fabric scrap caught fire as a result of a cigarette tossed by probably one of the managers. Fear-stricken employees tried to exit the building in vain. As a result, workers began being protected from such occurrences by both employers and settlers.

Race, Class, Poverty, and Slavery

During the industrial revolution times, poverty was a menace deep-rooted within American societies. People especially industrial workers wallowed in poverty. Due to the low wages and salaries, workers lived in poorly established houses. The structures were ruined and lacked essential necessities such as water and electricity. Poor healthcare was also being accorded to the factory workers. There was a lack of health facilities such as hospitals. Infant mortality was therefore very high as a result. There was no form of insurance being offered by factories on their employees despite the risks they were being exposed to.[16] The few available facilities were crowded and lacked the equipment and medicine.

Education was also neglected during the industrial revolution period. There was a lack of learning institutions equipped with the necessary material required to teach children. Most children became school dropouts as they opted to collaborate with their parents to make ends meet.[17] Illiteracy levels were therefore high. It is also sad to note that despite the low wages and salaries of factory workers, the government imposed high taxes on them. This complicated life further. The lack of jobs and poor living standards resulted in rural to urban migration. People moved into cities in search of means of livelihood. It is important to note that after the industrial revolution had spread all over the nation the living standards of workers and their families gradually started to improve.[18] This is because their wages and salaries were increased by their employees due to government intervention. The per capita consumption of rice, sugar, tobacco, and coffee increased the need for slaves to work on the plantations.

During the slave era, slaves had devised ways to resist the authority of their owners. Although some of the acts of resistance involved violence, most of the ways of resistance were largely non-violent.[19] Some of the ways which the slaves resisted include; stealing, damaging tools of work, faking sickness, working slowly, praying secretly, and learning to read and write. Stealing from the slave owners and damaging tools of work would ensure that the slave’s sabotage work in the plantations as the owners had to either buy new tools or repair the damaged ones. Besides, pretending to be sick and working slowly would ensure they resist the forced labor that the owners had meted on the slaves.

Religion and Slavery

One of the greatest strengths that kept slaves fighting slavery and the self-definition of “slave” was spirituality.[20] Slaves largely depended on spiritual nourishment to fight off the challenges of slavery. Religion gave slaves the assurance that all humans are equal and that they were not lesser beings. Spirituality provided them solace from the mistreatment they faced from their owners as well as the undignified definition of slavery. It enabled them to assert their worth as human beings contrary to them being branded and treated as lesser beings. Slaves would secretly congregate and worship.[21] The gatherings for worship also provided an avenue for them to organize resistance revolutions. Through worshipping together, the slaves were also able to share their suffering hence encouraging each other and offering each other solace, and comforting one another. The slaves would hold secret meetings in the forest and they would worship together away from the plantations where their overseers would be watching.

Secular humanism offers an explanation to the reasons for the existence of enslaved victimization in American society during the 19th century. The Antebellum period explains why slavery was dominant in American and how the belief of slaves as private property led American settlers to take advantage and exploit their slaves.[22] Slaves were part of private property and that the owner had control over the lives of their slaves. Slave trade was widely accepted in most American societies just as any other form of trade that involve the exchange of goods and services.

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One of the major reasons that made slavery common for Southerners in the 17th and 18th centuries was conflicts that arose due to the several immigrations that were witnessed during these periods. As people migrated, they had to settle into a new land that already had occupants leaving them with the option of either displacing them or assimilating and being part of the existing community.[23] These instances led to conflicts between the native occupants of the land and the immigrants which later surfaced and developed into wars. The American civil war was a result of the division of the northern and southern colonies which later fueled into civil war as the two separated and migrated and in the process of migration and settlement, the picked conflicts with the native settlers, and this later developed into civil war between 1860 and 1861.[24] Settlement into the southern and northern colonies was a factor that contributed much to the American civil war. The assertion that the civil war had its roots in the slavery practiced in southern colonies were settled is justified in that the settlements attracted slavery.


In summary, it is evident that there is a correlation between the Antebellum Period Southerners used to justify slavery. Due to the rapid industrialization that occurred during this era, slaves provided an alternative for free or cheap labor. Southerners with settlements and plantations would use the slaves on their farms. In this case, the Antebellum period led to the propagation of slavery both during and after the Civil war. At the time, Southerners were allowed to own slaves as any other property.


Aptheker, Herbert. “The Negro in the Abolitionist Movement.” Science & Society 5, no. 2 (2020), 148-172. Web.

Ferguson, SallyAnn. “Christian Violence and the Slave Narrative.” American Literature 68, no. 2 (2020), 297-320. Web.

Laughlin-Stonham, Hilary. “From Slavery to Civil Rights: On the streetcars of New Orleans 1830s-Present.” Liverpool University Press, 2020. Web.

Shalhope, Robert E. “Race, Class, Slavery, and the Antebellum Southern Mind.” The Journal of Southern History 37, no. 4 (2020), 557-574. Web.

Wills, Mathew. “How Antebellum Christians Justified Slavery: After Emancipation, some Southern Protestants refused to revise their proslavery views. In their minds, slavery had been divinely sanctioned.” JSTOR Daily, (2018).

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