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What Is More Impactful: Freedom or Slavery?

Introduction

The history of slavery and everything associated with it is, no doubt, one of the darkest pages for the American national consciousness. A consequence of the nation’s European origins, it led to the decades of oppression and violence committed by white Americans against their Black slaves. The structure and historical connotations applicable to this period of American history and its consequences are extremely difficult to analyze in their entirety. This can be tied back to a wide variety of reasons, starting with several areas of social sciences at play and finishing with prevalent racist bias in research. Nonetheless, this paper attempts to discuss certain aspects of slavery and the fight for freedom in the United States by examining it within the context of the three sources. The sources utilized in the research are The Spread of U.S. Slavery interactive map, “The Demise of Slavery” article, and the portal “Black Founders.” In the end, the study aims to compare the overall importance of these stages in American history.

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The Spread of U.S. Slavery, 1790–1860

Despite its total lack of humanity and inherent cruelty, the origins of slavery can be easily historically traced and somewhat rationalized on primarily economic grounds. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Black people were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and exploited in various types of work.1. Some of the enslaved were sold to brothels or forced to work in the house, but the majority spent their days and nights on the plantations, carrying the cotton production industry2. During the 17th century, European settlers in North America continuously utilized slaves in their households as a cheaper alternative to paid servants.

The number-related data on the number of slaves in the U.S. can be observed at censuses between 1790 and 1860. However, the Census, although an invaluable source, cannot be simply taken at its face value. Slaves were included in the Census because of the three-fifths compromise in the federal Constitution. This rule counted an enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person when apportioning representation in Congress and direct taxes. The total free population was always calculated by subtracting the slave population from the total population.

The Demise Of Slavery

The concept of freedom as we know it today would have been impossible without the long and complex process of the fight for human rights within the country. The first wave of anti-racial sentiment was caused by the liberal ideas and convictions from scientific and religious readings of the eighteenth century. Philosophers and politicians proclaimed in their writings that the existence of the slave trade violated the innate human right to personal freedom. Other writers of the era, particularly in Great Britain, began to speak up against the slave trade for humanitarian reasons. For them, the main problem with slavery was its cruelty and frequent power abuses occurring on behalf of the masters. During the same period, religious leaders and thinkers began to speak against slavery as well. Such prominent priests as Quaker John Woolman began to perceive slavery as a serious sin and offense in the eyes of God. His empathy for slaves and concerns regarding the trade’s morality spread first to the other priests and then further. By the last third of the 18th century, clerical and scientific circles in Great Britain became, generally, anti-slavery.

Despite the ideas of anti-slavery widely circulating in the air, it took the Civil War and the revolution for the statements to be implemented in practice. The British origin of the anti-slavery sentiment in the Western World did not help, as America has resisted the British policies since 1765. To fight the dominion of Britain was, in the eyes of many Americans, to fight against its own form of slavery 2. Consecutively, British critics were more than happy to point out the contradictions between the American liberal philosophy and the country’s economic reliance on the slave trade. As the anti-slavery statement grew stronger, some American masters began to renounce the slave trade in their private households even before it was officially outlawed in certain parts of the country.

The beginning of war rapidly and dramatically escalated the abolitionist movement by involving the slaves themselves. Military authorities, namely Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, and Henry Clinton of California, promised freedom to the slaves in their respective states in exchange for fighting with them. Thousands of slaves all around the country escaped their masters, including those forced to work in the private plantations of the Founding Fathers. Certain states, in particular Massachusetts and New Hampshire, we’re establishing new institutions, essentially outlawing slavery. However, Pennsylvania was the first state to abolish slavery on the legislative level, declaring all children to be born from slaves as independent people. Such post-natal emancipation was copied by other northern states throughout the 19th century. These territories were later referred to as “free soil” across the entirety of the United States.

Across the Southern states, from Georgia to Maryland, slavery persisted, remaining the main backbone of the South’s economy. The legislation was slowly evolving nonetheless, making emancipation more achievable on a structural level. Beyond this, though, moves to free slaves stalled, as the regions in question heavily relied on the output of the tobacco and cotton plantations, powered by the slaves. In contrast, the Northern states were much more industrial and reliant on the production output rather than agriculture. Furthermore, most white Americans in North and South alike could barely imagine a society in which both races lived peacefully and co-existed as equals. Furthermore, Northern states had a lesser percentage of African American population, whereas the Southerners feared the Black majority and the idea of a crowd of former slaves. The Haiti slave rebellion of the 1790-s seemed to confirm the worst fears of the Southerners, making them create additional barriers for emancipation starting in the 1800-s.

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In an attempt to control the ever-escalating internal division, the Constitution declared the existence of slavery and non-slavery parts of the country. It also allowed for the ending of the Atlantic slave trade in 20 years’ time, which was accomplished in 18081. Furthermore, the new Constitution established other rules in relation to the abolition and the rights of the freed slaves and the fugitives. The language used in the legislation writing was ambiguous enough that some of the future abolitionists perceived it as fundamentally anti-slavery. Namely, the document referred not to “slaves” or “slavery,” but instead to “other persons,” or “such persons,” or persons “held to service or labor.” However, it would be more honest to assume that the authors of the document attempted to put off a solution to this fundamental problem until a later day.

After Abraham Lincoln was elected as the president in 1860, he denounced the Confederacy, refusing to accept it as a legitimate part of the state. This decision sparked the Civil War and eventually led to the victory of the industrial abolitionist South and Lincoln’s emancipation speech. The freedom of all of the slaves on the U.S. territory was later secured by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865.

Black people monitored the changing laws and legislations in different states to use the opening opportunities for their advantage. On multiple occasions, slave owners refused to or failed to register their slaves in accordance with procedures, effectively granting the unregistered slaves the status of free people. Furthermore, the recently freed Black Americans were helpful in encouraging and sheltering runaways from their former plantations. The frequency of these cases increased in a geometric progression due to the abolitionist activism following the relevant changes in legislation.

“Black Founders: The Free Black Community in the Early Republic”

From the 1780-s Black Americans have increasingly entered the print and publication world with their own stories to tell. One of such examples, an African-born slave poet Phillis Wheatley has been published for multiple years in newspapers and broadsides before the publication of his first collection in 1773. She was perceived as the unofficially crowned poet of her neighborhood, with most of her writing dedicated to the beauty of the region and its culture.

Another example of a Black contributor to the American culture would be Benjamin Banneker, born free near Baltimore. The boy had a gift for mathematics and hard sciences, which came to the attention of a clerk Andrew Ellicott, who later employed the young man to assist with the conduction of the survey. Banneker’s studies were published eighteen times between 1791 and 1796 alone. In later abolitionist writings challenging the perception of African Americans as inferior to white people, Wheatley and Banneker were the most frequently cited examples of intelligence and ability of Black Americans.

Furthermore, the participation of the Black people in the cultural revolution and internal abolitionist change continued in the religious area. 1794 was the year of origin for the first two independent Black Churches, marking an important spiritual development for the community. Those were St. Thomas, “a new building on Fifth Street near the State House, and Bethel in an abandoned blacksmith’s shack purchased by Allen and set up on a lot at Sixth and Lombard streets, still the site of the church”32. The two Black leaders and their supporters began to discuss the establishment of an independent Black church in 1787, but the race tensions escalated the need for urgency.

Another example of Black excellence in a religious field was a former slave John Gloucester, the protégé of his master Gideon Blackwell. Blackwell brought him to Philadelphia in 1807 to help the development of the Presbyterian evangelical movement in the Black community. A talented and eloquent preacher, Gloucester was quick to gain the trust and interest of the community members. In 1811, he participated in the establishment of the First African Presbyterian Church at Seventh and Shippen Streets, currently known as Bainbridge Street, in cooperation with 123 Black Americans. Though Gloucester was a free man himself, his family was still enslaved until he was able to buy them out in 1819.

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Conclusion

In conclusion, in modernity, the history of slavery in the United States can primarily be contextualized as the history of abolition. It is a sensible assumption that many accounts of the horrors committed during the period of slavery across the U.S. were later destroyed to avoid persecution. Alternatively, some of them might have simply not been documented as a part of the past normalcy. As established in the introduction, the analysis of slavery is complicated by the intersectionality of this period in American history. Once a backbone of the economic system for over half of the country, it bled into sciences and pseudo-sciences, shaped social and cultural norms, and even religious principles. In a tragic but unavoidable way, slavery has molded the past of the United States more than any other long-lasting historical phenomenon. Therefore sociologically, legally, historically, and even financially, its importance cannot be overstated or plausibly ignored.

Nonetheless, as the sources examined in this paper reveal, the anti-slavery statements began coming to fruition culminating in the eventual abolition of slavery. Although white enlightenment scholars and activists of the past utilized their power and resources for the sake of abolition, they were definitely not on the frontline of the change. As Black slaves began to realize there might be a social change on the horizon, they consecutively fought for their place in American society. Their freedom was the direct result of this struggle, which had been necessary only due to the violent slavery systems that had existed in the state. The research question of the paper is difficult to answer, as slavery and freedom are tightly intertwined throughout American history. Overall, freedom triumphs and remains persistent, as both according to the modern U.S. constitution and in practice, no one can be enslaved in America.

References

“Black Founders: The Free Black Community In The Early Republic.” 2021. Librarycompany.Org. Web.

“The Demise Of Slavery, Freedom’s Story, Teacherserve®, National Humanities Center.” 2021. Nationalhumanitiescenter.Org. Web.

Mullen, Lincoln. 2021. “The Spread Of U.S. Slavery, 1790–1860”. Lincolnmullen.Com. Web.

Footnotes

  • 1 “The Demise Of Slavery, Freedom’s Story, Teacherserve®, National Humanities Center.” 2021. Nationalhumanitiescenter.Org. Web.
  • 2 Mullen, Lincoln. 2021. “The Spread Of U.S. Slavery, 1790–1860”. Lincolnmullen.Com. Web.
  • 23 “Black Founders: The Free Black Community In The Early Republic.” 2021. Librarycompany.Org. Web.

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