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Describe the rapid growth of slavery in the South after 1800 and analyze slave life and resistance on plantations and farms across the South, as well as the impact of the cotton gin on the economics of slavery and Southern agriculture.

Image to the right is a Map of slavery, 1860 census. Areas shaded darker indicated a larger percentage of slaves in the population


Topics on this page:

Background on Slavery
  • Facts about Slavery in the South
Slavery and Racism
Life as a Slave
  • Gordon, A Slave
  • Solomon Northrup
  • Harriet Jacobs
Expansion of Slavery
Resistance to Slavery
  • Slave Revolts
    • Nat Turner Rebellion
The Underground Railroad

Focus Questions:

  • What accounted for the rapid growth of slavery in the South after 1800?

  • How did slaves resist slavery?

  • What was the impact of the cotton gin on slavery and Southern agriculture?

African American men and women work on a southern plantation, 1862
African American men and women work on a southern plantation, 1862

For more see, WHII.8 and Grade 5.31

Map_of_USA_MA.svg.pngSee also AP U.S. History 6.

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngFor an historical perspective on slavery in the Americas, see Ira Berlin's books: Many Thousands Gone (2000), Generations of Captivity (2004), and The Making of African America (2010).

Read Howard Zinn's account of slavery in America, from A People's History of the United States.

number of slaves by state
number of slaves by state

Slaves going to the field
Slaves going to the field

Facts about slavery in the South

  • The South's slave population increased ten-fold between 1780 and 1860.
    • Southern slavery was especially brutal and degrading and the sale of slaves from the old South to the new territories broke apart many African families.
  • The cotton gin expanded the system of slavery by making it possible to harvest "short staple" cotton throughout the South.
  • Three-quarters of all southern White families owned no slaves.
    • A typical slave owner worked a family farm with fewer than 10 slaves.
    • About 10,000 families owned 50 more slaves on large plantations.
    • The South also had a sizable free Black population that occupied an uneasy place in the class system.
  • Slaves resisted bondage by many different means from slave revolts to establishing their own cultural traditions (Information taken from Lessons from History: Essential Understandings and Historical Perspectives Students Should Acquire, National Center for History in the Schools, 1992).

Slavery and Racism

The institution of slavery is intrinsically related to the development of racist ideologies and the construction of racial identities which still play a prominent role in American society.

Read a background of "The Historical Origins and Development of Racism" in the Western world, from PBS.

Read about how "Legacy of Slavery Still Fuels Anti-Black Attitudes in the Deep South," in this study from the University of Rochester.

View some early images of slaves, taken by J.T. Zealy in the 1850s in South Carolina. WARNING: some may find the images disturbing, or inappropriate for classroom viewing. These Daguerreotypes were commissioned by Louis Agassiz, a biologist from Harvard University who wanted to use the images as evidence to support his ideas of scientific racism. Read Brian Wallis' "Black Bodies, White Science," which provides one way of analyzing these images. Wallis argues that they are part of a larger narrative of constructing racial identities in the United States.

View a Crash Course video providing an informative overview on this topic, including what life was like for a slave in the 19th century United States and how slaves resisted oppression.
View this resource from Rutgers University to find films about race and slavery.

podcast icon.pngThe racist legacy of slavery is not contained to the American South. View or listen to a talk from MIT about "Jim Crow and the Legacy of Segregation Outside the South," which explores how ideologies from this era developed during Reconstruction and continue to affect us today.

Divisions Between the Upper and Lower South on the Question of Slavery

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngIn a new book, Deliver Us From Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (Oxford University Press, 2009), historian Lacy K. Ford indicates that different regions of the South followed different patterns in addressing question of slavery.
  • In the Upper South, politicians and planters favored a slow extinction of slavery.
    • As Ira Berlin noted in his review of Ford's book for The New York Times Book Review ("The Not-So-Solid South," September 20, 2009), these southerners regarded the institution as "dangerous, morally indefensible, unrepublican and economically retrograde."
    • They urged a policy of "whitening" that would remove Blacks from the region by prohibiting slavery and deporting Africans back to Africa.
  • In the Lower South, slavery was tied to great profits and economic growth through the production of cotton and politicians and planters urged its continuation.

Life as a Slave

  • In the lower South the majority of slaves lived and worked on cotton plantations. Most of these plantations had fifty or fewer slaves, although the largest plantations have several hundred. Cotton was by far the leading cash crop, but slaves also raised rice, corn, sugarcane, and tobacco.
    • Besides planting and harvesting, there were numerous other types of labor required on plantations and farms. Enslaved people had to clear new land, dig ditches, cut and haul wood, slaughter livestock, and make repairs to buildings and tools. In many instances, they worked as mechanics, blacksmiths, drivers, carpenters, and in other skilled trades.
      • Black women carried the additional burden of caring for their families by cooking and taking care of the children, as well as spinning, weaving, and sewing.
  • The diets of enslaved people were inadequate or barely adequate to meet the demands of their heavy workload. They lived in crude quarters that left them vulnerable to bad weather and disease. Their clothing and bedding were minimal as well. Slaves who worked as domestics sometimes fared better, getting the castoff clothing of their masters or having easier access to food stores.
  • The heat and humidity of the South created health problems for everyone living there. However, the health of plantation slaves was far worse than that of whites. Unsanitary conditions, inadequate nutrition and unrelenting hard labor made slaves highly susceptible to disease. Illnesses were generally not treated adequately, and slaves were often forced to work even when sick.
  • One of the worst conditions that enslaved people had to live under was the constant threat of sale. Slaves were sometimes sold as a form of punishment. Immediate families were often separated.
  • African American women had to endure the threat and the practice of sexual exploitation. There were no safeguards to protect them from being sexually stalked, harassed, or raped, or to be used as long-term concubines by masters and overseers.
  • The drivers, overseers, and masters were responsible for plantation discipline. Slaves were punished for not working fast enough, for being late getting to the fields, for defying authority, for running away, and for a number of other reasons. The punishments took many forms, including whippings, torture, mutilation, imprisonment, and being sold away from the plantation. Slaves were even sometimes murdered.
  • In addition to the authority practiced on individual plantations, slaves throughout the South had to live under a set of laws called the Slave Codes. The codes varied slightly from state to state, but the basic idea was the same: the slaves were considered property, not people, and were treated as such. Slaves could not testify in court against a white, make contracts, leave the plantation without permission, strike a white (even in self-defense), buy and sell goods, own firearms, gather without a white present, possess any anti-slavery literature, or visit the homes of whites or free blacks. The killing of a slave was almost never regarded as murder, and the rape of slave women was treated as a form of trespassing.
  • Whenever there was a slave insurrection, or even the rumor of one, the laws became even tighter. At all times, patrols were set up to enforce the codes. During times of insurrection -- either real or rumored -- enraged whites formed vigilance committees that terrorized, tortured, and killed blacks.
  • While most slaves were concentrated on the plantations, there were many slaves living in urban areas or working in rural industry. Although over 90% of American slaves lived in rural areas, slaves made up at least 20% of the populations of most Southern cities. In Charleston, South Carolina, slaves and free blacks outnumbered whites. Many slaves living in cities worked as domestics, but others worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers, or other tradespeople.

Gordon, A Slave

whipping scars.jpg
  • In March 1863, a man known only as Gordon escaped from slavery on a Louisiana plantation and after a harrowing journey found safety among Union soldiers encamped at Baton Rouge.
  • Before enlisting in a black regiment, he was examined by military doctors, who discovered horrific scarring on his back—the result of a vicious whipping by his former overseer.
  • This photograph documenting Gordon’s condition was later published in Harper's Weekly and created a sensation when it reached the public. It quickly became one of the most powerful proofs of slavery’s brutality.
  • Sergeant Gordon was later reported to have fought bravely in the Union assault on Port Hudson, but nothing further is known about his life.

Solomon Northrup

external image Solomon_Northup_by_Nebro%2C_edit.jpg
primary_sources.PNGAmerican Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology, University of Virginia

primary_sources.PNGRead "Twelve Years a Slave," a first-hand account of slave life by Solomon Northup.


Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs, 1894
Harriet Jacobs, 1894

Female_Rose.pngIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), written by Harriet Jacobs under the pen name Linda Brent describes the life of a female house slave in the South before the Civil War.
multicultural.pngThe Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano written by himself describes the journey of slave from capture to freedom.

Expansion of Slavery

game_icon.svg.pngPowerpoint on the spread of slavery after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793: .

  • Slavery was concentrated in the upper south for the production of tobacco and rice prior to the invention of the cotton gin. But by the time the cotton gin was invented the soil of the upper south in the areas of the Virginia were being exhausted of its nutrients.
  • The cotton gin allow for the separation of the seed from short staple cotton making in profitable for the harvesting of cotton.
  • Therefore slavery and cotton production moved into the deep south which included the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas which had a climate that was conducive for cotton to flourish.
  • Between 1820 and 1860 cotton production in America rapidly increased.
  • By 1860 cotton accounted for 58% of American exports and 75% of the world's entire supply of cotton.
  • The cotton produced by the south fulled the textile industries of the North and Great Britain which helped usher in the industrial revolution.
  • For a more in depth understanding of the integration of the economies of the north and south visit USI. 35.

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

Dramatic Event page on Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin
Cotton Gin 2.jpg
The cotton gin

  • In 1794, U.S.-born inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) patented the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber.
    • By the mid-19th century, cotton had become America’s leading export.
      • Despite its success, the gin made little money for Whitney due to patent-infringement issues.
      • His invention offered Southern planters a justification to maintain and expand slavery even as a growing number of Americans supported its abolition, leading to the rapid growth of slavery in the deep south.

Multimedia.png View a HIstory channel video on Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.

multicultural.pngResistance to Slavery

For background, see Slave Resistance from the National Humanities Center.

Frontispiece from David Walker’s 1830 Appeal, 1829
Frontispiece from David Walker’s 1830 Appeal, 1829

Slave Resistance was a way for enslaved African Americans to attack the system of slavery in various ways.
  • Some ways slaves resisted slavery was known as "day-to-day resistance" which included less serious methods of attacking the system. Slaves would often fake illness, break tools, and work slowly to undermine the profits of their owners.
  • However this resistance often met punishment by the owner if they determined that these actions were intentional. Punishments could included whipping or separating family members if someone was resisting.
  • Direct resistance was more substantial resistance to the system of slavery which included slave rebellions, arson, poisoning of masters and running away. Direct resistance often met with harsher punishment including more severe beatings/whippings and execution.
primary_sources.PNGSummary of David Walker's Appeal, September 28, 1829

Click here for a link to "The Abolition Project" which contains information on both slavery and its resistance.

womens history.jpgCelia was a slave who resisted her masters sexual advances and through self-defense killed her white master and was executed for doing so. See more at this site from the Famous Trials website.

Slave Revolts

For background, see The Fear of Slave Revolt from Colonial Williamsburg.

Gabriel Posser Slave Revolt (1800) from Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (1974). See also Gabriel's Conspiracy from Africans in America.

See the Liberation Strategies section of Slavery--The Peculiar Institution from the Library of Congress' African American history website.

The Five Greatest Slave Rebellions according to PBS.
  • Stono Rebellion, 1739
  • New York City Conspiracy 1741
  • Gabriel's Conspiracy, 1800
  • German Coast Uprising, 1811
  • Nat Turner's Rebellion, 1837

Multimedia.pngRebellion: John Horse and the Black Seminoles, the First Black Rebels to Beat American Slavery.

Read about John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Brown, a white abolitionist from New England, believed that the only way to end slavery was through violence. His actions illustrate growing tensions over the institution of slavery, and in some ways foreshadow the impeding Civil War.

John Brown became something of a martyr during the Civil War, and was the subject of a popular marching song, "John Brown's Body." See this lesson plan which has students compare two different versions of the song, one made during the war and another made afterward.
Capture of Nat Turner
Capture of Nat Turner

Nat Turner Rebellion

The Nat Turner Rebellion from History Matters.

Nat Turner Resources from Black History Web This website provides an informative video about Nat Turner along with links to primary sources, timelines, articles, books and lesson plans.

Video about the Nat Turner Revolt from PBS

Primary Source Newspapers About Nat Turner's Revolt Students can analyze the different perspectives of the articles depending on who wrote the article and when. How was Nat Turner viewed by Southern White folks at the time of the rebellion? How was Nat Turner viewed by African Americans in the latter part of the nineteenth century?

See also A Rebellion to Remember: The Legacy of Nat Turner.

Nat Turner Slave Revolt (1831)
Multimedia.pngClick here for a 2004 NPR story on The Many Faces of Nat Turner, an independent film that re-examines William Stryon's 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.

external image Red_apple.jpgDenmark Vesey Slave Revolt, Trial and Execution (1822). This lesson plan from Teaching History.org uses primary sources and historian accounts to ask students how to define and understand resistance to slavery in light of the Denmark Vesey case.

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor was it underground.
  • It was mostly an escape network that was utilized by southern slaves looking to escape first to the northern states(most of which did not have slavery) and then eventually to Canada (which as an English Colony, had abolished slavery in 1834)
    • It was mostly the work of abolitionist sympathizers who were forming an "underground" resistance to slavery, hence the name of the route.
      • There was no one specific route, there were many different meeting places, safe houses, and modes of transportation that were implemented in order to help free southern slaves.
A Ride for Liberty--The Fugitive Slaves, Eastman Johnson, 1862
A Ride for Liberty--The Fugitive Slaves, Eastman Johnson, 1862

primary_sources.PNGPrior to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, getting to the northern states of the US would have likely been far enough north for a slave to feel safe enough to not be returned to the south.

However with its passing the Fugitive Slave Act allowed for "slave catchers" to go into the northern states, capture former "slaves" and return them to the south. This process however was marred with unethical abuse.
  • The first problem was that a lot of the slave catchers would actually bring back black men who had been free their whole lives, or who had been freed by a different plantation owner.
    • The second was that in order to bring a escaped slave back to the south, they had to be brought before a magistrate. The magistrate got paid based on the outcome of the case, and they were generally paid double the amount to send a slave back to the south as opposed to keeping the slave a free person in the north.
Multimedia.pngThe Underground Railroad from National Geographic presents an interactive picture of the how African Americans fled from slavery.

See also Aboard the Underground Railroad from the National Park Service and The Underground Railroad in Rochester, New York from the University of Rochester.

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 3.33.37 PM.pngThe Underground Railroad: Journey to Freedom from National Geographic

See also Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad? by Henry Louis Gates from PBS The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
Routes of the Underground Railroad
Routes of the Underground Railroad

game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "Flight to Freedom" in which you play Lucy, a slave who must make decisions on whether to run away, stay, and make other life choices on a southern plantation.
game_icon.svg.pngClick here to play "The Underground Railroad" from Scholastic.

Literary Texts

Slaves and abolitionists also resisted slavery through texts and literature. Frederick Douglass ran an abolitionist newspaper The North Star, as did William Lloyd Garrison with The Liberator. Read more about literary sources of resistance here.

primary_sources.PNGRead Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestselling novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, which helped spread opposition to slavery.
what life was like for a slave in the 19th century United States, and how slaves resisted oppression,