Slavery in the United States of America until abolition


For a long time, black slavery has been a fundamental element in the economy of the United States. This, in fact, due to the residues of the colonial organization, depended mainly on the agricultural products of the plantations. In the decades following the Declaration of Independence, cotton, tobacco and the like were grown in the southern states before being bought, processed and marketed by the northern states, in a mechanism of mutual dependence. In 1815, the international slave trade was blocked by almost all European countries, effectively leading to zeroing it. Despite this, in 1815 hardly anyone in the United States believed it was possible to think of abolishing slavery in America. Only in 1830 were real abolitionist movements born.


  1. An economy based on slave farming
  2. The life of slaves
  3. The birth of the abolitionist movement
  4. Abraham Lincoln and the new American economic framework
  5. The war of secession

An economy based on slave farming

Before the colonization of the western territories, the U.S. economy depended in all respects on the southern plantations, which in turn supported the slave labor. When, after 1815, it became impossible to buy new workforce from abroad, the owners of the estates in the south began to incentivize the workers in their possession to have children. This policy will prove more effective than expected. Indeed, between 1815 and 1860, black slaves in the United States went from 1.5 million to about 4 million.

Besides being a source of labor force, slaves were seen in the south as a real capital. Domestic trade, with black workers used as merchandise, was very active and flourishing, especially after the end of the slave trade. With the expansion to the west and the conquest of new land, the owners hoped to get rich by selling their excess slaves to the new farmers.

The life of slaves

Black slaves could be subjected to corporal punishment, were obliged to obey any master’s order that did not violate the law and could be subjected to grueling work rhythms. However, in many ways, their living conditions were similar to those of the working class proletariat of Europe and the northern states. Working hours were similar and killing a slave was nevertheless illegal.

The blacks were also subjected to physical abuse, however, compared to the free workers of the industries, they had a greater availability of food. Furthermore, by the slaveholders of the south, however paradoxical, there was more attention to the health of workers than to industrialists from the north and Europe. Replacing a dead or sick slave by buying a new one, in fact, was much more expensive than hiring a new worker.

From 1815 the flow of slaves from Africa was interrupted. The owners of the southern plantations then put in place policies aimed at promoting the birth rate among the black workforce. This caused a population explosion, bringing the number of slaves from about 1.5 million individuals in 1815 to 4 million in 1860. In this period, with more and more black workers born in the United States, a true parallel African American culture was born. This was a union between American culture and elements of the slave countries of origin.

Free black people

In the United States, especially in the north, several free blacks also lived. Across the country, however, these were subject to important civil rights restrictions. Black people could not carry out many professions, could not take advantage of various public services and did not have the freedom to vote. It was forbidden to give an education to slaves and even free black people were barred from accessing universities and schools attended by whites.

These legal aspects, in part, will survive in many U.S. states until the 1960s, when American racial laws will be abolished at the federal level after the peaceful protest movement led by Martin Luther King.

The birth of the abolitionist movement

The abolitionist slavery movement was born in the 1930s, with the birth of the first significant associations fighting for the liberation of African Americans. In particular, in Boston in 1831 the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded. Public opinion, both from the north and south, welcomed the abolitionist movement with hostility in the early years. This however, though slowly, gained more and more support, especially in the northern states. The protests of the abolitionists were almost always peaceful, cases of violence were very rare.

Abraham Lincoln and the new American economic framework

In 1860, the Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the White House. Lincoln had a moderate abolitionist position and initially planned to let the southern states employ black slaves. By 1815, however, the economic situation had changed significantly.

With the increasing colonization of the western part of the country, the figure of the freesoiler. These were a multitude of small farmers who had competed with the south in selling their produce to the north. The use of slaves was not widespread among freesoilers.

Lincoln, after being elected, prohibited slavery in all states that did not use it by keeping it only in the south. This, however, already went seriously against the interests of large slave owners. The population of black workers, in fact, had exploded and in the south there were more than they needed. The slaveholders therefore aimed to get rich by starting a slave trade with the western states, a possibility blocked by Lincoln’s intervention.

Divergences beyond slavery

In addition to the slave issue, northern states and southern states had divergent economic policy interests in the 1860s. The former, in fact, with an industrial economy, wanted greater protectionism to defend their manufactured products from foreign competition. From the south, however, they wanted greater openness to the international market, more profitable for the sale of raw materials.

The war of secession

The tensions, especially economic, between north and south soon resulted in the secession of North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississipi, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Lousiana, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia and Tennessee from the United States in 1861. These went to found the Confederate States of America. The federal government’s response was not long in coming, and in the same year, the American secession war began. This will cause about 600 thousand deaths and will end in 1865, with the victory of the north.

After the war, the 13th amendment to the Constitution will be enacted, which prohibited slavery at the federal level.

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