Slavery Comes to America

Long before the first slaves arrived in the English colony of Virginia in 1619, slavery was a thriving institution in the New World. Hundreds of thousands of black men and women were already toiling on the farms and plantations and in the mines of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Mexico and South America and on the offshore islands we call the West Indies.

Few people criticized or objected to slavery; it was one of the world’s oldest social institutions, with roots in ancient Babylon, Greece, and Rome. Greece, the proud forerunner of rule by democracy, found no contradiction in insisting that slavery was essential to a thriving republic. The Roman republic and later the empire had tens of thousands of slaves within its borders.

The Hebrew Bible described Abraham and other early leaders of the Jews as slave owners. In the book of Leviticus, Jehovah told Moses that Jews were forbidden to enslave their brethren, but they were free to buy slaves “from nations around you.” Another biblical passage had a huge influence on associating slavery with black people: Noah’s curse on his son Ham for the sin of seeing his father naked while he was sleeping. (This seemingly harmless act may be a metaphor for a sexual assault.) Noah condemned Ham’s descendants to be “the lowest of slaves.” Among the offspring of Ham was Kush, the supposed progenitor of the blacks who populated Africa.1

The later religion of Islam forbade Muslims from enslaving fellow Muslims. But there was no barrier to enslaving “infidels.” More than a million Christians, captured in wars and conquests, suffered this fate. The Muslims also transported thousands of Africans from nations and tribes that lived south of the Sahara Desert for heavy labor in their Mediterranean empire. Over the centuries, these luckless people acquired a derogatory reputation. One Muslim writer described them as “the least intelligent and least discerning of mankind.”2

This early racism was communicated to white Christians in Spain and Portugal, where there was a Muslim presence for several centuries. Black slaves were numerous in both countries. The Roman Catholic Church found little or no fault with slavery. In 1488, King Ferdinand of Spain gave Pope Innocent VIII a hundred slaves as a gift. The prelate distributed them to various cardinals and Roman nobles. This tolerance was by no means limited to Spain, Portugal, and Italy. The great English humanist Thomas More thought slavery was the proper condition for those convicted of crimes, and he included it in his vision of the perfect republic, Utopia.3

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By the early 1600s, in the capital cities of Lima and Mexico City, half the population was enslaved Africans. France also participated in the imperial game, founding colonies in the West Indies and in what is now modern Louisiana that were heavily dependent on enslaved Africans. When Great Britain entered the competition for colonies, her powerful fleet soon won domination of the world’s seas. The British too turned to Africa, where a veritable industry had developed, dedicated to capturing slaves in the interior and selling them on the seacoast. Over the centuries, the price per slave rose over 1,000 percent.

Between 1501 and the 1880s, when the last two South American states, Brazil and Cuba, abolished slavery, an estimated 12.5 million black men and women were purchased in Africa and resold in America. By far the greatest percentage of this staggering number labored to produce the New World’s most profitable product: sugar—a rare luxury in Europe before Columbus. To grow and harvest it required unremitting, exhausting toil in a climate that was thick with diseases such as malaria and yellow fever.4

For almost four centuries, Brazil and the West Indies consumed (the word is chosen deliberately) 89 percent of all the slaves shipped to the New World. The Spanish mainland colonies imported only 4.4 percent. About 5.6 percent of this involuntary migration came to Britain’s North American colonies.

These colonies were soon heavily involved in the slave-based sugar empire. Tons of molasses from the West Indies travelled to New England, where it was used in hundreds of distilleries to make rum. The same ships sold much-needed grain and other farm products to the overpopulated islands. Some colonies, such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts, participated in transporting slaves from Africa. By 1750, there were a half million slaves in the American colonies. Most of these bondsmen were in the South, but some northern colonies had substantial numbers.

At least 14 percent of New York’s population was slaves; for New Jersey the figure was 12 percent, and for Massachusetts 8 percent. Like the rest of the New World’s settlers, few Americans criticized the institution. “The great majority,” John Jay of New York wrote in 1788, accepted slavery as a matter of course. “Very few . . . even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.”

This attitude was reinforced by the knowledge that slavery was hugely profitable. “The Negroe-trade . . . may justly be termed an inexhaustible fund of wealth and naval power to this nation,” wrote one complacent English economist.5

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There were a few exceptions to this unanimity. In 1688, four Germantown, Pennsylvania, Quakers sent a vehement protest against slavery to their local Monthly Meeting. They declared that purchasing a slave was no different from buying stolen goods. The local Meeting forwarded it to Philadelphia’s Quaker elders, who had authority of sorts over all the Quakers in America. The Philadelphia elders deposited it in their files and ignored it. Another century would pass before anyone else heard of it.

In 1700, Samuel Sewall, a Massachusetts judge who was deeply troubled by his role in the 1692 witch trials, freed a black man named Adam. The slave was able to prove that his master, John Saffin, had promised him freedom if he worked hard for seven years. Saffin reneged on the promise, claiming the slave had often been disobedient and defiant. The ex-master objected to Sewall’s verdict and the judge responded in a pamphlet, The Selling of Joseph, that condemned the injustice of enslaving any human being, black or white. “It is most certain that all men, as they are sons of Adam . . . have an equal right unto liberty and all other outward comforts of life,” Sewall wrote.

John Saffin responded in turn with a crude poem that made him one of the first Americans to argue that racial inferiority justified slavery.


Cowardly and cruel are these blacks innate

Prone to revenge, imp of inveterate hate

He that exasperates them, soon espies

Mischief and Murder in their very eyes

Libidinous, deceitful, false and Rude

The spume issue of ingratitude

The premises consider’d, all may tell

How near good Joseph they are parallel.6

Four decades passed before another American spoke out against slavery—and made a difference in the way many people perceived it.

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John Woolman was a twenty-two-year-old clerk in a dry goods store in Mount Holly, New Jersey. One day in 1742, he looked up from his desk, where he was adding up the day’s receipts, when his employer said, “John, I’ve sold Nancy to this gentleman. Draw up a bill of sale for her.”

His employer and the man beside him were both Quakers—the same faith into which John Woolman had been born. Quakers believed they should try to live as if every man and woman were a priest, with a direct relationship—and responsibility—to Jesus Christ and his teachings. Reading the Bible and meditating on the sacred words often brought a message from God—“a new light”—into their lives.

John Woolman got out a fresh sheet of paper and his quill pen. But something seemed to paralyze his arm. He could not write a word. What was happening to him? Why was a voice in his soul telling him that selling Nancy was wrong?

Nancy was a black slave who worked in his employer’s house. Woolman did not know her well. In 1742, thousands of American Quakers owned slaves. Neither Woolman nor anyone else knew about the Germantown Quakers of 1688.

Suddenly John Woolman heard himself saying, “I believe slave-keeping to be a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion.”

Both the buyer and the seller told Woolman this was a “light” that had not yet reached them. Would he please write the bill of sale? With great reluctance, John Woolman completed the document. By evening, Nancy was gone from Mount Holly. For the next few weeks John Woolman remained deeply troubled. In his journal he reproached himself for not asking to be excused from writing the bill of sale “as a thing against my conscience.”7

Born on a farm in the Rancocas River valley in western New Jersey, John Woolman was a happy child who responded to the beauty of nature and a growing sense of God’s presence in his soul. By the time he began working in Mount Holly, he had decided to devote himself to preaching God’s word as it was revealed to him.

A few months later, when another Quaker asked Woolman to draw up a bill of sale for a slave, he refused. This man confessed that keeping a slave disturbed his conscience too. The men parted with “good will,” Woolman noted in his journal.8

Slavery continued to trouble John Woolman. One day a close friend said he was drawn by the Spirit to make a journey to Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas to preach. He asked Woolman to join him. Woolman found the journey very upsetting. In the southern colonies, tens of thousands of slaves toiled on large plantations. New Jersey had only about ten thousand slaves. Most worked on relatively small farms, where the owner usually labored beside them.

Whenever Woolman and his friend stayed with southerners who “lived in ease on the hard labor of their slaves,” Woolman found it difficult to accept the food and drink he was offered. Again and again he felt compelled to “have conversation with them in private concerning it.” When he revealed his growing conviction that slavery was a sin, many of his hosts politely told him to mind his own business. A few became angry.

Woolman confided to his journal his fear that slavery was casting “a gloom over the land” with consequences that would be “grievous” to future generations. Most colonists—including most Quakers—continued to ignore him. In 1750, Britain’s Parliament officially sanctioned the slave trade. The city of Liverpool, which was making millions of pounds from the business, commissioned an artist to portray a black slave as part of their official seal.

John Woolman kept trying to stir consciences. He wrote a pamphlet, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, and a fellow Quaker read it to the Philadelphia Meeting. It was an earnest argument against slavery as an injustice and a violation of the principles of the Christian religion.

With marriage and children, Woolman’s responsibilities grew. He worked as a tailor, investing his profits in an orchard. But he spent part of every year traveling to preach against slavery. “What shall we do when God riseth up?” he asked at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends.

In Rhode Island, Woolman discovered that Thomas Hazard, son of one of the richest men in the colony, had become so troubled by the question Woolman was raising that he had freed all his slaves. His father, who owned far more slaves, was outraged and threatened to disinherit him. In 1758, when Woolman again addressed the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the Quakers appointed a committee to begin working to abolish slavery in the colonies.

The committee decided to visit Newport, Rhode Island, and John Woolman was invited to join them. It was an agonizing experience. Rhode Island’s ships and seamen brought thousands of slaves from Africa each year. The sight of the pens and chains aboard the slave ships made Woolman physically ill. In his journal he told of feeling like the biblical prophet Habakkuk when he saw people do things of which Jehovah disapproved. “My lips quivered . . . and I trembled in myself.”9

Woolman petitioned the Rhode Island legislature to abolish the slave trade. The Newport Quakers, spurred by Thomas Hazard, expressed a cautious “unity” with the idea. The legislature ignored the petition. But Thomas Hazard vowed to devote the rest of his life to fighting for the abolition of slavery.

Back home in New Jersey, Woolman continued the struggle. To bear witness, he stopped using sugar when he realized it was produced by slaves in the West Indies. He called blacks his brothers and sisters, and reminded people that God was indifferent to the color of a person’s skin. When he realized most of the clothes worn by colonists were dyed with indigo produced by slaves, he wore only undyed garments. This meant he wore white all year.

In 1772 John Woolman went to England, hoping to enlist English Quakers in a campaign to outlaw the slave trade in the entire British empire. He appeared at the London Yearly Meeting of Ministers and Elders, the most respected body in Quakerdom. More than a few members were rich, and many of them were distinguished scientists and thinkers.

These sophisticated Londoners goggled at John Woolman. “His dress was as follows,” one wrote. “A white hat, a coarse raw linen shirt, his coat, waistcoat and breeches of white coarse woolen cloth, with yarn stockings.” He presented to the Meeting his introduction from his brethren in New Jersey. It was read aloud. According to one account of the ensuing scene, Dr. John Fothergill, a noted physician, rose to suggest in an icy voice that Woolman’s “service”—the concern that had brought him across the ocean—was accepted without any need for him to speak, and he should go home as soon as possible.

Any other man might have slunk out the door, but John Woolman—firmly, calmly, without a hint of anger or reproof in his voice—rose and began explaining why he had come to England. When he finished, there was a long embarrassed silence. Dr. Fothergill broke it by rising and asking John Woolman to forgive him.10

This was the beginning of a series of heartfelt welcomes that Woolman received from English Quakers as he trudged north from London through the summery countryside to the town of York. There he spoke again on the evils of the slave trade. But toward the close of his speech, his normally smooth sentences became confused. By that night he was complaining of dizziness and weakness. The following day, everyone realized John Woolman had smallpox.

His English hosts nursed him tenderly, but the disease, one of the worst killers of the time, was inexorable. About 2:00 a.m. a week later, Woolman awoke and asked for a pen. On a piece of paper he wrote: “I believe my being here is in the wisdom of Christ.” A few hours later he was dead.

In the eyes of the world, John Woolman died an eccentric failure. But within fourteen years his friend Thomas Hazard would persuade the Rhode Island legislature to prohibit the importation of slaves. Anthony Benezet, inspired by Woolman’s pamphlet to the Philadelphia Meeting, founded a school for black children and wrote a series of blazing denunciations of slavery and the slave trade. In the decades after his death, Woolman’s journal was reprinted dozens of times, reaching tens of thousands of readers.

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Thus far we have not paid much attention to the black men and women who were the victims of this oppressive global system. How did they respond to the cruelties of what was soon called “the Middle Passage” across the Atlantic from Africa? For weeks, they were chained in a ship’s hold with about as much space as a corpse had in a coffin. Since profit was the purpose of the voyage, they were fed only enough to maintain life. No one bothered to dispose of the feces and urine from their bodies, creating a stench below decks that few passengers or crew members could inhale for more than a few minutes.

It should surprise no one to learn that the captives found these conditions unendurable. Not a few slaves committed suicide by jumping overboard during the few minutes each day that they were permitted to come up on deck. Others found ways to break their chains and launched shipboard insurrections, sometimes using weapons smuggled to them by female slaves, who were allowed more freedom aboard the ship. Occasionally the rebels succeeded in capturing the ship and returning to Africa. Most of the revolts were suppressed with murderous fury.

About 10 percent of the slave ships experienced insurrections. One English captain, writing in 1700, told how he searched every corner of his ship each day, looking for pieces of wood or metal that could be used as weapons, and occasionally discovering a concealed knife. He insisted such vigilance was the only way to head off sudden death.11

A good example of the slaves’ resourcefulness was a near eruption on a ship captained by twenty-five-year-old John Newton in 1751. A slave who was brought up on deck because he had oozing ulcers on his body managed to steal a marlin spike and pass it through the deck grating to the slaves below. In an hour, twenty slaves had broken their chains and loosened the bulkhead doors of the hold. Captain Newton thanked God (he was deeply religious) that he had a full crew aboard. His sailors were able to smash the uprising in a few violent minutes.

As time passed, many slave ships bought insurrection insurance. But this practice led to another abuse. Some captains, fearful that sick slaves would communicate their illness to others on the ship, threw the diseased Negroes overboard and claimed payment for them from the insurance company. There were few limits to the cruelties that slave ship captains felt they could perpetrate without fear of retribution.12

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In America, recently arrived slaves were often rebellious, especially when they encountered slaves from the West Indies, where brutal treatment made revolts frequent. In 1712, two slaves from the islands led a revolt in New York that began by setting a building on fire. They killed nine white men who were trying to extinguish the blaze. The insurrection was quickly suppressed.

More formidable was a rebellion in South Carolina in 1739. By this time the colony had been importing slaves so rapidly that in some districts blacks outnumbered whites by large majorities. In the West Indies, the ratio was often 10 to 1. But each West Indian island maintained at least one regiment of British troops to keep order. There were no professional soldiers in South Carolina. This may have emboldened a group of slaves from the African kingdom of Kongo to launch a revolt.

Their leader was a slave named Jemmy, who could read and write. Around him he gathered about twenty other slaves, all from Kongo. They were Catholics, like most of Kongo, thanks to centuries of contact with Portuguese traders. Lately the country had been racked by a civil war, which had led to the capture and enslavement of Jemmy and his friends.

Sunday, September 9, was the day after a Catholic feast day celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary. With the hope of divine blessing, Jemmy and his followers marched on a store on the Stono River, southwest of Charleston, chanting “Liberty!” They killed the owners of the store and seized enough weapons and ammunition to make them a formidable force. Their destination was Spanish Florida, where they expected to receive a warm welcome from fellow Catholics, who were on the brink of a war with the British and Americans.

Hoping to gather recruits and find more weapons, the rebels burned a half dozen plantations and killed at least twenty whites who tried to resist them. By this time the South Carolina government had mustered about a hundred well-armed men on horseback. They overtook the slaves on the Edisto River, where a fierce fire fight erupted. It ended in the rout of the rebels, but not before they had killed twenty whites. A handful of Jemmy’s men retreated about thirty miles, where they were overtaken by a group of Chickasaw and Catawba Indians, hired by the South Carolinians. Also in this final fight were some loyal slaves, who were apparently eager to destroy the rebel remnant.13

In a gruesome aftermath, the South Carolinians executed most of the Kongo army’s survivors. A few were sold to buyers in the West Indies. The heads of many rebels were mounted on stakes along roads around Charleston as warnings to other slaves who might be considering a revolt. The shaken South Carolinians passed a Negro Act, which required a ratio of at least one white to every ten blacks on a plantation—a dictum soon ignored.

The law also prohibited blacks from growing their own food, learning to read, or earning money in their spare time. Another clause made it difficult to free a slave. The goal was to create a system with a minimum of freedom. Only in this claustrophobic world would South Carolinians feel safe.

Over the next two years, slave uprisings elsewhere in South Carolina and Georgia did little to enlarge this sense of theoretic security. Even more sensational was a revolt in New York City in 1741. About 20 percent of the city’s population were slaves, stirring uneasiness among the whites. The conspiracy was led by a slave who was urged on by a Catholic priest, a refugee from persecution in Protestant-controlled England.

The plan was similar to the 1712 uprising—to start a series of fires that would devastate the city, then kill the whites as they struggled to extinguish them. But the scale and ambitions of these conspirators were larger. Two Spanish-speaking slaves assured the rebels they would receive help from Spain and France, who were at war with England.

The conspirators met at a tavern frequented by blacks and poor whites; it was run by a man in sympathy with the rebels. In a few weeks, no less than thirteen fires erupted. The most unnerving blaze destroyed the royal governor’s house and much of Fort George, the city’s principal defense against an attack from the sea.

A woman who lived at the tavern offered to identify the conspirators to escape punishment for a recent arrest for theft. In a series of trials, seventeen blacks were convicted and hanged, thirteen blacks were burned at the stake, and four whites, including the suspected priest, were hanged. Another seventy suspected blacks were deported to the West Indies. The story, reported in newspapers from Boston to Savannah, sent new shock waves of fear and anxiety about black uprisings up and down the thousand-mile Atlantic coastline.14

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As the thirteen North American colonies became more prosperous and sophisticated, fears of political oppression began to absorb the public mind. In the early 1760s, rebellious James Otis of Massachusetts disputed the British Parliament’s claim to the right to tax the Americans. “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” he declared, words that the Catholic Irish, ruled as a conquered nation by the Protestant English, had been using in vain for several decades. Men in other colonies took the same stance, as the British, with an arrogance that seemed to come naturally to them, inflicted more taxes.

Benjamin Rush, an outspoken Philadelphia doctor, condemned the “servitude” Parliament inflicted on Americans. Even a moderate Virginia planter like George Washington began to see a transatlantic hand in his pocket whenever Parliament was in the mood. It was imperative for the Americans to resist this incipient tyranny, Washington said, before they were reduced to “the most abject state of slavery that ever was designed for mankind.”15

This political slavery was defined by a New Englander as “being wholly under the power and control of another as to our actions and properties.” The words were obviously inspired by African slavery as practiced in both the North and South. James Otis, in one of his assaults on the British, made the comparison explicit. Was it right, he asked, to enslave a man because he was black? “Will short curled hair like wool . . . help the argument? Can any logical inference in favor of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or short face?” Slavery made no more sense, Otis argued, than the British claim that Parliament had power over colonists living three thousand miles away who, in the course of the previous 150 years, had tamed a wilderness and created free societies.16

Parliament, encouraged by the headstrong young king, George III, ignored these explosive words. The New Englanders were soon led by Boston’s Samuel Adams, who would later confess that independence had been the “first wish of [his] heart” for a long time. They united the colonies with resentful letters and broadsides circulated by Committees of Correspondence. Newspapers became “political engines” that preached rebellious ideas in fiery prose. Next, boycotts of British products shook the merchant class of the Mother Country and demonstrated a growing American unity of purpose.

In December 1773, Sam Adams’s followers dumped thousands of pounds of British East India Company tea, worth a half million modern dollars, into Boston Harbor to protest a three-pence-per-pound royal tax. The British responded by sending four regiments to close the port of Boston, instantly alienating the rest of the colonies. Soon a “continental” congress met in Philadelphia, with delegates from every colony except Georgia.

Britain ignored the congress’s respectful pleas to King George, asking him to resolve the crisis. In Massachusetts an embryo army of “minute men,” sworn to fight on sixty seconds notice, began drilling in the countryside outside Boston. When the second Continental Congress met in the spring of 1775, George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, wore the military uniform of a colonel of his colony’s militia. It was a bold prediction that war was imminent.

On April 19, 1775, gunfire between redcoats and Americans in Lexington, Massachusetts, triggered a running battle that left over a hundred men dead on both sides. To unite the colonies, Sam Adams and his second cousin John, who had displayed considerable ability as a legislative leader, proposed George Washington as commander in chief of an American army.

In the South, some people were uneasily aware that they had “Domestick enemies” to worry about, as well as the British army. Would the British use the slaves’ smoldering anger and hunger for freedom to undo the rebellious whites? South Carolina was riddled by fear of this all too real possibility as the Revolution gathered momentum. In Virginia, a farseeing if jittery young rebel, James Madison, started worrying about it as early as 1774.17

Little more than a year later, the hotheaded royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, called on the colony’s slaves to desert their masters and rally to his standard with a promise of freedom. An alarmed George Washington wrote from Massachusetts that if Dunmore “is not crushed before Spring, he will become the most dangerous man in America. His strength will increase like a snowball rolling downhill.”

Only about 300 of Virginia’s 200,000 slaves responded to Dunmore, who formed them into a “Loyal Ethiopian Regiment.” The governor’s experiment came to an end at the December 9, 1775, Battle of Great Bridge. White Virginians and a sprinkling of free blacks routed Dunmore’s recruits and a company of British regulars. Parliament hastily disowned the governor’s scheme, which had turned numerous loyal slave-owners into rebels.18

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Six months later, John Adams, whose speeches in the divided Continental Congress had made some listeners call him “the Atlas of Independence,” exulted when the delegates voted to declare America independent. Adams asked a thirty-three-year-old Virginia delegate, Thomas Jefferson, to prepare a written declaration explaining America’s decision to become a new country. Few people realized that a major critic of slavery was stepping onto the world’s stage.

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