The South and Slavery

In the 17th and 18th centuries, enslaved Africans worked mainly on tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations of the southern coast from Virginia down to Georgia. 

By the end of the 18th century, the land used to grow tobacco was nearly exhausted and the South faced an economic crisis that put the future growth of slavery in doubt. 

At the same time, the American Revolution changed the way many former colonists thought about slavery. Particularly, in the North, Americans began to link the oppression of enslaved Africans to their own oppression by the British and started to call for slavery’s abolition. The Federal Constitution acknowledged slavery, but nobody was sure what the future of slavery would be in the United States.  

The mechanization of the textile industry in England in the 1790s led to a huge demand for American cotton, a southern crop that was extremely labor intensive. To sell cotton you first have to remove the seeds from the raw cotton by hand. This difficulty had always made cotton an expensive crop to grow. But with demand growing, southern plantation owners began to consider the crop as a replacement for their failing harvests.

 In 1793, a young northern schoolteacher named Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and made slavery more important in the South. The cotton gin was a simple device that efficiently removed the seeds. His device was widely copied and within a few years the South would transition from the large scale production of tobacco to the cotton. King cotton, as it quickly became called, reinforced the region’s dependence on slave labor. 

By comparison, in the north slavery died out. Although many of the region’s businessmen grew rich on the slave trade, slavery had never been widespread and under pressure from the new abolitionist movements came to an end. Between 1774 and 1804, all of the northern states abolished slavery.  The United States had become a nation divided by slavery. 

In the South, the slave population grew rapidly. Although the United States Congress outlawed the African slave trade in 1808, the domestic trade flourished and the enslaved population in the south tripled over the next 50 years. By 1860 there were over 4 million slaves with just over half laboring on cotton plantations. Together they made up one-third of the population of the south
Today, we are going to try and understand what slavery was like from the perspective of the cotton plantation slave. 

Past and Present, Chapter 11 “Slaves and Masters,” pp. 248-256, 261-265.

In the reading, you should focus on the different types of slavery that existed in the south. Think about the different ways Southern Society reinforced the institution of slavery and the many ways that enslaved Africans tried to resist. Ask yourself, to what extend did enslaved people manage to create their own communities and identities in the South before the Civil War. 


Watch the 2004 PBS documentaries Slavery and the Making of America.  you should focus on the parts of episodes 3 and 4 that explore plantation slavery.  Part 3 — 1:51:45 Part 4 — 2:47:40



Plantation Slavery

What was life like for enslaved Africans on southern cotton plantations? Here we have a problem with sources.  Most of the accounts of plantation of slavery were written by white slave owners or white eyewitnesses. If read carefully, these sources can be useful for understanding how plantation slavery worked, but they rarely offer any insight into the enslaved experience of plantation slavery. The problem is that the enslaved population left almost no first-hand accounts of their lives. Historians rely heavily on a literary genre called “slave narratives.” These are published narratives by formers slaves who escaped to the north before the Civil War. They were published as part of the abolitionist movement with the goal of teaching northern audiences about the horrors of slavery. These sources are good first-hand accounts but written after the experience and influenced by the agenda and strategies of the abolitionist movement. 

You are going to write an extract from a slave narrative. You can find a selection of extracts from slave narratives addressing eleven different aspects of the plantation experience:
1. Enslavement
2. The Middle Passage
3. Arrival
4. Conditions of Life
5. Life of a Motherless Child
6. Family
7. Religion
8. Punishment
9. Resistance
10. Flight
11. Emancipation (Links to an external site.)