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The Rise and Fall of American Slavery

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Course Length:
15 weeks
3 credits

Introduction and Course Description

Sale of Enslaved Africans and Transport to Slave Ship
Sale of Enslaved Africans and Transport to Slave Ship

In 1756, Olaudah Equaino was eleven years old. That year, while living in his small village in what is now Nigeria, he and his younger sister were seized by African raiders who were seeking slaves for white traders. Until then, he had lived peacefully with his father and mother, his father's other wives, and his siblings and half-siblings in a mud-walled house. Equaino and the other members of his family were of the Ibo tribe, and he later observed that he had been "habituated to labor from our earliest years," for, as you'll remember, the men, women and children of a household worked together to produce subsistence and wealth for the family. Equaino's family also held prisoners of war as slaves in order to boost their household's labor output.

After his capture Equaino's life dramatically changed, for in the months following his seizure, he was passed from master to master, until he finally arrived at the West African coast, where an English slave ship lay at anchor. Equaino later wrote of this experience: "The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me. Their complexions too differing so much from ours, their long hair and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief.” The crew placed Equaino below decks, where "with the loathsomeness of the stench and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything." During the voyage to the west, sailors flogged the boy to make him eat. At last, some others of the Ibo tribe told him that they were to be taken to the white man's land to work. "I was then a little revived," he remembered, "and thought if it were no worse than working, my situation was not so desperate."

After a long passage, the ship arrived in Barbados, one of the sugar islands in the West Indies. When the white planters came to the docks to look over the Africans, Equaino and the others were again terrified, believing them to be cannibals. At this point experienced slaves were brought on board to explain that they would not be eaten, but that they would work and live on the island. Equaino, however, was not purchased in the West Indies because the sugar planters needed older, stronger men to do the backbreaking work needed in the sugar fields. Thus, he was taken to Virginia where less-valuable slaves were usually brought. He was sold there to a tobacco planter, who immediately separated the eleven-year-old boy from other Africans and put him to work clearing rocks from fields being prepared for cultivation. Equaino later wrote, "I was now exceedingly miserable.... In this state, I was constantly grieving and pining and wishing for death rather than anything else."

Olaudah Equaino is one of the individuals we will meet in this course. The account related above was published in 1789 after he had purchased his freedom and it conveys the terror, isolation, and despair that Africans felt when they were brought to the New World. "The Rise and Fall of American Slavery" will explore the brutal institution of slavery and its pivotal role in U.S. history. As most contemporary Americans realize, the legacy of slavery is still with us today even though the institution ended almost a century and a half ago. Throughout this semester we will explore the roots of slavery, why it arose on the American continent, how Africans and African-Americans survived and resisted the institution. Furthermore, we will examine why a powerful anti-slavery movement gradually started to develop around the time of the American Revolution and how is grew in the decades afterwards. Finally, we will explore the complex forces which led to slavery’s demise in the mid-nineteenth century.

Course Objectives

This course will deepen your awareness of the slavery's role in shaping American history and hopefully make you want to learn more about this topic in general. In specific terms, at the end of this course, you will:

1. understand the major historical figures, key events, and lasting consequences involving slavery in American history.
2. grasp the important role racism and race consciousness have played in American history.
3. comprehend the influence of America’s founding principles on the start of the anti-slavery abolition movement.
4. be able to place important historical figures and occurrences in time. This does not mean that you will simply memorize dates and events. Instead you will be able to place events and people in chronological order and within a larger and more meaningful context.
5. develop your critical reading and writing abilities as well as increase your oral communication skills. (After you graduate from college, you will find that these are truly marketable skills. To be frank, your future employers will not really care that you can recite the key elements of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, but they will expect you to be able to express your ideas clearly in writing and to contribute effectively in conversations.)

Course Readings

The following books are all available at the Campus Bookstore:


  • Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877, 10th anniversary edition

Supplementary Readings:

  • Robert J. Allison, ed., The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, 2nd edition (Bedford edition)
  • Douglas Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802

Optional Book (strongly recommended):

  • Diana Hacker, A Pocket Style Manual, 4th edition (The History Department requires that all bibliographies and source citations in research papers be in the Chicago form. Hacker’s volume is excellent in discussing this form of source citation and documentation. You may also access her website: http://www.dianahacker.com/resdoc/.)

There will also be a number of documents and articles that you will access online and which you will need to read. The dates upon which reading assignments are to be completed are listed below under specific dates in the "Schedule of Topics." Note that there will be in-class writing exercises and class discussions on the readings.

You should also own a standard dictionary of the English language (preferably a hardbound edition). If you don't, go out and buy one. You are expected to know the meaning(s) of every word in the assigned reading and to correctly spell the words that you write.

Course Assignments

  • Ten in-class writing exercises at scheduled times (60 points total, 15% of final grade). You will answer 2-3 questions provided in advance on the required reading in the course.
  • Attendance and participation in class discussions (40 points, 10% of final grade). During the semester we will have eight class discussion days during which we will examine and question the context, themes and importance of topics dealt with in the required readings. An extra word or two about the importance of class discussions to your learning: Although many people feel intimated by class discussions, learning to participate in such conversations involves social and intellectual skills that are an essential part of your liberal arts education. These include: listening to others and learning to absorb and synthesize their remarks; learning to respond constructively and analytically to others' ideas; learning to develop and articulate positions of one's own; being able to respond to criticism; and learning to modify or discard an argument in favor of another, more satisfactory one. You should come to class eager to exchange ideas about the topics under study, ready to speculate and to question and also to ask for explanations when you feel confused. In short, if you put the effort in, you can gain a considerable amount from these meetings.
  • Midterm Examination (80 points, 20% of final grade). This examination will cover the first half of the course and consist of a combination of a) short-answer identification in which you will identify and note the significance of various persons, places or events noted in the readings and lectures; and b) essay questions in which you will analytically discuss a specific topic(s) dealt with in the course.
  • Research Paper (100 points or 25% of your final grade). You will write a research paper that will be approximately 10-12 pps. in length (typed, double-spaced). You may select any topic related to American slavery that is of interest to you. Your research should be based upon at least some primary (i.e., original) documents. All topics must be approved by me. Toward this end, you will submit a one-to-two paragraph summary of your topic, along with a list of at least four sources from which you will begin your research (no encyclopedia or Internet sources at this stage).
  • Final Examination (120 points, 30% of final grade). This examination will cover the latter half of the course and will be structured like the Midterm Exam.

Timeline of Events

See this timeline on slavery located at the following web address:


Click on a particular decade or century for that period to appear. The timeline will help you better understand the chronology of American slavery.

Schedule of Topics

Because of the complexity and quantity of material we are covering, this schedule is tentative:

Africans Landed at Jamestown, 1619
Africans Landed at Jamestown, 1619


  • Week 1, Class 1: Introduction and Syllabus Review

  • Week 1, Class 2: Slavery and Societies: Europe, Africa, and America Before Colonization

  • Week 1, Class 3: The Age of Exploration and the "New World" Colonial Empires

  • Week 2, Class 1: England and the Establishment of Slavery

  • Week 2, Class 2: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Aristotle: The Politics---On Slavery, c. 330 BC http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/greek-slaves.html#Aristotle
2. John Madden, “Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins” http://web.archive.org/web/20031211005259/www.ucd.ie/classics/96/Madde…
3. Charles P.M. Outwin, “Securing the Leg Irons: Restriction of Legal Rights for Slaves in Virginia and Maryland, 1625 - 1791" http://lehrman.isi.org/details/?id=478
4. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, chapter 1: “Origins and Consolidation”

  • Week 2, Class 3: England and the Establishment of Slavery in North America

  • Week 3, Class 1: Research Paper Day – We will discuss submission of “Research Topic Proposals” and guidelines for writing an effective research paper

  • Week 3, Class 2: Labor and Slavery in Colonial Virginia

  • Week 3, Class 3: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Edmund S. Morgan, “The Labor Problem at Jamestown, 1607-18,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 3 (Jun., 1971), pp. 595-611 (available via JSTOR)
2. “They Live Well in the Time of their Service”: George Alsop Writes of Servants in Maryland, 1663 http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5815

  • Week 4, Class 1: The Expansion and Maturation of Slave Societies

Olaudah Equiano
Olaudah Equiano
  • Week 4, Class 2: The Expansion and Maturation of Slave Societies (continued)

  • Week 4, Class 3: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Robert Allison, ed., Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano(assigned chapters)
2. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, chapter 2, “The Colonial Era”


A black revolutionary soldier
A black revolutionary soldier
  • Week 5, Class 1: The American Revolution in White and Black America

  • Week 5, Class 2: The American Revolution in White and Black America (Continued)

  • Week 5, Class 3: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Sylvia Frey, “Between Slavery and Freedom: Virginia Blacks in the American Revolution,” Journal of Southern History 49(1983): 375-398 (available via JSTOR)
2. Gregory D. Massey, “John Laurens's Black Regiment Proposal” http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/2003_winter_spring/slavery_liberty.…
3. Phillis Wheatley’s Poem to George Washington and Washington’s Response http://www.jmu.edu/madison/center/main_pages/madison_archives/era/afri…
4. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, chapter 3, “The American Revolution”

  • Week 6, Class 1: Establishing a New (Slave-owning?) Republic

  • Week 6, Class 2: Slave Unrest in the New World

  • Week 6, Class 3: Midterm, Part I (Essays)

  • Week 7, Class 1: Midterm, Part II (Identifications)


Cotton Plantation -- Currier & Ives print
Cotton Plantation -- Currier & Ives print
  • Week 7, Class 2: The Rise of the Cotton South

  • Week 7, Class 3: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion (assigned chapters)
2. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, chapter 4, “Antebellum Slavery: Organization, Control, Paternalism”

  • Week 8, Class 1: The World the Slaves Made: Slave Cultures and Communities

  • Week 8, Class 2: The World the Slaves Made: Slave Cultures and Communities (Continued)

  • Week 8, Class 3: Free Black Communities in the North and South

Frederick Douglass, 1855
Frederick Douglass, 1855
  • Week 9, Class 1: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass http://lehrman.isi.org/details/?id=642
2.Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery, chapter 5 (To be handed out in class)
3. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, chapter 5, “Antebellum Slavery: Slave Life

  • Week 9, Class 2: The Rise of Abolitionism in the North

  • Week 9, Class 3: Reaction and Defensiveness in the South

  • Week 10, Classes 1-3: Film “Amistad”

  • Week 11, Class 1: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Letter from William Lloyd Garrison to Ebenezer Dole, 14 July 1830 http://lehrman.isi.org/details/?id=1230
2. William Lloyd Garrison, “The Liberator: To the Public” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2928.html and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2928t.html
3. The Confessions of Nat Turner (1830) http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/D/1826-1850/slavery/confesxx.htm
4. Advertizing Broadside for "A History of the Amistad Captives" http://lehrman.isi.org/details/?id=1224


Storming of Fort Wagner
Storming of Fort Wagner
  • Week 11, Class 2: The Crisis of the 1850s: African-American Perspective

  • Week 11, Class 3: The Crisis of the 1850s: the Northern and Southern White Perspective

  • Week 12, Class 1: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Solomon Northup, “Twelve Years a Slave” excerpt (1853) http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/black_voices/voices_display.cfm?id=43
2. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1853 (read Chapters 5-9) http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/StoCabi.html
3. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision, 1857 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933.html and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2933t.html
4. Timeline of John Brown’s Life” and a brief biography http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/brown/timeline/index.html and http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/brown/peopleevents/pande01.html

  • Week 12, Class 2: Slavery and the Civil War’s Early Years

  • Week 12, Class 3: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

The First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation...[engraving after Carpenter]
The First reading of the Emancipation Proclamation...[engraving after Carpenter]

  • Week 13, Class 1: “The Road to Jubilee:” the Black Military Experience and Slavery’s End

  • Week 13, Class 2: Film – Excerpts from “Glory”

  • Week 13, Class 3: From War to Reconstruction

  • Week 14, Class 1: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Maryland Fugitive Slave to his Wife, Jan 12, 1865 http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/boston.htm
2. Emancipation Proclamation Time Line (be sure to read the various drafts of Lincoln’s Proclamation) http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/alhtml/almtime.html
3. Letter of a Mother of a Northern Black Soldier to the President, July 31, 1863 http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/hjohnsn.htm
4. Minutes of an Interview Between Black Ministers and Secretary of War Stanton and General William Sherman, Jan 1865 http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/savmtg.htm
5. General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 http://www.history.umd.edu/Freedmen/sfo15.htm
6. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865 http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/presiden/inaug/lincoln2.htm


"The First Vote" Harper's Weekly, 1867
  • Week 14, Class 2: “Black Reconstruction” and Republican Rule in the South

  • Week 14, Class 3: Backlash: The Ku Klux Klan and “Redemption”

  • Week 15, Class 1: The Jim Crow South – Freedom and Unfreedom (We will also see an excerpt from the 1915 film “Birth of a Nation”)

  • Week 15, Class 2: In-class writing exercise and class discussion:
1. Louisiana and Black Suffrage http://www.mrlincolnandfreedom.org/inside.asp?ID=62&subjectID=3
2. American Black Codes, 1865-66 – read the Black Code statutes from Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia http://home.gwu.edu/~jjhawkin/BlackCodes/BlackCodes.htm
3. Frederick Douglass, “Reconstruction” Atlantic Monthly 18 (1866): 761-765http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=DouReco.sgm&im…
4. Judge Albion Tourgee on the Ku Klux Klan, 1870 http://www.sagehistory.net/reconstruction/docs/KKK.htm

  • Week 15, Class 3: Review for Final Examination

FINAL EXAMINATION – Date to be announced by the Registrar’s Office