Although slavery in British-America had existed since the early 1600s, the institution changed dramatically in the generations which following the Revolutionary War. Intellectual, economic, political, and religious transformations led to alterations in attitudes about slavery as well as to changes in the institution itself. Key to changing perceptions was Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence which boldly stated that “all men are created equal”. In the decades following Continental Congress’s embrace of this principle, northern states gradually eliminated slavery from within their borders. Moreover, a passionate and committed abolition movement emerged in the North during the Second Great Awakening, during which time a large segment of the population came to see slavery as a sin against God.
At the same time, slavery became both stronger and more deeply entrenched within the South. As the region expanded westward in the early 19th century, it increasingly turned to the production of cotton which was sold on global markets, primarily to textile manufacturers in Britain and New England. The lucrative nature of cotton led a rising demand for slave labor and to the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of African Americans. White southerners, furthermore, justified slavery as a “positive good” for both the master and the slave. Finally, Southerners bitterly resented northern abolitionists criticizing slavery and the character of the Southern society. These developments set the stage for the sectional crisis, the Civil War, and the ultimate end of slavery.
Questions to pose in a lecture and/or class discussion on American slavery:
1. What did Jefferson mean by the phrase “all men are created equal”? How did Jefferson view slavery in 1776? Did he and other members of the Continental Congress wish to undermine slavery?
2. Discuss the reasons behind abolitionism in the North between 1777 and 1804. What economic and political developments led Northerners to place bondage on the path to destruction within their region?
3. Why did the South not follow the same path as the North in terms of eliminating slavery? Was the South’s support for bondage rooted purely in economic interest? Did political, ideological, or religious factors influence white Southerners?
4. How did slavery and the experiences of slaves change during the 19th century, especially as the South expanded westward? Did living and physical conditions for slaves get better or worse?
5. Did slavery cause the Civil War?