I saw a YouTube video today about the excavation of Jamestown – a special by the British Channel 4’s Time Team crew led by the now Sir Tony Robinson titled “America’s Birthplace (Jamestown, USA)“. This video reminded me that the people founding Jamestown eventually located in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the South, were the people who brought slavery to this country first in 1619 to make tobacco production lucrative for the new settlers of the North American south (1). The financial motive of the investors who made this first colonization possible drove the decision to bring slaves to North America, after they failed to find gold, like the Spaniards had found in Central and South America. This was in stark contrast to the motive of a separate colonization that happened in the North American north, particularly by the pilgrims who settled the Puritan New England.
The differences between these two cultures suggested a contrast in the attitude of the founding Americans to slavery between North and South; however, in researching for this blog, I found that this difference may have not been the major cause of their different attitudes. Instead it was more likely that the economic importance of slaves caused the South to resist abolition, though the Methodists and Baptists certainly were preaching it to southerners in the 1700s (2). The North certainly had some strong opposition from the Quakers, and eventually the Puritans, but they adopted slavery for years before abolishing it in the first two decades after the Revolutionary War (2).
Since the founding of slavery in 1619, when twenty slaves were brought to the Jamestown settlement from Angola to provide a labor source for the plantations developing tobacco, the American colonies began creating a social construction about race built upon assumptions that were strengthened by legal cases. In 1640, John Punch, an African indentured servant runs away with two other indentured servants, one a Dutchman and the other a Scotsman (3). After being captured, the Virginia assembly gives the Dutchman and Scotsman four years of additional servitude, and the African is made to serve his master for the rest of his life. This was the first codification of perpetual servitude, central to the development of slavery in the American colonies, assuring landowners that their slave labor that would not challenge their authority over them. Several additional laws, including one that restricted distribution of land to Negro, Mulatto or Indian, established the legal construction of ‘White’ further ensuring financial benefits for the European colonialists. (2, 3, 4)
While it was the Virginia assembly that established these initial laws, Puritan New England also had slaves, with Massachusetts Royal Colony passing the Body of Liberties in 1641 stating that slaves could be captives of war, purchased from elsewhere, or sentenced to slavery by the governing authority. Curiously, it was the Quakers, not the Puritans that first petitioned against the use of slaves in 1688, but little came of this effort, though nothing came of this effort that was actually forgotten until the early 1800’s. (3)
The need for slaves in the South increased with the development of cotton production, and with the three-fifths clause in the U.S. Constiution giving southern landholders political power that was disproportionate to the numbers of voting men in the South. This compromise agreement gave the South a number of Representatives in the House of Representatives based on the counting of 3/5ths of the slaves, while with fewer or no slaves, the North’s representation in this body of congress was weakened relative to the South. (2)
As already mentioned, in the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, all states in the North established laws that abolished slavery in their state (2). In the North, Quakers, Puritans, Methodists, and Baptists were against slavery. In Massachusetts, Quock Walker won his case against slavery stating that it violated the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 that provided the equality of men.
Since landowners gained little economic power from slavery they did not stop emancipation in the North, compared with the economic power gained from slavery in the South. Consider that in 1770 only 15,000 of 650,000 residents in New England were slaves a total of 2.3%, whereas in Virginia alone 315,000 of the 750,000 residents were slaves, a total of 44%. (2) It’s clear that the need to support slavery in the South was strong, so strong that it motivated a development of a social construction that is the basis of racism today. In fact, some scholars argue that the revolution would not have happened had England not been moving towards abolishing slavery in the 1770’s (2). The United States of American was thus conceived, not in liberty, but in slavery, and we’ve been struggling our way out of this history every since.
- Ibzumin. “MR. HALL’S AMERICAN HISTORY CLASS: Slavery in America.” MR. HALL’S AMERICAN HISTORY CLASS (blog), September 4, 2011. https://karashall.blogspot.com/2011/09/slavery-in-america.html.
- “Slavery in the United States.” In Wikipedia, July 7, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Slavery_in_the_United_States&oldid=966521183.
- Scene on Radio. “S2 E3: Made in America,” March 16, 2017. http://www.sceneonradio.org/episode-33-made-in-america-seeing-white-part-3
- Ibram X. Kendi. “Stamped From the Beginning.” Accessed July 7, 2020. https://www.ibramxkendi.com/stamped.