When America's Founding Fathers (the country's earliest leaders) established the United States in the late 1700s, they decided to build the new nation on principles of freedom and liberty for its people. But during America's first years of existence, the country's leaders decided not to extend those freedoms to a small but growing segment of the population. The new nation's slaves, who had been removed from Africa by force or born into captivity in the "New World," were denied the rights that their white masters enjoyed, even though they contributed a great deal to America's agricultural economy. These slaves continued to be treated as property, even as the nation's white leaders were working to build an otherwise democratic government.
Many of America's early political leaders did not like slavery, but they recognized that slaves were used extensively by farmers in the new nation's Southern states. Knowing that it would cause an uproar if slavery was outlawed, the creators of the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified (officially approved) in 1788, basically avoided dealing with the issue. Instead, they took small steps to limit slavery, hoping that the
Founding Fathers political and community leaders who established the United States after the War for Independence in 1776; this term is often specifically used for the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787
Industrialization a process by which factories and manufacturing become very important to the economy of a country or region
Quakers a religious group that strongly opposed slavery and violence of any kind practice would eventually die out on its own. But rather than fading away, slavery in the American South increased dramatically. Within a few years of Eli Whitney's 1793 invention of the cotton gin, the region's economy became completely dependent on the production of cotton. Slaves became the primary work force in the production of this valuable crop, and the practice of slavery became even more ingrained in the Southern way of life.
Early European settlers brought the first African slaves to North America in the 1600s. As these colonists worked to carve a new life out of the wilderness, they found slaves handy to have around. African slaves could be used to plant and harvest crops, clear land, build houses and shops, and take care of household chores. In addition, the owners of these slaves did not have to pay them wages or provide them with anything other than the bare necessities for survival. Finally, the black skin of slaves instantly identified them, making it impossible for them to hide among the free white population.
Throughout the remainder of the 1600s, the early colonists continued to use slaves. As time went on, the colonists passed a number of laws that ensured the continued growth of slavery. In 1671, for example, Maryland legislators passed a law stating that even if a slave was a Christian, he or she would remain the property of his or her owner. In 1700, New York passed legislation that made runaway slaves subject to the death penalty. That same year, Virginia ruled that slaves were "real estate" and passed laws that called for severe punishment for people found guilty of marrying or having sexual relations with a member of another race.
By the early 1700s, slavery was an important part of early colonial economies. This was especially true in the Southern colonies, which used slaves to produce crops like tobacco, rice, and sugar for European markets. The number of slaves increased, too, as children born to slaves were forced into the same life that their mothers and fathers endured.
As time passed, however, growing numbers of people began to feel that enslaving people of other races was morally wrong. Religious groups in the Northern colonies, such as the Quakers, who helped settle Pennsylvania, began to protest against the slave trade. Further south, white people formed a number of organizations that urged slaveholders to grant freedom to their slaves. Political leaders expressed anxiety about slavery as well, citing both moral objections and practical concerns about the soundness of slavery-based economies. Some politicians and merchants in the Northern colonies became convinced that Southern plantation (large farm) owners were building a society that was not as efficient and prosperous as it could be. These critics argued that the South should follow the North's example and invest in new businesses and industries rather than relying upon slave-based agriculture. Some people even argued that slave labor was more costly to slaveowners than a free labor force would be, since slaveholders had to pay the cost of food and shelter for their slaves. By the mid-1700s, antislav-ery feelings were evident in most of the American colonies.
In the 1760s and early 1770s, the issue of slavery took a back seat as England and France fought each other for control of the North American mainland east of the Mississippi River. England eventually assumed command of much of this region, only to find itself confronted with a rebellion within its own colonies. By the early 1780s, these colonies had freed them-
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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) primary author of America's Declaration of Independence; third president of the United States, 1801-9
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