The Origins and Nature of New World Slavery
|Digital History ID 3037|
At the beginning of the 18th century, most slaves were born in Africa, few were Christian, and very few slaves were engaged in raising cotton. By the start of the American Revolution, slavery had changed dramatically. We can look at these changes as a series of revolutions.
As a result of a demographic revolution, a majority of slaves had been born in the New World and were capable of sustaining their population by natural reproduction.
Meanwhile, a "plantation revolution" not only increased the size of plantations, but made them more productive and efficient economic units. Planters expanded their operations and imposed more supervision on their slaves.
A third revolution was religious. During the colonial period, many planters resisted the idea of converting slaves to Christianity out of a fear that baptism would change a slave's legal status. By the early 19th century, slaveholders increasingly adopted the view that Christianity would make slaves more submissive, orderly, and conscientious. Slaves themselves found in Christianity a faith that could give them hope in an oppressive world. In general, slaves did not join their masters' churches. Most became Baptists or Methodists.
A fourth revolution altered the areas in which slaves lived and worked. Between 1790 and 1860, 835,000 slaves were moved from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. We know that slaves were frequently sold apart from their families or separated from family members when they were moved to the Old Southwest.
Finally, there was a revolution in values and sensibility. For the first time in history, religious and secular groups denounced slavery as sinful and as a violation of natural rights. During the 1760s, the first movements in history began to denounce slavery.