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Overview of Slavery
Digital History ID 2913

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington were slaveholders. So, too, were Benjamin Franklin and the theologian Jonathan Edwards. John Newton, the composer of "Amazing Grace," captained a slave ship early in his life. Robinson Crusoe, the fictional character in Daniel Defoe's famous novel, was engaged in the slave trade when he was shipwrecked.

Slavery has often been treated as a marginal aspect of history, confined to courses on southern or African American history. In fact, slavery played a crucial role in the making of the modern world and the development of the United States.

Beginning at least as early as 1502, European slave traders shipped approximately 11 to 16 million slaves to the Americas, including 500,000 to what is now the United States. During the decades before the Civil War, slave grown cotton accounted for over half the value of all United States exports, and provided virtually all of the cotton used in the northern textile industry and 70 percent of the cotton used in British mills.

In the decades before the Civil War, a third of the South's population labored as slaves. Enslaved African Americans performed all kinds of work, but slavery mainly meant backbreaking field work. Deprivation and physical hardship were the hallmark of life under slavery. Slave sales frequently broke up slave families. Nevertheless, enslaved African Americans were able--through their families, religion, and cultural traditions--to sustain an autonomous culture and community beyond the direct control of their masters. In addition, slaves resisted slavery through insurrection and a variety of indirect protests against slavery.