Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

Slavery's Evolution Previous Next
Digital History ID 453



At the time that Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 most slaves were born in Africa, few were Christian, and very few slaves were engaged in raising cotton. Slavery was largely confined to eastern areas near the Atlantic Ocean and in the Carolinas and Georgia, the slave population was not yet able to reproduce its numbers naturally.

By the time of Jefferson's death in 1826, slavery had changed dramatically. A series of momentous revolutions had transformed the institution. First, as a result of a demographic revolution, a majority of slaves had been born in the New World and they were capable of increasing the slave population by natural reproduction. During the seventeenth century, slaves had had few opportunities to establish stable family relationships. In the Chesapeake colonies and the Carolinas, two-thirds of all slaves were male, and most slaves lived on plantations with fewer than ten slaves. These units were so small and widely dispersed, the sex ratio was so skewed, that it was difficult for slaves to find spouses. A high death rate meant that many slaves did not live long enough to marry or, if they did, their marriages did not last very long. But by the 1720s in the Chesapeake and the 1750s and '60s in the South Carolina and Georgia Low Country, the slave population was naturally reproducing its numbers.

Second, the so-called "plantation revolution" not only increased the size of plantations, but made them more productive and efficent 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. The black population was virtually untouched by Christianity until the religious revivals of the 1730s and 1740s. By the early nineteenth century, slaveholders increasingly adopted the view that Christianity would make slaves more submissive, orderly, and conscientious and encouraged missionary activities among slaves.

Slaves themselves found in Christianity a faith that could give them hope in an oppressive world. While Christianity has sometimes been called a "religion of passivity," it proved impossible to purge Christianity of its antislavery overtones with its promise of deliverance from bondage. Beginning in the 1740s and greatly accelerating in the early 1800s, many slaves converted to Christianity. 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 moral 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. The earliest groups to oppose slavery were "perfectionist" religious sects like the Quakers who challenged all traditional authorities and wanted to live free from sin.

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