From the earliest days of settlement, slave labor tilled the American land. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, the slave system experienced unprecedented growth. As textile factories in England and the North demanded ever-increasing supplies of cotton, slaveholders moved westward in search of fertile soil. After Congress prohibited the importation of Africans in 1808, a flourishing slave trade developed within the South. Hundreds of thousands were sold from older states like Virginia to the Cotton Kingdom of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. By 1860, the 500,000-slave population of 1776 had grown to nearly four million, and slavery was the foundation of the southern economy.

As the North emancipated its slaves during and after the Revolution, slavery, previously a national institution, became peculiar to the South. But the entire nation was responsible for maintaining the system's stability. The Constitution required free states to return fugitive slaves, and it enhanced the South's power in Congress and the Electoral College by counting three-fifths of the slave population in determining a state's representation. Of sixteen presidential elections between 1788 and 1848, all but four placed a Southern slaveholder in the White House.

By the eve of the Civil War, the vast majority of slaves were American-born descendants of Africans brought involuntarily to the New World during the eighteenth century. For its victims, slavery meant a life of incessant toil, brutal punishment, and the constant threat of being separated from loved ones by sale. Yet in the face of these grim realities, slaves never surrendered their desire for freedom. They expressed it by creating a vibrant African-American culture centered on the family and church that enabled them to survive the ordeal of bondage without surrendering their self-esteem. They resisted slavery by running away and by occasional rebellion.

Only about one-quarter of the Old South's white population owned slaves, and of these only a minority possessed large plantations. But the planter class dominated the region's political and social life. Convinced that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible, economic self-interest, and racial superiority, slaveholders stood ready to defend against all assaults the largest slave society the modern world has known.

Slavery Exhibit

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