Slavery in America


By the mid-nineteenth century the United States was being torn apart by the raging political and social debates over slavery.  The country had grappled with the “peculiar institution” since its inception, but in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the creation of the Republican Party, the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s murderous actions in Kansas, and the election of Abraham Lincoln – at the head of an avowedly anti-slavery party – the delicate balance collapsed.  Southern states began to secede in late 1860 and early 1861 and war soon swept across the landscape.

How did this terrible conflict come to pass?  How did the United States nearly destroy itself over the issue of African slavery?  Ultimately the stain of slavery was an American condition, and prior to that an English one.  There is plenty of blame to go around, but the politics which led to the war and the reasons why those who fought, are often very different things.  Yet there are some important facts about slavery to consider.

From its inception the United States of America had at its core the idea that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”  Those words, written by Thomas Jefferson and placed carefully at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, were a clear statement that America was not attempting simply a separation from Great Britain, but rather it was a revolution to create a country were true equality might exist.  Such a bold move, in the middle of the 18th century, was far beyond revolutionary.  In fact, it stood in stark contrast to the history of the world, but with slavery deeply entrenched in the colonies the seeds of discord were already planted.

Following the Revolution the process which led to the creation of the United States Constitution began.  While true that slavery was allowed to continue to exist in America the ability to dismantle and destroy it was also codified.  It was also agreed that the African slave trade was to terminate at a specified date.  Words used to denote those who were enslaved were also carefully chosen.  For example, the U. S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 reads:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

From Federalist No. 54, James Madison argued:

In being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another, the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others, the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property.

From this one can see the argument between “person” and “property” and how the Founders used the former term in the Constitution.

On January 1, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law a bill which forever banned the importation of slaves.  It read, in part:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.

Two years later, the slave population of the United States was 1.19 million.  Of this number, 1.09 million slaves were in the Southern states.  The largest Northern slave state at that time was New York, with 15,000 slaves.  By comparison, the largest Southern slave state was Virginia with a total of 383,000 slaves.  By 1810, Tennessee already had 44,000 slaves within its borders.

By 1820, the total slave population was 1.54 million, and 1.52 million were in Southern states.  In that same year the first serious legislative achievement intended to deal with the growing agitation over slavery, known as the Missouri Compromise, became law.  Nonetheless, friction continued to grow, right along with the enslaved population.

By 1840, the numbers of enslaved people had increased to 2.49 million, and Southern states counted 2.48 million slaves.  By that date, there were just less than 3,700 slaves in Northern states, and Delaware, with a total of 2,605, accounted for nearly 71% of all slaves in the North.

New Jersey became the second to last Northern state to abolish slavery in 1846, and Delaware continued the practice until the outbreak of hostilities.  In 1850, the enslaved population in the country was 3.2 million.  Today there is a pervasive myth that slavery was on its way out, or it was slowly dying.  That simply is not true.  By 1860 the number of slaves in America had increased to 3.9 million.  Directly connected to this figure was cotton production.  In fact, between 1850 and 1860 the number of cotton bales increased from 2.1 million bales to 3.8 million.

It is true that the percentage increase of slaves between 1850 and 1860 was 21.8% as compared to 28% between 1840 and 1850.  However, the percentage increase was 25% between 1830 and 1840 and 33% between 1820 and 1830.  Why the different numbers?


There was a spike in the 1820s because huge swaths of land become available in the Deep South and settlers flooded in.  In the 1830s the number dipped slightly as the settlement craze slowed and an economic downturn hit the country.  There was a slight uptick in the 1840s and then came the surging economy of the 1850s.

Cotton was a major, if not the primary, reason why slavery continued to grow.  Aside from Texas in 1845, no new Southern states are added prior to the war.  However, while the enslaved populations steadily increased in most of the established states, they exploded in some of the cotton producing states.  Mississippi saw a 41% growth and Louisiana experienced a 35.6% increase.  Incredibly, Arkansas saw its slave population increase by 136%, or from 47,000 to 111,000 in just ten years.  Slavery was not dying – it was expanding.


In Tennessee, there was a 15% increase in the slave population between 1850 and 1860.  By the latter year there were over 275,000 slaves in the state, and slightly more than 12,000 were in Williamson County.  At Carnton there were a total of 44 slaves owned by John McGavock.  He was one of 37 people in Williamson County who owned between 30 and 40 slaves.  By comparison, Fountain Branch Carter owned 28 slaves.  He was one of 98 people in the county who owned between 20 and 30 slaves.  That placed both men in a category far above most of their peers in Tennessee.  In fact, they were among the top 11% of slave owners in the state.


By the spring of 1861 the balancing act over African slavery in America, and what the country really stood for, completely unraveled.  The idea that equality could exist in the United States had been warped by some into incendiary language.  Alexander Stephens, who became Vice-President of the Confederacy, went so far as to say the Founders meant what they said about the races being equal, but that they were simply wrong.  In fact, Texas declared:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States…were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

President Abraham Lincoln believed otherwise.  He repeatedly echoed that the Declaration of Independence was literal, and also that the Union was perpetual.  He said in his First Inaugural:

Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy.

As he spoke those words seven States in the deep South had already seceded.  Within weeks four more States began moving toward secession.  The enslavement of four million people had brought the Union to the edge of collapse.

By the time the American Civil War ended in the spring of 1865, portions of the nearly broken country lay in ruins, four million formerly enslaved people were free, and some 700,000 soldiers were dead, as was President Lincoln.  Thus began a new, and difficult path, for the United States.

Over a century and a half after slavery was destroyed by the war and Constitutional amendment, we are still dealing with the aftershocks as freedom evolved slowly, and painstakingly, toward the promise and reality of equality, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.