SLAVERY GROWS WITH COTTON
There was no American Dream for slaves, only an endless nightmare of working all their lives without pay. They were beaten, raped, and killed with no legal protection and no hope for the future; they'd work until they died, and their children were doomed to be slaves like them.
The irony of proclaiming freedom in a land where one out of four people were slaves wasn't lost on the leaders of the American Revolution. The U.S. banned the importation of new slaves from Africa after 1808 and waited for what they called the "peculiar institution" to go away, much like people now wait for someone else to fix global warming. Slavery was too much a part of the country to deal with right away; eight of the first ten presidents owned slaves. Enslaving people while fighting a revolution for freedom was bad enough, but then it got worse.
The cotton gin and expanding slavery
While George Washington was president, a teacher named Eli Whitney invented a cotton engine (cotton gin for short) that removed seeds from cotton balls and allowed Southern plantations to grow 50 times more cotton than they ever had before. Trouble was, without ready labor or machinery, every 10 acres of cotton needed another slave to grow it.
The technical invention of the cotton gin led to millions of people being enslaved, and that growth in slavery plus the social movement of abolition eventually brought about the Civil War, which I discuss more thoroughly in Chapter 12. (Note: The link between the cotton gin, the growth of slavery, and the beginning of the abolition movement is an example of how trends fit together. Noting connections like these will help you on the AP exam.)
The increasing power of pro-slavery factions
Slavery became big money; by the Civil War, the U.S. had five times more enslaved people than it did during the Revolution. A good slave was worth as much in modern money as an SUV costs today. The slave states had extra political power grandfathered into the Constitution — slaves counted as three-fifths of a person in determining representation for slave states. This kind of power forced careful balancing legislation like the Missouri Compromise outlined earlier; slave state representatives wouldn't even let the subject of abolition come up in Congress. The few slave rebellions like that of Nat Turner in 1831 were put down with devastating force. Most Southern states made it illegal for a slave to learn to read and write.
The anti-slavery movement
Northern blacks lived with racism even though they weren't technically slaves. Free blacks had trouble finding jobs, schools, or places to live in the North. Eventually, as ex-slaves learned to write and speak about conditions in the South, they began to gain Northern white supporters. Important people in the anti-slavery movement included
- Frederick Douglass (1850) escaped from slavery in 1838 and wrote his moving life story.
- Harriet Tubman (1860) escaped slavery in 1848 and went back to help more than 300 other slaves (including her parents) make it safely to freedom.
- William Lloyd Garrison (1855), the white editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, was a founder of the Anti-Slavery society.
- Sojourner Truth (1851), a freed slave woman, spoke eloquently in support of abolition.
Both races opposed to slavery worked together on the Underground Railroad (1855), sheltering former slaves on the way to freedom. Although most white Southerners were too poor to own slaves, many were willing to fight for slavery anyway. In the North and West, opposition to slavery grew steadily stronger.