How did race translate itself into political power during this period, and how did Blacks attempt to combat that power. Racism has been the most provocative topic in American history; it has seemed to transcend other struggles, and fester its way into almost every facet of American culture. It has grown like weeds in an unattended garden in to the ideology of America. Politicians use it as a tool for reelection, corporations use it as a way to exploit, and the media uses it as a way to control.
But the underlying question is where did it come from, how did it translate itself into political power, and how and what did African Americans do to combat that power. Many of the answers to these questions lie in the pre civil war area also known as the antebellum period. During the early 17th century a powerful farmer by the name of Nathaniel Bacon tried to use African Americans to conquer surrounding tribes and take their lands for indentured servants who had served their time and wanted land. Bacon added blacks to his corps of whites only after he found out he had to fight William Berkley the colonial governor.
Berkley thought that arming the Jamestown rubble was too dangerous to be allowed. After Bacons death the Virginia government reacted to the spectacle of interracial servant solidarity by slowly eliminating white servitude and expanding the then new institution of black chattel slavery. By doing this he could guarantee a permanent labor force and win the support of his constituents. Because of efforts like that of Governor Berkley, Virginia had become the primary site for the development of black slavery in the Americas.
By the 1650s some of the indentured servants had earned their freedom. Because replacements, whether black or white, were in limited supply and more costly, the Virginia plantation owners considered the advantages of the perpetual servitude policy exercised by Caribbean landowners. Following the lead of Massachusetts and Connecticut, Virginia legalized slavery in 1661. In 1672 the king of England chartered the Royal African Company to bring the shiploads of slaves into trading centers like Jamestown, Hampton, and Yorktown. Slavery spread quickly in the American colonies.
At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some, like European indentured servants, managed to become free after several years of service. From the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slave relations. Central to these laws was the provision that black slaves, and the children of slave women, would serve for life. This premise, combined with the natural population growth among the slaves, meant that slavery could survive and grow even after slave imports were outlawed in 1808.
This was one of the first instances of race translating itself into political power in early colonial America. By the middle of the 18th century slavery was widely accepted in the colonies. There was no way to hide it, between 1680 and 1750 the proportion of slaves in America grew from 4. 6 of the population to over 20 percent. In the southern colonies slavery went from about 5 percent to 40 percent of the population. Throughout most of the colonial period, opposition to slavery among white Americans was virtually nonexistent.
Settlers in the 17th and early 18th centuries came from sharply stratified societies in which the wealthy savagely exploited members of the lower classes. Lacking a later generation’s belief in natural human equality, they saw little reason to question the enslavement of Africans. As they sought to mold a docile labor force, planters resorted to harsh, repressive measures that included liberal use of whipping and branding. That way of thinking would change, as the colonies would move toward war.
The coming of the American Revolution would change the way Americans thought about slavery. In response to their perceived abuse by the English government the colonist expressed an attitude of natural rights positing that all humans are born free and equal. The colonist saw Great Britain’s policy on taxes and regulations as denying them their basic freedoms and therefore had the right to rebel. In addition to putting the colonist on a collision course with England, their ideologies had a profound influence on the institution of slavery.
In 1774 the first Continental Congress even voted to end the importation of slavery though this was to retaliate against the British rather than humanitarian reasons. But one of the best-known uses of race for political reasons in the antebellum period was the British Lord Dunmore calling of African Americans to join the army and fight against the Americans in the Revolutionary War; as a result if fought they would become free. Nonetheless Dunmore’s efforts failed due to a small pox outbreak in his camp and stricter slave codes, which made it harder for slaves to escape and join the British Army.
Although African Americans had already fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord, George Washington decided to not allow any more blacks to enlist in the Continental Army. During the course of the war much of the Continental Army was deserting, Washington then became desperate. Once Washington heard that the British had called African Americans to arms he then decided to rescind his order on the ban on allowing African Americans to enlist. It was that decision that won the war for America.
The Revolutionary War damaged the institution of slavery, but the wealth of the south kept the south in political power, which meant slavery would remain. Slavery became the driving force of the American economy, the invention of the cotton gin helped to fuel the rise of the textile industry in England and in New England, this created a vast new demand for cotton. Southern plantations and farms doubled their cotton output each decade from 1800 to 1860. Cotton exports provided more than half of all Americans exports from 1815 to 1860.
Defenders of slavery and of the south argued with much truth that King cotton ruled the American economy. It was because of the economic power of the south that slavery was kept alive. Southerners where allowed to rule congress with the passage of the three fifth compromise. Their power kept slave owners in the office of the presidency, and kept movement toward the abolition of slavery off the floor House of Representatives, and off the floor of the United States Senate. What helped to compound the conflict between American ideology and slavery was the evolution of slavery as a sectional institution.
Although the signers of the Declaration of Independence represented thirteen slaveholding states, by the time of the ratification of the Constitution, five states had ended slavery outright or were gradually abolishing it; by 1804 half the nation had taken steps to end slavery. This geographical isolation also led to increasing political weakness for the slave South. By 1810 the Northern population had surpassed that of the South, and thus the free states dominated the House of Representatives. In the next half century this Northern domination of the House became overwhelming.
After the admission of California to the Union, in 1850, there were sixteen free states in the country and only fifteen slave states. In addition to controlling the House, the North now controlled the Senate as well. The 1860 presidential election showed that the North could control the White House. Without getting a single electoral vote from any slave state, Abraham Lincoln won 180 electoral votes, while the combined total of his three opponents was only 123. By 1860 the South’s geographical and political isolation undermined the section’s political position within the country.
By this time American slavery was also peculiar because it was isolated in an international context. Orlando Patterson is clearly correct when he asserts that, with the exception of the modern era, slavery has always been widespread. Throughout most of human history there has been nothing “peculiar” about human bondage. But by 1861 the racially based slavery of the United States was “peculiar” because it could be found only in the American South, in Spain’s few remaining New World colonies, and in Brazil. By this time England, France, and the Netherlands had abolished slavery in their New World colonies.
South of the Rio Grande Spain’s once gigantic mainland empire was now independent and without slavery. In the context of the Atlantic community, slavery was increasingly considered cruel and uncivilized. Symbolic of the South’s isolation was the 1856 Republican Party pledge “to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism–Polygamy and Slavery. ” Once the dominant form of labor in the New World, slavery was now an isolated relic of a less enlightened and more barbaric age. By the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860 eighteen of the states prohibited slavery, while in fifteen the institution remained legal.
When the Civil War began, American slavery was geographically and culturally peculiar; more free states were on the horizon, with Kansas and Colorado joining the Union before the end of the Civil War. African Americans where not subservient during this era, steadily the number of fugitive slaves increased. As Africans where increasingly denied their rights, rebellions also increased. Some engaged in outward rebellious activity before breaking free; most simply ran into the wilderness, rivers, or to the docks.
At times runaways consolidated their strengths and banned together to form small guerilla bands that maintained a constant opposition to surrounding white society and its laws. Slaves also challenged that control more directly through active resistance. Their ability to resist was limited. Unlike slaves in Saint-Domingue, who rebelled against their French masters and established the black republic of Haiti in 1804, slaves in the United States faced a balance of power that discouraged armed resistance. When it occurred, such resistance was always quickly suppressed and followed by harsh punishment designed to discourage future rebellion.
In some instances, planned slave rebellions were nipped in the bud before an actual outbreak of violence. Such aborted conspiracies occurred in New York in 1741, in Virginia in 1800, and South Carolina in 1822. The most notable uprisings included the Stono Rebellion near Charleston, South Carolina in 1739, an attempted attack on New Orleans in 1811, and the Nat Turner insurrection that rocked Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. The Turner insurrection, which at its peak included 60 to 80 rebels, resulted in the deaths of about 60 whites; the number of blacks killed during the uprising and executed or lynched afterward may have reached 100.
But the rebellion lasted less than two days and was easily suppressed by local residents. Like other slave uprisings in the United States, it caused enormous fear among the whites, but it did not seriously threaten the institution of slavery. Less organized resistance was both more widespread and more successful. This included silent sabotage, or foot-dragging, by slaves, who pretended to be sick, feigned difficulty understanding instructions, and “accidentally” misused tools and animals. It also included small-scale resistance by individuals who fought back physically, at times successfully, against what they regarded as unjust treatment.
The most common form of resistance, however, was flight. About 1000 slaves per year escaped to the North during the pre-Civil War decades, most from the upper South. This represented only a small percentage of those who attempted to escape, however, since for every slave who made it to freedom, several more tried. Other fugitives remained within the South, heading for cities or swamps, or hiding out near their plantations for days or weeks before either returning voluntarily or being tracked down and captured.