In North America the first African slaves landed at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Brought by early English privateers, they were subjected to limited servitude, a legalized status of Native American, white, and black servants preceding slavery in most, if not all, the English colonies in the New World. The number of slaves imported was small at first, and it did not seem necessary to define their legal status. Statutory recognition of slavery, however, occurred in Massachusetts in 1641, in Connecticut in 1650, and in Virginia in 1661; these statutes mainly concerned fugitive slaves.
With the development of the plantation system in the southern colonies in the latter half of the 17th century, the number of Africans imported as agricultural slave laborers increased greatly, and several northern coastal cities became centers of the slave traffic. Generally, in the northern colonies, slaves were used as domestics and in trade; in the Middle Atlantic colonies they were used more in agriculture; and in the southern colonies, where plantation agriculture was the primary occupation, almost all slaves were used to work the plantations.
As African slaves became an increasingly important element in the English colonies in America, particularly in the South, where they were fundamental to the economy and society, the laws affecting them were modified. By the time of the American Revolution (1775-1783), they were no longer indentured servants but slaves in the fullest sense of the term, and laws defining their legal, political, and social status with respect to their owners were specific. In 1800 the population of the United States included 893,602 slaves, of which only 36,505 were in the northern states.
Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey provided for the emancipation of their slaves before 1804, most of them by gradual measures. The 3,953,760 slaves at the census of 1860 were in the southern states. Eminent statesmen from the earliest period of the national existence, such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton, regarded slavery as evil and inconsistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
The Society of Friends (Quakers) uniformly opposed slavery and agitated against it. The Presbyterian church made several formal declarations against it between 1787 and 1836. The Methodist Episcopal church always cherished strong antislavery views, but in 1844, when one of its bishops was suspended for refusing to emancipate slaves he had inherited through his wife, a secession took place and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was formed. Individuals and groups of people of almost all sects defended slavery.
On the whole, antislavery views grew steadily; but many who personally held strong antislavery opinions hesitated to join actively in abolitionist agitation, unwilling to dispute what many citizens held to be their rights. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, abolishing slavery throughout the United States, was ratified in 1865. For more information about the history of slavery in the United States, see Blacks in the Americas; Abolitionists; Missouri Compromise; American Anti-Slavery Society; Emancipation Proclamation; and Civil War, American.