Slavery—forced labor—is a system that was central to many societies beginning in ancient times. In the sixteenth century, Europeans, African traders, and New World colonists opened the Atlantic slave trade in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean. Enslaved laborers were the colonial New World’s first major labor system, clearing land, mining, building, and producing cash crops for export. By 1820, enslaved Africans constituted some 80% of all people who had arrived in the Americas since 1500. This original black majority proved indispensable in creating the prosperous New World that by the mid-nineteenth century began attracting millions of European immigrants.
When the Founding Fathers debated freeing the colonies from English rule, most were unwilling to resolve the contradiction of slavery’s existence in a country based on the ideals of democracy and freedom. With the closing of the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 and less-profitable use of slave labor, Northern states gradually abolished the institution. New York finally abolished slavery in 1827. At the same time, the Southern states’ need for slavery deepened as their economy became more dependent upon cotton, or “white gold.” In the first half of the nineteenth century, cotton was the nation’s biggest export. The money made from slave-grown cotton exerted a huge influence over antebellum society and politics.
Children Were Slaves
African children and young adults were part of the slave trade in America. They were stolen from their homes and sold at auctions like merchandise. To be a slave was to be the property of a slave owner and to live and work for free for a lifetime under his supervision.