In Part One, I looked at the earliest examples of slavery and how it evolved during the 17th century.  I found it interesting that I saw at least one comment that suggested I was rewriting history. I suppose because the facts did not align with their understanding of history and that I was trying to diminish the evils of slavery.  If one were to read this series in its entirety, it will be clear that is not the case.

As the colonies grew in population and a robust agricultural industry exploded, there was a need for labor.  Once owners learned they could keep slaves indefinitely, that became a tremendous financial advantage.  No longer did a landowner have to find new slaves after the indenture contract was over.  Plus, any children born became automatic slaves as well.  These could be sold or used as the farm grew; they were an asset.

In Part One, I said that we can normally “follow the money” when we want to get to the bottom of an issue.  Slaves were cheaper than employees and there was money to be made in their import and as they procreated.  Farm work was very hard and people could make more doing other things, and society easily accepted slavery as a necessary evil.  Slaves did things others would not – sound anything like our illegal immigration problems?

If we look at the world today, we see more people are employed by small business than by large corporations.  Slavery was no different.  More slaves were held by small farms and business than by large plantations.  We have this vision of all these huge plantations with hundreds of slaves and taskmasters cracking a whip and beating the slaves into submission with regularity.  If you think about it, this does not make sense.

A slave was a valuable asset.  Did some get beaten and even killed?  Certainly!  But does it make any sense to beat and kill a valuable asset?  In 1680, slaves comprised fewer than 1/10 of the total southern population, but by 1790 had grown to almost 700,000 or 34%.  After the Revolution, the southern slave population exploded to 1.1 million in 1810, and nearly 4 million in 1860.

In spite of these numbers, slaves were still typically a minority.  Only in South Carolina and Mississippi did slaves outnumber free persons.  Most Southerners owned no slaves, and most slaves were held in small groups, not on large plantations.  Slaveholders totaled less than ¼ of white southerners, and half of these held fewer than five, and less than 1% owned more than 100.  By 1860, the average number of slaves held together was about 10.  (Information from Historical Statistics of the US 1970)

While race became a major factor in many cases, it was not a controlling one in all cases. Crispus Attucks was generally considered the first casualty of the Revolution.  Crispus was a free black—  a former slave.  Although a slave, James Armistead was a central figure in the colonies’ fight for freedom.  Prince Whipple is depicted in the famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware.  Prince was from a wealthy family in Africa and was sent by his father to America for an education.  These and many other examples can be found here.

Another issue that has to be mentioned is black slave owners.  In Part One, I pointed out how the first permanent slave owner was black.  Those who would try to minimize the importance of this will say black slave owners were simply blacks who had earned their freedom and had purchased their own family members.  That is certainly true in some cases.  However, black slave owners do not fit the narrative we have been fed in history, so it is simply left out. Records of blacks who owned slaves give us the truth.

According to Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South, Justus Angel, and Mistress L. Horry, of Colleton District, South Carolina, each owned 84 slaves in 1830. In fact, in 1830,  ¼ of the free Negro slave masters in South Carolina owned 10 or more slaves; eight owned 30 or more.  According to the US Census, there were 261,988 free blacks living in the South.  10,689 of these slaves lived in New Orleans, and according to Duke University Professor John Hope Franklin, 3,000 of these free blacks owned slaves.

In 1860 Louisiana, there were at least six blacks who owned more than 65 slaves—  the largest owned 152.  Another owned over 100, this at a time when the average slave owner held 10 slaves.  In South Carolina, 125 free slaves owned slaves.  In fact, in Charleston of the $1.5 million in taxable property owned by free blacks, $300,000 were slave holdings.

There were extensive laws regarding slavery, and in many ways, these protected the slaves as much as the owners, even if indirectly.  You will frequently hear people ask why, if Jefferson was against slavery did he not at least free his slaves upon his death.  Slaves were an asset.  If you had any debt upon your death, assets had to be sold to satisfy your debts.  Jefferson had significant debts at the time of his death, so legislation prevented them from being granted freedom.

Manumission was the term for freeing a slave.  Again, follow the money.  If you owned a slave that suffered a permanent injury or illness, you could not just free them to absolve yourself of their care.  If you chose to free a slave, you would have to come before a judge and swear that the slave was sufficiently educated and trained so as not to become a burden on the community.  Imagine if owners could free their old, infirm, or criminal slaves!  Some states required free slaves to be relocated to another state to the colony formed in Africa, Liberia.

Farming is not a 365 day a year operation.  There are times of the year when farm help would be idle, so slaves were hired out to work other jobs.  Sometimes the farm might, for example, have a sawmill.  When farm work was not needed, then lumber could be cut for sale, furniture made and sold, women might make clothing and so forth and a blacksmith shop would do outside work.

We have to understand that this culture and society was deeply ingrained over more than 100 years.  It had evolved and adapted, laws written and changed.  We fought a revolution and wrote two “constitutions.”  We ultimately fought a Civil War.  Ask a Southerner, and they’ll tell you it was the “War of Northern Aggression.”  Conversely, a  Northerner will say it was fought to end slavery.  The truth is somewhere in the middle.

There are many examples of blacks, free and slave, who fought for the Union side of the Civil War.  There were also blacks who fought for the Confederacy.  The numbers on the Confederate side are vague, and likely less than 1% of the soldiers (3,000-6,000) wearing gray were black. Certainly, many more blacks fought for the Union.  In fact, by the end of the war, about 10% of Union soldiers were black.  The list of black American heroes of the Civil War is long and impressive. All the more impressive is that many of these men not only fought bravely against the enemy but also against occasional racism in their own army. Admirably, their response to racist opposition did not include personal animosity, bitterness, or hate, but rather an increased determination to prove wrong the misconceptions. (

We have to try and put ourselves in the society of the day, and that is very hard to do.  Is there anything in today’s society you find unjust, that you’d like to change?  If so, why don’t you change it?  Let’s say the government controlled healthcare system.  Polls show a majority of people do not like it.  Yet, it has not been repealed or even changed, has it?  It’s not so easy, is it?  Slavery was the 18th and 19th century Obamacare in a sense.  It was something many people knew needed to be changed, but it was so ingrained in society the fix was not an easy one.

The founders spoke out against slavery. They knew it did not start overnight and would not end overnight either.  Henry Laurens, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams (to name a few) all spoke out against slavery.  Jefferson introduced legislation to end slavery.  In response to some Southerners who quoted scripture to justify slavery, the then president of the Continental Congress Elias Boudinot responded:

[E]ven the sacred Scriptures had been quoted to justify this iniquitous traffic. It is true that the Egyptians held the Israelites in bondage for four hundred years, . . . but . . . gentlemen cannot forget the consequences that followed: they were delivered by a strong hand and stretched-out arm and it ought to be remembered that the Almighty Power that accomplished their deliverance is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  (The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States)

The southern states would never have ratified the Constitution had slavery been forbidden. The Three-Fifths Compromise was NOT a determination that a slave equaled 3/5ths of a person. Locke’s Second Treatise of Government declared government was to protect Life, Liberty, and Property (or estate).  This was changed to Pursuit of Happiness, so as not to give slave owners a foothold in the Constitution saying they had a right to their property – slaves.  The Southerners wanted slaves counted for representation, but would not allow them to vote.

In the end, we survived the founding of the colonies and the slavery that was brought to us by the British.  The founders tried to minimize its impact.  Congress and Great Britain abolished the African slave trade in 1807.  Southerners actually supported the ban – again for financial reasons – their held slaves increased in value as did their offspring. 

We fought a war that, regardless of the reason, ended slavery, and that brought on a whole new list of problems.  After the war, where did all the now free blacks go?  What did they do to survive?  We will look at that issue in Part Three.

Written by Michael Murphy The Voice of Reason

The Voice of Reason

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