Slavery (American Indians Ready Reference)
Article abstract: Before European settlement, slavery helped determine status within many Indian societies; after European settlement, Indian slavery became an important economic institution and significantly influenced Indian-white relations
Slavery, a social institution which existed in most human societies before the twentieth century, was practiced by many native North American cultures.
All forms of slavery exist to bring honor and power to the master. Before contact with Europeans, American Indian societies did not envision status and power in economic terms, and slavery was not primarily a system of labor. Aboriginal Indian bondage brought power and honor to the master through his absolute domination of a living being.
Most Indian slaves were acquired as war captives, and their enslavement was viewed as a substitute for death in battle. As a replacement for actual death, Indian slavery became a living “social death.” The war captive forever lost his status as an independent person and became an appendage of his master’s will. The loss of status was marked by rituals of dishonor. The heads of slaves were often shorn as a symbol of dishonor. Among the Tlingit of the Northwest Coast, female slaves were not allowed to adorn themselves with facial decorations. Slaves were often renamed to dishonor them and to sever connections with their lineage and past. The Nootka...
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Slavery (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
A civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.
At some point in history, slavery has plagued nearly every part of the world. From ancient Greece to the modern Americas, innumerable governments have sanctioned the complete control of certain persons for the benefit of other persons, usually under the guise of social, mercantile, and technological progress.
The U.S. legacy of slavery began in the early seventeenth century. However, the stage for U.S. slavery was set as early as the fourteenth century, when the rich nations of Spain and Portugal began to capture Africans for enslavement in Europe. When Spain, Portugal, and other European countries conquered and laid claim to the New World of the Caribbean and West Indies in the late sixteenth century, they brought along the practice of slavery. Eventually, slavery expanded to the north, to colonial America.
The first Africans in colonial America were brought to Jamestown by a Dutch ship in 1619. These 20 Africans were indentured servants, which meant that they were to work for a certain period of time in exchange for transportation and room and board. They were assigned land after their service and were considered free Negroes. Nonetheless, their settlement was involuntary.
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Slavery (American History Through Literature)
The practice of forcing people to work without compensation can be traced to societies across the globe, and accounts of slavery can be found among the earliest writings and records from some of the oldest known civilizations. The Bible, the text that for millions of Americans is the sacred foundation of national principles, offers numerous allusions to slavery. The Old and New Testaments acknowledge master-and-slave relationships with a general proclivity of acceptance. Throughout the Old Testament the prevalence of slavery is evident through the numerous references to slaves and masters. Celebrated patriarchs such as Abraham, Moses, and Solomon held slaves. For Moses the rules of enslavement are in part divinely sanctioned. It is God who instructs Moses that servants who are bought must be circumcised before they can be accepted at the Passover meal (Exodus 12:434). God further instructs Moses that he can buy bondsmen and bondswomen from among the heathens, but of his fellow Israelites who are poor, he can only hire them as servantshey cannot be bought as bondservants (Leviticus 25:396).
The pervasiveness of slavery in the Bible is a reminder that while slavery is almost universally proclaimed unjust and inhuman today, it has a long and somewhat remarkable history. While the Bible and Christianity served as the foundation of American abolitionist rhetoric, they just as readily served the rhetoric of proslavery advocates. Proponents of slavery frequently alluded to the New Testament call for servants to be obedient to their masters (Titus 2:9). These apparent biblical sanctions of slavery were cast against other scriptures cited by critics of slavery to show the un-Christian nature of the practice. However, reminders of Christ's call to treat others as you would have them treat you (Matthew 7:12) or the proclamations in the Old and New Testaments of God's deliverance of the meek did little to disturb the convictions of proslavery advocates. In addition to the ambiguous contribution of religion to the reading of slavery in America, the classical civilizations that influenced American thought further clouded this discussion. While ancient Greek and Roman societies were the foundation of neoclassical notions of civilization that informed colonial American thought, the Greeks and Romans also sanctioned slavery while they concurrently espoused high ideals about citizenship and the human spirit.
With the practices and ideals of the ancient world as their guide, early Americans created and negotiated a world of contrasting realities. One was the reality of a postevolutionary War call to guarantee liberty and equal rights for citizens of the new nation; the other was the reality of a social and legal system that relegated slaves (who by the close of the eighteenth century were overwhelmingly black) to bondage and exploitation. The master-slave dichotomy that emerged in America was, at least in its form, not unlike the hierarchy Moses outlined in Leviticus: those who were among the chosen or privileged were protected from bondage, but those who ranked among the outsiders (blacks in the case of American society, heathens in the case of Moses' society) were candidates for bondage. The social hierarchy that emerged out of American slavery was reminiscent of the caste societies in numerous slaveholding civilizations; however, in America the centrality of race and the generational nature of slavery produced a system of bondage unparalleled in its time for longevity and for its brutal legacy.
In ancient civilizations of the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa as well as Greece and Rome, slavery was commonly the consequence suffered by prisoners of war, convicted criminals, and victims of personal and political disputes. The enslaved could find themselves relegated to any number of duties, including work as house servants, concubines, soldiers, and laborers. While the enslaved in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages were usually condemned to lifelong servitude, in general their plight was not transgenerational. In fact, in some instances slaves were educated and could serve as tutors and teachers or, as in the case of the ancient Roman playwright Terence, could become celebrated and revered members of society. Slavery in America was different, however. American slavery did not begin as a race-based caste system, but by the close of the seventeenth century Native Americans and whites were no longer good candidates for the long-term, labor-intensive needs of plantation owners. Given their darker skin and their alienation, Africans proved better suited to the planters' labor needs. With their contrasting physical appearance and the absence of kinship or community roots in the New World, enslaved Africans could not easily escape. Moreover, with laws that decreed slavery
TRANSATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE AND RACIALIZED SLAVERY
The transatlantic slave trade did not mark the birth of slavery on the African continent or the removal of enslaved Africans to distant places. Arab traders predated their Iberian trade rivals by centuries in the trafficking of Africans. When the Portuguese and Spanish began transporting blacks to Europe as slaves in the 1500s, Arabs had been exporting African slaves across the Sahara for centuries. Up to this point these dealings in African slave trading resembled those that took place throughout Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Slaves were the product of various circumstances, and they varied in ethnicity and skin color. Arabs did not limit their trade to dark-skinned Africans, for example, and at varying times they enslaved and traded people from Africa to Europe to Asia.
On the African continent slavery was commonplace. Among sub-Saharan Africans the enslaved were often the products of war. In contrast to the slave system that emerged in the Americas, slavery here was not an agricultural chattel system instituted to maintain plantation estates. It was not based on skin color, and its effect was not generational; indeed, the offspring of these slaves were not cast into slavery and in many instances the slaves were integrated into the family and community. With the influx of Portuguese traders along the west coast of Africa in the 1500s and the succeeding centuries of western trade and colonization on the continent, African slavery became the well-spring of horrors for those in Africa as well as those forced to make the transatlantic voyage. Those enslaved on the continent faced the ever-increasing threat of being thrown into the transatlantic slave market. As the demand for laborers escalated in the Americas, the chances increased dramatically for those enslaved in Africa to become cargo on one of the many voyages between Africa and the Americas.
The transatlantic slave trade fueled the slave market in Africa and the removal of millions from Africa to the Americas, a centuries-long human ill maintained in order to answer the labor needs of white planters in the New World. The United States was not the leading agent in the trafficking of Africans;
Though slavery had ended in the North by the 1820s, the experience of northern free blacks was not overwhelmingly better than that of their southern counterparts. At the conclusion of the colonists' fight for independence there were free blacks able to trace their ancestry back to several generations of free blacks. This, however, left them no more secure than those freed blacks of less impressive ancestry, nor did it distinguish them significantly from first-generation slaves or their offspring. Free blacks had the burden of proving they were free; they were excluded from long-standing and meaningful employment; and in the North and South, they faced restrictions in housing and education. Whether free in the North or the South, blacks in the United States suffered the effects of a slave system that created a monolithic identity of blackness and whiteness. Whiteness signaled freedom and privilege, while blackness marked the opposite; whether slave or free, the place of blacks in American society grew out of this black-white dichotomy. Free blacks faced constant reminders that their freedom was limited: from laws that restricted their movement, that excluded them from legal protection and privileges, and that often against reality gave them their identity, free blacks understood well that their status was simply a step above those in bondage. In America, slavery and blackness were considered one and the same.
AMERICAN SLAVERY: THE MAKING OF AN UNEASY SOCIETY
While the authors of the Constitution proclaimed the new nation a united one, the issue of slavery was a point of divisiveness from the start. From the removal of Thomas Jefferson's criticism of British participation in the slave trade in his early draft of the Declaration of Independence to the North-South compromise of determining legislative representation (agreement to give slaves a three-fifths count in state population tal-lies), northern and southern interests were not one on the issue of slavery. Moreover, with objections to slavery articulated by Quakers and free blacks long before colonists declared themselves the United States, abolitionism was bound to become a powerful political and social force. With their outpouring of appeals to the public as well as the support that many offered the Underground Railroad, antislavery proponents made a long-lasting, peaceful compromise impossible.
In general, the very presence of free blacks further heightened the uneasy existence of slavery in America. In a society that equated slavery to blackness, the presence of a free blacknd oftentimes vocalopulation threatened constructed boundaries of place and identity. How could slaves be made to be content with their lot when free blacks served as a constant and real reminder that blackness did not mean one was
SLAVERY, AMERICANNESS, AND LITERATURE
An ever-present reminder of America's inhumanity and hypocrisy, slavery has haunted the imaginations of American writers from pre-Revolutionary days to the present. The musings of early writers and thinkerslack, Native American, and whiten the subject of slavery informed the discourse on slavery in the nineteenth century. In poetry, letters, diaries, short stories, biographies, folktales, and essays, slavery was repeatedly a subject of reflection and contention, and in politics it marked America's continued struggle to negotiate the differences between rhetoric and reality. With the dawn of Jacksonian democracy in the election of 1828, Andrew Jackson's claims of allegiance to democratic principles and work ethics once again highlighted the exclusion of slaves and Native Americans from these noble ideals. Touting himself as a common man and a representative of the masses, Jackson was a popular two-term (1829837) president. A slave owner himself, however, Jackson supported the slave-holding interests of the wealthy and powerful circle in which he lived.
Today the most widely read and celebrated nineteenth-century writings on slavery are those that highlighted the evils of the institution. There is little readership, even in institutions of higher learning, for nineteenth-century proslavery writings. Modern readers should remember, however, that antislavery publications were a response not only to the practice of slavery but also to the denigrating representations of blacks in books, magazines, and newspapers. E. N. Elliott's 1860 collection of essays Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments was among numerous such proslavery publications. In works such as Elliott's, blacks were regularly represented as docile, content, childlike beings content with their lot. Plantation owners were often depicted as paternal figures who provided the slaves the necessary material provisions for daily living. Many essayists, poets, and fiction writers represented slavery as an innocuous oddity in American life, and many others were simply silent on this practice. Silence could have been the result of any number of factors. Some authors may have decided that the muddied logistics of slavery threatened the distinct division of good and evil they hoped to portray; for others, slavery and slaves were simply topics that did not warrant artistic or philosophical introspection. The inattentiveness to slavery in some northern writings may have been informed by the lack of physical proximity. Distance often insulates communities from practices and ideals they might find unacceptable, thereby leaving their thinkers and artists free to focus on more regional or abstract matters. For many New England writers, however, the geographical distance between New England and the South was not enough to lull them into silence.
In addition to the persistent spirit of abolitionism in early-nineteenth-century America, the active and vocal free black community in the North helped to keep slavery at the forefront of social and moral discourse. Early in their history as slaves in the New World, blacks passed on orally their stories of enslavement, and some, who were either literate or worked through transcribers, were able to have their experiences written. These accounts of slaves and former slaves became known as slave narratives. The most celebrated of these works was Frederick Douglass's (1818895) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Douglass's personal account became the hallmark abolitionist publication, but it was by no means the first. Although few in number, manuscripts and publications of slave accounts dating back to colonial America demonstrate the early efforts of blacks to give voice and history to their experiences. The length of these documents varies from a few pages to a few hundred pages. In a few cases these written voices were not in English but in the Arabic language that some slaves spoke and wrote.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century blacks were writing and publishing poetry, narratives, and speeches, demonstrating their capacity for literacy and their understanding of its importance. It was not until 1827, however, that the first African American newspaper was founded. Freedom's Journal was a significant accomplishment and contribution to the future of African American activism. In contrast to the individual emphasis of single-authored works, a newspaper made possible the publication of multiple voices and experiences and provided an additional medium to disseminate news and information throughout black communities. Freedom's Journal was born as Jacksonian democracy began its rise; it represented the determination of blacks to have a voice in a world and under a leadership that continued to deny their humanity.
In 1829 the black activist David Walker published Walker's Appeal, a tract that simultaneously called on enslaved blacks to rise up against slavery and answered the rising democratic rhetoric among whites of this era. Organized in four articles with a preamble, Walker's Appeal instantly called to mind the U.S. Constitution. Walker placed particular emphasis on answering Thomas Jefferson's published denunciations of blacks and his speculations on their humanness. He challenged Jefferson's allegedly objective observations and charged that, on the contrary, as arbiters of a democracy that was not catholic in practice, Jefferson and America's Founding Fathers compromised their own constructs of white civility and humanity. Walker reminded his readers of America's failure to live up to its proclamations of liberty and freedom. Like the Founding Fathers who called for revolution against the tyrant mother country, Walker called on his brethren in bondage to rebel. In the same year of Walker's riotous tract, the less fiery George Moses Horton (c. 1798. 1880), a slave poet of North Carolina, composed "On Liberty and Slavery." While absent the revolutionary call found in Walker's Appeal, Horton's poem nevertheless suggests that the slave's appeal is connected to a fundamental constitutional ideal. In six of ten stanzas Horton identifies liberty at the core of the slave's yearning. It is "Dear Liberty" that will come and free him from bondage and open the door to opportunity.
In the midst of black voices indicting America for its hypocrisy and Jacksonians singing the praises of their liberty-granting nation, a circle of northern white women activists emerged. These women merged their interests in women's rights and abolitionism and became a formidable force in the fight against slavery. While New England's leading writer and public intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), did not at first appear especially inclined to
Child was among the more radical of her circle; nevertheless, appeals from numerous New England women activists would follow. Among these were Angelina Grimké's 1836 pamphlet Appeal to the Christian Women of the South and, more than a decade later, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851852), the fictional appeal that Abraham Lincoln lauded for garnering northern sentiment for the slaves. The abolitionist enthusiasm of his female contemporaries did not take root in Emerson, whose most celebrated works failed to address the more pressing and controversial issues of his day. In his hallmark meditations on the American self, "The American Scholar" and "Self-Reliance" (1841), Emerson criticized Americans for their failure to distinguish themselves from their former tyrants (British) and from the stifling ways and ideas of the Old World (Europe). He called on Americans to find their own way, search their own hearts, to discover what was uniquely American. He argued that the core of the American self was that individual who explored his own soul, his own mind, and then, by his own labor, brought his visions to reality. While Emerson chided Americans for their dependence on Europeans for their understanding and vision, he ignored one of America's most pervasive and striking practices of dependency. Slavery, the dependence on the forced labor of others for the realization of one's vision, was a glaring contradiction to self-reliance. In the two works that would become his signature treatise on Americanness, however, Emerson was remarkably silent on this matter.
While many of his female contemporaries in 1830s and 1840s New England were outspoken abolitionists, Emerson's public addresses that touched on the issue of slavery were for the most part guarded and indirect. In this respect, Emerson's celebrated transcendentalist contemporary Henry David Thoreau (1817862) offered a more resonant abolitionist voice. Among his numerous antislavery tracts, Thoreau's "Slavery in Massachusetts" (1854) and "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849; often referred to by the title "Civil Disobedience") highlight his strict criticisms of America for its participation in and support of what he deemed an innately undemocratic and uncivilized institution. Among Emerson's other celebrated literary contemporaries, however, the critique of slavery was mute at best. The New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorne and the southerner Edgar Allan Poe were not abolitionist sympathizers. While there are critics of Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1856) who argue that it is a criticism of the transnational evil into which slavery had grown, the story's ending leaves an ambiguous read at best. The world is restored to white order with the slaves horrifically put to death. While the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, has been disturbed to the point of self-imposed isolation, his American counterpart, Captain Delano, seems especially relieved that his world has been reclaimed. Were the slaves justified in their insurrection and killing of the Spanish captain, or were their acts simply the manifestation of their nature? Melville offers no certain answer, thereby leaving proponents of slavery a handy and often used anecdote about black-white violent encounters.
Walt Whitman (1819892), the self-proclaimed bard of Emerson's call for a unique American poetics, answered Emerson in 1855 with the publication of Leaves of Grass. Whitman's work was not an abolitionist endeavor, but his poetic portrait on the diversity of the American self included blacks as equals among God's great human creations. Whitman does not make explicit antislavery appeals; however, in lines 18392 of "Song of Myself," Whitman's narrator recalls his encounter with a runaway slave. Undoubtedly the narrator's offer of refuge to the runaway stood out for many readers in the mid-1800s. Whitman's suggestion of the rightness of such an act was not an uncontroversial stand. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had created a greater rift between northerners and southerners. The enactment of this law affirmed the right of southerners to pursue and apprehend runaway slaves in free states. Whitman's passing tale of an offer of refuge to a runaway highlighted the sentiment of many abolitionists who disregarded the law and continued to assist runaways.
By the mid-1800s slavery's most important liter-ary legacy was the slave narrative. Published slave narratives in antebellum America became almost formulaic: the story told was the narrator's journey from slavery to freedom, and this outer layer of narrative usually consisted of additional narrative layers. This could include the narrator's concurrent spiritual narrative, the narrator's journey from intellectual darkness to enlightenment, or the narrator's bildungsroman. Although preceded and followed by numerous others, Douglass's 1845 Narrative has remained one of the most recognized works in American literature. Perhaps part of Narrative's popular appeal for its early white readership was its recognizable form. Readers were more easily drawn in because his was the story of a male slave: this offered the convenience of avoiding the more delicate and distasteful details of sexual exploitation that might surface in the accounts of female slaves. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet Jacobs's (1813897) autobiographical account of enslavement, highlights the alienation awarded black women narrators who failed to gloss over this slave experience. Unlike Douglass, who simply offered speculation that his father was his master, Jacobs recorded with some detail her familial connection to whites of respectable ancestry. Moreover, Douglass's tale ends in marriage to a black woman, so that even if his father was white, his marriage confirms his place among blacks. Jacobs's story does not end in marriage, but it does conclude with Jacobs as mother of two illegitimate children, fathered by her white lover well-respected member of the community.
Rebecca Harding Davis's (1831910) short novel Life in the Iron Mills (1861) exemplifies the entrenched place of slavery in the American psyche. In this story of immigrant mill workers in West Virginia, Davis painted the picture of their despairing and exploited lives by drawing parallels to chattel slavery. The mill workers are white and free, but Davis wanted to show that their victimization bore uncomfortable resemblances to that of slaves in the south. Davis set her tale in a slave-bordering state, reminding readers of the close proximity between those who were supposedly white and free to those who were black and enslaved. With descriptions of the environment and the immigrants that also inspire images of slavery and the enslaved, Davis challenged America's noble claims of liberty and opportunity for its citizens. If whites were being relegated to conditions that almost collapsed their identity into black-ness/servitude, what was the future of Americanness and the American dream? Davis's pondering was not singular, nor was it confined to an isolated historical moment. Many white authors of her time would ask this question through their works, and many after have continued to cast questions about white identity and privilege against the backdrop of American slavery and its legacy.
See also Abolitionist Writing; An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Life in the Iron Mills; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; Proslavery Writing; Slave Narratives; Slave Rebellions; Uncle Tom's Cabin
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Elizabeth J. West