Eric Foner writes, "prejudice by itself did not create North American slavery." Examine what did create slavery and the role prejudice played.

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Prejudice was a critical component of keeping the institution of slavery acceptable in the eyes of non-enslaved people, particularly white people, but it was not, in and of itself, the creator of slavery. One could trace the origin of slavery back to the origin of civilization and the advent of...

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Prejudice was a critical component of keeping the institution of slavery acceptable in the eyes of non-enslaved people, particularly white people, but it was not, in and of itself, the creator of slavery. One could trace the origin of slavery back to the origin of civilization and the advent of agriculture and centralized hierarchy. Since the creation of hierarchy within civilization, slavery has existed in many forms across the world (which, perhaps, could signal the fundamental injustice of civilization).

In colonial America, slavery took on a particularly brutal and detrimental form—inherited chattel slavery. The early rulers of colonial America sought to become wealthy through gaining immense profit from selling crops produced through the work of unpaid laborers. The system of slavery initially began as temporary enslavement of indentured Europeans and African people. However, as production of crops grew, the colonies expanded through genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples, and as indentured Europeans and temporarily enslaved African people formed relationships and banded together, the ruling class decided to prevent a possible uprising of African and European people against the ruling class by creating a system of chattel slavery based on race and generational enslavement.

Through the creation of this system, the governments of the colonies began creating laws to uphold this system of permanent enslavement of African people via social, political, and economic means. The initial wave of these laws prohibited interracial marriages and relationships, severely punished interracial resistance against slave owners, allowed for specific brutality against enslaved African people, and punished interracial escape from indentured servitude/slavery by way of adding on additional years of servitude of Europeans and creating lifelong sentences of slavery for formerly temporarily enslaved Africans.

This punishment of lifelong slavery transitioned into a general practice. As this practice of lifelong enslavement grew, the colonies created laws that would cement this slavery by declaring that the child of an enslaved black woman would always be a slave. In order for this system to work, the state relied upon fear and subservience by enslaved people and acceptance of slavery by non-enslaved people and hatred of enslaved African people by non-enslaved people.

This hatred was brought about by creating incentives for working-class/indentured Europeans to treat enslaved Africans as inferior, creating myths and pseudo-science and religious justification of prejudice (the concept of "white" as a race was created by the colonial government to enforce their myths of white superiority), and enforcing prejudice through severely punishing inter-racial solidarity.

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Slavery had existed in many societies around the world, so the fact that the American colonies featured unfree labor was not unique. What was unique about American slavery (from Brazil to North America) was the fact that it was hereditary, permanent, and race-based. Generally speaking, in the Americas, people were enslaved because the producers of cash crops calculated that it was economically beneficial to enslave them. It was easier to force people to labor in fields than it was to pay them, and the system of indentured servitude used in the early years of the British colonies in the Caribbean and North America proved problematic, as servants, once they received their freedom, were seen as a restive underclass. Over time, servants from Africa were seen as a solution. Slavery, Foner writes, "laid the foundation for the consolidation of the Chesapeake elite" by creating a working class that was separated from ordinary whites by the supposedly immutable marker of race. In Virginia and elsewhere, colonial assemblies wrote laws carefully crafted to distinguish between whites and blacks. Slaves sat, according to Foner, at the bottom of "an elaborate hierarchy of degrees of freedom."

West Africa, having been drawn into the network of trans-Atlantic trade, became a source of laborers, who were captured and shipped to North and South America. European slave traders set up giant slave "castles" on the coast to supervise and maximize profits from this process. But these economic factors combined with European prejudices based on race. In seventeenth-century Europe, writers fascinated by the "discoveries" of explorers around the world began to argue that blacks were in some way inferior to whites. While most historians have come to agree that racism was the consequence of slavery rather than its cause, it is true that emerging racial attitudes coupled with European notions of race helped justify slavery. So there were a complex array of economic, social, and cultural reasons for the development of slavery in North America.

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Foner and other historians have traced the economic need for slaves that in turn gave rise to racial prejudice. Planters in the New World were in need of a large labor force to harvest such crops as sugar and tobacco. White indentured servants proved very volatile, as their uprising (along with black indentured servants) in Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 Virginia showed. White planters turned to black slaves as a labor force, and the law in colonial America began to make slavery a life-long condition and began to impose strictures upon slaves. Over time, slaves were no longer able to be freed, and slaves became distinct from white indentured servants. Racial prejudice, which already existed in European cultures (for example, "black" was associated with evil in literature), intensified as a way to justify the horrific treatment of slaves. In other words, racial prejudice justified the economic reliance on slavery.

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Foner makes the argument that slavery was so complex that it could not be reduced to one distinct force of causation.  Prejudice was one part of this construction.  However, Foner feels that there were other forces that helped to create the "peculiar institution of slavery."  Foner asserts that there was an "interplay in a society undergoing both a sectional confrontation and an economic revolution.”  This reveals that material forces were critical in defining how slavery came about.  Foner points out that it was not merely prejudice, but a hierarchal system that helped to ensure power to owners that helped to create slavery:

Slavery freed the upper class from the need to do manual labor, to worry about economic day-to-day realities, and therefore gave them the time and the intellectual ability to devote themselves to the arts and literature and mechanical advantages and inventions of all kinds. So that it was slavery itself which made the progress of civilization possible.

The establishment of a social hierarchy where Southern Whites were able to own the means of production and ensure their own position of strength were factors that helped to advance slavery.  

Foner argues that another reason slavery was able to continue was because of a growing sectionalism that refused to make statements of policy for the nation: “...the Constitution and national political system had failed in the difficult task of creating a nation—only the Civil War itself would accomplish it.”  Foner argues that slavery was the result of a growing sectionalism in which Southern constructions of economic progress were able to manifest without any intervention.  It is this convergence of sectionalism and economic stratification that Foner believes played a critical role in the advancement of slavery.  These forces worked in tandem with prejudice, reflective of the complex historical reality.

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