Explain how race-based slavery developed during the seventeenth century. How did this impact the social and economic development of colonial America?

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Race-based slavery did not begin to develop as an official system until the 1690s. For a more thorough explanation of this development, I would recommend reading American Colonies by Alan Taylor. His chapter on Virginia is especially helpful in illustrating how and why the system developed.

Virginia is a helpful case study. It had the distinction of being the most prosperous colony, due to its successful tobacco trade. When tobacco became a less lucrative cash crop, the state successfully segued into cultivating cotton and became the young nation's wealthiest state, producing several US presidents, including plantation owner Thomas Jefferson.

Before the tobacco boom, Virginia's slaves enjoyed relative "freedom." They were allowed their own livestock and a small plot of land on which they cultivated their own small crops. The ability to maintain these bits of property tells us that the slaves enjoyed some leisure time and were granted a level of autonomy. Free blacks enjoyed a level of freedom that seemed to put them on par with whites. Not only could they own land, they could also testify in court and settle legal quarrels there; and they were permitted to marry whomever they chose. 

After the boom in the tobacco market, the lives of slaves and free blacks became more restricted to ensure the supply of free labor and to make black people the distinct source of that labor. To be white now meant to be a member of a privileged class. Poor whites benefited from this to some degree, as well. Taylor writes of instances in which poor white Virginians would steal livestock from blacks and go unpunished, due to the revocation of legal recourse for black people. 

Race-based slavery ensured the wealth of the white planter class, while the status of poorer whites did not change. Race-based slavery officially eliminated the necessity of white indentured servants. Earlier in the century, poor, but hopeful, British immigrants exchanged their labor for a parcel of land. This system created the unwelcome burden of market competition. Slave-based labor allowed planters to monopolize on lucrative agricultural markets. It also allowed for sharper divisions determined by class and race, creating the strict, "classical" hierarchy that characterized social and economic life in the South.