What was life like in 1840 for slaves?

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beardian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

By 1840, slavery was abolished in the Northern states and still a crucial part to the Southern plantation economy.  The slave population was almost at 4 million, the majority working on the plantations.  While some Northerners were very outspoken about abolition, or freedom from slavery, the Southern slave owners were vehemently opposed to abolition.  Many slaves on plantations were treated brutally, suffering from acts of degradation like whippings, beatings, rape, or in some cases execution.

Industrialization was taking place in the United States, and this further divided the north from the south.  Southern agriculture fed north US and Great British manufacturing, so plantation owners were even more reliant on slave labor.  As new western territories were being claimed, the issue of slavery in the new states continued to divide the nation.  Ultimately, the growing divide between the north and south led to a brutal Civil War from 1861-1865.   

emtheawesome | Student

During this time, the Northern states already abolished slavery. Slaves would frequently try to escape, but most of the time would fail miserably. Back then, some people believed that the slaves weren't even people! It's just what they were raised to believe. The life of slaves depended on how their owners treated them. For example, some slaves were treated with kindness by their owners. Slavery was still wrong, but some people didn't beat them to a pulp. In fact, some slaves even stayed with the families they worked for after they were granted freedom. 

However, some slaves were also treated very poorly. Some accounts say that if you didn't meet a certain amount in work, you were whipped severely. After you were whipped, sometimes salt would be rubbed into the wound. Some slaves were beaten to death. Slaves mostly went hungry and were barefoot. Their cabins were cold in the winter, and sometimes they didn't even have beds. Slaves usually worked from sunrise to sundown. They barely had any breaks, and if they showed any signs of weakness, they were whipped. Some slaves worked in the fields, while others worked inside the house. Some slave children were even bought as companions for the white children.

Families were also sometimes sold and torn apart. Many children never saw their parents again, and siblings were torn apart. Slaves were usualy stripped down naked and examined by people who were willing to buy. The slaves were sold like animals to the highest bidder.

In the 1840s, abolitionists were making their voices heard. Many people down South were "conductors" in the Underground Railroad, a network of houses where runaway slaves could stay until they got to the free North. The trip to the free North was dangerous, and the punishment for running away was mutilation or even death.

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