How Slavery Has Shaped the Lives of African Americans?


One of our country’s bleak moments in history is the slavery incident that continues to haunt the nations almost two centuries after the slavery institution was officially abolished by the Lincoln administration. Slavery was crucial to the economic well-being of the colonies in North American, whose plantation heavily relied on manual labor. As such, slaves existed in all of the colonies, persisting on until after the civil war.

At the onset, the slaves were comprised of different races, but with time, they were predominantly composed of Africans. The institute of Slavery had various social, economic, and political implications for both the African Americans and Whites. This paper shall aim out to discuss Slavery in American prior to the civil war. The social, political, economic, and cultural effects that this institute had on African Americans shall be discussed so as to shed more light on this dark section in our country’s history.


There is a popular misconception among the general public that Slavery in North America took place just before the years of the civil war. Contrary to this, history has it that Slavery in America dates back to the 1500s when the first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola[1]. Slavery in Northern American was defined as perpetual servitude for the black population and their progeny. It is interesting to note that this definition only came to pass in 1664, and prior to that, African-Americans were regarded as servants who were entitled to freedom after serving for a number of years in the same was as the indentured laborers.

However, Slavery was not an invention of the colonies that came to make up the USA, but rather, elaborate slave trade systems existed in ancient Greece and Europe long before the New World was discovered by Columbus[2]. Slavery was not exclusive to Africans, and during the early settlement in America, native people were frequently captured and retained as slaves. These natives, who were mostly Indians, provided labor in the rice plantations. However, Indian Slavery collapsed out of fear by the colonists of triggering new outbreaks of war with regional tribes[3]. Furthermore, it was discovered that a Negro slave could do the work of four natives, thus increasing the preference of black slaves.

The major factor that led to the need for slaves was the labor deficit in the colonies. While there existed indentured servants and white laborers in the colonies, Vickers asserts that “No British colony ever founded a successful society on the basis of free white labor” [4]. This strong declaration highlights the fact that Slavery was at the onset solely focused on the labor needs of the colonies that the white population was incapable of providing for on their own. By the end of the 17th century, the inflow of African Slaves into America became substantial as a result of the rise in demand for Chesapeake tobacco, therefore, calling for more labor.

As stated before, African slaves were at first entitled to freedom after a number of years of servitude. However, their status changed from this to slaves for life, mostly as a result of the rising scarcity in the supply of servants and the increase in the life expectancy among African-Americans[5]. This resulted in the rise in the value of slaves for life from an economic perspective. At the beginning of the slavery institute in America, slaves were confined mostly to the plantations. However, this gradually changed, and with times, the scope of labor provided by slaves was unlimited, and it penetrated virtually every economic activity.

Social Effects

By 1750, it is estimated that the number of slaves in British North America had risen to colossal 236,000 slaves. This figure made up over 1/5 of the population of the colonies[6]. As such, this significant portion of the population had to have some social effect on the community as a whole. One of the effects of Slavery was a manifestation of racism. Racism is defined by the Oxford dictionary as the belief that some races or people are better than others. This sometimes leads to the unfair treatment of people who come from different races.

While racism was never the original cause of Slavery, it came about as a result of Slavery. Grigg suggests that racism sprung from an irrational hatred for those who were different because of their skin color[7]. In the mind of the British colonists, black was associated with negative connotations such as evil. This notion of evilness and barbarism by Africans was further reinforced by the perceived savagery and heathenism of Africans in the African continent.

It was also easier on the conscience to lord over a race of people who were perceived to be inferior and, therefore, not deserving to be treated as equals. Christianity also played a part in advancing racism as the clergy used the bible to legitimize belief in black inferiority. The settlers who were by the large religious people, therefore, believed that the perpetuation of Slavery was of sound biblical standing[8]. As such, African Americans belonged to the lowest social class, and their sole purpose was to serve their white masters for life.

Racism was the platform from which acts of discrimination were perpetrated against the African-American slave population. One of the avenues in which discrimination was exercised was in the fields where forced labor was rife. Slaves were obligated to work from dawn to dusk, and if they did not achieve the set quota for the day, they would be whipped as punishment. Slave owners were permitted to use unrestrained force and violence so as to optimize the performance of their labor force.

Discrimination did not only come from the slave owners but also from groups of white workers who often petitioned state and local governments to eliminate competition from black workers[9]. For this reason, freeing of slaves was postponed as freed slaves were viewed as a threat, and their influx into the market would have unfavorable effects such as flooding the labor market and depressing wages for the white worker.

Political Effects

Since slaves made up a significant portion of the population, their presence also had some political bearing. Most of this political impact was mostly in the form of laws that were made to ensure that the slaves did not offset the economic stabilities of the colonies as well as safeguarding the interests of the white owners.

Slave Codes

Slave codes were a body of colonial and state laws that dealt with how the slaves were governed in colonial America. Prior to their formation, the regulation of slaves was by the large the prerogative of the owners. However, the enactment of 1702 of the “Act of Regulating Slaves” gave slaves some legal status and led to the formulation of a comprehensive code for their overall control. Slave codes were mostly motivated by the fear that followed the Negro insurrection of 1712, whereby slaves revolted against the harsh and unjust treatment that they were subjected to. The treat of similar uprisings happening throughout the colonies led to the restatement and amendment of existing laws so as to further control the slaves.

Slave codes by the large imposed even greater limits to the already limited rights of the African Americans. Some of these laws, e.g., the 1691 Virginian law, aimed to limit the movement of slaves by imposing even stricter pre-conditions for the emancipation of slaves. This compounded with other laws that outlawed interracial marriages led to the lives of the African slaves becoming even more unbearable. A Virginian code passed in 1662 stated that the child of an Englishman born to a slave mother would take slave status[10]. Other slave codes led to the denial of a right to vote by the African Americans, therefore depriving the blacks of the little political power that they wielded. In almost all cases, most of these codes were detrimental to the interests of the slaves.


In the earlier years, the Constitution supported Slavery, and therefore, federal laws in the colonies were sympathetic to slave owners. Slaves have seen a means by which to advance the colonies by ensuring economic prosperity, and measures were therefore taken to protect the interests of the colonies. In most of the southern states was aimed at creating a constitution that protected white supremacy and propagated Slavery. Despite the passing by Congress of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which stated that all individuals are citizens and no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, most states still maintained that African Americans were different than Whites and therefore these laws did not apply evenly to them.[11]

As a result of this, the Constitution failed to provide any significant protection to African Americans. For example, despite the claims that no one should deprive any person of life, the Constitution still exempted any master from being charged if a slave died after punishment, therefore, highlighting the fact that these laws were mostly in the interest of the slave masters[12]. The Constitution, therefore, upheld the notion of white supremacy, and most of the laws related to the slaves were meant to curb their movement and ensure that they did not desert their masters.

Fugitive Law

The Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1793, and it gave the federal and colonial authorities the power to arrest any suspected deserting slaves[13]. This law legitimized the seizing of alleged. The authorities were therefore empowered to issue warrants for the arrests and subsequent return to the original owner of any African-American who was suspected to be an escaped slave. The law also made the aiding and abetting of a runaway slave a federal crime that was punishable by law.

This law licensed the exercise of violence against the alleged escaped slave. Whipping, branding, and dismemberment of runaway slaves were, therefore, legitimized mostly to act as a deterrence to the slave population[14]. The Fugitive Law also led to the development of a class of professional fugitive slave catchers. These slave catchers roamed the land in search of runaway slaves and returned them to the owners for a fee. In some cases, the slaves retrieved were freed slaves, but since the law allowed seizing of alleged fugitives without due process of the law, the slaves were mostly at the mercies of the slave catchers.

Dred Scott case

The Dred Scott case revolves around Scott, a slave whose master moved to the state of Illinois. On his death, Scott’s master left him in possession of his wife, Irene. Scott asked his new Mistress if he could work for his freedom, but she refused to cause Scott to sue her for false imprisonment. This case highlighted the deep division that lay between the Northern and Southern states over Slavery.

The Southern Nations advocated for Slavery while Northern slaves called for the abolishment of the institute. In the year 1857, the Supreme Court, which had an overrepresentation of Southern judges, ruled that blacks, no matter their status (freed or otherwise), were not citizens of the state and therefore did not enjoy the rights granted by the Constitution [15]. As such, they could be enslaved regardless of how long they had been freed.

Economic Effects

Slaves played a major role in the economic prosperity of the states. The slave population expanded to provide for the growth of the tobacco industry as well as the iron industries, which were labor intensive[16]. As the demand for these commodities rose both in the colonies and in the European nations, the settlers were hard-pressed to increase their productions. The City of New Orleans and the southern state of Mississippi owe their economic prosperity to the surplus of slaves who came to provide labor in various sectors. Owing to the profitability of Slavery, slaves became as much a sign of wealth as they were a cause of wealth, and one’s wealth could, therefore, be calculated by the number of slaves they possessed. Slaves were mostly profitable on larger farms where gangs of slaves equaling up to 50slaves were used.

Despite the economic prosperity that slaves brought along, the major characterization of slaves remained to be poverty and appalling conditions under which some of them lived. This is because most of their masters were not concerned with well being of their slaves. As such, slaves continued to be denied both the immediate fruits of their labor, and any attempt at self-advancement through the acquisition of skills and education was thwarted.

Slaves from Africa were not used to the climatic conditions of the Northern American colonies. However, the slave population adopted the climatic conditions over time. While the mortality rate for adults was fairly low, that of slave infants and children was high. This is because prenatal care was poor as pregnant women were forced to work long hours in the fields, and this intense labor was harmful to fetal development.

Cultural impact

The cultural impact of Slavery came about as slaves set out to forge identities for themselves that were separate from plantation economies[17]. While these cultures were not entirely autonomous from those of the other communities that the slaves interacted with, they had a few peculiar attributes that were predominantly of the slaves making. Slave music was characterized by dance and a strong focus on sensuality and often with body contact, reminiscent of its African roots.

One of the interesting aspects of the lyrical content of slave music was that they were made up of a form of a loose narrative where the singer often voiced their concerns towards the realities of this harsh world. The music was also characterized by consisting of single lines reiterated over four times. Research by Nicholas suggests that this simplicity was probably because slave music was sung by the workers in unison, and hence a single catchy line was favored over different versed lines[18]. Invariably, most slave music resounded with strong social themes of farming, economic crises, and discrimination that were exhibited in the historical time in which the music was developed.

The slaves from Africa were mostly viewed as evil heathens owing to their lack of a well-defined religious set up. In the colonies, priests welcomed the slaves into their religions, and the missionaries set out to convert them to the Christian faith.

However, the English in North America were reluctant to convert slaves into Protestantism since English law prohibited Christian Englishmen from keeping other Christians as slaves[19]. Owing to the lack of a formal religion of their own, the slaves took up Christianity and practiced it as their own religion. Over time, a large number of the slaves began practicing a more liberal charismatic form of the faith that incorporated some of the musical features of traditional African music, which is characterized by heavy percussions and dancing while singing.

While the slaves were engaged in some form of subsistent farming, most of their dietary needs were fulfilled by their masters. The adult diet was mostly comprised of foods that were high on caloric and nutrition content. Food rations consisted of pork been, milk, and sweet potations. However, this good nutrition offered by the slave owners was not out of generosity but rather so as to increase the efficiency of the slaves. Good nutrition resulted in better, physically built slaves.


This paper set out to discuss Slavery in America prior to the civil war so as to provide a deeper understanding of the subject. From the discussions presented herein, it can authoritatively be stated that Slavery was chiefly a result of the labor needs of the colonies. The motivation for Slavery was, therefore, an economic one and the institute only thrived for its economic significance. However, social injustices such as racism and discrimination sprouted from this practice, and up to date, these negative effects are still prevalent in our society. While it cannot be disputed that Slavery was an unjust and mostly inhumane institute for the African-Americans, it can be seen from this paper that Slavery did also play a significant part in the building of our nation.


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Grossberg, Michael. & Tomlins, Christopher L.”The Cambridge history of law in America, Volume 2″ Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Matson, Cathy. The economy of early America: historical perspectives & new directions. Penn State Press, 2006.

Middleton, Richard. “Colonial America: a history, 1565-1776”. WIley-Blackwell, 2002. /

Moreno, Paul. “Union and Discrimination.” Cato Journal, Vol. 30, No.1 (2010): 67-81.

Nichollas, D. “The Cambridge History of American Music.” Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Reiss, Oscar. “Blacks in colonial America”. McFarland, 1997.

Rodriguez, Junius. “Slavery in the United States: a social, political, and historical encyclopedia, Volume 2” ABC-CLIO, 2007.

Rudolph, Alexander. “Racism, African Americans, and social justice” Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

Vickers, Daniel. A Companion to Colonial America. Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.