Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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WORLDWIDE SLAVERY - Part I: Slavery in the Americas

slavery n. one owned by another; one completely subject to another;
bondage n. servitude or enslavement;
indenture n. a legal instrument binding a servant to his master;
servant n. one employed to assist in domestic matters.
-as defined in the New International Webster’s Dictionary

The overall focus of this In Search for Freedom essay series will be on the people and events of the 1600s to the mid-1700s which led up to the founding of the United States. At that time, the majority of the people who immigrated to North America were of English origin, with French, Dutch, and Spanish settlers in smaller numbers.

In England and other European countries, the laws of primogeniture--firstborn sons inheriting the parents’ estate--were well established. The younger siblings   were left to provide for themselves, often in service to more established landowners.

As the open spaces of North America were being discovered, a growing number of  disenfranchised individuals and families were motivated to make perilous journeys across the Atlantic Ocean to claim their own land. Many Europeans, without financial means, entered into indentured servitude agreements with established farmers and business owners in the New World. The terms of the agreement were seven years of work, including room and board, with an employer who agreed to hire them and pay for their three-to-five-month-long ship voyage.

However, as early as the 1400s, Spanish and Portuguese explorers reached the Caribbean Islands and South America. They found indigenous peoples with  established cultures having social classes from high priests to laborers. from high priests to varying degrees of social classes, to slave labor classes. The slaves performed labor-intensive building and agricultural work, as well as working in mines to extract gold, silver, and other precious minerals.
The Spanish and Portuguese seamen brought substantial quantities of gold back to their respective governments, while also reporting that the tropical climate was ideal for growing products such as sugar cane for European markets. There  was immediate interest in colonizing parts of the Caribbean Islands and Brazil. They negotiated with African slave traders to provide them with laborers to do the agricultural and mining work. French and English settlements and plantations also began to flourish in the southern hemisphere.

Spain brought the first African slaves to North America in 1526 when they attempted, but failed to start a colony near today’s North Carolina.

As far as England’s future importation of African slaves and white indentured servants to North America, it is helpful to understand that for 180 years--from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to America’s becoming a sovereign Constitutional Republic in 1787--the people living in the thirteen colonies remained subjects of the British Crown. England, like other authoritarian dynasties the world over, promoted the slave trade as a means to profit from their “free” labor. In the British colonies, especially in the agrarian southern colonies, it was actually illegal to free slaves.

The African slave masters found lucrative trade markets with Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese sea merchants. Eventually, French and English merchants participated in the heinous crime of bondage of men, women, and children from Africa. The map provided at the top of this essay delineates the slave trade emanating from Africa to Europe, the near and far east, as well as the western hemisphere during the mid-1500s to 1870s. With regard to slaves being brought to first South, then North America, the slave trade routes brought an estimated 11 million African men, women, and children to the western world. Of that number, just 5% of the slaves were brought to North America, principally to work in the emerging tobacco and cotton fields of the southern British colonies.

During this same period Barbary Pirates, among other slave traders, kidnapped and sold more than 20 million Africans and Europeans to Persian, Indian, Arabian, and European countries by slave traders.

Subsequent essays will more fully explore the extent to which America’s Founding Fathers disdained tyranny of any kind, as can be seen in their numerous petitions requesting equal representation in the British Parliament. Their requests were routinely ignored. Instead, even harsher laws and higher taxes were levied on the already burdened colonists, putting them into deeper bondage with the king. These insults, along with open aggression from British troops, caused the Second American Congress to officially break ties with Britain.

In June of 1776, the American Continental Congress unanimously agreed that they must present the King of England with a document that outlined their grievances against his abuse of his colonial subjects. Significantly, their document would also announce to the king and the world that, henceforth, the thirteen colonies would form a wholly new nation, governed by the consent of the people.

Building on the aggregate wisdom of his fellow delegates, Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write a draft of America’s Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s hand-written first draft can be found on the website of the Library of Congress:

Concerning slavery, after Jefferson provided a list of colonial grievances, he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. …” Later in his draft, Jefferson personally rebuked the king for allowing the slave trade to flourish both in England and in the British Colonies, stating:

“[The king] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no act of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus, paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

Note: Italicized words and words written in all capital letters are from Jefferson’s own hand.

There was general agreement among Jefferson’s fellow delegates that the slave trade was immoral. However, in deference to the southern slave-holding colonies, Jefferson’s passage on slavery had to be removed from his otherwise laudably written declaration. It was imperative for Congress to have the support of all thirteen colonies before they presented their Declaration of Independence to King George.
Knowing with certainty that the British Parliament would target them for persecution, all 56 delegates of the Continental Congress signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, confirming “With a firm reliance on Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

The king believed he could continue to control the colonies, however, when he rebuked the colony’s formal statement of independence, the Revolutionary War ensued. After eight years of confrontation, the British military, the most powerful in the world at that time, surrendered to George Washington in 1781. The war was officially over at the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which also declared the United States of America as a sovereign nation.

In their quest for freedom from tyranny, the casualties for the Continental Army amounted to 6,800 killed in action; 17,000 deaths due to wounds and disease, and 8,000 to 12,000 troops died in captivity. Recognizing the valor and commitment of the American troops, approximately 6,000 Hessian troops deserted the British ranks to remain in the  American colonies.

Along with defining the character of America, both in the 1700s and today, the Declaration of Independence serves as the mission statement for maintaining a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and one that is based on the rule of law, not of men.

The adoption of the U.S. Constitution, in 1787, brought unity among the citizens of the new Republic, and the country began to prosper in relative peace. However, it is notable that the British Monarchy once again invaded American shores causing the War of 1812. Intent on forcing the people of the United States back under their tyrannical control, they ransacked cities and burned buildings, including setting fire to the recently built White House in the nation’s capital. Once again Britain sent their elite forces, but once again, lost the war due to their failure to recognize the courage and determination of Americans to  remain a free people.

Even though the Representatives from all thirteen colonies signed the Declaration of Independence and fought as one nation against British authoritarianism in two wars, differences regarding slave ownership remained between northern and southern states. Mounting tensions arose when the South threatened to secede from the Union. In 1861, the four-year-long Civil War began. This war pitted family and friends against one another, cost over 600,000 American lives, and threatened the foundations of our young Republic.

After thousands of years of worldwide slavery, in just 90 years, the institution of slavery in the United States was legally nullified when President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery.

History has shown that, at nearly every level of societal development, the potential for human corruption and exploitation appears. While this reality exists, it is important to keep in mind that there have also been individuals whose dauntless quests to improve the human experience have brought us advances in exploration, science, philosophy, the arts, and statesmanship. In subsequent essays, we will feature some of the courageous Colonial Era men and women who dedicated their lives to not only ending tyranny but also creating a government that would protect the rights of its citizens.