Daniel C. Littlefield
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in colonial and revolutionary United States. Slavery was a southern American institution associated primarily with cotton and a divinely ordained labour force of blacks. Southerners in the Chesapeake might realize that slaves once produced tobacco, and in low-country South Carolina and Georgia that they once grew rice, and in southern Louisiana that they once raised sugar cane, but most people, when they thought about slavery at all, thought about the growing of cotton and reckoned that an African workforce required no explanation. Few knew that at one time slavery lived in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, that it had been vibrant in New York and Pennsylvania, and that slaves still worked in New Jersey in 1860. Even in the South, where the presence of a significant African-American population made the heritage of slavery undeniable and people generally recognized the meaning of that fact, most understood neither slavery's age nor its origins.
This article reviews scholarship on the history and historiography of slavery in the early republic and antebellum United States. During the colonial period, slavery was present in varying degrees throughout what would become the United States. In the wake of the American Revolution, however, slavery became the ‘peculiar institution’ of the South. In the North, where the slave population was small and less crucial to the functioning of the economy, states took the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality to their logical conclusion, each passing either an immediate or gradual emancipation law by 1804. Further south, especially in the Chesapeake, slavery was weakened as revolutionary-era runaways and manumissions depleted the slave population. Yet, with the fading of the revolution's egalitarian rhetoric and the invention of the cotton gin that made it possible to extract safely and efficiently the delicate fibres from short-staple cotton, the institution of slavery would not only persevere but become entrenched and expand across the southern United States. The antebellum decades witnessed the movement of slaves south and west with the advance of the cotton frontier.
Christopher Leslie Brown
When the Stamp Act crisis erupted, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade or the overthrow of colonial slavery was deemed impossible. Less than a quarter century later, by the time delegates gathered for the Constitutional Convention, both slavery and the Atlantic slave trade were being condemned, not only in the new United States, but also in Britain and France. Between 1765 and 1787, antislavery declarations and protests proliferated and imaginative proposals were put forward to achieve a comprehensive emancipation. The American Revolution was credited for initiating these changes by popularizing the idea of universal liberty and, in turn, stigmatizing the institution of slavery. Yet the founders failed to deliver the fatal blow to slavery after the war as the promise of universal emancipation implied in the war's rhetoric collapsed. Denied and deferred in the United States, the antislavery movement would achieve its greatest influence in Britain. In Saint-Domingue, slave insurrections led to the abolition of slavery in the French West Indies by 1794.
This article discusses the historiography of slave law in the United States. Slave law in the United States developed over 225 years through a complicated mixture of custom, statutes, and court decisions. Before the American Revolution of 1776 England never micromanaged the colonies or promulgated a colonial slave code. Each of the thirteen colonies that became the United States had its own legislatures and court structures, and thus each colony developed slave law in its own way. This local development continued after the revolution, as each state had its own rules and regulations. The US Constitution, written in 1787, did not interfere with slavery in the states, but had a number of provisions which directly and indirectly impacted slavery throughout the nation.