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Slavery and the Making of America

February 09, 2005 // 11:00pm

"Slavery was no side show in American history; it was the main event," declared Professors James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton. Speaking at a discussion of Slavery and the Making of America sponsored by the Division of United States Studies, the co-authors emphasized the extent to which the institution of slavery helped to build the modern United States.

Slavery was not just a southern institution but one that permeated all of American society. Every one of the colonies held slaves; Thomas Jefferson wrote the glowing words of the Declaration of Independence at a time when he owned 150 slaves. After the Louisiana Purchase more than doubled the size of the United States in 1803, the center of slavery moved from the tobacco and rice-growing regions of the Mid-Atlantic to the cotton-growing regions of the south and west. By 1815 cotton was the most valuable American export, and by 1840, it was more valuable than all other American exports combined. As the Civil War began, according to James Horton, the 7/8 of the world's cotton that came from the American South meant that "the value of slaves was greater than the dollar value of all of America's banks, railroads, and manufacturing put together." The result was one of the most devastating effects of slavery, as young men and boys were wrenched from their families in the Atlantic South to work on cotton plantations in the Deep South and Southwest.

The great contradiction of American society was its birth as a self-proclaimed bastion of human freedom even while it created theories of race to justify slavery. American slavery was far from the first in the history of the world but, Horton argued, it was the first to utilize race as a legitimation. Jefferson acknowledged that slavery was wrong but claimed that Africans were not equipped to live as free people. Horton rejected the claim that slavery must be understood as acceptable in its time, pointing out that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband that it seemed wrong to her and that Alexander Hamilton and John Jay organized manumission societies. Clearly, economics overrode the objections of those who understood that slavery was morally indefensible.

"History is not about events; history is about people," Lois Horton declared, which is why much of the book focuses on stories of individual slaves. The experience of slavery differed according to such factors as geography, which crop one worked on, gender, age, and origin. Slaves born in Africa, for example, were both more likely to run away and less likely to be successful in doing so. A major theme of the volume, and of the PBS documentary based on it, is slave resistance: the way both African-born and American-born slaves resisted not only by escaping but by maintaining their religions, their African languages and cultures, their secret societies, and their systems of mutual support. Some, like Harriet Jacobs, who avoided her master's sexual advances by hiding in a three and one-half foot high attic for seven years, escaped as best they could. Others played the system of slavery to their advantage. John, a slave of the Quickman family of Mississippi, for example, seemed so attached to the family that after he escaped during a trip to the North with the Quickmans, they waited for years for what they were certain would be his voluntary return. The bewilderment of many planters at the eagerness of "their people" to leave them before and after the Civil War was a telling testament to the slaves' understanding of how to survive and, hopefully, escape an oppressive system.

Adele Alexander placed the Hortons' work in the context of slave historiography. Many historians of the early 20th century variously stressed what they depicted as slavery's mildness or justified slavery as an institution that prepared Africans for eventual freedom. Historians of the 1950s began to tell the story of the harshness of slavery and the continuing damage that was done to the slaves' descendants. Later historians began to tell the slaves' own stories and to examine the impact of place and gender, leading to the realization that slavery was not a monolithic institution. The importance of the Hortons' book, Alexander commented, lies in its emphasis on the centrality of slavery to the nation's past and present, and in the way it puts the experiences of the slaves themselves at the center of the discourse. "Black history is American history and vice versa," Prof. Alexander noted; "slavery was a coercive system sustained by the entire society." The racialization used to justify slavery did not end with the Civil War but provided the underpinnings of Jim Crow laws and continues to shape the values of this country.







Drafted by Acacia Reed and Philippa Strum

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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