Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Slavery

Full Definition of Slavery

A civil relationship in which one person has absolute power over the life, fortune, and liberty of another.


At some point in history, slavery has plagued nearly every part of the world. From ancient Greece to the modern Americas, innumerable governments have sanctioned the complete control of certain persons for the benefit of other persons, usually under the guise of social, mercantile, and technological progress.

The United States’ legacy of slavery began in the early seventeenth century. However, the stage for U.S. slavery was set as early as the fourteenth century, when the rich nations of Spain and Portugal began to capture Africans for enslavement in Europe. When Spain, Portugal, and other European countries conquered and laid claim to the New World of the Caribbean and West Indies in the late sixteenth century, they brought along the practice of slavery. Eventually, slavery expanded to the north, to colonial America.

The first Africans in colonial America were brought to Jamestown by a Dutch ship in 1619. These twenty Africans were indentured servants, which meant that they were to work for a certain period of time in exchange for transportation and room and board. They were assigned land after their service and were considered free Negroes. Nonetheless, their settlement was involuntary.

The status of Africans in colonial America underwent a rapid evolution after 1619. One early judicial decision signalled the change in European attitudes toward Africans. In 1640, three Virginia servants—two Europeans and one African—escaped from their masters. Upon recapture, a Virginia court ordered the European servants to serve their master for one more year, and the African servant to serve his master, or his master’s assigns, for the rest of his life.

As early as 1641, colonial Massachusetts recognized slavery as a legal institution, announcing in its Body of Liberties that “[t]here shall never be any bond slaverie . . . unless it be lawful Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us.” Twenty years later, just two generations after the arrival of the first Africans in colonial America, the first statute recognizing African slavery was passed in Virginia.

In the mid-1600s, Virginia colonists began to take note of the phenomenal agricultural production occurring in the Caribbean and West Indies. The extreme labour demands and savage punishments of European colonists there had depleted the population of productive Amerindian slaves, but those same colonists were continuing to prosper. By purchasing masses of able-bodied pubescent and adult Africans, the colonists avoided waiting for a slave population to increase by native birth, and in the scramble for quick, easy, and substantial profits in the New World, this gave them an edge. Virginia colonists, eager to achieve the same prosperity, endeavoured to sanction African slavery.

In 1661, Virginia colonists enacted a law that legitimized African slavery and provided that the status of an African child would be determined by the status of its mother. If the mother of a child was a slave, then her child was doomed to slavery. In the following years, colonial Virginia passed more laws that severely restricted the rights of African slaves and expanded the rights of owners of African slaves. Each of the original colonies eventually followed Virginia’s lead by enacting similar laws that promoted or recognized the enslavement of Africans.

Most of the first African slaves were captured in Africa by the Dutch or by fellow Africans. They were then manacled and delivered in crowded, brutal conditions across the Atlantic Ocean by the Dutch West India Company, an organization formed in Holland for the sole purpose of trafficking in slaves. English companies such as the East India Company and the Royal African Company also contributed to the seventeenth-century American slave trade. Although untold numbers of Africans died en route, the profitable slave trade so increased the African slave population in America that by the late 1600s, European colonists were already beginning to anticipate insurrections and slave revolts. By 1750, populations of displaced Africans would range from an estimated 550 in New Hampshire to over 101,000 in Virginia.

From the beginning, African slaves resisted their servitude by running away, fighting back, poisoning food, and plotting revolts. The first Europeans to openly denounce slavery and work for its abolition were Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, who were concentrated in Pennsylvania. As early as 1688, the Quakers publicly declared that slavery was at odds with Christianity. Along with other European abolitionists, they actively worked to help African slaves escape their owners.

The legal treatment of African slaves varied slightly from colony to colony according to the area’s economic structure. Northern colonies such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island relied on the export of various local commodities such as fish, liquor, and dairy products, so their involvement with African slavery was in large part limited to slave trading. Nonetheless, the New England colonies sanctioned the use of slave labour, and they enacted codes that prevented African slaves from exercising such basic rights as freedom of association and movement. Though generally regarded as less harsh than those of such southern colonies as Virginia and the Carolinas, the New England slave codes nevertheless legalized the enslavement of Africans.

The middle colonies—New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey—also had codes that promoted the slave industry and deprived African slaves of most basic rights. Laws were often tailored especially for African slaves. In New York, for example, any slave found forty miles north of Albany was presumed to be escaping to Canada and could be executed upon the oath of two witnesses. In New York City, slaves could not appear on the street after dark without a lighted lantern. From 1700 to 1740, growth of the African slave population in New York outdistanced growth of the European population and gave the city the largest slave population in the region. Many of the slaves here provided domestic service to wealthy families. Except in New York, slavery in the middle colonies was not widespread, because the commercial economies and small-scale agriculture practised by the Germans, Swedes, and Danes in this region did not require it. Further, many settlers in the rural areas of the middle colonies were morally opposed to slavery. Neither of these conditions prevailed in the southern colonies.

Georgia was originally established as a slavery-free English colony in 1733, but the prohibition against slavery was repealed in 1750 after repeated entreaties from European settlers. The economies of colonial Virginia, Maryland, and North and South Carolina centred on large-scale agricultural production. The vast majority of the South’s colonial agrarians profited at first from the sale of tobacco, rice, and indigo. These products were planted, cultivated, and harvested exclusively by African slaves on vast farms known as plantations. Plantation production relied on manual labour and required tremendous numbers of workers to be successful, and thus the southern colonies found their needs met by the widespread enslavement of Africans.

Because of the importance of slavery to the plantation-based economies, slave codes in the southern colonies were made quite elaborate. For example, South Carolina prevented slave owners from working their slaves for more than fifteen hours a day in spring and summer, and more than fourteen hours a day in fall and winter. Slave owners were also warned against undue cruelty to slaves. At the same time, Europeans were not allowed to teach African slaves to read or write; freedom of movement was severely restricted for slaves; liquor could not be sold to slaves; and whippings, mutilations, and other forms of punishment for slaves were explicitly authorized by law.

The laws regarding slaves reflected the Terrorism and paternalism of slavery. A slave had a nebulous right to self-defence, but a slave owner was allowed to restrain and punish a slave with impunity. A slave owner could not beat a slave publicly, but a slave could not avoid punishment for a crime committed at an owner’s command. A free Negro could not voluntarily submit to slavery for a price, and Europeans were not allowed to subject a free African to slavery by treating one as a slave for any length of time. However, every African was presumed to be a slave until she or he could prove otherwise. This presumption was abolished in the northern states shortly after the United States won its independence from England, but it remained unchanged in the southern states until the end of the Civil War.

Not all Africans were slaves. Some free Africans had bought their freedom, some were the descendants of Jamestown’s first free African servants, some had escaped their owner, and some had been freed, or manumitted, by their owner. A slave owner could not free a slave if doing so left the slave unable to pay his or her debts. Some statutes allowed a slave owner to free only slaves who could work and support themselves, and other statutes required a slave owner to provide continuing financial support to freed slaves.

In some areas in the South, manumission of a slave was illegal, but the law did not prevent a slave owner from sending or taking slaves to another state to set them free. In states where manumission was legal, an owner could free a slave by executing a deed declaring the slave’s liberty. Generally, the deed had to be filed in a county clerk’s office or authorized or proved in court. Some states allowed for the manumission of slaves in the slave owner’s will. A gift of land to a slave by a slave owner was often held to be a manumission of the slave since only a free individual could own land. A manumitted slave was entitled to work for wages and to own land and personal property through acquisition or inheritance.

After the United States won the War of Independence, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey all passed legislation that gradually abolished slavery. These northern states, inspired mostly by the revolutionary, liberal philosophies of the period, began advocating expanding notions of freedom that were being rejected in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.

In May 1787, delegations from each of the thirteen colonies began to meet in Philadelphia to devise a federal constitution. The Constitutional Convention was to begin on May 14, but few representatives had arrived by then, and it was postponed. On May 25, seven states were represented, and the convention began. Delegates from the various colonies continued to arrive through June, with the last ones coming from New Hampshire on July 22, four days before the convention was adjourned. Slavery was just one topic on a very long agenda.

The abolition of the United States’ enslavement of Africans was not seriously entertained at the convention. Virginia’s George Mason and many delegates from the northern states argued against any recognition of slavery in the Constitution, but the overriding concern at the convention was to unify the states under a system of government that left substantial control of social and political questions to the individual states. It seemed clear to the majority of the representatives that a country founded on individual freedoms could not participate in slave trading, but it was equally clear that if the widespread enslavement of Africans by the southern states were prohibited by the new federal government, there would be no United States.

North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia insisted that a state’s right to import slaves be left untouched. Delegates from other states argued for the abolition of slavery, and still other delegates wanted no hint of the practice included in the Constitution. A committee comprising one delegate from each state was dispatched to settle the issue. The committee returned with a constitutional clause, couched in the negative, that made slave trade vulnerable to prohibition after the year 1800. The strange set of bedfellows produced by this issue—New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia were against the clause—illustrated the variety of considerations at play.

After further debate and modification by the entire convention, the Slave Trade Clause was inserted into Section 9 of Article I: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” Attached to this language was another clause that allowed for the imposition of a tax or duty on such importation, not to exceed $10 for “each Person” (read, “each Slave”).

The one other opaque reference to slavery in the Constitution was the so-called Three-fifths Compromise. In Article I, Section 2, the Framers wrote that the population of a state, for purposes of determining taxation and representation in the House of Representatives, would be measured by counting the “Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.” This language struggled mightily to avoid the mention of African slavery, but was understood as allowing the southern states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person in a government census.

This method of population measurement, three-fifths, was actually developed by Congress in 1783, during a debate over state representation in the federal government. The northern states opposed the inclusion of African slaves in the determination of population because the southern states contained thousands of African slaves who played no part in the political process. The southern states argued that a state’s African slave population reflected its true power and wealth, which should, in turn, be reflected in its federal representation. The northern states eventually compromised with the southern states to allow five African slaves to equal three free men for purposes of population determinations and federal representation.

At the Constitutional Convention, standing alone, the three-fifths proviso did not immediately satisfy the majority of states. Opposition to the measure was not organized: no single cause unified the dissatisfied states, and no split occurred between slave states and free states. The opposition also was not based on the morality of counting slaves as less than full citizens: very little wrangling took place over this concern, and an amendment to count slaves as whole persons were rejected by a vote of 8-2. Eventually, the three-fifths ratio was adopted for the Constitution, but only after direct taxation of the states was also tied to the state population. Thus, the only compromise regarding the recognition of African slaves grew from struggles over money and political power, not a concern over morality. A showdown between the slave states and the free states over African slavery never occurred. Although the United States was to cease the purchase and sale of slaves, the practice of slavery in the southern states survived the Constitutional Convention.

While all this politicking was taking place, the land in the southern states was fast becoming infertile. Farmers and plantation owners realized they needed to diversify their crops to save the soil. Shortly after the Constitution was ratified in 1789, the southern states sought the development of a cotton gin in order to convert agricultural production from rice, tobacco, and indigo to cotton. The cotton gin, which mechanically extracted cotton seeds, was eventually designed by Eli Whitney and Phineas Miller in 1792. The production of cotton did not require large start-up funds, and with the cotton gin for seed removal, African slaves had more time for cultivation. This all added up to large profits for southern plantation owners. With the help of New England slave traders, they imported African slaves by the tens of thousands in the years following the Constitutional Convention. Nevertheless, in March 1807, Congress passed a law prohibiting the importation of African slaves. Effective January 1, 1808, in fulfilment of the suggestion contained in Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution, the U.S. slave trade officially ended. But a state’s right to sanction slavery did not.

In the early 1800s, the United States was expanding, and the question of slavery began to consume the country. In 1819, leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a bill that would allow the Missouri Territory to enter the Union as a slave state. Although northern legislators outnumbered southern legislators at the time, House Speaker Henry Clay, of Kentucky, arranged an accord between enough congress members to pass a version of the bill that admitted Missouri as a slave state. In exchange for legal slavery in Missouri, the southern legislators agreed to limit the northern boundaries of slavery to the same latitude as the southern boundary of Missouri. Thus were the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which became a watershed in the United States’ experience with slavery.

In its constitution, Missouri declared it would not allow slaves to be emancipated without their owner’s consent. Furthermore, free African Americans were not allowed to enter the state. Antislavery Congress members objected to the latter clause on the ground that it violated the federal Constitution’s mandate that “the Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States” (art. IV, § 2). African Americans had, after all, gained citizenship in the northern states.

Again Clay manoeuvred votes in Congress. Missouri agreed not to discriminate against citizens from other states but did so in a resolution that was abstract and unclear and left unsettled the question of precisely who was a citizen of the several states. In 1821, Missouri’s constitution was approved, and Missouri was officially a slave state.

Once Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine was admitted as a free state; the Senate had refused to accept Maine until the House altered its position on Missouri. As a result, in 1821, the Union consisted of twelve free states, twelve slaves states, and a deepening divide between the two.

European settlements pressed westward. After the United States acquired the Southwest by force in the Mexican War, it again faced the question of slavery. In 1850, Congress altered the geographic limits on slavery established by the Missouri Compromise. California was admitted as a free state, but the Utah and New Mexico Territories were opened to slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 further eroded the dictates of the Missouri Compromise by admitting slavery in those territories.

One particular case brought by a slave came to a head in the 1850s and caught the attention of the Republican presidential candidate for the 1860 election, former Illinois congressman Abraham Lincoln. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. (19 How.) 393, 15 L. Ed. 691 (1857), Dred Scott sued the widow of his deceased owner in Missouri state court, asking for his freedom. The dispute began in 1834 and ended with an 1857 Supreme Court decision confirming Scott’s slave status. The decision galvanized abolitionists in the north and Lincoln railed against the decision in his campaign for the presidency. The decision also strengthened the resolve of pro-slavery forces in the South. As the struggle for power between slavers and emancipators intensified, the geographic lines proscribing slavery, drawn and redrawn, were fast becoming battle lines.

In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on an anti-slavery platform, and like-minded Republicans gained a majority in Congress. In February 1861, with the abolition of slavery imminent, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee soon followed suit. Before Lincoln’s inauguration in March, the Confederacy was in place. On April 12, the Confederates attacked South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, and the United States’ internal war over the issue of slavery had begun.

Many early American colonists had believed they were justified in enslaving Africans because Africans were not Christians. After the American Revolution, as the country became polarized over the issue of slavery, slavery supporters in the South worked to clear the southern states of anti-slavery leaders and their forces. One abolitionist, for example, was beaten, tarred and feathered, set afire, doused in water, and whipped. As late as the 1820s, more than one hundred abolitionist groups operated in the slave states, but by the 1840s, virtually none were left. Slavers in the southern states also began to cultivate more ambitious rationales for African slavery. Slavery supporters cited essays written by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle that declared that slavery was the natural order of things.

Aristotle had claimed that slaves were slaves because they had allowed themselves to become enslaved. This was just and right, his theory continued, because if those with strong bodies (Africans, to U.S. slavers) performed the labour, those with upright bodies (European colonists and their descendants) would have the time and energy for technological and economic advancement. U.S. slavery enthusiasts expanded on the theories of Aristotle and other philosophers to explain that it was the Africans’ lot in life to be slaves because it was inherent in their nature to be servile and hardworking. Other southern slavers forwent any philosophies of slavery and simply enjoyed the luxuries realized through the enslavement of Africans.

Throughout the Civil War, President Lincoln and the U.S. Congress were busy passing federal legislation on the subject of slavery. On August 6, 1861, Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which allowed the United States to lay claim to any property used in insurrection against it. Under this act, slaves who served in the Confederate army were to be set free upon capture by Union forces. In June 1862, Lincoln signed a bill passed by Congress that abolished slavery in all territories owned by the federal government. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all slaves in the United States were free persons and that they were to remain free persons.

In April 1865, the Confederate army surrendered to the Union forces. This touched off a flurry of constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was ratified by Congress on December 6, 1865. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified July 9, 1868, was designed to, in part, establish former slaves as full citizens and ensure that no African American would be deprived of any of the privileges and immunities that come with citizenship. The Fourteenth Amendment also deleted the offensive three-fifths ratio from the measurement of populations in Section 2 of Article I, and declared that any debts relating to the loss or emancipation of slaves were illegal and void. The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified February 3, 1870, gave male African Americans and male former slaves the right to vote.

African slavery in the United States has continued to haunt the country long after its abolition. In the North, segregation of African Americans from the European populations has been a reality, if not sanctioned by law. Beginning in the 1880s, many southern states enacted Black Codes, or Jim Crow laws, which restricted the freedom of movement and expression of African Americans and enforced their segregation from the rest of society.

Contemporary Slavery

Notions of slavery in the United States have expanded to include any situation in which one person controls the life, liberty, and fortune of another person. All forms of slavery are now widely recognized as inherently immoral and thoroughly evil. Slavery still occurs in various forms, but when it does, accused offenders are aggressively prosecuted. Federal statutes punish by fine or imprisonment the enticement of persons into slavery (18 U.S.C.A. § 1583), and the holding to or selling of persons into involuntary servitude (§ 1584). In addition, whosoever builds a ship for slave carriage, serves on a ship carrying slaves, or owns a slave-carrying ship will be fined or imprisoned under 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1582, 1586, and 1587, respectively.

The statute 18 U.S.C.A. § 1581 prohibits peonage, which is involuntary servitude for the payment of a debt. Labour camps are perhaps the most common violators of the law against peonage. The operators of some labour camps keep victims for work in fields through impoverished conditions, threats, acts of violence, and alcohol consumption. Offenders often provide rudimentary shelter to migrant workers and demand work in return, which can constitute involuntary servitude. An individual can also be convicted of sale into involuntary servitude for delivering victims under false pretences to such labour camps.

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Definition Sources

Definitions for Slavery are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 18th March, 2020 | 3 Views.