During the Age of Enlightenment, anything was thought possible, and for African Americans, this included freedom and equality, "the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness." Free blacks and fugitive slaves flocked to the great cities of the North, and Philadelphia shone among them as a haven. With the passage of the country's first gradual abolition act, Philadelphia seemed to be showing the way for the rest of the country to resolve the contradiction of a country founded on independence but built on slavery. But even there, prejudice reigned. Most free blacks lived in poverty and schemes for the colonization of blacks to Africa were planned, to rid the country of the embarrassment of assimilating its black population as free men.
After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the economy of the South was forever changed, with cotton the dominant money-making crop. Slavery took on new importance with a massive influx of slaves to the cotton-growing states in the lower South and the West. This forced migration tore many black families apart, and ended their dreams of emancipation
In the Cotton belt, most slaves lived on plantations with less than 50 slaves. They worked in gangs, pressed on by an overseer, for the grueling year-long cycle of cultivation, which culminated in ginning and pressing the crop in January and February. The slave population almost tripled in size between 1790 and 1830. Most slave women had many children, beginning at age 19. Since children were most likely to be sold, this tragedy touched nearly every black family.
In 1781, the estimated population of the United States was 3.5 million. About 575,000 of these were slaves. In 1801, the year Thomas Jefferson became president, the population of the United States was 5,308,000, with 900,000 slaves. In 1830, U.S. population was 12.8 million, with more than 2 million slaves.
The closing of the international slave trade in 1808 forced plantation owners to improve their treatment of slaves. Less branding and limb dismemberment took place as punishment. As a class, slaveholders developed a paternalistic self-image and created a literature of racial superiority which stressed caring for their slaves.
The violence and brutality which undergirded slavery was most apparent when slaves chose to rebel. And the biggest revolt of the era, on the French colony of St. Domingue, set the tone for the bloodshed and repression which soon followed in the American South. The failed attempts of Gabriel's Rebellion in 1800 and Denmark Vesey's Plot in 1822 were followed by Nat Turner's bloody revolt in 1831. Fear among slaveholders in the aftermath led to more stringent control of slaves.
Some blacks, however, were living free. The census of 1790 revealed that 59,000 free blacks lived in the United States -- approximately 27,000 in the North and 32,000 in the South. By 1830, the total number of free blacks had risen to 319,000, with 150,000 living in the North.
While most African Americans lived in poverty, some were able to become financially solvent, forming a middle class. An elite class of blacks was also formed from entrepreneurs who were able to invest in property. During the first 40 years of the United States, free blacks formed vibrant communities in many urban areas. These communities sought full participation in society by building institutions such as churches and mutual aid societies and fighting for the abolition of slavery.
Vermont, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maine
1791-1820: 5 new free states enter the United States: Vermont (1791), Ohio (1803); Indiana (1816); Illinois (1818); Maine (1820)
Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri
1792-1821: 6 new slave states enter the United States: Kentucky (1792), Tennessee (1796); Louisiana (1812), Mississippi (1817), Alabama (1819), and Missouri (1821)
Territory north of 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude
1820: According to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, all territory north of 36 degrees 30 minutes latitude will be free of slavery. (The Michigan Territory is already free territory under the 1787 Northwest Ordinance.)
1794: Richard Allen establishes the AME Church in Philadelphia. Philadelphia flourishes as a center of the free black community and abolitionist movement.
Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey:
1790: In the original 7 free states, slavery has been or is gradually being outlawed: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey
Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia
1790: In the original 6 slave states, slavery is entrenched: Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia
1803: The United States buys the 830,000 square-mile Louisiana Territory from France for only $15 million, doubling the size of the United States.
1819: Spain sells Florida to the United States, after Andrew Jackson has laid claim to the territory with repeated military incursions.
1800: Gabriel's Conspiracy, around Richmond, Virginia, follows on the heels on the slave rebellion in Saint Domingue.
1830: Nat Turner's Rebellion is put down in southeastern Virginia
1822: Denmark Vesey's Conspiracy is uncovered in Charleston
Part 3 Narrative:
Map: The Growing Nation
Freedom and Resistance
The Black Church
Conspiracy and Rebellions
Growth and Entrenchment of Slavery
Part 3: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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