African American

The role of the African American in the middle of the 18th century differs from that of their southern counterparts at this time. However, both experiences were unpleasant to say the least and in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, the call for a declaration of independence for African Americans or to simply be included in America’s fell on deaf ears. The first Africans came to America by way of what was called New Amsterdam or New York City. In 1626, eleven Africans from Angola came to clear the lands on the island of Manhattan in order that a new settlement could be established.(Burns, 1999) There existed by the middle of the 18th century, a mixture of slaves, freed blacks and day laborers that were rented out on  a daily basis to the highest bidder. However, their experiences during this time were marked by oppression in the years leading up to the American Revolution that would forecast other race riots and the mistreatment of African Americans in horrific ways.

In 1741, a race riot occurred in New York City that in the future decades, held the black population in New York City to only minimal levels out of fear of a repeat occurrence. (Burns, 1999) These levels would rise in the years leading up to the 1863 Draft Riots which again, subtracted the black population until as recently as the Harlem Renaissance. However, during this time, African Americans were looked upon with a great deal of content and suspicion. In 1741, a number of fires broke out in New York City.  There as no sign of who or what was causing these fires but the town has become nervous and offered a $100 reward for information leading to the capture of those responsible. Mary Burton came forward and said that she knew that it was the free blacks in the city which were responsible for the fires at the town’s barracks and at King’s Chapel.  “She said that the free blacks that were known to frequent the bar of John Huston, an Irish Catholic who welcomed anyone into his bar. So not only were these free blacks plotting to overthrown the town, so thought the city officials, but that an Irish Catholic was aiding their attempts.” (Burns, 1999) A strong response came at the hand of the city officials.

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Mary Burton, with her reward in hand, started to list dozens of African Americans          whom she said was responsible for the fires.  The ones accused were not given trials but were rounded up and either hung, deported or burnt at the stake while their genitals were cut off and medieval torture practices, which had been banned all over Europe, were brought back for this occasion. In all, sixteen free blacks were hung, thirteen slaves were burnt at the stake and seventy were deported. 1/6th of the population in 1740 in New York City were slaves and every effort was made after the initial accusations were levied against the suspects, to continue to keep Africans in line and submissive. (Burns, 1999)

In the decades after the riot, over 500,000 Africans from the Atlantic slave trade, came directly to America. (Burns, 1989) Most went to the South to help grow the tobacco plantations in Virginia and cotton plantations in Georgia but also in New York City and Maryland as well. Africans in the South and to a lesser although important degree were seen simply as a form of capital. The formation of Wall Street, both literally and figuratively, was formed on the backs of slave labor. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, with an expansion of population, first brought on by the first effects of industrialization but also the first signs of immigration from Europe, helped to expand the need for slave labor in America. However, it would be the Southern states which would attempt to preserve forever, their forcible influence upon their slaves. Colonists who in the following decades, would decry their treatment by England for mistreatment and taxation without representation, would vacate all attempts for African Americans to participate in self-government. The reasons for this go back to supply and demand. With the Atlantic Slave trade stealing over ten million slaves from Africa, there was a steady supply of cheap labor coming to till the land and clear the fields. (Goodwin, 2006 p. 59) It was just simply cheaper to have slaves than to pay Irish or German immigrants. And when the Atlantic Slave Trade was stopped in 1818, the slaves that were already there were made that much more valuable to their owners. This coupled with the opportunity to realize higher profits and the belief in state’s rights that was to come, African Americans would be held tightly in bondage and only after a Civil War and 200,000 Southern casualties, did they finally release their grip from the institution of slavery. (Burns, 1989 p. 329)

During the years in which African Americans were held in bondage leading up to the Civil War, they took on different forms of resistance as their response. Their response can be grouped into three distinct parts: education, escape and open rebellion. Due to the fact that African Americans were forbidden from receiving education which afforded them the ability to read and write, those who used education were few and far between. African Americans had a strong oral tradition but that was unable to reach the masses in the North as well as in Britain.  A lone exception to this was Frederick Douglas. Douglas was the most important African American figure in the 19th century America. Nobody did more for the cause of African Americans and once slavery was abolished in 1865, Douglas championed the rights of African Americans until the day he died in 1895. Douglas was such an important figure in American history because of his high level of education that he had obtained, not from any formal schooling but through teaching himself how to read, write and to reason and think critically; all which are still samples of the Liberal Arts education today. When Douglas escaped slavery, he went to England where he taught, spoke and wrote about his experiences. He was so well versed and such a great orator, that many who heard him in both England and America, could not believe that he had once been a slave. (Douglas, 1990 p. 67)  Not only was he explaining the plight of the slave; an experience that many in the white community was oblivious to, but he was also knocking down stereotypes concerning the ignorance and presumed inferiority of the African American. His autobiography The Life and Times of Frederick Douglas is still regarded as the finest and most inspiring slave narratives ever written. The book is an amazing read and although nearly nine hundred pages, each word leaps off the page and one is transplanted back to the experiences of Douglas, as much as any book can, and helps the reader to understand the evils of slavery.

The other form of resistance was escape. This was more common and with the help of Harriet Tubman and the formation of her “underground railroad,” hundreds of African Americans were propelled to the North and to freedom from their former life as slaves. Not only did this rob their master of their valuable assets, a slave could be sold for as high as $1500, but also showed a level of mental and physical skill that many thought African Americans were incapable of possessing.(Burns, 1989 p. 23) Also, the escape of slaves to the North, helped to diffuse on an individual scale, the perceived notion by their oblivious owners, that slaves were somehow happy with their existence and in no way could they prefer the Northern factories to the utopian paradise of offered shelter, food and work, or at least that was what was perceived in the political cartoons in the Southern papers.

Lastly, slaves resisted though open rebellion. The two most famous examples of this were the Nat Turner rebellion and John Brown’s Raid. Both rebellions struck fear and terror in the hearts and minds of the Southern community. In their hearts, the white community knew that slaves were mistreated under their treatment and it was only human nature, once somebody has been pushed past their boiling point, to want to strike back and to strike back with undeniable force. Both of the above mentioned rebellions served as an impediment to the cause of emancipation by the South. Turner’s slave rebellion only forced the slave owners to enact tougher laws and restrictions as well as physical punishments from a scared community out of fear that a similar rebellion would occur. With the case of the John Brown rebellion, after the rebellion and in the days before Brown was set to be hung, a bullet, which hit only Brown’s buckle and allowed him to talk to the press, was made a rallying call for Northern troops as the Civil War began. Brown’s rebellion was ill planned but had the cooperation of Brown’s sons as well as a number of slaves who were willing to follow Brown’s lead towards freedom.

Resistance comes in many forms and for the slave, education, escape and open rebellion were some of the most common and effective ways in which to resist the notion that African Americans were inferior and therefore, belonged in bondage for the rest of their lives. The aforementioned forms of protest helped to prove otherwise.

In the years before the American Revolution, the colonists, regardless of their desire to declare their independence from England or not, became more than annoyed at the series of laws and taxes which were levied against them without their being represented in Parliament. Those English, who said that they were representing the colonists’ interests, were doing anything but that. The Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, the Sugar and Tea Act as well as the Boston Massacre, all were used by the British to not only subtract funds from the colonists, but to keep them in a subservient position. Therefore, the colonists, who only constituted 1/3 of the population, campaigned vigorously towards independence from their English oppressors.(Kuralt, 1990) The War was and is still referred to as “America’s War for Independence.” (Kuralt, 1990) However, the name that was given to this struggle, is ironic indeed. At the same time that white Americans were fighting for their freedom from a foreign power than was oppressing them, the same Americans were not only doing not only the same,. But much worse to a sizable portion of the population as well as participating in the Atlantic Slave Trade, the forcible extraction of Africans from their homeland and which was not outlawed until 1818.

During the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson proposed that slavery be abolished. Jefferson said that he wept for his country when he thought of the evils of slavery and the punishment from a just God will not sleep forever.(Burns, 1997) Yet Jefferson himself owned two hundred slaves for all of his adult life. The regard for the Southern States can be seen within one man: Thomas Jefferson. When he proposed this aspect to be included in the Constitution, he was voted down by the Southern states within the delegation. Slavery had become profitable at that time and its profits would explode after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. When it might take fifty slaves to sort a ton of cotton eight hours, with the cotton gin, the same was completed in one hour and with only a handful of needed slaves.(Burns, 1989 p. 21) Therefore, the demand and profitability of slavery just had too much money connected to the institution. This was the same for Thomas Jefferson, a plantation and President from Virginia. Jefferson was known for having no money management skills.  He was unable to pay two hundred workers to build his home and to cultivate his garden. So he proposed to simply do what the law allowed and buy two hundred human beings to do the work for him. Jefferson knew this was wrong but he could see no other alternative if his own desires were going to be met and as they were paramount to anything else, Jefferson found it too difficult to ever bring himself to free his slaves. Also, the more the Southern states were pressured to free their slaves, the more they resisted until Southerners, 90% of which never had owned a single slave in his life, found themselves willing to fight for the protection of slavery or for the preservation of their states’ rights.

In the North, there was little demand for slave labor. New York found itself flooded with immigrants who were willing to work for less to nothing.  Maryland and for a time New York held slaves but eventually abolished the practice. Perhaps if the North had the same demand for slaves that the South had, the Civil War might never had been fought as both sides were in agreement on the issue. One will never know. The difference is demand. There is much less demand for slaves in the North. Northern law makers were not hardliners on slavery expanding to the west because they felt that slavery would die a natural death as it had in the North, because of the lack of demand.


In the centuries in which African Americans were held in slavery, void of any free self expression that would impede their productivity, ways in which individuals and cultures would express themselves, were not formally allowed. So this meant that slaves would have to find other ways in which to express themselves. A strong oral tradition, a strong family tradition and a strong religious faith all helped slaves to define themselves as both individuals and within a larger group or race.

Many slaves were forbidden from being taught to read or write. This forced slaves to rely upon an oral tradition of stories and of song. This is not unusual to other groups and races which did not read or have a written language in cultures of the past. Slaves had a written language. They were however, not given the tools that every person needed in order to cultivate those skills. Therefore, singing, dancing and stories were a form of cultural expression. This also served to give a number of slaves in the South their freedom as it was used in a practical way. In the formation of the Underground railroad, detailed maps and code words and songs were used in order to signal to former slaves, when and where a group was planning to escape the plantation. (Burns, 1989)

Also, the family, as is the case in every society, served as the foundation of the African American. It was this feeling of importance that was placed upon the family that abolitionists who recognized this, used as one of their chief objections to slavery. Slavery broke up families and that was against the law of God. Therefore, slavery was against the law of God. And this irony of a Christian nation, willfully breaking up the families of African Americans in the name of profits and perceived racial superiority continued to be a chief objection to the institution of slavery. This would not have been the case had the slave not placed so much importance upon his family. One slave, Josiah Turner, when he could sense that the Union was going to win the Civil War, sent a letter to his former slave master who had split up his family. He said: “Ms. Nellie. You took away and tried to break what God had connected together through the bonds of fatherhood towards my daughter.  You had no right to do that and God will right the wrong that you have placed against me. Neither you nor your armies will be able to keep me from my daughter.” (Burns, 1989) The family was important and therefore, slavery was that much more painful when a family was split up and sold to the highest bidder.

The last source of cultural identity within the African American experience, then as well as now was the church.  The African Methodist Church was formed in 1815. (Douglas, 1990 p. 34) The church gave African Americans hope at a better future and that there was a great leveler of all the injustices that occurred in the world. Also, the church gave authority and responsibility to others when the outside world gave none to them. The African American parishioner was given free range, within his own church, to express himself through song, praise, the coming together of the black community and in their faith in Christianity. Through this, African Americans, who shared the same religion and was then somehow seen as not being that much different from the white community, could use their common faith as a source of familiarity between the two races.  This was true then as well as now and serves as not only an important source of cultural identity during the history of the African American but also helped sustain through some of the roughest times, any peoples were forced to endure.

`In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the main source of political strife between the North and the South was slavery. The Fugitive Slave Laws, the 1820 and 1850 Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were all designed to postpone or all together avoid a Civil War. So it became ironic that once Civil War had broken out on April 14, 1861, the stated goal of the North was to preserve the Union.( Commanger, 1947 p. 72) From the Southern point of view, they made no concession towards abolition. In the North, the main goal of the Union’s efforts in the war, according to statements made by President Lincoln, was to preserve the Union and that if that could be done while preserving slavery in the states and territories where it existed, that was then seen as acceptable.

Slavery had become interwoven into their society even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The importance of slave labor exploded after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and with Britain depending upon the South for their cotton and other raw materials, derived from slave labor, there was simply too much money involved for the South to make any promises towards their four million slaves regarding their freedom. Only towards the end of the Civil War, when the South was losing the war badly and the end was in sight, did General Lee ask Confederate President Davis to allow for the training of slaves as soldiers and in return, those who fought for the Southern cause, would be granted their freedom at the end of the conflict. The South was not going to make any efforts towards freeing their slaves without being made to do so.  They had defended their right to own slaves, according to the beliefs in state’s rights that were prevalent at the time. It had been this strong belief in state’s rights which helped to form America’s first Constitution: The Article of Confederation. The Articles were so weak and basically useless, it should have shown the Southern states, that state’s rights, when in need of a strong centralized government, simply does not work.

The North did not initially advocate for the abolition of the slaves until after the battle of Antietam in September 1862. Before that, President Lincoln, as a candidate for both the senate in Illinois in 1858, and then for the Presidency in 1960, was marked as an advocate on the issue of emancipation. He resisted the calls from more radicals like his opponent on the Republican ticket and future member of his cabinet, William Seward and abolitionist Frederick Douglas. (Goodwin, 2006 p. 129) However, it was because of Lincoln’s moderate views on slavery that he was elected in the first place. At the 1860 Republican Convention in Chicago, after three ballots, Seward, the previous favorite, was passed over for Lincoln because Seward was seen as too radical in his alliance with the abolitionists.(Burns, 1999) President Lincoln, in the months before the start of the Civil War, firmly reinstated his position on the future of slavery under his presidency: “My paramount objection is to save the union. , and is not either to save or destroy slavery.

If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do also do that.”(Goodwin, 2006 p. 145) So it came as a shock to his cabinet when Lincoln announced in the summer of 1862, that he was going to be emancipating the slaves.  He called in his cabinet, not to discuss his idea in order to dissuade him but rather to advise him on the best way in which this should be done.  It was suggested that Lincoln wait until a decisive Union victory on the battlefield occurred or else the edict would be seen as a desperate attempt by the Union. This was agreed upon and the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863 and then became an amendment in 1865 once the Union and the slaves, had earned the right for such a ruling to go into effect and to be recognized by their former masters; people who had profited off of their unpaid toil for the past two hundred and fifty years.(Commanger, 1947 p. 81)

The position of the South with regard to slavery was always kept in tact. Slavery had become so interwoven into the fabric of the South, according to John Calhoun, senator from South Carolina, that to kill slavery would be the same as killing the South. The North, despite fierce opposition to slavery in the decades leading up to the war, still believed, as did President Lincoln, that the Union should be preserved at all costs. This was later amended and the war was given a nobler cause when Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation. Not only did this prevent Britain from coming to the aid of the Confederates, but it gave the war a higher calling and was made in name, what it had always been, and the war to end slavery.