AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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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 U.S. 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

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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 20 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 signaled 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 Euro pean 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.

Amistad: Mutiny on a Slave Ship

African slaves occasionally revolted against their masters, and the result was usually severe punishment for the slaves. The mutiny of fifty-four slaves on the Spanish ship Amistad in 1839 proved an exception, however, as the U.S. Supreme Court granted the slaves their freedom and allowed them to return to Africa.

The fifty-four Africans were KIDNAPPED in West Africa, near modern-day Sierra Leone, and illegally sold into the Spanish slave trade. They were transported to Cuba, fraudulently classified as native Cuban slaves, and sold to two Spaniards. The slaves were then loaded on the schooner Amistad, which set sail for Haiti.

Three days into the journey, the slaves mutinied. Led by Sengbe Pieh, known to the Spanish crew as Cinque, the slaves unshackled themselves, killed the captain and the cook, and forced all but two of the crew to leave the ship. The Africans demanded to be returned to their homeland, but the crew tricked them and sailed toward the United States. In August 1839 the ship was towed into Montauk Point, Long Island, in New York.

Cinque and the others were charged with murder and PIRACY. A group of abolitionists formed the Amistad Committee, which organized a legal defense that sought the slaves' freedom. U.S. President MARTIN VAN BUREN, pressed by Spain to return the slaves without trial, hoped the court would find the slaves guilty and order them returned to Cuba. The federal circuit court dismissed the murder and piracy charges because the acts had occurred outside the jurisdiction of the United States. It referred the case to the federal district court for trial to determine if the slaves must be returned to Cuba.

At the trial the slaves argued that there was no legal basis for returning them to Cuba because the importation of slaves from Africa was illegal under Spanish law. The district court agreed, ruling that the Africans were free and should be transported home. Van Buren ordered an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court.

Former president JOHN QUINCY ADAMS represented the slaves before the Supreme Court, making an impassioned argument for their freedom. The Court, in United States v. Libellants of Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (15 Pet. 518), 10 L. Ed. 826, affirmed the district court and agreed that the Africans were free persons. By the end of 1841, thirty-five of the Amistad survivors had sailed for Sierra Leone; the rest remained in the United States.


Wood, Gary V. 2004. Heir to the Fathers: John Quincy Adams and the Spirit of Constitutional Government. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

As early as 1641, colonial Massachusetts rec ognized 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,

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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 labor 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 strategy gave them an edge. Virginia colonists, eager to achieve the same prosperity, endeavored 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 labor, 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 40 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 these slaves 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...

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