The American Civil War and Social History
The Concept of Slavery
The social history of the American Civil War is a complex study of the history of slavery. However, one should have an understanding that slavery during the ancient times was a consequence of territorial wars and a practice that was considered as primitive and barbaric. Instead of wiping out the race of the vanquished, the conquerors realized the value of free labor; hence, captives were kept alive in order to serve as their slaves.
America’s case of slavery was unique because it played a significant role in the American colonies' quest for independence and in keeping intact the unity of the colonies. The growing atrocities inflicted on slaves reflected negatively on America as a civilized nation, and the colonies had to be united in abolishing slavery as part of the American system.
The Beginnings of Slavery in the American Society
Back in the 1500s, America was known to the Europeans as “The New World.” This was the era when the ruling monarchs of Great Britain, Spain, France and the Netherlands had been sending out ships across the seas to explore new lands, which they could add to their territories.
On May 13, 1607, the first English settlers were brought by the Virginia Company of London to an island near the Chesapeake Bay and established the first English colony, which they called Jamestown Island (Virginia). The settlers were supposed to work and explore the rich vastness of the land, from which products for future trades could be derived.
However, many of the men folk who came to settle in Jamestown were not too keen on the idea of tilling the soil but instead preferred to look for gold. Based on preserved historical records and archaeological research, the first group of settlers comprised 104 men, of which at least half were British gentlemen or councilors, while the other half were divided into craftsmen or those with skills, and about twenty-five non-skilled laborers.
Through this piece of information, readers could easily perceive that the menfolk who arrived in the South did not have the physical prowess or skills to perform the laborious task of clearing the wilderness for agricultural purposes.
Perhaps they had hoped to harness the native settlers of the land in similar ways by which some explorers had done in the other parts of the globe. However, the Algonquian Indian natives were immediately hostile and made it quite clear that they had no intentions of allowing the foreigners to stay.
Unfortunately, most of the original colonists suffered and died from famine, disease and attacks from hostile Indian natives. However, Captain John Smith arrived and became the head of the colony. He immediately issued an order that required all men to work if they wanted to have food, which they could eat in order to live.
Captain John Smith's arrival also brought forth a semblance of prosperity and peaceful accord with the Algonquian Indians. It was during his time when a hard-working and successful crop grower named James Rolfe married Pocahontas, the legendary favored daughter of the Algonquian tribal chief. This denotes that the Native American Indians were not really savage as depicted but were capable of living peacefully and harmoniously with the settlers, if given the right treatment and conditions.
By 1614, Virginia-grown tobacco had become a source of economic success for Jamestown, and it spurred the arrival of more colonists. In August of 1619, the Dutch ship White Lion arrived and traded 20 Africans for food. This became the turning point for the colonial settlers of Jamestown Island.
The arrival of the African slave trade in Jamestown, Virginia, was more than welcome, as it provided the labor that was badly needed for the development of other crop plantations and land parcels.
However, during those days, slave trade was not for a lifetime of servitude but for a form of work called “indentured services”.
What Was the Concept of “Indentured Service” During the Colonial Era?
The poor folks of European countries like England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Russia and Wales also played a significant role in the social history of the American Civil War. Indentured service provided the means to pay for their passage or transport to the American colonial settlements.
Many European hopefuls entered into financing arrangements with seafaring merchants. Their ship fares or passages were paid by the merchants in exchange for the former’s work without compensation for a fixed term. Unpaid services could last for about four to five years and were all documented by way of a deed or contract, after which the workers gained their freedom to seek their own opportunities for prosperity.
The merchants profited from these financing agreements by selling the workers to plantation owners of colonial settlements. Settlers in Virginia and the succeeding southern colonies came to favor the indentured service contracts. It was beneficial for both plantation owners and the early groups of immigrants who arrived penniless.
However, the selling of workers that came from Africa was the most lucrative form of trade. This provided the groundwork for slavery, which was the main issue of the social history of the American Civil War.
Why Did Slave Traders and Slave Owners Prefer the African People?
The African people had the natural skills and strength to provide the kind of work needed in the American colonies’ plantation economy. Basically, the Africans were born in a domestic environment where they were raised and trained to make good use of the African soil, thus the natives not only had the brawn but also the skills and capability for endurance that the colonial plantations needed.
On the other hand, the African continent had its own share of social and ecological problems. More significant, however, was the African tradition of keeping their captives or law breakers as slaves as a form of punishment. Hence, those in power welcomed the slave traders who arrived at their shores, since the traders had come to take away their captives for a price. This was one of the darkest eras in Africa's history because it paved the way for the enslavement of millions of African people.
Tribal wars and conflicts were common in the vast African continent, and Africans did not consider themselves as one unified nation. Slaves could be traded for guns or musketry, which served to enhance their power over all other tribes, particularly their competitors and enemies.
This era was called “The Middle Passage” (1600-1700), the period in world history when the passage or transport of Africans to the American colonies supplied the great demand for plantation labor.
However, greed heightened and atrocities transpired as slave trade became common place. The horrific stories of brutality reached those who did not uphold the practice of slavery, which sparked the beginnings of the movements for its abolition.
The Promulgation of Slavery Laws that Expunged the Contracts of Indentured Services
Although the new world colonies were under the British rule, each colonial system was given a free hand to enact its own local colonial laws. This was to allow for effective governance in a place where the local leaders had a better perception of the socioeconomic needs of their respective jurisdictions. Slavery is a social practice that needed legal support for it to be fully recognized as just and lawful.
As the number of slaves grew rapidly in the southern territories, Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina deemed it best to promulgate the laws that would define slavery and its extent in their territories. Their colonial assemblies passed enactments that selectively expunged the system of indentured services.
The Promulgation of Slavery Laws that Expunged the Contracts of Indentured Services
Inasmuch as the African slave labor was considered most valuable in the economic prosperity of the plantations, they were singled-out as the subject of slavery laws that nullified the contracts for indentured services. The popularity of African slave trade was losing support from other countries and was being denounced as inhumane and not befitting a civilized nation.
To curtail the effects of the growing opposition against slave trade, legislative colonial assemblies enacted laws in order to ensure that their supply of African slaves would be replenished.
Virginia slavery laws stated that a child brought into life by a female slave was also a slave regardless of whether the child was fathered by a freeman or a slave. Another law promulgated was that the slave had no right to rebel or resist his master’s wishes. If the master’s punishment resulted in the death of a slave, the former could not be charged or tried in court for a crime. Virginia's law recognized the principle that no master would intentionally kill his slave, and any death that might arise pursuant to punishments inflicted was regarded as unintentional.
South Carolina’s slavery laws were said to be the most comprehensive and harsh. This was attributed to the series of uprisings and revolts against the nullification of the contracts for indentured services in this region. The colonies had laws that stated that the African and Native American Indian races, including those born as mixed-races such as African and white American, African and Native American Indian, Native American Indian and white American, were automatically regarded as slaves, unless they could show proof that they were not.
Maryland’s slavery laws, on the other hand, were less rigid as they recognized the fact that oppressive treatments only caused the slaves to run away. Hence, most of the slavery laws promulgated in this American state were implemented in order to control runaway and fugitive servants and slaves.
The Role of the African Slaves in the American Revolution
The relevance of the American Revolution to the social history of the American Civil War was the involvement and contributions of the African slaves to America’s independence. The African slaves were enticed by the British army to enlist in the Ethiopian Regiment, which was organized specifically for African Americans.
On the other hand, many of the African slaves became members of colonial militias or the Continental Army as part of their duties to serve and protect their masters. In both armies, there were promises of freedom in exchange for their support and cooperation.
The American Revolution ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and the American colonies were granted independence in 1783. Was the promise of freedom to the African slaves delivered by both sides?
Did the British and the Americans Make Good on Their Promise to Grant Freedom from Slavery?
In 1784, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island had taken the initial steps to abolish slavery.
By 1804, all the Northern American states supported the move to abolish slavery although some states adopted the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act.
South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee refused to grant their slaves the freedom that was promised because their economy relied heavily on free slave labor. Cotton was in great demand both locally and abroad. It would be difficult to plant, harvest and grow cotton if there were no African slaves to do the work. With some of their slaves lost during the American Revolution, the southern states could not bring themselves to abolish slavery the way their northern counterparts did.
The American Civil War and the Abolition of Slavery
Near the era of the American Civil War, around which the colonial social history revolved, conflicts over taxation and slavery issues between North and South had heightened. However, the northern and mid-western states began to increase in terms of population, and their political leaders had become more powerful than those who represented the southern states.
The southern leaders and their constituents developed a general sentiment of wanting to secede and be independent of the Union.
This was the time period of the famous Underground Railroad, which was a vast network of abolitionists comprising both black and white Americans. They helped thousands of runaway slaves escape to the North in order to gain their freedom from slavery. According to estimates, the South lost about 100,000 slaves vital to their agricultural economy from the years 1810 to 1850.
As the turn of events transpired in America’s social history, the American Civil War took place in 1860. The southern states had formally declared their act of breaking away from the Union, mainly to protect their rights to keep slavery as part of their system. However, it was quite clear to the African slaves which side to offer their services to as soldiers. By 1865, the American Civil War ended, leaving the southern states devastated and slavery was uniformly abolished throughout the union of states.
Post War Reflections – The Issue of Racial Discrimination
Despite the Emancipation Act that sealed the African slaves’ freedom from their former owners, racial discrimination continued to plague their existence in the South.
A young man named Booker Talavero Washington, the son of a female slave and an unnamed white man, vowed to rise from slavery and ignorance in order to help his fellow men.
Booker believed that the only way for African Americans and their future generations to overcome racial discrimination and gain equal recognition was to acquire academic learning as well as practical training. As a note to this vision, recall that the first group of settlers in Jamestown were mostly educated but lacked practical know-how.
By 1888, Booker founded the Tuskegee Negro Normal Institute, which taught academic subjects and practical education that included farming, carpentry, shoemaking, printing, cabinetmaking and brickmaking. It was Booker's dream to see every African American work and do business on an equal footing with their white counterparts.
Civil unrest continued to plague the South because of the segregation laws that barred African Americans from certain sectors and privileges reserved and bestowed only to the white Americans. To resolve this issue, the federal government of the United States had formally taken its position by declaring racial discrimination and any acts of segregation between colored and white people as prohibited and therefore punishable by law. This was made law by way of the 1964 amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1954.
The social history of the American Civil War revolved mostly around the traits and characteristics of the early settlers in the South. They refused to adapt to their new surroundings and lacked the diligence to perform hard work.
The southern states had a great desire to gain independence as a separate region, but they lacked empowerment as a self-sufficient region because the desire was not founded on their own strength.
On the other hand, the African American slaves learned the value of empowering themselves through academic and practical education in order to harness fully the freedom they attained. Thus, they gained not only equal rights and opportunities but respect and admiration from the entire nation as well.
The process may have been long and hard, but the uplifting of African Americans from slavery to their present places in America’s social and political history is undoubtedly remarkable.
- PreservationVirginia.Org - Historic Jamestown
- Image Credits: Weidenbach/Wikimedia Commons, John Smith landing in Jamestown
- American Colony Photographers for Wikimedia Commons, pilgrims
- Timothy H. O'Sullivan for Wikimedia Commons
- Stilfehler for Wikimedia Commons, statistics
- Stilfehler for Wikimedia Commons, map
- Fletcher6 at Wikimedia Commons, William Pike house, used for Underground Railroad
- United States mint, commemorative coin