History of Slavery in America

Updated June 13, 2022 | Logan Chamberlain

What to the Slave is the 4th of July?

As immortalized in the above Frederick Douglass quote, the United State has contended with the moral and economic problems of slavery from the beginning. Follow the timeline to learn more about the history of slavery in the United States, including the arrival of the first African slaves to America, the federal banishment of slave importation, and the abolition of slavery in the United States.


The transatlantic slave trade begins as the Spanish and Portuguese begin colonizing the New World. Slaves from Africa (and from the local peoples) are put to work almost immediately to advance their imperial project. The Spanish brought slaves as far as the Carolinas by 1526, and they would remain common in most of the Spanish territories that would later become the United States.


With the rising profits of the Virginia Jamestown colony and the vast demand for agricultural labor, the first African laborers are brought to the Chesapeake. The first slave ship is seen off the coast in August. These first nineteen African laborers are initially held as indentured servants rather than enslaved people, as are many of the African laborers who later arrive. The laws surrounding the indenture of Africans will not turn into lifelong, inheritable status as property for a few decades.


Back to back there are two crucial events for the legal status of slavery in the colonies. In Virginia in 1640, although lifelong slavery is not yet codified practice, this begins to change with the case of John Punch. Punch is a Black African indentured servant who tries to escape his indenture alongside two white European servants. All three are captured. The two Europeans are sentenced to an additional year of service. Punch is sentenced to slavery for life. This case marks the most important early legal distinction between white and Black people in the United States.

A year later Massachusetts passes new slave codes. Though these codes are mostly focused on the many situations in which one cannot take another as a slave (many Puritans opposed slavery for religious reasons), they did allow a few select circumstances in which it was permissible to make a slave of a "stranger," who was not an English subject. The colonists would soon identify this legal distinction with Black Africans and natives. This marks a new turn in the import of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean.


The city of Charles Towne (Charleston) is founded in Carolina. Charleston will become the largest slave port in the American colonies, both import and export. Carolina is one of the few colonies to have a majority enslaved population, and will have the second-highest total number of slaves within the next century. As well, upwards of 50,000 members of nearby native nations will be exported to slaveholders in the Caribbean. Carolina slaveholders are largely responsible for the expansion of slave codes.


After the loss of their North American holdings in the Treaty of Westminster, the Dutch free all of their slaves on the continent. This leads to the settlement of a very important early community of free Black people in New York.


Through the 1700s, the slave population continues to steadily grow in the British colonies, especially in the agricultural South. The slave trade does not reach its peak until after the Revolutionary War in the later half of the century. Some of the Southern states that would later become major slaveholding states, like Georgia, are not yet deeply implicated in the slave trade. The English fear that slaves might collude with the Spanish in Florida. The status of slavery becomes an issue of national political importance during the American Revolution, as the colonies are split over the future status of slavery. The issue won't be resolved until the passing of the Constitution decades later.

Slavery is made illegal in the Northwest Territory. The U.S Constitution states that Congress may not ban the slave trade until 1808. In the years after the Constitution is passed, the slave trade accelerates. Many people try and acquire slaves before it becomes illegal to import them. The number of slave owners grows substantially. Illegal imports will continue for some time after the 1808 date, but this is the peak of slave voyages from Africa and the Caribbean.


Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin greatly increases the demand for slave labor, as each slave can now process a much higher volume of cotton for the same cost. Prior to the invention of the gin, cotton was one of several major crops grown in the South. After, it becomes far and away the main cash crop, dubbed King Cotton. The slaveholding plantations grow across the South.


A federal fugitive slave law is enacted, providing for the return slaves who had escaped and crossed state lines. Many in the free states of New England and Pennsylvania ignore the fugitive slave act, instead trying to settle escaped slaves as free people. Those who are not returned still face discrimination in housing, employment, and policing.


Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved African American blacksmith, organizes a slave revolt intending to march on Richmond, Virginia. The conspiracy is uncovered, and Prosser and a number of his compatriots are hanged. Virginia's slave laws are consequently tightened. The violent suppression of Prosser's uprising sets a precedent for handling future uprisings. It also stokes paranoia among Southern slaveholders that will shape the political divide between the North and South.


The Louisiana Purchase doubles the size of the country, beginning a period of westward expansion that will accelerate the political divide over slavery. The purchase includes the port of New Orleans, which the French had recently acquired from the Spanish. New Orleans will become an important center of the slaveholding South.


By this time, all Northern states have banned slavery or begun phasing it out, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Although racism will continue to be a massive problem for free Black people in the North, the free states offer an escape from slavery for many people. The abolition movement starts to gain ground, especially around the city of Boston.

Congress bans the importation of slaves from Africa. Illegal shipments will still arrive for some time, but they are uncommon. Instead, the trade of slaves within the United States becomes bigger than ever before. The market price for slaves increases, and people begin to make an industry of


The free states and slave states come to an impasse about allowing Maine to become a state independent of Massachusetts; Maine would tip the balance in the Senate toward free states. The Missouri Compromise admits the territory of Missouri as a slave state, but bans slavery north of Missouri. This remains the uneasy compromise for the next several decades.


Denmark Vesey, an enslaved Black carpenter who had purchased his freedom, plans a slave revolt with the intent to lay siege on Charleston, South Carolina. The plot is discovered, and Vesey and 34 co-conspirators are hanged.


Nat Turner, an enslaved African American preacher, leads the most significant slave uprising in American history. He and his band of followers launch a short uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. Local militia suppress the uprising, and Turner is eventually hanged. As a consequence, Virginia institutes much stricter slave laws.

The same year, William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing the Liberator, a weekly paper that advocates the complete abolition of slavery. He becomes one of the most famous figures in the abolitionist movement.


The British outlaw slavery in all of their colonies in the Atlantic and elsewhere. American slavery is rapidly becoming an outlier, and slave owners in the South work harder to entrench the system and make it persist. The British, whose textile mills drive global demand for cotton, help fuel the slave economy. During the Civil War, the British consider siding with the Confederacy to hold onto their cheap cotton.

The Wilmot Proviso, introduced by Democratic representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, attempts to ban slavery in territory gained in the Mexican War. The proviso is blocked by Southerners, but continues to inflame the debate over slavery. The Wilmot Proviso will play an important role in the lead up to the Compromise of 1850.


Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery and becomes one of the most effective and celebrated leaders of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is a network of routes, contacts, and safe places connecting the South with the free North. This network extends all the way up to Canada, which had outlawed slavery at a national level.


The continuing debate whether territory gained in the Mexican War should be open to slavery is decided in the Compromise of 1850: California is admitted as a free state, Utah and New Mexico territories are left to be decided by popular sovereignty, and the slave trade in Washington, DC is prohibited. As a concession, it establishes a much stricter fugitive slave law than the original, passed in 1793. This is a major point of discontent in the North, and stokes anti-slavery sentiments.


Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin is published. It becomes one of the most influential works in U.S. history, flying off the shelves and increasing Northern opposition to slavery. Several authors published books in the South as parodies or criticisms of Uncle Tom, but none of these are well remembered.

The term Uncle Tom has come to disparagingly refer to Black people who are too conciliatory or servile to white people. The reasons for this are a bit complex. In the original story, at least, Uncle Tom sacrifices his life to protect the whereabouts of two women who have escaped slavery.


Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act, establishing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The legislation repeals the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing both states to vote on whether they are slave states or free states. Abolitionists and slavers both begin campaigns of sending settlers to the territory to influence the votes. The tensions in the territories lead to a series of violent raids and attacks across the territory lines, known as Bleeding Kansas.


In one of the greatest blows to the abolitionist movement, the Supreme Court rules in the Dred Scott case that Congress does not have the right to ban slavery in states and, furthermore, that slaves are not citizens. The legal precedent set by Dred Scott will shape the legal strategies used later in the Civil War, culminating in amending the Constitution to override the ruling.


John Brown and 21 followers capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W. Va.), in an attempt to launch a slave revolt. Different accounts contest whether Brown intended for the raid to succeed, sparking other uprisings in the South, or whether he knew it was doomed to failure. Brown was killed, but he became a symbol to many in the North. Most famously, he was immortalized in the Civil War marching tune John Brown's Body; the tune would later have its lyrics changed to become the Battle Hymn of the Republic.


Despite not being allowed on the ballot in several states, Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln is elected president. Although Lincoln is not a member of the radical wing of the party, and has publicly expressed no intention of rapidly dismantling slavery, his election prompts outrage across the South. He had by this point declared "

"A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."

For many, this is seen as an irreconcilable break between the two halves of the country.

The Confederacy is founded when South Carolina declares its secession, including among its reasons a fear of the federal government infringing on its legal ability to keep slaves. Ten other states follow, all declaring the preservation of slavery among their top reasons for seceding. They form their own government, led by Jefferson Davis. When the U.S. Army shores up at Fort Sumter, Confederate troops fire on the fort. This is the first hostile action kicking off the American Civil War.


By the midpoint in the war, President Lincoln had expressed the belief that preserving the Union and ending slavery were the same goal. Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring "that all persons held as slaves" within the Confederate states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

Notably, this does not free slaves in the border states that had not joined the Confederacy. Per the Dred Scott ruling, the federal government couldn't overturn slavery in the states. Rather, the Emancipation Proclamation is issued under Lincoln's military authority as commander-in-chief, and tenuously allowed as the Confederate states are in rebellion.


The Union Army accepts General Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War ends. Lincoln is assassinated. The 13th Amendment abolishes slavery throughout the United States, and it will soon be followed by the 14th and 15th amendments, which try in some small measure to guarantee the equal treatment of former slaves.

On June 19 slavery in the United States effectively ended when 250,000 slaves in Texas finally receive the news that the Civil War had ended two months earlier. This day will later be commemorated in the Black community as the holiday Juneteenth. This further means that slavery is abolished in all of North America, although the legacy of slavery will last much, much longer.

The states will quickly come up with many other tactics to suppress the Black community and to maintain an economy of underpaid Black labor, but the matter of legal slavery is resolved.

Sources +

The Cambridge World History of Slavery Volume III: AD 1420–AD 1804, Edited by David Eltis and Stanley L. Engerman (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

The Cambridge World History of Slavery Volume IV: AD 1804-AD 2016 Edited Seymour Drescher, David Eltis, and Stanley L. Engerman (Cambridge University Press, 2017)