African American History: American Revolution (The Concentration of Slavery in the South)
In the North the rhetoric of the Revolution proved a powerful argument against slavery. Starting with Vermont in 1777, one Northern state after another either abolished slavery outright or passed gradual emancipation laws that freed slave children as they reached adulthood. Although abolition faced stiff opposition in areas of New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, where slavery was most economically significant, by the mid-1820s virtually all the slaves in the United States were in the Southern states. These states were becoming more dependent on slave labor as cotton became an important plantation crop.
In 1793 the invention of the cotton gin, a simple device that revolutionized the processing of raw cotton, dramatically increased the profitability of cotton cultivation. More slave labor was dedicated to cotton production; slave prices increased, and the value of cotton rose sharply. In addition, slavery spread southward and westward into the vast area acquired from France through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. By 1815 cotton was America’s most valuable export, and the economic and political power of cotton-growing states, often called the ‘Cotton Kingdom,’ grew correspondingly.
The need for slave labor, and thus the price of slaves, was much higher in states in the lower South, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, than in the states of the upper South, including Virginia and Maryland. The result was a thriving domestic slave trade that devastated many slave households. Teenage boys and young adult men were especially desirable laborers for the new areas, and slave families in the upper South lost sons, brothers, and young fathers to the cotton plantations of the lower South. At the time of the Revolution, most slaves were held along the southeastern seaboard, but by 1860 the greatest concentrations of slaves were in the lower South.
The lives of slaves were greatly influenced by where they lived and worked. In Southern cities, slaves provided household services, labored for small businessmen and merchants, and sometimes worked as municipal garbage workers or firefighters. Both in cities and on plantations, skilled slaves did the carpentry, built and sometimes designed the buildings, crafted ornate furnishings, prepared elaborate meals, supplied music for planters’ formal balls and parties, and provided services ranging from veterinary care to folk medicine for both whites and blacks. Plantations employed small numbers of slaves as household servants and some as skilled workers. Most slaves, however, worked in the fields. Plantation life, especially in the lower South, was hard and dangerous, but because of the larger numbers of slaves, it offered greater opportunities for establishing slave families and communities.
As the South expanded westward and as tobacco and rice cultivation gave way to cotton, the way slaves worked changed. In the 18th and 19th centuries slaves working on plantations in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia often labored under the task system. Typically, a slave was given a task each day and worked until that task was completed. Once the daily task was finished, the rest of the day was the slave’s own. The work was extraordinarily hard, but the worker exercised some control over the pace of work and the length of the workday.
On large 19th-century cotton plantations, slaves usually worked in groups called gangs headed by slave drivers. The driver, who was generally a slave selected for intelligence and leadership ability, directly supervised the field laborers. Gangs worked the crop rows, plowing, planting, cultivating, or picking, depending on the season. Unlike those under the task system, these slaves had little control over their work schedule beyond the rhythm of the work songs that regulated the pace of their work.
The vast majority of white Southerners could afford no slaves and struggled for basic self-sufficiency, but many slaveholding planters were rich and politically powerful. By the 1850s there were more millionaires in the plantations from Natchez, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana, than in all other areas of the nation combined. By 1860 the 12 richest counties in the nation were all located in the South. The Southern economy depended on slavery, and by 1860 the U.S. economy depended on the Southern cotton that accounted for almost 60 percent of the value of all the nation’s exports.