The antislavery impulse was as old as the republic itself. So too were sectional tensions deriving from the diverging interests of the free labor North and the slaveholding South. By the eve of the American Revolution, slavery had existed in North America for more than 150 years; it was legal in every one of the thirteen colonies. But different patterns of settlement and different geographies distinguished the Northern colonies from the Southern ones and set them on different trajectories. Slavery was marginal to the economy of New England, which was “wedded to family and wage labor.” It was pervasive in the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, but slave labor there was incorporated into a diverse economy; slaves worked in artisan shops, in the maritime industries, and on farms, alongside white and black indentured servants and wage workers. Slavery, in other words, was not the dominant form of labor in the North. The Southern colonies of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, by contrast, were not merely societies with slaves but “slave societies,” organized economically, socially, and politically around the principle and practice of human bondage. In 1760, 88 percent of the 325,806 slaves in the British mainland colonies lived in the South.1
Although the majority of white Southern families did not own slaves, the slaveholding minority, particularly the wealthy “planters” (those who owned twenty slaves or more and operated plantations), held the preponderance of power in the colonial South. In the deferential political culture of the region, wealth and, in plantation districts, slaveholding were the prerequisites for political leadership. The system of bondage defined black slaves as “chattels,” pieces of property with few, tenuous rights. Slaves could not leave plantations without permission, could not buy or sell goods, could not have legally recognized marriages, could not claim authority over their own children. The separation, through sale, of slave families was commonplace;
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Publication information: Book title: Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859. Contributors: Elizabeth R. Varon - Author. Publisher: University of North Carolina Press. Place of publication: Chapel Hill, NC. Publication year: 2008. Page number: 17.
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