Slavery: History and Historians

By Peter J. Parish | Go to book overview
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3
The Labor of the Slaves

Despite the growing awareness among historians of the importance of the earlier history of slavery in North America, it remains true that our knowledge and understanding of the peculiar institution are greatest in its last few decades. Inevitably, much of the discussion of slave work patterns, the economics of slavery, and the life of the slave community must remain centered on slavery in its maturity, at what proved to be its historical peak in the antebellum South. It must be remembered, however, that during the last three or four decades of its history, slavery was still an expanding and evolving institution. For example, although the absolute numbers of slaveholders and slaves were still increasing rapidly, the proportion of Southern white families who owned slaves showed some decline in the immediate pre-Civil War period--from a little more than a third in 1830 to a little more than a quarter in 1860.1In the same period, there was a small but not insignificant increase in the average number of slaves per slave owner.

The census of 1860 showed that there were nearly 4 million slaves out of a total population of 12.3 million in the fifteen slave states. The proportion of slave to white population varied greatly from area to area, with the heaviest concentrations in the Deep South. In South Carolina and Mississippi more than half the population were slaves, and in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia the slave population was more than two-fifths. In no other state did slaves amount to one-third of the population; in Maryland, the proportion was 13 percent, in Missouri 10 percent, in Delaware a mere 1.5 percent. Overall, there were some 385,000 slave owners out of about 1.5 million white families (and a total white population of 8 million).

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