Short History of the American Negro - Benjamin Brawley

Early Social and Economic Aspects of Slavery

7. Servitude and Slavery.—Negro slavery was not the only sort of bondage known in America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was in fact because of a system already in existence that it became permanently fixed in the colonies. This system was known as servitude or indenture, and it explains many of the early acts with reference to the Negroes, especially those about intermarriage with white people. Servitude was "a legalized status of Indian, white, and negro servants preceding slavery in most, if not all, of the English mainland colonies." For the origins of the system one must go back to social conditions in England in the seventeenth century. Throughout this century the lot of the workingman, especially the agricultural laborer, left much to be desired. In the earlier years mowers received for a day's work what would be now from 8 to 25 cents. The price of wheat in 1564 had been 19s. a quarter and wages had been 7d. a day. In 1610, however, wheat was 35s. a quarter and wages still the same. Rents were constantly increasing moreover, and many persons perished from simple starvation. In the hard times pressing upon them many Englishmen, hearing of the great undeveloped country of Virginia, determined to try their lot across the seas. Hundreds, however, were too poor to pay for their transportation, and accordingly sold themselves into servitude for a number of years to pay for the transfer. More important from the standpoint of the system of servitude itself, however, was the number of persons brought hither by involuntary means. Political offenders, vagrants, and other criminals were thus sent to the colonies, and many persons, especially boys and girls, were kidnapped in the streets of London and "spirited" away. It is easy to see how by such a method as this last the system became a highly profitable one for shipmasters and those in connivance with them. Indentured servants were purchased by the planters in the colonies either from kidnappers or the government, the term of servitude being generally five or seven years; and in the laws made for the regulation of their conduct may be found the germ of all the slave codes of the colonies. As having the status of an apprentice the servant could sue in court and was even allowed "freedom dues" at the expiration of his term. He could not vote, however, could not bear weapons, and of course could not hold office.

The first Negroes brought to the colonies were technically servants. Generally as Negro slavery advanced white servitude declined; and "servitude became slavery when to such incidents as alienation, disfranchisement, whipping, and limited marriage, were added those of perpetual service and a denial of civil, juridical, marital and property rights as well as the denial of the possession of children." In some colonies, even after slavery was well established, the white men and women were retained as domestic servants, some even as secretaries or tutors, the Negroes being put to work in the fields. From a purely economic point of view the inferiority of the system of indenture to that of slavery was fully apparent, and as soon as Negroes began to be imported in considerable numbers, servitude was destined to pass away. The decline of the system after the last quarter of the seventeenth century was very rapid, though it did not finally pass in all its phases before the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

8. Efforts for the Restriction of Slavery.—In spite of its great economic advantages over white servitude, the system of Negro slavery did not develop without considerable opposition. Germantown's protest against slavery, made in the year 1688, was "the first formal action ever taken against the barter in human flesh within the boundaries of the United States." But in other places, as well as Pennsylvania, there soon developed moral sentiment against the institution, and it was only the working of economic forces that finally fastened it on the colonies. Even when an individual colony was impelled by philanthropic motives, it had to reckon with the cupidity of English traders. Thus before 1772 Virginia passed 33 acts looking toward a prohibition of the importation of slaves; but in every instance the act was disallowed by England. In the far South, especially in South Carolina, where the Negroes soon outnumbered the white people, constant fear of insurrections led to increasingly heavy duties on slaves imported. In spite of all such spasmodic attempts for restriction, however, the system of Negro slavery, once well started, developed apace.

9. Increase of Negro Population.—Largely on account of the system of indenture, Negro slavery as an institution developed very slowly in the seventeenth century. It was in the eighteenth century that it began to grow by leaps and bounds. In 1625, six years after the first Negroes were brought to the colony, there were in Virginia only 23 Negroes, 12 male, 11 female. In 1659 there were only 300 and in 1683) ?> 3,000. In 1708, however, in Virginia there were 12,000 Negroes, in 1715, 23,000, in 1756, 120,156, and in 1774, 200,000. In 1715 there were in all the colonies about 58,850. These represented about 14 percent of the total population. When the first census was taken in 1790, the percentage of Negroes to total population was 19.3, 757,208 being the number in the states. Of these 697,897 were slaves, Virginia being first with 293,427, and South Carolina, Maryland, and North Carolina following with a little more than 100,000 each. The percentage has never been higher than 19.3. In the nineteenth century, except in two decades, it was constantly lowered. Thus, although in 1910 there were 9,827,763 Negroes in the United States, these represented but 10.7 percent of the total population.

10. Status of the Slave.—What now was the exact position in society of this large addition to the body politic? The whole system of Negro slavery was distinctively an evolution. As the first Negroes were taken by pirates, the rights of ownership could not legally be given to those who purchased them; hence slavery by custom preceded slavery by statute. Little by little the colonies drifted into the sterner system. The transition is marked by such an act as that of 1652 in Rhode Island, which permitted a Negro to be bound for ten years. By the time it had become generally enacted or understood in the colonies that a child born of slave parents should serve for life, a new question had arisen, that of the issue of a free person and a slave. This led Virginia in 1662 to lead the way with an act to the effect that the status of a child should be determined by that of the mother, which act both gave to slavery the sanction of law and made it hereditary. In 1705 it was enacted in Virginia that a slave might be inventoried as real estate. As property then there was nothing to prevent a slave from being separated from his family. Thus after nearly a hundred years since the introduction of the first Negroes, slave codes began to take on some degree of definiteness and uniformity. After all, however, the colonists found that they were not dealing with simple property, but with human beings; thus in Virginia in 1801 on the score of humanity some attempt seems to have been made to prevent the separation of a young child from its mother. In Maryland moreover the problem of the relation of the Negro slave and the indentured white servant was unusually acute. A section of the law of 1664, designed to discourage intermarriage between white women and Negro slaves, enacted that a white woman so intermarrying should serve the master of her husband as long as her husband lived, and that the issue of such marriages should be slaves for life. An interesting situation now developed. In order to prolong the indenture of their white female servants, many masters encouraged them to marry Negro slaves. To prevent this a new act declared that all white women so intermarrying should be free at once, but that the minister conducting the ceremony and the master or mistress promoting the marriage were to pay a fine of ten thousand pounds of tobacco. In the other Southern colonies the rule in the matter of the child of the Negro father and the indentured white mother was that the child should be bound in servitude for thirty or thirty-one years. With the passing of the system of servitude, however, passed also for the most part the intermarriage of the races.

As a slave the Negro had none of the ordinary civil or personal rights of a citizen. In a criminal case he could be arrested, tried, and condemned with but one witness against him, and he could be sentenced without a jury. In the matter of religion and baptism a peculiar problem arose. Zealous for religion as the colonists were, they made little attempt to convert the Negroes in the earlier decades of the seventeenth century, there being a very general opinion that neither Christian brotherhood nor the law of England would justify the holding of Christians as slaves. In course of time, however, they lost their scruples, and it became generally understood that conversion and baptism did not make a slave free, Virginia in 1667 enacting a law to this effect.

Generally it was only on the economic side that hope remained for the slave. Sometimes he was allowed to hire out his time. If he earned more than the sum (about $100) yearly due his master, he might begin to accumulate a little money on his own account and ultimately purchase his freedom. Such cases, however, were exceptional. To the great mass of Negroes in the colonies the outlook appeared hopeless enough. Their general situation before the courts may be illustrated from the history of New York. The slave code of this colony was harsh, and there seems to have been here a constant fear of insurrections. One such uprising was attempted in the city of New York in 1712. In 1741 this place was the scene of a most unhappy panic. The city was then a thriving town of ten thousand inhabitants. Nine fires in rapid succession brought the city to a state of terror and to the belief that the free Negroes and slaves were conspiring to burn the city. Every one of the eight lawyers in the town appeared against the Negroes, who had no counsel and who were convicted on most insufficient evidence. The prosecutions extended through the whole summer, and before the fury subsided fourteen of the unfortunate people were burned at the stake, eighteen were hanged, and seventy-one deported.

11. Free Negroes in the Colonies.—Along with the general increase of the Negro population grew also the class of free persons of color. A Negro gained his freedom in one of several ways. Sometimes a scrupulous master at his death gave several of his slaves their liberty. Occasionally a slave became free by reason of some act of service to the commonwealth, as in the case of one Will, slave belonging to Robert Ruffin, of the county of Surry in Virginia, who in 1710 divulged a conspiracy. There is moreover on record a case of an indentured Negro servant, one John Geaween, who by his unusual thrift in the matter of some hogs which he raised on the share system with his master, was able as early as 1641 to purchase his own son from another master, to the perfect satisfaction of all concerned. Noteworthy also in this connection are those persons, a very large class, the descendants of Negro fathers and indentured white mothers, who ordinarily gained their freedom after thirty or thirty-one years of service. Thus in one way or another the number of free persons of color increased. When the first census was taken in 1790, they formed nearly 8 percent of the total Negro population of the states, numbering 59,311. The position of these people was a very anomalous one. In the South all sorts of restrictive laws were placed upon them, but, with the exception of those pertaining to civil rights, these were frequently disregarded.

In Virginia free Negroes seem to have had the privilege of voting until 1723, for an act of this year deprived them of it. Generally in the South Negroes could not vote, could not bear civil office, could not give testimony in court in cases involving white men, and could be employed only for fatigue duty in the militia. They could not purchase white servants, could not intermarry with white people, and had also to be very circumspect in their personal relations with slaves. No deprivation of privilege, however, relieved them of the obligation to pay taxes. Such advantages as the free Negro possessed were mainly economic. The money gained from his labor was his own; he might become skilled at a trade; he might buy land; he might buy slaves; he might even buy his wife and child if, as most frequently happened, they were slaves; and he might have one gun with which to protect his home. Once in a long while he might find some private opportunity for education.

In the North his political condition was somewhat better and more avenues for education were open to him; but along economic lines his lot was even harder than in the South. Everywhere his position was a difficult one. He was most frequently regarded as idle and shiftless, and as a breeder of mischief; but if he showed unusual thrift he might be forced to leave his home and go elsewhere. Liberty, the boon of every citizen, the free Negro did not possess. For all the finer things of life—the things that make life worth living the lot that was his was only less hard than that of the slave.