From the earliest years of the “new world”, every economy from Canada to Argentina was, to varying degrees, involved with slavery. Spanish and Portuguese settlers brought the first African slaves to the new world in 1501, establishing the new world’s first international slave port in Santo Domingo, modern capital city of the Dominican Republic.
Hundreds of thousands of African slaves entered the Americas through the sister ports of Veracruz, Mexico, and Portobelo, Panama, “products” of the “Asiento” system, wherein the contractor (asientista) was awarded a monopoly in the slave trade to Spanish colonies, in exchange for royalties paid to the crown.
The first such contractor was a Genoese company who agreed to supply 1,000 slaves over an 8-year period, beginning in 1517. A German company entered into such a contract eight years later, with a pledge of 4,000.
By 1590, as many as 1.1 million Africans had come through the port of Cartagena, Colombia, sorted and surnamed under the “casta de nación” classification system. To this day, black residents of the Colombian interior bear names like Kulango & Fanti, indicating their origins on the Ivory Coast or Ghana: Musorongo, Loango & Congo, (Congo Region), or Matamba, Anchico & Ambuila (Angola).
In the American colonies, 17th century racial attitudes appear to have been more fluid than they would later become. The first black Africans, 19 of them, came to the Virginia Colony in 1619 not as slaves, but as indentured servants. Their passage, involuntary as it was, was paid for by a term of indenture, a sort of ‘temporary slavery’, usually lasting seven years.
John Punch ran away from his term of indenture in 1640, along with two Europeans. The trio was captured in Maryland and sentenced to extended terms of indenture. Alone among the three, Punch was punished with indenture for life, effectively making him the first ‘slave’ in the American colonies.
Born in Angola in 1600, Anthony Johnson was one of that original 19, captured by an enemy tribe and sold to an Arab slave trader. Johnson was sold to a Virginia planter at the age of 21, paying off the cost of his passage with a seven-year term of indenture. As a free man, Johnson himself became a successful planter, going on to “own” indentured servants of his own.
One of them, John Casor, sued for his freedom in 1655, claiming to have completed his indenture of “seaven or Eight years”, plus seven more. The court ruled that Casor himself was considered “property” and not his contract, making him the first person arbitrarily ruled a slave for life.
The unthinking view of history holds American slavery to have been a strictly southern-states phenomenon, but it isn’t so. As late as the eve of the Civil War, “northern” slavery was more widespread than you might expect. The 1860 census reported 236 slaves in New Jersey, 90,368 in Maryland, 2,290 in Delaware, and 3,680 in Washington, DC. There were slaves as far north as New Hampshire as late as 1840. New York wouldn’t legally emancipate its last slave until the following year.
Massachusetts became the first American colony to legalize slavery in 1641, with the passage of the ironically named “Massachusetts Body of Liberties”. Slavery was legal at one time or another, in all 13 original colonies and even before, when slavery of and by native Americans, was commonplace.
In 1637, the Pequot tribe of southeastern Connecticut was all but wiped out in a bloody war with an alliance of English colonists from the Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Saybrook colonies, and their native American allies of the Narragansett, Mohegan, Niantic and Montauk tribes. Surviving Pequots were forced to become slaves in English households, or shipped to Bermuda or the West Indies, and exchanged for Africans.
Indigenous and African slave populations in northern climates were small compared with the more agricultural economies of the south, which were themselves a drop in a bucket compared with the slave economies of central and south America.
An essay from the New York Public Library (nypl.org) gives a sense of scale to the transatlantic slave trade. “As a whole, the transatlantic slave trade displaced an estimated 12.5 million people, with about 10,650,000 surviving the Atlantic crossing. Thus, even though a substantial number of Africans actually reached the United States, they were only a small proportion, about 3.6 percent, of the total number of Africans who were brought to the Americas. More Africans went to Barbados (435,000), while almost three times as many went to Jamaica (1,020,000). The number of Africans arriving in North America was considerably less than those who were taken to Brazil (4,810,000)“.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened vast new territories. The fight for which would be free and which would permit slavery, would go on for years.
The philosophical underpinnings of southern secession was borne of the Hartford Convention of December 1814 – January 1815. There, delegates from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, along with “unofficial” delegates from New Hampshire and Vermont, met to discuss New England’s secession over the War of 1812. The convention reported that New England had a “duty” to assert its authority over unconstitutional infringements on its sovereignty, putting forth a legal position very similar to the later nullification position taken by South Carolina.
Protective tariffs were instituted in the wake of the War of 1812, intending to help domestic manufacturers compete with foreign imported goods. Instead, they tended to help northern manufacturing economies, while increasing the cost of manufactured goods to the southern states, and making it more difficult to export cotton.
By this time, cotton was becoming the chief cash crop in most southern economies, and tariffs hit South Carolina particularly hard. Throughout the colonial and early national periods, the Palmetto state climate sustained a strong agricultural economy. South Carolina’s fortunes were hit hard with the panic of 1819, and slow to recover as the gulf states increasingly entered the cotton markets.
The Tariffs of 1828 – ’32 lead to a nullification crisis in South Carolina, where the state told the federal government to pound sand, and mobilized military assets to defend itself against federal enforcement measures sure to follow.
That time the crisis was averted, but a pattern had been established for events to come.
Sectional differences grew and sharpened in the years that followed. A member of Congress from Kentucky killed a fellow congressman from Maine. A Congressman from South Carolina all but beat a Massachusetts Senator to death with a cane, on the floor of the Senate. A fist fight involving at least 30 Congressman broke out on the floor of the US House of Representatives.
Southern states talked about secession as early as 1850. Senator Stephen A Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, in theory allowing a territory to determine its own free or slave status. This effort to “democratize” the issue led to the brutality of the “Bleeding Kansas” period, where pro-slavery Missouri “Border Ruffians” and anti-slavery Kansas “Jayhawkers” crossed one another’s borders, primarily to murder each others civilians and burn out one another’s towns.
Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech on June 16, 1858, in which he said “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. A year later, John Brown was holed up at Harper’s Ferry, trying to start a slave insurrection.
After 57 ballots, the Democrat’s convention of 1859 adjourned without selecting a candidate for the Presidential election. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen A Douglas, while southern Democrats nominated John Breckenridge.
Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th President of the United States on November 6, 1860, on a platform confusingly specifying “That all men are created equal”, an “abhorrence of all schemes of disunion”, and “The maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively”.
One year later, to the day, former United States Senator and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was elected to a six-year term as the first President of the Confederate States of America.