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African Americans in the Early Republic


  • The majority of African Americans living in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century were enslaved, working as forced laborers on farms in the American South and West.
  • Although slaveowners denied them their basic rights and liberties, enslaved people resisted slavery through small acts of defiance as well as large-scale uprisings.
  • Free people of color lived in cities in the North and the Upper South. They played a prominent role in the growing abolition movement of the early nineteenth century.

African Americans in the Early Republic

Throughout the early nineteenth century, African Americans formed a substantial minority of inhabitants of the United States; 15 to 18 percent of the total population were free or enslaved black people. In 1800, there were about one million black people living in the country; by 1850, that number had grown to about 3.6 million.
White farmers enslaved the vast majority of African Americans living in the United States, but there were many free people of color living in cities and urban coastal areas. Of the four million black people residing in the United States in 1850, about 3.2 million were enslaved, and about 430,000 were free.
Population of the United States, 1800 and 1850
Enslaved African Americans893,0413,204,313
Free people of color108,395434,495
Source: US Census
While white men enjoyed increased citizenship rights and privileges as the century progressed, for African Americans the opposite was true. The spirit of the American Revolution, which encouraged many states to gradually abolish slavery and slaveholders to undertake voluntary emancipation, declined after 1800. State governments, north and south, imposed harsher restrictions on both free and enslaved black populations.
Despite this hostile environment, African Americans in the Early Republic found ways to resist repression, maintain their communities, and combat slavery.

Life under slavery

Most enslaved people lived on plantations, forced labor camps dedicated to the large-scale production of cash crops. By 1850, more than half of enslaved people in the United States grew cotton for export to northern and British textile mills. Generally, they worked from sunrise to sunset six days a week, supervised by an overseer who whipped those who fell behind.
But enslaved people were themselves a commodity; almost all slaveowners bought and sold humans for profit. Although Congress abolished the international slave trade in 1808, the interstate slave trade was big business throughout the South. Every year, slave traders compelled tens of thousands of enslaved people to endure forced marches, usually in winter so as not to interfere with the growing season, from coastal regions to slave markets in the South and West.
Enslaved people had no personal or property rights that whites had to respect; they could not marry, own land or personal property, travel without a pass, or seek justice for any harm a white person caused them. White men routinely raped enslaved women and just as routinely sold their children. To maintain control, slaveowners could kill or maim their “property” without consequences, but their most effective tool of domination was the threat of selling an enslaved person away from his or her family.

Resistance and rebellion

Enslaved African Americans found many ways to survive the physical and emotional toll exacted by slavery. Religion, both Christian and African, sustained black communities in the South. Families supported each other, and enslaved men and women married each other in ceremonies that were spiritually, if not legally, sanctioned. Music and dance kept African culture alive and contributed to the creation of a new African American culture blending folk traditions from Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas.
Everyday resistance against the institution of slavery was subtle: enslaved laborers broke tools, feigned illness, or worked slowly. Others ran away to the free states of the North or to Canada, which abolished slavery in 1834.
Armed uprisings were infrequent, but the specter of violent rebellion loomed large in the imagination of white southerners. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter and church leader in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly masterminded a far-reaching conspiracy in which free and enslaved black people would seize weapons and murder the white inhabitants of the city. Informants alerted white authorities, who executed thirty-five people implicated in the plot, although no uprising had actually occurred.
In 1831, however, Nat Turner led a major uprising of enslaved people in southeastern Virginia that resulted in the deaths of fifty-seven white people. Turner was an enslaved preacher who believed he had received messages from God to overturn the social order. After an eclipse that he took as a sign, he gathered a group of seventy enslaved and free black men and moved through his neighborhood killing slave-owning families and freeing the enslaved. It took state militia, federal troops, and vigilantes two days to put down the rebellion, and a further six weeks to capture Turner himself. At least 150 black people lost their lives as a result of the uprising; whites massacred more than one hundred black people in retaliatory violence and executed dozens more after trials.
State governments in the South responded to these uprisings with harsher and harsher restrictions on black people, both free and enslaved. Although the Virginia House of Delegates debated whether the state should ban slavery after Turner’s revolt, it ultimately decided to increase the number of slave patrols and outlaw religious gatherings.
Woodcut dramatizing Nat Turner's rebellion. How do you think the artist felt about Nat Turner? What do you think the artist was trying to convey with this image? Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Free people of color and abolition

Slightly more than half of the free African Americans living in the United States actually lived in slave states, mainly in the Upper South: Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and North Carolina. Free people of color mainly lived in urban areas, working as household servants or as sailors in port cities.
Although most northern states had abolished slavery by 1830, black residents of northern cities still faced considerable racial discrimination. They lived in the poorest and unhealthiest neighborhoods of cities, barred from all employment except menial labor and periodically harassed by white mobs. Over the course of the nineteenth century, states that had permitted free black citizens to vote restricted voting privileges to white men. Several new western states prohibited free black settlers from even entering their territories.
Religion played a central role in free black communities. Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, a separate black Christian denomination.
Free people of color in the North were prominent members of the growing abolition reform movement in the Early Republic. David Walker, a free black Boston clothing merchant, wrote an influential pamphlet denouncing slavery and racial discrimination called An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829. Because southern post offices refused to deliver anti-slavery literature through the mail, Walker sewed copies of the pamphlet into the linings of coats of black sailors headed to southern ports. Several enslaved people who escaped became leading orators and writers for the abolitionist cause, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was an influential abolitionist. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Black abolitionists also acted as the primary “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, an informal network of activists who helped enslaved people escape.

What do you think?

Why do you think that conditions for African Americans, both free and enslaved, became harsher as the nineteenth century progressed?
What aspects of life were similar for free people of color and enslaved African Americans? What aspects were different?
Why do you think religion played such a central role in the black community?

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