The Origins of American Slavery

In 1619 twenty Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia, a budding British colony of the Americas focused on the growing and exporting of tobacco. Tobacco plantations required labour and until 1700, white indentured servants, mainly from Britain, provided most of the work. But various factors would lead plantation owners to replace indentured servitude with slavery and by the American Revolution (1776), all the British colonies practiced permanent chattel slavery. How and why did this transition happen? 

Colonial Plantations and Labour. Historian Peter Kolchin writes, “Almost from the beginning, America was heavily dependent on coerced labour… (3) Before slavery, British colonists utilized two other sources of unfree labour – Native American slavery and Indentured Servants. Native American slavery comprised a relatively small portion of colonial workers. Historians point to various reasons for this. First, diseases had severely decimated the Native American population since Europeans arrived in the late 1400s. Estimates vary, but there is a growing consensus that between 70 and 90 percent of indigenous Americans (North, Central and South America) died from European-borne diseases such as smallpox and measles. A decimated population could not meet growing plantation labour demands.   Also, familiar with local environments, Native Americans could escape, survive, and rejoin their communities.  

Indentured Servitude. Indentured servitude provided a better option and became the primary source of unfree labour during the 17th century. The arrangement ostensibly met the needs of both the servant and plantation owner. Indentured servants often left England to escape poverty, persecution and political instability. Without resources to traverse the Atlantic, they “sold themselves into temporary slavery in exchange for free transatlantic transportation… (Kolkin, 8). A steady supply of indentured servants pre-empted the need to seek alternative sources of labour – including slavery. As Kolkin writes,

so long as a ready supply of indentured labor continued to exist, colonists saw little reason to go to the expense of importing large numbers of Africans, who, unlike English labourers, had to undergo prolonged adjustment to alien conditions – strange masters had unusual customs, spoke an unintelligible language before becoming productive members of the workforce. (11)

Various factors made slavery less viable during most of the 17th century. Slavery at this time involved more risk and expense. Especially during the early 17th century, plantation labourer life expectancy was low. James Oakes estimates that “90% of those who migrated to the Chesapeake in the seventeenth century came as servants, and half died before completing the term of service.” (68). Plantation working conditions were brutal, and workers had less protection than in England. As Oakes points out, “As long as life expectancy was low, it was generally more profitable for a planter to purchase an indentured servant for seven years than a slave for life.” (10) Also, the immense crossing distance from Africa to North America – much further than Africa to Brazil, for instance) led to high slave fatalities and reduced profitability. 

The Transition to Slavery.  An interplay of factors encouraged the transition from indentured servitude to slavery. First, colonial demand for labour began outpacing the labour supply of indentured servants. Virginia’s growing tobacco plantations required more work, and from the 1690s, Carolina evolved into a significant producer and exporter of labour-intensive crops, rice and indigo. (Black,88) Carolina planters would benefit from enslaved Africans already well-versed in rice production. 

Factors on the supply side also encouraged the transition to slavery. Kolchin points out that “at the same time that colonial demand for labor was surging, a sharp decrease occurred in the number of English migrants arriving in America under indenture.” (11) Various factors contributed to this decrease. The monarchy’s restoration in England facilitated “both political stabilization and an economic upturn” that encouraged labourers to stay in Europe. (Kolchin, 12). Also, less arduous opportunities in American colonies like New York and Pennsylvania attracted immigrants, effectively siphoning potential plantation labourers.  

Essentially, the indentured labour supply could not keep up with the growing demand for labour. Slavery became an increasingly viable choice. 

Slavery Becomes More Viable.  Various factors mitigated the high initial costs of slavery for wealthy planters who benefitted from slavery as a long-term investment. In the 1680s, England’s Royal African Company broke the Dutch monopoly on the slave trade, significantly reducing the cost of slave transport. Also, enslaved Africans proved very capable and resilient. Many had engaged in agricultural labour and, unlike Native Americans, had been exposed to European diseases, developing immune systems more adept to colonial life. 

Unlike indentured servants, Africans remained slaves for life. In 1662, Virginia made slavery a hereditary condition by declaring that “all children born in this country shall be held bond or free according to the conditions of the mother.” (Berkin, 70) In other words, permanent slave status passed from the mother to her children. This law drastically favoured plantation owners. As Kolchin writes, “…whereas in the seventeenth century the slave population failed to reproduce itself and had to be replenished in much the same way the servant population did, in the eighteenth century, it became a self-perpetuating labor force.” (13)

Native Americans and English indentured servants also presented higher flight risks from the brutal conditions of plantation labour. European indentured servants could leave and readily blend into other communities. Native Americans often knew the environment and could escape and even return to their people. On the other hand, enslaved Africans landed in a foreign setting that offered no friendly escape destinations. Moreover, due to skin colour, Africans fleeing a plantation were more visible and less able to blend into free communities. As Kolchin writes, “Racial distinction, in short, facilitated enslavement. (13).

Slave Codes. Plantation owners also benefitted from slave codes. As Carol Berkin points out, the “legal difference between black and white servants was vague until the 1660s. As previously mentioned, in 1662, Virginia legislated that all children of slave mothers inherited her slave status. Other colonies followed suit. Slave codes legally entrenched racial differences while imposing various restrictions such as banning enslaved people from holding meetings, owning property, getting married, possessing guns or inflammatory literature. 

Conclusion. The transition to slavery happened relatively quickly – less than one hundred years. The estimates vary, but according to James Oakes, the number of African or African-descended inhabitants of the mainland colonies” increased from 2920 in 1660 to more than 300, 000 a century later. (126).  By this time slavery had become the labour system of the Southern colonies and was legally recognized in the Northern colonies.  

Slavery had been firmly entrenched in American society by the middle of the 18th century.    


Berkin, Carol. Making America. A History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. 

Black, Jeremy. A Brief History of Slavery: A New Global History. London: Constable and Robinson, 2011.

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty: An American History. Volume 1. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2017

Hine, Darlene and William C. Hine.  African Americans: A Concise History. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014.

Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery. 1619-1877.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Oakes, James. Of the People. A History of the United States. Volume 1: To 1877. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

The Enlightenment: An Introduction.

Dare to Know. Immanuel Kant

The consent of the people is the sole basis of a government’s authority.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Enlightenment occurred during the “long 18th century”, between the 1690s to the 1810s.  Some historians describe it as the foundation of the modern world.  Others argue that such claims exaggerate the movement’s impact while understating the influence of previous periods such as the Renaissance.  What is the Enlightenment?  How is it distinct from other periods?  What impact did it have on Europe and other parts of the world?  Here we offer a brief overview of the period.  We will discuss various elements of the Enlightenment in other blogs. 

What is the Enlightenment?  Defining the Enlightenment is a formidable challenge.  As Anthony Pagden points out, for all the mass historical industry that has grown up around the Enlightenment, we are still far from certain what all this means.” (16)  Essentially, the Enlightenment was a cultural movement that espoused reason and observation (rather than tradition, superstition and religion) as the means of uncovering the rules of nature and society.  Enlightenment thinkers addressed issues around psychology, government, economics, religions and much more. 

 We should not, however, interpret “a cultural movement” as a coherent one. Enlightenment thinkers came from various nationalities and social classes and often disagreed on critical problems around politics, religion and various social matters.  Accordingly, historians such as J.G.A. Pocock argue for various “Enlightenments” of unique character rather than one broader movement or, as J.M. Roberts writes, “the advance of a united army of the enlightened.” (635). Even with this diversity in mind, we can say that Englightenment thinkers promoted reason and observation as the primary (and sometimes only) means of interpreting and organizing nature and human society. 

 Why this turn to reason and empiricism?  What were the preconditions that encouraged the Enlightenment(s)?  Here, two broad developments come into play – the Scientific Revolution and religious division and conflict of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

The Scientific Revolution.  During the 17th century’s “Scientific Revolution,” breakthroughs from scientists (known as natural philosophers at the time) like Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton encouraged the Enlightenment in two ways.  First, their discoveries discredited many of the traditional Christian explanations of natural phenomena.  Secondly, the Scientific Revolution demonstrated how reason, observation, and experiment could reveal the workings of nature.  From this, writes Norman Davies, “grew the conviction that reason could uncover the rules that underlay the apparent chaos of both the human and material world and hence of natural religion, of natural morality, and natural law.” (597).

This exaltation of rational thinking came at a time when various forces undermined Catholicism’s authority. 

Religious Division and Conflict.  “No single thread,” writes Marvin Perry, “had united Western culture more powerfully than Christianity.” (434). The Catholics church stood as the supreme authority on all matters, and this remained true until the Protestant Revolution (1517) undermined Catholic theology and doctrine that offered a unified world vision.  Soon, other sects like Calvinism and Anabaptism arose, offering competing visions and feeding skepticism.  More options appeared as Europeans travelled and mingled with other civilizations’ belief systems such as Confucianism and Buddhism. 

 Incessant sectarian violence during the 16th and 17th centuries, epitomized by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), further undermined confidence in religion as the bedrock of European society.  Not surprisingly, some people embraced alternative options of reason and observation to bring order back to their lives. 

How did Enlightenment ideas spread?  Most Europeans remained illiterate, and those who could read would be hard-pressed to understand the complexities of Galilei’s discoveries or Newtonian theory of falling bodies. These theories had to be translated to non-experts.  Accordingly, many Enlightened thinkers devoted their efforts to popularize the ideas of the Scientific Revolution.  Thinkers like Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) – presented scientific ideas in accessible ways.  In one work, de Fontenelle shows a man explaining Newtonian theories to a woman.  Denis Diderot’s twenty-eight volume Encyclopedia, published between 1751 and 1765, included entries on various topics by luminaries such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Such efforts to spread Enlightenment ideas benefitted from a rapidly growing print culture – books, pamphlets, newspapers –  and a more gradual rise in literacy offered growing opportunities for these ideas to reach more people.  Ideas also spread via social gatherings as people like Parisian Marie-Therese de Geoffrin organized meetings to discuss science and the ideas inspired by these discoveries.   

Pervasive Critique.  Enlightenment thinkers applied reason and observation to all aspects of life – natural philosophy(science), politics, religion and an array of social matters.  Whether through writings or conversation, very few assumptions, traditions, or institutions escaped the critical gaze of Enlightenment thinkers.  Religion and politics certainly attracted the Enlightenment gaze.   

A Critique of Religion.  Religion had always attracted critics.  Desiderius Erasmus, for instance, pointed out the different versions of the Bible that evolved from transcribers.   But as Marvin Perry writes, the Enlightenment “produced the first widely read, and systematic assault on Christianity launched from with the realm of the educated. (Perry, 434) These challenges happened during an era of Christian disunity fomented by the Protestant Revolution (1517) and the subsequent proliferation of Christian sects that, along with the Scientific Revolution, facilitated alternative ways of thinking about the world.     

 Debate continues regarding the extent of this assault.  Isaac Krammick, for instance, identifies religion as the “principal villain of the Enlightenment.” (xii). Indeed, thinkers such as Claude Helveta, Denis Diderot, and Baron d’Holbach adopted atheistic stances and identified religion as an obstacle to knowledge and progress.    Scottish philosopher David Hume dismissed religion as founded on superstition and fear.  Peter Bayle, a Protestant clergyman, suggested that Christian dogma be rejected if not according to rational thinking.

Atheism, however, was the exception as most Enlightenment figures believed in God.  Newton himself wrote on religious matters and described God as a clockmaker who created the world and its natural laws that humans could interpret and observe.  Europeans, in general, remained faithful.  Also, numerous religious revivals occurred during the 18th century along with a missionary zeal that accompanied and, to some extent, inspired European expansionism.  Secularism did not dominate the 18th century, but the Enlightenment did encourage its growth into the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Politics. Enlightenment thinkers devoted much attention to politics, particularly royal absolutism and the checking of monarchial power.   Kingdoms across northern Europe had appealed to the Divine Right of Kings, believing that God granted the monarchy exclusive right to rule and any breach of this as sacrilegious.  Thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau espoused different assumptions about human nature but agreed on the need to curb or even abolish royal absolutism. 

Their ideas encouraged the revolutions of the time.  Many factors played into Britain’s Glorious Revolution (1688), but it is reasonable to say that the political thought of Hobbes, Locke and others encouraged replacing a Divine Right of Kings with a parliamentary-based monarchy.  Inspired by writings such as Rousseau’s The Social Contract, the French Revolution also ended religious-based authority and dissolved the traditional feudal system.  Across the Atlantic, the new nation, the United States, created a constitution in 1776 and Bill of Rights inspired by Enlightenment thinker John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) that called for a limited monarchy with a division of power among an executive, parliament and judiciary.

Conclusion. As difficult as defining the Enlightenment, it is equally challenging to discern the nature and extent of its impact.  Historians nonetheless offer their opinions on the movement’s fallout.  Anthony Pagden argues that the Enlightenment had a “far greater and more lasting impact on the formation of the modern world than any of the intellectual convulsions that preceded it. (Pagden, ix)  “Enlightened thought, contends Marvin Perry,  “culminated a trend begun by Renaissance humanists who attacked medieval otherworldliness and gave value to individual achievement and the worldly life. (Perry, 459) 

Although historical assessment varies, it is reasonable to say the Immanuel Kant’s call for contemporaries to “Dare to know” reflected confidence in the human capacity to understand society and the natural world without deference to traditions or clerical authority.

Selected Bibliography.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University Press, 1951. 

Davies, Norman.  Europe: A History.  London: Random House, 1997

Dupre, Louis. The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004

Edelstein, Dan.  The Enlightenment: A Genealogy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Elian-Feldon, Miriam et al., eds.  The Origins of Racism in the West.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Gay Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. New York: Knopf, 1966.

Goodman, Dena and Kathleen Wellman, eds, The Enlightenment. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.

Israel, Jonathan.  Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670-1752.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Jacob, Margaret.  The Enlightenment. A Reader. (1999).

Kramnick, Isaac. ed.  The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Perry, Marvin et al.  Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. 

Spielvogel, Jackson J.  Western Civilization.  Volume B: 1300-1815.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2012.