Slavery and the roots of racism

April 9, 2015

In the first article in a series on slavery and the Civil War, Lance Selfa looks at the origins of forced labor in the Americas and the ideology of racism it gave rise to.

APRIL 9 marks the 150th anniversary of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender to the Union Army's Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, ending the American Civil War.

Earlier that day, Lee had tried to fight his way out of a cordon of Union forces, in which the Northern forces--including several regiments of the all-Black U.S. Colored Troops--outnumbered his army six to one. Seeing the futility of carrying on the war, Lee decided to sue for peace.

Thus ended the Civil War, and with it, the war's true cause: slavery. Writing from Britain in November 1861, near the beginning of the war, Karl Marx foresaw this. Against those who tried to excuse the South's claims that it was merely defending itself against "Northern aggression," Marx wrote: "The war of the Southern Confederacy is...not a war of defense, but a war of conquest, a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery."

In some senses, slavery had already ended in many parts of the South before Lee's surrender. Slaves mounted what W.E.B. Du Bois called a "general strike," withdrawing their labor from the maintenance of the Confederacy and deploying it instead in support of the Union.

A slave with scars from being whipped

In his classic book Black Reconstruction, Du Bois elaborated:

Freedom for the slave was the logical result of a crazy attempt to wage war in the midst of four million Black slaves, and trying the while sublimely to ignore the interests of those slaves in the outcome of the fighting. Yet these slaves had enormous power in their hands. Simply by stopping work, they could threaten the Confederacy with starvation. By walking into Federal camps, they showed to doubting Northerners the easy possibility of using them as workers and as servants, as farmers, and as spies, and finally, as fighting soldiers...It was the fugitive slave who made the slaveholders face the alternative of surrendering to the North, or to the Negroes.


SLAVES HAD this power because slavery had literally built U.S.--and, one could certainly argue, world capitalism. As Marx wrote in one of his earliest analyses of capitalism:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry...Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.

Slavery and the Civil War

One hundred and fifty years ago, the institution of slavery was finally destroyed with the end of the Civil War. Socialist Worker writers tell the story.

One of these "colonies" Marx was referring to was, until 1783, under British control until it became the United States of America. Even though it threw off British rule, the new U.S. retained slavery as an essential element of its economy. In 1775, on the eve of the revolution, one out of five of the North American colonies' 2.5 million people was an African slave. By the Civil War, the slave population was estimated at 4 million.

The increase in the slave population paralleled the crucial role slavery played in the new republic. In 1790, the U.S. produced almost no cotton. By 1860, it was producing 2 billion pounds annually. As Edward T. Baptist writes in his history of slavery and capitalism in the U.S. The Half Has Not Been Told:

The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery's expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation--not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing U.S. politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible.

The new republic faced a contradiction. It had proclaimed in its Declaration of Independence from Britain that "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

And yet its economy and its political institutions rested on a monstrous system that held millions of human beings in bondage. How could it square this circle? One critical way was the ideology of racism and white supremacy.

To be sure, racism--the oppression of a group of people based on the idea that some inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes them inferior to their oppressors--didn't just emerge in the 1770s. But it wasn't, as many believe today, an ideology that existed for all time. Modern racism developed side by side with the development of chattel slavery in the period of the rise of capitalism.

As the Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams put it: "Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery." And, one can add, the consequence of modern slavery at the dawn of capitalism. While slavery existed as an economic system for thousands of years before the conquest of America, racism as we understand it today did not exist.


THE AFRICAN slave trade lasted for a little more than 400 years, from the mid-1400s, when the Portuguese made their first voyages down the African coast, to the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888.

Slave traders took as many as 12 million Africans by force to work on the plantations in South America, the Caribbean and North America. About 13 percent of slaves (1.5 million) died during the Middle Passage--the voyage by boat from Africa to the New World. The slave trade--involving African slave merchants, European slavers and New World planters in the traffic in human cargo--represented the greatest forced population transfer ever.

The slave trade helped to shape a wide variety of societies, from modern Argentina to Canada. They differed in their use of slaves, the harshness of the regime imposed on them, and the degree of mixing of the races that custom and law permitted. But no society became as virulently racist--insisting on racial separation and a strict color bar--as the English North American colonies that became the United States.

It is important to underscore that when the European powers began carving up the New World between them, African slaves were not part of their calculations.

When we think of slavery today, we think of it primarily from the point of view of its relationship to racism. But planters in the 17th and 18th centuries looked at it primarily as a means to produce profits. Slavery was a method of organizing labor to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton. It was not, first and foremost, a system for producing white supremacy. How did slavery in the U.S. (and the rest of the New World) become the breeding ground for racism?

For much of the first century of colonization in what became the U.S., the majority of slaves and other "unfree laborers" were white. The hallmark of systems like slavery and indentured servitude was that slaves or servants were "bound over" to a particular employer for a period of time, or for life in the case of slaves. The decision to work for another master wasn't the slave's or the servant's. It was the master's, who could sell slaves for money or other commodities, like livestock, lumber or machinery.

The North American colonies started predominantly as private business enterprises in the early 1600s. In addition to sheer survival, the settlers' chief aim was to obtain a labor force that could produce the large amounts of indigo, tobacco, sugar and other crops that would be sold back to England. From 1607, when Jamestown was founded in Virginia to about 1685, the primary source of agricultural labor in English North America came from white indentured servants.


THE COLONISTS had first attempted to press the indigenous population into labor. But the Indians refused to be become servants to the English. They resisted being forced to work and were able to escape into the surrounding area, which, after all, they knew far better than the English. One after another, the English colonies turned to a policy of driving out the Indians.

The colonists then turned to white servants. Indentured servants were predominantly young white men--usually English or Irish--who were required to work for a planter master for some fixed term of four to seven years. The servants received room and board on the plantation, but no pay. They could not quit and work for another planter. They had to serve their term, after which they might be able to acquire land and start a farm for themselves.

For most of the 1600s, the planters tried to get by with a predominantly white, but multiracial workforce. But as the 17th century wore on, colonial leaders became increasingly frustrated with white servant labor. For one thing, they faced the problem of constantly having to recruit labor as their servants' terms expired. Second, after servants finished their contracts and decided to set up their farms, they could become competitors to their former masters.

And finally, the planters didn't like the servants' "insolence." The mid-1600s were a time of revolution in England, when ideas of individual freedom were challenging the old hierarchies based on royalty. The colonial planters tended to be royalists, but their servants tended to assert their "rights as Englishmen" to better food, clothing and time off.

Black slaves worked on plantations in small numbers throughout the 1600s. But until the end of the 1600s, it cost planters more to buy Black slaves than to buy white servants. Blacks lived in the colonies in a variety of statuses--some were free, some were slaves and some were servants.

The law in Virginia didn't establish the condition of lifelong, perpetual slavery or even recognize African servants as a group different from white servants until 1661. Blacks could serve on juries, own property and exercise other rights. Northampton County, Virginia, recognized interracial marriages and, in one case, assigned a free Black couple to act as foster parents for an abandoned white child. There were even a few examples of Black freemen who owned white servants. Free Blacks in North Carolina had voting rights.

The planters' economic calculations played a part in the colonies' decision to move toward full-scale slave labor. By the end of the 17th century, the price of white indentured servants outstripped the price of African slaves. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for 10 years. As Eric Williams explained:

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. [The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer, too, than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn would soon come.


THE PLANTERS' fear of a multiracial uprising also pushed them towards racial slavery. Because a rigid racial division of labor didn't exist in the 17th century colonies, many conspiracies involving Black slaves and white indentured servants were hatched, though ultimately foiled.

The largest of these conspiracies developed into Bacon's Rebellion, an uprising that threw terror into the hearts of the Virginia Tidewater planters in 1676. Several hundred farmers, servants and slaves initiated a protest to press the colonial government to seize Indian land for distribution. The conflict spilled over into demands for tax relief and resentment of the Jamestown establishment. Planter Nathaniel Bacon helped organize an army of whites and Blacks that sacked Jamestown and forced the governor to flee. The rebel army held out for eight months before the Crown managed to defeat and disarm it.

Bacon's Rebellion was a turning point. After it ended, the Tidewater planters moved in two directions: First, they offered concessions to the white freemen, lifting taxes and extending to them the vote; and second, they moved to full-scale racial slavery.

Fifteen years earlier, the Burgesses had recognized the condition of slavery for life and placed Africans in a different category from white servants. But the law had little practical effect. As historian Barbara Jeanne Fields wrote: "Until slavery became systematic, there was no need for a systematic slave code. And slavery could not become systematic so long as an African slave for life cost twice as much as an English servant for a five-year term,"

Both of those circumstances changed in the immediate aftermath of Bacon's Rebellion. In the entire 17th century, the planters imported about 20,000 African slaves. The majority were brought to North American colonies in the 24 years after Bacon's Rebellion.

In 1664, the Maryland legislature passed a law determining who would be considered slaves on the basis of the condition of their father--whether their father was slave or free. It became clear, however, that establishing paternity was difficult, but that establishing who was a person's mother was definite. So the planters changed the law to establish slave status on the basis of the mother's condition.

Taking the Maryland law as an example, Fields made this important point:

Historians can actually observe colonial Americans in the act of preparing the ground for race without foreknowledge of what would later arise on the foundation they were laying...[T]he purpose of the experiment is clear: to prevent the erosion of slaveowners' property rights that would result if the offspring of free white women impregnated by slave men were entitled to freedom. The language of the preamble to the law makes clear that the point was not yet race...Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law shows society in the act of inventing race.

After establishing that African slaves would cultivate the major cash crops of the North American colonies, the planters then established the institutions and ideas that would uphold white supremacy. Most unfree labor became Black labor. Laws and ideas intended to underscore the subhuman status of Black people--in a word, the ideology of racism and white supremacy--emerged full-blown over the next generation.


WITHIN A few decades, the ideology of white supremacy was fully developed. Some of the best known intellectual giants of the day--such as Scottish philosopher David Hume and Thomas Jefferson, who would write the Declaration of Independence--wrote treatises alleging Black inferiority.

The American Revolution was aimed at establishing the rights of the new capitalist class against the old feudal monarchy. But the challenge to British tyranny also gave expression to a whole range of ideas that expanded the concept of "liberty" from being just about trade to include ideas of human rights, democracy and civil liberties. Some of the leading American revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, endorsed abolition.

But because the revolution aimed to establish the rule of capital in America, and because a lot of capitalists and planters made a lot of money from slavery, the revolution compromised with slavery. With few exceptions, no major institution in the new republic--not the universities, nor the churches, nor the newspapers of the time--raised criticisms of white supremacy or slavery. In fact, they bolstered the religious and academic justifications for slavery and Black inferiority. As the Marxist C.L.R. James wrote:

[T]he conception of dividing people by race begins with the slave trade. This thing was so shocking, so opposed to all the conceptions of society which religion and philosophers had, that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race.

White supremacy wasn't only used to justify slavery. It was also used to keep in line the two-thirds of Southern whites who weren't slaveholders. A tiny minority of slave-holding whites, who controlled the governments and economies of the Deep South states, ruled over a population that was roughly two-thirds white farmers and workers and one-third Black slaves.

The slaveholders' ideology of racism and white supremacy helped to divide the working population, tying poor whites to the slaveholders. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood this dynamic:

The hostility between the whites and Blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave masters. Those masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each. [Slaveholders denounced emancipation as] tending to put the white working man on an equality with Blacks, and by this means, they succeed in drawing off the minds of the poor whites from the real fact, that by the rich slave-master, they are already regarded as but a single remove from equality with the slave.


SLAVERY IN the colonies helped produce a boom in the 18th century economy that provided the launching pad for the industrial revolution in Europe. From the start, colonial slavery and capitalism were linked. While it isn't correct to say that slavery created capitalism, it is correct to say that slavery provided one of the chief sources for the initial accumulations of wealth that helped to propel capitalism forward in Europe and North America.

The clearest example of the connection between plantation slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism was the connection between the cotton South, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Northern industrial states.

Here, we can see the direct link between slavery in the U.S. and the development of the most advanced capitalist production methods in the world. Cotton textiles accounted for 75 percent of British industrial employment in 1840, and, at its height, three-quarters of that cotton came from the slave plantations of the Deep South. And Northern ships and ports transported the cotton.

To meet the boom in the 1840s and 1850s, the planters became even more vicious. On the one hand, they tried to expand slavery into West and Central America. The fight over the extension of slavery into the territories eventually precipitated the Civil War in 1861. On the other, they drove their existing slaves harder--selling more cotton to buy more slaves just to keep up. On the eve of the Civil War, the South was petitioning to lift the ban on the importation of slaves that had existed officially since 1808.

The close connection between slavery and capitalism, and thus, between racism and capitalism, gives the lie to those who insist that slavery would have just died out. In fact, the South was more dependent on slavery right before the Civil War than 50 or 100 years earlier. Slavery lasted as long as it did because it was profitable. And it was profitable to the richest and most "well-bred" people in the world.

In abolishing slavery, the Civil War struck a great blow against racism. Almost a week before Appomattox, the Confederate capital of Richmond fell into Union hands. While most of the city's whites seemed to desert the place, Blacks flooded into the streets to greet the arriving Federal troops. A Union chaplain wrote:

The slaves seemed to think that the day of jubilee had fully come. How they danced, shouted...shook our hands...and thanked God, too, for our coming...It is a day never to be forgotten by us, till days shall be no more.

Abolishing slavery accomplished a social revolution. The Civil War's destruction of slavery was the largest expropriation of private property in history to that point, and for half a century after.

And beyond the economic statistics lay an even more profound social transformation, as a story recounted by the historian Leon Litwack illustrated. After the war, a Black Union soldier recognized his former master among a group of Confederate prisoners he was guarding. The soldier called out to his former master: "Hello, massa, bottom rail on top dis time!"

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives