The United States of America has a reputation as a beacon of freedom and diversity from the colonial period of its history. From the beginning, however, Americans' freedoms were tied to a mixture of religious and ethnic affiliations that privileged some inhabitants of North America over others. Although European ideas of liberty set the tone for what was possible, those liberties looked somewhat different in colonial North America, where indigenous and African peoples and cultures also had some influence. The result was greater freedom for some and unprecedented slavery and dispossession for others, making colonial America a society of greater diversity—for better and for worse—than Europe.
America's indigenous traditions of immigration and freedom created the context that made European colonization possible. Since time immemorial, the original inhabitants of the Americas were accustomed to dealing with strangers. They forged alliances and exchange networks, accepted political refugees, and permitted people in need of land and protection to settle in territories that they controlled but could share. No North American society was cut off from the world or completely autonomous. Thus, there was no question about establishing ties with the newcomers arriving from Europe. Initially arriving in small numbers, bearing valuable items to trade, and offering added protection from enemies, these Europeans could, it seemed, strengthen indigenous communities. They were granted rights to use certain stretches of land, much in the way that other Native American peoples in need would have been, especially in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. However, Europeans, and all they brought with them—disease, beliefs regarding private property, ever more immigrants, and, occasionally, ruthless violence—undermined indigenous liberty. When Native Americans contested this, wars erupted—wars they could not win. Those who were able to avoid living as slaves or virtual servants of the Europeans (as some did) were driven from their homes.
Occasionally, a colonial ruler who wanted to preserve peace, like William Penn, would strive to respect the rights of indigenous Americans. However, given that both indigenous and European ideas of liberty rested on access to land and its resources, it was difficult for both Europeans and Native Americans to be free in the same territory at the same time without some sort of neutral arbiter. On the eve of the American Revolution, it seemed as if the British government might be able to play that role. After all, British Americans also looked to the monarchy to guarantee their liberties. American independence ended that option. Thereafter, America's original inhabitants had no one to mediate between them and the people who gained so much from exploiting them. Nor did the Africans brought as slaves to work what had once been their land.
For Africans, as with Native Americans, liberty was inseparable from one's family ties. Kinship (whether actual or fictive) gave an individual the rights and protection necessary to be able to live in freedom. To be captured by enemies and separated from one's kin put a person in tremendous danger. Although some captives could be adopted into other societies and treated more or less as equals, most were reduced to a condition of slavery and had little influence over their destiny. Even before they arrived in North America, Africans brought to the New World as slaves had already been separated from their home communities within Africa. Without kin, they had to forge new relationships with complete strangers—and everyone, including most fellow Africans they encountered, was a stranger—if they were to improve their lot at all. Escape was very difficult, and no community of fugitive slaves lasted for long. Unlike Native Americans, who could find a degree of freedom by moving away from the frontier, Africans had to struggle for what liberty they could from within the British society whose prosperity often depended on their forced labor.
Europeans, particularly those with wealth enough to own land or slaves, possessed the greatest freedoms in early America. The French, Spanish, and Dutch established colonies on land that would eventually become part of the United States. Each brought a distinct approach to liberty. For the French and Spanish, who came from societies where peasants still did most of the work of farming, liberty lay in the avoidance of agricultural labor. Aristocrats, who owned the land and profited from the peasants' toil, stood at the top with the most freedom. Merchants and artisans, who lived and worked in cities free of feudal obligations, came next. In North America, the French fur traders who preferred to spend their lives bartering among Native Americans rather than farming in French Canada echoed this view of freedom. Missionaries attempting to convert those same peoples could be seen as another variant of this tradition of liberty, one unknown to the Protestant British. In every colony, Europeans lived in a range of circumstances, from poor indentured servants to wealthy merchants and plantation owners.
Religion was inseparable from the experience of liberty in the European empires. The French and Spanish empires were officially Roman Catholic and did all within their power to convert or expel those who would not conform. The Dutch, on the other hand, had a different approach, befitting their condition as a small, newly independent, but economically dynamic nation. Though only Reformed Protestants enjoyed the full benefits of Dutch citizenship, they displayed an unusual openness to talented foreign immigrants, like Iberian Jews, while they relegated native-born Roman Catholics to second-class status. It was through their ties to Amsterdam, Dutch Brazil, and the Dutch Caribbean that Jews first staked a claim to live and work in North America.
The English colonies played the definitive role in early America's experience of liberty. As immigrants from Scotland, Germany, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere became incorporated into the Anglo-American world, they staked a claim to liberty through British culture and institutions. The heritage on which the British Empire rested was complicated, however, encompassing a great deal of political conflict (two revolutions in the seventeenth century alone) and religious diversity. The British colonies in North America were home to the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, and the Roman Catholics of Maryland, as well as to Anglicans, members of the Church of England. Living in America offered an excellent chance to claim the rights and liberties of Englishmen, even when it seemed like those liberties were imperiled back in Europe. Indeed, the desire to preserve those liberties from the threat of a new British government prompted colonists to fight for independence in 1776.
Liberty in eighteenth-century Britain was associated with the national representational body of Parliament and the Protestant religion, which had been declared the official faith of England in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, a long cycle of constitutional crises, civil wars, and revolution drove home what by the eighteenth century was a commonplace ethos for many Englishmen: liberty depended on Protestantism, property ownership, and a monarchy mixed with representative government. Conversely, Catholicism and absolute monarchy, as existed in Spain and France, brought tyranny and a loss of liberty.
Liberty thus began in America with a peculiar mix of religious, ethnic, political, economic, and legal associations, all of them based on denying civil, religious, and economic liberty to others. Among the free, European-descended, Protestant colonists who enjoyed the most liberty, only men with property—who were deemed eligible to vote and hold public office—gained the full benefits. The liberties of women, children, and men without property depended on their connections to propertied men, whether as relatives, patrons, or employers. As most British colonists understood history, English liberties had been secured only after a long, hard fight, and these liberties were under constant threat—from Roman Catholics, the French, or the greed and corruption that, they thought, inevitably arose when those in government grew too powerful. Liberty, they believed, was limited. The idea that everyone could enjoy similar liberties did not cross their mind; they worried instead about the possibility that everyone in America could be a slave or servant to someone else.
In many ways, the story of American liberty is about how people of different religious and ethnic origins gradually acquired rights that had been associated only with Protestant English men of property. Despite their original association with a particular national, ethnic, and religious group, English liberties proved fairly flexible in America. Americans lived in a society with more chances to attain the ideal of liberty associated with owning property—particularly a farm of one's own—than was possible in England, where property ownership was increasingly restricted to a small elite. Colonies like Pennsylvania granted far more religious freedom than existed in England. The colonial charters granted by the British monarchy protected these liberties, and, in fact, Pennsylvania celebrated the anniversary of these constitutional freedoms guaranteed by the English crown when it the commissioned the liberty bell.
The early American belief in the limited nature of liberty helps us to understand why it was so difficult for those who had it to extend it to others. Americans lived in a world full of slavery—the ultimate opposite of freedom—an institution that had not been present in England for hundreds of years. And yet, the colonial history of America, tied very early to the promotion of slavery, convinced many colonists that the ability to hold non-European people (mostly African, but also Native American) as slaves was a fundamental English liberty. Some even returned to England with their slaves, and expected English laws to protect their property in people as they did in the colonies. Free colonists were surrounded by people—servants and slaves—who either lacked liberty or, as in the case of Native Americans, were rapidly losing it. This paradox helps explain the reluctance of colonial Americans to allow others, like more recent German immigrants, to share the same liberties they enjoyed. In many ways, their prosperity depended on those peoples' lack of liberty and property. All could try for freedom in colonial America, but not all had equal access to it.
America's history of liberty is inseparable from its history of immigration and colonization dating back to the first Native American treaties. Unfortunately, the liberty Europeans claimed in America was accompanied by slavery and reduced liberties for many others. The possibility of liberty for some was always accompanied by a struggle for freedom for many others.
Evan Haefeli is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University, where he researches and teaches on Native American history, colonial American history, and the history of religious tolerance.
We don’t know exactly when the last sale of enslaved persons occurred in Richmond, Va., known as “the great slave market of the South,” but it must have taken place before April 3, 1865. On the previous day, the order had come to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Union troops who liberated the city.
Amid the chaos, a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin still had a jail full of people he was hoping to sell. According to the journalist Charles Carleton Coffin, who was there to witness the fall of Richmond, after learning of the order to evacuate, Lumpkin “quickly handcuffed his human chattels,” about 50 men, women and children, and marched them four blocks south to the Danville-Richmond Railroad depot on the banks of the James River. He was hoping to whisk them away, and find buyers for them in another city.
When they arrived, however, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” Lumpkin was angry, but there was nothing he could do. So, “with oaths and curses loud and deep,” Coffin reported, Lumpkin was forced “to unlock their handcuffs and allow them to go free.” These 50 people were worth about $50,000, according to Coffin, “but on that Sunday morning were of less value than the mule and the wagon which had drawn the slave-trader’s trunk to the station.”
Even though Lumpkin’s coffle was not, as Coffin so colorfully pronounced it, “the last slave gang seen in this Western world,” his comment points to the way that the slave trade had become the iconic symbol of the institution of slavery. And with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox only a few days later, the reporter’s prophetic statement became true for the United States. It was the end of the slave traders and slave gangs.
Richmond had long been the epicenter of the northern end of the American slave trade. In the preceding decades, tens of thousands of people had been brought to the city from the surrounding regions, where they were held in jails, sold at auction and sent to labor in the sugar and cotton fields of the Deep South. From the end of America’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 until the opening of the Civil War, at least two-thirds of a million people were forcibly relocated through the internal American slave trade from the Upper South (Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina) to the Lower (especially Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama). This massive movement of people populated what was then considered the American Southwest and resulted in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families as husbands and wives, parents and children were sold away.
The economic engine of the slave trade helped to fuel America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.
Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.
The slave trade is not merely a footnote or a side story in the history of American slavery, but was central to its modernization and continuation. That was well understood by the Boston artist David Claypool Johnston, who used it to powerful illustrative effect in his satirical work “The House That Jeff Built.” Playing off the English nursery rhyme “This is the House That Jack Built,” Johnston wrote and illustrated a series of 12 verses, beginning with the simple statement, “This is the house that Jeff built.” “Jeff” is, of course, Jefferson Davis, and his “house” is shown as a slave pen with a sign announcing a slave auction to the left of the door. Three scenes later, the image shows the inside of a slave auction room, with two men seated on a bench and two women and children standing. “These are the chattels,” the poem tells us, “To be sold by the head, in the slave pen: A part of the house that Jeff built.”
Other images show slave dealers, slave buyers, slave breeders, manacles and whips. The final image displays the paraphernalia of the slave trade: manacles, an auction hammer, a “slave auction” sign, advertisements and bills of sale. For this artist, like so many Americans, the slave trade stood at the center of the Confederacy and was the reason they had continued to fight the war. The last stanza reads:
But Jeff’s infamous house is doom’d to come down.
So says Uncle Sam and so said John Brown. —
With slave pen, and auction, shackles, driver, and cat,
Together with seller, and buyer, and breeder for that
Most loathsome of bipeds by some call’d a man,
Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can,
From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span,
In and out of the house that Jeff built.
On that day in Richmond in 1865, when Jeff’s house finally came down, thousands of people no longer had to fear that at any moment they could be sold away. As the city was abandoned, chaos reigned. Fires set to warehouses grew out of control and burned much of the city. On April 4, Abraham Lincoln arrived and was thronged by African-Americans, who had lived their entire lives with an auction hammer hanging over their head. As a former slave named William Wells Brown explained: “None … can estimate the suffering their victims undergo. If there is one feature of American slavery more abominable than another, it is that which sanctions the buying and selling of human beings.”
After decades of steady business along Wall Street in Richmond, the auction rooms were silent. The detritus of the business of human trafficking littered the floor: shackles, bills of sale, advertisements, receipts and ledgers. On April 8, 1865, as the city still smoldered, two Massachusetts abolitionists, Sarah and Lucy Chase, who were in Virginia to help educate emancipated African-Americans, entered Richard H. Dickinson’s slave-trading house on the corner of Franklin and Wall Streets. Wanting something to document the atrocities of slavery, they scooped up two ledger books and a stack of correspondence documenting the sale of thousands of men, women and children.
When they first saw Richmond from its docks a few days earlier, they had been struck by the symbolic image of the burned out city. Sarah wrote that nothing was left of the warehouses “but the brick walls ragged and jagged pointing their threatening fingers to heaven,” concluding, “as if saying there is justice.” She noted that inside the ledger books Dickinson had recorded the sales of several slaves on March 31, but for April 1 — one day before the Confederate retreat — only the date was written. There were no sales. “Thank God — no more was written or will ever be in that bloody register.” As Union troops filled the streets, as Lincoln toured the city, as the auction rooms fell silent, thousands rejoiced that they would never have to fear the slave market again.
At the end of the war, abolitionists like the Chase sisters collected documents and artifacts to preserve the memory of the slave trade and document why the sacrifices of the war had been necessary. But with the resurgence of white supremacy in the late 19th century, much of that history was deliberately removed from public memory. In Richmond, for example, slave-trader offices were quickly repurposed or destroyed. First the railroad and then I-95 forever altered the landscape where most of the trade took place.
But the story of the slave trade lived on in the family histories of African-Americans, and in the last decade of so, its memory has returned to the broader public consciousness as well. Current exhibitions on the slave trade in Richmond and New Orleans have led to new discoveries of histories long buried. This new research into the slave trade will give all of us an opportunity to make sure that it is never forgotten again.
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Sources: Charles Carleton Coffin, “The Boys of ’61; or, Four Years of Fighting”; Sarah Chase, comments in R. H. Dickinson & Bro. record book, 1855-58, Slavery in the United States Collection, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.; William Wells Brown, “Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown: An American Slave.”
Maurie D. McInnis is the author of “Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade,” A professor of art history at the University of Virginia and the curator of “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade,” a show at the Library of Virginia on view until May 30, 2015.
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