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The Origins of Slavery in the New World

Teaching ActivityTeaching Activity

Slave Societies and Societies with Slaves: The Chesapeake, the Southern Colonies, New England, and the Middle Colonies

Contributing teacher: Monica R. Gisolfi
Time period: 1650s–1750s

E-Seminar Approach
Professor Eric Foner explains how three distinct systems of slavery emerged in the English colonies in North America: "One centered in the Chesapeake area (Maryland and Virginia), one in South Carolina and Georgia, and one in the non-plantation societies of New England and the Middle Colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania)." Colonial slavery was not all of one type; it differed markedly across these three regions and developed peculiar cultures over time. The advent of staple tobacco production and the emergence of a planter class transformed the Chesapeake into a slave society in the mid-seventeenth century. Shortly thereafter, slavery emerged in the Lower Colonies as South Carolina and Georgia began to produce substantial quantities of rice and indigo. The northern colonies did not experience a tobacco or rice revolution; the climate barred their extensive production. As a result, slavery did not predominate in the northern colonies; rather, slavery remained one form of labor among others. Northerners did purchase slaves for use as domestic servants, farm laborers, and artisans, so these can be considered societies with slaves, rather than slave societies.

Suggested Teaching Activity
As the American colonies developed, many Europeans reported on conditions there. As early as 1582, Richard Hakluyt (1552?–1616) touted the benefits of English colonization, even though he never saw America. In 1750, the German Johann Martin Bolzius (1703–65) wrote letters home about life in the southern colonies, and Governor William Berkeley (1606–77) of Virginia issued a report for the English Crown about labor conditions in his colony. Much later, in the nineteenth century, the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) would travel through the United States and compile his notes for Democracy in America, much of it based on his perceptions about the nature of northern and southern societies.

Your students will act as English observers of the colonies. The year is 1750, and the Crown has requested a report about the nature and organization of labor in each region. The students must compose this report, addressing these matters while fielding questions from their classmates.

Students will break up into three teams. Each team will research one of the three regions: (1) the Chesapeake, (2) the Lower Colonies, and (3) the non-plantation societies of New England and the Middle Colonies. Students should view the entire e-seminar and their textbooks, then consult and analyze the two documents provided below. Depending on the strengths of your class, you may opt to divide up these tasks: Different portions of each group could take on the lecture, the primary sources, and the textbook.

In their groups, student should compose a five-minute presentation for the class that explains how and why labor is organized in their respective region. You may encourage them to adopt the role of a English observer (with appropriate accent and mannerisms!).

Student Presentations
Ideally, your students will cull the following information from Professor Foner's lecture and the primary sources. First, they must identify whether their region was a slave society or a society with slaves. Second, they must explain why their region became a slave society or a society with slaves.

Document I, a series of tables, lists which crops were produced where; it highlights the fact that the Chesapeake and Lower Colonies produced cash crops. This document should help your students determine the relationship between slave labor and the production of labor-intensive cash crops. They should note that the northern colonies did not produce cash crops comparable to those produced in the southern colonies.

In Document II, Johann Martin Bolzius describes how labor is organized in South Carolina and Georgia. This document can serve as a model of what observers found significant.

The Chesapeake Region: Maryland and Virginia
Tobacco was the staple cash crop.
This region was a slave society, where slaves worked in tobacco fields and performed a range of other tasks.
In 1770, nearly half the population, including about 270,000 slaves, lived on tobacco plantations.
Slavery was also common on small Virginian farms. In 1770, about half of all white families in Virginia owned at least one slave.
Large plantation owners sometimes owned hundreds of slaves.

The Lower Colonies: South Carolina and Georgia
This was a slave society, where slaves worked in rice and indigo production.
Wealthy sugar planters from Barbados established South Carolina at the end of the seventeenth century.
Rice became a major crop in eighteenth-century commerce.
Rice production benefits from an economy of scale: A large plantation is more profitable than a small one.
South Carolina rice plantations were very large and required many slaves. These planters were the richest people in English colonial America.
Rice cultivation spread into Georgia.

The Northern Colonies: New England and the Middle Colonies
New England and the Middle Colonies were areas of small farms and ports hospitable to seagoing vessels. There were no plantations, but some large estate farms. The climate and short growing season prohibited the production of tobacco and rice.
Farmers mainly grew grains, which were not labor-intensive to harvest.
Slavery was marginal to the northern economy.
Many northern colonists owned slaves, but they tended to own only a few.
Artisans used slaves to work in their shops.
A small farmer might purchase one or two slaves to supplement the family's labor.

Post-Presentation Discussion
  • Be sure that students can define "slave society" and "society with slaves."
    A slave society: a society where slavery is the foundation of the economic and social order.
    A society with slaves: a society in which slavery is only one of several other systems of labor.
  • As each group gives its presentation, have students take notes and formulate two to three questions or points of clarification for their classmates. These could be factual questions: How long is the tobacco-growing season? Or they could frame more subjective questions: Why didn't slavery become the dominant form of labor in the northern colonies?
  • Allow students to pose their questions.

Two Documents

"Average Annual Value of Colonial Exports" table.

"Johann Bolzius on Slave Labor" text excerpt.

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