Background: Before the American Revolution
To live freely and participate in society is a right many take for granted. Throughout U.S. history, acquiring and maintaining civil rights has been a struggle for different groups—especially Native Americans and African Americans. The Europeans who set up trade and settlements in the Americas, beginning with Columbus’ 1492 voyage, saw slaves as an indispensable source of labor. African slavery was already part of the social construct and economy of Spain and Portugal and spreading to other parts of Europe.
Enslavement of native peoples in North and South America became common. In what later became the U.S., the Spanish first enslaved the Taino (an Arawak people) in Puerto Rico in the early 1500s. The French and the Danish who colonized what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands also enslaved the native population. Indians were often rounded up and forced into slavery. There were also captive slaves taken in war by Indians who were then traded to Europeans for goods. Some Indian peoples at the time of European contact had a practice of captive slavery. For a captive taken in a battle between tribes to be kept as a slave was considered merciful, and that slave might be freed at some point if he or she were considered trustworthy. Children of slaves were not slaves. All this changed with European enslavement of Indians. Henceforth, all slaves were considered slaves for life and were traded across very long distances. In addition, their children who were born into slavery remained slaves.
While enslavement of Indians by Europeans occurred in all parts of North America and persisted until the 19th century, it was especially prevalent in the British colonies in the Southeast in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the early days of the French settlements in New Orleans and Mobile, Indian slaves were commonly kept along with African slaves.
Juan Garrido was the first African to set foot in the U.S. He was born in what is now Angola and accompanied Juan Ponce de León to Puerto Rico in 1508 and settled there. He also was part of de León’s expedition to Florida in 1513. The first African slave probably arrived in Puerto Rico in 1513. It is likely the first place in the current U.S. where African slaves were held.
The first African slaves to be brought to the continental U.S. were brought by the Spanish in 1526 when they founded their first successful settlement at St. Augustine, Florida. Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles claimed the area for a Spanish settlement on September 8, 1565. Slaves were brought for the new colony and, among the ship’s crew, were some free Africans.
The first 19 or so Africans to reach the British colonies arrived in Point Comfort, Virginia, near Jamestown, in 1619, brought by British privateers who had seized them from a captured Portuguese slave ship. Slaves were usually baptized in Africa before embarking. By English custom, baptized Christians were exempt from being enslaved, so the colonists treated the slaves as indentured servants. Even though they were sold as indentured servants for food, this is generally deemed the beginning of the infamous U.S. slave trade.
Native American and African slave history are intertwined. Indians and Africans might serve as slaves in the same households or communities. Indians, sympathizing with African slaves, would also sometimes help escaped slaves if they could.
Treaties with Indian groups created Indian Nations. From 1778 to 1871, the U.S. government entered into more than 500 treaties with the Native American tribes; all of these treaties have since been violated in some way or outright broken by the U.S. government, while one treaty was violated or broken by Native American tribes. However, violations by one party do not nullify the treaties under U.S. law; the treaties still have legal effect today, and Native Americans and First Nations peoples are still fighting for their treaty rights in the courts. Their lack of political leverage has made their plight more difficult.
With the decline of the Native American population because of wars and exposure to diseases brought by European settlers, the colonists in the U.S. found enslaved Africans as a cheaper, more plentiful labor source than indentured servants, who were mostly poor Europeans. Although accurate figures are impossible, it is estimated that 11 million enslaved people were transported across the Atlantic from Africa to America and the West Indies.
During this period, each state developed its own policies regarding slavery and indentured servants, and issues were resolved based on local laws. But one thing was clear: Africans were treated much differently than other indentured servants. For example, in Virginia in 1640, a Black indentured servant, John Punch, tried to escape to Maryland with two European indentured servants. They were caught, but Punch received a life sentence to serve as a slave; his white counterparts received a lighter sentence of extended indentured servitude.
The first comprehensive English slave codes were established in Barbados in 1661, and they served as a model for the colonies in North America. In 1724 Louisiana adopted the Code Noir. It was developed in France partly to combat the spread of Protestantism and thus focuses more on religious restrictions than other slave codes. The Spanish slave codes, which granted many specific rights to the slave in other regions, were unpopular with slave owners in America, so these codes never took hold.
Beginning of a New Nation
The first U.S. national government began under the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781. This document said nothing about slavery, leaving the power to regulate slavery, as well as most powers, to the individual states. After their experience with the British, the colonists distrusted a strong central government. Their new national government consisted solely of a Congress in which each state had one vote. After the American Revolution, the individual states ratified new constitutions, but their laws were generally a continuation of the laws those regions maintained prior to that point and their slave codes remained unchanged. Some states allowed slavery; others prohibited it. Slavery was implicitly permitted in the original Constitution through provisions such as Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, commonly known as the Three-Fifths Compromise. This agreement was reached to keep peace between the Northern and Southern states.
As the 1860s approached, the dispute over the legal, moral and ethical position of keeping slaves led to 11 states (Missouri and Kentucky kept out of the war) creating “The Confederate States of America.” On March 21, 1861, Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy made clear their position: “The Confederacy’s foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and the Civil War ended with the Union victorious, the major issues that had started the war were never resolved.
After the war, state and local statutes—Jim Crow laws—were enacted to legalize racial segregation by blocking African Americans when they tried to vote, gain employment and/or get a good education. These laws have resulted in a continuous flow of federal legislation to try to bring the nation together. And, it took until 1968 to get most, if not all, of the Jim Crow laws declared unconstitutional.