During the 19th century, slavery was at once pivotal to American society and threatening to its stability. An intricate part of the country’s economy, slavery provided much of the country’s workforce and was responsible for a large portion of cash flow; slavery was big business. However, due to continued unrest surrounding the enslavement of people, slavery also created unrest and strife between countrymen. The 19th century was largely dominated by the so-called “plantation economy”. Southern plantation owners, mainly for cotton, relied on slaves as a form of cheap labor. They were so good for business, that in 1840, one in four families in Virginia owned slaves and nearly fifty percent of the South owned slaves. For large plantations, the value of a good slave was more than farm land or equipment.1 (Franklin J.H. and Schweninger L. “Runaways from a Hellish System”, 362).

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The value of slaves was such that the slave population quadrupled in the 19th century, despite the international slave trade being banned at the start of the century. As cotton production grew, slaves were necessary to continue bringing in significant profits. The results of both slave labor in the cotton fields and the trade of slaves resulted in significant prosperity for not just the South, but the whole country as well.

As of the middle of the 18th century, Northern African Americans enjoyed freedom. Former slaves and descendants of slaves were able to separate themselves from their identity asd slaves; they changed their names, got an education, and pursued careers. As such, they began to join social networks that also campaigned to extend their freedoms to African Americans in the South.2 (PBS. “Slavery and the Making of America”)

For those in the South, this caused significant unrest. The rising pressures from the North made Southerners feel their rights were being violated, their personal property threatened, and their prosperity put at risk. They began to revolt from the North and threatened to secede as their own nation. While slavery was pivotal to the overall economy, it became a major source of conflict and weakened the country’s position.2
One core issue was the occurrence of runaway slaves. This increased tensions and conflict between the North and South. As Southern slaves tried to escape, either on their own or through the Underground Railroad, they were often helped by abolitionists in the North. This outraged the Southerners, who felt the Northerners were enabling their property to escape and costing them income.

While the intended secession was positioned as a method to maintain states’ rights, it truly came down to an issue over the right to own slaves. In an effort to maintain a cohesive Union, the Civil War broke out, with the divided country warring against itself. Threatening to secede to hold onto state rights, and therefore the right to own slaves, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, effectively making the war about slavery. After the war’s end, slavery was made illegal throughout the entire nation.

Despite slavery’s end, it still had a significant impact on the country for many years. The South’s economy and society was in essence destroyed; the way of life and trade they had depended on was ended. Reconstruction put significant strain on the South for the rest of the 19th century, deepening tensions and creating significant racial tensions. This again threatened the strength of the United States as it continued to grow.3 (Mandle, J. “Strength and Growth in a Plantation Economy”. P. 99)
Slavery during the 19th century was an incredibly complex issue. Valuable in terms of what slave labor contributed to industry and the economy, slavery had significant impact on society’s stability and prosperity. However, as awareness of the human condition and the horror of slavery grew, the issue of slavery caused significant unrest. This issue divided the nation at its core, causing war to outbreak and weakening the country for years.

  • Franklin J.H. and Schweninger L. Runaways from a Hellish System. Portrait of America, Volume 1. 10th Edition. Cengage Learning, 2010.
  • PBS. Slavery and the Making of America. 2004.
  • Mandle Jay. Strength and Growth in a Plantation Economy. Studies in Comparative International Development. 1996.