The History of North American Slavery

Historians of the United States have written and argued more about American slavery than about nearly any other subject, at least in part because the connection between racial hierarchy and economic production has always been central to American life. Scholarly interpretations of slavery, however, have changed drastically over the course of the last century. Where historians in the early twentieth century described slavery as an essentially benign institution, historians of the postwar era described it as a cruel and harsh one akin to a prison. By the 1970s, that latter reading gave way to one stressing how slaveholders dulled slave resistance by cultivating ideas about mutual obligations between masters and slaves. But other scholars responded by showing the vitality of the faith, families, and communities of enslaved people, demonstrating how pervasive slave resistance actually was, and pointing out that slaveholders were acquisitive, entrepreneurial, and not nearly so paternalistic as they claimed.

Today, studies at the forefront of slavery scholarship often draw attention to the relationship between American slavery and American capitalism, focus on the significance of gender and sexuality, and ask that we think beyond customary boundaries of time and geography. But those emphases are unlikely to be at the forefront ten or twenty years from now, because even though slavery was outlawed more than 150 years ago, its legacy remains nearly everywhere we look, providing fresh angles of vision on the past not only for historians but for novelists and filmmakers as well.

Given the immense bibliography that might be compiled of American slavery studies, this list does not purport to provide even a smattering of what most scholars would consider the most important works on the subject. But collectively, they hint at where the field has been, demonstrate some of its contemporary evolution, and provide room for the voices of both people who experienced enslavement and artists who have imagined it in especially powerful ways.

Places to Start

Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (1993)

Kolchin’s synthesis provides both an overview of American slavery from its beginnings in the colonial era through its collapse during the Civil War, and a sense of the scholarly shifts in thinking about the institution over time. Those looking for a relatively brief and readable introduction to the subject will find nothing better.

Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (2003)

Using the framework of “generations” to understand slavery’s temporal evolution and its geographical variation, Ira Berlin traces how and why the experiences of enslaved people changed over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Without losing a sense of slavery’s complexity, Berlin shows how enslaved people went from living in a wide range of slave regimes sprawled across mainland North America during the colonial era to living in an expansive plantation society concentrated in the South in the decades that followed the American Revolution. A more expansive and detailed, though more chronologically limited, version of Berlin’s argument can be found in an earlier work, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.

Digging In

Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999)

Forcefully written and professedly “abolitionist” in its politics, Johnson’s Soul by Soul examines the domestic slave market in New Orleans and portrays it as more horrifying and more complicated than a reader might imagine. Johnson finds prospective buyers looking for enslaved people on whom they could project fantasies of mastery, and people in showrooms and on the auction block trying to shape their self-presentation to make their circumstances the least awful they could. One of the earliest works in a recent wave of scholarship on the domestic slave trade, it is still one of the best.

Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004)

In this book, we are reminded of the gifted historian we lost in the late Stephanie Camp. Bringing theoretical rigor and an inventive reading of evidence to bear in a relatively brief work, Camp opens entirely new vistas for thinking about the resistance of enslaved people to their bondage, and specifically to the ways enslaved women pushed back against captivity. By asking readers to think especially about the significance of physical space to the lives enslaved people made for themselves, Camp presents actions that might appear fleeting or insignificant at first glance as acts of defiance that will never again look the same to students of slavery.

Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (1985)

Faust’s portrayal of the life of South Carolina planter and politician James Henry Hammond arguably remains the finest biography ever written of a member of the antebellum southern ruling class. Ambitious, egotistical, and deeply weird, Hammond serves as an apt metaphor for a white South whose abusive cruelties and delusional beliefs in their own absolute mastery ultimately undid everything they believed they had built.

New Moves

Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013)

The demonstrated linkages between slavery and banks, insurance companies, and other economic institutions have been central to understanding the continuing legacy of slavery in American life. Here, Wilder shows how money derived from slavery also helped build the most respected educational institutions in the United States, and how those schools in turn provided substance to the cultural and intellectual support for slavery well into the nineteenth century.

Heather Andrea Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (2012)

Nothing about American slavery was more heartbreaking than the fact that slaveholders routinely shattered black families. In this deeply moving book, Williams traces the usually unsuccessful efforts of newly emancipated people to find those family members who had been stolen from them, sometimes decades earlier, and demonstrates the profound fragmentation wrought upon the lives of black Americans by slavery, both as individuals and as a people.

Gregory E. O’Malley, Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 1619-1807 (2014)

Though the transatlantic slave trade and the interior domestic slave trade that thrived in the nineteenth century are relatively well known, O’Malley shows that there was an extensive intercolonial forced migration as well. The transport nightmare for Africans in colonial British North America did not necessarily end when they first arrived on western shores, but rather could continue as they were trafficked among colonies, which contributed to the power and expansion of the British empire.

Voices and Lives

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (2012 [1936])

Like all good works of fiction, Faulkner’s southern gothic tale of Thomas Sutpen provides insight and a kind of truth that works of scholarship sometimes cannot. Arriving seemingly from nowhere in frontier Mississippi, Sutpen uses slave labor to build an empire that he mistakenly believed could exorcise his demons. In the process, he succeeds only in obliterating himself, his family, and everything he had tried to build.

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (2003 [1979])

This science fiction novel tells the story of a black woman mysteriously transported back in time to the antebellum South. There, she must live enslaved and protect a cruel slaveholder to ensure her survival in the present. Though imagining the past in a way radically different from Faulkner, Butler too speaks to the often destructive intertwining of black and white under slavery.

Henry Goings, Rambles of a Runaway from Southern Slavery (2012)

Only the people who survived American slavery could truly understand the experience of enslavement, and the power of their stories were vital to the ultimate success of the abolitionist movement. Born in Virginia, Goings saw nearly every part of the United States east of the Mississippi before finally escaping to Canada. Critics blasted slavery as backward and stagnant, but Goings’ epic journey demonstrates that in truth it was a system in near-constant motion.

Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1987 [1861])

Like Goings, Jacobs’ story points to some of slavery’s most central dynamics. In particular, she demonstrates the unique travails of enslaved women, as Jacobs survived the harrowing harassment of her owner in North Carolina and risked her own life and the possibility that she would never see her children again to escape his clutches.

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and co-edits the online magazine We’re History.