The Issue of Slavery
Without question, the issue of slavery was one of the most volatile in the smoldering enmity between the North and the South. In the decade prior to the onset of hostilities, the voice of abolition grew steadily louder in the North, forcing the South into an increasingly uncompromising defensive position. The more the North insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be abolished, the more the South resisted. But it would take the 1860 presidential election of Abraham Lincoln — and the South's perception that his administration was going to push for the abolition of slavery nationwide — to cause eleven Southern states to secede.
Slavery in America's History
Though the imprisonment of another human being for forced labor is unimaginable today, the institution of slavery has a long history in this country. Slaves were used for labor in the original thirteen colonies. The first shipment of Africans was brought to this country in August 1619, arriving at Jamestown, Virginia, on a Dutch ship; they were sold as indentured servants, though their plight was little different from that of outright slaves. Some of the United States' most revered figures, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners. Washington freed his slaves in his will; Jefferson, his finances shaky, had to rely on his creditors to grant his five favorite slaves their freedom. By the time of the Revolutionary War, slavery was legal in all thirteen colonies, though those in the Northern regions were beginning to realize that the institution simply wasn't profitable. The five Northern colonies eventually banned slavery outright, but it continued to flourish in the South, where slaves were used to work plantations and large farms.
Between 1510 and 1870, millions of Africans were captured from their homeland and taken around the world and sold into a life of slavery. Nearly half of them were brought to the Western Hemisphere, where the climate encouraged large-scale agriculture. Outlawed in all Northern states by 1846, slavery quickly became the backbone of the Southern agricultural economy. In particular, the growing global demand for cotton gave the institution new life at a time when many people in both the North and the South were starting to believe it would disappear by itself if it were left alone.
The Tragedy of Human Cargo
The import of slaves to the United States from West Africa was barbarism in its rawest form. Commonly known as the Triangle Trade, it involved exchanging rum, cotton, and other goods with Arab traders for West African slaves, selling the slaves to plantation owners in the West Indies, and returning to America with profits from the sale of goods and slaves who had been “broken in” on the Caribbean islands.
The voyage from Africa to the West Indies was the most harrowing and brutal portion of the trip. Slaves, having first been fattened up like cattle, were placed in a ship's hold with little room to sit up, much less stand. They were painfully shackled together, poorly fed, given impure water to drink, and lacked any type of sanitary facilities. The voyage from Africa to the West Indies could take from six to ten weeks, and many slaves died during the trip from a wide range of diseases. Their bodies were simply tossed overboard.