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Rise of Sectionalism: 1815–1859

Slavery in Antebellum America

Slave Conditions and Resistance

Enslaved African Americans were defined as chattel, or property, which led to onerous treatment: families were sometimes separated, and living conditions and punishments were often inhumane, causing many enslaved workers to try to escape, lead uprisings, or even end their own lives.

By the early 19th century slavery was an integral part of the Southern economy. Slaves were legally considered the chattel, or property, of the slaveholder. Chattel slavery allowed people to be bought, traded, and sold into lifelong servitude. Children born to enslaved workers inherited their slave parent's status. The child of a female slave and the slaveholder was automatically a slave.

Some enslaved laborers worked on small farms, in households, and in cities. The majority, however, worked on plantations. A plantation was a large estate where cash crops were grown.

Workdays for plantation slaves began before sunrise and often lasted until after sunset. Many labored planting and harvesting crops or felling trees and clearing fields for future planting. Others were responsible for slaughtering livestock or repairing buildings and equipment. Domestic slaves maintained the household by cooking and cleaning and in many instances served as nannies for the slaveholder's children.

Living conditions were particularly harsh. Enslaved workers were housed in small, crudely built cabins, and there was rarely enough food to eat. They supplemented their diets with food they grew in small gardens. The spread of diseases such as cholera and hepatitis was rampant, and child mortality rates were high.

Enslaved workers faced other threats beyond backbreaking work and long hours. Families were frequently separated, with individuals being sold to other plantations. White slaveholders sexually harassed and raped African American women. Meanwhile, the plantation overseer—the individual responsible for supervising work—could dole out beatings or other penalties at any time. Enslaved workers were also restricted by slave codes, or laws that limited their rights and actions. For example, many Southern states passed laws that prevented both enslaved and free African Americans from entering into a contract or testifying against a white person in court.

While under constant oppression, enslaved workers looked for ways to resist. Some destroyed crops or damaged equipment. Others intentionally slowed their work, faked illness, or deliberately injured themselves. Still others ran away, attempting to escape to the North and Canada. Some made this trek via the Underground Railroad—a secret system of safe houses managed by "conductors" who helped slaves escape to freedom. Escaped slave, abolitionist, and "conductor" Harriet Tubman assisted hundreds of those who fled.

A small number of slaves revolted against slaveholders. One example is Nat Turner's Rebellion. In 1831 Nat Turner—a slave and religious leader—led a slave uprising in Virginia. He and his followers killed some 60 white men, women, and children. The rebellion was soon put down, but Turner eluded capture for two months. In the meantime some 50 African Americans were tried, about half of whom were found guilty. After his arrest, Turner and 16 of his followers were executed. Following Nat Turner's Rebellion slaveholders considered additional uprisings to be highly plausible.

Slave Culture in the South

In addition to more direct forms of resistance, enslaved African Americans resisted the hardships of their lives through their families, religion, folklore, and music—creating a rich culture supportive of human dignity.

When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, they faced numerous obstacles and misfortunes. Among these challenges was the forced abandonment of their native heritage. Southern white culture was forced upon slaves. Instead of completely losing their native legacy, however, enslaved Africans developed a new cultural identity. They took on many social traditions of their enslavers while still maintaining distinctive elements of African culture.

Religion was one crucial facet of this fusion of different beliefs and values. Many enslaved African Americans were forced to convert to Christianity. Converts came to accept an all-powerful God and many aspects of this new faith. They also held on to elements of their African religions, recognizing various gods and spirits and practicing traditional rituals.

Other important parts of slave culture were storytelling and music. Storytelling was popular among enslaved African Americans. This continued a long-lived oral tradition and helped preserve elements of their African culture. Storytelling was also a way to teach lessons and to encourage resilience within the community. Slaves passed on traditional folktales that featured animals as characters. At the same time, they shared stories from the Bible about enduring hardship. Some tales featured individuals who outsmarted the slaveholders. In "The Riddle Tell of Freedom," for example, a slave and slaveholder bet on whether the slave can pose a riddle the slaveholder cannot answer. When the slave successfully stumps the slaveholder, the man grants him his freedom.

The music of enslaved African Americans was very different from that of the slaveholders. It featured banjos and drums. Many songs followed a call-and-response pattern. A performer would sing a line or stanza to the group, and the group would respond in unison with an answering chorus. The spiritual—a type of religious song—also became a prominent custom in slave society. Spirituals included Christian themes and described the hardships faced by enslaved people. Songs sometimes passed coded messages about plans for escaping to freedom, such as meeting places or routes. Some songs that contained such messages include "Sweet Chariot" and "Follow the Drinking Gourd." "Follow the Drinking Gourd" gives its listeners these directions:

When the Sun comes back
And the first quail calls
Follow the Drinking Gourd.
For the old man is a-waiting for to carry you to freedom
If you follow the Drinking Gourd.

Decoded, the lyrics say to set out in early spring ("the Sun comes back / and the first quail calls"). They are told to follow the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper constellation, which points to the North Star). This will lead them to an agent of the Underground Railroad (the old man) and to freedom, usually in free Northern states or Canada.
Music and dance were important elements of slave culture. Instruments like the banjo (played by the man leaning against the tree) originated in Africa. Made popular by slaves in the United States, the banjo's use spread throughout the world.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-107750