The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Ending slavery in the United States

Jan 7, 2008

Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1808, the importation of slaves into the United States was made illegal. The law of 1808 originated in the competing interests among American colonialists and European merchants and royalty, all of whom had been profiting from the slave trade for centuries.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, Santo Domingo, or the French West Indies, was the largest single slave market in the world. This slave system provided two-thirds of French overseas trade, enriching French planters, merchants and nobles.

The slave trade had not only brought riches to the growing French bourgeoisie. In earlier years, the slave trade had provided riches to the British crown and British merchants, as well as Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch royalty and merchants. It was the means by which Northern merchants and bankers in what would become the United States accumulated their first large amounts of capital. And it would become the basis of fortunes made on Southern plantations of the new United States. The development of capitalism over two centuries was based on the vast market of misery that was the African slave trade.

The system of slavery was then enshrined in the Great Compromise between Northern merchants and Southern slave holders in the U.S. Constitution.

In the 1790 census, the U.S. already had some 700,000 black slaves – most of whom were concentrated in the South (slavery was still legal in most Northern states well into the 19th century). In a country with a large frontier and plentiful land, this was the cheapest way the Southern plantation holders could keep labor on their vast holdings for the cultivation of such cash crops as cotton, sugar and rice. But slavery never took hold in the North because the expenses to maintain, import and control slaves were too great and impractical to produce for trade compared to the system of small independent farmers of the North. Of course, the Northern merchants and bankers did not at all challenge slavery, since they continued to extract big profits from it.

The Slaves Themselves Challenge Slavery

The very real fear of slave uprisings in South Carolina, Georgia and the West Indies led to extremely harsh laws, a veritable reign of terror against black slaves. Already in the 1730s, there were known slave uprisings in the British colonies. By 1750, an estimated 3,000 black slaves had fled to the mountains of Santo Domingo from French plantations. They were known fearfully by the planters as the maroons. In their ceremonies, the former slaves sang: “We swear to destroy the whites and all they possess.”

A young slave in Santo Domingo, Toussaint L’Ouverture, would lead an army of slaves against the armies of France, Britain, the Spanish and later Napoleon in a 12-year-long struggle, from 1791 to 1803.

The struggle in Santo Domingo struck fear among slaveholders and the wealthy not only there or throughout the Caribbean. Their uprising was known throughout the Americas, including widely among U.S. slaves. And these slave victories led to the creation of an independent nation on Santo Domingo.

But the emerging Northern bourgeoisie could see the reason, if not to end slavery, at least to prevent its further expansion. Having accumulated enormous capital from the slave trade, the Northern merchants developed other investments. They no longer depended on slavery as did the Southern plantation owners. They could see what had happened in Santo Domingo. Perhaps that uprising was in their minds when the U.S. Congress passed a law to prohibit the importation of slaves in March of 1807. It made the slave trade illegal starting January 1, 1808.

This law cut off the South’s plantation system from a supply of fresh slaves. Of course the law did not end the importation of slaves into the U.S.; it simply drove the practice underground. And Southern planters increased their labor supply by the forced breeding of slaves, rather than by importing new ones. For the slaves, the conditions were even more barbaric, since it meant the break-up of families and the taking of very young children from their mothers.

In the first half of the 1800s, the issue of slavery impacted all the politics of both the United States and the Caribbean. In the Southern U.S. states, almost three million black men, women and children were forced to produce cotton, rice, tobacco and indigo, while enslaved.

U.S. Slave Revolts and the Civil War

Numerous laws were enacted concerning the recovery of runaway slaves. But there was also severe punishment for any attempt at rebellion or act of defiance. Nonetheless, there was a long history of rebellion by slaves against their slave masters. In 1800, one thousand slaves met outside Richmond to storm the city. Denmark Vesey, a freed slave, set a summer’s day in August 1822 for his uprising to end slavery. Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising in Virginia left great fear in the hearts of many defenders of slavery.

It was against this background that the U.S. Civil War was fought.

In the decades preceding the Civil War, the Northern bourgeoisie had not really challenged slavery. However, the interests of the Northern bourgeoisie and the Southern slaveholders began to clash, first as the slaveholders tried to extend slavery to the Western region, and as the Southern slave economy established tighter ties with British industry and finance.

But as industry in the North rapidly increased, along with a much greater growth of the Northern population, the weight of the Southern slaveholders gradually eroded. For the slaveholders, the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, of the new party of the Northern bourgeoisie, the Republican Party, was the last straw. In 1861, as soon as Lincoln assumed office, the southern states seceded from the union, beginning the Civil War.

Lincoln made clear that the federal government was not fighting the Civil War in order to free the slaves, but only to preserve the union. In the first year of the war, though, the problem that Lincoln confronted was that chances for a military victory were greatly reduced – unless the slaves were freed. A certain part of the Northern bourgeoisie and the Northern state apparatus opposed doing it. So, Lincoln didn’t even put it up for formal discussion. In the fall of 1862, he issued an executive proclamation ending slavery on January 1, 1863 – thus striking a blow against the South by encouraging an important part of its labor force to pick up and leave. Former slaves not only left, they buttressed the Northern army in every capacity.

Reconstruction and Segregation

When the Civil War and legal slavery were ended, the old defeated slaveholders came right back again and tried to reimpose bondage on the freed slaves through the terror of the Ku Klux Klan. To defend themselves, and to fight for their own goals, the freed slaves organized an enormous mass movement that encompassed a large section of the poor white farmers as well. They were the driving force in the period of Reconstruction. For a few years, the Northern bourgeoisie supported this movement, because it was a way to break the power of the old slaveholding class. But once the Northern bourgeoisie put its own people in place in the South, assuring their own domination, they withdrew their support for Reconstruction, initiating a new period of terror against black people that culminated in the establishment of a system of racist segregation known as Jim Crow, a new form of bondage. Underlying this segregation was the concentration of most of the black population as sharecroppers in the South. Segregation also was used to divide and weaken the rising and rebellious working class.

Civil Rights

It took yet another social movement for black people to ensure that U.S. laws were at least formally equal for all U.S. citizens. The fights begun after the Second World War by many Southern black G.I.s led to what we call the Civil Rights Movement. A more than 25-year struggle of thousands and millions of black people was required just to enforce the laws that already existed.

The anniversary of the ending of the slave trade is a reminder that slavery in the U.S. and throughout Europe was ended first by the struggles of black slaves themselves. They also fought throughout the years leading up to and during the U.S. Civil War. None of their victories came as a “gift” from the political rulers of the time: their victories came from their own fierce efforts.

Doing away with four centuries of injustice toward black people in the United States will require yet another long, hard struggle, taking on the very system built on the slave trade and on the backs of the slaves and their descendants.