Documents Illustrative of Slavery and Indentured Servitude Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although historically promoted as the land of opportunity, America in fact built its early economic success—from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries—on the backs of indentured servants and slaves. Indentured servitude was a common way for poor European immigrants in search of a better life to defray the cost of their transatlantic journey, by signing a contract binding them to a certain number of years of labor in the New World. The contract was typically entered into by the worker (or his or her parents) and the captain of the ship on which they traveled; the captain would then sell the contract to an employer, such as a farmer or shop owner, in America. Indentured servants were not paid cash, but, in addition to the ship voyage, received food, clothing, and housing from their masters.

In practice, indentured servants were largely at the mercy of their masters, and the institution is widely regarded as having been only a few steps up from slavery. While most indentured servants successfully fulfilled the terms of their contracts and went on to become independent farmers, wage laborers, or business owners, a large number also died on the long ocean voyage or from disease and poor working conditions in America before their contracts were up.

Slaves, on the other hand, had no contracts and almost no prospects for freedom. They were simply owned, like livestock. Overwhelmingly, the enslaved people put to work in America were Africans, who, because of their skin color and utterly foreign culture, were quickly reduced categorically to the status of slaves, first in the eyes of European Americans, and then formally, under the terms of the many slave laws passed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. One such law passed in Virginia stipulated that “all servants imported and brought into the country, by sea or land, who were not Christians in their native country . . . shall be accounted and be slaves.”

While slavery existed in all the early British colonies, the institution soon became critical to the economy of the southern colonies in particular, where intensive plantation agriculture came to rely on a large and ready supply of permanently unpaid labor. The divide pertaining to slavery between the Northern and Southern colonies, and then states, only widened over time. By the late eighteenth century there was an organized antislavery (or abolitionist) movement in the North, but before then only a small minority—including, notably, Quakers—spoke out against the practice.

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