The Peculiar Institution
Slavery existed in America long before Lincoln and Douglas debated its future. The first black slaves — twenty in number — arrived in 1619 in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. From that small beginning, slavery began to spread, slowly at first, then more rapidly to meet a growing demand for labor. While slavery existed in some northern colonies, it primarily flourished in the South where large plantations required many hands. As a result, the North and South evolved into two distinct regions. While a free labor system consisting of farmers, merchants, and businessmen shaped the North, an extensive system of slave labor governed the South. By 1850, nearly four million slaves lived in the region, making the United States the largest slave-owning nation in the world.
Slavery permeated and shaped every aspect of southern life. Cotton, rice, and tobacco grown by slaves were the South’s chief exports, and, per the Constitution, every slave counted as three-fifths of a person in determining Congressional representation. Slavery also fueled the national economy with ‘King Cotton’ shipped to textile mills in the northeastern states and England. For the bondsman, slavery meant a life of unremitting toil and hardship. Family members were frequently separated by sale and runaways were hunted down and severely punished. Above all, slaves had neither personal freedom nor a chance to better themselves.