history of slavery timeline
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Social Studies, U.S. History
An illustration depicting a slave auction, where often family could be separated.
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Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act, establishing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The legislation repeals the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and renews tensions between anti- and proslavery factions.
The Wilmot Proviso, introduced by Democratic representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, attempts to ban slavery in territory gained in the Mexican War. The proviso is blocked by Southerners, but continues to enflame the debate over slavery.
Before cotton dominated American agriculture, sugar drove the slave trade throughout the Caribbean and Spanish Americas. Sugar cane was a brutal crop that required constant work six days a week, and it maimed, burned and killed those involved in its cultivation. The life span of an enslaved person on a sugar plantation could be as little as seven years. Unfazed, plantation owners worked their enslaved laborers to death and prepared for this high “turnover” by ensuring that new enslaved people arrived on a regular basis to replace the dying. The British poet William Cowper captured this ethos when he wrote, “I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, for how could we do without sugar or rum?” The sweetening of coffee and tea took precedence over human life and set the tone for slavery in the Americas.
Yet the demand for a growing enslaved population to cultivate cotton in the Deep South was unyielding. In 1808, Congress implemented the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which terminated the country’s legal involvement in the international slave trade but put new emphasis on the domestic slave trade, which relied on buying and selling enslaved black people already in the country, often separating them from their loved ones. (In addition, the international trade continued illegally.) The ensuing forced migration of over a million African-Americans to the South guaranteed political power to the slaveholding class: The Three-Fifths Clause that the planter elite had secured in the Constitution held that three-fifths of the enslaved population was counted in determining a state’s population and thus its congressional representation. The economic and political power grab reinforced the brutal system of slavery.
Trace the history of slavery and abolition through the ages, from the days of ancient Egypt and Rome to the birth of the anti-slavery movement and the latest United Nations treaties.
Many historical timeline entries are adapted from New Slavery: A Reference Handbook by Kevin Bales, Second Edition, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004, pp. 55-68.