4.12 African Americans in the Early Republic

7 min readjanuary 3, 2023

Robby May

Robby May


Sally Kim

Milo Chang

Milo Chang

AP US History 🇺🇸

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The "Peculiar Institution"

Wealth in the South was measured in the terms of land and slaves. Slaves were treated as property, subject to being bought and sold. Some whites were sensitive about how they treated the other humans that they referred to slavery as “that peculiar institution”. 
Most slaves labored in the fields, but many learned skilled crafts or worked as house servants, in factories or on construction gangs. In large plantation in the Cotton Belt, slaves worked in “gangs” under an overseer. These overseers were sometimes helped by black “drivers” who enforced a sun-up to sun-down workday, 6 days a week.
In the low country of SC and GA, slaves who cultivated rice worked under a “task system”. They had less supervision and were able to complete their tasks within an 8 hour day. 
Slaves in the cities’ often enjoyed more autonomy. Some slaves would live apart of their masters and hire themselves out on their own time. Because of the great profits to be made on the new cotton plantations in the West, many slaves were sold from the Upper South to the cotton rich Deep South.
During this time period, some individuals and groups in the United States used religion to justify slavery. They argued that slavery was a natural and necessary part of society, and that it was justified by the Bible. These arguments were often used to defend the institution of slavery and to resist calls for abolition.
One of the most common arguments used to justify slavery was the idea that God had ordained slavery and that it was a necessary part of the social order. Proponents of this view argued that the Bible contained passages that supported the idea of slavery, and that God had given human beings the right to own and control other human beings.
Other individuals and groups argued that slavery was a necessary part of the economic system, and that it was a way of providing a labor force to support the growth and prosperity of the nation. They claimed that slavery was a necessary evil that was needed to maintain the stability and prosperity of the country.
Despite these arguments, many individuals and groups in the United States opposed slavery and worked to end the institution. They argued that slavery was morally wrong and that it violated the principles of liberty and equality that were central to American democracy. They also pointed out that slavery was a violation of the natural rights of human beings, and that it was incompatible with the values of a free and just society.

Life for Enslaved Peoples

Conditions of slavery varied from one plantation to the next:
  • Some slaves were humanely treated, while others were routinely beaten. 
  • All suffered from being deprived of their freedom. 
  • Families could be separated at any time by an owners decision to sell a wife, husband or child. 
  • Women were vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
A majority of slaves lived on units of land owned by planters who had twenty or more slaves.  2.4% of slaves lived on very large plantations with more than 200 slaves. Few slaves lived in closed black communities. Instead they lived in close contact with their masters.
Masters would use physical and psychological means to make slaves docile and obedient. They tried to convince slaves that whites were superior and had a right to rule blacks. 
However, enslaved Africans and African Americans resisted these efforts and found ways to maintain their cultural traditions and identities. They often practiced their own religions and created secret societies and other organizations to promote their own interests. They also resisted slavery through various means, such as sabotage, running away, and participating in slave revolts. Some enslaved people were able to buy their freedom through manumission, while others African Americans were able to gain freedom through abolitionist efforts.

Early Attempts Against Slavery

Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his freedom, planned a revolt in 1822, known as the Vesey Slave Conspiracy. He aimed to seize Charleston, kill the governor, and burn the city.
Vesey and his followers planned to seize weapons and attack the city's armory, and then mobilize other enslaved Africans and free blacks to join in the rebellion. Before the plan could come to fruition, some slaves leaked the plot to their owners. Due to this, Vessey and several other conspirators were captured and brought to trial, where he eventually was hanged.
After the Vesey Slave Conspiracy was foiled, the state of South Carolina responded with increased repression and legislation targeting enslaved people and free African Americans. This included stricter slave codes, greater restrictions on the movement and assembly of enslaved people, and the creation of a special court to try enslaved people accused of crimes.
In addition, white citizens formed militias and vigilance committees to monitor and suppress potential slave uprisings.
While the Vesey Slave Conspiracy may have failed, it sparked a fear and resulted in harsher laws on the rights of slaves.
🎥 Watch: AP US History - Slavery and Southern Society

Life in the North

In the North, only 1% of the population was African Americans. Despite having freedom, it did not equal equality. They could not vote, and segregated areas separated them from the whites.
To deal with discrimination, African Americans started the first black-run Protestant church, African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was established as a response to the discrimination and segregation faced by African Americans in the Methodist Episcopal Church, which did not allow them to worship alongside white members. Most members refused to buy anything produced by slaves to protest against slavery.
David Walker, an African-American abolitionist, wrote Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, a radical abolitionist text that was published in the United States in 1829. In the text, Walker argued that slavery was a moral and legal evil, and he called on African Americans to rise up against their oppressors. Many Southern states banned it, but it still managed to be smuggled into those states.

Nat Turner’s Rebellion

Nat Turner, an enslaved Baptist preacher who believed he had been chosen by God to lead his people to freedom, launched the deadliest slave revolt in 1831.
Turner and a small group of followers launched the rebellion on August 21, 1831, by killing the family of his owner. They then moved from plantation to plantation, gathering more followers and killing any whites they encountered.
He and his allies killed 55 white people within a day, but the rebellion was eventually put down by local militia, who went as far as to kill about 30 African Americans without trials. About another 20 people would be tried and executed. Turner was hanged and many of his followers were also killed or imprisoned.
Although Turner was caught and arrested, the fear in the slaveholders and other southerners grew further, and they sought to find any other plans. This led to torture of the slaves, causing them to say lies for confessions.
In the aftermath of the rebellion, many white Southerners became even more committed to maintaining the institution of slavery and upholding the racial hierarchy that supported it. In Virginia and other states, there were calls for stricter laws regulating the behavior of enslaved people, and many African Americans were punished or killed for perceived resistance or disobedience.

Passive Resistance 

Only a tiny fraction of all slaves ever took part in organized acts of violent resistance. Most realized the odds of a successful revolt were quite low. As a result, they devised other ways to resist white dominance. Many slaves expressed discontent via indirect or passive resistance:
  • Slaves would work slowly or inefficiently to protest.
  • Some withheld labor by feigning illness or injury.
  • Some stole provisions. Theft from the master was not seen as a sin, but a way to get a larger share of the fruits of their labor. 
  • Slaves committed acts of sabotage with tools and agricultural implements
  • Animals were neglected or mistreated and barns were set on fire. 
  • The ultimate act of resistance was poisoning the masters food. 

Underground Railroad


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

The Underground Railroad consisted of people willing to help slaves run away to the North and Canada. They helped hundreds and hundreds of slaves escape from the South. The Railroad was not a physical railroad, but rather a series of interconnected paths that were used to transport people to freedom. It was called the "Underground Railroad" because it operated secretly and covertly, and it was run by a diverse group of abolitionists, including both black and white Americans.
Although it is estimated that not a lot of people were involved within the Underground Railroad, its effects greatly impacted the situation of many slaves.
Harriet Tubman, most well-known person in the Underground Railroad, helped over 300 slaves personally. Tubman was born into slavery in Maryland, but escaped to freedom in the North in 1849. She dedicated her life to helping others escape slavery, making over 13 dangerous trips back to the South to lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom.
Tubman was known for her bravery, intelligence, and resourcefulness, and she was widely admired by abolitionists and former slaves alike. In addition to her work on the Underground Railroad, Tubman also served as a nurse, scout, and spy during the Civil War, and was active in the women's suffrage movement after the war.
🎥 Watch: AP US History - Antebellum Politics
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