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How Long Did American Slavery Last?

American slavery lasted approximately 89 years, from the founding of the US in 1776 until the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865. However, before the US became an official country in 1776, slavery was legal and present on the land because the British allowed slavery in the colonies. Therefore, slavery lasted essentially 246 years if one includes the arrival of the first slaves in 1619. Slavery in America was an international effort that was based on chattel slavery. Many have argued that American slavery has not been officially ended due to the exceptions in the 13th Amendment. 

What is American Slavery?

American slavery is the enslavement of individuals of African descent that involved chattel slavery. Chattel slavery is a unique form of slavery where enslaved individuals were considered personal property. Similar to real estate or farm animals, slaves could be bought and sold at an auction or market. These individuals had no legal rights, confirmed by the Dred Scott decision when the US Supreme Court stated, “The black man has no rights which the white man must respect.” 

American slavery became concentrated on individuals of African descent. In addition, the children of slaves were considered slaves as well. In the US, “slavery and freedom are irreconcilable opposites,” according to the book American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan.

When Did Slavery Begin in the United States?

Slavery began in the US in 1776 when the US officially became a country, however, enslaved individuals had been on the land since 1619. 1619 is marked as the first record of slaves arriving when John Rolfe wrote “20 and odd negroes” arrived in Virginia, a then British colony.

When Did Slavery Actually End in the US?

Slavery actually ended in the US in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment states, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 

Many people incorrectly believe Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the US. However, it only abolished slavery in the Confederate States, and the 13th Amendment was needed to actually end slavery.

Why Did Slavery Last So Long in the United States?

Slavery lasted so long in the United States because it was very profitable. The institution of slavery made cotton a major US export, and it was so profitable that the cotton exchange was created in New York City and still exists today. Never having to pay individuals for their services and work will help ensure that profit is created and maintained. Once slavery ended, the system of sharecropping proliferated which created conditions where individuals still essentially worked for free.

Does Slavery Still Exist in America?

Many prison reform activists argue that slavery still exists in the US because according to the 13th Amendment, an individual may be a slave if they are convicted of a crime. Companies profit off prisoners who work for free or for extremely reduced rates.


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