Between 1775 and 1830, in many places African Americans gained their freedom from slavery and in others, the institution of slavery expanded. Eventually, slavery became abundant in places where it was most necessary and died out in the places where it was of little use. In response, most free African Americans and enslaved African Americans took action against their maltreatment by petitions and willingness to fight. The first trend of declining slavery was visible from the first declared emancipation of slaves by Lord Dunmore in November of 1775.
By granting freedom to all slaves who would raise arms against the American rebels, Lord Dunmore hoped to bring more troops into his ranks in Virginia. This movement continued following the Revolutionary period and until the turn of the nineteenth century mostly because of democratic reasons and a less urgent need for slave labor. Direct products of the enlightenment, Revolutionaries often followed the beliefs of new thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. Their emphasis on basic human rights and personal liberties completely conflicted with the morality of slavery.
In addition, labor in the southern colonies to cultivate rice, indigo, and tobacco had leveled off, a trend evident by the 10,000 slaves who were freed in Virginia between 1782 and 1790. In fact, throughout the entire country, many states prohibited the importation of slaves and declared slavery unconstitutional—as Massachusetts did in 1783. Soon, problems did not involve the importation of slaves but rather were centered on the deportation of freed slaves! The American Colonization Society was established in 1817.
Their solution to the “Negro Problem” was to create a colony on coastal Africa to deport the growing number of freed slaves. In a letter to gain funding for this project, the Vermont division of the society justified their mission. In the early nineteenth century, just as the institution of slavery seemed to be nearing an end, black slave labor became vital again to the southern economy. Due to Eil Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793, upland cotton was able to thrive as an economical crop.
In addition, however, slave labor was needed to do the backbreaking work in the hot Southern sun and thus became more valuable than ever before. The map shows that in 1790, slaves consist of less than 10 percent of the population in most areas of the country, and as much as 50 percent in small sections on the Southern coast. However, by 1830 most of the Northern states were areas either without any slaves or less than 10 percent. In contrast, the majority of Southern states had a slave population between 10 and 50 percent.
This slave-populous area extended along the Southern coasts as well as deep into Kentucky and Tennessee. The changes in slave density between 1790 and 1830 directly relate to areas were slave labor was an economic necessity. African Americans in separate situations often shared similar opinions concerning slavery and freedom. Although many blacks, both freed and enslaved, were willing to speak out against slavery and petition their rights, they did so in varying degrees. In one instance, a slave politely requested that his owner grant him the right to purchase his freedom.
Another slave, Gabriel Prosser, took a more extreme approach to gaining his freedom. In fact, he led a rebellion against the white slaveholders in 1800. Even freed African Americans were maltreated. Both Prince Hall and Hosea Easton, Boston residents, protested the daily insults and abuse they endured—including women having their clothes ripped off in public and posters hung to display the “Negro deformity. ” Another freed African American went as far to demand voting rights in Massachusetts—in a 1780 petition, Paul Cuffe argued that the freed slaves are taxed yet they get no say or vote in the democratic government.
For the most part, both freed and enslaved African Americans responded to these challenges with varying degrees of objection. However, there are exceptions to this: in 1794, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, for example, thanked the whites who defended their cause. Despite a slight decline in slavery leading up to the 19th century, things took a drastic turn for slaves with the prosperity of cotton farming, which required a large work force.
Leading up until 1830, many African Americans spoke out in disapproval of slavery, maltreatment, and limited rights. In many ways, their actions were a response to the challenges they were faced with. However, their actions also served as a premonition for later events. As David Walker expressed in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World in 1829, if the African Americans continue to have their liberties refuted by those who suppress them with “wretchedness and misery,” eventually, they will have no choice but to use force to gain their freedom.