Peter Kolchin’s “American Slavery: Origins and Consolidation” Essay

Peter Kolchin’s book entitled, “American Slavery: Origins and Consolidation” discusses the problems and the evolution of slavery in the United States of America. The opening sentence of his first chapter is indeed quite interesting. According to him, Americans have this wrong perception that the U.S. is “conceived with liberty” because the reality is that, the so-called “New world” tolerates slavery.

Kolchin believes that African slaves, more importantly, should not be treated by the Americans as inferior individuals but rather be grateful to them.

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One of the greatest sources of income actually came from the continuous importation of African slaves to the U.S. Because of the increasing number of slaves in the country during the early 16th-17th century, coercion in their labor actually provided for the country’s foundation of agriculture. He further believes that, slavery became widely accepted in the U.

S. because of two factors namely, religious and economic.

The concept of slavery as a labor system in the U.S. was patterned after the imperialistic attempts of European countries. The emergence of this kind of system is brought by the shortage in workers, especially in the agricultural aspects. A big number of workers are needed by the rich landowners during the harvest season in order for them to meet the existing demands of the market. Because of this, Africans were being imported to become farm workers. The more laborers that they have, the greater is the production, and therefore the greater is the possibility of an economic growth since there has been demands made in both international and local market, which is very apparent today in the U.S. (Kolchin, p.5)

The second factor deals with religion. Since slaves are considered as subordinates to their masters, everything that the master will tell them, the slave will follow, including their master’s religion (which is mostly Christianity as Kolchim discussed). Unlike their masters who have religious backgrounds in the form of doctrines and teachings, the slaves do not have. Because of this, the slaves settled in potion-makings, superstitious beliefs, and the like. However, by being introduced to Christianity, they became more civilized and at least, knowledgeable because they already follow “legal rituals.”

Surprisingly, the Christian bible tolerates the presentation of stories depicting slavery. For instance, the bible suggests that God blessed and protected the Christians while the non-Christians were punished and viewed as slaves, serving their Christian masters in building religious temples or religious images. In general, slavery in the United States of America has evolved throughout the years. In fact, two historical periods sought to explain this evolution. One is the colonial era wherein slaves were still powerless and submissive individuals, and the other is during the period of antebellum.

During this period, there were calls and proposals to the slave-owners to treat their subordinates as humans, providing them with their basic needs (Kolchin, p. 28) I do agree that Kolchin has a basis in saying that economy and religion are the factors why slavery was accepted in U.S. because his arguments are very apparent. If we are to trace back history, the rich American landowners, there are a number of them who became the country’s chief executives, hired African slaves to attend to their agricultural business. In fact, he was quoted in his book saying “[slavery] helped propel the economic transformation of the leading colonial powers.” (Kolchin, p.5)

Meanwhile, in terms of religion, many of the country’s leaders are Christians. As such, they follow the bible. A passage from the Book of Genesis 9:25 which states that, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers,” Christian believers are quick to say that this passage is the cornerstone of the belief that God made the blacks suffer from slavery (Kolchin, p.145).

The most important new information that I discovered about America’s history is the irony of former President Thomas Jefferson. While he announced that “all men are created equal” during his declaration of Independence, he was a large-scale slave owner himself. Apart from that, his all men are created equal contradicts his racist remark when he said that black’s “depravity” is caused by their slave status, and more offensively, the distinct nature of their innate characteristic (Kolchin, p.88).

The reason why I considered it also as an important learning for me is because the African slaves suffered too much pain, physically and emotionally, under the Americans’ hands. Even former Presidents have their own share of taking advantage of these “blacks” despite their call of equality.

African slavery will always be a part of American history. As such, this article further strengthens Kolchin’s arguments that slavery was caused by both economic and religious factors. The Americans, thinking that they are superior individuals, took advantage of the Africans. They used their power in order to force these Africans to work doubly hard and in case the slave masters were not satisfied, they will maltreat them.

Meanwhile, the Americans use their influence in religion to further manipulate not only the actions of the slaves but more importantly, their way of thinking also. However, despite the influence of the Americans, it is not still safe to conclude that African slaves were “Americanized.” In fact, even if Americans do influence their thinking, they are still “Africans” themselves. It’s just that, Africans were exposed to two different cultures.

Kolchin,P. Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom. Harvard University Press, April 1987.

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