Slavery in America: 9 Myths Debunked
America’s darkest times in history – the centuries of slavery – are so contentious that they often get muddled in a sea of myths. For example, just 8% of high school seniors think that slavery was the major cause of the Civil War, according to the Washington Post. Clearly one would have expected that the numbers were higher considering the fact slavery was undoubtedly the biggest reason why Southern states seceded in droves following President Abe’s election in 1860.
The above sorts of revisionist history and myths are harmful, especially when they are shared so repeatedly online. It is certainly important that the myths be dispelled in order to have a fruitful conversation of America’s darkest period ever. The reason being that such honest discussions provide for greater understanding of complex underlining factors behind the huge wealth gap and racism we see among races today.
Backed by unanimous scholarship and overwhelming evidence, Worldhistoryedu.com exposes the truth and facts buried deep in 9 commonly held myths about slavery in America.
Myth #1 – Slave trade and ownership were the preserve of men
The brutalities associated with slavery in America make it inconceivable that women would generally want to engage in such a venture. Well, you might hold this notion until it dawns on you that enslaved people were indeed assets or properties between 1600s and 1800s. And as with any asset or possession, gender rarely exempts ownership, particularly those with economic value as that of slave.
The portrayal of women as innocent bystanders or members of the household who stood aloof and watched their male counterparts enslave another human being is completely false. Women back then were far from Southern belle or angels; they actively partook in the trade and ownership of enslaved people. Some slaves were bought as birthday gifts for little girls and newly married women. Women were also competitive in the bidding wars for slaves at auctions. Not only were they confined to supervision of slaves in house, some women managed large operations on the cotton plantations, severely punishing any slave that stepped out of line.
Considering the fact that slaves were properties under the law, women could also sue their family members in court for greater access or ownership of chattels on the farm.
Myth #2 – The Irish were enslaved in America
It is not uncommon to hear in many circles that the Irish were slaves in America. According to many historians, this assertion is completely false. At no point in time were the Irish treated as chattel or human “properties” in America. As a matter of fact, there is no evidence in the colonies or even early colonies to back this myth. The Irish that had traveled across the Atlantic did so on their own volition. They were not kidnapped; neither were they bought as property. There were no sorts of forced labor and perpetual/life-time services rendered by the Irish in America.
The question that begs is: Where did this particular myth about Irish being slaves in America come from? According to historians such as Liam Hogan, this myth was a propaganda designed by Irish nationalists in order to advance their ideology of white supremacy.
This myth was fueled further in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the South gave Irish laborers obscene terms such as “white slaves”. The South used those terms in order to tag the North as perpetuating their version of slavery in the form of Irish slavery. They also went on to say that the “Irish slaves” and immigrant workers in the North lived in conditions far worse than the African slaves in the South.
Fact: The Irish were at worst indentured servants who moved to the colonies in North America. There was indeed a lot of exploitation back then; heck, it was the 1600s and 1700s, no one really expects decent labor conditions. However, the important thing here is that, the Irish subscribed to it; it was all done willingly.
During the formative years of the British colonies in the Americas, there were some criminals and social misfits shipped from Europe to the Americas to do hard labor until their terms were served. Those men and women were far from chattel; they were able to work to secure their freedom eventually. Their punishments were not as severe as the slaves. And the most important fact: They were still subjects of the British crown and as such had rights. The crimes of the indentured workers could not be passed on to their children, meaning it was not hereditary.
Read More: How Slavery Began In the Americas
Myth #3 –The American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery
As stated earlier, only 8% of high school seniors in America think that slavery was the major cause of the American Civil War (1861-1865). For years, many believed that the Civil War was mainly triggered by the issue of states’ rights.
This myth is perhaps the greatest myth about slavery in America. The founders of the Confederacy definitely did not secede from the Union mainly because the union denied them their state rights. As it was seen in many of the official declarations of secession (in December 1860) by the Southern states, the South bemoaned the North’s hostilities and efforts to undermine what they saw as their cherished institution of slavery.
The South was particularly aggrieved by the North’s refusal to return runaway slaves from the South, believing that it went against the Constitution and the various compromise acts of the 1850s. The South also wanted the North to clamp down on abolitionists – radical ones for that matter – in places like New England. Southern politicians were also irritated by the Northern states for allowing some African Americans to vote.
It is interesting that the South made the above arguments, considering the fact that the South was a “champion” of states’ rights. So the question that begs is: why was the South so much interested in the affairs of North? Weren’t the North allowed to run the internal affairs of their states?
The South’s claim of states’ rights being denied them doesn’t hold. One can conclude that it was the Southerners rather who wanted to strip away the states’ rights of Non-slaveholding North.
Source of myth: Post the Civil War, younger generations tried to make the Confederate leaders and their legacy look palatable by disinforming the country with the myth of states’ rights being the most important trigger of the Civil War
Myth #4 – Slavery was confined to the South
The South is usually the poster boy for enslaved African Americans toiling on vast acres of cotton plantations. Rarely does the North get associated with slavery. It turns out that slavery did indeed take place across our nation. Hence the North was not a saint in this matter. To be fair to the North, however, slavery was not as endemic as the scenes in the South.
Northerners argued that they held no slaves; however, the kind of working conditions for blacks in some Northern states were anything but humane. Regardless of the term “Free Labor System” the North gave theirs, it is an indisputable fact that the North depended heavily on them.
Additionally, the North benefited enormously from the institution of slavery in the South. Serving as the nation’s upstream supply chain, many Northern businessmen and industrialists had sizable investments in cotton plantations in the South, which in turn fueled the various industries in the North. The North might not be as culpable as the South, but they were definitely far from being saints, as their actions (and/or inactions), in one way or the other, aided the perpetuation of slavery in our country for very long periods of time.
Myth #5 –Only the elite in the South owned slaves
This fifth myth about slavery in America is a very interesting one. After the Civil War, the South kept insisting that only a small portion of the South’s population owned slaves. Minuscule or not, clearly it is wrong for one human to treat his fellow man like chattel. That aside, the myth that the slaveholders in the South were some sort of rogue elements who did not represent the culture of the South is completely false.
This false claim goes on to say that only large plantation owners could afford slaves. However, the data from census taken just prior to Civil War show that about 30% of white families owned slaves. In some states (i.e. South Carolina and Mississippi), the percentage of slaveholding families were between 45-50%. What it means is that, close to a majority of Southerners clearly condoned slavery. And those that didn’t own slaves perhaps could not afford it.
And assuming a Southerner had the means to do so, it is most likely that he/she would have gone straight to the slave market to buy himself/herself the best slave among the lot. Owning a slave in the South came with some level of prestige.
Had a survey been conducted in the South back then to find out the extent to which Southerners aspired to get themselves the finest and most prolific slave, we can bet our last dollar that majority would all have answered in a positive manner. Such a survey would be comparable to asking a 21st century American whether he or she desired a private jet.
Although, many of the soldiers who fought and died for the Confederacy owned no slaves (because they had no means of buying one in the first place) did so with the sole intention of preserving their slave-holding culture.
Myth #6 – Slaves who served as domestic helps had it good
One would not be faulted to think that enslaved house helps had it easier than those who worked on the fields. It seems pretty obvious. And it was a notion that one of history’s most significant personalities, Malcolm X (1925-1965), even took in the 1960s. Sadly, Malcolm X and all those who hold this view are misinformed.
First of all, no slave anywhere, or at any point in history, had it “easy”. Second, the ordeal enslaved domestic house slaves went through was most likely severer than those on the field. The domestic slave workers did not live in comfort, neither were they given less severe punishments.
Besides, enslaved people did not remain permanently on one job all their lives. In their youth, they toiled and broke their backs on the field. And in their old age, they toiled and broke their backs in the kitchens. As a matter of fact, domestic helps were more exposed to severer forms of sexual, psychological and emotional abuse than those on the fields.
Myth #7 – The Union’s motive for fighting was to free the slaves
Just as the South cannot claim that the primary cause of the Civil War was states’ rights, the Union cannot claim that it took up arms to free the slaves in the South.
The Union had for at least half a century tolerated the South and its slave-holding culture. Between 1818 and 1860, the two sides struck several compromise deals (many of them brokered by renowned Senator Henry Clay). It seems highly unlikely or improbable that in 1861, the North would have suddenly come to the realization that a group of enslaved race ought to be freed. As a matter of fact, the Union’s famed leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, were willing to keep things as they were so long as the South did not spread its slave-holding culture into the North.
Delivering enslaved Blacks in the South from the clutches of their white masters was perhaps the last thing that crossed Lincoln’s mind when he won the 1860 presidential election.
Had the South not been too paranoid and fearful of what Lincoln might or might not have done, perhaps the Civil War wouldn’t have occurred.
Lincoln’s sole goal was to preserve the Union at all cost. Had those Southern states not seceded, we could say it would have been business as usual for the slave holders and merchants.
To be fair to Abe, he did personally detest slavery. But like a couple of presidents before him that had a personal aversion towards slavery, Lincoln would most likely have not pressured the South that much to end slavery, thus had the South kept their cool and not seceded.
Another point worth mentioning is that, the North’s political and military commanders incorporated fleeing slaves from the South into the Union’s army simply because they wanted to deprive the South of men to fight for their twisted aspiration.
Sending the slaves back to the South would most likely have given the South more men to advance the cause of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Some scholars have argued that the primary beneficiary of the Emancipation Proclamation declared in 1863 was the Union itself. It makes a whole lot of sense when one looks at it critically. By emancipating all slaves in the country, Lincoln “inadvertently” won the favor of millions of slaves in the South. It also encouraged enslaved people to flee in droves to the North. Once in the North, they needed little or no convincing to take up arms and fight for the very people who freed them. There was no bigger motivation for a freed slave fighting in the Union army than the sight of his former masters and oppressor (i.e. the South) dying at his or her hands.
Myth #8 –Blacks in the South were enthusiastic about defending the South
First of all, who in his right senses will aid someone who for centuries inflicted unimaginable torture and abuse on him? Even the strongest effects of the Stockholm Syndrome would not have made any Black man or woman voluntarily fight on behalf of their Southern masters.
Hence the claim that Black soldiers, both slaves and free men, supported the Confederacy is completely false. Such a claim belongs in the myth section of history, along with myths about the Greek god Zeus throwing lightning bolts from his hands.
Perhaps the only Black that supported the perpetuation of slavery in America were the ones that benefited from the horrible practice. It’s been known for quite some time now that some wealthy Black businessmen and businesswomen did indeed own their fellow race as slaves. Therefore it is not inconceivable to think that some of those Black businessmen might have supported the South’s cause in the Civil War. But then again, those people made up a minuscule fraction of a fraction of the Black population in the South.
Source of the myth: The Southerners used this falsity to boost their standing in the North. It made the North look like they were trying to free a group of people, who themselves were content with their status and conditions in the South. Interestingly enough, their propaganda did manage to convince a few Northerners into thinking like that. “Why fight and die for someone who did not want to be free in the free?”, some Northerners might have asked. There was also this bit of sentiment among some Northerners that the North’s disapproval of slavery in the South was misplaced because the enslaved people wouldn’t known a thing about how to live a “meaningful” life should they be freed.
Further reinforcing the above assertion was sighting of Black soldiers fighting in the Confederate army. However, the question that one should be asking is that: would those Black soldiers have been in the front lines there on their own volition? It is not as if they had ever known anything as freedom or free will in the entirety of their lives. Many of those Black soldiers slaved tirelessly for Confederate soldiers as the Civil War raged on.
Had it not been for an 1865 policy passed by the Confederate leaders, some Confederate commanders (for example, General Patrick Cleburne) were willing to enlist African Americans in the South in the Confederate army. That would have been the equivalent of giving your captive weapons to defend you. Obviously, we know the first person he or she would turn those weapons against.
Interestingly, when push came to shove, the Confederate soldiers did indeed enlist enslaved people in order to shore up their forces. However, this was at the dying end of the Civil War; and to this day, there exist no concrete evidence that enslaved African Americans fought for the Confederacy.
In any case, the above shows the level some Southern leaders would have stooped to preserve their slave-holding culture.
Myth #9 – The First Africans arrived on the shores of America in the year 1619
2019 was big year for the world considering the generally held view that it marked 400 years since the first Africans arrived in America. Many history books and scholars concur to this. Reputable organizations such as the Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution all agree that 1619 was indeed the year slavery began.
It turns out that this date is about hundred years off. According to the Washington Post, the first Africans arrived in early 1500s, along with their Spanish and Portuguese captors. As a counter argument, some historians state that those Africans were not enslaved and were most likely members of the ship’s crew. They make mention of the famous African “conquistadors” Estevancio, who many believe toured the southeastern part of the country in the 1500s.
Other facts about slavery in America
Away from the myths surrounding slavery in America, here a few very important facts about the pervasive rot that ate into the moral fabric of America for several centuries:
- America was not the first to have slaves. Slavery is indeed as old as time; from the ancient Mesopotamians to the ancient Romans and even to modern-day versions of human trafficking, slavery has been with us since the dawn of mankind.
- Slavery did not immediately end in America after the end of the Civil War. Unbeknownst to many people, slavery in the country only ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment – on December 18, 1865. What this means is that supposed the year 1619 is seen as the year slavery began, then America is reasoned to have perpetrated slavery for 246 years, and not 400 years.
- Not all Southerners owned slaves. First of all, not all Southerners had the means to buy a slave. This is a pretty obvious fact.
- American slavery happened and it happened just about a century and half ago. It means African Americans have tasted freedom for just about 150 years. A 60-year-old Black man in the U.S. is a few generations away from his enslaved ancestors.