The American economy depended on slavery over a century before its independence from Britain in 1776. Beginning in the early 1600’s, the importation of slaves to the new world began in Jamestown Virginia, slowly replacing the poor, unemployed white laborers from Europe who came before them. African slaves not only built the American economy on their backs beginning in the 1600’s all the way into the mid 19th Century, they brought with them their work ethic, culture, music, art, and way of life. America’s rich culture today includes the music, food, art, dance, and lifestyle of African Americans who can trace their roots back to the slave trade as far back as the 1600’s from West Africa. African American culture is an extremely important piece of American culture, and without it, we wouldn’t enjoy things like jazz music, delicious food recipes, traditional dance and art, or African film.
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The fact is that African slaves provided the foundation of the early American economy, and not just in the South; the North benefited from the slave economy as well. The Industrial Revolution was sparked by inventions such as the steam engine and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which ultimately led to the lucrative “King Cotton” industry boom in the South, which fueled the increased demand for land and slaves. Due to the increased demand of cotton, Northern manufacturers and shipping companies benefited immensely from the upswing of the Southern economy, which was mostly supported by the blood, sweat, and tears of slave labor. Slavery was irrevocably tied not only to the Southern agrarian economy, but also to the rise of international economic power in Antebellum America. Slaves contributed much more than just labor to the American economy centuries ago, they have changed the face of United States history and culture we enjoy today.
One of the earliest and most recognized aspects of African slave culture that contributed to American History is Jazz music. Jazz, blues, and ragtime music can all trace their roots back to call and response African slave songs from the hard labor fields in the American South. A typical workday for an average slave was brutal, especially during the years prior to 1740, after some States passed laws that limited slaves work no more than 15 hours a day, and also prevented slaves work on Sundays. Along with long workdays, many slaves endured physical and emotional cruelty in addition to be considered property of their white masters. According to historian Kenneth Stampp in Peculiar Institution, a typical slave master would strive to maintain the ideal slave population utilizing five recurring themes. First, he would require strict discipline and unconditional submission. Second, he would create an atmosphere of personal inferiority so that slaves understood “their place.” Third, the slave master would instill fear. This could be accomplished by physical brutality of the slaves themselves, or controlling the slaves by threatening to separate their family. Fourth, he would attempt to teach or coerce the slaves to take interest in their Master’s enterprise, sometimes enticing this belief or behavior by a reward system. Fifth and finally, slave masters were strict in preventing any kind of access to education or recreation, to ensure that slaves remain uneducated, helpless, and dependent.
In 1808 when the International slave trade was officially banned, the Domestic slave trade in America became a major economic enterprise beginning from 1815 lasting until 1860. Throughout the early decades of the 19th Century, Northern economic interests changed from small farming communities to industrialized mills, shipping, and transportation that utilized more poor skilled European immigrants then American slaves. Beginning in 1711, Wall Street in New York City became a popular slave trading market, implementing taxes on anyone who bought or sold slaves there. This was the beginning of the massive forced migration of slave populations that caused much hardship to families who were broken up and separated, sometimes forever. Slaves in all areas of the United States during this time constantly lived in fear of these forced migrations where their family could be torn apart and sold separately, creating yet another way that slave masters and owners could gain absolute submission from their slave populations. Slave populations, especially on large Southern plantations using slave masters, were subject to many forms of punishment for disobedience, failure to meet production quotas, or simply as a way to “motivate” slaves in the field to work more efficiently. Forms of punishment included shackling, whipping, hanging, branding, mutilation, and burning. Multiple records from slave auctions by the mid 1800’s report accounts of “noticeable scars and marks on the backs of approximately three quarters of the male slaves bought and sold at auction.” In contrast however, the lives of slaves in some cases in the small southern farming communities were reported to have had better working conditions and treatment. This was mostly attributed to the fact that slave owners themselves ran the operation, and had a much more intimate working relationship with their slave families.
Slave life in the fields of plantations in the agrarian American South was extremely demanding and tough, therefore, slave music culture began in the early 1800’s when “call and response” chanting began as a way to express sorrow through song. Historian Alma Watkins wrote, “The African Negro’s talent for music is not racial but social, and the two characteristics synonymous with jazz music are syncopation and polyrhythms, in which its raw form originated in the African slave trade to America.” All possessions, sense of personal identity, education opportunities, and every other humane form of individuality was stripped of slaves in America during this time period. Their only ability to express themselves was through song and music in the fields in which they worked and toiled, day in and day out, and through the years and generations of slaves and African Americans that came after them, and new genre of music was formed. Slave masters tolerated this type of oral expression and call and response style singing by slaves because it was widely believed to have increased work productivity in the fields. During this time, call and response style musical expressions by slaves in the fields inadvertently progressed into harmonized polyrhythms and syncopation, which is still the root of many blues and jazz music pieces today. From as early on as the arrival of African slaves to the coast of America in the 1600’s, oral expressions through music was the only way slave culture could be passed down through the generations and survive the brutal centuries of freedom-less Life.
African dance, like the call and response music, came to America via the African slave trade predominately in the 18th and early 19th Centuries bringing slaves from the Congo and West Africa regions. Many traditional African dances and musical instruments were reconstructed during the period of slavery in America. Musical instruments such as the banjo and the drum have ancestral roots in West Africa. These forms of instruments and dance were passed on through slave family generations, where music was the only permitted form of expression to preserve their culture during this time.
(Traditional African Banjo from the 19th Century found in South Carolina)
(Parts of the simple African Banjo from the 19th Century)
The economics in the United States would forever be changed due to the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and its impact throughout the North and South alike. The permanent transition to a true Capitalist economy in the United States through the 19th and 20th Centuries can be partly contributed to the economic boost that slavery provided to the Country during those times. Great debate still exists between Economic Historians regarding the efficiency of slave labor more predominantly used in the South, versus Free Labor utilized mostly in the Northern cities during the boom of the Industrial Revolution. A slight margin through consensus leads to the fact that Southern Economy specifically, benefited greatly through slave labor during the Century in which the invention of the Cotton Gin boosted the lucrative business. However, through the same margin, historians in the 21st Century predominantly agree that the institution of slavery had an incredible lasting effect on the American economy, even in parts of the South in which three quarters of farmers owned no slaves at all. On the backs of slaves working in the lucrative cotton industry boom of the 19th Century, America became one of the strongest International Economies in the World within the span of 50 years; which in turn effected the whole Country’s profitability, not just the Southern agrarian market.
Many modern Economic historians argue that the Western Capitalism we know today would not have been the same without slavery, and the United States wouldn’t be the economic giant it is today. The Capitalism we have established today was born from the blood, sweat, and tears of slavery, and the whole of America benefitted from the Institution. Beckert and Rockman point out in Slavery’s Capitalism that “Cotton offered a reason for entrepreneurs and inventors to build manufactories in such places as Lowell, Pawtucket, and Paterson, thereby connecting New England’s Industrial Revolution to the advancing plantation frontier of the Deep South. And financing cotton growing, as well as marketing and transporting the crop, was a source of great wealth for the nation’s merchants and banks.” One could argue that slavery wasn’t born from Capitalism, but the modern Capitalism we have today was the product of slavery. It is almost undisputable then, to separate the role that the institution of slavery played in the rise of the prosperous American Economy. Slavery in America is irrevocably imprinted in the DNA of the Capitalist economy of the United States.
In conclusion, the fledgling American economy changed forever in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney. In the years that followed, immense undeniable American economic growth followed, as King Cotton provided the Country with a new source of exported wealth. All parts of America benefited from the cotton exportation boom, therefore, economic growth was not isolated solely in the Southern agricultural States. Northern industry benefited by the increase of mill production, transportation, and shipping of the cotton crop overseas. New Western territories benefited from the sudden expansion and settlements of cotton growers who required more slaves and land to increase cotton production. Although historians still debate and continue to research the tangible lasting effect that the institution of slavery had on the American Economy, it is undeniable that slavery had a lasting and tremendous effect on Western Capitalism today.
Slave culture brought much more to the United States then just financial wealth and prosperity from the 17th through the 19th Centuries however. We can contribute a whole sub-culture of cuisine, music, dance, art, and even language to the African-American population in the United States today, many of who can trace their ethnic roots back to the African slave trade beginning in the 17th Century through the antebellum period. Jazz, rhythm and blues, and ragtime music can all trace their roots back to traditional African music that was brought to America with the slave trade beginning in the early 17th Century. Throughout the generations, traditional African music was transformed and resurrected in the form of call and response style singing in the fields by slaves, as a way to pass the long, hard days of labor. This was also one of the only ways that slaves could preserve their African culture and roots, as every other single form of property, possession, personal identity or form of expression was prohibited.
Slavery in America is often looked upon as a blunder in history, a period of personal enslavement in which a civil war was fought to emancipate not only the slaves, but the Country’s practice of slavery once and for all. However, America did not burst into civil war solely due to slavery issue, and the United States would not be the Country it is today with the absence of the institution of slavery, both culturally and economically. Economically, American Capitalism was born off the backs of slave picked cotton, and the whole of the country benefitted from slavery, whether they outwardly supported the practice or not. Culturally, America is a richer Country for the existence of jazz music, African cuisine, dance, and art. Jazz music alone has inspired a myriad of other musical art forms and genres around the planet, and any music lover could not imagine a world absent of the smooth sound of the saxophone and Coltrane inspired lyrics.
Beckert, Sven, and Rockman, Seth. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of America’s Economic Development. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves. (New York: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Blassingame, Douglas A. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. (London: South Oxford University Press, 1979).
Campbell, James T. Songs of Zion. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989).
Levine, Bruce. Half Free and Half Slave: The Roots of the Civil War. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992).
Levine, Lawrence W. “Jazz and American Culture.” The Journal of American Folklore. 102, no. 403, 1989, pp. 6-22.
Schermerhorn, Calvin. The business of slavery and the rise of American capitalism, 1815-1860. (New York: Yale University Press, 1995).
Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).
Stampp, Kenneth M. Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1984).
Watkins, Alma T. “The Roots of Jazz.” Phylon (1940-1956), vol. 13, no. 2, 1952, pp. 146-160.
 Bruce Levine. Half Free and Half Slave: The Roots of the Civil War. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992), 38.
 Eugene D. Genovese. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 14.
 Alma T. Watkins. “The Roots of Jazz.” Phylon (1940-1956), vol. 13, no. 2, 1952, 148.
 Kenneth M. Stampp. Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South, (New York: Vintage Books, 1984), 142.
 Ibid, 147.
 Ira Berlin. Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves. (New York: Harvard University Press, 1998), 36.
 Ibid, 161.
 Douglas A. Blassingame. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. (London: South Oxford University Press, 1979), 59.
 Ibid, 82.
 Ira Berlin. Generations of Captivity, 158.
 Ibid, 162.
 Alma T. Watkins, “The Roots of Jazz,” 153.
 Ibid, 158.
 Gunther Schuller. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 274.
 Ibid, 327.
 Alma T. Watkins, “The Roots of Jazz,” 160.
 James T. Campbell. Songs of Zion. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 74.
 Ibid, 108.
 Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz, 302.
 Ibid, 303.
 Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of America’s Economic Development. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 7.
 Calvin Schermerhorn. The business of slavery and the rise of American capitalism, 1815-1860. (New York: Yale University Press, 1995), 194.
 Ibid, 209.
 Beckert and Rockman, Slavery’s Capitalism, 9
 Calvin Schermerhorn. The business of slavery, 294.
 Beckert and Rockman, Slavery’s Capitalism, 11.
 Ibid, 58.
 Kenneth M. Stampp, Peculiar Institution, 274.
 Ibid, 291.
 Bruce Levine. Half Free and Half Slave, 128.
 Alma T. Watkins, “The Roots of Jazz,” 160.
 James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion, 107.