Position of Free Blacks and Slaves Compared

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Racial prejudices constituted the basis for the emergence of the institution of slavery from which people with black skin suffered a lot. Still, the history of American slavery has shown that skin color did not always mean the same: though all the blacks were subjected to the same perception in the white man’s eye, the free blacks were better positioned compared to the slaves. Although both belonged to the same category of race, they were still different in several aspects, which distinguished them from the slaves who undoubtedly shared a worse position than the free blacks did.

The current paper focuses on these aspects and explores the differences and similarities between the free blacks and the slaves. Compared to the slave’s free blacks had more benefits, the paper will consider them. Free blacks, for instance, we’re in a position to move up through the status ladder utilizing education and could acquire land. Slaves on the other hand were not entitled to anything; they were not paid for their work. Their condition was very saddening.

The black slaves were nobodies and their status was the lowest in the society. [1] A slave was reduced from a person to a thing, having no legitimate will of its own and belonging bodily to its owner. As with any other kind of property a slave could be bought and sold. Being animate property a slave could be compelled to work (“He must be made to work, and should always be given to understand that if he fails to perform his duty he will be punished for it.” [2]) and his children belonged absolutely to the master.

The slave status and condition has been a purely social construction – that of a social isolate, an outsider, a person without kin, a person subject to the complete and arbitrary authority of the master, a person who could be whipped or tortured or sexually abused, a piece of property, and, by the foregoing, an instrument. [3]

Therefore, a slave was regarded as a domestic animal; he was an item of wealth, a beast of burden, and a creature requiring constant control and command. [4]

The free blacks could not vote and were restricted from intermarriage with the whites. Marrying a white was not even spoken of since the blacks were not empowered to stand equal with the status of the whites. Anyone who married free was to live according to the rules that restricted the blacks of their rights within their borders i.e. on migration and taxation. Both the free blacks and slaves were treated with contempt and indignation. In 1892, a 30-year-old shoemaker refused to sit in the “colored” car of the East Louisiana Railroad. His refusal brought the weight of Louisiana’s Separate Car Act – The 1890 Act that stated that white and black people should have been provided separate places to sit while journeying – upon him. [5]

The facts of the kind imply that whether free or not, all blacks had no right to experience the freedom to the fullest extent. They were always treated by their owners as people of the second source. To be treated as a first-grade citizen was out of the question. The free blacks were denied social and legal equality with whites. The slaves had no rights and no laws to protect them. Thus, this united the free blacks and the slaves.

The slaves could go nowhere to seek justice. The free blacks were denied citizenship. They were not even allowed to travel with the whites. They could not stay in the same territory as the whites. They were supposed to live in a separate locality and stay away from the whites as far away as possible. The slaves did not have a chance to rise the ladder of progress. The northern treatment of the blacks was parallel to the southern in this issue. Both the free blacks and the slaves were doomed to degradation.

Generally, the blacks experienced a decrease in social, economical, political, and legal issues. The blacks were neither protected by the constitution nor had the right to voice their problems in the Supreme Court. The slaves worked under harsh labor conditions. They spent nights on floors or even outside. They did not have fresh air and light. They were never provided with proper meals but were always expected to be fully efficient while working. One observer, describing living conditions that slaves experienced while working in the construction of the Manchester and Wilmington Railroad, wrote:

The railroad hands sleep in miserable shanties along the line. Their bed is an inclined pine board — nothing better, softer, or warmer… Their covering is a blanket. The fireplaces in these cabins are often so clumsily constructed that all the heat ascends the chimney… as the negroes are not released from their work until sunset, and as, after coming to their cabins, they have to cook their ash-cakes or mush, or dumplings, these huts are by no means remarkable for their cleanly appearance. [6]

Under these conditions, only the strongest slaves could survive.

From 1654 until 1865, slavery was considered legal in the United States of America. [7] The US wealth increased due to the hard labor of the slaves who worked for their masters day and night. 12 million black Africans were taken to the US; some of them were later shipped to Brazil. [8] By the end of every year, their number increased tremendously at whatever place they were sent to. Since the beginning of slavery in America, the population of blacks rose from a few hundred to many thousands.

They were not provided the necessities to survive. As a result, the death rate increased and the necessity to import more Africans as slaves emerged. Not only Africans but people from many other countries were bought to work as slaves for the whites. These slaves were supposed to work on the farms. They grew indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton among which cotton was the major crop.

The imported slaves were separated from their families for an infinitely long period. States like Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi received the maximum number of slaves for the period from 1790 to 1860. About 1,000,000 slaves, were moved from one place to another. [9] The statistics are not complete as probably even more slaves were made to leave their homes and families to join the slave force at places far away from their motherland. The slave trade industry developed its unique language with terms such as: “prime hands, bucks, breeding wenches, and fancy girls” coming into common use. [10]

The farms and other places where the slaves worked were contaminated; the slaves suffered from various diseases and were not provided with any kind of medical services. Due to the lack of vaccines and medicines, the slaves often died. They had to work all day long for their masters and did not have time to think of their well-being.

The life of both slaves and free blacks was regulated by the Black Codes, special slave patrol groups organized by the white population monitored escapees, sometimes resorting to the cruelest punishment like killing them. The wives of the slaves were physically abused. They were often raped and beaten by the owner, his family members, and friends. The illegitimate children born after the abuse became slaves and started serving the whites from an early age.

The first slave owner to have been executed by the government for murdering his slave was Arthur William Hodge. He treated a negro slave with such inhumanity that even his peers were frightened. For that, he was hanged for all slave owners to understand that slaves could not be treated with such depravity. [11] Several white men more were hanged by the government for the murder of their slaves. This happened in the years 1739, 1775, and 1811.

Talking about women specifically, they were supposed to be working on the same terms as men. Generally: “Black in a white society, a slave in a free society, a woman in a society ruled by men, female slaves had the least formal power and were perhaps, the most vulnerable group of antebellum Americans.” [12] In the better case women who were past the stage of bearing children were supposed to cook for the owner and his family and at the same time for the slaves. Also, they used to stitch clothes for the owner and his people. Later on, the movement for better conditions for women began its activity.

In the year 1750, the white population realized that the idea of the slave trade is a social evil. The progressive thinkers decided to put an end to slavery. Emancipation acts were passed from the year 1780 and 1804. Soldier slaves were liberated as a reward for their services, and many new voices spoke out against slavery. Manumission societies sprang up all over the country, and some of them achieved remarkable success. Even before the surrender at Yorktown, the states had begun their countdown against slavery.

In 1780 Pennsylvania provided for the gradual abolition of slavery. By 1783 Massachusetts had abolished slavery. In the following year, Connecticut and Rhode Island passed acts that abolished slavery gradually. Manumission acts were passed in New York in 1785 and New Jersey in 1786, although effective legislation was not achieved in those states until 1799 and 1804 respectively. More free states were provided for by the Ordinance of 1787, which excluded slavery from the Northwest Territory. [13]

There existed different movements that struggled to abolish the slave trade. These movements meant that the whites understood that people were born equal. Some religious movements declared slavery a sin and asked the whites to put an end to slavery. However, whites still believed that the blacks were supposed to serve them and be at their beck and call. Both armed and legal force was used to stop slavery.

In the 18th century, many states abolished the slave trade and the use of blacks in any form. After much struggle, the conditions of the blacks started to improve. The United States Constitution banned the import of slaves.

Later on, the government itself made a few laws concerning the abolishment of the slave trade. Any white citizen, who was found to have been using a black as a slave even after the termination of such an activity, would be penalized.

Distribution of Slaves in the USA Since 1790 up to 1840 [14]

# Slaves # Free
% free
Total US
% black
of total
1790 697,681 59,527 757,208 7.9% 3,929,214 19%
1800 893,602 108,435 1,002,037 10.8% 5,308,483 19%
1810 1,191,362 186,446 1,377,808 13.5% 7,239,881 19%
1820 1,538,022 233,634 1,771,656 13.2% 9,638,453 18%
1830 2,009,043 319,599 2,328,642 13.7% 12,860,702 18%
1840 2,487,355 386,293 2,873,648 13.4% 17,063,353 17%
1850 3,204,313 434,495 3,638,808 11.9% 23,191,876 16%
1860 3,953,760 488,070 4,441,830 11.0% 31,443,321 14%
1870 0 4,880,009 4,880,009 100% 38,558,371 13%

In conclusion, both the slaves and the free blacks were destined to suffer. They all were exposed to numerous injustices. The hardships they experienced were terrible. They and their children lived miserable lives. The history of the blacks triggers a lot of criticism from the human rights activists due to the inhumanity and animosity that was done to the blacks in the past. Reparation seems to be a strategy to pay back the damage that was done but there is no price that can heal the pain that runs deep in the veins of those blacks once were slaves. The memories are hard to fade completely from their minds. The generations to come will never be able to forget the trouble and the terrible life that their ancestors had to face.

  1. William D. Wright, Critical Reflections on Black History. (Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002) p. 40.
  2. Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956) p. 171.
  3. Archer, LÉonie J. Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour. (London: Routledge, 1988) p. 276.
  4. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981) p. 7.
  5. Robert D, Bullard, The Race, Poverty-Environment. Web.
  6. Nicholas, Boston, Living Conditions. Web.
  7. Clayton E. Jewett. Slavery in the South: A State-By-State History. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004) p. 307.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. (New York: New Press, 1992) p. 166-169.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Joseph W. Foy, 8 May 1811 – Arthur William Hodge. Web.
  12. Hine, D. C., “Aren’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South-Twenty Years After,” The Journal of African American History 92, no. 1 (2007): 13.
  13. John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963) p. 10.
  14. US Census Bureau. Web.


Archer, LÉonie J. Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour. London: Routledge, 1988.

Berlin, I. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: New Press, 1992.

Boston, Nicolas. The Slavery and the Making of America. Living Conditions. 2004. Web.

Bullard, Robert D. “The Race, Poverty Environment.” WEB SPECIAL: The Anatomy of Transportation Racism. 1990. Web.

Fehrenbacher, Don E. Slavery, Law, and Politics: The Dred Scott Case in Historical Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Foy, William. “8 May 1811 – Arthur William Hodge.” EXECUTION OF THE DAY. Web.

Franklin, John Hope. The Emancipation Proclamation. 1st ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.

Hine, Don. C., “Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South-Twenty Years After,” The Journal of African American History 92, no. 1 (2007): 13.

Jewett, Clayton E. Slavery in the South: a State-by-State History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Stampp, Kenneth. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956.

US Census Bureau. Web.

Wright, W.D. Critical Reflections on Black History. Westport CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002.

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