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Peter Kolchin : American Slavery review

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Peter Kolchin is a history professor at the University of Delaware. In 1970, Kolchin received a degree from John Hopkins University. He now specializes in nineteenth-century U.S. history, the South, slavery and emancipation, and comparative history. In his career he has written many books on slavery including Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom and First Freedom: The Responses of Alabama’s Blacks to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Peter Kolchin…). In 1993, his third book American Slavery was published and 10 years later a revised copy was released which featured a new preface and afterword (Thomas). This book was re-released in order to catch up to the increase scholarly interest in slavery.

“American Slavery: 1619-1877” is the full title of the book. The revised copy does not differ much from the original text as stated before. Kolchin states on page xvii of his Preface to the Revised Edition that, “The seven chapters that form the heart of the book remain unchanged”. It is only when one reaches the afterword or the bibliographical essay when the revisions are seen. The purpose of the book directly correlates to its title, American Slavery. The book is basically a piece of literature designed to provide a better understanding for American slavery, and slavery in general including trade and life as a slave.

The book follows somewhat of a timeline, beginning with the origins of slavery and following it throughout history focusing generally on the time frame of the colonial era and the 19th century to the end of slavery in America. In American Slavery there is much focus associated with the antebellum period. The antebellum period can be generalized as the years between the formation of a Union and the Civil War (Free Blacks…).

Kolchin’s book can be separated from what we have read in other books in that it is rather comprehensive opposed to other works in which focus on one time period. This broader viewpoint can provide a reader with a much better understanding of the subject by allowing them to resort to one book rather than multiple books. American Slavery also provides a history of slavery with a modern twist away from the old text in which we read throughout our education and answers questions in which are not clearly answered or explained in those same text.

Kolchin states his purpose for the book on pages x and xi of the preface he explains several goals in which he had in mind while writing the book. The first was to create an account of slavery that was substantial and historiographical, the second was to aim for a balanced approach providing accounts of every aspect of slavery, the third was to show how slavery changed over time, and finally his last goal was to point out that slavery is not a “peculiar institution,” it was more ubiquitous. In simpler terms slavery was not a unique event it was everywhere. All of these goals Kolchin completed with great success.

Overall I feel Kolchin did a terrific job with this book. If it was not the only novel I have read in entirety over this subject I believe it would be by far the best. The only thing that comes close to this subject is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. American Slavery provides much more factual information and detail about the time period and the meaning of slavery overall.

Kolchin involves a lot of aspects on slavery; however, the one thing which I noticed that I would like to have read a little more about was the origins of slavery, which is the first chapter of the book. I would have liked to known a little more of where slavery began and where its true origins are not specifically the origins of slavery which lead to the Western slavery which we are all taught in our history books. He did do a magnificent job in slavery in the 17th century to the slavery in which we know.

Kolchin also describes several aspects of slavery in which I was not taught very well in school. He states that slaves varied widely in terms of gender and ethnicity, meaning that there were also white slave not just black ones as many think. The blacks however did prevail as the majority of slaves in America. I also found it interesting when Kolchin points out the cultural differences among views of slavery depending on region. Since America was a large agricultural region male slaves were valued more due to there ability to produce physical labor, as opposed to Africa and the Near East in which females were more cherished because they were used as wives; they were also considered agricultural producers in those regions (4).

Kolchin states on page 28 of this book that “Throughout its history, American slavery evolved and changed. He the points out the two main periods in which the process of evolution can be divided into broader periods. These periods are the colonial and antebellum periods. The colonial was the period till 1770 and the antebellum being thereafter around 1800. He does a great job pointing that the colonial period was the time in which America emerged as a predominate slave society. Kolchin points out the main reason for this was the growing presence of agriculture in the colonies and on the fact that America had to transition away from indentured servants and obtain a wider majority of workers, thus the increase in slaves from Africa and other foreign countries who were purchase like cattle and used as tools of agriculture rather than workers. These slaves were not given any compensation for there work.

After time progressed slaves began to reproduce and American-born slaves emerged as more interesting to slave owners as pointed out on page 50. These slaves appeared different from the true Africans. These slaves appeared more normal and less “savage.” This was also cause by an equal amount in gender among the slaves. Kolchin does a very good job in his explanations about the diversity of slaves and the preferences in which there white slave owners possessed in obtaining slaves.

Kolchin also does a wonderful job in determining a clear separation between the colonial and antebellum periods where as many other sources I have noticed differ in there periods. An article entitled “Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period” states that the antebellum period is the period from the “form of the union to the beginning of the Civil War (Free Blacks…). Another source includes a timeline making the antebellum period from 1850-1861 (Antebellum Period…). Kolchin explains the burst in slave population after America’s war for independence, in which slaves nearly tripled in population by the 1860’s. The majority of this increase occurred in the south as the north which had very few remaining slaves. The large number of slaves along the Eastern Seaboard as well as the rest of the south along with the significantly lower number of slaves in the north provided tension between the two. The period in which the South’s slave population experienced exponential growth marks the beginning of the antebellum period.

In the following chapter Kolchin points out that the growing number of slaves did not enable the owners to keep track of the activities in which there slaves participated in. Kolchin explains the slave life in much greater description than any other source I have read. In my history classes all I learned was some tried to run and were caught and some escaped via the Underground Railroad. Kolchin points out a key fact that Historians focused more on the white slave owners that the actions of the slaves themselves which had begun to imitate there white owners, hence developing skills and traits in which there owners possessed. There is not much written history, however, Ulrich B. Phillips states “the planters had a saying… that a negro was what a white man made him.”(134) The slaves rebelled against what the white man perceived them to be. Kolchin then points out there eagerness for society, music, and the need to be seen and heard. He then provides research by acclaimed scholar Herman G. Gutman which provides a vast amount of knowledge on slave families.

After a chapter which tells the economical and sociological affect of slavery on the South which produced many differences amongst the previously common aspects of both the northern and southern states, Kolchin then progresses to the end of slavery. He provides accounts on which describes the 19th century as a “century of emancipation… beginning with the Northern United States…and ending with Brazil in 1888.”(200)

Kolchin points out the means of the Civil War which began as a fight for independence and ultimately ended in a war of slavery and emancipation. Many believe that that emancipation was the sole purpose for the war; however, Kolchin points out that until 1862 Lincoln still stated that abolition was not in his intents. He also touches base on the lives of slaves after slavery which is very well defined. He describes the hardships in which slaves faced and that many did not know what else to do besides work as slaves, and many stayed as farm workers. Even though the war ended there was still a hatred for blacks and thus segregation evolves in full force throughout the nation, but mainly in the south. He also explains the struggle of the south to compete with the north as far as industrialization which was the new course of America straying away from agriculture, and till today they still suffer a lack of industry opposed to the northern states.

Overall Kolchin displays an excellent work of literature which provides many sources and well thought out information. Kolchin’s work is by far one of the most influential works on slavery in the late 20th and early 21st century. Kolchin does a great job in describing American slavery and slavery in general and the attempt for America to “…finally overcome the persistent legacy of slavery.” (237)

Works Cited:

“Antebellum Period (1850-1861) & Civil war.” Antebellum Period (1850-

1861) & Civil war. 20 Nov. 2005 .

“Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period.” Afican American Odyssey: Free

Blacks in the Antebellum Period (part 1). African American Odyssey. 20 Nov. 2005 .

“Peter Kolchin: Henry Clay Reed Professor.” Kolchin. University of

Delaware. 20 Nov. 2005 .

Thomas, Beth. “PETER KOLCHIN WINS ALISON AWARD.” Elements December

2002. 20 Nov 2005 .

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