The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-Three: Urban Slavery (Section D)

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913): former slave, abolitionist, facilitator of the "Underground Railroad," helping slaves escape; Union spy during Civil War.
Harriet Tubman (1822-1913): former slave, abolitionist, facilitator of the "Underground Railroad," helping slaves escape; Union spy during Civil War. | Source

We are going to use this installment to grapple with the idea that black slave labor was "competing" with and standing in the way of free white labor.

What you need to understand is that the state legislatures worked overtime, precisely, to make sure that did not happen.

The second thing that needs to be considered is the status of so-called "free" black people in the United States, before the Civil War. That is to say, the actual status of "free" blacks, in the nineteenth century, is not at all what we would call freedom in 2015, to put it mildly, as we shall shortly see.

Let's start with that. Neither the labor of "free" blacks, nor that of slaves was "competing" with free white labor.

The status of "free" blacks in nineteenth century America

To understand just how good free white labor had it under the regime of slavery --- to see just how insulated and protected free white labor was --- we're going to start in a somewhat outside-in manner, to see the bind that "free" blacks were in, much more so that of actual, nominal slaves.

Historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. tell us that the legal status of free blacks had been "fairly high during the colonial period and was strengthened somewhat during the Revolutionary period," but "[a]fter that time, however, their status deteriorated, until toward the end of the slave period the distinction between slaves and free Negroes had diminished to a point where in some instances it was hardly discernible" (1).

Such a state of affairs does rather beg the question: Who was the Revolution for?

I might just also mention, parenthetically, that the Virginian and fourth President of the United States, James Madison, told a British visitor, shortly after the American Revolution that: he could make $257 on every "Negro" in a year, and spend only $12 or $13 on his keep (2).

I must say, Madison's remark, coming shortly after the Revolution like that, strikes one like "spiking the ball," and "dancing in the end zone," as it were. Why, its almost as if the preservation of the institution of slavery had been a goal of the Revolution of 1776-1783, or something.

But let's move on.

John Henry, The Steel Driving Man.
John Henry, The Steel Driving Man. | Source

As I said, the legal status of "free" blacks after the Revolution and before the Civil War of the 1860s, was not anything we, in 2015, would call freedom.

First of all, nominally free blacks found it very difficult to maintain their freedom. A white person could fraudulently claim that x black person was a runaway slave and demand that his property be returned to him; and there was precious little the black man or woman could do about it. There was the constant danger of blacks being kidnapped into slavery. And, for one reason or another, the courts might reduce a free black to servitude (3).

Several states, among them, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi required free blacks to register and carry around the appropriate certificate of freedom. If a black was found without such papers on his or her person, he or she was presumed to be a slave (4).

Florida, Georgia, and several other states required free blacks to have white guardians (5).

In no southern state could free blacks move about freely, at will. Indeed, even in some northern communities, it was dangerous to try, lest they be considered to be fugitive slaves. North Carolina prohibited free blacks from going beyond the county adjoining the one in which they resided. In 1793 Virginia simply prohibited free blacks from entering the state (6).

By 1835: Most southern and several northern states had restricted or prohibited free black immigration (7).

Georgia: Violators were fined $100; and, failing to pay it, as was expected, were sold into slavery. Also, there were laws against free blacks leaving the state for any length of time, such as 60 or 90 days, and then returning (8).

Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and other states: They prohibited free blacks from possessing or carrying firearms without a license (9).

1835: The right to assembly had been taken away from almost all free blacks in the south. They could not hold church services without the presence of a licensed and respected white minister. Benevolent societies and similar organizations were not allowed to convene (10).

Fernando Wood: Mayor of New York City (January 1, 1855 - December 31, 1858; and January 1, 1860 - December 31, 1862). He suggested New York City secede from the Union in January 1861.
Fernando Wood: Mayor of New York City (January 1, 1855 - December 31, 1858; and January 1, 1860 - December 31, 1862). He suggested New York City secede from the Union in January 1861. | Source

Maryland: Free blacks could not have 'lyceums, lodges, fire companies, or literary, dramatic, social, moral, or charitable societies' (11).

In many communities the contact of free blacks and slaves was kept to a minimum. The laws against entertaining slaves or visiting them, were strenuously enforced (12).

1805: Maryland prohibited free blacks from selling corn, wheat, or tobacco without a license (13).

1829: Georgia made it illegal for free blacks to be employed as typesetters (14).

1831: North Carolina required all black trades and peddlers to be licensed. South Carolina forbade their employment as clerks (15).

A good number of states made it illegal for blacks to buy or sell alcoholic beverages (16).

Georgia: Free blacks could not make purchases on credit without the permission of their white guardians (17).

Every state required free blacks to work, and their means of support had to be visible (18).

1725 Pennsylvania: The law ordained that 'if any free Negroe, fit to work, shall neglect so to do and loiter and misspend his or her time... any two magistrates... are ... impowered and required to bind out to service, such Negroe, from year to year, as to them may seem meet' (19).

New York: In 1832 the state constitution set up a property qualification of $250 and a residence requirement of three years, for black suffrage. There was no extensive black voting anywhere in the United States of America after 1830 (20).

Pensacola, Florida: Despite disenfranchisement and reduced status, free blacks were expected to pay a tax of $2 for putting on entertainments (21).

Baltimore (1859) and other places: Free blacks were expected to pay school taxes, even as their children were not allowed to attend the public schools (22).

In general, blacks were not allowed to serve in the militia. The two big exceptions were New York (1814) and Louisiana (1812) (23).

Abraham Lincoln: Sixteenth President of the United States
Abraham Lincoln: Sixteenth President of the United States | Source

Some states required nominally free blacks to post bonds, as security against becoming 'public charges.' Not only were adult free blacks hired or bound out, but their children were taken and placed in the care of white persons. Illegitimate children, whose parents had violated some law or were without means of supporting them, were apprenticed out to be taught a trade and given moral instruction (24).

Franklin and Moss, Jr. have pointed out that, in some states, the constitutions written during the Revolutionary period, had not excluded free blacks from voting. They voted to a considerable extent in Maryland, North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania for several years. However, in a bill signed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802, free blacks were excluded from the franchise in the newly established capital of Washington D.C. (25).

Maryland: Free blacks lost the ballot in 1810 (26).

Tennessee: Free blacks lost the vote in 1834 (27).

North Carolina: Free blacks found themselves disenfranchised in 1835 (28).

Pennsylvania: Voting was confined to white males in 1838 (29).

Indiana: Voting became the exclusive domain of white males in 1851 (30).

Courts of Law: The testimony of free blacks was not admissible where white persons were parties. However, slaves were allowed to testify against free blacks (31).

Slaveholding States: They made legal provision for free blacks to choose their masters and re-enslave themselves (32).

Tennessee (1857): This state enacted a law to facilitate re-enslavement (33).

Texas (1858): They enacted a similar law; and in 1859 and 1860, respectively, Louisiana and Maryland passed this legislation (34).

Several other states, including North Carolina, seriously considered such legislation, but for various reasons, never brought it off (35).

Arkansas (1859): The legislature passed an act to remove free blacks and so-called mulattoes, by compelling those who remained in the state, at the end of the year, to choose masters 'who must give bond not to allow such negroes to act as free' (36).


There are a few things we need to say about all of this data.

I. Between 1783 (the end of the successful American Revolution) and 1865 (the nominal end of the slavery period), two distinct kinds of freedom emerged in the North American mainland: the freedom enjoyed by whites and the third-rate freedom endured by nominally free blacks.

II. All of this data puts a new spin on abolitionism. That is to say, a legitimate question arises: What did the white abolitionist of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mean by freedom? Did they mean that black slaves should be released from the shackles and be awarded the freedom enjoyed by whites, as equals, or be given the freedom endured by nominally free blacks?

III. This data wrinkle makes it possible to discern that there may have been several shades of white abolitionist: A) The white abolitionist who believed that blacks slaves should be freed, and then, along with the rest of the black population, repatriated by to Africa or elsewhere; B) The white abolitionist who believed that black slaves should be freed, be allowed to stay in the country; but given the freedom endured by nominally free blacks at the time; C) The white abolitionist who believed that black slaves should be freed, allowed to stay in the country along with the rest of the black population; but be given the freedom enjoyed by whites; and D) Perhaps the white abolitionist who believed that black slaves should be gradually emancipated.

IV. Free white labor was not even facing "competition" from nominally free black workers. The state legislatures had made sure of this by restricting them from even entering certain trades or even certain states. Free blacks could not enter certain commercial ventures; and when they could, unlike their free white counterparts, they had to be licensed, which surely meant fees, which they could ill afford, and which put them at a disadvantage against their white counterparts.

V. Free blacks lost the ballot throughout the nineteenth century, and with that, any way of politically redressing their situation.

VI. This situation of the nominally free blacks of the 1783-1865 period (with free blacks needing to post bond against becoming "public charges;" and with the obligation even falling to their children), was such that this part of the population of African descent, effectively served as the reserve pool of slave labor, to be tapped when needed.

VII. This means that when I said that in 1850, there were 400,000 black slaves living in urban areas, with the vast majority engaged in nonagricultural pursuits ---- that was, perhaps, an understatement. That is to say, we must consider that pool of black urban slave labor to have been supplemented by the indenture of nominally free black men and women.

That is to say: Just because a white shop owner or farmer did not "own" a single slave, he could not plead innocence of participation in slavery unless he could swear that he had never even rented slave labor, because, as I've stated and documented elsewhere, you didn't have to own a single slave; slave labor could be rented by the day, month, or year.

Furthermore, even if a white shop owner or farmer never "owned" a single slave or "rented" actual, nominal, technically slave labor --- he still could not plead innocence of slavery if he ever rented the use of nominally "free" black labor, under the punitive circumstances we have been reviewing, except through semantic exercise.

Do you follow me?

We will do one more section on urban slavery, section e. This will be the conclusion of this sub-series. We will be asking the question: Did black urban slavery "compete" with the free white labor of the urban industrial areas? Did employers rub their chins and say to themselves: Whom shall I pick, the slave or the freeman? Was the circumstances of labor in the urban industrial areas a matter of either/or?

Spoiler alert! I'm basically saying not necessarily.

I'm saying, in short, that it was a matter of one providing the cushion and support for the other. When that cushion and support was removed with the end of the Civil War and the nominal end of slavery, it made the working conditions of the other more onerous.

Indeed, as I have said, this will bring us to the 1870s-1930s, which I am calling the era of the re-enslavement of the white American working class. That is to say, they found themselves re-enslaved because the cushion of black urban slaves was removed.

You'll see what I mean in the next installment.

Thank you so much for reading!


1. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History Of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. (paperback). 139

2. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2003. 33

3. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom. 139

4. ibid

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. ibid

10. ibid

11. ibid, 139-140

12. ibid, 140

13. ibid

14. ibid

15. ibid

16. ibid

17. ibid

18. ibid

19. ibid

20. ibid, 141

21. ibid

22. ibid

23. ibid

24. ibid

25. ibid

26. ibid

27. ibid

28. ibid

29. ibid

30. ibid

31. ibid

32. ibid, 142

33. ibid

34. ibid

35. ibid

36. ibid

More by this Author


Laramy74 profile image

Laramy74 17 months ago from Newark Delaware

I thought that your piece was very well written. You cannot argue with the facts. I do believe that the mindset of both races were in the context of that era, or for that matter any era where the spoils goes to the victors.

wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 17 months ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! Author

Thanks, Laramy74! I appreciate your visit and kind word about this piece. Yes, as you say, facts are facts. John Hope Franklin was one of the foremost African-American scholars on the black experience in America. As you can see, his book was my main source.

Your comment about the spoils going to the victors is a prescient one. I was thinking the same thing myself; and that is why I cited the James Madison remark, made to a British visitor, shortly after the American Revolution, about the profitability of his slaves.

Anyway, thank you so much for stopping by.

Take it easy.

RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 17 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

The bottom line was that blacks, whether slave or free, were not considered citizens and had, as Justice Taney put it in the Dred Scott decision, no rights a white man need respect. The line between slave and free was sometimes vanishingly small, especially since free blacks could find themselves legally sold into slavery for minor (and sometimes imaginary) offenses.

wingedcentaur profile image

wingedcentaur 17 months ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! Author

Quite right, RonElFran! Quite right! And thank you for once again visiting, and enhancing this piece with your insightful commentary.

Take it easy! :D

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article