In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Growth and Decline of Slavery in North America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works, Textbooks, Surveys, and Primary Sources
  • Journals
  • Imperial, Atlantic, and Continental Contexts
  • Slavery, Sectionalism, Expansion, and Politics
  • Foreign Affairs and Imperialism
  • Transatlantic Capitalism and Slavery
  • Internal Slave Trades and the Lives of Black People
  • Colonial America, 1660s–1760s
  • The Age of Revolutions and the Early American Republic, 1760s–1810
  • Expansion, Conquest, and Consolidation, 1810s–1840s
  • The Antebellum United States, 1848–1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861–1877

Atlantic History The Growth and Decline of Slavery in North America
John Craig Hammond
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0217


The rise and fall of the North American plantation complex was inseparable from larger imperial rivalries in the Atlantic world. Beginning in the 1660s, England, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal systematically devoted state resources to establishing plantation societies that used slave labor to produce cash crops. From the 1660s through the 1760s, plantation slavery on the North American continent centered on the southern coastal colonies of British North America, which were marginal to the larger Atlantic plantation complex centered on the Caribbean. In the broader Americas, slavery began its greatest period of growth in the half-century following the Seven Years’ War. Growing demand for sugar, coffee, tobacco, and cotton produced a broad, hemispheric trend that saw more slaves, producing more cash crops, in places that were marginal to the 18th-century Atlantic plantation complex. The United States—dominated politically by slaveholders—emerged as one of several imperial powers competing for supremacy over the peoples and places of the North American continent. In the roughly fifty years between the 1760s and the 1810s, slavery expanded tremendously on the North American continent. In North America, slaveholders and would-be planters used state power to expand plantation operations into the trans-Appalachian West, the southern interior, and the Lower Mississippi Valley. By the 1820s, the United States had emerged as the preeminent imperial power on the North American continent. Between 1820 and 1860, US slaveholders used state power to promote slavery’s growth and expansion as they exploited a growing demand for slave-produced commodities such as cotton. Though the Age of Revolutions saw slavery’s rapid growth in North America, it also witnessed the emergence of sustained challenges to slavery. The century stretching from the 1760s to the 1860s would be an age of empires and slavery, but it would also become an age of antislavery movements, emancipation, and abolition. Slavery expanded rapidly in the United States between the 1770s and the 1830s, with few sustained challenges. By the 1840s, however, political antislavery had emerged as an important political force. The 1840s through the 1870s became an extended period of imperial rivalries, conflicts, and conquests, as Republicans and Democrats sought to impose free labor or slave labor regimes on the regions and peoples of the trans-Mississippi West, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. As the North and South sought to impose their particular forms of sovereignty concerning race, slavery, and labor on various borderland regions, both sections began formulating rival imperial ideologies. From the 1840s through the start of the American Civil War, Republicans and Democrats developed aggressive, competing imperial visions for the trans-Mississippi West, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. In no small measure, the election of 1860 and the secession crisis centered on the question of what kind of empire the United States would forge in the broader Americas: an empire for slavery, or an empire of free labor. Union victory ended the acquisition of new territory by the United States and led directly to the abolition of slavery. As a newly powerful imperial nation-state, the federal government fostered development in the Great Plains, the Mountain West, and the Pacific Coast along lines advocated by free-labor Republicans.

General Overviews

Since the mid-1990s, historians have entirely rewritten our understanding of the rise and fall of slavery in the United States, and of the emergence of the United States as the dominant imperial power on the North American continent. As late as the 1990s, historians tended to treat the expansion of slavery and the emergence of the United States as a continental power as close to inevitable. But a generation of scholarship on the Atlantic world, African American history and slavery, the politics of slavery, and Native American history, frontiers, and empire has entirely rewritten that narrative. Historians now treat the growth and expansion of slavery as a process driven by state and imperial needs, where peoples from Europe, Africa, and the Americas all played crucial roles in determining the shape and contours of the Atlantic and North American plantation complexes. The late 1990s saw the appearance of the first in a series of broad, synthetic surveys that built on specialized scholarship. Blackburn 1998, Eltis 2000, and Davis 2006 synthesize much of the specialized literature from the 1980s and the 1990s, with a focus on enslavers rather than the enslaved. All offer detailed but distinct accounts of slavery’s transformation from the Old World to the New World, along with the causes of plantation slavery’s enormous growth and decline. Berlin 2003 examines the lives of free and enslaved blacks under slavery’s transformation and great expansion. More recently, Drescher 2009 and Rael 2015 synthesize much of the specialized literature that appeared since 2000, with a focus on abolition and the emergence of organized abolition movements in the late 1700s, while Hammond 2014 examines the expansion of slavery in North America as an imperial-driven process.

  • Berlin, Ira. Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

    A social history of free and enslaved African Americans from the early 1600s through abolition in 1865. The final chapter, on “migration generations,” focuses on how slaves reacted to the disruptions caused by the rapid and prolonged expansion of slavery and the forced migrations associated with the domestic slave trade.

  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. New York: Verso, 1998.

    Comprehensive, synthetic account of the transformation of Old World slavery in the Americas and the Atlantic world, and the emergence of the Atlantic plantation complex. Argues that New World slavery grew as a result of consumer demand for slave-produced cash crops. Focuses on how slavery proved instrumental to both European colonization and European economic growth.

  • Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Analyzes the growth and expansion, and decline and abolition, of slavery in the United States in a broad, Atlantic context. Examines the emergence of racial ideologies and their differences across time and space, the emergence of the early Atlantic plantation complex, the Age of Revolutions, the lives of slaves and slaveholders, the abolition movement, and the politics of slavery in the United States.

  • Drescher, Seymour. Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511770555

    Comparative and synthetic examination of emancipation and abolition in the Americas from the Age of Revolutions and the Enlightenment through the early 1900s. Contains valuable early chapters on slavery’s massive growth and expansion from the 1450s through the second half of the 18th century. Focuses on the ways that ideology—Anglo-American liberalism in particular—drove abolition.

  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Broad synthetic account of plantation slavery’s origins and massive expansion in the Americas. Using an economic model to analyze slavery by examining supply and demand for labor and cash crops in Europe, Africa, and the Americas, along with transatlantic transportation costs. Notable for its attention to the slave trade in West African ports.

  • Hammond, John Craig. “Slavery, Sovereignty, and Empires: North American Borderlands and the American Civil War, 1660–1860.” Journal of the Civil War Era 4.2 (2014): 264–298.

    DOI: 10.1353/cwe.2014.0028

    Historiographical review that focuses on the use of state power to establish, consolidate, and protect slavery and sovereignty in borderlands. Analyzes the Civil War as an imperial war, the culmination of two centuries of imperial rivalries fueled by challenges to slavery and sovereignty in the borderlands of North American.

  • Rael, Patrick. Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777–1865. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015.

    Synthetic account of emancipation, abolition, and antislavery activities in the face of slavery’s massive and prolonged growth and expansion. Claims that the American Revolution led to a massive divergence between the northern and southern states and initiated a larger Atlantic abolition movement. Frequently compares slavery and abolition in the United States to slavery and abolition elsewhere in the Americas.

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