The Indispensable Americans: The Role of Blacks in the Founding of the United States

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By 1787, the slave-based cash-crop economy of the United States permitted Americans to establish an independent, Federal Government. Independence that hinged on the continued availability of the only workforce abundant enough to perpetuate the production

Slavery. The idea that a precept exists that justifies the total domination of an individual for the sole purpose of fulfilling the wants and/or needs of one more powerful.

The ancient Egyptians did it.  The Aztecs did it. The Zulu did it.  In fact, most ancient cultures sanctioned the subjugating of those they viewed inferior--for the advancement of their culture, the appeasement of their gods, or for the simple, personal gratification of their people.  And yes, the Americans did it too.

According to historic documents, the first Blacks sold in America were brought to Jamestown Settlement in the summer of 1619, twelve years after its founding.

While it is unclear whether those Blacks were designated “slaves” or not, it seems likely that those put to work at that time shared the same societal status as English indentured servants, with no clear distinction made.

In fact, some Blacks were legally granted “half” freedom upon arrival, and some freed a short time after; a status increasingly more difficult to attain as America grew--and grew more independent.  By 1681, there were still only 2,000 documented Black slaves in America; but by 1714, that number grew to 59,000.

Jamestown Settlement of 1619 showed little resemblance to the bustling colony that would flourish there in years to follow, nor did it reflect the gruesome scenes of just a few years before.

Jamestown settlement (reconstruction)

As the colonists’ journals reflect, in that they had arrived completely unprepared for frontier survival--most colonists pampered businessmen in Europe--the settlement suffered one dreadful disaster after another, and the winter of 1609-10 had nearly wiped them out.

First the food ran out.  Even the cattle, hogs, and horses brought to the New World for breeding had to be eaten to survive.

Then, unwilling or unprepared to fend for themselves, the settlers allowed famine to set in.  And as their diaries reflect, rather than die in their failed utopia, “some of the colonists found sustenance in makeshift cemeteries by feeding on the bodies of those who had left this life before them.” Then disease, despair, and desperation set in.  If not for the local band of Native Americans who took pity on them and brought food and survival skills, history would have taken a much different course.

From 1610 to 1612, the colonists experimented with a wide variety of crops to sustain their existence and render a little profit for the trading companies that had sponsored many of them.

Sugar, prunes, grapes, olives, cotton, and corn were just a few of the crops they attempted--with no success. It was not until 1612 when Englishman John Rolfe brought a particularly hearty and easy to cultivate variety of tobacco back from Trinidad that the colony finally found its rhythm. Immediately, the crop took to the American terrain.

By 1617, the first shipment of tobacco was on its way to England.  Three years later, nearly 55, 000 pounds of tobacco were exported.

Suddenly plantations were sprouting up all around the Virginia countryside. Problem was, there simply weren’t enough colonists to maintain the blossoming enterprise. (And proper Englanders did not permit women to work the fields.)

Additionally, the immediate popularity of this new sweet variety of tobacco in England had brought something to the American colonists they had not even anticipated: international trading clout. 

And with so much free land available in the New World, there seemed to be no limit to the profit that could be made with a proper work force.

The equation was simple: Tobacco + Mass Labor = Power. And Power = Independence.

With Indentured Bond Servitude already in popular use in America, trading companied solicited prospective laborers from Europe. But with indentured citizens (many of whom were criminals seeking escape from incarceration), they could only be depended upon for the length of their contract, seven years.  So the colonists turned to the sector of American society who already constituted the largest group in servitude: the Blacks. This was a significant turning point in American history.

Typical slave cabin of this period

In a very short time, the short term plans of growing a cash crop just long enough to get established in the New World became fantastic dreams few had dare dream possible.

Suddenly, Europeans also wanted in on the get-rich-quick scheme, flocking to Virginia as fast as the ships could carry them. And by 1700, the population of America swelled to 58,000, due largely to the tobacco-based economy. Tobacco planted, tended, harvested, and prepared for market by Black slaves--which now came in seemingly endless supply.

The tight “triangulated” system of ships transporting tobacco from America to England which was traded for cloth, tools and other modern products that were then traded to tribal leaders in West Africa for Black slaves only added fuel to the fire.

And as time passed, corn, rice, indigo, sugar, and cotton grown throughout the South further fed the exploding American industry.  Industry that bolstered American leaders to declare independence from England, resolved to self-govern.

And by 1787, the slave-based cash-crop economy of the United States permitted Americans to establish an independent, Federal Government. Independence hinging on the further availability of the only workforce abundant enough to perpetuate this system of trade: Blacks. Without them, the history of United States may well have ended centuries ago.


A History of African-American Slaves, Belnap Press, Harvard University

A History of African Americans, Oxford Press

United States History, N. Kloss and R. Jones

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