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Race and Political Power in the Pre-Civil War Period

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Race and Political Power in the Pre-Civil War Period

How did race translate itself into political power during this period, and how did Blacks attempt to combat that power.

Racism has been the most provocative topic in American history; it has seemed to transcend other struggles, and fester its way into almost every facet of American culture. It has grown like weeds in an unattended garden in to the ideology of America. Politicians use it as a tool for reelection, corporations use it as a way to exploit, and the media uses it as a way to control. But the underlying question is where did it come from, how did it translate itself into political power, and how and what did African Americans do to combat that power. Many of the answers to these questions lie in the pre civil war area also known as the antebellum period.

During the early 17th century a powerful farmer by the name of Nathaniel Bacon tried to use African Americans to conquer surrounding tribes and take their lands for indentured servants who had served their time and wanted land. Bacon added blacks to his corps of whites only after he found out he had to fight William Berkley the colonial governor.

Berkley thought that arming the Jamestown rubble was too dangerous to be allowed. After Bacons death the Virginia government reacted to the spectacle of interracial servant solidarity by slowly eliminating white servitude and expanding the then new institution of black chattel slavery. By doing this he could guarantee a permanent labor force and win the support of his constituents. Because of efforts like that of Governor Berkley, Virginia had become the primary site for the development of black slavery in the Americas. By the 1650s some of the indentured servants had earned their freedom. Because replacements, whether black or white, were in limited supply and more costly, the Virginia plantation owners considered the advantages of the perpetual servitude policy exercised by Caribbean landowners. Following the lead of Massachusetts and Connecticut, Virginia legalized slavery in 1661. In 1672 the king of England chartered the Royal African Company to bring the shiploads of slaves into trading centers like Jamestown, Hampton, and Yorktown. Slavery spread quickly in the American colonies. At first the legal status of Africans in America was poorly defined, and some, like European indentured servants,...

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...ed afterward may have reached 100. But the rebellion lasted less than two days and was easily suppressed by local residents. Like other slave uprisings in the United States, it caused enormous fear among the whites, but it did not seriously threaten the institution of slavery.

Less organized resistance was both more widespread and more successful. This included silent sabotage, or foot-dragging, by slaves, who pretended to be sick, feigned difficulty understanding instructions, and "accidentally" misused tools and animals. It also included small-scale resistance by individuals who fought back physically, at times successfully, against what they regarded as unjust treatment.

The most common form of resistance, however, was flight. About 1000 slaves per year escaped to the North during the pre-Civil War decades, most from the upper South. This represented only a small percentage of those who attempted to escape, however, since for every slave who made it to freedom, several more tried. Other fugitives remained within the South, heading for cities or swamps, or hiding out near their plantations for days or weeks before either returning voluntarily or being tracked down and captured.
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