Views of Slavery During the Colonial Period

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves yet thought deeply about the negative consequences.
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Discussions on the appropriateness of owning other people developed gradually in colonial-era America. Slavery had existed through most of world history, so many people likely did not question the practice. There were some prominent colonists, in particular Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who published their views on the institution. These writings and other historical records make it clear that views on slavery during the colonial era were surprisingly complex. Colonists debated the psychological, economical and moral effects of slavery on society.

1 Jamestown

American colonists did not embrace slavery as a labor system until the late 17th century. Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent British settlement, in 1619. These Africans and their successors worked alongside other poor colonists as indentured servants. In this role, the poor worked for a certain number of years, usually five to seven, to pay for their transportation to the colony. Afterwards, the servants received their freedom and land. Permanent slavery became the norm in Jamestown only with the first Virginia Slave Code in 1662. It would be in this context that colonial Americans would begin to discuss whether slavery belonged in their land.

2 Thomas Jefferson

Elite plantation owner Thomas Jefferson, who would become the third president of the United States in 1801, wondered about the effect of slavery on the mind. "Notes on Virginia," written in 1781, was Jefferson’s reflection on his prior experience as a colonial slave owner. Slavery was to Jefferson an institution of negative psychological consequences. Owners became tyrants; meanwhile, the enslaved did not get to exercise their own minds. The answer for Jefferson was emancipation, or releasing of the enslaved, on terms agreeable to the masters.

3 Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin, the founding father who worked his way up from a mere apprentice, questioned the economic feasibility of slavery. As with most colonists, Franklin did not express any moral apprehensions about the institution until the Revolutionary era. In his 1751 essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind," Franklin explained how slavery placed the American colonies at an economic disadvantage in the world. To Franklin, the owner of two slaves, the cost of importing and feeding slaves proved more costly than employing wage labor. Free laborers, of course, were responsible for their own upkeep.

4 Quakers

The Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, put forth one of the earliest colonial attempts to question slavery on moral grounds. The Quakers, a religious group that emphasized the ability of all to have a relationship with God, began questioning slavery as early as 1688. In Germantown, Pennsylvania, four members wrote in the minutes of their monthly meeting that slavery violated the Golden Rule of the Bible to “treat others as you would like to be treated.” They continued by asking if anyone would really desire living as the property of another. John Woolman, another anti-slavery advocate, made an impression by paying slaves of fellow Quakers who assisted him in any way. In 1754, the efforts of these Quakers, and others, led the denomination to declare slave owning a sin against God.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.