About the Author

Adam Rothman, Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University, teaches the history of the Atlantic world, slavery, and Jeffersonian America.


What was it like to be a slave in 19th-century America? Two textbooks for high school students, Appleby et al's The American Vision (AV) and Boorstin et al's History of the United States (HUS) offer subtly contrasting answers to this important historical question, but both share a basic narrative voice, characteristic of textbooks, that limits their ability to highlight controversy, explore ambiguity and irony, or raise the problem of how we know what we think we know about slave life.

An Economic Institution

Both textbooks treat slavery as primarily an economic institution in which slaves were regarded by their owners as property yet insisted on their own humanity. The American Vision frames slavery in the context of its discussion of the southern plantation economy, especially its dominant crop, cotton. It traces the expansion of cotton production, analyzes southern class structure, and describes the main ways of organizing slave labor, the task and gang systems. A brief discussion of southern law also emphasizes the economic dimension of southern slavery: "Society viewed enslaved persons as property and treated them that way." The textbook upsets the equation of blacks with enslavement by noting the presence of free African Americans in the United States before the Civil War. (Students may be surprised to learn that 10% of African Americans were free in 1850 and a majority of them lived in slave states.) The American Vision concludes by highlighting the ways slaves coped with enslavement, from singing to Christian religious practice to various tactics of resistance and rebellion. The stories of Solomon Northup, a free man of color from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, and Nat Turner, the famous leader of a slave revolt in Virginia in 1831, bookend The American Vision's presentation of slavery, putting a human (male) face on the history enclosed within.

Textbooks sound authoritative; but comparisons indicate controversy and multiple perspectives.

History of the United States also frames slavery in an economic context, placing it in a section titled "The Cotton Kingdom," although the authors do acknowledge that some slavery was important for other crops, too. The textbook opens its analysis of slavery, however, with white southerners' political and ideological shift toward defending slavery as a positive good. (The authors are surprisingly judgmental here, calling the proslavery intellectuals' arguments "astonishing nonsense.") Reaching back to the era of the "middle passage," the authors point out that while most immigrants came to America voluntarily, Africans had been forced to cross the Atlantic against their will. History of the United States presents slavery as "first and foremost a system of labor control," in which slaveowners compelled their human property to work long and hard. Slaves might be whipped and treated cruelly, but the authors argue that slaves experienced a wide range of condition, treatment, and status. They go so far as to suggest that some masters and slaves may even have "loved" each other. Like The American Vision, History of the United States also points out that enslaved people managed to create a life for themselves despite the cruelties of slavery. Unlike The American Vision, History of the United States concludes by arguing that slavery also negatively affected white southerners by stunting southern economic development.

Although each textbook tells a story that seems authoritative, a subtle contrast between them suggests that this history is open to multiple interpretation and even controversy.

Although each textbook tells a story that seems authoritative, a subtle contrast between them suggests that this history is open to multiple interpretation and even controversy. Consider The American Vision's assertion that "society viewed enslaved persons as property and treated them that way." Now it is true that slaves were considered to be property in the eyes of the law, with the horrific result that human beings were assigned monetary value, given as gifts and passed on to heirs, and bought and sold like cattle. In fact, the authors miss an opportunity to hammer this point home by failing to highlight the domestic slave trade, a traumatic reality in the lives of enslaved people and an essential component in slavery's geographic expansion. On the other hand, as History of the United States makes clear, slaveowners did not view enslaved people merely as property; in countless ways, they understood that their slaves were indeed human beings. A close examination of southern laws makes this clear. Slaves may have been stripped of most human and civil rights, but they were burdened with legal obligations. Unlike other kinds of property, they could be punished for committing crimes. And whether for their own sake or that of their owners, the law offered slaves a modicum of due process so that they could not arbitrarily be punished by the state for crimes they did not commit.

Uses of Primary Sources

History of the United States captures the full range and complexity of slave life better than does The American Vision, but it treads on thin ice in boldly asserting that "there were white Southerners who loved their slaves and who were loved by them in return." Just what kind of love was this? History of the United States explains that plantation mistresses showed their love for slaves by taking care of the sick, giving them food and clothing, attending their rituals, and sometimes even teaching their slaves to read. Now they might have done these things out of love, but they also might have done them because it was in their own self-interest to be "good masters" (whatever that is). To support the idea that some slaveowners loved their slaves, History of the United States quotes the Louisiana slaveowner Rachel O'Connor, who wrote of a sick young slave, "The poor little fellow is laying at my feet asleep. I wish I did not love him as I do, but it is so, and I cannot help it" (see Primary Source Rachel O'Connor Letter [1836]) But it might be asked, does O'Connor love this boy as she would her own son, or does she "love" him as a pet? If Rachel O'Connor had actually fallen in love with one of her slaves in the modern romantic sense, she would not have dared to admit it, let alone act on it, without severe recriminations from her white family and neighbors. Certain kinds of love were unthinkable in a slave society, even if, from time to time, they could not be entirely suppressed.

Primary sources can be laced with ambiguity and are often open to multiple interpretations.

As the quotation from Rachel O'Connor suggests, primary sources can be laced with ambiguity and are often open to multiple interpretations. Both textbooks use snippets from primary sources in ways that conceal the art of critical historical thinking, which involves the careful assessment of documentary and other kinds of evidence. Consider American Vision's "Profiles in History" section about Nat Turner. Most of what we know about Nat Turner comes from a pamphlet titled The Confessions of Nat Turner, written by a white lawyer named Thomas Gray, who interviewed Nat Turner in prison while the convicted rebel was awaiting execution in Southampton, VA, in 1831. Indeed, all of the quotations in the textbook from Nat Turner and his unnamed lawyer come from this pamphlet (see Primary Source The Confessions of Nat Turner [1831]). Is it a reliable source? Are the words really Nat Turner's, or did Gray edit or invent them? The authors of American Vision do not even pose these questions, which point to a core problem in the history of slavery—the dearth of sources written by slaves about their own lives.

Are primary sources always reliable sources?

If Confessions is an authentic transcription of Nat Turner's words, then we ought to pay close attention to what he actually said. Take the following example. According to the textbook, Nat declared that he was "intended for some great purpose." But Confessions actually tells a slightly different story: "Being at play with other children, when three or four years old, I was telling them something, which my mother overhearing, said it had happened before I was born—I stuck to my story, however, and related some things which went, in her opinion, to confirm it—others being called on were greatly astonished, knowing that these things had happened, and caused them to say in my hearing, I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth. And my father and mother strengthened me in this my first impression, saying in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast."

Realities of Slavery

So according to Nat Turner's alleged testimony in the Confessions, it was his parents and the slave community who declared him even as a small child to be divinely appointed for greatness. Rather than a "religious fanatic," he was fulfilling a prophetic destiny affirmed by those closest to him. Understanding the quotation in this way opens up questions about the nature of slave families, the dynamics of slave communities, and the substance of their religious life. To read The Confessions of Nat Turner, then, is to enter a strange world, full of signs and wonders, hope and violence, love and pain—in other words, the history of American slavery.

The historical record is plentiful, and it shows there was no single slave experience.

So what was it like to be a slave? To be honest, it's hard to know for sure, since the sources historians have to work with rarely come from the perspective of slaves themselves. Much of what we think we know about slaves' experiences were written by slaveholders or northern and foreign observers for their own purposes. Even first-person accounts of slavery, such as the autobiographies of former slaves or the Works Progress Administration interviews conducted with former slaves in the 1930s, must be read with a discerning eye. Still, the historical record is plentiful, and it shows there was no single slave experience. Countless planters' papers, ex-slave narratives, court cases and legal documents, newspapers, oral histories, and artifacts dug up from slave quarters, offer clues to the real lives of enslaved people in America. Mining this archive, contemporary historians have been turning from social history to biography. In other words, we are less inclined to ask what it was like to be a slave in the abstract than to draw from the historical record to ask what it was like to be a particular enslaved person, say Frederick Douglass or Sally Hemings, to name two of the most famous. A biographical approach might help to recover the diversity and individuality that historical writing has too often denied to enslaved people.