Slave breeding in the United States

Slave breeding in the United States includes any practice of slave ownership that aimed to systematically influence the reproduction of slaves in order to increase the wealth of slaveholders.[1] Slave breeding included coerced sexual relations between male and female slaves, promoting pregnancies of slaves, and favoring female slaves who could produce a relatively large number of children.[1] The purpose of slave breeding was to acquire new slaves without incurring the cost of purchase, and to fill labor shortages caused by the termination of the Atlantic slave trade.[2]

Selective breeding between slaves with the aim of developing particular physical traits was extremely rare however,[3] as most slaves were unrestricted in their choice of sexual partners.[4]

Historical context

End of the American slave trade

Slaves dancing on a South Carolina plantation. The Old Plantation, c. 1790.

The laws that ultimately ended the Atlantic Slave Trade came about as a result of the efforts of abolitionist Christian groups such as the Society of Friends, known as Quakers, and Evangelicals led by William Wilberforce, whose efforts through the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade led to the passage of the Slave Trade Act by the British Parliament in 1807.[5] This led to increased calls for the same ban in America, supported by members of the U.S. Congress from both the North and the South as well as President Thomas Jefferson.[6]

At the same time that the importation of slaves from Africa was being restricted or eliminated, the United States was undergoing a rapid expansion of cotton, sugar cane and rice production in the Deep South and the West. Invention of the cotton gin enabled the profitable cultivation of short-staple cotton, which could be produced more widely than other types; this led to King Cotton throughout the Deep South. Slaves were treated as a commodity by owners and traders alike, and were regarded as the crucial labor for the production of lucrative cash crops that fed the triangle trade.[7][8]

The slaves were managed as assets in the same way as chattel; slaveholders passed laws regulating slavery and the slave trade designed to protect their financial interests; there was little protection for the slaves. On large plantations, slave families were separated for different types of labor. Men tended to be assigned to large field gangs. Workers were assigned to the task for which they were best physically suited according to the overseer.[9][10]

Breeding in response to end of slave imports

The prohibition of the African slave-trade after 1807 limited the supply of slaves in the United States. Slaveholders looked at the fertility of slave women as part of their productivity, and intermittently forced the women to have large numbers of children. The invention of the cotton gin enabled expanded cultivation in the uplands of short-staple cotton, leading to clearing lands cultivating cotton through large areas of the Deep South, especially the Black Belt. The demand for labor in the area increased sharply and an internal slave market expanded. At the same time, the Upper South had an excess supply of slaves because of a shift to mixed crops agriculture, which was less labor-intensive than tobacco. During this time period, the terms "breeding slaves", "child bearing women", "breeding period", and "too old to breed" became familiar.[11]

Planters in the Upper South states started selling slaves to the Deep South, generally through slave traders. Louisville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River was a major slave market and port for shipping slaves downriver by the Mississippi to the South. New Orleans had the largest slave market in the country and became the fourth largest city in the US by 1840 and the wealthiest, mostly because of its slave trade and associated businesses.[12]

Slave accounts

See also: Slave narrative

In the antebellum years, numerous escaped slaves wrote about their experiences in books called slave narratives. Many recounted that at least a portion of slave owners continuously interfered in the sexual lives of their slaves (usually the women). The slave narratives also testified that slave women were subjected to arranged marriages, forced matings, sexual violation by masters, their sons or overseers, and other forms of abuse. Skeptics maintain that reports from witnesses were apocryphal, and never specified a particular place in which breeding practices were alleged to have occurred.

The historian E. Franklin Frazier, in his book The Negro Family, stated that "there were masters who, without any regard for the preferences of their slaves, mated their human chattel as they did their stock." Ex-slave Maggie Stenhouse remarked, "Durin' slavery there were stockmen. They was weighed and tested. A man would rent the stockman and put him in a room with some young women he wanted to raise children from."[13]


Personhood to thinghood

Several factors coalesced to make the breeding of slaves a common practice by the end of the 18th century, chief among them the enactment of laws and practices that transformed the view of slaves from "personhood" into "thinghood." In this way, slaves could be bought and sold as chattel without presenting a challenge to the religious beliefs and social mores of the society at large. All rights were to the owner of the slave, with the slave having no rights of self-determination either to his own person, or to that of his spouse, or his children.

Slaveholders began to think that slavery was grounded in the Bible. This view was inspired in part by a reinterpretation of the Genesis passage "Cursed be Canaan; The lowest of slaves Shall he be to his brothers" (Genesis 9); Ham, son of Noah and father of Canaan, was deemed the antediluvian progenitor of the African people. Some whites used the Bible to justify the economic use of slave labor. Subjugation of slaves was taken as a natural right of the white slave owners. The second class position of the slave was not limited to his relationship with the slave master, but was to be in relation to all whites. Slaves were considered subject to white persons.[14]


In a study of 2,588 slaves in 1860 by the economist Richard Sutch, he found that on slave-holdings with at least one woman, the average ratio of women to men exceeded 2:1. The imbalance was greater in the "selling states", where the excess of women over men was 300 per thousand.[15]

Natural increase vs systematic breeding

Ned Sublette, co-author of the The American Slave Coast, states that the reproductive worth of "breeding women" was essential to the young country's expansion not just for labor but as merchandise and collateral stemming from a shortage of silver, gold, or sound paper tender. He concludes that slaves and their descendants were used as human savings accounts with newborns serving as interest that functioned as the basis of money and credit in a market premised on the continual expansion of slavery.[16]

Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman reject the idea that systematic slave breeding was a major economic concern in their 1974 book Time on the Cross.[17] They argue that there is very meager evidence for the systematic breeding of slaves for sale in the market in the Upper South during the 19th century. They distinguish systematic breeding—the interference in normal sexual patterns by masters with an aim to increase fertility or encourage desirable characteristics—from pro-natalist policies, the generalized encouragement of large families through a combination of rewards, improved living and working conditions for fertile women and their children, and other policy changes by masters. They point out that the demographic evidence is subject to a number of interpretations. Fogel argues that when planters intervened in the private lives of slaves it actually had a negative impact on population growth.[2]

See also


Further reading


  1. 1 2 Marable, Manning (2000). How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society. Boston: South End Press, p. 72.
  2. 1 2 Davis, David Brion (2014) "Slavery, Sex, and Dehumanization." In Gwyn Campbell and Elizabeth Elbourne's Sex, Power, and Slavery. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, pp. 51-53.
  3. Nolen, Claude H. (2001) African American Southerners in Slavery, Civil War, and Reconstruction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, p. 46.
  4. Sailes, G. A. (1998) African Americans in Sports: Contemporary Themes. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 192.
  5. Finkelman, Paul and Joseph C. Miller, eds. (1998) Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Vol. 2. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  6. Schneider, Dorothy and Carl J. Schneider (2000). Slavery in America from Colonial Times to the Civil War. New York: Facts on File, pp. 261-72.
  7. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998, pp. 95-101.
  8. David W. Galenson, Traders, Planters, and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America, 1986.
  9. Dorothy Schneider and Carl J. Schneider, "Slavery in America from Colonial Times to the Civil War", Facts on File, 2000. pp. 52-56
  10. Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone, 1998, pp. 40-41; 129-32.
  11. Smith, Julia Floyd (1991) Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1860 University of Tennessee Press, 104.
  12. Hornsby, Alton Jr. (2011) Black America: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara CA: Greenwood Press, p. 335.
  13. Work Projects Administration, Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, Arkansas Narratives, Part 6, Kessinger Publishing, 2004, p. 154.
  14. Eddie Donoghue, Black Breeding Machines: The Breeding of Negro Slaves in the Diaspora, AuthorHouse, 2008, pp. 134-36.
  15. Sutch, Richard, "The Breeding of Slaves for Sale and the Westward of Slavery, 1850-1860", in Stanley L. Engerman and Eugene Genovese (eds), Race and Slavery in the Western Hemishpere: Q Studies, Princeton University Press, 1975, pp. 173-210.
  16. Sublette, Ned and Constance Sublette (2016). American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry. Chicago IL: Chicago Review Press, p. 49.
  17. Fogel, Robert; Engerman, Stanley (1995). Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. New York: Norton, p. 78.
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