US Slavery. From "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to Cinematic Representations

Bachelor Thesis, 2020

38 Pages, Grade: 8.66

Bela Ursache (Author)


Table of Contents


US Slavery: Historical Context
The Story of the First Slaves
Slavery Chronology until the Outbreak of the American Independence War (1776)
The Situation of Slaves until the War of Succession
Abraham Lincoln and the Abolishment of Slavery

Cultural Society of the 19 th Century in the US
Evolution of American Literature
Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Revolutionary Novel

Cinematography: The beginning of a new era and its approach in the context of slavery
The Birth of a Nation (1915) A Very Racist Reality
12 Years a Slave (2012) - A True Story about Struggle for Freedom
Django Unchained (2012) - The ‘Un-Chained' Slave
Lincoln (2012) - A Symbol of Genius and Simplicity




What is slavery and whom affected the most? What are its causes? When and where did it start and when did it end? These are a few questions I will approach throughout this thesis, with a special focus on the case of United States.

First, I will explain its origin, evolution and effects and continue with the story of the first slaves, namely, how those who broke the law of British metropolis became the first holders of the slavery status, in the deportation land of Virginia. The rise of slavery in the United States, was accompanied at the beginning with the promotion of civil liberties and equalities.

The aim of this first chapter of the dissertation, is to present slavery in a historical context, therefore I will do a chronology until the outbreak of the American Independence War (1776).

The situation of slaves until the outbreak of the Secession War (1861-1865) is also essential to understand the way American institutions and civil rights had evolved.

The 16th US President Abraham Lincoln is a key-symbol of the abolition of slavery and human kindness, a political genius, and atrue American value without whom nothing would have been possible, through his memorable speech in 1858, known as Divided House. The consequences of its move are presented and detailed over the written paper.

The culture and society of the 19th century hadbeen highly influenced by the conditions of slavery, namely literature and later cinematography. Thenext chapter will focus on the cultural field. I will describe how the best seller novel of that time Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe led to the Secession War between North and South.

And finally, as a sequel to the cultural society approach, I chose to continue my case study witha number of cinematographic representations that deal with the existence and abolition of slavery.

Films as Birth of Nation, 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained and Lincoln, are not only world­wide critically acclaimed, but also inspire us to fight for justice, for what's right and fair.

It's important to comprehend the way slavery used to be seen and understood by the societies of 19th and 20th centuries and how this evolved in this new millennium, an era of communication, social media impact and globalization, where unfortunately slavery continues to exist, however in different forms. And present or not, nowadays the US enslavement and abolition have left their mark especially in cinematography.

I. US Slavery: Historical Context

Until the American Civil War (1861-1864), slave owners and their properties consisted of slaves of African origin were an ordinary landscape of early American society. It is known that George Washington, the first American president, had inherited slaves from his father, the owner of a Virginia cave plantation. One-fifth of the American colonial population under the British crown was constituting slaves. As I have already mentioned, promoting civil liberties and equality in the US was initially accompanied by the rise of slavery. We can never understand how American democratic institutions and civil rights have evolved until we have objectively analyzed the role that slavery has had since the beginning of the American colonies.

1. The Story of the First Slaves

As stated by the American historian Edmund S. Morgan, in his work entitled American Slavery, American Freedom1, ‘slavery was considered neither necessary nor profitable in the early years ofthe American colonies'. Civil employees were initially those who performed different jobs within the colony.

Slavery in America began initially deportation colony Virginia of different individuals who have broken the law in the British metropolis.In general criminals in England could be punished by three ways: Whips and sending back to the parish where they came, forced enlistment in military expeditions or deportation to colonies.

Once they arrived in the colonies, these deportees had to do different jobs for the settlers, in return for which they were poorly paid. Historian Edmund Morgan argues that officials in Virginia have quickly found a way to fool this category of labors, who came to serve a penalty.

Virginia settlers have artificially created a shortage of land, so that workers who were supposed to become free men to have no place to live and return to servitude. They also took as much of the profits were put workers through various methods such as extortion annuities and various fees and charges they had to get into the hands of the bourgeoisie and civil servants. As a result, the risk of rebellion inside the colony was very high.

The ambition of landowners to make profits as quickly and as easily as possible, set up pretty fast slavery in the state of Virginia. Those who have been serving Virginia's tobacco plantations for a long time have gradually become subject to more and more harsh punishments in case of escape. In Virginia, in 1620, such workers have come to be sold and bought as commodities. Once slavery has been accepted as a work system, the central authority no longer wanted to give up the benefits of maintaining it (covering labor, overproduction and free markets).

2. Slavery chronology until the outbreak of the American Independence War (1776)

The history of African-American slaves officially began on August 20, 1619, when a Dutch ship brought 20 slaves of African origin to Jamestown (Virginia). Officially, these primitive African- American slaves were originally designated as apprentices. The owner of a tobacco planting, John Rolfe, writes the event in his diary: "In late August, a Dutchman came and sold us 20 negars."2

In the first phase, the first African Americans could regain their freedom after 4 or 7 years in the service of the master. After the first generation, African-American servants gradually increased their dependency until they became enslaved for life.

The one who would actively engage in transatlantic trade with Slavs was the West Indies Company (1621), a corporation that held the monopoly in this area. The Dutch Colony New Amsterdam (current New York) has been a headquarters for this company.

House of Burgesses, Virginia's lawmaker, adopted a law imposing fines for all those involved in affairs with African Americans in 1622 to prevent interracial marriage, but the law banning interracial marriage would be adopted only in 1691. The main justification for this law was related in particular to the legally uncertain status of children resulting from interracial relationships. This was the basis of racial segregation.

According to the archives of the Virginia Colonial Court in 1622, the first black Americans that became free men were Anthony and Mary Johnson. Anthony Johnson ended up as the slave owner. Therefore, it's important to remember that slavery spread in the 13 American colonies was done with the collusion of thefree color population.

Since 1626, Dutch colonists from New Holland (the East Coast of the Americas - Mid-Atlantic) had begun to introduce Africans to Hudson Valley farms. If initially they were able to release after many years of work, the Afro Americans exploited by the Dutch would gradually become slaves, just like in Virginia. Under Dutch law, children born of slavish parents also received slave status.

From 1629, slaves will also be imported into the region known as Connecticut. This colony will legalize the institution of slavery in 1650. It is worth noting the migration of slaves from one territory to another. In 1630, the Massachusetts Gulf Colony even approved a fugitive slave law designed to protect them from the ill-treatment of their masters. From 1634, Massachusetts began to import slaves. In the same year, slavery was first introduced to the Maryland Colony, and after two years in the Delaware colony. Among the first regions in North America to provide access to education for these African-American slaves werethe Louisiana French colony. Louis XIV's Code Noir of France was implemented by colonial officials in 1724, which according to it, slaves were given some rights, such as theaccess to education, in the Catholic faith, and the right to get marry. Even if the corporal punishment was accepted under certain circumstances sometimes, in principle, slave owners were prohibited to torture their slaves or to separate their families.

The first slaves began arriving in Barbados since 1638. Boston settlement received via maritime cargo sites and slaves along with other goods. In 1640, House of Burgesses condemned servant John Punch to life-long labor because of the fact that he has fled from his master. Other John Punch's white companions will be sentenced to lighter punishments. From that moment on, it became very clear that African-American servants had begun to become officially slaves in the Virginia colony.

John Punch's trial also showed that whites and blacks were not equal before the law. Although they committed the same deed, Punch's white comrades were more lenient. In the next year, there is another step towards recognition of the slavery institution when the Massachusetts colony legalizes it, recognizing it as a practice in Section 91 of the Freedom Corps. It was only sanctioned to capture slaves through "unwarranted violence". The provision will also be referred to in the laws of the other New England Confederation.

In Virginia, if a slave had been caught evading for the second time, he could be infuriated. The measure was followed by other similar orders that led to the worsening of the condition of slaves. Recognition by a local magistrate was sufficient evidence to condemn a fugitive slave.

There is no procedural code, so that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century appeared all sorts of contradictory laws related to slave status.

American colonists began to build merchant ships to be involved in the transatlantic slave trade. The first such vessel was Rainbow, which began to transport slaves from 1645. That same year, the New Hampshire colony introduced slavery.

With the adoption of a new law on navigation, the British Parliament set itself the goal of limiting as much as possible the Dutch influence of slavery trade, especially in the 13 US colonies. After the War of the Spanish Succession (1700-1714), the British took control of the hand of the Dutch slave trade.

The practice of slavery is officially legalized as an institution in 1660 in British America. In turn, the colonial assemblies began to adopt laws known as slavery codes, which embraced the slaves' freedoms and protected their masters at the same time.

The English political philosopher, John Lucke, drafted a Constitution for the Carolina colony in 1660, in which he granted to each free man, full power in relation to the slaves he owned. Even if Lucke's Constitutional draft was not adopted, the slave owners received increased powers in colonial laws. Slavery became officially hereditary in Virginia with the adoption of the measure requiring all newborns to receive the mother's social status. In the Act of Controlling Blacks on British Plants, approved by the English Parliament in 1667, Africans are described as “barbarians of a wild nature, who must be kept under strict supervision”.

In 1664, two other colonies, New York and New Jersey, legalized the institution of slavery. Amerindians and Christian Africans were also used as slaves. In the Virginia colony, as early as 1669, any master who killed his slave was acquitted. For the legislators in Virginia, slaves were not perceived as individuals, but as consumer goods owned by a free man. The fledgling slaves from Virginia have been able to establish isolated communities in the mountains, marshes and forests, where they then made trips to the colony plantations to get the necessary living. The authorities of Virginia offered more rewards to those who helped catch those fugitives.

As far as Dutch slave traders were concerned, they still managed to bring about 15,000 African slaves a year, coming from Angola, to America. The slaves were bought from Africa with 15 florins and sold in America at prices between 300-500 florins. In America, those who opposed most of the power of slavery were the Protestant Christians (quackery) who promoted pacifism and austerity. They have succeeded in persuading legislators to ban slavery in the western part of New Jersey.

The Royal African Company obtained from the British Parliament in 1672 the monopoly over slave trade between Africa and America.

Although the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which marked the birth of the US, stated that all men were born equal, the practice of slavery remains legal in all 13 former British Crown colonies.

The first step in the liberation of slaves has been taken in 1777, when laws of the emancipation of slaves began to emerge in states. The first was Vermont (1777), followed by Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts and New Hampshire (1783).

The last step in the emancipation of slaves in the northern states of America was made in 1787 when the Northwest Ordinance, responsible for the administration of the territories of the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, banned the practice of slavery. Thus, along with the laws of emancipation in states, a Nord free slavery was created.

3. The situation of slaves until the outbreak of the Secession War (1861-1865)

Elaborated in 1787 and ratified in 1788, the US Constitution does not specifically mention the institution of slavery, but makes indirect references to three points:

- The Congress grants the right to prohibit slaves trade after 20 years;
- In a clause set out in Article I, it establishes the debate on slavery counting to establish taxes and representation;
- Article IV, Section 2 mentions a person held in a service or a job that runs a refugee in another state. If a party requests the return of that person, the claim must be satisfied.

Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 - The Fugitive Slave Clause of the United States Constitution3, led to the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, which allowed slave masters to cross the lines of demarcation between states in order to recover their fledgling slaves. According to this law, the property right over an alleged fugitive slave had to be tried in court. In response, some northern states have enacted laws guaranteeing personal freedoms by giving fugitive slaves legal assistance to support their plea.

‘No person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due', is the text of Fugitive Slave Clause.4

In 1820, the Missouri Compromise entered into force, whereby the Congress recognized the state of Missouri as a state of slavery, and Maine as a free state. At the same time through, the Treaty of Louisiana banned slavery in thenorth of the 36 ° 30 'parallel.

In the period preceding the Secession War, the development of the abolitionist movements that attempted to influence the political decision favorable to the abolition of slavery in the Southern states was noted.

The key moment for the abolitionist movements is the establishment in 1831 of The Liberator's abolitionist newspaper by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp in Boston. Abolitionists did not accept compromises on the practice of slavery and demanded that it be immediately removed from the law. Garrison, along with Arthur and Lewis Tappan, founded the American Anti­slavery Society in 1833.

In addition to the abolitionist movement a revolt of the slaves in the southern territories began to be organized. It's the case of Virginia slave revolt in 1831, planned by the literate slave Nat Turner. The revolt fails, with over 200 dead among the ladies. However, 57 whites are also killed, causing a heated debate among lawmakers in Virginia on the opportunity of adopting a law on the emancipation of slaves. Discussions remain without result, as Virginia refuses to adopt slaves-friendly legislation.

For fear of new slaves, sovereign states tightened the slavery laws. Also, any means of expressing anti-slave sentiment is subject to censorship.

The political and social gulf between the industrialized northern and the southern agrarian of the US continues to deepen, mainly due to the issue of glory.

In 1842, the Supreme Court of the United States decided to reinforce the Fallen Slave Law and declare unconstitutional the law passed in Pennsylvania banning the practice of kidnapping African-Americans for later use as slaves. In response to this decision, 9 northern states are deciding to adopt sets of laws to ban officials in their own countries from cooperating on the issue of returning alleged fugitive slaves.

In order to resolve the divisions between the North and the South, Henry Clay managed to adopt a consensus in Congress in 1850. After the end of the military campaigns against Mexico, the new American state of California was declared a state free from slavery, while New Mexico and Utah are back to the US state of slavery. In Washington DC, the slave trade was abolished, but not the practice of slavery.

The fight against slavery is transposed inthe American literature of those years. This is the Uncle Tom's Cabin novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, that portrayed slavery as a terrible evil. While the book is forbidden in the South, in the North it became a bestseller.

4. Abraham Lincoln and the Abolishment of Slavery

Most politicians of the Republican Party, led by Abraham Lincoln supported the abolitionist movement in the North, considering that power adjustments slave owners control including the Supreme Court, as demonstrated by the unjust verdict gave Dred Scott.

Year 1858 is marked by Lincoln's speech on the theme of glory, titled the Divided House. The content of the discourse refers to the fact that a nation like America, will no longer be able to survive divided into territories half-captive and half-free. With this political conviction, Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election in 1860, becoming the 16th President of the United States, in a period of great trials for the American history. In the Secession War that followed, a large part of the US Confederation slaves found refuge in the Union and even fought for it, forming a whole American regiment (US Troops). The Union, being aware of the fact that the Confederacy's economy and army largely depend on slave labor, refused to return fledgling slaves from the South under the Confiscation Act (1861). The presence of these slaves in the North convinced President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), which changed the legal status of the 3 million slaves belonging to the Southern States, turning them into free men. This meant that any slave who managed to escape from the Confederation and reached the territory ofthe Union was automatically considered free. In April, Lincoln convinced the Congress at the same time to vote for the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which recognized emancipation as universal and permanent. The thirteenth Amendment was voted by the US Senate in 1864, and by the House of Representatives one year later. Thus, slavery was abolished and considered only as a punishment for committing a crime. The ratification of this amendment to the US Constitution took place in December 1865.


1 Edmund S. Morgan, The Journal of American History, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Jun., 1972)

2 Christopher G. Bates, The Early Republic and Antebellum America: An Encyclopedia of Social, Political, Cultural, and Economic History Vol. 1-4, London, New York, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2010, p.1217, Accessed February 1, 2020, Retrieved

3 “Legal Information Institute”, Accessed February 8, 2020, Retrieved conan/article-4/section-2/clause-3

4 Ibid 3

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US Slavery. From "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to Cinematic Representations
University of Bucharest
Political Science in English
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Bela Ursache (Author), 2020, US Slavery. From "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to Cinematic Representations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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