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American Slavery: 1619-1877 by Peter Kolchin

“American Slavery: 1619-1877” is the complete title of the book written by Peter Kolchin. It was first issued in 1993, and this paper is the critical review essay of the 2003 edition that contains an afterword. The aim of the book directly links to the title, American Slavery. This work is fundamentally the piece of literature created to provide far better acknowledgement for the US slavery, and the issue of slavery in general counting trade and living as a slave. American Slavery: 1619-1877 deals with centuries of misery by many people in a dispassionate, practically clinical way. One of the shameful fragments of the US history, slavery deserves readers’ attention both to correct too rosy view of American uniqueness and to add insights to the acknowledgment of the modern globe.

The Key Elements of the Book

In less than 300 pages Kolchin clarifies, from the viewpoint of the slaves and the slaveholders, the history of the protean institution, which developed radically; together with black and white attitudes, over two and a half centuries as it extended westward and responded to dissimilar industrial and agricultural requirements. Researcher’s approach is cool. He is not accepting any position; he seeks to explain slavery (Sinha, 2004). This is significant as he stresses a particularly burdened characteristic of his subject: the intertwined and intimate tie between slaves and their masters. The author asserts that the relatively high rate of white to black people, along with the tiny size of plantations in the South, constituted the most obvious dissimilarity between that slave social order in the USA and those in other places of the New World.

In fact, these circumstances assured strong day-to-day contact between slaves and their slaveholders, in which master and slave frequently worked alongside one another in the fields, and even worshipped in the same churches. Such relations, naturally, were hardly kindly, and one can simply claim that the US slavery – a system established on limitless violence, in which affection and dependency flowed into hatred, was all the more terrible for its paradoxes and ethical entanglements (Sinha, 2004). That institution, Kolchin reveals, ferociously bound two populaces together in the opposition, forging a correlation based on such interdependence that neither could express the emotions without any reference to the other.

The book follows the timeline: starting with the genesis of slavery and following it all through the history, concentrating generally on the time frame of colonial period and the nineteenth century to the finale of slavery in the USA. In American Slavery, there is much concentration linked to the antebellum era. The antebellum era may be widespread as the years between the establishment of a Union and the Civil War and liberation of black people (Kolchin, 2003).

The work is divided into two parts. The initial part observes the author’s dramatic presentation of the slave-master mind and relations from the 17th to 19th century. The second part investigates the author’s choice of approach in narration – how, aside from quoting statistics, Kolchin provided weight to stories about slaves’ and slave owners livings and surroundings. The author probes into the livings of those incarcerated by the peculiar institution’ of the US slavery. He deepens profoundly into the strangely fascinating dynamics of the slave-master relations that enable incidents such as a master beating a slave for working slowly and then gathering all slaves for the Bible reading evening (Sinha, 2004).

The book has extremely informative data on slave populaces. It shows, for instance, that unlike the Caribbean slavery in which people tended to be found in vast plantations with many slaves the majority slaves in the USA were found in tiny holdings, frequently with only several slaves (Kolchin, 2003).

The book is especially good in dealing with the manner in which all slaves lived. It stresses that early in the US history bondsmen were usually European servants, but that resource of bonded labor was substituted by African migrants. In the beginning of African-American slavery, most of the slaves were men. However, by antebellum era, most African-American slaves were American born, the sex level had stabilized, and family living had become more achievable for slaves (Kolchin, 2003).

Kolchin additionally draws attention to slaves extended work hours, and differentiates among the elite and usual slaves in terms of the degree of autonomy everyone enjoyed (Sinha, 2004). Nevertheless, he claims, no slave had the right to possess property, inherit capital or register the marriage bond. Likewise, the scientist allows readers to see the other side of the coin; paternalism. Endeavoring to make it unbiased, the author asserts paternalism was dualistic, though favoring a good deal the slave owner’s side.

Neither imitator of the white people, nor independent African people, slaves had own realm of ideology, tradition, customs and culture. Slaves had their own Christianity, and religion worked doubly for them: it not merely made them more modest concerning the slave owners, but also opened the eyes to the realism of existence (Sinha, 2004).

What the author is more interested in – is the manner African Americans attempted to make a common recognition; he notices it no utopia, nevertheless. That is why right after this, he counts all the manners they resisted: insurrection, job slowdown, escape, direct confrontation and poisoning. They largely identified themselves in terms of blackness and race, rather than class or culture dissimilarities. Altogether, Kolchin makes it obvious that they existed and loved in their own ways (Kolchin, 2003).

At the same time, the materialistic South elite attempted to save slavery as their utmost manner of living. It should be mentioned that the profitable trade in slavery by no means presupposed evolved economy in the South. Urban living was backward; industry was missing, and even schooling was in its basic form.

The author pays attention to the other aspect of the South. White people expressed hostility toward reform and elimination. Insofar as the issue of slavery was concerned its justification was synonymous to security of the South. This merely sheds light on other concealed fragments of southern living: slave-based economy, slave-dominated geography, slave-run politics and slave-managing ideology (Hansen & Curtis, 2010). All these were acceptable economically and religiously by the white people of South, but intolerable to the North (and to the slaves).

Altogether what the author is after is double-edged debate on the manner slavery evolved and finished in the Civil War. However, it should be taken into account that the author’s way to evolve his argument is very much unclear and conservative. He makes one claim, and in the next sentence provides the counter-evidence. Therefore, a reader is left not capable to figure out which position is closer to him or her. Still, in attempting to stay neutral, one might assert, he has no other way out than presenting dissimilar, even opposing points of view.

Book Critique

Thus, it is possible to claim that Peter Kolchin’s book is the finest history of the peculiar institution. Paying equivalent attention to the slaveholders and the slaves, it is comprehensive and fair-minded work. The experienced master of comparative history, Peter Kolchin brilliantly demonstrates how the US slavery was close to, and at the same time dissimilar from, forced labor in Brazil, Russia and the Caribbean (Hansen & Curtis, 2010). His bibliographical account is the crucial guide to the large and complex literature on slavery.

In this clear synthesis of scholarship, Kolchin takes the sensible view of historians’ disagreements surrounding this issue. The scientist suggests a good account of the US slavery, but the book is most helpful for the historiographical navigation. Whilst some researchers have asserted that slaves rapidly abandoned African ways, and others declare that slave culture was sturdily African, Kolchin disputes the dichotomy, instead depicting the evolvement of the exceptional African American culture. Similarly, the author notices the weight of studies, which have concentrated on slaves as casualties as well as the latest work stressing the resiliency. With perception drawn from the research into the finale of slavery in other nations, Kolchin stresses Reconstruction: once treated by researchers as unkind to Southern whites and more recently as inadequately revolutionary, was actually the unexpected departure, which took control of mechanics of emancipation far from the former slave owners (Hansen & Curtis, 2010).

Kolchin has found out obviously common features in master–bondsman tie, the key focus of his research, but he also demonstrates their basic dissimilarities as he compares slave and serf existence and creates the models of resistance (Hansen & Curtis, 2010). If the slave owners had the upper hand, the slaves played the chief roles in creating, and setting restrictions to their own repression. It is easy to understand that the success of this book is the fact that it is the initial comprehensive historical synthesis on the issue of racial slavery in the USA. Unlike many other books, Kolchin’s work included the life of institution from the origin till the finale in the Civil War. This really unparalleled comparative work will attract sociologists, historians, and all social scientists, chiefly those with an interest in comparative history and investigations of the issue of slavery.


American Slavery is the constant reminder of how many people nowadays owe to all individuals who worked to create the USA in the past. The African Americans were among those people, but so were Chinese laborers, brought to create transcontinental railway, and the European migrants who provided labor in the North. Native Americans contributed to the wealth of this nation as they were dispossessed of the land and its sources without any compensation.

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