American Slavery 1619-1877

Peter Kolchin; 10th-Anniversary Edition; With a New Preface and Afterword

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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In its accessibility and comprehensive coverage, Peter Kolchin's American Slavery is a singularly important achievement. Now updated to address a decade of new scholarship, the book includes a new preface and afterword and a revised and expanded bibliographic essay. It remains the best introduction we have to a subject of profound and lasting importance, one that lies at the center of American history.


Praise for American Slavery

"The best short overview of slavery in North America."—David Brion Davis, Yale University

"American Slavery achieves the nearly impossible—synthesizing the voluminous, contentious, and often conflicting scholarship about slavery in the United States from its inception in the seventeenth century to its demise two and a half centuries later . . . An unsurpassed survey of slavery for our times."—Michael P. Johnson, The Journal of Southern History

"This is a brilliant and masterful synthesis of scholarship on the history of slavery in America. Kolchin not only pulls together all the relevant literature but also strikes out with his own perceptive and trenchant analyses."—August Meier, Kent State University

"A feast of deftly crafted interpretations of the many interrelated dimensions of a most complex institution that shaped and deeply scarred American society. Kolchin's masterful survey is by far the best I have seen. It will be hard to surpass."—David Barry Gaspar, Duke University

"Peter Kolchin's American Slavery is the best history of the 'peculiar institution' that I have ever read. Paying equal attention to the slaves and the slaveholders, it is both comprehensive and fair-minded. A master of comparative history, Kolchin brilliantly shows how American slavery was similar to, and at the same time different from, forced labor in Brazil, the Caribbean, and Russia. His splendid bibliographical essay is an indispensable guide to the vast and complex literature on slavery."—David Herbert Donald, Charles Warren Professor of American History Emeritus, Harvard University

"A miraculous achievement . . . Kolchin's exploration of the slave experience displays a subtlety missing from earlier accounts. A concise, well-written, and sensibly argued survey of America's greatest shame."—The New Yorker

"Rich in analysis and insight . . . For the lay reader as for the historian,6 American Slavery is nothing less than essential."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"Provides an informed modern history of slavery and its development, and suggests thoughtful, evenhanded conclusions on issues that have not been resolved definitively."—Pauline Maier, The New York Times Book Review

"No overview of any historical subject is more masterly, fair-minded, and elegant than Kolchin's book. In less than 300 pages he elucidates, from the point of view of both the slaves and the slaveholders, the history of a protean institution that evolved radically, along with white and black attitudes, over two and a half centuries as it spread westward and responded to different agricultural and industrial needs. Recently the authors of a number of books on the subject, understandably appalled by its brutality, have produced little more than defiant indictments of human bondage, a topic about which there would seem already to be some moral agreement. In contrast, Kolchin's approach is cool; he seeks to dissect and explain slavery rather than to expose and condemn it . . . Originally published in 1993, the book has just been reissued in a second, revised edition with a new afterword and a thoroughly updated bibliographical essay of nearly fifty pages (the most astute authoritative assessment of slavery scholarship that exists). Fluently written and a masterpiece of compression, this is one of the very few books that every American should own . . . and read."—Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly

"Beyond a doubt, the finest history of this 'peculiar institution.'"—Harry Sayen, The Times (Trenton, N.J.)

"This readable synthesis of scholarship [offers] a judicious view of historians' controversies surrounding this topic. Kolchin offers a good narrative account of American slavery, but the book is most useful for his historiographical navigation. While some scholars have argued that slaves quickly abandoned African ways, and others maintain that slave culture was strongly African, Kolchin disputes this dichotomy, describing instead the development of a unique African American culture. Likewise, Kolchin sees the validity of studies that have focused on slaves as victims as well as more recent work emphasizing their resiliency. With perspective drawn from his research into the end of slavery in other countries, Kolchin stresses that Reconstruction, once seen by scholars as cruel to Southern whites and more recently as insufficiently revolutionary, was in fact 'an extraordinary departure' that took control of the mechanics of emancipation away from the former masters."—Publishers Weekly

"In a lively interpretive history, Kolchin succinctly traces America's institution of slavery from its Colonial beginnings to the Reconstruction era. American slavery, Kolchin explains, didn't develop in isolation but evolved as part of a trend toward forced labor in the New World colonies, especially in the Caribbean and Brazil. In Colonial America, 'the initial demand for labor was precisely that—for labor—and was largely color-blind.' Most forced laborers were indentured servants from Great Britain; although some slavery existed as early as the founding, in the early 17th century, of the Virginia colony, not until that century's close were Africans imported in large numbers as slaves. Kolchin reveals that, while the plantation slavery of what was to become the South developed distinctively (and primarily to cultivate tobacco and cotton), it had much in common with the plantation slavery of the Caribbean (where sugar was the primary crop). By about 1770, American slavery was concentrated mostly in the South, though it existed in all of the American colonies, and, as time passed, relationships between slaves and masters changed as second-generation slaves lost much of their African culture and became Americanized. In the US—in contrast to the Caribbean—slaves lived longer, developed considerable occupational diversity, and became acculturated, particularly in their absorption of Protestantism. The Revolutionary era saw slavery threatened by Enlightenment ideology, but the institution survived more strongly than ever in the South and, during the 19th century, came to be perceived as fundamental to the Southern economy and way of life. Kolchin writes about slave life through the Civil War, and, not surprisingly, he sees slavery as leaving a legacy that has persisted throughout our own century. A clear and briskly written survey that puts slavery in context and explains its continuing impact on American life."—Kirkus Reviews

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Peter Kolchin, the Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at the University of Delaware, is the author of numerous books, most recently A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth Century South in Comparative Perspective (2003).
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  • Peter Kolchin; 10th-Anniversary Edition; With a New Preface and Afterword

  • Peter Kolchin, the Henry Clay Reed Professor of History at the University of Delaware, is the author of numerous books, most recently A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth Century South in Comparative Perspective.