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Exploring the Depths of ‘White Slavery’

The institution of slavery, as most of us understand it, was a hereditary system based upon race. Yet, there are some who claim that white people were slaves as well. The institution, they seem to insist, was not race-based, but founded upon social status. Some argue that if white people could also be slaves, then perhaps slavery wasn’t based upon race. This faulty understanding is an attempt to redefine chattel slavery in pre-Civil War America. This piece takes a deeper look at hereditary slavery, asking whether white people were actually subject to such an institution.

Defining American Slavery

The word “slave” has been used in nearly countless ways since the 1800s. Its definitions run the gambit from the perpetual ownership of another human to receiving low wages to even being in love. For the sake of clarification, let’s first define what it meant to be a slave in colonial and pre-Civil War America – when the institution existed. Though each colony had to figure all of this out on their own, by 1700 slavery was pretty clearly understood. Slaves were laborers who were owned as property by their masters. Their service to the master lasted until their death. The children of female slaves were also slaves themselves, and inherited by the mother’s master.

The establishment of the United States government did nothing to change these common laws. The constitution neither outlawed nor established slavery. With the exception of several clauses about taxes, the slave trade, and representation, slavery was unchanged by the Constitution. 1Jean Allain The Legal Understanding of Slavery: From the Historical to the Contemporary (Oxford University Press, 2012) 119-120. This is obviously a huge simplification, but then, this entire article is.

Philadelphia advertisement selling the time of a Scottish girl (not the girl herself).
Philadelphia advertisement selling the time of a Scottish girl (not the girl herself).

So What About White Slaves?

Now that we’ve seen the definition of slavery as established by colonial and early America, where does this leave enslaved whites? Put simply – nowhere. Slavery in the United States was only for those of African descent (with some cases made early on to enslave Native Americans). When there are references to “white slavery,” the system to which they are referring is actually that of indentured servitude – an institution quite a bit different from slavery.

While slaves were acquired against their own wills, indentured servants usually came about their condition by their own decision. In the 1600s and early 1700s, business or land owners in the colonies would pay the cost of bringing a laborer from Europe. The laborer would agree to work off the debt of passage to the New World in return for room, board, necessities, and usually training in a trade. Most indentured servants were in their early twenties, but many were younger, and some were even signed over to ship captains by their impoverished parents.

In turn, the captain would then sell their labor contracts to anyone who needed laborers. The servants were freed from service when that debt was paid. They were also, by custom, generally given some sort of payment in money, food or supplies, called “freedom dues.”  2Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Slavery in the United States, Volume 1 (ABC-CLIO, 2007) 86.

The Person or the Labor?

This brings us to the issue of property. Those acquiring the indentured servants did not actually buy the person, as was done within the institution of slavery. Instead, they purchased the contract to labor. This indentured the servant to the buyer for a set length of time, after which they would be free. Typically, that length for was seven years, though it varied greatly. Under slavery there were no such provisions. The slave was property, owned by the master until the end of the slave’s life. 3Edmund S. Morgan American Slavery, American Freedom (W.W. Norton, 1975) 116. This entire book does a fine job at defining both servitude and slavery in colonial Virginia.

Indentured servants were required to work for their masters for the duration of their contracts. That did not mean, however, that their family members were automatically under such rules. A husband, for example, could be an indentured servant, but the wife free to labor as she pleased.  Children of indentured servants were often placed into workhouses or apprenticeships to help pay off the parents’ debts. Their freedom was ensured upon adulthood, if they survived their childhood. 4Gwyn Campbell Bonded Labour and Debt in the Indian Ocean World (Routledge, 2013) 80.

This is not to say that the limited time spent as an indentured servant was easier or even much different that that under slavery. The work, the living situation, etc., were just as inhumane for the indentured servant as they were for the slave. The differences lie not in how the slave or servant was treated or how they lived and worked, but in how they came to be in that position and how they could or could not obtain their freedom.

Advertisement from a Philadelphia newspaper clearly noting the difference between African slaves and indentured servants.
Advertisement from a Philadelphia newspaper clearly noting the difference between African slaves and indentured servants.

The Death of Indentured Servitude

Until the mid 1600s, the system of indentured servitude, while vastly populated by white Europeans, also generally folded those of African descent into its workings. It was as early as the 1640s when black colonists were being held as slaves. They toiled along side white indentured servants, performing the same labor.  Still, until 1660, black people had more or less the same rights as white servants. Some blacks were free, others were indentured, and some were slaves. The white and black servants and slaves ate and slept together, sharing their lives as equals under their master. 5Edmund S. Morgan American Slavery, American Freedom (W.W. Norton, 1975) 154-155.

This change was years in the making,  but it was first set down in 1641, when the puritans of Massachusetts legalized slavery upon the authority of the Bible. The law recognized the legality of slavery if the slaves were purchased or captured. It allowed for “bond-slavery,” but only if “it be Lawfull captives, taken in just wars, or such as shall willingly sell themselves, or are sold to us, and such shall have the liberties, and christian usage, which the Law of God established in Israel….” 6Massachusetts Book of the General Laws and Libertyes (Cambridge, 1660) 5. As printed in The Historical Magazine, Volume VII (New York: Charles B. Richardson, 1863) 364.

Nearly two decades later, Virginia, which had practiced slavery for about as long, attempted to clarify what would happen when “children got by an Englishman upon a negro woman.” They decreed “that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother….” Children conceived by a white man and an enslaved black woman were considered slaves. 7Virginia Slave Laws, December 1662, as printed in The Boisterous Sea of Liberty; A Documentary History of America from Discovery Through the Civil War edited by David Brion Davis and Steven Mintz (Oxford University Press, 1998) 58. A memoir from such a child can be read here.

In 1669, the colony of South Carolina made it law that “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever.” 8Locke’s Constitution, 110th Article, Drawn up by John Locke, March 1, 1669. As printed in The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, Volume 1 edited by Thomas Cooper (A.S. Johnston, 1836) 55. See also: Betty Wood Slavery in Colonial America, 1619 – 1776 (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005) 93.

The Birth of American Slavery

Similar laws were enacted in almost every colony. After the establishment of the United States, each of the slave states specified that only black colonists were subject to “slave codes.” 9As this is an important point that I’m making only in passing, it’s difficult to cite the many sources it would take to justify this claim. In this case, I’ll direct you to Slavery in the South; A State-by-State History by Clayton E. Jewett and John O. Allen (Greenwood Press, 2004). It’s is a pricey book, but it can usually be obtained used on the cheap. I recommend it for its meticulous sorting of pretty much anything to do with Southern slaves. I only wish there was a version that did this for all slavery in the Americas.

The line between white servitude and black slavery was now clearly drawn.  Though some indentured servants were black, the dramatic increase of African slavery saw to the equally dramatic decrease of indentured servitude as a whole. With so many African slaves held in perpetual and inherited bondage, the need for indentured servants grew less and less.

Through the mid 1600s, nearly two-thirds of all immigrants to Virginia were white indentured servants. By the time of the Revolution, just over 100 years later, only two percent of the colony’s population was indentured. The percentage of slaves had risen from nearly zero to around 40% of the state’s population by 1780. 10David Lee Russell The American Revolution in the Southern Colonies (McFarland & Company, 2000) 12. Also, census records, as found here.



It’s important to remember that equating white indentured servitude with African slavery is generally a post-Civil War phenomenon. It is almost always mentioned to make the institution of slavery seem less based upon race than it actually was. You will find this argument mostly on Neo-Confederate and White Supremacist websites and publications. When both slavery and indentured servitude were in practice together, they were differentiated by law and custom, and seen as two very different things. Today, we should follow suit.  Simply put, in America, while black people were slaves and could sometimes be indentured servants, white people could be indentured servants, but were never slaves.

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Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.