Why Was Slavery Less Prevalent In The North Of The US?

When we look at the history of the US than there is one big difference between the North and South. And that is Slavery. But why is it that Slavery was so rare in the North while simultaneously being so common in the South?

Due to the natural conditions (soil, climate), the economy of the South was centered around large plantations with a huge demand for cheap, unskilled labor. New England’s economy was more focused on manufacturing & industry and needed fewer but more skilled laborers. That together with the higher attractiveness of New England for European immigrants made slavery more prevalent in the South.

The reason for the difference in the prevalence of slavery in the North and the South of the US is rooted in the early days of the British colonies in North America.

So to find out why that kind of difference existed and kept existing until the end of the Civil War we have to go back to the time of the early American colonies and find out which religious, social, economical, and geographical reasons influenced the prevalence of slavery.

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A discrepancy in regards to Slavery between North and South as early as 1750

When we talk about the prevalence of slavery and its uneven distribution we usually talk about the time leading up to the civil war. But these differences in the distribution of slavery can be found as early as 1750!

In the north, a steady stream of new immigrants from Europe brought enough laborers for the needs of the North’s economy. More on the economical differences between North and South in the next paragraph.

But these European immigrants did not immediately get land when they arrived in America. Many of the European immigrants had agreed to work 4 to 7 years as indentured servants in return for their masters paying for their passage to America. Because of that the North American colonies, contrary to for example settlements in Brasil, were able to get by without a large number of African slaves for quite some time.

Just to put that in perspective: In 1620 there were around 1.200 English settlers in Virginia but only 30 Africans. And in 1680 slaves still only made up 4 % of the population.

But that changed after the turn of the century since the institution of indentured servants disappeared and the British discovered how lucrative the slave trade was the number of slaves in the North American colonies exploded.

Around the year 1750, the British colonies in North America had around 2 million inhabitants. Around 25% of them were slaves. And around 90% of these slaves lived in the already established southern colonies.

By the way, the border between the southern and northern colonies of that time can be found somewhere between Philadelphia and Baltimore. For more information on what a colony is and how it varies from a dominion, I would like to recommend you my article here.

So there was already a clear discrepancy in the prevalence of slavery between the northern and the southern colonies as early as 1750.

Let`s now find out which religious/political and economic/geographical reasons led to that kind of discrepancy!

Religious/Political reasons

Since the earliest days of the colonies in North America, there was a discrepancy between the northern and the southern colonies when it came to religion. And political differences obviously followed these religious differences.

While the New England colonies (Massachusetts colony, Rhode Island colony, Connecticut colony, and New Hampshire colony) were strictly Puritan (Rhode Island colony being the exception) the southern colonies (Maryland Colony, Virginia colony, North Carolina Colony, South Carolina colony, and Georgia colony) were not dominated by one single religion.

By the way, you might realize that a few colonies are missing. And you are totally right. Since we want to find out why there was a difference in the prevalence of slavery in the northern and southern colonies I will exclude the Middle Colonies of Pennsylvania colony, Delaware Colony, New York Colony, and New Jersey Colony.

The religious and social environment in the New England Colonies

In the New England colonies, the Puritans did not allow other religions aside of their own, so their religious ideas were cemented into the New England society where they would survive.

The Puritan society was shaped by a strong belief and the studying of the bible. Moral rigor, modesty, and a rejection of social hierarchies and inequality were central components of Puritan society and would shape New England for generations!

These beliefs were cemented in several religious groups like for example the Quakers who were convinced of the sinfulness of slavery. These groups who opposed slavery as an institution were quite successful which resulted in the first steps against slavery-like the outlawing of active human trafficking in the colonies of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

But even with that kind of religiously motivated dislike against slavery, only a few leaders of the New England colonies wanted to abolish Slavery at that time.

Only during the Revolutionary war, the New England colonies started to fully outlaw slavery. In 1777 Vermont was the first to abolish slavery, Massachusetts followed in 1781, New Hampshire in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784. Until the year 1840, all New England states had abolished slavery and were called „free states“.

Both the religious and social situation in the South was quite different. Since I will focus on the economic differences in a separate Paragraph I will now only focus on the religious and social environment in the south.

The religious and social environment in the Southern Colonies

While the New England Colonies were dominated by Puritans the South was much more diverse when it came to religion.  Baptists, Anglicans, and other religious groups prevented the South from developing and cementing a uniform and strict puritan society.

That lack of puritan influence also showed in the society of the southern colonies with its pronounced social hierarchy and an Upper class that developed an aristocratic feudal mentality.

That kind of environment with its strict social hierarchies and an upper class that had a certain feudal mentality in combination with the economical and geographical conditions of the south opened the way for much more extensive use of slavery than in New England.

We will come to these economic and geographical conditions in a moment.

Now as mentioned. Although the first states had already begun to abolish slavery during the Revolutionary war it still took until 1840 that the New England states were free of slavery.

It is a common misbelieve that the New England states did not use slave labor. They did, but due to a lack of plantations only to a much smaller degree than the South. The reasons for that can be found in the economical and geographical differences between New England and the South.

Let`s find out more.

Economical/geographical reasons

Now obviously the Geography, the climate, the quality of the soil, and other natural resources had and still have a strong influence on what type of economy thrives in a region. In order to be able to better compare the economy of the New England colonies and the Southern colonies, I decided to split the paragraph up.

Let`s start with the geographical environment of New England and how that influenced the economy of New England.

The Economy and Geography of the New England colonies

While the climate of the New England colonies consisted of short but warm summers it also consisted of long and cold winters. That had its advantages. Diseases like yellow fever wouldn`t exist north of Boston, but they also limited the farming of cash crops.

That limitation was reinforced by poor, rocky soil. While food crops like corn, squash, rye, beans, and pumpkins could be farmed cash crops like tobacco or sugar could not be farmed in New England.

Because of the poor soil and the mountainous thick forests that made large-scale farming difficult the New England economy was mostly centered around timber, shipbuilding, whaling, fishing, and the production of liquor and was the center of Production & Industry rather than of farming

And that had lasting impacts on the labor market.

All the mentioned industries required more skilled labor than the plantations we will take a look at in a moment. In addition to that, the practice of indentured servants (as already explained above) together with the strict puritan morals of New England reduced the need for slaves in New England.

By the way, in the 19th century after the practice of indentured servants had ended, the different economies in the North and South were one of the reasons why especially Irish immigrants settled on the East Coast. Please check out my article here for more information.

Let`s now take a look at the colonies in the south.

The Economy and Geography of the colonies in the South

While the New England colonies had warm summers and cold winters the climate in the southern colonies was much different.

Hot and humid summers were followed up by mild winters and were ideal for farming throughout the year. The downside of that kind of climate was that diseases like yellow fever thrived in the southern colonies.

While originally native in Africa yellow fever that is transmitted by mosquitos was imported into the New World by the ships that after 1492 crisscrossed the Atlantic. The cities of the southern colonies like New Orleans regularly had to deal with yellow fever outbreaks that were imported from the Caribbean. By the way, these diseases were one of the reasons why the south was less popular among European immigrants.

For more information on that and the answer to the question of why many Irish & Italian immigrants stayed at the east coast rather than traveling further west like many German immigrants I would like to recommend you my article here.

Apart from being a breeding ground for diseases the southern climate in combination with the souther geography had major advantages.

While the soil in New England was poor and rocky the soil in the Southern Colonies was rich, fertile, and ideal for growing cash crops like sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton. So the economy of the South centered around the growing of these cash crops on large plantations.

Because of these ideal natural conditions, the economy of the southern colonies was focused on growing cash crops like tobacco, sugar cane, and cotton on large estates. These large estates obviously also reinforced the aristocratic feudal mentality of the southern upper class that has already been mentioned.

But these large plantations with their demand for lots of cheap labor in combination with a humid climate ideal for tropical diseases paved the way for the extensive use of slavery.

By the way. When I say extensive use I do not say that every family in the South was a slaveholder. That idea that every family in the south was a slaveowner is definitely not true.

Because of that common misconception, I would like to dedicate the last paragraph of the article to the ratio between enslaved and free populations and the degree to which slave ownership was common in the south.

In the early days, the plantations in the south were also worked by indentured servants (like in New England). But with more and more plantations and growing demand for cheap labor, slaves soon took the place of the indentured servants.

In a time without machinery to plant and harvest crops or to clear new fields the demand for cheap labor was huge. In order for the plantations to be as profitable as possible slaves, both men and women had to work up to 18 hours per day. And since the climate of the South allowed them to farm year-round the slaves also had to work around the year.

Now one might ask if it was not extremely costly to have the plantation worked by imported slaves from Africa.

Actually, it wasn`t. Yes, the slave had to be bought. But since the triangular trade from Europe to Africa and from Africa to the slave markets in the Caribbean was already well established and the Southern colonies were rather close the costs for a slave were reasonable.

Buying a slave only required one large investment while the aliment was extremely cheap making plantations that were worked by slaves much more profitable than if they would have relied on free workers.

That was especially the cause since slaves did not have to be paid, could be fed cheaply, and children who would be born by slaves provided new generations of slaves for free.

The slaves who worked the plantations were treated in a way that allowed their owner to exploit their capacity for work for as long as possible.

But what that kind of treatment actually meant is a story for another time. If you are interested in how slaves experienced their lives then I can highly recommend the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass*, a freed slave who would become a famous orator and Abolitionist.

Let`s now look at how the number of slaves developed over time.

The development of the Ratio between enslaved and free populations

During the 19th century, the population of the US roughly doubled every 23 years, more on the reasons for that here.

Let`s find out how/if that kind of population growth affected the ratio between free and enslaved inhabitants.

In the USA, in general, the proportion of enslaved people of color among the population fell from 18% in 1790 to 15,5% in 1830 to around 13% in 1860. Simultaneously to that decline, the number of slaves in the South rose.

A major factor for that was on the one hand a declining mortality rate in combination with a high birthrate. And when the birthrate declined in the middle of the 19th-century immigration would keep up the growth of the population.

Please feel free to also check out my article here where I go into depth about the development of the US population between 1790 and 1860.

Number of enslaved POC in the South

1790Around 700.000 enslaved POC
1800Around 900.000 enslaved POC
1810Around 1.1 million enslaved POC; 2.2 white inhabitants
1860Around 4 million enslaved POCs; 7 million white inhabitants
Development of the number of ensalved POC between 1790 and 1860 in the South

The Distribution of slave-ownership among southern families

So after we took a look at why slavery was less prevalent in the North I would also like to talk about the myth that every family in the South owned slaves.

While in 1840 approximately 40% of the population of Louisiana (and more than 50% of the population of Mississippi) were slaves only around 25% of the households (that’s 350.000 families) in the South owned slaves.

Of these approximately 350.000 slave-owning families around 1/5 only owned one single slave, approximately 2/3 owned more than 2 slaves and only 8% of the households owned more than 20 slaves.

The majority of the slaves were owned by the small class of the already mentioned southern planter aristocracy. That southern planter aristocracy only included around 8.000 families that owned 50 or more slaves.

But although the number of actual slave-owning families in the South (25%) was rather small, slavery still remanded the peculiar institution of the South and would remain one of the most important dividing elements between North and South.

It wasn`t until after the civil war that slavery was abolished in all of the US. But that is a story for another time. Here you can find out more about how the conflict around slavery would ignite the secession of the South after Abraham Lincoln was elected as president. And here you can learn more about why Abolitionists were unpopular in both North and South.

I hope you found the topic as interesting as I did. And if you would like to continue reading I would like to recommend you my article here where I go into depth about the history of European immigration to the US and search the answer for why the East coast has an Irish & Italian heritage while the midwest has a dominant German heritage.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


W. L. Barney (Hrsg.): A Companion to 19th-Century America, Malden, Mass./Oxford 2001.

W. P. Adams: Die USA vor 1900 (OGG,28), München 2009.