Slavery and Poverty in the Early American Republic

Slavery and poverty in the early American republic had more in common than people often realize while at the same time, were still two distinctly different things.


The early American republic had to contend with several issues on both domestic and foreign fronts. However, the effects of a highly impoverished working class and the dependence on slavery greatly affected the economy of the republic as a whole. In those days, slavery and poverty had both many similarities and differences. In particular, both slaves and the poor were dependent upon others for food and shelter in exchange for their labor. At the same time, the poor were considered free people and had a chance to move up the social ladder given the opportunity while slaves were considered property. Slavery and poverty in the early American republic had more in common than people often realize while at the same time, were still two distinctly different things.

First, slavery was similar to poverty during this time period in the fact that people of both social backgrounds depended upon someone else to feed them. Slaves were owned by a plantation owner and they worked in the fields tending to crops in exchange for food, shelter and clothing. People of poverty were their own free people yet just did not earn enough wages in order to provide for themselves. Public relief places were set up in many cities all over the country where the poor could go and essentially trade some of their service to the community for whatever it was that they needed, be it, food, shelter, or clothing. In this sense, the poor became slaves to the wealthy in order to survive. The charity to help the poor was set up to help them eventually be able to move up the social ladder by way of community service for food. This helped some of the time but it did not entirely solve the problem of poverty.

Poverty and slavery, while having some similarities between the two still had their differences. Poverty, unlike slavery was not confined to a specific race. Anyone in the American Republic could be impoverished. Race was not the criteria on which poverty was based upon. At the same time, some nationalities were more prone to poverty than others. For example, according to the survey by The Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Economy, 250 of the 480 people deemed as impoverished were of Irish descent (Rockman, 41). It was often believed that African Americans made up a large proportion of the poor in Philadelphia in the years of the early republic but the data shows otherwise. According to the same statistics from The Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Economy, African Americans made up roughly eighteen and a half percent of the poor population (Rockman, 41).

In addition, people of poverty, if presented the opportunity, could raise their social class and come out of poverty. This was not the case for slavery. The slaves were considered property and had no way of promoting themselves to a better social class. They were not even considered to be persons. In many ways, slavery was a dead end and slaves that realized that there was no way out were driven to drastic actions. The Nat Turner Rebellion is a prime example of this fact. Nat Turner, along with his meager following of fellow slaves led an insurrection in Southampton County, Virginia during which upwards of fifty five whites were murdered in their homes. Most of these people were women and children. This was just one instance in which slaves acted in desperation to liberate themselves. Thomas Gray wrote of the insurrection, “Apprehension for their own personal safety seems to have been the only principle of restraint in the whole course of their bloody proceedings” (Greenburg, 41). Gray continues with the idea that Nat Turner and his followers were trying to accomplish something beyond their reach by stating the insurrection was “endeavoring to grapple with things beyond its reach” (Greenburg, 41). In slavery, there was often no way out but to run or do something as drastic as start a rebellion, whereas in poverty, people, through the help of charitable organizations, churches and almshouses were sometimes able to raise themselves out of poverty and into a life of greater wealth.

In the end, while slavery and poverty were both completely different realities for people of the early American Republic, they had one striking similarity. This is that both slaves and the impoverished exchanged labor for their food, clothing, and shelter. The difference in this being that slaves were forced to do it because they were born of a certain race while the poor requested charity in return for their community services. The differences were that race was the only thing that made someone a slave as African American slaves were considered a slave owner’s property and not a person while anyone could suffer from poverty. Another difference is that poor person could eventually rise out of poverty while a slave was basically a slave for life. This sometimes led to drastic acts of desperation by slaves to gain their freedom such as the infamous Nat Turner Rebellion. Slavery and poverty were two similar worlds for many people of this time period but despite some similarities, they were still worlds apart from each other.










Works Cited


Greenberg, Kenneth S. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. Boston:

Bedford/St.Martins, 1996. 40-58. Print.


Rockman, S. Welfare reform in the early republic. Boston, MA: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2003. 37-

  1. Print.


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