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John Spencer Bassett, Slavery in the State of North Carolina (1899)


John Spencer Bassett, Slavery in the State of North Carolina (1899)


John Spencer Bassett was a history and political science professor at Trinity College in Randolph County, North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although only 111 pages, Slavery in the State of North Carolina, was one of the most detailed descriptions of slave life in the state. Published in 1899, less than 50 years after Emancipation, this seminal work provided a rich narrative of such topics as the laws governing slaves, not only within the institution of slavery, but in the public courts. Bassett addressed the slave’s right to hunt, his rights in the criminal system, the runaway slave’s rights, if only puny. He examined the state of the freedman, who rights were not that much better than a slave. The author explored religious affiliations and associations, especially the Society of Friends (Quakers), who were the early founders of the Manumission Societies. Bassett ended his work with the economic impact on the state before and after emancipation.



"Slavery in the State of North Carolina," Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed March 21, 2012,






Raleigh, North Carolina
Plymouth, North Carolina
New Bern, North Carolina

Original Format



The story of slavery in the State of North Carolina may be considered in two parts, the dividing point of which is the year 1831. Before this year the general conditions of the slave were more humane than after it. Public feeling on the question was then unimpassioned. Some people opposed it; some favored it. It seems to have been discussed in a sane way, as a matter of public policy and without any extraordinary excitement or recrimination. After 1831, or about that year--for no fine and distinct dividing point can properly be made--the conditions of slavery became more severe. One law after another was passed which bore hardly on the slave, until at last he was bound hand, foot, and brain in the power of his master. Moreover, public feeling became inflamed. Slavery could no longer be discussed as a public policy, and there arose with most people in the State a fervent intolerance of all views advanced against the system.

The causes of this remarkable development have often been enumerated. Later on in this work I propose to explain the matter with some degree of fulness in a chapter on the development of the pro-slavery sentiment. Here it cannot be necessary to do more than point out the general facts of the process.

In this sense the chief cause of this change was the invention of the cotton gin and the consequent opening up of the cotton industry, not only in many parts of North Carolina, but in the entire Gulf region. This gave a strong impetus to the settling of large plantations which hitherto had been limited for the most part to the rice producing regions. A wide extension of slavery could never have been made on the basis of the small farm, where there was necessarily much white labor. In North Carolina, and elsewhere, no doubt, it was noticeable that slavery, even in the days of the greatest excitement over the slave question, was of a milder type in the western counties. Here the farms were small. Slave-owners had but few slaves. With these they mingled freely. They worked with them in the fields, ploughing side by side. The slave cabins were in the same yard with the master's humble home. Slave children and, indeed, slave families were directly under the eye of the master, and better still, of the mistress. On such farms from five to twenty slaves was a usual quota, although their number often went to fifty and even higher. Could this type of bondage have predominated in the South, it is likely that slavery would sooner or later have softened itself, as in the disintegrating Roman Empire, into some less austere forms of servile labor, until at last it came by successive stages to the light of freedom. That it did not happen was due to the aristocracy of cotton.

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John Spencer Bassett, Slavery in the State of North Carolina (1899), Civil War Era NC, accessed April 26, 2017,