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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A few omissions, but overall a good account, 20 July 2009
By 
Steve Keen "therealus" (Herts, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
Slavery runs, like a gash, through the story of America, painful and unavoidable. Recent histories of the United States have underlined this fact clearly: Schama's The American Future, Kagan's Dangerous Nation, Thomas Bender's slightly older A Nation Among Nations. The election of Barack Obama is remarkable because of this particular aspect of history and its legacy.

Peter Kolchin's American Slavery isolates the subject itself, concentrating not upon slavery within the context of other American History but on slavery as the context itself.

Starting with the early colonial days, Kolchin traces the development of the slave economy in the US, using as points of comparison slavery in the rest of the Americas and serfdom in Russia. Bringing together many strands, the author admits from the outset that he has inevitably, within the space of less than 250 pages, sacrificed detail for a broad brush picture. This is very noticeable, and some of the omissions are, to this reviewer, very strange, and require only a scan of the index to spot.

For example, neither the battles of Antietam, the "winning" of which emboldened Lincoln to issue the Proclamation of Emancipation, or of Gettysburg, which broke the back of the Confederacy, gets a mention, and the Underground Railroad, by which southern blacks escaped to non-slaving states in the north, is over and done with after a couple of paragraphs. The annexation of Texas, the driver for which Kagan has given as a desire by slavers for an increase in the number of slaving states for political purposes, bears no comment at all.

The account is not without controversy. For example, commenting on slave numbers, Kolchin notes the discrepancy between the US and the rest of the Americas, the former having a far higher survival rate than the latter. In A Splendid Exchange, William Bernstein has attributed this to the prevalence of sugar as a cash crop outside the US, the processing of which was physically demanding in the extreme, and consequently claimed many lives and therefore the constant need to replenish stocks of slaves. Kolchin, on the other hand, attributes it to traditional two-year breast-feeding periods, which in the rest of the Americas he believes suppressed fertility rates. Bernstein seems to have the stronger case here, but he may have the advantage of an extra decade and a half of research to build upon - Kolchin's work was done in the early 1990s.

What the book does do is give a joined up view of the "slavery experience", and it's no subject for a theme park. The lives of slaves were often brutal, always demeaning, and constantly subject to the whim of their masters down to the minutest level, to the point where their marital status, children's names, and religious practices were often decided for them. There were regular beatings, the work was often back-breaking, and brothers, sisters, wives, husbands were shuffled around the board like pawns, family members often being sold to new masters never again to be seen by spouses, parents or siblings. Whilst there sometimes developed a bond of sorts between masters and "their people", that did not preclude any of this treatment. He notes the hypocrisy of a political system supposedly based on liberty and equality which simultaneously supported slavery as an institution, and singles out revolutionary figures such as George Washington, who granted manumission to his own slaves only in his will, not whilst he was living.

Post-bellum, though nominally free, life remained anything but straightforward for ex-slaves. Nevertheless, for a while at least things were much improved, and they celebrated their new-found liberties, sometimes in simple ways like having a lie-in and entering towns formerly off-limits. However, the old power relationships endured, and it would be another century before the benefits of abolition were truly experienced, and a further four decades before the symbolic election of a black president.

Kolchin relates the story well, and though there are some omissions the balance sheet is firmly in his favour. No one book, even if there was no ongoing research, is ever likely to cover all of the bases, but what this one does is fills in many of the gaps left by others.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars OUTSTANDING!, 6 Mar. 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
It is impossible to over-state just what a superb book this is. Peter Kolchin covers the entire scope of slavery in America from its colonial origins to its destruction following the Civil War and everything else in between in an accessible and highly readable manner. From a casual, passing interest, right up to degree-level, "American Slavery" is nothing less than essential to anyone wanting to understand the 'peculiar institution'.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable reading yet really informative, 18 Aug. 2004
By A Customer
This book gives an excellent overview of American slavery between 1619-1877. It looks at the slaves' existence during the colonial era, the revolution, through till the civil war and end of slavery.
It considers the way of life for the slaves and also the 'owners'. The general attitude of the south in comparison to the north and the economic differences due to slavery.
It is easy to read as it adopts an anecdotal style. This particular style allowed me to get to know individuals and allowed me to empathise with their conditions and lives.
It also provides a tremendous amount of statistical information which adds rather than detracts from the flow of the narrative.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good but rather dry, 13 Mar. 2013
By 
E. Wieder "TheRationalist" (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
This is indeed a very good account of all aspects of American slavery from its roots in the 17th century to its demise in the 19th. It is very informative, and backed by some statistical tables at the end of the book. The book describes clearly the transition in the perception of slavery, from a purely financial tool, to the very institution that epitomizes the south. I was surprised to learn for example that the very first slaves were actually white. These people were Europeans who sold themselves to slavery so to speak, usually escaping debtors, and while in bondage, were treated no differently than the black slaves. The difference was that for whites it was temporary - for a period of several years.
The book also draws interesting parallels between American slavery and slavery elsewhere in the Americas, and serfdom in Russia.
I see two shortcomings to this book
- I would have liked a larger section on post war reconstruction, it is there, but is rather small, given that the book is about slavery itself it is probably not a major point.
- The style is rather dry, the topic is interesting and yet on occasion I found myself forcing myself to continue reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Balanced and readable, 20 April 2011
This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
This book tackles the subject of American slavery in a very balanced and unbiased way. It tries to portray the 'peculiar institution' in a way that neither demonises the slave owners nor portrays the conditions under which the slaves lived as being universally terrible (beyond the fact of enslavement). It also tries to show how American slavery was different and similar to slavery in the Caribbean and South America. This is still a very highly charged and emotive subject in the US and this book manages to present the material in an objective and scholarly way. At the same time the author manages to avoid the excessive jargon that spoils so many history books. By the end of the book you can feel that you have a good solid understanding of the basic of American slavery. The footnotes at the back of the book do not distract, and the bibliographical essay gives you a comprehensive cross-section of works in order to pursue the subject further. One of the best.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I know I Will Read This Again and Again, 15 July 2014
This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
As a completely new student of American slavery this book was absolutely brilliant.

First and most significantly, it gave me a great understanding of the origins, evolution and nature of slavery in America, in an understandable and accessible way. In this book, the author doesn't just chuck facts at you; he explains them, using them to illustrate the effect slavery had on American society and to demonstrate the extent to which slavery shaped society, culture, and life, for both white and black people from the colonial era through to emancipation and reconstruction.

Some things I found more interesting than others, such as the development of African American culture and the justifications and arguments for and against slavery, other things, such as the the development of agricultural apparatus and intense descriptions of Americas biggest exports sometimes (only very occasionally) make the book seem dry. One the whole, the book is brilliantly engaging and informative, filled with relevant facts and important events that affected and shaped the direction of the "peculiar institution".

Secondly, and perhaps that which I am most grateful for, is the way the author has introduced me a plethora of primary sources for the further study of American slavery. Throughout the book, the author quotes from diverse and often divergent sources and, at the very end of the book, is a comparatively short bibliographical essay that lists sources such as slave narrative, slave owner diaries and other secondary sources dealing with the history of American slavery.

Being a 19 year-old black male myself, this book helped me appreciate the freedoms I have today, and the struggle my ancestors endured to bring those about; the book contains captivating descriptions of the ideology of slave masters, the laws hat repressed blacks and how blacks responded to and resisted the oppression they faced.I hope to take this with me in my further reading of slavery, and in life in general.

In short, a great book to learn or relearn about American slavery.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Overview, 6 May 2014
By 
S. Matthews "astafjevs" (Bristol, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
I was prompted to read this book, which provides an interesting and unbiased account of the history of American slavery from its colonial origins to the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, after watching the excellent recent film 12 Years A Slave.

Neatly dividing the era of slavery into three specific periods, colonial slavery, revolutionary slavery and antebellum slavery, Peter Kolchin has summarised academic developments over several decades to provide a useful overview of the institution of slavery itself, its effect on both white and black Americans, and how the institution and its effects changed over time.

As I read the book, it dawned on me that I’d never really considered either the origins or the development of the slave system in the USA, although I’d have said I was familiar with it from studying certain literature and the American Civil War at school and from popular culture ever since. The book reveals that American slavery was neither homogenous nor static throughout the three periods it was in existence and that it developed over time, and that it was absolutely integral to the economy of the Southern colonies/states, becoming a millstone that held back the development of the South when compared to the more industrial North.

Kolchin argues that some aspects of slavery actually got more repressive as time went on, and that the restricted autonomy of slaves and racist prejudices of the owners got worse rather than better after the American Revolution. He explains how some forms of slavery were worse than others, and outlines how the Deep South developed a harsher slave environment than the Upper South. He also concentrates on the relationship between ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’, and the paternalistic attitude that many, but not all, owner’s had for their slaves. An interesting observation was the esteem in which former slaves interviewed both immediately and many decades after abolition held their former owners. Kolchin contrasts this with treatment meted out to freedmen after abolition, where the paternalism of the former relationship was removed and the same planters became bullies or worse.

The explanations of how slaves lived and developed their own communities over time were illuminating, as were the explanations of aspects of African-American culture that aren’t obviously explained such as the enthusiasm for protestant Christianity within black communities. I was also surprised to learn that the majority of slaves did not live on large plantations, but in much smaller groups, and how this in itself helped to prevent large-scale rebellion amongst the slaves, and that the natural birth-rate amongst slaves actually exceeded the number brought in by the slave trade.

At times, Kolchin explains that conditions for slaves were probably not that much worse in the period than for peasants and later the working classes in other wealthy nations. However he never loses sight of the fact that what made slavery worse than other situations was what defined it as slavery in the first place; a complete lack of freedom that no amount of autonomy (even where it was available) could atone for. And the book contains many examples of where life for the slaves was unimaginably distressing.

A great introduction to the subject, and an entertaining and well-balanced account of a harrowing subject, this book is well recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction to subject, 28 July 2010
This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
Had not read anything on this subject in the past and didnt want to get bogged down into volumes of work. This was a great introduction and covered the full history, background and arguments from the time on the subject. IT cover the reasons the economics and beliefs without going into the day-to-day subject. Great high level view. Very informative and interesting read. excellently written in plain english.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding indeed !!, 8 Mar. 2001
This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
This is a great description of American Slavery and I did found it very useful for my history course. It gives a good overview of the topic and is worth the read.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, 28 Nov. 2014
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This review is from: American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) (Paperback)
Educational and informative
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American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history)
American Slavery: 1619-1877 (Penguin history) by Peter Kolchin (Paperback - 23 Feb. 1995)
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