America's Long Struggle Against Slavery

Course No. 30000
Professor Richard Bell, PhD
University of Maryland, College Park
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Course No. 30000
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Survey the history of slavery in America, from the pre-colonial era through the Civil War.
  • numbers Witness the myriad forms that resistance took, from revolts aboard slave ships to battles on plantations.
  • numbers Meet both famous and little-known players in this great struggle for freedom.
  • numbers Experience day-to-day life throughout generations of African American slaves.

Course Overview

What do you really know about the fight against slavery in America? We’re all familiar with the Underground Railroad and the Emancipation Proclamation, but the fight to end slavery was not some sudden movement that sprang up in the middle of the 19th century. Resistance from the enslaved started on the western coast of Africa in the 15th century and continued as the institution of slavery was codified in America, culminating with the War between the States.

Many historical views of American slavery only look at small parts of this enormous struggle, focusing on single events or a small segment of famous figures. But to understand America—to fully understand our country today—one must examine the whole history of struggle, oppression, and resistance, not only by famous figures like Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman, but also by an enormous and often unfamiliar cast of characters, including:

  • The “saltwater slaves” who revolted aboard slave ships and chose suicide over an unknown future;
  • Phibbah Thistlewood, a woman who made the best of her situation to bridge the gap between her master and her fellow slaves;
  • David Walker, Nat Turner, and other figures calling for immediate, urgent action; and
  • Northern Quakers, pamphleteers, preachers, and school teachers who changed the political tide.

What these disparate figures had in common was their belief in the injustice and immorality of slavery, which allowed them to slowly coalesce into a movement. Individuals gradually organized, and then the abolitionist movement led to war which led, in theory, to freedom. America’s Long Struggle against Slavery is your opportunity to survey the history of the American anti-slavery movement, from the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade during the late 15th century to the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and beyond. Taught by Professor Richard Bell of the University of Maryland, these 30 eye-opening lectures give you an up-close view of a venal institution and the people who fought against it—and who often paid for their courage with their lives.

This course is a must for scholars and history buffs alike. As Professor Bell examines the different means and methods that Americans, white and black, have used to escape slavery, he presents the grand problems that animated everyone engaged in this great struggle. Should you fight slavery with violence? How do you convert moral outrage into political action? Whose responsibility is it to act? Although there are no easy answers, America’s Long Struggle against Slavery dares to ask these and other tough questions, providing numerous historical perspectives to allow you to form your own thoroughly informed answers.

Trace the Long Arc of Slavery in America

For many, the struggle against slavery is tied to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century: a coalition made up mostly of free blacks and northern whites railing against an unjust institution, a movement that reached its peak with the Civil War and the subsequent 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But as you will find out at the start of this course, resistance to slavery was embedded in the institution from the beginning. You see it in the accounts of the great lengths to which European traders went to keep their slaves contained during the brutal Middle Passage. You see it in the account of revolts such as the one that occured near Stono, South Carolina, in 1739, when a band of armed slaves challenged slaveholders’ supremacy. And you see it in the pamphlets and essays of the American Quaker community as early as the 17th century.

In surveying these and other stories of resistance, Professor Bell offers both a broad and deep history of slavery in America. From the economics of British traders looking to cut into the profits of the Caribbean sugar industry, to the rise of tobacco and “King Cotton” in America, to the migration of slaves from Barbados and Jamaica to Virginia and Mississippi, this is a story of movement and continual change.

What becomes clear, over time, is that resistance to slavery started with individuals working alone, and gradually coalesced into a movement for abolition, which took many forms: the writings of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, the insurrections of Nat Turner and John Brown, and the achievements of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman. This course offers the rare chance to step into their shoes to deepen your understanding of America.

Explore Uncomfortable Territory

America has long been a nation of uncomfortable truths. How did the founders square their advocacy of “liberty” with the fact of owning slaves? How do we as a nation reconcile “justice for all” with the legacy of Jim Crow? There are no simple explanations, but the more you dig into the history, the more complex it becomes.

Professor Bell provides a fair and unflinching evaluation of America’s legacy of slavery and the long struggle against it. The complexity begins in the 16th century, when the British merchant John Hawkins engaged in a type of piracy, stealing slaves from Africa and selling them in the Caribbean. One uncomfortable truth is the knowledge that Africans themselves engaged in the slave trade. As Professor Bell explains, one preemptive strategy to avoid being enslaved was to assume the role of the enslaver.

You’ll also meet Anthony Johnson, an 18th-century slave who bought his own freedom and promptly acquired slaves of his own. He ended up in a legal quarrel with a neighbor, which set the legal machinery in motion for an official acceptance of slavery in the United States. The law codified slavery a few decades later, after Bacon’s Rebellion, thus institutionalizing racial slavery. You’ll trace legal developments through the Civil War, including a deep dive into the mercurial character of Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney who, among other controversial opinions, decided the outcome of the Dred Scott case.

A Powerful, Life-Changing Story

The struggle for freedom was a long, complicated story. It began with the dawn of the transatlantic slave trade and included some of American history’s most well-known figures, but it also included black field workers and fugitives, preachers and vigilantes, as well as ordinary white soldiers and activists. The struggle includes the violence of insurrection and war, but also the fiery speeches of otherwise mild-mannered Quakers.

In the end, the conflagration of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment secured freedom for slaves, but Reconstruction and Jim Crow quashed any notion that the United States would be free and equal. This legacy continued through the civil rights movement and beyond. Professor Bell ends with a look at slavery in the world today—perhaps not the institutionalized system of southern plantations, but very real nonetheless.

On the whole, America’s Long Struggle against Slavery is an astonishing feat—a chilling historical narrative offering vital lessons for our world today.

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30 lectures
 |  Average 26 minutes each
  • 1
    Understanding the Fight against Slavery
    Begin your course with an exploration of the long war against slavery, which began centuries before the American Civil War. Professor Bell offers a survey of resistance among enslaved Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries and outlines five generational periods in the long struggle to end slavery. x
  • 2
    Origins of Slavery in the British Empire
    Slavery in the British Empire has its roots in the trading economy of the 16th century. See how the Englishman John Hawkins cut into the Portuguese slave trade in the New World, which led to the founding of the Royal African Company, the largest slaving operation in the Atlantic. x
  • 3
    Opposing the African Slave Trade
    The American slave trade began in Africa. It is an uncomfortable truth that African rulers and merchants played a hand in supplying slaves to Europeans. However, a look at the African continent also shows us the first strategies of resistance, from defensively trying to elude capture to offensive efforts to get away from the hellish confinement of European forts. x
  • 4
    Shipboard Rebellion and Resistance
    Leaving the continent of Africa, the second place for resistance was aboard the slave ships as they departed for the Caribbean. Although we have limited historical records, this lecture explores the suicides, runaways, and revolts on slave ships, as well as the efforts made by Europeans to control the enslaved. x
  • 5
    A Free Black Family in Colonial Virginia
    Shift your attention to the Chesapeake tobacco economy in the 17th century, a time when colonial law changed in a way that would promote the slave economy. First, you will meet Anthony Johnson, a freed slave who in turn held his own slaves. Then, see how Bacon's Rebellion paved the way for slave codes that changed the social order in Virginia. x
  • 6
    Quakers and Puritans Join the Fight
    Where were the moral voices among white Europeans speaking out against the heinous system of slavery? The American Quaker community had a long history of antislavery activism, from legal pamphlets to spiritual protests. Learn more about the Quaker community, its views on slavery, and its limitations in the early American economy. x
  • 7
    Thomas Thistlewood's Plantation Revolution
    One hallmark of the plantation economy in Barbados, Jamaica, and South Carolina is that black slaves outnumbered their white masters by a wide margin. As such, see how whites used dehumanizing tactics to control the slave population. Then review Tacky's Revolt, one of the largest slave rebellions in the British Atlantic world during the 18th century. x
  • 8
    Phibbah Thistlewood: Sleeping with the Enemy
    Among runaway slaves, men outnumbered women nearly two to one, but that doesn't mean women played no role in resistance. As this lecture will make clear, women practiced several strategies for resistance-critically important because of the prevalence of assault on plantations. A woman named Phibbah provides a fascinating case study. x
  • 9
    Slave Insurrections in the 18th Century
    Although there may have been several hundred slave uprisings in British North America and the United States, most of them were minor-or possibly even imagined by paranoid slave masters. Here, delve into the Stono Rebellion of 1739, which was the only significant armed challenge to slaveholders' supremacy on the mainland before the 19th century. x
  • 10
    Maroons: Those Who Escaped
    Runaway slaves in Virginia and the Carolinas had limited options. They could head for the coast or down to Spanish-controlled Florida, but some runaway slaves simply disappeared into the backcountry. Find out where these maroons" went, how they lived, and what dangers they faced if discovered." x
  • 11
    Three Quaker Activists
    Meet three important Quaker activists from the 17th and 18th centuries: a fiery hermit writer named Benjamin Lay, a shopkeeper and essayist named John Woolman, and a schoolteacher named Anthony Benezet, who set up Philadelphia's first Free African School. Reflect on the transformation in attitudes that was occurring during the 18th century. x
  • 12
    Slavery in the War for Independence
    While American colonists fought for independence against their British oppressors, the war provided free and enslaved African Americans an opportunity to fight their own war against slavery. Professor Bell introduces you to black militiamen and soldiers on both sides of the Revolutionary War, and reveals the setbacks they faced after the war. x
  • 13
    Taking Slavery to Court
    The American Revolution marked a watershed in the history of opposition to African slavery in America. In northern states, Pennsylvania led the charge in legal changes that would lead to gradual abolition. While abolition efforts failed in southern states, some individual slaves were able to strike deals with their masters for manumission. x
  • 14
    Charles Pinckney's Counterrevolution
    While many abolition efforts started to take hold after the American Revolution, an equally powerful revolution was underway to secure the slave system. Here, you will review the reprehensible three-fifths clause and other pro-slavery measures in the 1787 Constitution, which would take antislavery activists decades to undo. x
  • 15
    The Haitian Revolution
    Between 1791 and 1804, the Haitian Revolution tore apart a French Caribbean colony. As you will learn, not only was it the single largest slave revolt in the history of the world, it was the only one that had succeeded so far. Delve into this radical and violent revolution to meet the players and uncover what happened in these 13 astonishing years. x
  • 16
    Founding the Free Black Churches
    There is more to fighting slavery than achieving legal liberty, a simple truth that this country's first generation of free black leaders discovered in post-Revolutionary War northern cities. See how the expanding free black population in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere looked for ways to help themselves. x
  • 17
    The Second Middle Passage
    At the turn of the 19th century, social and economic conditions were shifting inside the United States, and President Jefferson signed into law an act prohibiting the importation of slaves. Learn about the mass migration of slaves from Virginia into the Deep South of Louisiana that resulted, and how this migration transformed the country. x
  • 18
    Our Native Country: Opposing Colonization
    Delve into the colonization movement, an effort that sprang to life in the 1810s to send black people from America to Africa. Consider the questions this movement posed for African Americans: Where was home? Were they African or American? Where did they belong? Investigate both sides of this controversial movement. x
  • 19
    David Walker, Nat Turner, and Black Immediatism
    Writer David Walker and insurrectionist Nat Turner transformed the debate about slavery in America. Their immediate words and deeds terrorized southern slaveholders as never before and forced legislators to articulate just how far they would go to protect the institution of slavery. Meet these extraordinary men and witness their actions. x
  • 20
    William Lloyd Garrison's "Thousand Witnesses"
    David Walker's words and Nat Turner's actions had a galvanizing effect upon white abolitionists, most notably William Lloyd Garrison. See how Garrison and others shifted from an attitude of slow, gradual change to a stance of immediacy. Survey an unprecedented campaign to challenge slaveholders' moral authority in the 1830s. x
  • 21
    Surviving King Cotton
    The mass migration of the Second Middle Passage changed the nature of resistance to slavery. Responding to the threat of separation from their families and opposition to their sale to the Deep South, slaves participated in multifaceted and unrelenting resistance. Survey this struggle and these troubling times. x
  • 22
    Roger Taney: Nationalizing Slavery
    Learn about the confounding life of Roger Taney, who as a young man turned his back on his family's tobacco plantation and manumitted many of his own slaves. Yet, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he dramatically expanded the rights of slaveholders through infamous decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sanford. x
  • 23
    Frederick Douglass and Aggressive Abolition
    In the wake of a financial crash in 1837, Garrison's abolition movement was sidelined, but the 1840s and 1850s saw the rise of an even more radical and aggressive phase of American abolitionism. Meet Frederick Douglass, review his writings, and consider the depictions of suicide in antislavery writing. x
  • 24
    Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harriet Tubman
    Uncle Tom's Cabin was a blockbuster novel that depicted the flight to freedom. Consider this depiction from two very different vantages: the world of the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the life of Harriet Tubman, who was at the center of immediate and decisive steps being taken by enslaved people. x
  • 25
    The Black Heart of John Brown
    John Brown's failed raid on Harpers Ferry is one of the most famous antislavery actions before the Civil War. Who was he, and why was this raid so important? Was it an act of revolution or terrorism? Reflect on the irony that he achieved in death what he so palpably failed to achieve in life. x
  • 26
    The Slaves' Experience of the Civil War
    From the beginning of the war, enslaved people understood it to be a war of freedom, a war to destroy American slavery. But President Lincoln's charge was simply to preserve the union. Find out how this tension played out on plantations and battlefields, in Congress and in the White House, during the Civil War. x
  • 27
    US Colored Troops: Those Who Served
    Continue your study of the Civil War with a look at the role of black soldiers. Review what life was like for them in a predominantly white army, and the ill treatment many received. Then shift your attention to the role of black women during the war, many of whom served as cooks and nurses in Union hospitals. Survey the incredible wartime career of Harriet Tubman. x
  • 28
    Fighting Slavery after Emancipation
    The end of the Civil War brought legalized slavery in the United States to an end, and 3.5 million freed slaves in the South stepped into an uncertain future. Dive into some of the many challenges Americans-white and black, southern and northern-faced in the subsequent years. x
  • 29
    Slavery by Another Name
    Although the 13th Amendment outlawed race slavery in America and the Civil War is far in the past, the legacy of slavery and the fight for equal protection and representation among black Americans has been an ongoing struggle. Reflect on the effects of Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and the state of race relations in America today. x
  • 30
    Fighting Modern Slavery
    The history of the early 21st century may show racism is alive and well-but so, too, is slavery. Around the world, 20 to 40 million people are enslaved. To conclude this course, survey several case studies of slaves around the world and in the United States. What lessons can we draw from history? x

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Your professor

Richard Bell

About Your Professor

Richard Bell, PhD
University of Maryland, College Park
Richard Bell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He holds a BA from the University of Cambridge and a PhD from Harvard University. Dr. Bell has won more than a dozen teaching awards, including the Board of Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor for teaching faculty in the University System of Maryland. He has held major research fellowships at Yale...
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America's Long Struggle Against Slavery is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 28.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting but flawed This is an important topic and, considering its crucial role in American history, one about which most of us know too little. Thus Dr. Bell's course is an important addition to the Great Courses. But its greatest strength is also one of its weaknesses. The professor chooses as his primary focus the role of the slaves themselves, their suffering and their individual efforts to secure their freedom. This is an important corrective to the standard emphasis on the names and dates and laws, and Dr. Bell provides a wealth of information that was new to me. But in so doing, he ignores major events such as the Amistad affair and the Wilmot Proviso, and he pays little attention to the religious theories that slaveholders developed to justify their enslavement of other human beings, which led to the schism between Northern and Southern Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. And the final two lectures are more polemic than history. Still, I would recommend it, warts and all.
Date published: 2020-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mind Blowing Course I hadn't realized how superficial my school textbooks treated the entire system of American slavery from its origins in Africa to the sharecropper system that lingered for more than 100 years after the Proclamation of Emancipation. Dr. Bell's telling of our shameful history allowed several 'dominoes' to fall into place so that I connected several more dots of the historical times in Colonial times, during the Civil War era, and President Johnson's botched Reconciliation until today's police shooting of unarmed black men. Black Lives Matter, and Black History matters, and the average American lives in apathetic ignorance. That must be correct for lasting change to chase away the American stain of racism.
Date published: 2020-10-26
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The Longest Struggle I bought this program to downloaded this on to my iPad and take on vacation, I was unable to watch as difficult if not impossible to download. I wish I had gotten disc instead.
Date published: 2020-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation from an outsider looking in I watched this course on the Great Courses Plus. Many of the positive reviews echo my opinions. It is hard to understand the critics who say "biased". How are you "biased" about the history of slavery. Some information he left out I think would have been important. I have two books on the History of Indian Slavery. One Third of the slaves on SC plantations in the early 18th century were Indians. Often Indians were sold in the West Indies or traded there three Indians for two Africans. Many of the prisoners taken in King Phillip's War were sold into slavery. It also may have been interesting to cover the Barbary Pirates. While eleven million Africans were taken to the America, many were also taken by Muslim pirates to the Middle East, especially Iraq. And over one million Europeans were taken to North Africa and the Middle East and sold as slaves. But overall this is an important course especially in this day and age.
Date published: 2020-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exemplary I am currently on lecture number 12, Professor Bell is a fantastic orator, The in depth knowledge I have gained has far exceed my expectations. I highly endorse this course for anyone with a passion for the American Revolution. It is an intense course on the issue of slavery during the period.
Date published: 2020-08-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Biased presentation and glosses over many facts Generally the course was informative in that I learned a lot about slavery but the bias in the presentation was screaming from the very beginning. The instructor clearly had an agenda which unfortunately got in his way of presenting a balanced understanding of the subject. Coming from a Yankee with an ancestor that was starved to death and is buried in Andersonville I am sure there is no one around anymore that advocates for slavery but we do want to understand why it occurred and what the issues were on both sides. The professor failed miserably at this objective if indeed it was his objective. There was little to no discussion of why the need for trans Atlantic slavery started in the first place, no comment at all about the cost of the slaves, no discussion at all about the immense amount of money the slave owners had tied up in their slave inventory, no discussion about how most of these plantations were teetering on insolvency. These economic issues were of paramount importance as to why slavery existed then, and also why slavery still exist today. The professor completely ignored these issues and turned most of the lectures into a rant rather than a course. One glaring example was his backhanded slap at the Great Emancipator, Lincoln by truncating his quote just to promote his agenda. He quotes Lincoln only as saying, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.” The actual quote is, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.". Abraham Lincoln's Letter to Horace Greeley This is just one small example of what awaits you in this course. Basically the course was informative but unbalanced and many important facts about slavery were not presented or hand waved away because of the agenda driven construct. If you want to get a balanced understanding of slavery in the America’s this course is not it.
Date published: 2020-08-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I am a Canadian with a desire to understand the "whys" of people's bias. This course is opening my eyes. It is well done. I'm learning a lot; some of which deeply saddens me enough to cause tears. I do recommend this course, in the hopes that people will be more understanding and accepting.
Date published: 2020-08-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Fatally flawed Lack of Intellectual Objectivity The presentation of facts is very useful. But when the prof gets off into reading the mind of Ben Franklin? He establishes a failure of intellectual discipline and the critical quality of disinterested evaluation. The old and very sick Ben Franklin did indeed become the leader of the Abolitionist Movement. The claim he needed any more personal social recognition is farcical. That a very sick near death and in pain Ben made no personal sacrifice to assume this position? No he repented as good Americans do. Then served. As his repentance and contrition. Ben did all he could to have others take credit for his efforts. So it was very usual he would make the hard personal sacrifice to serve as the Abolitionist leader. Yes, Abortionists burned Constitution by torch light. But this ignorance is why Fredrick Douglas broke from them. Asserting correctly as measured by outcome, that the Constitution was designed to end the contradictory birth defect of slavery. The Framers also understood economics and resulting population gains. That in time the free markets of the North would result in populations dwarfing the imperial planters of the South. Ben established he understood the Wealth of Nations before it was published. Indeed, the preoccupation of politicians was the necessity of ending the sin of slavery without a civil war. Which is why Fredrick Douglas let a rare smile slip when he said let the war come. Likewise the time delay on ending the international African slave trade. The political posturing of a backward racist politician to his base is proof of nothing. Fact is, America banned the international slave crime on the first day possible. Further, sent our very limited navy to enforce it. Thankfully in nearly all other lectures, the profs are careful to mark when they slip from disinterest to their studied reasoned opinions. Even then presenting the opposing or even majority counter position. When done properly, this is one of the most enjoyable elements of The Great Courses. Of course I believe my position is logically superior. But it is the duty of a prof to acknowledge such opposing views. As the most excellent Prof Aldrete practices in the Rise of Rome. He reintroduces all the key elements which cannot be definitively resolved. Then allows his students to reason further. Unfortunately this prof degraded into making what amounts to a legal case. Without the benefit of cross examination. It is terrible practice at any time. But most destructive at times of inflamed uninformed political emotionalism.Which our Framers rightfully feared - greatly. I wish I could award an unqualified 5 Stars as Great Course content usually deserves. But critical portions of these lectures fall far short of the discipline of disinterested instruction. This is a course which despite all the careful vetted information can not be a stand alone source of understanding. Which is a shame. The lecture should be reworked to achieve the critical element of disinterest. .
Date published: 2020-08-03
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