Generalizations about Slavery

Slavery is not exclusive to one country or body of people. In Peter Kolchin’s Introduction, “The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor” he argues against the idea that all slavery has emerged for the same isolated reason of economic attainment. Instead just as wars and social movements are inherent because of the historical conditions at hand, slavery emerged and was enforced in different ways for different purposes. Kolchin his book, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, compares the two types of forced labor that arose around the same year. Both could be isolated forms of servitude, yet analyzing American Slavery in terms of Russian serfdom exposes varying reasons for its implementation and continuation.

One of Kolchin’s main arguments is the fact that slavery often emerges when there is an imbalance between labor and land. In areas where the population is not dense, yet there is a lot of farmable land owned by a handful of lords, forced labor is more likely to be present. However in Russian society, the implementation of serfs was not for economic gains in the same way it was for American slavery. Russian serfdom at first allowed serfs to travel and make payments, tying them down to the land yet still allotting certain freedoms when compared to American slavery. Over the years, lords because of the high rate of fleeing serfs, tied them down to the land through pushes for legislation. These serfs were need to maintain the sustainability of Russia and its population, but also to maintain power and property in few hands. The nobles, even though financially better off than the serfs, still had to dedicate themselves to service and the tsar or state. To keep both serfs and nobles silenced, the state created a hierarchy amongst them allowing for an autocratic tsar to rule Russia.

In the American Colonies, slavery was implemented or highly sought after only when indentured servitude no longer sufficed. But when immigration rates plummeted and there was an economic need to harvest tobacco, indentured servants were not profitable. Portugal controlled the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and only later was Britain able to take part in the slave trade. Even though expensive at first, landowners were willing to invest in slave because they would become permanent slave labor and would create a whole new generation of forced laborers as well. However besides slaves that worked on the fields there were domestic servants and slaves that served as revolutionaries as well as politically appointment members. Overall, even the core or generalization of what slavery is and how it comes to be, as the historical context changes so do the need and regulations of forced labor.


After reading Kolchin’s Introduction we are aware of the hierarchies enforced by institutions of forced labor. But which came first, the need fueled by economics or the need fueled to maintain order?

Works Cited:

Kolchin, Peter. “The Origin and Consolidation of Unfree Labor,” in Unfree Labor: American

Slavery and Russian Serfdom, 1-46. Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard

University Press, 1987.

2 thoughts on “Generalizations about Slavery

  1. I think that each state developed slavery for different reasons. America’s need for slaves was based more on an economic need because they didn’t have enough labor necessary for the land on which they wanted to produce. Russia on the other hand needed slaves for economic reasons but not nearly enough as they needed a sense of order. Because of plagues, famines, and terrible conditions for workers, serfs and peasants started fleeing their land, resorting to thievery or settling in other parts where they would find more prosperity. Therefore, in Russia they tied serfs to a land and master to bring order to the chaotic system.

  2. Additionally, the Russian law codes we have examined are all about maintaining some type of order through empower or protecting the roles of certain groups. The constant need of Russian Tsars to pander to nobles drives the creation of distinct castes and ultimately serfdom. Nobles become more privileged when they are entitled to free labour. Serfdom, to me, stood as a sort of bargaining chip for gaining more and more support from the noble class.

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