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Slaves vs. Indentured Servants: What's the Difference?

By Harlon Moss & Janet White || Published on March 21, 2024
Slaves were forced into lifelong servitude without consent, while indentured servants agreed to temporary labor in exchange for passage, land, or debt repayment, highlighting distinct differences in autonomy and terms of service.

Key Differences

Slaves were individuals forced into perpetual servitude, often without any personal rights or freedoms, and their status was typically inherited. In contrast, indentured servants entered into a contractual agreement to work for a specified period, usually 4-7 years, in exchange for passage to a new land, debt repayment, or land at the end of their service.
Slavery, deeply rooted in racial and economic exploitation, involved the dehumanization and commodification of people, primarily seen in the transatlantic slave trade. Indentured servitude, however, was a form of labor that included both voluntary and coerced agreements, often used by Europeans seeking new opportunities in the Americas.
Upon completion of their term, indentured servants were usually granted "freedom dues," which could include land, money, or goods, offering them a chance to start anew. Slaves, on the other hand, had no such prospect, as their bondage was for life and their children were often born into slavery.
The legal status and rights of slaves and indentured servants varied significantly; slaves were considered property with no legal rights, while indentured servants retained some legal protections and could sometimes challenge their treatment or terms of service in court.
Despite their differences, both systems were exploited for economic gain, contributing significantly to the development of colonies, especially in the Americas, by providing cheap labor for agriculture and industry.

Comparison Chart

Term of Service

Lifelong, hereditary
Fixed term (usually 4-7 years)


None; considered property
Limited; bound by contract

Legal Status

No legal rights or freedoms
Some legal protections and rights


Often received "freedom dues" after service


No consent; forced into servitude
Entered into agreement, though not always voluntary

Slaves and Indentured Servants Definitions


Slavery was enforced through violence and legal systems.
The Fugitive Slave Act mandated the return of escaped slaves.

Indentured Servants

Indentured servitude declined as slavery became more widespread.
The demand for labor in the colonies shifted towards the use of slaves.


Their status was inherited.
Children of slaves were also born into slavery.

Indentured Servants

Upon completion, they received freedom dues.
Land grants were common freedom dues for indentured servants in Virginia.


Slaves were considered property and forced to work without pay.
African slaves were crucial to the plantation economy in the southern U.S.

Indentured Servants

Indentured servants worked for a fixed term for passage to a new land.
Many Europeans became indentured servants to reach the American colonies.


Freed slaves often faced systemic discrimination.
Post-Emancipation, freed slaves struggled for civil rights in the Jim Crow South.

Indentured Servants

Their service was contractual.
Contracts specified the duration of service and conditions.


Slavery existed in various forms across history.
The Roman Empire utilized slaves for labor and entertainment.

Indentured Servants

They retained some legal rights.
Indentured servants could sometimes take their masters to court over abuses.


One who is owned as the property of someone else, especially in involuntary servitude.


How did slavery differ in various parts of the world?

Slavery practices and conditions varied widely across different cultures and time periods, from the chattel slavery of the American South to the more bureaucratic and regulated forms of servitude in ancient and medieval societies.

What led to the end of indentured servitude?

The decline of indentured servitude was due to various factors, including the end of transportation as a punishment, the rise of slavery as a more profitable and enduring source of labor, and changing economic conditions.

Were indentured servants ever treated like slaves?

While indentured servants retained some legal rights, their living and working conditions could be harsh and sometimes comparable to those of slaves, especially during periods of high labor demand.

Could slaves ever buy their freedom?

In some cases, slaves could buy their freedom or be manumitted by their owners, but this was not common and depended greatly on the laws and customs of the time and place.

Were there legal ways for indentured servants to shorten their service?

Indentured servants could sometimes negotiate for early release based on good behavior or by fulfilling certain conditions set by their masters, but this was not guaranteed.

How did societies justify the practice of slavery?

Justifications for slavery varied, including economic benefits, racial ideologies, and interpretations of religious texts that were used to legitimize the dehumanization of certain groups.

What was the role of indentured servitude in colonial economies?

Indentured servitude provided a crucial source of labor for the growing agricultural and industrial needs of European colonies, particularly in the Americas and the Caribbean.

What was the status of children born to indentured servants?

Children born to indentured servants were generally not bound by their parents' contracts and were considered free, unlike the children of slaves who inherited their enslaved status.

How did the treatment of slaves and indentured servants compare in terms of legal protection?

Slaves had virtually no legal protections and were subject to the will of their owners, whereas indentured servants, despite often harsh conditions, had contracts that provided some legal recourse.

Did all indentured servants come willingly?

Not all indentured servants came willingly; some were coerced or deceived into servitude, while others were criminals or prisoners who were transported as part of their sentence.

What was the impact of slavery on African societies?

The transatlantic slave trade had a devastating impact on African societies, leading to population loss, social disruption, and economic changes that favored the production of slaves over other goods.

Did the abolition of slavery affect indentured servitude?

The abolition of slavery led to increased demand for labor, which in some cases was met by forms of indentured servitude or contract labor, especially in colonies where slavery had been an important part of the economy.

How did slaves resist their conditions?

Slaves resisted through various means, including work slowdowns, sabotage, escape, and uprisings, such as the famous Nat Turner's rebellion.

ould indentured servants own property during their servitude?

Typically, indentured servants could not own property during their term of service, but they were often granted property or goods upon completing their contract.

What role did race play in the transition from indentured servitude to slavery?

Race became a central factor in the transition, as racialized slavery allowed for the permanent and hereditary subjugation of Africans and their descendants, marking a departure from the temporary servitude of indentures.

How did the abolition movements address indentured servitude and slavery?

Abolition movements primarily focused on ending slavery, but the principles of freedom and equality they championed also contributed to the decline of indentured servitude by advocating for labor rights and fair treatment.

Did indentured servitude exist outside of the American colonies?

Yes, indentured servitude was practiced in various forms in other parts of the British Empire, including the Caribbean and parts of Asia, often as a replacement for slave labor after abolition.

What impact did slavery and indentured servitude have on modern labor laws?

The legacy of slavery and indentured servitude influenced the development of modern labor laws, leading to protections against forced labor, child labor, and ensuring workers' rights to fair wages and working conditions.

Were there instances of indentured servants escaping their contracts?

Yes, like slaves, some indentured servants attempted to escape their conditions, though they faced legal penalties if caught, and their term of service could be extended as punishment.

How did former slaves and indentured servants contribute to society after their servitude?

Many became landowners, artisans, or small business owners, contributing to the economic and cultural development of their communities, though they often faced significant social and legal obstacles.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Co-written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.

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