WHO WAS BETTER OFF?
A COMPARISON OF AMERICAN SLAVES AND ENGLISH AGRICULTURAL WORKERS, 1750-1875
ERIC V. SNOW
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. WHY COMPARE ENGLISH LABORERS AND AMERICAN SLAVES TO BEGIN WITH? . . 10
The Standard Comparison of Factory Workers with Slaves 10
Why Do Such a Comparison? 10
What Exactly Is Compared Out of Each Diverse Group 12
Five Broad Areas for Comparison Purposes 12
2. A HISTORICAL PERENNIAL: THE STANDARD OF LIVING DEBATE 14
Some Theoretical Problems in Comparing Slaves and Laborers'
Standard of Living 14 ...
Diet and the Standard of Living for Slaves 17
Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Reconstructions of the Slave
The Slave Diet as Crude, Coarse, and Boring 21
Differing Diets for Slaves with Different Positions 23
The Slaves' Role in Providing Themselves with Food on Their
Variations in What Food Different Slaveowners Provided Their
Own Slaves With 26
The Diet of English Farmworkers: Regional Variations 28
The Southern English Agricultural Workers' Diet Was Poor,
Often Meatless 30
Grains, Especially Wheat, Dominate the Agricultural Workers'
The Role of Potatoes in the Laborers' Diet, Despite
Prejudices Against Them 33
Did Farmworkers Prefer Coarse or Fine Food? 34
The Monotony of the Farmworkers' Diet in the South of England 36
The Superior Conditions of the Northern English Farmworkers 37
Meat as a Near Luxury for Many Farmworkers 39
The Effects of Enclosure and Allotments on Hodge's Diet 40
Comparing Food Received by English Paupers, Slaves, and Their
Nation's Army 42
Better Bread Versus Little Meat? The Slave Versus Farmworker
Clothing for Slaves 44
Bad Clothing Conditions for Slaves 45
Differences in Clothing Provided for Slaves with Different
The Factory Versus Homespun: The Master's Decision 48
Slaves and Shoe Shortages 49
Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Take on Slaves' Clothing
Clothing and English Agricultural Workers 51
The Low Standards for Farmworkers, Especially in Southern
Homespun More Common in America than England by C. 1830 53
Special Measures Needed to Buy Their Own Clothes 54
Housing For Slaves: Variations around a Low Average Standard 55
Cases of Good Slave Houses 58
Was Poor White Housing Little Better than the Slaves'? 59
Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic View of Slave Housing 59
Genovese's Overly Optimistic Take on Slave Housing 60
The Moral Hazards of Crowded, One-Room Slave Houses 62
Slave Housing--Sanitation and Cleanliness 63
English Farmworkers' Housing--Quality/Size 64
Poor Housing Leads to Sexual Immorality 66
How the Artist's Eye Can Be Self-Deceiving When Evaluating
Cottages' Quality 68
How Rentals and the Poor and Settlement Laws Made for Poor
Quality Housing 69
The Problem of Cottages Being Distant from Work 70
The Aristocracy's Paternalism in Providing Housing, and Its
Little Difference for Slaves and Farmworkers in the Quality of
Their Housing 73
Agricultural Workers--Sanitation/Cleanliness 74
Slaves--Furniture and Personal Effects 76
English Agricultural Workers: Home Furnishings, Utensils,
Fuel--Sambo's Supply Versus Hodge's 79
Sambo's Medical Care 82
The General Backwardness of Antebellum Medical Care 83
Masters Sought Ways to Reduce Medical Expenses 84
Masters and Overseers as Amateur Healers for Slaves 84
Black Medical Self-Help: Conjurors and Midwives 86
Medical Care for English Agricultural Workers 87
Whose Medical Care Was Better? Hodge's? Or Sambo's? 91
The Overall Material Standard of Living: Was Hodge or Sambo
Better Off? 92
Trickle-Down Economics with a Vengeance: How the Slaves
3. THE QUALITY OF LIFE: SLAVES VERSUS AGRICULTURAL WORKERS.. 95
The Quality of Life as Opposed to the (Material) Standard of
Literacy and Education for African-American Slaves 96
Why Slaveholders Sought to Keep Slaves Illiterate 98
English Farmworkers, Literacy and Education 102
A Brief Sketch of the Development of English Public Education 104
What Age Did Child Labor Begin and Schooling End? 105
Ignorance Versus Skewed Knowledge: Different Models for
Controlling a Subordinate Class 106
Slaves--The Treatment of Elderly "Aunts" and "Uncles" 109
Altruism and Self-Interest Did Not Necessarily Conveniently
Coincide to Protect Elderly Slaves' Lives 110
Did Slavery Provide More Security Against Starvation than
Odd Jobs for Elderly Slaves 112
The Senior Hodge: Cared for, or Fends for Himself? 113
The Effects of the New Poor Law on the Elderly, Non-Working
How the Local Authorities Profited from the Workhouse Test 117
Whose Elderly Were Better Off? The Farmworkers' or the
The Slave Childhood: Full of Fun or Full of Fear? 119
Pastimes for Slave Children 120
Plantation Day Care: How Slave Childhood Was Different 123
Is All Work Bad for Children? 124
The Slave Childhood: Good, Bad, or Indifferent? 125
Hodge's Childhood: More Work, But More Worthwhile? 126
Just How Common Was Child Labor, Especially in the
The Parental Push for Child Labor 130
Day Care Not a Common Experience 131
Young Hodge at Play 132
The Relative Quality of Life for the Children of Slaves and
Religion--A Site for Enlightenment, Social Unity, and Social
Slave Religion--The Slaveholders' Options on Christianizing
the Slaves 135
The Earlier Practice of Not Evangelizing the Slaves 137
The Gospel of Obedience Distorts the Christianity Given to
the Slaves 137
The Slaves Add to the Religion Given Them by Their Masters
and Mistresses 139
No Surprise: The Slaves' Lack of Religious Freedom 141
The Slaves Unbend a Bent Christianity 142
Slave Preachers: Their Role and Power 144
Did Slaveholders Achieve Religious and Ideological Hegemony
Over the Slaves? 145
English Agricultural Workers and Christianity 149
Reasons for the Established Church's Unpopularity with the
How the Local Elite Can Use Charity to Control the Poor 151
The Laborers’ Turn to Nonconformity and Its Mixed Results 153
Christianity: An Instigator of Laborers' Resistance? 154
Similarities in Southern White and English Lower Class
Somehow Seeking Participation in and Control of One's
Destiny: The Consolations of Faith? 156
The Slave Family: How Well Did It Survive Slavery? 157
The Family Bonds of Slaves Made Conditional Upon the
Stability of the Slaveholders 159
The Routine Destruction of Family Relationships under Slavery 161
Fogel and Engerman's Mistakenly Low Figures on Marriage
How the Slaves' Fears about Family Breakup Could Make For
Continual Anxiety 165
The Process of Being Bought and Sold as Itself Dehumanizing 166
How Slavery Undermined the Families of Slaves 166
How Slavery Weakened the Father's Role 167
Factors Which Encouraged Slaves to Treat Marriage Bonds
How Slavery Encouraged a Casual Approach to Family
The Ways Slavery Destroyed Family Relationships 173
How the Master Could Routinely Interfere in Slave Family
Master-Arranged Marriages 175
Just How Common Was Miscegenation? 176
Despite the Pressures, Slaves Still Maintained Some Form of
Family Life 178
The Key Issues Involved in Examining the Quality of Farm-
worker Family Life 179
The "Weber/Gillis" Thesis Summarized: Was Brutish Family
Life the Norm? 180
The Limits to Snell's Rebuttal Against Seeing Lower Class
Family Life as Harsh 182
How Not Being Independent and Self-Sufficient Could Improve
Family Life 184
The Limits to Applying the Gillis-Weber Thesis to the
English Case 186
Some Evidence Bearing on the Quality of Farmworkers' Family
Why the Slave Family was Fundamentally Worse Off than the
Laborer Family 189
Why the Laborers Had a Higher Overall Quality of Life than
the Slaves 190
The Problems of Comparing the Slaves' and Laborers' Quality
of Religious Experience 190
How Elderly Slaves Could Have Been Better Off Than the
Elderly Farmworkers 192
How the Slaves' More Carefree Childhood Was Not Necessarily
a Better One 192
The Hazards of Historical Analysis that Uses the Values of
Those in the Past 194
4. THE SEXUAL DIVISION OF LABOR: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS 196
The Sexual Division of Labor: African-American Slaves 196
Kemble on a Stricter Sexual Division of Labor's Advantages 197
Jobs Female Slaves Had 198
Qualifications about the Generally Weak Sexual Division of
Labor among Slaves 201
Plantation Day Care Revisited 202
The Sexual Division of Labor: English Agricultural Workers 203
Women's Work in Arable Areas at Harvest Time Increased
Later in the Century 204
The Female Dominance of Dairy Work Declines 205
How the Separate Spheres' View on Sex Roles Influenced the
1867-68 Report 206
Why Did Laboring Women Increasingly Fall Out of the Field
Labor Force? 207
Allotments Partially Restore the Family Economy 209
Quality of Life Issues and the Sexual Division of Labor 209
The Division of Labor: Blessing or Curse? 211
Who Was Better Off Depends on the Values One Has 213
5. CONTROLLING SUBORDINATE CLASSES--HOW IT WAS DONE 213
The Central Reality of Work and the Elite's Needs for
Controlling Its Workers 213
Dawn to Dusk--Work Hours for Slaves 215
Using Force to Get Slaves into the Fields in the Morning 215
Finishing Work for the Day--Some Variations 217
Hours of Work--Agricultural Workers 218
Were Workdays Shorter for the Farmworkers than the Slaves? 219
The Length of the Workweek and Days off--Slaves 221
Slaves Normally Did Not Work on Sundays 221
Holidays the Slaves Did Not Work On 223
Unplanned Days Off Due to Weather or the State of Crops 224
The Days of Work for Agricultural Workers 225
Those Laborers Who Had to Work Sundays, and Those Who Did Not 226
Seasonal and Other Changes in the Workweek, and Their Effects
on Unemployment 228
How "Voluntarily" Did Slaves Work? The Necessity of Coercion
and Supervision 230
Why the Whip Had to Be Used to Impose Work Discipline on the
How Commonly Were the Slaves Whipped? The Time on the Cross
The Deterrence Value of Occasional Killings 235
The Danger of Corporal Punishment Backfiring, Requiring
"Massive Retaliation" 236
How Even Good Masters Could Suddenly Kill a Slave in the
Heat of Passion 237
Miscellaneous Punishments that Masters Inflicted on Slaves 238
Examples of Corporal Punishment Backfiring 239
Did Slaveowners Successfully Implant a Protestant Work Ethic
in the Slaves? 240
The Slaves' Sense of Work Discipline Like that of Other
Pre-Industrial People 242
Genovese's Paternalism: How Successful Were Planters in
Imposing Hegemony? 244
Scott Versus Hegemony 244
Were the Slaveholders Really Believers in Paternalism?: The
Implications of Jacksonian Democracy and Commercial
Capitalism in the American South 247
Counter-Attacks Against Portraying Slaveholders as Bourgeois
Ignorance as a Control Device Revisited 252
How Masters Would Manipulate the Slaves' Family Ties in Order
to Control Them 253
Positive Incentives Only a Supplementary Method for
Controlling the Bondsmen 255
The Brutal Overseer as a Historical Reality 258
The Task Versus Gang Systems: Different Approaches to Work
The Infrapolitics of Task (Quota) Setting 261
The Gang System's Advantages 262
The Patrol/Pass System 264
The Slaveowners Who Liberally Granted Passes or Dispensed with
Them Altogether 266
How the Divisions Among White Slaveholders Benefited the
How Mistresses and other Family Members Often Restrained Ill-
The Central Reality of Violence as the Main Tool to Control
the Slaves 269
The High Levels of Violence Between the Slaves and Masters
Compared to England 271
Both Sides committed Far Less Violence During the Swing Riots
in England 272
The Lower Goals and Greater Divisions among Local Elites in
the English Case 273
The Routine Police State Measures in the South 275
Coercion, Not Incentives or Ideology, as the Basic Means of
Enforcing Slavery 276
Basic Differences Between the American and English Elites'
Methods of Control 276
The Freedom of Action Local Government Officials Had in
The Basic Strategy to Better Control the Farmworkers 278
Enclosure as a Method of Social Control and "Class Robbery" 279
Enclosure: Direct Access to the Means of Production and
Some Food Both Lost 280
Open and Close Parishes: One Dumps Laborers onto the Other 282
The Decline of Service 284
Why Service Declined 285
How Poor Relief Itself Promoted Population Growth 287
Assorted Methods that Deterred Applicants for Relief 288
Why "Make-Work" Jobs Failed to Deter Applicants and
Undermined Work Discipline 289
The New Poor Law: Deterring Applicants for Relief by
Using the Workhouse Test 290
Falling Productivity: One More Consequence of the Old Poor
The Workhouse Test as a Tool for Increasing Labor
The Workhouse Test Was a Tool for Lowering Wages Also 294
Allotments Help Reduce Increases in Rates Caused by Enclosure 296
Why the Rural Elite Still Sometimes Opposed Allotments 297
Miscellaneous Ways Allotments Were Used to Benefit the Rural
Another Positive Mode of Creating Work Discipline: Piecework 300
The Legal System and Its Influence on the Laborers 303
The Justice of the Peace/County Court System Necessarily
Expressed Class Bias 303
The Biases of the Courts Against the Laborers Should Not Be
Ignorance of the Law as a Control Device 305
Examples of How the Contents of the Law Could be Against the
The Important Differences Between Controlling the Laborers
and Slaves at Work 307
Ideological Hegemony, Paternalism, Class Consciousness, and
Did Some in the Elite Begin to Repudiate Paternalistic,
Communal Values? 309
How the Rural Elite Tried to Have Paternalism and Capitalism
Paternalism Vs. Capitalism: The Trade-Offs between Freedom
and Security 311
How the Waning of Paternalism Made the Laborers' Class
Consciousness Possible 313
The Power of Gifts to Control, and When They Do Not 313
The Failure of Paternalism as an Ideological Control Device
from C. 1795 314
The Laborers' Growing Class Consciousness, C. 1834 to 1850 315
When the Laborers as a Class in Itself Began to Act for
A Comparison of Respective Elite Control Strategies: Slave-
owners and Squires 318
How Much Success Did These Two Elites Have at Hegemony? 322
6. ON RESISTANCE BY A SUBORDINATE CLASS 325
The Infrapolitics of Daily Life 325
Analytical Problems with "Day-to-Day Resistance"
The Continuum of Resistance from Infrapolitics to Organized
The Need for a Subordinate Class to Wear a Mask to Conceal
Their Knowledge 328
Early Training in Mask Wearing 329
The Costs of Being Open and the Mask Falling Off 330
The Subordinate Class's Compulsions to Lie 330
Why the Rituals of Deference Still Had Meaning 332
Elkins's "Sambo" Hypothesis and Its Problems 333
An Act of Routine Resistance: Stealing 338
Various Motives for Theft 338
The Intrinsic Costs of Double-Standards in Morality 339
Evading Work by Claiming Sickness 341
Work: Slowdowns and Carelessness 342
The Strategy of Playing the White Folks Off Against Each
Manipulating White Authority for the Slaves' Own Purposes 343
How Pleadings and Petitions Could Restrain Masters and
The General Problem of Slaves Running Away 344
Temporary and Local Flight 346
"Negotiating" a Return 347
How Runaways Could Resist Capture 348
Maroons: Settlements of Escaped Slaves 349
The Most Successful Runaways 350
"Strikes" Conducted by Groups of Slaves Running Away 352
Small Scale Open Confrontations and Violence 353
"Nats" or "Sambos"?--Selective Perception by the Master Class 355
The Rarity of Slave Revolts in the United States Compared
to Elsewhere 356
The Factors Militating Against Slave Revolts in the United
Many Slaves Knew How Much the Deck Was Stacked Against
Successful Revolt 359
Why then, If Revolts Were So Rare, Were the Whites So
Resistance to Slavery in the United States Is Dominated by
Resident Slaveholders Supervising Small Units of Production
Smother Resistance 363
Resisting Enslavement Is Not the Same as Resisting Slavery
as a Social System 364
Hodge: The Predominance of Daily Infrapolitics Over Outright
Social Crime--The Infrapolitics of Poaching 367
The Laborers' Counter-Ideology Against the Elite's Game Laws 368
The Role of Theft, More Generally Defined, in English
Rural Infrapolitics 369
The Correlation between Poverty and Theft 370
Hodge's Thinner Mask 370
How Farmworkers Could "Run Away"--Resistance Through Migra-
The Reluctance of Laborers to Move and Other Obstacles to
The Tamer Confrontations between Hodge and His Masters 375
Food Riots as a Method of Resistance 376
The Swing Riots Generally Considered 378
How the Laborers Did Benefit Some from the Swing Riots 379
The Relative Weakness of the Farmworkers' Unions Compared
to Others in England 380
The Organization of the Agricultural Labours' Union in 1872 381
Comparing Two Subordinate Classes' Methods of Resistance 383
7. CONCLUSIONS: THE BALANCE BETWEEN "RESISTANCE" AND "DAMAGE"? 386
Resistance and the Subordinate Class's Quality of Life 386
Slavery Is on a Continuum of Social Systems of Subordination 388
Selected Bibliography 390
1. WHY COMPARE ENGLISH LABORERS AND AMERICAN SLAVES TO BEGIN WITH?
The Standard Yet Problematic Comparison of Factory Workers with Slaves
Mississippi slaveowner and politician John A. Quitman "professed little respect for the northern free-labor system, where 'factory wretches' worked eleven-hour days in 'fetid' conditions while their intellects were destroyed 'watching the interminable whirling of the spinning-jenny.' . . . The Quitman plantations functioned satisfactorily, and his bondsmen were appreciative of their condition. He described his slaves as 'faithful, obedient, and affectionate.'" Quitman's comparison is still made today when debates break out over the standard of living about who was better off: slaves versus [Northern] factory workers, not farm servants. Similarly, while examining general European conditions for workers, Jurgen Kuczynski states: "It is precisely these bad conditions which justify the arguments of the slaveowners of the South, that the slaves are materially better off than the workers in the north. This would in many cases have been true." Despite its frequency, this comparison is actually problematic: It discounts the additional effects of urbanization, crowding, and doing industrial/shop work inside. In the countryside, with its low population density and work in the fields outside, people experience a different way and quality of life. The conditions of urban factory life simply are not tied to the legal status of being free or slave. This common comparison actually contrasts two very different ways of life, urban versus rural, factory versus farm, to which widely varying value judgments can be attached. As E. P. Thompson observes: "In comparing a Suffolk [farm] labourer with his grand-daughter in a cotton-mill we are comparing--not two standards [of living]--but two ways of life."1 By likening some other agricultural labor force to the slaves of the American South before the Civil War, many of the apples/oranges comparison problems are eliminated. This work shows the largely landless English agricultural workers during the general period of the industrial revolution (c. 1750-1875) had a superior quality of life of compared to the black slaves in the American South (c. 1750-1865), but that the latter at times had a material standard of living equal to or greater than the former's, at least in southern England.
Why Do Such a Comparison?
A historical comparison brings into focus features of both subjects under study that might otherwise go unnoticed. New insights may be gained, which might be missed when highly specialized historians devoted to a particular field analyze historical phenomena stay strictly within their area of expertise. Suddenly, through historical comparison and contrast, the pedestrian can become exceptional, and what was deemed unusual becomes part of a pattern. For example, both the agricultural workers and the slaves found ways to resist the powerful in their respective societies, but their forms of resistance differed since their legal statuses differed. In the preface of his study of American slavery and Russian serfdom, Kolchin observes some of the advantages of doing such a comparison. It reduces parochialism in given fields, allows features to be seen as significant that otherwise might be overlooked, makes for the formulation and testing of hypotheses, and helps to distinguish which variables and causal factors had more weight.2 A comparative topic is justified, even when it deals with phenomena long since analyzed by historians, if it wrings new insights out of the same old sources. It may expose assumptions about events or processes experts take for granted or overlook in the fields being compared. One suspects sometimes labor historians and African-American slavery historians may be letting their respective historiographical work pass each other like ships in the night, not knowing the valuable insights one group may have for the study of the other's field.3
Comparing and contrasting English agricultural workers during the industrial revolution and American slaves before and during the Civil War allows for the exploration of (perhaps unexpected) similarities and differences in their experiences in the same general time frame. Placing side by side for inspection two agricultural work forces who lived at the same basic time who spoke the same language seems "a natural," but specialists in both fields have largely overlooked this identification. The history of black slavery is "labor history." On a daily basis slaveholders got people to labor for them, tried to motivate them by fear and the stick, or, less commonly but ideally, by love and the carrot. Of course, fundamental differences remained between the two work forces. The blacks were not really seen as part of the surrounding society for racial reasons, while the English agricultural workers still had some real rights, despite their evident subordination. Excepting for children, farmworkers were never subjected to the supreme indignity of being flogged while on the job, but the whip was virtually the emblem of the slaveowner's authority over his or her property. Exploring the similarities and differences between these two work forces is the burden of this work.
What Exactly Is Compared Out of Each Diverse Group
This work compares from these groups those who lived in rural areas and did farm work as their main or exclusive occupation. Neither urban slavery in the American South nor slavery in the North before its demise are analyzed here. However, some source documents used below involve slaves who either may have lived in a small town or in both city and country. Artisans who lived in rural areas, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, receive some attention in the American case but almost none in the English. Servants are included, whether American slave or English free, whether doing domestic chores, learning husbandry, or a combination of the two, but slave domestics receive much more attention than English ones. Slaves working in industry or factories are omitted, as well as their English counterparts, since this work is about agricultural/rural workers. Workers in English domestic industry are also passed over. But cases in which substantial machinery and mills functioned on plantations, such as for rice and sugar refining, are covered since they functioned amidst a rural setting. Unless otherwise mentioned, it should be assumed, as "Southern slaves" are compared with English agricultural workers, that the former live in rural areas or perhaps small towns, and that they are either field hands or servants, not urban and/or industrial workers. Since about ninety percent of the slaves did not live in cities, the vast bulk of them lived in rural areas.4 Blacks without masters--"free Negroes"--are not covered here. The focus shall be on ENGLISH farm workers, not Scottish, Welsh, Irish, or "British." Exclusions and limits are necessary for what is compared here within these two large, diverse groups, since more could always be added.
Five Broad Areas for Comparison Purposes
In five broad categories English farmworkers and African-American slaves are compared. The first concerns the material standard of living, such as in diet, clothing, housing, and medical care. The second concerns the less quantitative but essential "quality of life" issues, such as in family relationships, education, religious activities, and having an informed outlook on life. Although through sheer ignorance and good treatment perhaps some slaves were relatively content with their lot, their satisfaction does not make their situation to be actually good. It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, a dictum which a few quantitative economic historians seem tempted to forget. Only those slaves with a "live for today" philosophy, who made themselves totally oblivious to the future, could possibly forget what masters selling their family members would do to them. Sales due to death or bankruptcy were always remained a sword of Damocles hanging over the bondsmen. Third, the sexual division of labor between men and women is compared for the English farm workers and African-American slaves. These two groups had glaring differences in this area which, perhaps ironically, declined sharply after freedom for the slaves came. Fourth, work conditions, labor discipline, and the ways the masters attempted to control their respective subordinate classes are compared, including by and through the state. Abuses at work are dealt with, such as whipping, hours of work, holidays/days off, and the incentives used by "management," broadly considered. The reality of paternalism and the quality of work relationships are examined. Fifth, the means by which the subordinate classes resisted the will of the dominant class is analyzed. How the oppressed classes wore a "mask" is considered here. Both of these groups carefully concealed, by lies, feigned ignorance, or the simple non-volunteering of information, what they REALLY thought from their "betters" to avoid punishment or exploitation. The infrequent, but spectacular, cases of revolts and mass actions are covered, as well as union activities among the agricultural workers. Using the broad categories of the material standard of living, the quality of life, the sexual division of labor, work conditions and controls, and resistance against those in authority and their controls, the most important similarities and contrasts between these two work forces are focused upon.
This comparison uses the general time period of 1750-1875. Making for the drawing of sharper parallels, these dates allow two largely contemporary work forces to be compared who both lived in industrializing nations and spoke the same language. The nineteenth century is emphasized, partly due to greater documentation, but also because then the factors creating these two work forces' conditions peaked. The proletarianization of the farmworkers reached a height in the first half of the nineteenth century, before allotments spread more widely, mechanization became common, and out-migration had partially emptied the English countryside. Similarly, after generally experiencing a boom in the preceding thirty years, the Cotton Kingdom clearly reached an economic high point in 1860. This work emphasizes portraying the respective climaxes of the two work forces' conditions as determined by events and processes that began in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, such as the initial arrival of slaves in the English colonies and the second general wave (i.e., post-Tudor) enclosure acts. Changes from earlier conditions (pre-1750) are treated largely in passing, which makes the conditions of the slaves look better, due to the improvements in their treatment from the early colonial period, while these make the agricultural workers apppear worse off, because of the negative effects enclosure and the French Wars had on their standard of living compared to (say) 1725.
Both work forces lived in industrializing countries. The South's industrial sector before the Civil War that could employ the slaves paled before what was available to rural English workers. Nevertheless, they still resided in the nation that was, by the eve of the Civil War, the world's second greatest industrial power. The North's industrial sector clearly affected them. Often Northern factories made the clothes and shoes they wore, and the tools and machines they worked with. Corresponding with the period of England's industrialization, the enclosure acts affected the laborers largely negatively. They greatly reduced the independence and social mobility the farmworkers had had. If they were willing to migrate, industry gave them an outlet from bad rural conditions. It even provided some competition for their labor that raised their wages when they stayed put, at least in northern England. Importantly, a major chronological difference separates the two groups: Freedom abruptly came to the slaves in 1865, but the improvements and changes in the farmworkers' conditions were gradual, without any radical discontinuity. Perhaps the farmworkers' gaining the vote in 1884 was the one event that changed their lives the most, for although the Swing Riots of 1830-31 badly shook the British establishment, their effects on their lives were a pittance before the effects of emancipation on American blacks.5 The mechanization of English agriculture was a long, slow process, undoubtedly hindered early in the nineteenth century by the massive labor surplus that prevailed in much of the English countryside, and even by "Captain Swing" himself. Hence, some sources about post-1875 conditions are cited for the English case, since their conditions changed more slowly, but post-1865 conditions are mostly ignored for the freedmen, although racial subordination continued by means other than bondage.
2. A HISTORICAL PERENNIAL: THE STANDARD OF LIVING DEBATE
Some Theoretical Problems in Comparing Slaves and Laborers' Standard of Living
The debate over standard of living during industrialization, and the role of capitalism in lowering or raising the masses' consumption and use of various material goods, is one of historiography's greatest footballs. The Long Debate on Poverty6 has an aptly chosen title! Unfortunately, for both Southern slaves and English farmworkers, no solid nationwide statistical economic data exists that could decisively settle the issue. The English (and Welsh) had no fully inclusive census until 1801, no occupational census until 1841, and no official registration for deaths and births until 1839.7 American census data begins with 1790, but a mere count of people, crops grown in a given year, and their occupations is not enough to calculate per capita income.8 Furthermore, what the average slave received hardly equaled what the American did! To run such calculations, it is necessary to know what the slaves alone got. The available historical evidence, such as it is, can give clues and indications of what the actual standard of living was. But, at this late date, nothing with full rational certainty capable of convincing all the disputants involved is likely to turn up. Anecdotal evidence is valuable, because it can descriptively expose the relationships within an society that an overemphasis on quantitative data can obscure. But it cannot totally settle this debate, since conflicting stories appear to support both sides, such as how kindly or harshly the "typical" master treated the "average" slave. This point leads to the next big problem in the standard of living controversy . . .
Just what exactly IS the "average" slave or the "typical" agricultural worker? These abstractions represent groups that experienced a great variety of working conditions, climates, lifestyles, occupations, family statuses, and masters supervising. What is "average" for slaves when comparing the relatively mild bondage of the Border States, such as Virginia and Kentucky, with the harshness of the frontier Deep South, such as Texas and Arkansas? What is "average" for agricultural workers between Northumberland, where one observer said the wages and the standard of living surpassed America's for farmworkers, as opposed to the utter misery of notoriously low-waged Wiltshire in southern England?9 Theoretically, after warming up the computers armed with spreadsheet programs, adding the two together and dividing, the issue would be settled, if accurate, broad-based, quantitative statistics did exist (but they do not). Number-crunching can obscure the essential reality of an unequal or extreme situations within the working class or bondsmen as a whole. The economist who warned against wading a river with an average depth of four feet drew attention to a serious theoretical problem that pervades quantitative analysis when applied to the standard of living debate. Although the "average" bondsman or the "mean" farmworker are handy abstractions, they remain generalizations. It is mistaken to allow them to obscure the underlying realities of (especially) regional diversity for the farmworkers, or the widely varying treatment meted out by various masters and mistresses to their bondsmen.
Diet and the Standard of Living for Slaves
The essence of the standard of living debate seems to be diet, and how far the masses lived above bare subsistence.10 Related issues include: How much and what kinds of "luxuries," such as sugar, coffee, and tea, did the groups in question enjoy? How much and what kinds of meat did they have? Did they eat wheat, the most expensive grain, or barley, rye, oats, etc.? How coarse was the food they ate? For the American slaves, as for American Southerners generally, the main grain was corn (maize), and the main meat, pork.11 The absolutely archetypal rations slaves received consisted of so many pecks of corn and pounds of pork or bacon per week. Anything adding to or replacing these items as basic foodstuffs was at least mildly unusual. As escaped slave Christopher Nichols testified to Drew: "My master used to allow us one piece of meat a day, and a peck and a half of corn meal a week." After being sold for $1,200 in Natchez, Eli Johnson was "put on a cotton farm, and allowed a peck of corn a week and three pounds meat." Traveler Frederick Law Olmsted inquired of one white Southerner: "'What do they generally give the niggers on the plantations here?' 'A peck of meal and three pound of bacon is what they call 'lowance, in general, I believe. It takes a heap o' meat on a big plantation.'" Aged ex-slave Andy Anderson painfully recalled that the new overseer, Delbridge, cut rations as the Civil War began: "He weighs out the meat, three pound for the week, and he measure a peck of meal." The "meat" in question was normally from the flesh of hogs, although exceptions appeared. Once a slave in eastern Maryland, Frederick Douglass mentioned how the standard monthly rations included fish sometimes: "The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal." Charles Ball similarly described Calvert County, Maryland, where
the practice amongst slave-holders, was to allow each slave one peck of corn weekly, which was measured out every Monday morning; at the same time each one receiving seven salt herrings. This formed the week's provision, and the master who did not give it, was called a hard master, whilst those who allowed their people any thing more, were deemed kind and indulgent.12
Hence, the normal bondsman and woman expected a diet that included several pounds of pork or bacon and, even more certainly, corn.13
Were the standard rations enough? Sometimes they were not, at least for some adult men. As Blassingame notes: "Equally serious was his [the slave's] dependence on the 'average' amount of food and clothing his master decided was sufficient for all slaves." What was sufficient for one man or woman may be insufficient for others!14 Ex-slave Anderson added, after describing his plantation's new standard rations: "And 'twa'n't enough. He half-starve us niggers, and he want more work." Runaway slave Williamson Pease ironically commented to Drew about the draught animals' superior treatment: "Horses and mules have food by them all the time, but the slaves had four pounds of fat bacon a week, and a peck of corn meal,--not enough to last some men three days." Francis Henderson similarly commented: "Our allowance was given weekly--a peck of sifted corn meal, a dozen and a half herrings, two and a half pounds of pork. Some of the boys would eat this up in three days."15 Underfeeding almost inevitably caused theft, as Pease and Henderson also observed. Harriet Brent Jacobs, alias Linda Brent, described well how miserly the rations could be doled out. Her mistress would
spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking out their meager fare with the remains of gravy and other scrapings. The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them. Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly what size they ought to be.16
So according to the slaves' own testimony, the nearly universal "standard rations" were inadequate for many of them, at least by themselves without what they could raise, hunt, or steal on their own, or what more indulgent masters might issue.17
Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Reconstructions of the Slave Diet
Fogel and Engerman in Time on the Cross argue that slaves were well fed:
The average daily diet of slaves was quite substantial. The energy value of their diet exceeding that of free men in 1879 by more than 10 percent. There was no deficiency in the amount of meat allotted to slaves. On average, they consumed six ounces of meat per day, just an ounce lower than the average quantity consumed by the free population.18
Although such data as average heights and rapid population growth indicate American slaves were not seriously underfed, this result was not entirely due to their masters and mistresses' efforts.19 The slaves struggled to get food on their own, such as by hunting and trapping (both relatively productive in a sparsely populated/frontier region), gardening small patches of land, purchasing food using money they earned from extra work, not to mention stealing. The testimony cited above casts some doubt on the "standard rations" of pork and corn alone always being enough to satisfy at least adult male bondsmen.
Fogel and Engerman clearly make many dubious assumptions and casual mistakes while reconstructing the slave diet, as shown by Richard Sutch's searching and intensive critique of their data. Their disappearance method uses data from only 44 generally backwoods counties out of Parker and Gallman's sample of 413 counties' farm and plantation food production. They assume the slaves must have eaten most of the food produced on the plantations in their subsample because (they reason) these were too far from significant urban markets. Their subsample of this sample excluded farms and small plantations with fewer than fifty-one slaves, thus discounting the possibility of local sales of produce by the big plantations to neighboring farms and small plantations. Indeed, their subsample comes down to just seventy-seven plantations, including less than 10 percent of the total population and 1.5 percent of the total productive landholdings in the Parker-Gallman sample. With such a narrow sample focused on the largest plantations, a bias similar to U.B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery, distortions inevitably appear. Since plantations were commercial and non-subsistent by nature, they sold produce for cash. Using a subsample of them in backwoods areas more than fifty wagon miles from urban areas would not eliminate the distortions caused by local sales of produce or the driving of animals on the hoof to market. The latter point undermines Fogel and Engerman's evidence for the slaves having a high beef consumption based on their subsample since 15 percent of all the cattle in it were on four Texas farms in two counties which fell outside the fifty-mile radius. But since Texas was notorious for long distance cattle drives to market, it is implausible to think these ranches' slaves ate most of the steer raised on them! They underestimate the resident white population's consumption in these areas, such as by using conversion ratios (such as dressed to live weight) which lower how much pork the slaves ate and raise how much the whites ate in the subsampled areas. Between all the mistakes and questionable assumptions Sutch identifies, many of them omitted here, nobody should place much stock in Fogel and Engerman's arguments for a varied and nutritious slave diet.20
Much of the debate on the slave diet between Fogel and Engerman and their critics like Sutch surrounds mineral and vitamin deficiencies. For example, was the phenomenon of dirt/clay eating, which still survives among Southern rural blacks in the United States today, due to malnutrition? A thiamine deficiency could easily explain some plantations' outbreaks of sudden dirt-eating frenzies.21 Being high in pork and maize, the classic slave diet clearly was tailor-made for producing pellagra, just as it did among poor whites. Due to its chemically bound form, corn lacks niacin that the human body can easily use. Its high content of the amino acid leucine partially even interferes with the body's digestion of whatever niacin that is consumed. Although the body can convert the amino acid tryptophan into niacin from crude protein, the low quality fat pork slaves normally ate unfortunately was a poor source of it. Even nowadays, let alone in antebellum times, physicians had difficulty diagnosing pellagra because its symptoms seem to be like other afflictions; it also manifests itself in the early stages in disparate ways in different individuals. It normally does not develop along standard, classical lines. Nineteenth-century American doctors simply did not know about this disease, so they would think the bondsmen under their care had other diseases. The description of the "negro disease" called black tongue by Southern physicians, however, fits nearly perfectly pellagra in its earlier stages. Employing such arguments, Kiple and Kiple suggest that pellagra's symptoms manifested themselves during hard times when planters cut back on their rations. It also became operative in many bondsmen in an early, endemic form that emerged during winter and early spring, only to disappear again due to seasonal fresh fruits or vegetables entering their diet. Sutch observes that the standard ration falls way short of supplying enough niacin. It even lacks the extra protein with which the body could convert tryptophan into niacin. The unsupplemented standard ration had other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as in thiamine, riboflavin, and calcium. It was short even in vitamin A, since the corn and sweet potatoes of the antebellum South were evidently normally white, not yellow, in color.22 Since the bondsmen likely suffered from dietary deficiencies, at least during winter and early spring when forced to survive on the easily stored items of the standard ration and/or under harsher masters and mistresses' more restrictive diets, this casts doubt upon Fogel and Engerman's rosy reconstruction.
The Slave Diet as Crude, Coarse, and Boring
Besides being likely vitamin deficient, the slave diet was obviously crude, coarse, and boring. As Frederick Douglass commented: "Not to give a slave enough to eat, is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders. The rule is, no matter how coarse the food, only let there be enough of it." Victoria McMullen remembered her slave grandmother described the average slave's diet this way: "But the other slaves didn't git nothing but fat meat and corn bread and molasses. And they got tired of that same old thing. They wanted something else sometimes." Mary Reynolds recalled during slavery days what she was fed: "Mostly we ate pickled pork and corn bread and peas and beans and 'taters. They never was as much as we needed." Although monotonous, this diet showed her master at least gave more than just the stereotypical "hog and hoecake" diet. As Olmsted observed: "The food is everywhere, however, coarse, crude, and wanting in variety; much more so than that of our [Northern] prison convicts." The restricted food types they received, the crude cooking equipment they used, and the sharp time limits imposed by both sexes working a "sunup to sundown" work day all combined to produce a dreary diet. As actress turned reluctant mistress Fanny Kemble observed at her husband's rice plantation:
They got to the fields at daybreak, carrying with them their allowance of food for the day, which toward noon, and not till then, they eat, cooking it over a fire, which they kindle as best they can, where they are working. Their second meal in the day is at night, after their labor is over, having worked, at the very least, six hours without intermission of rest or refreshment since their noonday meal.
Since the adults of both sexes worked such long hours of hard labor in the fields, the cooking equipment consisting generally of fireplaces or open fires, and relatively few or no metal pots, forks, knives, and spoons being available, crudely prepared meals inevitably followed. Solomon Northrup, a free man sold into slavery, said slaves often lacked the motivation to hunt after work because "after a long and hard day's work, the weary slave feels little like going to the swamp for his supper, and half the time prefers throwing himself on the cabin floor without it." Little time remained for the slave woman, if one applies unrealistically the contemporary Victorian middle class' ideology of the separate spheres to this situation, to spend long hours bringing supper's food up to some elevated level of gustatory delight. John Brown, once a young slave in southern Virginia, described how simply slaves often prepared their food: "We used to make our corn into hominy, hoe and Johnny-cake, and sometimes parch it, and eat it without any other preparation."23 If issued unground, just grinding/pounding the corn into something cookable took enough effort and time itself. Nevertheless, the slave diet's fundamental problem was the lack of variety in what slaveowners issued their human chattels to begin with, not the lack of time originating in long days of field work by both sexes that reduced the number of domestic chores, including cooking, that could be done.24
Setting up communal facilities army-style was one partial solution to slaves without enough time to cook. Kemble mentioned that one old woman in a shed boiled and distributed the daily allotment of rice and grits on her husband's Georgia rice-island plantation. Francis Henderson, who escaped from the Washington D.C. area, said slaves cooked food on their own, but often lacked the time to do so: "In regard to cooking, sometimes many have to cook at one fire, and before all could get to the fire to bake hoe cakes, the overseer's horn would sound; then they must go at any rate." Frequently he had to eat on the run and could not sit down to eat due time constraints. During harvest, this problem was solved by cooking everything at the big house "as the hands are wanted more in the field. This was more like people, and we liked it, for we sat down then at meals."25 But the cost of removing this burden this way was still greater regimentation and further weakening of the slave family's role by reducing their freedom as part of individual households to make decisions about consumption, i.e., how dinner was cooked.
Differing Diets for Slaves with Different Positions
Since masters and mistresses were "respecters of men," they treated different slaves--or groups of slaves--differently.26 In particular, the household servants and drivers and their families were apt to receive better material conditions, in exchange for (inevitably) the tighter controls and supervision due to being in the white owner's presence more. (This is the classic trade-off of a sincerely practiced paternalism). The bleak picture of field hands subsisting on "hog and hominy" diets did not apply to all their neighbors dwelling in the quarters. Not having just to subsist on the standard rations, servants benefited from the leftovers of their master and mistress' table, as Kemble observed. Mary Boykin Chesnut's servants mobbed her while visiting near her husband's father's plantation, wanting her to come home. Her cook said, when asked if she lacked anything: "Lacking anything? I lack everything. What is cornmeal and bacon, milk and molasses? Would that be all you wanted? Ain't I bin living and eating exactly as you does all these years? When I cook fer you didn't I have some of all? Dere now!" Her complaint was, in part, "Please come home, so we could eat better again!" Freedman Edward Jenkins of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, told Armstrong how house servants gained from their owner's meals: "What de white folk had ter eat, de servan's had also, when de white folks done eat dey fill." Although his parents were field hands, aged freedman Tony Washington remembered his mistress made him "the waiter-and-pantry" boy. This job allowed him to get extra food, including leftover alcohol, as he nostalgically remembered:
Dey [the visiting white gentlemen] set down ergain, an' Massa say: 'Sonny, bring de glasses!' I'd bring de glasses, an' de brandy from de sidebo'ahd. Dey know how ter treat dey liquor in de old days an' nobody git drunk. Co'se, I got er little dizzy once when I drink all dat de gen'lemans lef' in dey glasses--heh heh!--but Missus say she gwine tell Massa ter whip me if'n I do dat ergain!
Sam Jackson benefited from having relatives in the right places in "the big house." He enjoyed reminiscing about his boyhood job's perks:
I was de waitin'-boy fo' de table. Don' you know, in dem conditions, I had a sof' bed ter lie in? Yaw . . . did I git plenty ter eat? Jus' guess I did. De waiter-boy allays got plenty, an' when his Maw was house-woman, an' his Auntie de cook, guess he goin' go hungry? Ho!27
By having family members close to the master or the mistress, this slave child avoided the customary lack of good treatment ("investment") most received from their owners because they were too young to work in the fields.
Further evidence of tiers within slave society in the quarters, as reflected by differences in diet, comes from archeological investigation. At Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, investigators found bones deposited from different animals, domesticated and wild, in different parts of his estate. Although the differences in bones buried between Building 'o' and the storehouse, both areas mainly for slaves, could be explained by some other mechanism, apparently higher quality cuts of meat were eaten at the former but not at the latter. As Crader notes: "Meaty elements such as lumbar vertebrae, the pelvis, and the front and hind limbs also are present, elements that virtually are absent from the Storehouse assemblage."28 Differences between the secondary butchery marks, caused by removing the meat at the cooking stage, appeared between Building 'o' and the storehouse's artifacts. (Primary butchery involves taking the animal apart at the joints after its slaughter). The bone marks found at the site of Building 'o' are like those that would be produced by the way the whites at the mansion ate, but are completely absent from the Storehouse's assemblage of bones. The master, as well as his evidently better-off slaves, ate their meat as roasts, while the worse-off slaves stewed their meat in pots, with the bones chopped up much more.29 The evidence Crader literally unearthed may indicate that Jefferson's domestic servants consumed the big house's leftovers at their homes in the quarters, which gave them a somewhat better diet than the field hands.30
The Slaves' Role in Procuring Their Own Food
Slaves could seek additional food, if they were able and willing to put time into it after a long day working for their masters and mistresses, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and tending their own plots of crops. Some masters banned these activities, but the slaves might still go secretly hunting (at least) anyway. As freedwoman Jenny Proctor of Alabama recollected: "Our master, he wouldn't 'low us to go fishing--he say that too easy on a nigger and wouldn't 'low us to hunt none either--but sometime we slips off at night and catch possums." A strong majority still permitted their slaves extra ways to get food, showing a strongly different spirit from the English rural elite's about almost anyone else hunting besides themselves. Northrup stated why: "No objections are made to hunting, inasmuch as it dispenses with drafts upon the smoke-house, and because every marauding coon that is killed is so much saved from the standing corn." After nearly tripping over a huge pile of oyster shells on her husband's cotton-island plantation, Kemble later commented: "This is a horrid nuisance, which results from an indulgence which the people here have and value highly; the waters round the island are prolific in shell-fish, oysters, and the most magnificent prawns I ever saw. The former are a considerable article of the people's diet, and the shells are allowed to accumulate." The slaves also set out somewhat ineffective traps for birds at the upstream rice-island estate. A neighboring master shot and killed an old man of Douglass' master in Maryland while "fishing for oysters" for the trivial offense of trespassing on his land. In this way they "made up the deficiency of their scanty allowance." Hunting could be of critical importance to the bondsmen's diets. Archeological evidence from the Hampton St. Simons island plantation had 17.6 percent of the bones gathered from wild animals, while one at Cannon's Point had an amazing 89.8 percent by number of bones (44.5 percent by estimated meat weight) from such fauna. These percentages sharply contrast with the 2 percent or less figures from Monticello, the Hermitage, and the plantation at Kingsmill.31 Hence, depending the environment and slaveowners' provisions (or presumed lack thereof), hunting, fishing, etc. could be just a minor way to supplement the slaves' diet, or a mainstay perhaps required for survival.
Many slaveowners allowed their bondsmen to cultivate small patches of land, similar to the allotments that English agricultural workers tended. The slaves often benefited little from them, because this extra food was eventually obtainable only by working on their gardens after having put in a full day's work for someone else, thus increasing their real workweek. As aged ex-slave Mary Reynolds of Louisiana recalled:
Sometimes Massa let niggers have a little patch. They'd raise 'taters or goobers. They liked to have them to help fill out on the victuals. . . . The niggers had to work the patches at night and dig the 'taters and goobers at night. Then if they wanted to sell any in town, they'd have to git a pass to go.
Some masters stopped their slaves from having gardens, as ex-slave Jenny Proctor remembered. Although this practice was common, Olmsted noted, various planters prohibited it "because it tempts them to reserve for and to expend in the night-work the strength they want employed in their service during the day, and also because the produce thus obtained is made to cover much plundering of their master's crops, and of his live stock." Planter Bennet Barrow allowed his slaves to have gardens, but stopped them from selling anything grown on their plots because it created a "spirit of trafficing" which required of them "means and time" they had no right to possess. Further, he added:
A negro would not be content to sell only What he raises or makes or either corn (should he be permitted) or poultry, or the like, but he would sell a part of his allowance allso, and would be tempted to commit robberies to obtain things to sell. Besides, he would never go through his work carefully, particularly When other engagements more interesting and pleasing are constantly passing through his mind, but would be apt to slight his work.
But by allowing animals such as pigs and chickens to be raised by their bondsmen, other slaveowners were more generous. Fanny Kemble noted that the blacks of her husband's rice-plantation could raise as many domestic birds as they wished, but no longer had permission to raise their own pigs. Some slaves were free to grow even cash crops on their "allotments." Overseer John Mairs wrote to Mrs. Sarah Polk about how much cotton her hands had raised for themselves, which was marketed with the rest of the plantation's output: "Youre servents crope of coten in 1849 was about 8400 lbs of sead coten."32 Hence, the practice of giving plots of land to slaves to raise some of their own food or crops was common in the South, but slaveowners many times placed major restrictions on it.
Variations in What Food Different Slaveowners Provided to Their Slaves
Much variation arose in what food and how much of it slaves had from master to master and plantation to plantation. On the one hand, enough disturbing cases of slaves who rarely or never got any meat appear to cast some doubt on the utter universality of the "standard rations." After all, would Louisiana have a law requiring slaves to be fed (Olmsted believed) four pounds of meat a week if slaveowners were already doing it? He added also: "(This law is a dead letter, many planters in the State making no regular provision of meat for their force)." Frederick Douglass noted Master Thomas Auld in Maryland allowed him and three fellow slaves in his kitchen less than half a bushel of cornmeal a week, "and very little else, either in the shape of meat or vegetables. It was not enough for us to subsist upon." Thomas Hedgebeth, born free in North Carolina, worked on some farms there. As he recounted to Drew:
I have known that the slaves had not a bite of meat given them. They had a pint of corn meal unsifted, for a meal,--three pints a day. . . This is no hearsay--I've seen it through the spring, and on until crop time: Three pints of meal a day and the bran and nothing else.
After being beset by a minor mob of children begging her for meat, Kemble later wrote that at the rice plantation her husband owned: "Animal food is only allowed to certain of the harder working men, hedgers and ditchers, and to them only occasionally, and in very moderate rations." A neighboring plantation owner told her somewhat offhandedly that a meatless diet was a good social control device: "He says that he considers the extremely low diet of the negroes one reason for the absence of crimes of a savage nature among them; most of them do not touch meat the year around." John Brown remembered as a slave child in Virginia that: "We never had meat of any kind, and our usual drink was water."33 Contrary to what some may think, this evidence indicates that the corn in the standard rations was more "standard" than the pork!
Other slaves enjoyed a more luxurious, or at least varied, diet. For example, Thomas Jefferson's slaves had at least a diversity of meats in their diet. They received .5 to 1.5 pounds of beef, 4 to 8 fish, and 4 to 4.5 pounds of pork per month per man or woman. Judging from archeological remains at Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, Jefferson's Monticello, and the Hampton Plantation in Georgia, beef may have been more significant in the slave diet than commonly believed. Aged freedwoman Harriet McFarlin Payne recalled in the quarters: "Late of an evening as you'd go by the doors you could smell meat a-frying, coffee-making, and good things cooking. We were fed good." Although admittedly this coffee may have been ersatz, McFarlin's account still shows these slaves were far removed from the basically corn and water diet Brown described above. Although now seen as a proven public health menace, the giving of tobacco to slaves by planter Bennet Barrow demonstrates they received more than the bare necessities. In Louisiana Olmsted encountered a plantation that to a minute degree made up for the almost inhuman hours of grinding season: It issued extra rations of flour and allowed the sugar refinery's hands to drink as much coffee and eat as much molasses as they wished. Tobacco rations were regularly dispensed year around, and molasses during winter and early summer. Cato of Alabama remembered as a slave his mistress on Sunday gave out chickens and flour. He also had vegetables and dried beef for eating later. Plowden C. J. Weston, a South Carolina rice planter with several plantations, prepared a standard contract for his overseers which included standard rations (some weekly, some monthly, some in only certain seasons or conditional upon good behavior) of rice, potatoes, grits, salt, flour, fish or molasses, peas, meat, and tobacco. Some masters also issued (appropriately) buttermilk to the often lactose-intolerant slaves. Many slaves got their hands on alcohol through their own earnings or by selling property stolen from their masters.34 So although Fogel and Engerman's rosy perceptions of the slave diet have some support, the weight of the literary sources available fails to sustain their case overall, thus implying the existence of flaws in their quantitative sampling methodology. The slaves usually "enjoyed" a spartan diet--although their poor white neighbors perhaps often were only somewhat better off--but a number had more than the standard rations through having more progressive and/or indulgent masters and mistresses and/or unusual opportunities or abilities to get food on their own.
The Diet of English Farmworkers: Regional Variations
Turning to the English agricultural workers' diet, strong regional variations must be remembered. In the same way the Border States usually treated their slaves better than the Deep South partially because of their ability to more easily escape to the North, the English farmworkers living in areas north of the Midlands lived better than their brethren to the south, where the most desperate rural poverty prevailed. Additionally, the grain-growing arable districts in the southeast, due to greater seasonal variations in employment, normally had worse conditions for their generally more numerous inhabitants than the pastoral, shepherding, dairying districts in the southwest. Sir James Caird's dividing line, drawn from the Wash (north of East Anglia) across England through the middle of Shropshire, quite accurately divides the high-wage north from the low-wage south. In the north, because farmers as employers faced the competition of mine operators and factory owners for labor, they had to pay higher wages. Otherwise, low wages would provoke farmworkers to "vote with their feet," causing them to migrate to nearby booming urban areas benefiting from the economic expansion produced by the industrial revolution. Even the likes of E.P. Thompson admits that the real wages of laborers in such areas probably "had been rising in the decades before 1790, especially in areas contiguous to manufacturing or mining districts. 'There wants a war to reduce wages,' was the cry of some northern gentry in the 1790s." By contrast, in the south, outside of London, a city of trades dominated by skilled artisans which also contained relatively little factory employment, few nearby urban areas possessed employers competing for unskilled labor. The increasingly overpopulated southern English countryside during this period (c. 1750-1860), and the very understandable reluctance of rural laborers to relocate long distances, enabled the gentry and farmers to successfully rachet down wages to levels often barely above subsistence, especially for married men with large families. According to Brinley, in 1850-51 southern England's average weekly agricultural wages were eight shillings, five pence, about 26 percent lower than northern England's. By James Caird's calculations, the difference was 37 percent.35 Under the old poor law (pre-1834), parish relief increasingly became a way of life for many of the rural poor, especially during winter months in arable counties due to their strongly seasonal swings in agricultural employment. The subsidizing of wages directly out of parish relief funds raised by local property taxes ("the poor rates") put mere bandages over the deep wounds ultimately inflicted by the decline of service, the enclosure acts, and population growth. Unfortunately, such "solutions" as the Speenhamland system, which gave supplemental allowances from parish relief funds to members of families commensurate with the rise and fall of bread prices, only served to depress wages further. The grim picture of southern farmworkers' families depending year around mostly on the (frequently irregularly employed) father's wages of ten shillings a week or less and little else besides parish relief sharply contrasts with the northern agricultural workers' much higher wages, the greater availability of work for wives and/or children, and the frequent survival of service (the hiring of (unmarried) farm servants under one year contracts).
The agricultural workers south of Caird's wage line often endured truly desperate material conditions. A majority of them probably had a lower standard of living than the moderately better-off slaves. In particular, meat had largely fallen out of the diets of southern English farmworkers. Remembering as a child how scarce meat was in Warwickshire, Agricultural Labourers' Union organizer and leader Joseph Arch (b. 1826) commented:
Meat was rarely, if ever, to be seen on the labourer's table; the price was too high for his pocket,--a big pocket it was, but with very little in it . . . In many a household even a morsel of bacon was considered a luxury. Flour was so dear that the cottage loaf was mostly of barley.
He then discusses how scarce potatoes were in "country districts"--or at least in 1830s Warwickshire. (For the growing dependency of the English on potatoes, see pp. 33-35). Locally only one farmer, a hoarder in 1835, had grown them. Similarly, a "Rector and Conservative" described the status of "bacon, [which] when they can get it, is the staff of the laborers' dinner." A careful rationing exercise accompanied its appearance, which befit male privilege, or female self-sacrifice, depending on one's perspective: "The frugal housewife provides a large lot of potatoes, and while she indulges herself with her younger ones only with salt, cuts off the small rasher and toasts it over the plates of the father and elder sons, as being the breadwinners; and this is all they want."36
The Southern English Agricultural Workers' Diet Was Poor, Often Meatless
William Cobbett, the great Tory-turned-radical journalist and gadfly, saw up close the poor, largely meatless diet of southern farm laborers. While travelling in Hampshire, he noted the "poor creatures" who "are doomed to lead a life of constant labour and of half-starvation." After mentioning the snack of a pound of bread and a quarter pound of cheese he and his young son ate came to five pence, or almost three shillings, if they had it daily, he wondered:
How, then, Gracious God! is a labouring man, his wife, and, perhaps, four or five small children, to exist upon 8s. or 9s. a week! Aye, and to find house-rent, clothing, bedding and fuel out of it? Richard and I ate here, at this snap, more, and much more, than the average of labourers, their wives and children, have to eat in a whole day, and that the labourer has to work on too!
When facing such tight budgets, laborers spent little on meat, but concentrated on cereal foodstuffs or (perhaps) potatoes, which Cobbett hated to see. Later in the same county, he indignantly observed:
These poor creatures, that I behold, here pass their lives amidst flocks of sheep; but, never does a morsel of mutton enter their lips. A labouring man told me, at Binley, that he had not tasted meat since harvest; [this was written Nov. 7th] and his looks vouched for the statement.37
Cobbett's polemics constitute only a small part of the evidence describing how poor the laborers' diet was in southern England. Caleb Bawcombe, a shepherd, recalled for Hudson how the sight of deer tempted his father Isaac into poaching while living in Wiltshire (c. 1820):
For many many days he had eaten his barley bread, and on some days barley-flour dumplings, and had been content with this poor fare; but now the sight of these animals [deer] made him crave for meat with an intolerable craving, and he determined to do something to satisfy it.
Somerville encountered one man, who was better fed in prison (he had participated in the Swing Riots of 1830) than when freed to live in Hampshire. In prison he ate four times a week 14 ounces of meat. "No working man like me as can get it [good meat]. I wish I had as much meat now as I had in the hulk; and I wishes the same to every poor hard-working man in Hampshire." While visiting England, Olmsted learned of this pathetic vignette from a farmer. Illustrating how scarce fresh meat was in the laborers' diets, they gorged themselves the few times they could afford it:
They [the laborers] will hardly taste it [fresh meat] all their lives, except, it may be, once a year, at a fair, when they'll go to the cook-shops and stuff themselves with all they'll hold of it; and if you could see them, you'd say they did not know what it was or what was to be done with it--cutting it into great mouthfuls and gobbling it down without any chewing, like as a fowl does barleycorns, till it chokes him.
Edward Butt, a Sussex relieving officer and farmer, recalled for the Committee on the New Poor Law that when he was younger (before 1794) the laborers had some meat everyday with their bread when they came to eat in his father's farmhouse. But by 1837, they mainly ate bread and vegetables, especially potatoes. Unable to get milk in his area, the farmworkers also ate little meat. Somerville found one Wiltshire laborer, although saddened by his young son's death, not fully regretting it either: "We ben't sorry he be gone. I hopes he be happy in heaven. He ate a smart deal; and many a time, like all on us, went with a hungry belly." Ironically, while serving a sentence in Bermuda for poaching: "We had terrible good living . . . by as I ever had for working in England. Fresh beef three times a-week, pork and peas four times a-week." When imprisoned laborers ate better free ones, Wiltshire's dire conditions can only be imagined. Similarly, one laborer in Hampshire told Somerville: "They say meat be wonderful cheap in Reading, but what of it being cheap to we who can't buy it at no price?" Speaking more generally, Deane and Cole note an increase in England's grain growing acreage took place "at the expense of the nation's meat supply" during the French Wars. As shown by meat having disappeared from their dinner tables, many agricultural workers in southern England were beaten down to the edge of subsistence.38
Grains, especially Wheat, Dominate the Agricultural Workers' Diet
Perhaps best illustrating the importance of grain in Hodge's diet, consider the case of one Hampshire laborer and his family. They normally only ate bread, with some vegetables. Somerville learned the father had for breakfast just dry bread, if anything at all, before mid-day. Especially in hard times, the laborers's budgets might be 80 percent or more committed to buying bread and/or flour. Looming large in the diet of southern English agricultural workers, wheat was the dominant grain, at least in good times. Barley, rye, or oats also put their appearances, with the last being the north's dominant grain. These grains had the advantage of avoiding some of the nutritional pitfalls of corn (maize). For all his travails, Hodge in southern England did not suffer from pellagra, as many black slaves in the American South likely did for some part of the year. Since reliance on grains other than wheat in southern England was deemed a sign of poverty, laborers often resented eating bread made out of anything else. Showing barley did not always make for palatable fare, and pointing to exceptional poverty for the southern English, consider this story Hudson learned about conditions in Wiltshire (c. 1830) for those on the parish make-work detail during the winter months. Some of his most elderly informants told of how the laborers played with their food in the fields:
The men would take their dinners with them, consisting of a few barley balls or cakes, in their coat pockets, and at noon they would gather at one spot to enjoy their meal, and seat themselves on the ground in a very wide circle, the men about ten yards apart, then each one would produce his bannocks, and start throwing, aiming at some other man's face; there were hits and misses and great excitement and hilarity for twenty or thirty minutes, after which the earth and gravel adhering to the balls would be wiped off, and they would set themselves to the hard task of masticating and swallowing the heavy stuff.
Admittedly, food fights during lunch with barley balls were exceptional. For the southern English, wheat was their mainstay, with 94 percent of the population in southern and eastern England subsisting on wheat in 1801. In contrast, the northern English, despite higher incomes, had less of a taste for wheat. According to Thomas, just some 25 percent of them lived upon it, while 50 percent consumed oats, 18 percent barley, and 6 percent rye. During the 1760s, Charles Smith judged, assuming a population of around six million in England and Wales, that 3,750,000 ate wheat, 888,000 rye, 623,000 oats, and 739,000 barley. Evidently, wheat bread grew in market share until the 1790s, when over two-thirds of the population relied upon wheat. The southern English desire to cling to the wheaten loaf and to resist shifting to potatoes or other grains despite their low wages and the effects of enclosure combined, Thomas infers, to cause them possibly to eat less wheat than formerly and perhaps even less food overall. The northern English preference for oats (similar to the Scots') was made largely possible by the availability of inexpensive milk to the poor. Due to enclosures taking away most of their cows, laborers in the south could not easily do likewise, as the Hammonds saw.39 By opposing having coarser grains the mainstay of their diet, the southern English may well kept the finer "luxury grain" (wheat) in their diet only by eating less of it.
The Role of Potatoes in the Laborers' Diet, Despite Prejudices Against Them
Potatoes played an important role in the laborers' diet, especially as the nineteenth century drew on, and desperation broke down resistance against substituting them for grain. Exemplifying this contempt for potatoes, Cobbett saw them as a sign of the English sliding down to the Irish level:
I see [in Sussex] very few of "Ireland's lazy root;" and never, in this country, will the people be base enough to lie down and expire from starvation under the operation of the extreme unction! Nothing but a potatoe-eater will ever do that.
Further, rather than see the English working people reduced into living on potatoes,
he would see them all hanged, and be hanged with them, and would be satisfied to have written upon his grave, 'Here lie the remains of William Cobbett, who was hanged because he would not hold his tongue without complaining while his labouring countrymen were reduced to live upon potatoes.'40
Despite Cobbett's opposition, a man full of the prejudices of the southern farmworker which in spirit he remained, potatoes became important in Hodge's diet. Demonstrating the decay of farm laborers' anti-potato sentiments, one Dorsetshire landowner in Dorset successfully got laborers to reclaim wasteland for him in return for planting potatoes, despite they knew next year the process would be repeated with another piece of land. In Somerset in 1845 during the Irish potato famine the blight wiped out all the potatoes. Due to the laborers' extreme dependence on them, this was a disaster because their wages averaged a mere seven shillings and six pence a week year around: "For years past their daily diet is potatoes for breakfast, dinner, and supper, and potatoes only. This year they are not living on potatoes, because they have none." In Sussex, Somerville found a laborer's wife complaining about "how it hurts the constitution of a man to work hard on potatoes, and nothing else but a bit of dry bread." This family ate four days a week normally only potatoes and dry bread. Somerville even exaggerated how important potatoes were in the diet of English laborers. When commenting on how the potato blight had wiped out the crop in the south and west of England, he said this event had gotten far less attention than the Irish disaster: "Surely the English potatoes are not to be overlooked, nor the English labourers, whose chief article of diet potatoes are. . . . How much greater must be the suffering be when to dearness of bread there is the companionship of scarcity of potatoes!" Now although potatoes loomed increasingly large in the laborers' diet, and 1845-46 was a bad year for both England and Ireland, grains still remained their staff of life generally, unlike for the Irish. Still, Cobbett's anti-potato campaign must be ranked an ultimate failure: Near the town of Farnham where Cobbett was born and buried, Somerville found "the finest specimens of this year's crop which I have seen in any part of England," having seen some excellent patches of potatoes between that place and the location of Cobbett's farm at Normandy.41
Did Farmworkers Prefer Coarse or Fine Food?
Against the view that the farmworkers (or slaves, by implication) prefer finer and less coarse foods, Jeffries once commented on Hodge's desires and the problems with changing what Mrs. Hodge winds up cooking:
The difficulty arises from the rough, coarse tastes of the labourer, and the fact, which it is useless to ignore, that he must have something solid, and indeed, bulky. . . . Give him the finest soup; give him pates, or even more meaty entrees, and his remark will be that it is very nice, but he wants 'summat to eat'. His teeth are large, his jaws strong, his digestive powers such as would astonish a city man; he likes solid food, bacon, butcher's meat, cheese, or something that gives him a sense of fullness, like a mass of vegetables. This is the natural result of his training to work in the fields. . . . Let anyone go and labour daily in the field, and they will come quickly to the same opinion.
Although his rather condescending views were on target concerning food preparation, they ignore the farmworkers' desires for a less coarse grain since it may compose 80 percent or more of their diets. Certainly, some class bias is definitely coloring Jeffries' views of Hodge's real desires. Consider the implications of bread remaining the staff of life for the laborers and making up most of their daily calories. To switch from wheat to barley, or to oatmeal without milk, would tax anyone's digestive system used to the first grain when it is most of what he or she eats, not just an incidental as (wheat) bread is in many contemporary Americans' diets. Anyway, Jeffries was not discussing grain substitution at all. Unlike most aristocrats, the laborers engaged in heavy physical work needed serious bulk in their diet in order to have sufficient calories to sustain their efforts, but their food need not be unusually hard to digest or unpalatably coarse after its preparation to fulfill their needs. Indeed, according to Young, food that was too bulky might slow down the laborers eating it. As E.P. Thompson confirms: "There is a suggestion that labourers accustomed to wheaten bread actually could not work--suffered from weakness, indigestion, or nausea--if forced to change to rougher mixtures."42 Although these complaints were likely partially psychosomatic, they still show the laborers preferred less-coarse grain in their diet.
Admittedly, the southern farmworkers' partiality for the white wheaten loaf was rather unwise from a modern dietician's viewpoint, as Olmsted observed: "No doubt a coarser bread would be more wholesome, but it is one of the strongest prejudices of the English peasant, that brown bread is not fit for human beings." This comment raises the issue of taking into account the laborers' definitions of "good conditions" before judging these by purely modern criteria. Snell discusses this issue at length. If Hodge placed a strong priority on eating fine white wheat bread, outsiders are presumptuous to rearrange his life for him, saying he should like what they judge to be "good for him," even though objective reasons justify the would-be imposition, i.e., the health advantages of increasing the amount of bran in the daily diet. The threat to the status of English laborers posed by coarser or non-wheaten bread in times of dearth was rather irrational, but it still was probably more sensible than a contemporary preference among the young for designer brand jeans or sneakers over store brands of similar quality. The "Brown Bread Act's" attempts to force laborers to consume bread made of wholemeal flour provoked riots even during the terrible 1800-1801 agricultural year. In Surrey and Sussex in southern England, the resistance to this law was especially strong; unsurpisingly, it lasted less than two months.43
The Monotony of the Farmworkers' Diet in the South of England
The southern English agricultural workers' diet was monotonous, like the slaves'. In the Salisbury area (1850) Caird found it largely consisted of water, bread, some potatoes, flour with a little butter, and possibly a little bacon. He reports what sounds like a prisoner's meal: "The supper very commonly consists of bread and water." In 1840s Wiltshire, Somerville found two laborers who could not afford bacon and vegetables with every dinner on eight shillings a week. Following a recent wage reduction, "they did not know how they would with seven [shillings]." In Wooburn parish, even in an apple orchard area most laborers did not earn enough to make apple pies! Years later (c. 1875), in this same general area, Jefferies still commented while noting improvement: "A basketful of apples even from the farmer's orchard [as a gift] is a treat to the children, for, though better fed than formerly, their diet is necessarily monotonous, and such fruit as may be grown in the cottage garden is, of course, sold." Near Monmouth, Olmsted ran into a laborer who, although he also had a pig and a small potato patch, "oft-times . . . could get nothing more than dry bread for his family to eat."44 Thomas Smart, a Bedfordshire laborer, and his family subsisted upon garden-grown potatoes, bread, and cheese, with a little bacon occasionally, supplemented by tea and a little sugar. At times he went without meat for a month. Milk was difficult to buy from the local farmers.45 The hot dinner laborers had around noon on Sunday Jeffries described as their "the great event" for the day. Of course, beer certainly emerged in Hodge's diet around harvest time, and often not just then. The alcoholic part of the laborers' diets provoked the rural middle and upper classes into nearly endless moralizing, at least about its abuses that caused the father's wages to be wasted in beerhouses and a lack of labor discipline. Due to the near absence of meat, this diet was arguably less satisfying than slaves', except that its bread often was purchased baker's bread. This bread, or even what the laborer's wife made at home, was a much more carefully prepared and refined product than the cornmeal the slaves often had to pound into a crude hoecake or johnnycake (cornbread). As Olmsted (c. 1851) observed while in southern England:
The main stay of the laborer's stomach is fine, white wheaten bread, of the best possible quality, such as it would be a luxury to get any where else in the world, and such as many a New England farmer never tasted, and, even if his wife were able to make it, would think an extravagance to be ordinarily upon his table.46
Admittedly, white wheat bread likely was the only luxury Hodge and his family in the south of England enjoyed. Despite this particular boon, a lack of meat still characterized the southern English agricultural laborer's diet, although not the northerner's. All in all, the slaves' "standard rations" arguably, minus the problems of eating crude corn bread and the risk of pellagra without further supplements, likely surpassed in overall satisfaction what the majority of the free agricultural laborers of England depended on because meat (and milk) fell out of their diet as enclosure advanced, making it difficult or impossible for them to keep their own cows or pigs (see pp. 40-41 below), and they often did not consume enough even of starches (potatoes and bread) in hard times.
The Superior Conditions of the Northern English Farmworkers
The northern English agricultural laborer clearly enjoyed superior conditions to his southern brother (or sister) during the general period of industrialization. Joseph Arch recalled why the union failed in organizing the northern farmworkers:
We could not do much in the north; about Newcastle and those northern districts the men were much better paid, and they said, 'The Union is a good thing, but we are well off and can get along without it.' The Union was strongest, and kept so, in the Midland, Eastern, and Western counties.
In northern England near Scotland, in Northumberland and Durham, the 1867-68 Commissioners found the wages were high and that the labor market favored the laborers. The institution of service still persisted in northern Northumberland in the mid to late 1860s. They were often paid in kind and received fifteen to eighteen shillings a week. Day laborers--those not under a contract for their service--received two and a half to three shillings a day. Since the laborers' cottages were dispersed, they avoided the pitfalls of the gang system since they lived on or near their employer's premises, thus eliminating long walks to work. Wages were high enough so their children rarely went to work before age fourteen except during summers, when eleven-twelve year olds took to the fields during agriculture's seasonal peak in labor requirements. In southern Northumberland, none under ten worked. Higher wages allowed northern laborers' children to receive more education than their southern counterparts, where the much smaller margin above subsistence correspondingly increased the need for them to earn their keep as soon as possible. As another sign of the North's tight labor market, routinely single women living in their parents' home often were in farm service--"bound" in "bondage"--and did all types of heavy farm work.47 Excepting perhaps for housing (see p. 69), this area's agricultural workers were about as well-off as non-skilled manual laborers then could expect.
Away from these areas near Scotland, wages gradually decline until the Lincoln\Leicester area is reached, where a rather abrupt transition to southern English conditions occurs. Lincoln and Nottingham had wages of fifteen to seventeen shillings a week, but Leicester just eleven. Their diets reflected these wage differences, since in Lincoln laborers' families had meat two or three times a day, while in Leicester only the father had it, and then just once a day. Similarly, for Oxfordshire and nearby, Somerville described many laborers as "always under-fed, even if always employed." By contrast, Yorkshire's higher wages of fourteen shillings per week encouraged parents to keep their children in school longer. There farm service still remained, with foremen receiving thirty pounds a year and board, a wagoner, sixteen to twenty pounds, and plowboys, ten to fourteen. Tom Mullins of Stafford remembered at age seventeen (c. 1880) he earned sixteen pounds per year and his keep. In Stafford, where during his life he moved from the southern to the northern part. (Incidently, Caird's wage line falls at this county's southern border). Oatmeal, frequently turned into thin sour cakes shaped like disks, along with dairy products, formed the mainstay of the diet before c. 1890. "Though wages were low people managed on them and also saved a bit. Ten shillings went a lot further then than now. Bread was 3d. the quartern loaf, milk 3d. a quart, tobacco 3d. an ounce . . . beer was 2d., the best was 3d." Since service persisted in his area, an annual hiring fair took place about October tenth each year. "But I never need to hire myself out, as I always had more jobs offered than I could undertake. Pity I couldn't have spread myself a bit!"48 As these descriptions illustrate, the diet of the farm laborers north of Caird's line was quite good, showing unquestionably that they were better off on average than most slaves in the United States even before considering any quality of life factors.49
Meat as a Luxury For Many Farmworkers
Unlike most slaves, the meat English farm laborers ate often came from what animals they personally owned and slaughtered themselves, assuming they were not sold to meet rent, clothing, or other expenses. In Wiltshire, near Cranbourne, Somerville found "all of them [the laborers] kept a pig or two; but they had to sell them to pay their rents." A Sussex farmer/relieving officer told Parliamentary Commissioners that "every labourer at that time [pre-1794] had a pig." Farmworkers in that area then got pork from feeding their own animal, not directly from the farmers they worked for. Showing a serious decline in living standards had set in, Somerville found in 1840s Dorset that often laborers were not allowed to keep a pig: "The dictum of the father of Sir John Tyrrell, in Essex, is understood and acted on in Dorset--'No labourer can be honest and feed a pig!'" Betraying a materialistic bent, Cobbett summarized well how important owning pigs was to the laborers: "The working people [near Worcester] all seem to have good large gardens, and pigs in their styes; and this last, say the feelosofers what they will about her 'antallectal enjoyments,' is the only security for happiness in a labourer's family." Of course, as part of their duties for their masters, slaves raised pigs and other animals for slaughter. But they did not own them personally, except where their masters and mistresses allowed them to, such as the task-system-dominated area of lowland Georgia and South Carolina. In England, butcher's meat (i.e., the meat of animals killed and already cut up for the buyer) was regarded as a luxury. Consequently, classes above the laborers were its main consumers.50 Jefferies heaped scorn on maidservants, born of fathers still at the plow, who when at "home ha[d] been glad of bread and bacon," but after having worked for wealthy tenant farmers, "now cannot possibly survive without hot butcher's meat every day, and game and fish in their seasons."51 The meat laborers ate was often what they had raised themselves, whether it was on the commons before enclosure, on allotments, or in their own gardens. Depending on the commercial market for meat was not a way to economize. Scarce until after around 1830, allotments helped laborers raise their own pigs (when so allowed). Indeed, in some areas with allotments many or most did keep pigs, in part because these produced some of the needed manure to keep their (say) fourth or half acre fertile.52 But as the enclosure movement gained strength after 1760, stripping farmworkers of grazing land, they largely lost their ability to raise their own animals until allotments slowly, partially, and haphazardly restored this ability after c. 1830.
The Effects of Enclosure and Allotments on Hodge's Diet
Although a more general discussion enclosure and alllotments' social effects appears below (pp. 279-282, 296-299), the effects of both on the diet of the farmworkers are considered here. Enclosure affected cottagers and others who mixed wage earning and subsistence agriculture using the commons by cutting out the latter, throwing them fully upon what their wages could purchase. As E.P. Thompson observes: "In village after village, enclosure destroyed the scratch-as-scratch-can subsistence economy of the poor--the cow or geese--fuel from the common, gleanings, and all the rest." Ironically, as the Parliamentary Commissioners observed in 1867-68, allotments undid this consequence of enclosure, although they came later and affected significantly fewer laborers, especially before the late nineteenth century. They allowed the laborers to grow vegetables, especially potatoes, on a quarter or half acre of land specially rented out to them. Despite his notoriety as an advocate of enclosure, agricultural improvement writer Arthur Young learned that enclosure usually oppressed the poor:
In twenty-nine cases out of thirty-one noted [by ministers making additional comments on a survey checking the effects of enclosure on grain production], the poor, in the opinion of the ministers, were sufferers by losing their cows, and other stock. . . . [In some cases] allotments were assigned them; but as they were unable to be at the expense of the enclosure, it forced them not only to sell their cows, but their houses also. This is a very hard case, though a legal one; and as instances are not wanting of a much more humane conduct, it is to be lamented that the same motives did not operate in all.
These Anglican clerics (members of a group known to be generally unfriendly to the laborers' best interests, as Cobbett and Arch made clear) made comments that indicate enclosure's role in worsening the diet of the poor in various areas following the loss of cows and other animals. One for the parish of Souldrop, Bedford observed: "The condition of the labouring poor [is] much worse now than before the enclosure, owing to the impossibility of procuring any milk for their young families." Another added, for Tingewick, Buckingham: "Milk [was] to be had at 1d. per quarter before; not to be had now at any rate." Repeatedly they saw many had to sell off or otherwise lose their cows (sixteen of the thirty-one mentioned this specifically). For Passenham, Northampton, one commented: "[The poor were] deprived of their cows, and great suffers by loss of their hogs." A man of the cloth for Cranage, Chester remarked: "Poor men's cows and sheep have no place, or any being." Such deprivations helped to breed resentment one laborer expressed against almost anyone richer than himself. While attacking farmers, lords, and parsons, he additionally brought Somerville into his line of fire: "I see you ha' got a good coat on your back, and a face that don't look like an empty belly; there be no hunger looking out atween your ribs I'll swear."53 Clearly, enclosure robbed meat and milk from the mouths of many farm laborers and their families, and was a major cause for eliminating animal foods from their diets as the enclosure movement gained steam after 1760 in areas with a labor surplus, such as southern rural England.
Allotments returned some of what enclosure had taken. These small pieces of land gave underemployed and unemployed farmworkers something to fall back upon financially. Because of the Swing riots of 1830-31 and the rising burden of poor rates caused by laborers applying for relief when their wages were insufficient to support them, the movement to rent out fourth- or half-acre pieces of land picked up speed as the nineteenth century passed. Intensively cultivated, small amounts of land could produce impressive amounts of food, as the 1843 Committee reported. One rood of land--usually one-fourth of an acre--could grow six months' worth of vegetables! Perhaps one-half would be planted in potatoes, with the rest being beans, peas, and other vegetables. One-eighth of an acre could grow five pounds' worth of crops--equal to ten weeks or more of wages for many laborers in southern England. In at least once case, such a tiny parcel produced eighty bushels of carrots, fourteen-fifteen bushels of other vegetables, which was double or triple what the typical farmer would have raised on the same land. A rood's worth of land could also yield a hundred bushels of potatoes. Young even published calculations suggesting that if 682,394 laborer's families each grew a half acre's worth of potatoes, then England would have required no grain imports in the disastrous 1800-1801 agricultural year. Because of the laborers' enormous desires for parcels to grow potatoes on--Cobbett's hated root--some landlords unscrupulously charged rents up to eight pounds per acre per year, which greatly exceeded what a tenant farmer would pay. Allotments could allow the farmworkers to keep animals such as pigs, as noted above (pp. 39-40), potentially enabling them to eat meat more regularly. One M.P. for Lincoln helped tenants by renting out small allotments to keep animals on. The 1867-68 Commission reported that in Yorkshire some laborers benefited from having "cow gates" to pasture cows in lanes nearby.54 Allotments often made a major difference in the diets of English agricultural laborers fortunate enough to have them. These were unquestionably more important in their lives than the patches of land slaveowners allowed many American slaves to cultivate. Unlike for the farmworkers, masters and mistresses automatically gave to the slaves the standard rations, which was most of what they ate, excepting some in task system areas, unlike in England unless the worker was a live-in farm servant.
Comparing the Diets of English Paupers, Slaves, and Their Government's Army
Indicating that many southern English agricultural workers arguably had a diet worse than that of many slaves, consider this comparison between the food they received and what their respective governments gave to lowly privates in their armies. The laborers per family on parish relief received less than what one soldier in the Royal Army did, but at least some slaves received rations that compared favorably to the American army's. As Cobbett vehemently protested:
The base wretches know well, that the common foot-soldier now receives more pay per week (7s. 7d.) exclusive of clothing, firing, candle, and lodging; . . . [and] more to go down his own single throat, than the overseers and magistrates allow [in parish relief] to a working man, his wife and three children.55
As a growing population raised unemployment rates and enclosure eliminated agriculture's subsistence economy, many laborers, probably a solid majority in the south, were on parish relief for extended periods during their lives, especially during the winter.56 Since arable agriculture was a highly seasonal business, many more laborers were out of work in winter than in summer, causing many to depend on parish relief or at various parish make-work jobs such as stonebreaking on the highways or flint gathering in the fields. The disproportion between at least some slaves and the U.S. Army's rations for privates appears smaller than the ratio between farm laborers on parish relief and average English soldiers. Olmsted cited an advertisement in the Richmond Enquirer which listed one and a quarter pounds of beef and one and three-sixteenths pounds of bread--presumably hardtack--as the daily ration, with an additional eight quarts of beans, two quarts of salt, four pounds of coffee, and eight pounds of sugar distributed out over each hundred days. In contrast, the Daily Georgian noted the rations for slaves being hired for a year to work on a canal. Each was to receive "three and a half pounds of pork or bacon, and ten quarts of gourd seed corn per week." At least some masters would beat this ration of pork: Planter Barrow Bennet gave "weakly" "4 pound & 5 pound of meat to evry thing that goes in the field--2 pound over 4 years 1 1/2 between 15 months and 4 years old--Clear good meat."57 Evidently, the disproportion was greater between what the British government gave its privates and its laborers in parish relief (admittedly, those not working) and what the American government gave its soldiers and a number of slaveowners gave their slaves.
Better Bread Versus Little Meat?: The Slave Versus Farmworker Diet
Many bondsmen in America had arguably better diets than many farmworkers in England, at least when living south of Caird's wage line. Three pounds of pork or bacon routinely appeared in the diet of most adult slaves, while many southern English agricultural workers, once both population growth and enclosures took off, had meat generally eliminated from their diets during the period c. 1780-1840. On the other hand, the grain the slaves ate often was coarser, and (perhaps) more nutritionally suspect. Wheat bread, often made by a baker, which most southern farm workers mainly subsisted upon, was clearly a more refined and tasty product than maize crudely pounded and cooked in the forms of hoecake and johnnycake. Reflecting how the laborers had lost meat, but had a much finer grain product compared to the slaves, J. Boucher, vicar of Epsom, observed in late 1800: "Our Poor live not only on the finest wheaten bread, but almost on bread alone."58 It remains unclear who ate more vegetables. In this regard, those laborers fortunate enough to have allotments--a serious possibility only towards the end of the period being surveyed here--probably were better off than a majority of the slaves, many of whom lived almost exclusively on the "standard rations" of corn and pork. Most farmworkers were not this lucky, and the stories of privation noted above (pp. 30-32) suggest what vegetables they had were limited to potatoes. Regional variations within England complicate this picture: The minority of farmworkers fortunate enough to live in the north near where competition for labor by industry and mining pushed up their wages were certainly better off materially than most American slaves, even before considering any more ethereal quality of life criteria. As for American regional variations, the Border States such as Virginia or Kentucky may have treated their slaves better. But the difference may have been been more in the form of less brutal treatment than in better food, since Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Charles Ball in Maryland and Virginia describe rations similar to the evidence encountered from elsewhere in the South. (Regional variations in the food given to slaves, however, need much more research). The differences between America, a sparsely populated, newly settled country, and England, a relatively densely populated and intensively farmed land suffering from the Malthusian effects of rapid population growth during its period of industrialization (and the mismanagement of enclosure), helps explain this supreme irony: The free farm laborers of southern England arguably had a diet worse than that of American bondsmen in Mississippi or Georgia. If those kept in slavery--the worst American human rights abuse, all things considered--may have eaten better than English rural laborers, that is deeply to the shame of England's elite--"old corruption."59
Clothing for Slaves
The amount of clothing slaves received is relatively well-documented, because it was a significant item of expense often bought off-plantation and then shipped and issued to the slaves instead of being made right on it. This generalization does not deny how prevalent homespun clothing was in the South, but shows planters and other masters often chose not to run truly self-sufficient plantations or farms in matters of clothing. Because low quality purchases were made, not many months passed before the slaves' "new" clothes became loose-fitting half-rags. Bennet Barrow dispensed a not-atypical clothing ration per year, at least for larger planters. In his "Rules of Highland Plantation" he stated: "I give them cloths twice a year, two--one pair shoues for winter evry third year a blanket--'single negro--two.'" His relatively frequent issue of blankets was perhaps unusual. He dutifully noted their issuance sometimes in his diary. Escaped slave Francis Henderson, from "Washington City, D. C.," recalled that his master dealt with blankets less generously--he received only one before running away at age nineteen. "In the summer we had one pair of linen trousers given us--nothing else; every fall, one pair of woolen pantaloons, one woollen jacket, and two cotton shirts." In Virginia, Olmsted learned that:
As to the clothing of the slaves on the plantations, they are said to be usually furnished by their owners or masters, every year, each with a coat and trousers, of a coarse woollen or woollen and cotton stuff (mostly made, especially for this purpose, in Providence, R. I.) for winter, trousers of cotton osnaburghs for summer, sometimes with a jacket also of the same; two pairs of strong shoes, or one pair of strong boots and one of lighter shoes for harvest; three shirts, one blanket, and one felt hat.
This optimistic description probably pertained to the more ideal masters and what slaveowners by reputation were supposed to do, or reflected the better treatment of slaves the Border States such as Virginia were known for. Later, in a conversation with an old free black man, he observed: "Well, I've been thinking, myself, the niggars did not look so well as they did in North Carolina and Virginia; they are not so well clothed, and they don't appear so bright as they do there." Additionally, Christmas gifts of certain finery could supplement the basic yearly ration of two summer suits and one winter suit, as he noted about four large adjacent plantations "situated on a tributary of the Mississippi" owned by one normally absentee planter. Slaves also could purchase clothes with earnings from working on Sundays, holidays, or late at night.60 Hence, the slaves normally were issued a certain amount of clothing yearly, but was it enough?
Bad Clothing Conditions for Slaves
Evidence repeatedly points to the everyday work clothes of enslaved blacks being near rags. The semi-tropical weather of the Deep South no doubt contributed to slaveowners' complacency with ill-dressed slaves. Perhaps the reason why Olmsted had observed better dressed slaves in Virginia and North Carolina was because planters and other slaveholders knew these states had harsher climates compared to the Deep South, which encouraged them to distribute more and/or better clothes. Even so, ragged slaves were common throughout the South. Born free in North Carolina, Thomas Hedgebeth had worked for various slaveholders. He saw how badly dressed the slaves were at one place. They had no hats while having to work in the fields in summer. As he described:
They were a bad looking set--some twenty of them--starved and without clothing enough for decency. It ought to have been a disgrace to their master, to see them about his house. If a man were to go through Canada [where he was living at the time] so, they'd stop him to know what he meant by it--whether it was poverty or if he was crazy,--and they'd put a suit of clothes on him.
The slaves Olmsted saw while passing by on a train in Virginian fields were "very ragged." At one farm in Virginia, "the field-hands wore very coarse and ragged garments." A different problem appeared on the rice-island estate Kemble stayed at. The slaves issued a fair amount of thick cloth to turn into clothes. But in coastal lowland Georgia's hot climate the resulting garments were virtually intolerable during summer, even to the blacks accustomed to the climate.61 Simply put, their clothes were so bad because their owners basically determined how much would be spent on them, not the slaves themselves. Their masters' self-interest naturally led to them to minimize "unnecessary clothing expenditures."
Slave children suffered most from inadequate clothing rations. Often they ended up with just a long shirt, although nakedness was not unknown. Aged freedwoman Mary Reynolds of Louisiana recalled what she wore when she was young: "In them days I weared shirts, like all the young-uns. They had collars and come below the knees and was split up the sides. That's all we weared in hot weather." Frederick Douglass recalled his want of clothing when he was a child:
I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked--no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees.
He found the thought of owning a pair of trousers at the age of seven or eight--offered because he was being sent to Baltimore to work as a servant--"great indeed!" Aged freedman Cicero Finch of Georgia remembered how both slave boys and girls wore the same basic piece of clothing:
An' de chillun? When dey big 'nough ter put on anything, it's a shirt. Boys an' girls de same. Run roun' in dat shirt-tail. Some de gals tie belt roun' de middle, an' dat's de only diffrunts.
In an upbeat recollection presumably blurred by nostalgia, old ex-slave Kike Epps of South Carolina described a still lower standard that prevailed for children's clothing on his master's plantation: "Dis hy'ar [banyan] shu't . . . wuh made jus' lak a sack. Got hole in top fo' de haid, an' holes fo' de arms. Pull it over yo' haid, push yo' arms t'rough de side holes, an' dar yo' is!" They would wear this bag with holes "till dey mos' growed up!" Due to South Carolina's warm climate even in winter, he wore this outfit without complaint, making for a decidedly different memory from Frederick Douglass's bitter experience in Maryland's much harsher winters. Although this pattern had exceptions, generally little was spent on children's clothes because they did no field labor when young, causing the less forward-looking "entrepreneurial" slaveowners to "invest" less in their "human capital" at this point in their lives, to use desiccated cliometric terminology.62
Differences in Clothing Provided for Slaves with Different Positions
Just as for food, different groups of slaves received different kinds and/or amounts of clothing. Most obviously, the larger planters issued better clothes to servants than to field hands, since they had to look presentable to the big house's visitors.63 They also received the cast-offs of the master's family, in the same way they enjoyed the scrapings and leftovers of the master's table. After being made a servant as a child, old freedman Henry Coleman remembered his mother told his father about one of his new needs: "That black little nigger over there, he got to git hisself some pants 'cause I's gwine to put him up over the white folks's table." His job was to swish away flies from a swing with a brush of peacock feathers over his owner's table. To wear only a shirt from that elevated position just might prove to be too revealing! Slaves with managerial duties also acquired better attire. Olmsted described the "watchman"--the top slave who served virtually as a steward and storekeeper for a large South Carolina rice planter--as being as well-dressed and as well-mannered as any (white) gentleman. One ex-slave said his father, a driver, was "de only slave dat was give de honor to wear boots."64 So at the cost of living under a master's or mistress's closer supervision, drivers and domestic servants enjoyed greater material benefits such as having better food and clothing.
Many slaves saved their best clothing for going to church on Sundays or special occasions, but reserved the worst for work. Gus Feaster, a South Carolinian freedman, remembered:
Us wore the best clothes that us had [at church]. . . . Us kept them cleaned and ironed just like the master and the young masters done theirn. Then us wore a string tie, that the white folks done let us have, to church. That 'bout the onliest time that a darky was seed with a tie.
Solomon Northrup, held in bondage in Louisiana, recalled that on Christmas slaves dressed up the best they could:
Then, too, 'of all i' the year,' they array themselves in their best attire. The cotton coat has been washed clean, the stump of a tallow candle has been applied to the shoes, . . . [and, perhaps] a rimless or crownless hat . . . [was] placed jauntily upon the head.
Many women wore red ribbons in the hair or handkerchiefs over their heads then as well. Kemble saw a similar phenomenon, comparing it to poor Irish immigrants who spent (judging from her middle class standpoint) too much on clothes after coming to America:
I drove to church to-day in the wood-wagon, with Jack and Aleck, Hector being our charioteer, in a gilt guard-chain and pair of slippers to match as the Sabbatic part of his attire. . . . The [male] Negroes certainly show the same strong predilection for finery with their womenkind.
Most strikingly, a free black man from North Carolina peddling tobacco in South Carolina told Olmsted how differently the slaves dressed while on the job compared to church:
Well, master, Sundays dey is mighty well clothed, dis country; 'pears like dere an't nobody looks better Sundays dan dey do. But Lord! workin' days, seems like dey haden no close dey could keep on 'um at all, master. Dey is a'mos' naked, wen deys at work, some on 'em.65
Of course, since they normally worked six days out of seven, bondsmen could not wear good clothes every work day without ruining all they had. Most lacked the necessary changes of shirts and pants to do that. Dressing badly at work compared to church or other special occasions also may have reflected their different attitudes towards the two situations. On the day they are free from work and "own their own time," they dressed to express themselves. But when they are in the fields, six days out of seven, and their time is the master's time, they avoided dressing above average or trying to impress their companions in bondage, unlike at church on Sundays. Doing so might well bring the unwanted attentions of the overseer or master against some "uppity" black.66 Bondsmen and women indulged in what Kemble called "the passion for dress" not everyday, but only on days where the immediate coercion associated with work ceased.
The Factory Versus Homespun: The Master's Decision
Masters acquired clothing for their slaves in two different ways. First, they could place orders with factories in the North or in England. Second, they could make homespun right on the farm or plantation itself. Olmsted time and time again refers to the ubiquity of homespun as worn by whites in the South, including the smaller planters, which he rarely witnessed in the North. When summarizing the economic backwardness of the South, he pointed out: "How is it that while in Ohio the spinning-wheel and hand-loom are curiosities, and homespun would be a conspicuous and noticeable material of clothing, half the white population of Mississippi still dress in homespun, and at every second house the wheel and loom are found in operation?"67 One of Bennet Barrow's most common diary notations describing his slaves' daily work concerned slave women spinning on rainy days which kept them (at least) busy. Slaves and others recalled the making of homespun clothing.68 Here the white population's standard of living constitutes a ceiling on the black/slave population's conditions. Slaves are exceedingly unlikely to have anything routinely better than their white neighbors, outside of exceptional individuals such as the aforementioned "watchman" on one South Carolina rice plantation. Homespun was coarser cloth and required much time to produce, but had the advantage of reducing cash outlays for subsistence farmers. They gained more independence from the market, but at the cost of many extra hours of labor. Submitting to the division of labor, which small farmers accessed through the market, always presents trade-offs: They could stay independent, and either go without or put more hours of their lives into producing at home what could be bought instead, or pay for it, using cash earned from cash crops sold on an open market, knowing that a sustained price drop could ruin them.
Unfortunately for the slaves, when their masters chose to rely on the market, the clothing often specially manufactured for them was of a cheap, low-grade quality. Clothes made of "Negro cloth" were durable but rough on the skin. Even clothes made of this material may not last that long, since they often had only one or two sets of clothes to wear, besides any finery they might luckily possess. Having so few clothes made it hard to wash and clean their clothes more than once a week.69 Since they often did not have another full set of clothes to change into, the daily wear and tear on what they did own was nearly ceaseless during the work week. Clearly, since the slaveowners normally chose what and how much the market produced, it was hardly a savior in providing better clothes for the slaves.
Slaves and Shoe Shortages
Slaves also suffered from not having enough pairs of shoes or boots. The South's warm climate fortunately mitigated this shortage's negative effects, especially in the Deep South. Old freedwoman Nicey Kinney recalled that the freedmen after emancipation when going to church were "in their Sunday clothes, and they walked barefoots with their shoes acrost their shoulders to keep 'em from gitting dirty. Just 'fore they got to the church they stopped and put on their shoes . . ." This obviously implies that many slaves preferred to go barefoot at times, at least in summer. Still, Barrow knew the dog days of August could torment even his blacks' feet: "ground here verry hot to the negros feet." But when cold weather closed in, lacking adequate protection for the feet suddenly became dangerous. Once the jealous mistress of Harriet Brent Jacobs ordered her to take off her creaking new shoes. Later she was sent on a long errand during which she had to walk in the snow barefoot. After returning and going to bed, she thought might end up sick, even dead. "What was my grief on waking to find myself quite well!" As a slave child, Frederick Douglass recalled what going barefoot did to his feet in Maryland's winter: "My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes." Freedwoman Mary Reynolds had to wear shoes with brass studs in the toes and sides which hurt her ankles because they were too small. Despite rubbing tallow into these shoes and putting rags in them, they still left her with life-long scars. Similar to their clothing situation, slave children were even more neglected about being given proper shoes--many received none at all. One Virginia slaveowner ruefully regretted the deadly result of failing to shod one slave, telling Olmsted that: "He lost a valuable negro, once, from having neglected to provide him with shoes."70 Judging from how masters and mistresses tended to neglect supplying their bondsmen with sufficient clothing, deeming it rather optional, especially in the Deep South, the slaves were even more apt to be ill-supplied with shoes, especially since they themselves did not always wish to wear them. Slaves certainly were unlikely to have more shoes than they needed!
Just as for clothing, masters and mistresses could get their bondsmen shoes from two different basic sources. One standard approach, commonly used by the larger planters, was to order them from some company in the North or England. Brogans, basic, hard, and heavy work shoes, were not purchased while meditating on the tenderness of the slaves' feet. They were often ordered a size large, since the certainty of the fit was questionable when ordering from a distance. Barrow repeatedly recorded giving shoes to his slaves, always in October when noted. He said they were issued for winter yearly, which has its implications about the rest of the year. Alternatively, shoes could be made locally and individually by a shoemaker, perhaps by a slave craftsman owned by the planter himself.71 Either way, the ration of shoes given out each year was unlikely to last until the next year's new allowance arrived while suffering under the strain of heavy field work. The bondsmen's pre-teen children were fortunate to get any shoes at all, since they rarely worked with the crops.
Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Take on Slaves' Clothing Rations
Pressing forth an optimistic line on slave clothing allowances, Fogel and Engerman claim:
These [records from large plantations] indicate that a fairly standard annual issue for adult males was four shirts (of cotton), four pairs of pants (two of cotton and two of wool), and one or two pairs of shoes. Adult women were issued four dresses per year, or the material needed to make four dresses. Hats were also typically issued annually (women received headkerchiefs). Blankets were issued once every two or three years.
They add that sometimes slaveowners issued socks, underclothes, petticoats, jackets, and coats, the latter for winter months. Likely only the most paternalistic masters indulged in such a high yearly issue. Two or three sets of clothes seem a more likely average annual ration, as Sutch argues. Barrow issued blankets every three years, but Francis Henderson's master was apparently far less generous. The exemplary planters Fogel and Engerman cite must be offset against the very neglectful ones. Ball gave his editor a horror story about his fellow slaves' lack of clothing on a large cotton plantation in South Carolina. In the work gang, none had a full set of clothes, with "not one of the others [besides himself] had on even the remains of two pieces of apparel," and many of the teenage slaves were naked. Although an abolitionist editor's bias may have distorted this story, undeniably most slaves looked on workdays terribly ragged by Northern free white standards.72
Clothing and English Agricultural Workers
Turning to the English case, documenting conditions becomes significantly harder. Since the farmworkers normally bought clothing on their own, sources similar to that of the planters' records of clothing bought for their slaves do not exist. Furthermore, the kind of clothing the lower classes wore in England was often differed little in general appearance from the middle class's. Unlike other European societies, England had no required "peasant costume" that automatically marked off those working the land from the rest of society. But similar to many French peasants, many agricultural workers did wear smocks. Somerville once saw a crowd, of at least one thousand men, women, and children, who gathered to hear anti-corn law speeches. The men, composing two-thirds of it, mostly wore "smock-frocks or fustian coats, just as they had come from their work." This outfit's prevalence gradually declined as the nineteenth century progressed. As a youth in Warwick (c. 1840), Joseph Arch was given a smock of the coarsest cloth to wear, like other plowboys in his village. Since the sons of the local artisans sported cloth-coats (albeit made of shoddy material), they felt superior to the farmworkers' sons. The difference resulted in "regular pitched battles of smock-frock against cloth-coat." In Sussex, Cobbett saw a boy wearing a faded, patched blue smock, which made him reflect that he had worn the same when he was young himself (c. 1775). This boy also had on nailed shoes and a worn but clean shirt.73 Conspicuously, by comparison, African-American slaves, the lowest of the low in their society, wore no smocks while in the fields, nor did the white farmers either.
The Low Standards for Farmworkers, especially in Southern England
Clothing standards for agricultural workers, at least in southern England, approached the bottom of the heap even for the working class. While attacking the upper class's hypocrisy on this score, Cobbett quoted Sir John Pollen, an M.P. for Andover. Attempting to justify the corn laws as a means of helping the agricultural laborers, Pollen said the "poor devils" had "hardly a rag to cover them!" Somerville knew of one child who lent his shoes to another without any while they played together. Many of the budgets that researchers collected on the farmworkers normally had nothing devoted to purchasing clothing. After constructing a fairly reasonable, non-luxurious budget, Cobbett found that maintaining a family of five on five pounds of bread, one pound of mutton, and two of pork a day cost (c. 1825) over sixty-two pounds a year. This figure, for just food alone, was more than double what their average annual wages likely totaled, based on a nine to ten shillings a week average. Those on parish relief received still less (just seven shillings six pence per week, by Cobbett's reckoning). Of course, they ate far less meat than this in reality, ensuring their budgets came closer to balancing. With the extra harvest earnings, clothing (perhaps) could be bought for a brief period annually, since these put the agricultural workers somewhat above subsistence in much of southern England. Otherwise, they had to get them by charity or even begging. The Hampshire girls Cobbett saw in their Sunday best had received from charity a camlet gown, a white apron, and a plaid cloak each. But the upper class's generosity was unreliable, especially when by promoting enclosure and high excise taxes it had taken forcibly from the laborers much more than it ever gave back. As a result, many agricultural laborers could only afford to own one change of clothes altogether, putting them right at or below the level of many slave field hands in America.74 This conclusion is hardly surprising, because of the high cost of food for large families where the father was the main or sole support, especially when his family was scraping bottom during the family life cycle. With the parents struggling to raise a large number of children, household duties heavily burdening the mother, and only one child (perhaps) able to start earning a little at age eight or nine, a virtually guaranteed family financial crisis lasting some years struck working class families until their children became teenagers and could earn their keep. Under these conditions, clothing expenses were necessarily cut to the bare bone.
Although necessary for life, clothing was often an easily postponable purchase, since the laborer's wife (almost inevitably) could somehow patch and mend what near-rags the family had for another year or more when a major crisis for the family or region struck. Encountering a laborer in northern Hampshire along the road, Somerville found he had four children and a wife to support on a mere eight shillings per week. Hovering near the bottom of the family life-cycle, having a wife unable to leave home everyday, and having one twelve-year-old earning two shillings a week, they could not think of buying new clothes: "Clothes, bless you! we never have no clothes, not new--not to speak of as clothes. We thought to have something new as bread was getting cheaper, but wages came down, and we ben't better nor afore; it take all we earn to get a bit of bread . . ." Although many laborers locally raised pigs, they saw little of them as food--they sold them to pay the rent, and maybe buy some clothing. As the trade of Poole, Dorset scraped bottom in 1843, and the surrounding countryside held in the grip of economic distress, the local people avoided coming into town to buy clothes. Similarly, when the potato blight wiped out the potatoes of southern and western England in 1845, and high bread prices came with little or no increases in wages, Somerville heard that: "The village shopkeepers and tradesmen feel it [the potato famine], and complain that the labourers are neither paying what they owe for clothes and groceries, nor are they making new purchases."75 So whenever a family or general distress hit, laborers put off buying new clothes, since bread or potatoes were more immediately vital to life.
Homespun More Common in America than England c. 1830
A major difference between the America of 1860 and the America of a generation or two earlier Cobbett lived in (1792-1800, 1817-1819) was how commonly Northern farm families made their own homespun clothing. One time he observed "about three thousand farmers, or rather country people, at a horse-race in Long Island, and my opinion was, that there were not five hundred who were not dressed in home-spun coats." By the eve of the Civil War, this state of affairs had plainly changed. Having a farm on Staten Island, Olmsted certainly had a reasonable idea of conditions on Long Island. He commented how rare homespun was in the North, even in a more recently settled state such as Ohio (see pp. 48-49 above). Cobbett saw the decline of the home manufacture of clothing as a real privation for farm families. Correspondingly, he condemned concentrating its manufacture in the factories of the "Lords of the Loom." Noting its bad effects on keeping women employed at home, he points to the downside of the regional division of labor:
The women and children, who ought to provide a great part of the raiment, have nothing to do. The fields must have men and boys; but, where there are men and boys there will be women and girls; and, as the Lords of the Loom have now a set of real slaves, by the means of whom they take away a great part of the employment of the country-women and girls, these must be kept by poor-rates in whatever degree they lose employment through the Lords of the Loom.
Clearly, regional specialization and the division of labor had its costs in economic displacement. Since the industrial belt in the Midlands made most of England's cloth, and the tailors of London stitched much of it together, both undermined the economic independence of agricultural workers and farmers by making much of England's clothes. In this case, strongly counter-balancing the advantages of raising the quality and lowering time spent on making clothes for rural families, the laborers' womenfolk had much less to do, causing a kind of generalized and semi-hidden underemployment. As general population growth raised the unemployment rate and the regional and sexual division of labor intensified, women were pushed out of fieldwork as the eighteenth century drew to a close and the nineteenth century opened, further impoverishing southern English agricultural workers. One farmer/relieving officer in Sussex remembered that the poor once made their own clothing (c. 1794), but that had changed by 1837.76 By contrast, since America boasted a nearly empty wilderness crying out for settlement, far more work was available for everyone. Under these conditions, women need not suffer such want, in part because male wages or work brought in much more income. Hence, differing national conditions led to a paradoxical result: Olmsted saw the American South's heavy dependence on homespun clothing as a sign of its poverty/economic backwardness, but Cobbett saw its absence in England as evidence of the rural working class's increased impoverishment.
Special Measures Used to Buy Clothes
Illustrating the rather desperate clothing situations southern English agricultural workers endured, consider the implications of one typical self-help used to help solve it: benefit clubs. In Dorset, Caird knew of a clothing club that operated in the area around Blandford. Similar to medical clubs and friendly societies in concept, this particular one helped meet the clothing needs of rural workers and their families. The workers contributed one penny for themselves and per child per week, the employer one penny also, in equal proportion. At the end of the year, club members received clothing equal in value to their accounts' totals. Despite only applying a mere bandaid over the gaping wound of low wages, this approach still encouraged laborers to exercise more self-discipline. They already had to operate carefully within low incomes to meet their most immediate needs outside food and shelter (rent). One anonymous resident rector had the program of selling "blankets, shoes, and various articles of clothing, at two-thirds of the prime cost" to laborers. After having sold them to all in his parish, he later limited sales to the sober, reliable, and church-going. In a pamphlet published during the Swing riots stating the laborer's case against the farmer and landlord's, an anonymous Christian paternalist calculated the cost for laborers of a "reasonable" set of men's clothes and shoes per year at £3 14s. 6d. and women's (much of it in cloth, not ready-to-wear) at £2 18s. 2d. Since the list for men consisted of three shirts, one pair of "trowsers," one jacket, one waistcoat, two pairs of socks, and one pair of shoes, it indicates prevailing clothing standards must have been still lower than this for southern rural districts in England. Also including other basic items such as soap and candles, these expenses "must be raised by the extra work of the labourer, by his profits in the hay and corn harvest, by the produce of his garden, by the leasings of his family, and by the earnings, if any, of his wife and children."77 Simply put, the regular weekly earnings of Hodge south of Caird's wage line usually failed cover anything beyond food and perhaps rent if he was the sole support for a large family. Ironically, the anonymous Christian paternalist's clothing budget's list of items being fewer than what many larger American planters issued their slaves annually. Special measures such as a "clothing club" or the use of harvest earnings for a vital necessity at a low-level of purchases help demonstrate the constant struggle the southern English agricultural workers had against ending up with mere rags to wear.
Slave Housing: Variations around a Low Average Standard
Since their homes often were crude log cabins with dirt floors, the housing conditions of slaves were hardly ideal even for their day and age. The impulse to heap indignation against these conditions, however, must be stiffled, at least to the extent the slaves lived on the frontier, where their master and mistress' "big house" often surpassed what their chattels endured by only a few steps. The housing slaves had in (say) South Carolina or Virginia in the 1800s illustrated how long settled areas treated them, but it cannot be safely extrapolated to what blacks endured when moving westward with their white owners into Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and especially Texas. Correspondingly, the slaves suffered with very crude housing when they were first taken to America en masse in the early 1700s, as slavery became widespread. But as the decades passed, at least some more paternalistic masters upgraded their slaves' dwellings, even if they remained beneath those most Northern free workers had. Hence, some antebellum defenses of slavery focused on the conditions of slaves on large plantations in long-settled regions such as lowland Georgia or South Carolina and Tidewater Virginia, where some authentic paternalism and mutual outgoing concern may have developed because (by the mid-1800s) the same white families had owned several generations of slave families. Having played with the children of slaves when young, the planter's white sons and daughters, as they became older and the master or mistress of the plantation themselves, would have long-standing personal relationships with at least some bondsmen.78 These relationships simply could not exist when the earlier colonialists had imported freshly enslaved Africans directly from West Africa. Nor did this situation arise among non-hereditary slaveowners on the make on the frontier, where housing conditions were inevitably worse anyway. Hence, variations in slave housing partially correspond to how long a given area of the South had been settled, how paternalistically inclined the slaveowners were, and how long they and their ancestors had lived in one area with the same slave families over the generations.
As overwhelming evidence indicates, the slave quarters normally consisted of "houses" little better than the barns and sheds that sheltered many animals during the winter in the North or in England. One room was all many, perhaps most, slaves had, with perhaps a loft for the children to sleep in, such as where former slave Charley Williams lived in Louisiana. As freedwoman Harriet Payne commented: "Everything happened in that one room--birth, sickness, death and everything."79 Slaves often lived in log cabins which allowed them to see through the chinks between the logs. Dirt floors were a standard feature.80 Escaping from slavery near Washington, D.C., Henderson described wretched housing conditions: "Our houses were but log huts--the tops partly open--ground floor,--rain would come through. . . . in rains I have seen her [his old aunt] moving about from one part of the house to the other, and rolling her bedclothes about to try to keep dry,--every thing would be dirty and muddy." Booker T. Washington said that as a child he was born and had lived in "a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square." It had no glass windows, a dirt floor, a door that barely clung to its hinges, and numerous notable holes in the walls. Since his mother was the cook, the plantation's cooking was done in this unsanitary cabin, for both whites and blacks! Olmsted in South Carolina's high country found conditions worse than what animals in the North suffered:
The negro-cabins, here, were the smallest I had seen--I thought not more than twelve feet square, inside. . . . They were built of logs, with no windows--no opening at all, except the doorway, with a chimney of stick and mud; with no trees about the, no porches, or shades, of any kind. Except for the chimney . . . . I should have conjectured that it had been built for a powder-house, or perhaps an ice-house--never for an animal to sleep in.
Providing scant comfort to the slaves, the local poor whites' homes were "mere square pens of logs" of little better quality.81
While in Virginia, Olmsted passed larger plantations that had "perhaps, a dozen rude-looking little log-cabins scattered around them [the planters' homes], for the slaves." In Louisiana he saw a creole-owned plantation where "the cabins of the negroes upon which were wretched hovels--small, without windows, and dilapidated." In the frontier conditions of Texas, he described one planter's slave quarters as being
of the worst description, though as good as local custom requires. They are but a rough inclosure of logs, ten feet square, without windows, covered by slabs of hewn wood four feet long. The great chinks are stopped with whatever has comes to hand--a wad of cotton here, and a corn-shuck there.
They gave little protection against the cold. Kemble thought she had found the worst slave accommodations by far at the Hampton estate on St. Annie's in Georgia, but later discovered far worse ones nearby: "The negro huts on several of the plantations that we passed through were the most miserable habitations I ever beheld. . . . [They were] dirty, desolate, dilapidated dog-kennels." One master "provided" the worst housing of all for his slaves--none! After getting into trouble with the law in Georgia, he had moved himself and his slaves to Texas, as aged freedman Ben Simpson remembered: "We never had no quarters. When nighttime come, he locks the chain around our necks and then locks it round a tree. Boss, our bed were the ground."82 These examples illustrate the general crudeness of slave housing, since it fell below what most whites in the contemporaneous North would have found tolerable, even for many living in more recently settled states such as Illinois or Wisconsin.
Cases of Good Slave Housing
Sometimes a higher standard of slave housing prevailed on some plantations. One particularly impressive case, pointed out as such earlier by Olmsted, was a certain rice plantation not too far from Savannah, Georgia:
Each cabin was a framed building, the walls boarded and whitewashed on the outside, lathed and plastered within, the roof shingled; forty-two feet long, twenty-one feet wide, divided into two family tenements, each twenty-one by twenty-one; each tenement divided into three rooms.
The cabins all had doors that could be locked and lofts for the children to sleep in. Each room had a window with a wooden shutter to close it. Overcrowding was avoided, since only five people on average lived in each of these homes. To use English terminology, each had an "allotment" of a half-acre garden and an area that served as a combination chicken coop and sty for pregnant sows. An interviewer seeking nostalgic reminiscences from freedmen, Orland Armstrong drew attention to the good housing conditions some slaves enjoyed when visiting a plantation's ruins: "Some of the old cabins are only heaps of debris, while others are better preserved. They were built of brick, in the substantial manner of many of the fine old South Carolina plantation servant [slave] houses." A good, but somewhat lower standard than these Olmsted found on a farm in Virginia, which had
well-made and comfortable log cabins, about thirty feet long by twenty wide, and eight feet tall, with a high loft and shingle roof. Each divided in the middle, and having a brick chimney outside the wall at either end, was intended to be occupied by two families.
They even had windows with glass in the center, an unlikely sight on the frontier for anyone's dwelling, but not surprising in a long-settled country. Housing that reflected frontier conditions--"log huts" many of the slaves lived in--began to be replaced by "neat boarded cottages," reflecting a more settled life, on four large adjacent plantations by a "tributary of the Mississippi." For whites, the frontier offered a means of getting ahead financially in exchange for the privations of living in the wilderness. But for the slaves, pioneer life merely meant having to endure more work and less comfort, especially in housing, without gaining anything more than they initially had if they stayed back east toiling on some large planter's estate. Consequently, for this reason and others, slaves much more commonly lived in a house where they could count the stars through the cracks, as Marion Johnson did, "the usual comfortless log-huts" (Olmsted), not a three-room wood frame duplex.83 Although some slaves enjoyed such exceptional housing conditions, these were hardly representative for most living in the South's interior, away from the lowland coastal areas of Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina, where (as Kemble's descriptions show) conditions often were hardly ideal as well.
How Much Better Was the Poor Whites' Housing than the Slaves'?
The crude housing many southern whites had perhaps best serves to indicate that slave housing was not all its apologists might have claimed. Even the master's home might be unimpressive, especially when he was a small slaveholder and/or lived on the frontier. After visiting a neighboring mistress's home on a sea island of Georgia, Kemble said typical farmhouses in the North were certainly better: "To be sure, I will say, in excuse for their old mistress, her own habitation was but a very few degrees less ruinous and disgusting [than her slaves' homes]. What would one of your Yankee farmers say to such abodes?" Similarly, although noting the homes may have signs of a former splendor or elegance, she observed, using her Englishwoman's eyes to make a comparison while calling on a mistress's home in a nearby village in Georgia: "As for the residence of this princess, it was like all the planters' residences that I have seen, and such as a well-to-do English farmer would certainly not inhabit." Considering she was living in a long-settled region of the South, this condemnation is particularly noteworthy. Olmsted stayed overnight in one old settler's home in Texas. It was a room fourteen feet square, which "was open to the rafters." The sky could be seen between its shingles. He actually spent the night in a lean-to between two doors, keeping on all his clothes in the winter weather. While in Mississippi, he deliberately decided to spend a night in a poor white family's cabin seen as typical judging from all the other ones he had passed that day. Since this family had a horse and wagon, a fair amount of cotton planted, but no slaves, they likely beat the poor white average some. Measuring twenty-eight by twenty-five feet, their log house was open to the roof. It had a door on each of its four sides, a large fireplace on one side, but no windows. In northern Alabama, an area where more whites than blacks lived, most of the houses he passed were "rude log huts, of only one room, and that unwholesomely crowded. I saw in and about one of them, not more than fifteen feet square, five grown persons, and as many children." The conditions whites in the South experienced have major implications for how the slaves lived. The poor whites' standard of housing indicates the basic ceiling on what the enslaved blacks could normally expect at best. Bad housing conditions (admittedly, in part a function of a frontier environment) for many whites indicate most bondsmen likely had nothing better, and normally had something noticeably worse.84
Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic View of Slave Housing
Fogel and Engerman describe optimistically the average slave house. Measuring eighteen by twenty feet and being made of logs or wood, it had one or two rooms. It likely had a loft for children to sleep in. The floors were "usually planked and raised off the ground." But is this description justified? They considerably exaggerate the size of the slaves' homes, since the free white rural population often lived in a home of comparable size. The travelers' accounts that mention the specific size of slave cabins rarely name a figure this high. After scrounging through various travelers' accounts, secondary sources, etc., Sutch properly maintains fifteen by fifteen feet was typical, with sixteen by eighteen "an occasionally achieved ideal size." The housing Kemble encountered at her husband's rice island estate was the best of the housing conditions on his two estates. It surpassed other places she visited or knew of locally. Nevertheless, while naming a specific size, she described appalling conditions of crowding:
These cabins consist of one room, about twelve feet by fifteen, with a couple of closets smaller and closer than the state-rooms of a ship, divided off from the main room and each other by rough wooden partitions, in which the inhabitants sleep. . . . Two families (sometimes eight and ten in number) reside in one of these huts, which are mere wooden frames pinned, as it were, to the earth by a [huge] brick chimney outside.
On the new Polk estate in Mississippi, some eighteen men, ten women, seven children, and two evidently half-grown boys, thirty-seven in all, crowded into four rough-hewn houses, built in a mere eighteen days. As Bassett describes: "The trivial character of the buildings on the plantation is shown in the fact that a few years later, 1840, all these buildings were abandoned and others built in what was considered a more healthy location." As cited above (p. 57), Olmsted saw slave houses measuring twelve by twelve in South Carolina and ten by ten in Texas. Genovese maintains, based on his sources, contrary to Fogel and Engerman's claims above, that slaveholders even into the 1850s usually did not "provide plank floors or raised homes . . . although more and more were doing so." According to Blassingame, most slave autobiographers said they lived in crude one-room cabins which had dirt floors and lots of cracks in the walls that allowed the winter weather to enter. Although admitting the existence of some with higher standards, Stampp still maintains: "The common run of slave cabins were cramped, crudely built, scantily furnished, unpainted and dirty." Those that fell beneath this "average" were "plentiful" as well.85 Fogel and Engerman clearly overstate how good the slaves' housing conditions usually were.
Genovese's Overly Optimistic Analysis of Slave Housing
Like Fogel and Engerman, Genovese puts an overly optimistic spin on slave housing, but here compared to the rest of the world's:
Their [the slaveholders'] satisfaction [with their slaves' housing] rested on the thought that most of the world's peasants and workers lived in dirty, dark, overcrowded dwellings and that, by comparison, their slaves lived decently. . . . During the nineteenth century such perceptive travelers as Basil Hall, Harriet Martineau, James Stirling, and Sir Charles Lyell thought the slaves at least as well housed as the English and Scottish poor, and Olmsted thought the slaves on the large plantations as well situated as the workmen of New England. . . . Even Fanny Kemble thought conditions no worse than among the European poor. . . . The laboring poor of France, England, and even the urban Northeast of the United States . . . lived in crowded hovels little better and often worse than the slave quarters.
Although his point has merit about the conditions of the southern English farm laborers, or those of the Eurasian masses, peasants and artisans, it ignores how most slaves were worse off materially than typical American free laborers. If they had not been enslaved or discriminated against, the conditions of blacks in the United States would have been better than those in most of the world because America was largely a vast wilderness full of raw natural resources awaiting exploitation by (then) modern technology. These conditions made for an intrinsically higher standard of living compared to (say) England, which suffered from the Malthusian effects of rapid population growth. Furthermore, as Sutch's reply to Fogel and Engerman over the quality of housing in the North generally demonstrates, including even New York's slums in the depression year of 1893, Genovese is too pessimistic about Northeastern urban housing standards.86
Genovese also reads too much into his citations of Olmsted and Kemble. Olmsted was not making a general point about all slaves living on big plantations having housing as good as that of New England workers when he said this about a sugar plantation in Louisiana: "The negro houses were exactly like those I described on the Georgia rice plantation [quoted above, p. 58], except that they were provided with broad galleries in front. They were as neat and well-made externally as the cottages usually provided by large manufacturing companies in New England, to be rented to their workmen." Such good conditions were hardly automatic even on large plantations, as Kemble's already cited account shows. On the page Genovese cites of Kemble, she was describing sanitary conditions and rebutting the (racist) contention that the smell of blacks and their quarters was intrinsic to their race rather than being due to their poverty and ignorance of proper habits of cleanliness. She was not discussing so much the intrinsic size or construction of the house in question, but how the peculiar institution created "dirty houses, ragged clothes, and foul smells." After comparing between the smells of slaves and a "low Irishman or woman" and maintaining both resulted from "the same causes," she said:
The stench in an Irish, Scotch, Italian, or French hovel are quite as intolerable as any I ever found in our negro houses, and the filth and vermin which abound about the clothes and persons of the lower peasantry of any of those countries as abominable as the same conditions in the black population of the United States.
Although this description likely displays some class or national bias, clearly she distinguished between the cleanliness and the intrinsic quality of building construction by saying she was "exhorting them to spend labor in cleaning and making [their homes] tidy, [yet admitting she] can not promise them that they shall be repaired and made habitable for them." She also felt that the difference between the homes slave servants lived in and their master's house was much greater than that between where free white servants lived and where they worked: "In all establishments whatever, of course some disparity exists between the accommodation of the drawing-rooms and best bedrooms and the servants' kitchen and attics; but on a plantation it is no longer a matter of degree." Focusing on their lack of furnishings in particular, she said the slave servants
had neither table to feed at nor chair to sit down upon themselves; the 'boys' lay all night on the hearth by the kitchen fire, and the women upon the usual slave's bed--a frame of rough boards, strewed with a little moss of trees, with the addition of a tattered and filthy blanket.87
After analyzing his citations of Kemble and Olmsted, Genovese clearly reconstucts too optimistically how good slave housing was relative to many free workers. As shown below, this place is hardly alone where Genovese's work draws conclusions startlingly similar to not just Fogel and Engerman's generally discredited work, but the equally discounted Slavery by Stanley Elkins as well, yet Roll, Jordan, Roll has avoided similar opprobrium and presently reigns as the leading general work of the field.
The Moral Hazards of Crowded, One-Room Slave Houses
Often living in one-room cabins or shacks, slave families had to undertake special measures to help preserve their children's sexual morality. In language reminiscent of the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture in England that described the hazards of promiscuously mixing the sexes of different ages together (see p. 67 below), Olmsted cites similar Victorian reasoning on sexual matters about slaves by a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology. Although rarely put so bluntly, the basic problem was figuring out how to shield the children from the sights and sounds of parental love-making and its resulting negative moral effects. Since slave families had such limited space available--one room and (perhaps) a loft to place the children being typical--these concerns were legitimate, but slaveowners usually ignored them in their general quest to reduce housing expenses. But these wretched conditions promoted the slave father and mother's inventiveness, so they found their own solutions to this problem. Some hung up clothes or quilts to create privacy, while others used scrap wood in order to subdivide a one-room home into something closer to two. A few resourceful slave parents even made special trundle beds to ensure at least some sexual privacy. According to Genovese, these measures had at least some success.88 The poor housing masters and mistresses provided to their slaves clearly failed to promote the Victorian ideals of sexual purity that they generally professed.
Slave Housing--Sanitation and Cleanliness
Housing quality can also be judged by its cleanliness and how much it lived up to the principles of sanitation. A relatively spacious or well-built home could still have terrible standards of cleanliness. Especially in rural areas, this aspect of housing quality more clearly burdens the occupants, not the owners. In other words, the master has no duty to enforce good housekeeping practices among his bondsmen besides setting up some basic guidelines to help them keep themselves (i.e., his property) from getting sick. In the quarters, the slaves should be cleaning up after themselves, not the master or mistress. After seeing two old slave women living without "every decency and every comfort," Kemble then visited the home some of their younger relatives. That home was "as tidy and comfortable as it could be made." Since this difference arose under the same master, it shows the slaves themselves had some level of responsibility for cleanliness. But admittedly, the intrinsic burdens of bondage, of working for their owners often six full days a week, ensured the slaves could only wring limited amounts of time during a typical work week for housecleaning anyway. Since the master class believed the ideology of "separate spheres" was inapplicable to field hands, housekeeping was inevitably neglected because both sexes were driven out into the fields to work. The depressing scene Kemble paints of the quarters on one of her husband's estates undoubtedly was found throughout the antebellum South:
Instead of the order, neatness, and ingenuity which might convert even these miserable hovels into tolerable residences, there was the careless, reckless, filthy indolence which even the brutes do not exhibit in their lairs and nests, and which seemed incapable of applying to the uses of existence the few miserable means of comfort yet within their reach. Firewood and shavings lay littered about the floors, while the half-naked children were cowering round two or three smouldering cinders. The moss with which the chinks and crannies of their ill-protecting dwellings might have been stuffed was trailing in the dirt and dust about the ground, while the back door of the huts . . . was left wide open for the fowls and ducks, which they are allowed to raise, to travel in and out, increasing the filth of the cabin by what they brought and left in every direction.
Kemble herself knew sheer ignorance and lack of education produced these appalling conditions, a cause which the master or mistress was more responsible for than the slaves. Having been born and raised in a deprived environment, the latter could not be expected to know better. After mentioning how some slaves were so dirty and smelly she disliked being attended by them at meals, she denied that smelling bad was intrinsic to the black race, but blamed it on "ignorance of the laws of health and the habits of decent cleanliness."89 An archeological discovery at Monticello suggests (but fails to prove fully) another pest slave housekeeping faced: Rodents left gnaw marks on the bones found where slaves had lived in or around, especially in the root cellar of one of their homes. True, some masters wished to improve conditions. For example, planter Bennet Barrow once inspected his slave quarters. Although finding them "generally in good order," he reproved some of his slaves as "the most careless negros I have." Another time he gave them an evening to "scoure up their Houses" and "clean up the Quarter &c." Some slaves themselves kept their homes fairly clean, at least by their own standards (not the higher ones a middle class observer such as Kemble judged by).90 Although Fogel and Engerman like to think otherwise, deep concern by bondsmen or masters about cleanliness was not typical.91 For good reasons most slave dwellings were neither especially neat nor orderly places.92 Although the bondsmen shared the blame for their homes' unsanitary conditions with their owners, factors mostly outside the slaves' control loomed larger than their own untidiness in spreading disease and dirt in the quarters, such as the failure of indifferent masters and mistresses to instruct them on the habits of cleanliness, the long workweek for both sexes that reduced the time available for housekeeping chores, and the flaws in building construction that let the elements in.
English Farmworkers' Housing--Quality/Size
In England, the economic dynamics of building housing for farmworkers differed sharply from America's when constructing homes for slaves. The poor law, both old and new, gave the (major) ratepayers of a parish a financial incentive to avoid erecting new cottages in their parishes, and to pull down those already extant. By reducing how many were eligible for relief, they lowered their taxes.93 Ideally, the "powers that be" in a given parish wanted no more workers living in a parish than were employed year around, thus consistently keeping them off the dole. In "their" parish they strove to reduce how many could claim a settlement.94 Since the poor (under the Elizabethan poor law) could have a settlement in only one parish at a time, and could claim relief only from that one parish, these laws encouraged the ratepayers to unload "their" poor onto other parishes to be cared for. In order to lower the rates, the parish elite could combine to keep out new migrants to their parish. Ratepayers, normally the gentry and (large) farmers who rented from the former, created "closed parishes" when they were few enough in number that they, by coordinating their efforts, set up a "cartel" that kept out all newcomers without a settlement in their parish.95 When the ratepayers were too numerous and/or unequal in income to conspire successfully to keep out the poor without settlements in their community, an "open parish" resulted. Under the settlement laws, a new migrant to another parish could be "deported" (removed) to the parish of his origin (where he did have a settlement legally) when he became chargeable to his new parish.96 Consequently, the ratepayers of open parishes, which included the better-off artisans, professionals, and tradesmen, paid through the rates poor relief for the seasonally discharged/underemployed laborers who worked in nearby closed parishes for at least part of the year during the spring and/or summer months.97 Although the deeper intricacies of the local elite's machinations to lower their taxes under the poor law (old and new) has to await further explanation below (pp. 278-79, 281-85, 287-99), the impact of the poor laws on the availability and quality of housing is considered here.
Undeniably, the English farmworkers generally endured miserable conditions in housing. The conditions they suffered were less excusable than what the slaves faced: Unlike the harsh frontier conditions many slaves and their masters suffered, England was hardly a newly settled land. Although recognizing how poor much of English rural housing was, Rule nevertheless still says: "Housing is as much a matter of existing stock as of production." On the other hand, much of England, especially in the southern arable counties, had a serious wood shortage, which increased the poor's problems in finding wood for building or even cooking. Arch contrasted his father's fortunate situation, who actually owned the home his family lived in, with conditions commonly found elsewhere in England:
In one English county after another I saw men living with their families--if living it could be called--in cottages which, if bigger, were hardly better than the sty they kept their pigs in, when they were lucky enough to have a young porker fattening on the premises.
While the farmworkers' union grew, he described their housing: "The cottage accommodation was a disgrace to civilisation; and this, not only in Somersetshire, but all over the country. As many as thirteen people would sleep all huddled up together in one small cottage bedroom." According to Somerville, in most counties "the meanest hovels are rented as high" as two pounds ten shillings per year, while in Dorset the landlords charged three and four pounds a year without any garden ground for "the worst of houses" that "the poorest of labourers" occupied. Emma Thompson in 1910 recalled how life was in Bedfordshire some 80 years earlier: "I well remember three families living in one house and two families, and only one fire place. When I was first married I had one room to live in." In a two-room house (which includes the loft), she had ten children, seven surviving into adulthood. In 1797 some cottages were noted as so bad they let in the elements--a problem hardly unfamiliar to many American slaves. Examined by the Select Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act (1838), Mark Crabtree described one typical laborer's cottage as having a dirt floor, half of a window's diamond squares of glass missing, and an outside wall which had nearly fallen down. Although observing specifically of his native area in southern Scotland, Somerville still generalized to overall British conditions when he said some new cottages were built of stone and plastered inside, "with a boarding over-head, instead of the bare roof, which is so common."98 Clearly, England's farmworkers and American slaves suffered from similar housing problems.
Poor Housing Leads to Sexual Immorality?
Because housing space was so limited, Anglican clerics feared the poor would be (literally) de-moralized in their sexual standards of conduct. Overcrowding mounted as, among other factors, the decline of service lowering marriage ages and the tying of relief payments to being married promoted increased population growth. The pulling down of cottages to reduce poor law taxes as the first half of the nineteenth century passed added more problems, as Rule notes. One vicar, for Terrington in Norfolk, said most of his parish's cottages had two or three rooms. Often in the latter case, a lodger rented one of the three rooms, thus requiring the family to squeeze into the two remaining rooms. Some homes had only one room. The vicar focused on one case in which a father, mother, three sons, and a grown-up daughter shared a single room. He "fear[ed] that much immorality, and certainly much want of a sense of decency among the agricultural labouring classes, are owing to the nature of their homes, and the want of proper room."99 In the general neighborhood of Farnham, Surrey and Maidstone, Kent, where the hop harvesting season in September brought in hordes of temporary migrant workers, Somerville found that bad housing conditions prevailed even before the temporary workers arrived. The migrants simply worsened pre-existing crowding still further. As a result, segregating the sexes then rated as a low priority. "The undivided state of the larger families acting upon the scantiness of house room and general poverty, or high rents, often crowds them together in their sleeping apartments, so as seriously to infringe on the decencies which guard female morals." Hart, a professional gentleman of Reigate, was appalled that brothers and sisters lived in the same room until they moved out as teenagers or adults. But still worse overcrowding appeared elsewhere: Commonly in Cuckfield, Sussex, the children of both genders slept not merely in the same room, but the same bed. Clergyman W. Sankie of Farnham knew a case in which two sisters and a brother, all over fourteen, routinely slept in the same bed together. Since general housing situations approached this nadir, the laboring classes understandably never acquired "that delicacy and purity of mind which is the origin and the safeguard of chastity." Similarly, some certainly voiced similar concerns about packing American slaves into crude one bedroom shacks. But since they were generally regarded as inferior beings with stronger animalistic desires than whites, masters and mistresses in the U.S. South more easily rationalized crowded housing conditions than their English counterparts. The latter often just simply ignored the poor conditions and the agricultural workers' correspondingly degraded character. Olmsted encountered a "most intelligent and distinguished Radical" who said about them: "We are not used to regard that class in forming a judgment of national character."100 Two surveys, one in 1842 and another in 1864 of 224 cottages in Durham and Northumberland, found most had just one room. Hence, while one part of the elite and middle class (justifiably) moralizes about the effects of bad, crowded housing, another determinedly ignores the need to improve such conditions altogether to save money, or to find ways to keep the poor permanently dependent on them.101
How the Artist's Eye Can Be Self-Deceiving When Evaluating Cottages' Quality
The physical appearance of farmworkers' cottages can be deceiving, as Rule noted, because what may appear picturesque to the eye, especially an urban dweller's, could still be unhealthy or unpleasant to live in. Arch once said that laborers' cottages with "their outside trimmings of ivy and climbing roses, were garnished without, but they were undrained and unclean within." After stopping to sketch a farmhouse he encountered near Chester, Olmsted thought the cottages nearby were "very pretty to look at." All the houses in the hamlet he was visiting were like the house he chose to draw: timber, whitewashed walls, and thatch roofs. (I do not recall him saying he had sketched any slave dwelling!) The farmer living in this house described the cottages nearby
as exceedingly uncomfortable and unhealthy--the floors, which were of clay, being generally lower than the road and the surrounding land, and often wet, and always damp, while the roofs and walls were old and leaky, and full of vermin.
The walls were made of layers of twigs and mud. Thatched roofs had the advantage of being cheaper and more picturesque than slate or tiles, and of giving more protection against the heat and cold. Their disadvantages included breeding vermin and being more apt to catch fire (it was feared). Olmsted maintained laborers' cottages usually had walls made of stone, brick and timber, or of clay mixed with straw, the last being very common. This method could make for walls of high quality, since even villas and parsonages used it.102 But since the homes of laborers often were ill-maintained, they became much worse than the local elite's, even had the same quality of construction had been put into their walls and roofs, which hardly seems likely.
Again, Hodge in southern England was significantly worse off than his northern counterpart, excepting evidently Northumberland. Arch described the former's cottages above. The commissioners on conditions in agriculture in 1867-8 noted that cottages in Yorkshire were in much better shape than those in the southern counties. They were more comfortable, often had gardens attached to them or allotments, and even "cow gates" for pasturing the family's female bovine. Still, bad housing conditions still appeared in the north. After saying Dorset had the worst houses and the poorest laborers, Somerville corrected himself some--in Northumberland "the houses were worse than ever they have been in Dorsetshire"--which means they had to be truly awful! In well-off Northumberland, Caird found that some laborers still lived with their cows and other animals. Both even went out the same door! The cowhouse was "divided only by a slight partition wall from the single apartment which serves for kitchen, living and sleeping room, for all the inmates." Admittedly, he also discovered a newly-built village where all cottages were of two or four rooms each, having attached gardens and access to a cowhouse and pasture.103 So even in an area well-known for its laborers enjoying good material conditions, the cottages were the most neglected aspect of their material well-being.
How Rentals and the Poor and Settlements Laws Made for Poor Quality Housing
Necessarily "freeborn Englishmen" got housing differently than American slaves. Slaveholders automatically provided it to their bondsmen, although they likely built under their owners' direction what they lived in. Except for unmarried men and women living as farm servants in housing their master (the farmer) provided them, the laborers had to rent it. (Few could hope to aspire to home ownership, Arch's family being a rare exception). As service declined, especially in the southern arable districts as the eighteenth century waned and the nineteenth opened, more and more farmworkers had to find and pay for their own housing. Helping matters none, rents rose in the period from about c. 1790 to 1837, at least in the memory of one farmer/relief officer in Sussex. Although they had a freedom slaves almost totally missed, to choose where they lived, practical factors besides financial ones constrained the laborers' free choice in housing. Because a closed parish's larger farmers and gentry had a vested self-interest in reducing how many could claim poor relief, they intentionally neglected or even tore down laborers' cottages not absolutely necessary for their operations. One witness told he Parliamentary Commissioners for the 1867-68 Report: "He [the landlord] does not care if they all tumble down." The inability of laborers to pay the rents to begin with also promoted intentional neglect, since this made renting cottages simply unprofitable. One owner of several cottages informed the Rector of Petworth, who told the Parliamentary Committee the economic dynamics involved: "If cottages brought no rent, the owners of them would not repair them, and they would by degrees take them away." Despite their likely meager carpentry skills and inferior materials, the tenants discovered they had to repair "their" dwelling, not their landlord. Other legal hurdles impeded attempts to improve laborers' cottages. In comments recorded by Somerville, Charles Baring Wall, M.P. for Guildford, Hampshire, found out that landowners really had no power over cottages held on life-holds. He had to wait until they fell in to give him the "opportunity of 'doing what he like with his own,' . . . to improve the cottages upon them."104 The poor laws encouraged ratepayers to minimize the amount of poor relief paid, while the settlement laws encouraged them to drive the poor out of "their" parish so that the legal claims the poor's settlements created would burden financially some other parish. As a result, the "freeborn Englishman" often lacked the liberty to choose which parish he would settle in, because the rich of many parishes would declare him potentially (or, after 1795, when actually) chargeable to the parish, and so have him and his family removed to their parish of origin. Surprisingly, both American slaves and English agricultural workers endured restrictions on freedom of movement, for although they were far more stringent on the former, the latter also suffered more from them than is commonly realized. Clearly, the laws of England, because of those on the poor, settlements, and tenure, cost the laborers much of their freedom and created major incentives for the owners of laborers' cottages to neglect them.
The Problem of Cottages Being Distant from Work
Many agricultural workers endured one problem most slaves did not: long walks to work. Because of the landlords and large tenant farmers's desires to lower their taxes, many were driven out of closed parishes into open parishes, making many rent homes located uncomfortably far from the farms they worked at. The Duke of Grafton in Suffolk owned one farm where two regularly employed laborers walked four and a half miles one way from Thetford, making for, as Caird calculated, nine miles a day, fifty-four a week. In Lincolnshire, he found some farmers lent their men donkeys to ride on since walking six or seven miles one way was too exhausting! The commissioners of the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture found cottages were often built too far from where the laborers worked, even in Yorkshire where better conditions normally prevailed. These long distances laid the foundations for the infamous gang system, which mainly operated in the swampy clay soil fens districts of the Eastern Midlands and East Anglia. Under this system, a gang master gathered together groups of workers, especially children, to work on some farm a considerable distance from where they lived. If these laborers had been farm servants, living with their masters (the farmers) or in cottages on or near the farms where they worked, such measures never would have been necessary. Living so far from work was largely the fault of the poor and settlement laws creating the open and closed parish system, which heavily burdened the laborers. As Caird observed:
It is the commonest thing possible to find agricultural labourers lodged at such a distance from their regular place of employment that they have to walk an hour out in the morning, and an hour home in the evening,--from forty to fifty miles a week. . . . Two hours a day is a sixth part of a man's daily labour, and this enormous tax he is compelled to pay in labour, which is his only capital.105
So as the slaves had to endure long walks to visit family members, including husbands and wives "living 'broad," the English agricultural workers had to withstand lengthy walks to arrive at work. The subordinate class in both cases had to go a distance to do something their betters usually had close at hand.
The Aristocracy's Paternalism in Providing Housing, and Its Limits
As the nineteenth century passed its midpoint, a noticeable number of large landowners began to improve cottages on their lands, even though bad conditions still generally prevailed elsewhere. For some English aristocrats, paternalism actually took on some practical reality in this area. Surely knowing a good return on investment through the rent the laborers paid was a pipe dream, they still built new cottages anyway. If the laborers' wages were nine shillings or fourteen per week, they had serious trouble in being able to pay more than one shilling six pence to two shillings a week in rent. Indeed, the parish of Petworth in Sussex routinely paid at least some of its paupers' rent until the New Poor Law was passed. A semi-reasonable maximum rent was two shillings six pence to two shillings nine pence a week, although in Surrey it ranged upwards of three shillings and three shillings six pence. Laborers often struggled mightily to pay even (say) one-seventh of their income in rent. If they paid two shillings a week, their annual rent would be five pounds four shillings. If a cottage cost roughly £100 to £140 to build, depending on local building materials and supplies, the return on investment (ROI) would hover around 4.5 percent annually when ignoring all repair costs. Some let them at 2.5 percent a year, but this involves self-sacrifice. So long as farmworkers' wages were low, and what rent they could pay was equally depressed, strict profitability considerations discouraged building further cottages, over and above the poor law's own negative incentives on the construction and maintenance of cottages.106
Despite the incentives against building cottages, a number of aristocrats led the way in improving rural housing conditions. Many small tradesmen, artisans, and speculators acted differently. They built cottages in open parishes and charged excessively high rents because closed parishes denied sufficient housing for all the laborers they employed year around. As farmworkers were driven into these tradesmen's areas, they drove up the demand for (and costs of) housing. In contrast, the self-sacrificing aristocrats in this regard included the Duke of Wellington in Berkshire, who rebuilt or improved his laborers' cottages, giving each one about a quarter acre for a garden. He charged a mere one shilling a week rent for both cottage and garden. Caird regarded the Duke of Bedford's cottages as "very handsome," which had many conveniences as well as gardens attached, and let out at fairly low rents. (Some complained, however, about their rooms' small size). In 1830, according to the Steward at Woburn, the laborers on the Duke of Bedford's estates there paid just one shilling a week rent, while elsewhere others charged at least two shillings a week for two rooms, "miserable places, [with] no gardens." Lord Beverley rented one and a half acres of excellent pasture land, one and a half acres of "mowing-ground for winter food," and a house for just seven pounds per year to his laborers in high-wage Yorkshire. The Duke of Northumberland spent freely to make improvements that would help all the laborers on his huge estates. The 1867-68 Report said the Earl of Northumberland had improved or built 931 cottages for his laborers. Similarly, the village of Ford, built by the Marquis of Waterford, included houses with two or four rooms, gardens, close-by outhouses, water pipes, and use of a common cowhouse and pasture, let at just three or four pounds a year, depending on size. The Duke of Devonshire in Derbyshire built for his laborers the village of Edensor, whose cottages had pasture access and rather elaborate architecture. George Culley discovered that the landlords owned the best housing in Bedfordshire. In all but three cases, it was near or at their seats of residence. Somerville found Lord Spencer in Northampton was building impressive new dwellings for his laborers, although "the old ones . . . were equal and rather superior to the ordinary class of labourers' houses." Some cottages stood in groups of three, with the smaller one having just two or three "apartments" being placed between the larger ones. Some even had two rooms upstairs and two below. Potato gardens were placed in back, flower gardens in front. Here even fancy Gothic architecture greeted the passerby's eyes. A bakehouse and washing-house was provided for each four houses. They also could rent allotments at low rates.107 By building better and/or providing cheaper housing, the upper class showed their rhetoric about noblesse oblige was not entirely empty.
Despite the altruistic picture reported above, Lord Egremont of Sussex revealed some of the aristocracy's other motives behind renting their cottages so cheaply yet semi-contentedly. He told the rector of Petworth, Thomas Sockett, that he got no rent for his cottages, and, to begin with, did not rent any above three pounds per year even with a good garden. He said this matter-of-factly, without grievance. He, like other landlords, did not mind getting little or nothing in rent because, under the New Poor Law, "They save it in diminution of the rate. . . . He stated, that the fact was that the poor men could not now pay the rent." So what the aristocracy may have lost from low (or zero!) rents, lower taxes more than made up for, or they considered it a downwards adjustment for the low wages their laborers earned. Furthermore, the aristocracy tended to build improved cottages only near their seats, so as (perhaps) to avoid literally looking at poverty in the face. These houses might have pretty, overly ornate facades, but have little additional comfort inside. Although exaggerating some, Somerville said, after having traveled extensively in England, that such high quality houses "are found only in some pet village near a nobleman's park, or in the park itself, and only there because they are ornamental to the rich man's residence." Although the English rural elite undeniably exploited the laborers, as the enclosure movement and the low wages the laborers received demonstrate, still at least some aristocrats sincerely made efforts at providing housing paternalistically. But their efforts must be seen in the context of the low wages and/or reduced poor rates paid after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which often meant they were handing back a slice of the loaf that they had previously grabbed from the laborers. These exertions by aristocrats at improving cottages failed to touch the lives of most farmworkers since, "the majority of [England's] rural inhabitants [still] liv[ed] in damp and squalor," as Rule correctly observes.108
Little Difference for Slaves and Farmworkers in the Quality of Their Housing
Probably the overall quality of housing for the average slave or farmworker was about the same. Although in both cases, large landowners may have been somewhat altruistic, since they built nice houses or cottages on some large plantations or estates, only a minority of the slaves or laborers benefited from these efforts. Dirt floors and non-glazed or broken glass windows were standard for both groups. Walls often had holes or were otherwise decripit in both cases. Both slaves and farmworkers usually would have lacked a ceiling overhead; a gaze upwards would bring into view the rafters and beams holding up the roof. The bondsmen more likely lived in a home made nearly exclusively of wood, with (perhaps) some mud daubed in to fill the nooks and crannies or to help fireproof the chimney, compared to their contemporaneous rural field laborers in England. In England, walls made of mud/clay mixed with sticks or straw were common, thus nearly inverting the ratio of the two materials compared to America, clearly corresponding to their differing relative scarcity between the two countries. Probably a thatched roof, being cooler in summer, warmer in winter, and protecting better against the elements, was superior to what the slaves (or many poor whites) normally had in America, where stories of being able to see through the roof (or walls, for that matter) appear. In both cases, since the slaves and the laborers (normally) did not own the place they lived, they suffered from what others were willing to give them. Although the farmworkers supposedly had to pay rent, and had the freedom to move, because of the effects of the settlement laws and closed parishes, not to mention low wages and the enclosure acts helping to breed wage dependence, they often had to accept what was located near their jobs. Competition in the housing market in England was rendered even more imperfect because the governmental restrictions on labor mobility (already an instrinsically less mobile commodity than others) made workers even less able to move. Clearly, the bulk of both the bondsmen and laborers lived in rundown, decrepit housing of low quality and few amenities, even if a few fortunate souls benefited from paternalistic planters and aristocrats.
Sanitation for the England's housing during the industrial revolution was notoriously bad. How could a reader forget Engels' portrait of Manchester's odious slums and filthy, meandering streets in The Condition of the Working Class in England? In Victorian England, the appalling death rates produced by poor sanitation practices spawned a thriving public health movement among the middle class which aimed at cleaning up the hazards resulting from the then brave new world of modern urban industrial life. It must be realized, even about such pits of despair as Liverpool's cellar dwellings, that this problem was ultimately rooted in the concentration of houses packed together in rapidly growing large cities without any changes from practices that fit much better small villages or sparsely populated rural areas. As Rule noted, the houses of the cities and towns were built of better materials, such as brick or stone, but, "It was not so much their individual deficiencies, but the collective environmental horror which they presented which shocked contemporaries." In previous centuries, the death rates of medieval cities and towns in Europe were so high they gradually devoured their inhabitants, which made their population's natural rate of increase actually negative. If people then build still larger agglomerations of buildings, but fail to change the sewage and garbage disposal systems, only public health disaster can possibly result. Although rural areas' inhabitants enjoyed better health than city dwellers, that outcome did not come from the former having superior sanitation practices. Rather, because the population density was lower, the old, traditional methods took a notably lower toll in the countryside than within England's industrial cities. Even the contrast between villages and outlying scattered houses was jarring, as Jeffries saw:
The cottages in the open fields are comparatively pleasant to visit, the sweet fresh air carries away effluvia. Those that are so curiously crowded together in the village are sinks of foul smell, and may be of worse--places where, if fever comes, it takes hold and quits not.
As Engels observed, relatively little damage might come from making a dung heap in the country, since it is more exposed to the open air. But when a similar pile builds up in a city's alley or dead end, the very same practice is much more dangerous to human health.109 So although the countryside was healthier than the early industrial cities, the difference came from the concentration of large amounts of housing with barely changed medieval sanitation measures in the latter, such as open sewers along the sides of the streets, not superior practices that systematically ensured cleanliness in the former.
Unlike the towns by the 1870s and later, many villages in England had little or no sanitary arrangements. As Joseph Arch put it: "I must not name villages [with bad sanitary arrangements]; any one who travels must observe the bad sanitary condition of the rural districts." Although in an area of England where the laborers were relatively well-paid and fed, Caird found miserable arrangements for sanitation in the village of Wark, Northumberland:
Wretched houses piled here and there without order--filth of every kind scattered about or heaped up against the walls--horses, cows, and pigs lodged under the same roof with their owners, and entering by the same door--in many cases a pig-sty beneath the only window of the dwelling.110
Unlike Olmsted's aforementioned experience (p. 68), the laborers' cottages might not be even picturesque, let alone provide sanitary conditions for their occupants.
The housekeeping of Hodge's wife may have been perfectly fine, but the area around her cottage could still stink badly. (Unlike for the slaves, a strong sexual division of labor generally prevailed among the farmworkers, except during harvest and in the north, as explained below--pp. 200-210). Jeffries explains why, by contrasting the stench emanating from the laborers' cottages to the scent of the surrounding fields:
The odour which arises from the cottages is peculiarly offensive. It is not that they are dirty inside . . . it is from outside that all the noisome exhalations taint the breeze. . . . The cleanest woman indoors thinks nothing disgusting out of doors, and hardly goes a step from her threshold to cast away indescribable filth.111
This mentality may explain why Caird found the inhabitants of Wark tolerating the conditions that he saw. The cleanliness of the farmworkers' cottages usually beat that of the slaves' shanties, because the laborers' wives, being at home most of the day, could sink much more their labor into housekeeping or other, associated tasks, such going to market. Unlike the slave woman out in the fields all day, Mrs. Hodge rarely could blame a time shortage for making the inside of her house dirty.
Slaves--Furniture and Personal Effects
What housing a subordinate class' members have obviously differs from what items they can put in it. Although good housing and owning numerous personal possessions normally positively correlate with one another, this is not guaranteed. Although comparing the household items of American slaves and English farmworkers is inevitably difficult because broad-based statistical data are mostly unavailable, it is still worthwhile to examine generally what the poorest classes of their respective societies owned as household items. Unlike food, household items form part of their owners' enduring surroundings. (Clothing has been separately considered above). Their sentimental value can disproportionately outweigh their cash value, especially when parents or other ancestors had passed them down to the current owners. They also can contribute mightily to personal comfort, such as how a chair allows someone to avoid having to sit or stand on a (sometimes wet) dirt floor.
The slaves normally could only count on having in their shacks some kind of bed. These often were made with stuffings or coverings of moss, hay, and/or corn shucks on top of a wooden frame. As a child, Frederick Douglass did not even have this. He used a stolen bag that had contained corn to help keep himself warm. Turning to a more normal case, freedwoman Millie Evans of North Carolina recalled that her family's smaller beds in daytime could be easily slid underneath the largest bed. "Our beds was stuffed with hay and straw and shucks, and, believe me, child, they sure slept good." Ex-slave Marion Johnson, once a slave in Louisiana, also thought well of the basic bedding he enjoyed: "Mammy's beds was ticks stuffed with dried grass and put on bunks built on the wall, but they did sleep so good. I can 'most smell that clean dry grass now." Solomon Northrup, less nostalgically and less comfortably, described the "bed" that his master gave him:
The softest couches in the world are not to be found in the log mansion of the slave. The one whereon I reclined year after year, was a plank twelve inches wide and ten feet long. My pillow was a stick of wood. The bedding was a coarse blanket, and not a rag or shred beside. Moss might be used, were it not that it directly breeds a swarm of fleas.
In Georgia on the rice-island plantation, Kemble saw slave women freely hazarding these risks from moss by placing it upon "a rough board bedstead." Meanwhile, some servant boys slept on the hearth by the kitchen fire. Such rough accommodations--near Washington, D.C., escaped slave Francis Henderson similarly had "enjoyed" a "board bed" like Northrup's--could become comfortable, "being used to it." So even though Evans and Johnson recalled better bedding conditions than Henderson or Northrup, nostalgia and acclimation combined presumably caused them to overstate how well off they were. Olmsted's encounter with vermin in the bed of a fairly typical white family's home indicates what many slaves undoubtedly suffered when sleeping on anything softer than boards.112
Besides beds, slave cabins normally were sparsely furnished or equipped. Kemble saw no chairs or tables in the cabins of the servants--presumably the materially better-off slaves--who waited on her at her husband's rice-island estate, where conditions were better than the average of other nearby plantations. The slaves also often owned various ceramic objects, such as pots, cups, bowls, and plates. Their distribution on plantations reflected the slaves' and overseers' positions in Southern society as subordinate to the planters. Domestic servants predictably possessed better crockery than field hands. In his area of Louisiana, Northrup said slaves were "furnished with neither knife, nor fork, nor dish, nor kettle, nor any other thing in the shape of crockery, or furniture of any nature or description." Only by working on Sunday, their day off, could slaves earn the money to buy the utensils needed for food storage and civilized cooking. Note one reason why Rose Williams of Texas found her master's quarters pleasing: They were furnished with tables, benches, and bunks for sleeping. A mixed picture emerges, since some masters provided more than others, and the slaves themselves found ways to get or even make furnishings, including chairs, and utensils, depending on their individual initiative. For example, Mary Reynolds said the men sometimes made chairs at night. Similar to their split on slave housing, Genovese portrays the situation for furniture and utensils more optimistically (but here accurately) than Stampp's dire picture. Nevertheless, the better-off slaves acquired basic cooking utensils, furniture, and kitchen crockery often through their own efforts and resourcefulness, not necessarily because supposedly paternalistic masters generously handed out these items.113
English Agricultural Workers: Home Furnishings, Utensils, and Crockery
The farmworkers' cottages were unlikely to be better equiped with furniture, utensils, or crockery than the bondsmen's quarters. While testifying before the parliamentary committee investigating the operation of the New Poor Law, Mark Crabtree's description of what furnishings the laborers had resembled reports about what slaves owned. He found one cottage, occupied by a laborer who had worked twenty years for one farmer, to have one chair, a chest, three stools, a table of two boards and a piece placed on four hedge-stakes, and two straw beds without blankets for nine people. The beds were attached to the wall on one side, and supported on two posts on the other, similar to the beds of many slaves. The home of one unemployed man presented a similar but perhaps more desperate situation because his family had pawned possessions in order to buy food. It had two chairs, a similar table built on hedge-stakes, four beds of straw with one blanket for all of them, four coverlets, and two basins. Its kitchen utensils amounted to two broken knives, one fork, one tea-kettle, two saucepans, three plates, and two broken plates. Apparently, these pathetically few possessions were all fourteen people had. Somerville's semi-apocryphal "ploughman" living in Wilton, Wiltshire, complained about having a "wretched home . . . . without any comfort, almost without furniture."114 For him, this grinding poverty characterized even a fairly normal year! The furnishings and utensils of the agricultural laborers could not be plentiful when so many of them already lived so close to subsistence, which their ordeal in buying clothes when paid such low wages demonstrates.
In times of crisis, such as high prices due to crop failure, the laborers emptied their cottages in order to fill their stomachs. In Dorset, when the port of Poole lay nearly at a standstill in 1843, in the surrounding countryside many of the laborers' cottages were nearly or literally empty. Evidently, at least the pawnbrokers were doing brisk business. Visiting the pawnbroker was also necessary to fulfill a condition for going into the workhouse: A family or elderly couple had to sell off their furnishings, because otherwise they were too "rich" to get parish relief. Knowing firsthand the severe financial stress of laborers under such stress, Somerville commented:
It has always seemed to me a grievous error to deny out-door relief to families in temporary distress, whereby they are compelled to undergo the most cruel privations, or submit to break up their little homes, sell off their furniture, . . . and become thorough, confirmed, irredeemable paupers.
Similar dilemmas still face the clientele of today's welfare state bureaucracies. The English poor law was designed only to relieve the most desperate, including those who sold off nearly everything besides the clothes on their back in order to make themselves sufficiently "desperate."115 As a result, the homes of laborers may prove to be nearly empty of household items because of high food prices or long spells of unemployment. By contrast, since the slaves did not have to fend for themselves, they never suffered the calamity of selling off their furniture in the event of financial disaster, but they were denied the advantages of independence and freedom in increasing their self-respect.
Fuel--the Slaves' Supply Versus the Farmworkers'
The bondsmen had undeniably better fuel supplies than the farmworkers. In the United States, the problem was having too many trees, not too few. Trees had to be chopped down and the stumps removed before cultivation began. Here the slaves most clearly benefited from living in sparsely populated frontier areas, as opposed to a long-settled region where most of the trees were already cut down, such as in southeast England. Even on Kemble's husband's rice-island estate, where a priori one might think trees would be scarce, a preserve of trees and other vegetation was allowed to remain so that her husband's "people" could still easily get firewood. Perhaps best illustrating the attitude of the owners of forested land in the frontier South, one master told Olmsted while he paid (because it was the holidays) his slaves to turn wood into charcoal, "that he had five hundred acres covered with wood, which he would be very glad to have any one burn, or clear off in any way." Masters and mistresses normally just let their slaves collect their own firewood from uncleared land on or near their property, feeling no need to supply it to them. According to Olmsted, since the slaves uncommonly liked having fires, they took extra opportunities to create them. On one Virginia plantation, the hands made "a fire--a big, blazing fire at this season, for the supply of fuel is unlimited," which they used to cook their food also.116 Due to this natural resource's abundance, it cost little or nothing to use, allowing the slaveholders to grant the slaves this minor indulgence. Indeed, the slaveholders could even benefit as it helped clear the land for crops. At least in this one case, the New World's material abundance clearly benefited the slaves, since wood approached being a free good like air in America's eastern forests.117
By contrast, the agricultural workers of England often endured a truly desperate fuel situation, especially in arable areas in the southeast after enclosure. First of all, England had been chopping down its forests excessively for centuries; real shortages of wood had developed in many areas. One inn-keeper Olmsted encountered, of a village near Chester in 1850, thought America's "wood fires" were an unusual phenonemon. Indeed, growing wood shortages helped to push the English to replace charcoal with coking coal in iron making, which Abraham Darby in 1709 was the first to use successfully. A number of decades passed, however, before English ironmakers used coke extensively for smelting iron, as Deane notes.118 Because of wood shortages, many agricultural laborers burned other vegetation as fuel, such as furze, turf, or peat. Compared to coal or seasoned firewood, these were inferior fuels.119 The hedges which fenced off one farm from another often provided fuel, as Young knew. Farmer and former relieving officer Edward Butt recalled for the 1837 Poor Law Report that in his youth (c. 1790), laborers got fuel by paying a half guinea to get a thousand turf from a nearby commons in the Petworth, Sussex area. At that time, the farmers charged nothing to their laborers for transporting it to the latter's homes. Fuel cost much less then. In arable areas, the laborers were normally worse off, for reasons Cobbett saw: "No hedges, no ditches, no commons, no grassy lanes: a country divided into great farms; a few trees surround the great farm-house. All the rest is bare of trees; and the wretched laborer has not a stick of wood." One plowboy of about sixteen near Abington in southern England said he had hot food only once a week, when his master let him and other boys working for him boil potatoes. Otherwise, he only ate bread and lard--cold. No fire warmed him in winter as he slept in the loft of the farmer who employed him, excepting sometimes when he stayed with local cottagers.120 Hence, fuel shortages hurt the poor by chilling them in winter and by limiting how they prepared their food year around. It promoted the buying of more expensive ready-made food such as baker's bread. Furthermore, money spent on fuel was not money spent on food. In southern England, the high cost of fuel helped to lower the quality of the laborers' diets.121 Shortages of wood or other materials for fuel could extract the ultimate cost: In southern Northumberland, where the laborers had lots of fuel, their death rate rose less than that of others in the harsh year of 1864.122
Shortages of wood or other vegetation provoked major conflicts between laborers and local landowners, especially after enclosure eliminated wastelands or commons that the former had used to get fuel. Landowners often imposed restrictions on gathering fuel in order to protect their game's habitat. For example, in 1825, the Earl of Pembroke ordered the villagers of Barford to take no dead wood from his forest, Grovely Wood. He had "discovered" they had no legal right to do so. Yet, as a customary right, they had taken wood from this forest for centuries. In retaliation, Grace Reed and four other women she led resisted the Earl. After defiantly gathering sticks from the Woods, they returned home. They were sentenced to jail after refusing to pay the fines imposed. But the next day, the women were freed, and Pembroke quickly declared, following further investigation, that the people of Barford had the right to remove dead wood from the forest after all. Clearly, their act of civil disobedience saved them their customary right. Elsewhere, the poor were less lucky. In Wiltshire, those living in villages next to the Fonthill and Great Ridge Woods were not allowed to gather dead wood for the same reason--protection for game animals such as pheasants and rabbits. Because the rabbits multiplied after this area was made off-limits, the forest's hazelnut trees soon died off after being stripped of their bark. This forest soon stopped supplying nuts to those who came even from long distances to gather them. In this case, having no recourse for decades afterwards, the poor lost out on both fuel and food. Hudson saw (c. 1910) its dead wood lying around as if it were an undisturbed primeval forest. The cases in which the rich gave away or sold fuel to the poor non-profitably hardly compensated for the losses inflicted by enclosure, game protection, and general deforestation. Although in America the slaves continually struggled with their masters for material advantages, an overabundance of wood ensured conflicts over it were rare or non-existent. But in England, disputes over fuel supplies were endemic. There, a child breaking a bough from a tree for any reason could be sentenced to the House of Correction, as the Hammonds noted.123 Since slaveholders felt little need to protect the wild animals in areas only recently hewed from the wilderness, the slaves were usually free go hunting. In contrast, the agricultural workers constantly disobeyed their overlords' restrictions on hunting and its spillover effects on obtaining fuel supplies (see below, pp. 367-69).
Slave Medical Care
Whether done out of financial self-interest or paternalistic altruism, slaveholders often had (white) physicians treat the slaves. Masters and mistresses usually wanted no treatable diseases or injuries to reduce or eliminate their human property's financial value. (But, as Kemble knew, their rationality could not be assumed).124 Sometimes the master or overseer gave medicine or some treatment such as bleeding to his slaves. The blacks also had their own resources: many larger plantations boasted homegrown "conjurors" using herbs or spells to help cure fellow slaves of afflictions. Since slave midwives assisted other women at birth, they did not necessarily rely on doctors for deliveries. Unfortunately for the slaves and just about everyone else in Southern society excepting perhaps the physicians themselves, the crudeness and backwardness of antebellum medical science ensured it delivered at least as much harm as cure. For many sick bondsmen, the plantation's resident witch doctor's rituals and herbs arguably were more effective than the white physician's bag of tricks, which included leeches for bleedings. Despite its general ineffectiveness, even lethalness, large planters such as Barrow still could pile up the doctor's bills. In a day and age when doctors charged around $1 to $5 per house call, Barrow spent (assuming accurately kept figures) just $69.18 for 1838-39, but $288.25 for 1839-40 and routinely $300 or more annually afterwards.125 The slaveholders' investment in their bondsmen encouraged high expenditures on their medical care, even when paternalism did not.
Masters willingly had the same doctor treat both their families and their slaves on the same visit, which shows some surprising impartiality in providing medical help. Planter Bennet Barrow noted in his diary: "Dr King practising on two of my negros--& my family &c."126 This "race mixing" he took for granted despite his rigid insistence on enforcing the color line other times.127 So long as they were the absolute rulers of blacks, white slaveholders readily and necessarily accepted situations that would have appalled diehard post-reconstruction segregationists. Correspondingly, Barrow (as well as the doctor himself) lightly pass over a white physician treating blacks and whites during the same visit living on the same land.
The General Backwardness of Antebellum Medical Care
Although slaveholders paid doctors good money to treat their slaves, positive outcomes from treatment were hardly guaranteed. Between bad treatments (e.g., bleeding and questionable "medicines") and professional incompetence, it was frequently safer not to have a doctor in the house. Barrow condemned one doctor who visited his place during a small epidemic: "number of sick ones, asked Dr Hail to see Marcus and a more undecisive man I never saw. made great many attempts to bleed him, but failed & large veins at that, Died at 11 ok." Other planters evidently placed less faith in bleeding than Barrow, at least when the overseer did it. Plowden C. J. Weston, rice planter of South Carolina, prepared a standard contract that his overseers signed which included this statement: "Bleeding is Under All Circumstances Strictly Prohibited, Except by Order of the Doctor." Counting a completed bleeding as an accomplishment and a botched one a failure, as Barrow did, accepted the premises of a backward medical "science" still practicing treatments more suited to the Dark Ages than to the nineteenth century's spirit of progress. Despite the general crudeness of antebellum medical science, it still performed some recognizably modern treatments. One day planter Barrow noted in his diary: "Number of cases of Chicken Pox, Vaccinated all my negros, Old & Young Most of them with good taking scars, but have now the appearance genuine." Regardless of what treatments the doctor gave, still patients died sometimes. Overseer George W. Bratton wrote to his employer, planter (and later U.S. President) James Polk, about the fate of one of his slaves: "Losa died the sixteenth of this month [November 1838] I had good atten[tion] paid to her I call in and other phisian to Loosa she died with the brest complaint."128 Good intentions sometimes still brought bad results!
Masters Sought Ways to Reduce Medical Expenses
Undoubtedly, many masters and mistresses cut corners by calling in physicians only when their slaves were really sick or injured. After describing the Old Miss as stingy with the food rations, freedman Tines Kendricks of Georgia said she acted similarly about getting a doctor to help Mose, a young slave boy:
Aunt Hannah, she try to doctor on him and git him well, and she tell Old Miss that she think Mose bad off and ought to have the doctor. Old Miss she wouldn't git the doctor. She say Moses ain't sick much, and, bless my soul, Aunt Hannah she right. In a few days from then Mose is dead.
Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered getting cheap medicine and a doctor's visit being a last resort:
We didn't have much looking after when we git sick. We had to take the worst stuff in the world for medicine, just so it was cheap. That old blue mass and bitter apple would keep us out all night. Sometimes he have the doctor when he thinks we going to die, 'cause he say he ain't got anyone to lose, then that calomel what that doctor would give us would pretty night kill us. Then they keeps all kinds of lead bullets and asafetida balls round our necks.129
Apologists for slavery might have claimed that the slaves automatically got medical care from their owners, unlike the North's "wage slaves" from their employers. But since slavery also gave the masters practically unlimited freedom in determining how to control their bondsmen, no guarantees existed for the provision of medical care regardless of any possible laws stating otherwise. The slaveholders cannot be given total freedom to make the slaves' will their will, yet easily stop those neglecting to give what supposedly gave the slaves material security (here, medical care) that replaced the uncertainties of freedom. The slaves really had neither security nor freedom because the master had practically nearly 100 percent freedom to order them about and to treat them as he wished, excepting the extreme cases where white neighbors mobilized against his excessive cruelty by their (likely low) standards.
Masters and Overseers as Amateur Healers for Slaves
On his or her own a slaveholder might provide medicines or even an infirmary. By administering medicines himself or herself, a slaveowner could avoid calling in a doctor to begin with, thus possibly save a dollar or two. Certainly they had financial motives for seeking medical information, since it could save the lives of their human property while simultaneously keeping the doctors away. Freedwoman Mary Reynolds of Louisiana remembered the (rather dubious) medicines her owner gave out: "Massa give sick niggers ipecac and asafetida and oil and turpentine and black fever pills." As Stampp observes, often overseers or the masters themselves diagnosed and treated sick slaves, using doctors only as a last resort. Granted this, Fogel and Engerman sensibly infer: "Planters sought to be, and overseers were expected to be, knowledgeable about current medical procedures and about drugs and their administration." Planter Weston had his overseers pledge to refrain from using strong medicines, "such as calomel, or tartar emetic: simple remedies such as flax-seed tea, mint water, No. 6, magnesia, &c., are sufficient for most cases, and do less harm. Strong medicines should be left to the Doctor." Because overseers' low educational levels usually corresponded with a minimal knowledge of medical science, this master avoided entrusting too much of his slaves' lives and health to their medical judgment. But Kendricks' mistress dispensed medicine where he lived: "Old Miss, she generally looked after the niggers when they sick and give them the medicine. And, too, she would get the doctor iffen she think they real bad off 'cause like I said, Old Miss, she mighty stingy, and she never want to lose no nigger by them dying." This mistress knew being penny-wise may be pound-foolish. But she still hesitated to admit a slave may be really sick because they frequently shammed sickness to avoid toiling by the sweat of their faces: "Howsomever, it was hard sometime to get her to believe you sick when you tell her that you was, and she would think you just playing off from work. I have seen niggers what would be mighty near dead before Old Miss would believe them sick at all." Kemble's husband's rice-island estate had a six-room infirmary. Despite looking good on paper, in reality it was filled with weakened bodies scattered amidst an appalling spectacle of filth and rubbish, darkness and cold. This place was, supposedly, where its "patients" went to recover from sickness! Some bondswomen attempted to receive a little warmth from a feeble fire in its enormous chimney, while "these last poor wretches lay prostrate on the floor, without bed, mattress, or pillow, buried in tattered and filthy blankets, which, huddled round them as they lay strewed about, left hardly space to move upon the floor." The "hospital" on her husband's sea island cotton estate was still worse.130 Hence, between the crude medicines and primitive buildings used for medical treatment, the provision of health care by masters and mistresses for their slaves did less good than what might be claimed.
Black Medical Self-Help: Conjurors and Midwives
By having their own resources in the form of conjurers (i.e., shamans or witch doctors) and midwives, the slaves did not entirely depend on their owners for medical help. The black community did not just passively wait for what "ole massa" might hand out, but also looked to help themselves in health care and other needs. Like the slave preacher, the plantation conjurer served as an independent source of authority (religious, not just medical) to the slaves. Unlike drivers and domestic servants holding more prestigious positions (at least to the whites), the conjurer's activities did not fully fall under the white chain of command. Sometimes white medical science even adopted the "cures" slaves used on themselves in its own practice. According to Kemble, one physician told his white patient to bind the leaves of the poplar tree around his rheumatic knee, "saying he had learned that remedy from the negroes in Virginia, and found it a most effectual one." "Auntie Rachael," living in a cabin near Raleigh, North Carolina, gave a long list of treatments for diseases based on black folk wisdom. She had learned them from her mother, who had been a "docterin' woman." Her "cures" included giving mare's milk for whooping cough, smearing the marrow of a hog jowl on the skin lesions caused by the mumps, putting on a mud plaster and wearing little bag around the neck with a hickory nut to cure shingles, various buds and herbs for making tea to cure bad colds, and tying a charm around a child's neck to ward off disease: "A bag o' asafetida is good [as a charm]; er, de toe-nails of a chicken is mos' pow'ful!"131 Although these "cures" seem positively naive and superstitious nowadays, they may have often followed better the principle of medicine that states "First, do no harm" than the white doctor's bag of tricks.
Slave midwives were valuable to their owners, not just to their sisters in bondage. Kemble noted that the "midwife of the [rice-island] estate--[was] rather an important personage both to master and slave, [for] as to her unassisted skill and science the ushering of all the young negroes into their existence of bondage is intrusted." Births attended by midwives enabled masters to reduce both medical expenses and the number of doctor's visits. The slave women benefited from having someone of their own race and sex serving them during such an intimate passage of life. Slave midwives helped rebut any contentions that black women could not assist or serve competently in some crucial position in the slave community's life. Zack Bloxham of Florida recalled his mother was a field hand, adding an evident exaggeration: "She was a midwife, too, an' treated right special on 'count of it. Dey didn' need no doctor wid Mammy dar!" Despite her very ordinary main position on the plantation, Bloxham's mother role as midwife greatly raised how much respect others, both black and white evidently, gave her. "Aunt" Florida of Georgia said her grandmother, the "sworn midwife" of the plantation, attended on both blacks and whites in her locality of "Hurricane an' Briefiel'." By helping women of both races, she again shows that whites under slavery often accepted "race mixing," but only under a social system that theoretically ensured the whites' almost complete control over most blacks. Illustrating the importance midwives potentially had, overseer John Garner blamed the death of a newborn baby slave on Matilda telling him only at the last minute she was going to have a child, which kept him from getting a midwife soon enough: "I cold not get the old woman there in time, her lying up at the same time." Of course, the "help" some midwives gave to women in labor could clearly be harmful. One "ignorant old negress" that Kemble encountered would, in cases of greatly long and difficult labor, "tie a cloth tight round the throats of the agonized women, and by drawing it till she almost suffocated them she produced violent and spasmodic struggles, which she assured me she thought materially assisted the progress of the labor."132 Despite this caveat, slave midwives were usually vital members of the plantation community who received respect from black and white alike.
Medical Care for English Agricultural Workers
English farmworkers had one major advantage over the slaves in medical care, but also one major disadvantage. On the one hand, they were potentially free to go or not go to any doctor, and to accept or reject any treatment offered. However, financial limitations made a mockery of this freedom, since their poverty normally forced to rely on parish-provided medical help. On the other, the employing farmers often cared little about the fates of their (often overly plentiful) employees, since their self-interest was less directly tied to the health of their laborers than for planters owning slaves. People tend to care more for what they OWN than for what they do NOT own, although the self-interest of slaveowners only unreliably restrained their conduct, as Kemble observed (see p. 82). Quite literally, the agricultural workers were more on their own, for good or for ill. Paternalism, whether that of slaveowners or landed gentry, necessarily involves the subordinate class giving up some degree of freedom in exchange for greater security. The slaves clearly were further along the continuum that traded freedom for security than the farmworkers. Consequently, the slaves probably had more guaranteed medical care but definitely less freedom than the farmworkers. The slaves received (white) medical care whether they wanted it or not, while the agricultural workers got the freedom to fend for themselves, unless the parish paid for a doctor to attend on them when sick. If the parish did, excepting for private acts of charity, no individual farmer or landowner provided it.
In Petworth Union, Sussex, standard practice was to pay for the medical care of paupers under both the New and Old Poor Laws.133 The union hired two doctors to attend the poor, both in the workhouse and without, at, respectively, ninety and one hundred pounds a year each.134 Although the New Poor Law of 1834 prohibited outdoor relief to the able-bodied non-elderly, and used the workhouse as a "test" of destitution (i.e., desperation) to discourage applications for relief, it still allowed medical aid to paupers not in the poorhouse. Initially, this union argued with William Hawley, an Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, over whether the husband as head of the family and as a pauper was the only one legally entitled to medical relief, or whether his wife and children also were covered. The tradition of the union (including before Petworth parish became part of a union in 1835) had been to relieve medically the poor even when they failed to legally meet the definition of being a pauper. The clerk to the local board of guardians even asserted that although this was his union's standard practice, he believed it was not for other unions. The doctor, Mr. Hall, aided anyone poor who asked him for help, although strictly legally by contract he only had to help when requisitioned by the relieving officer or workhouse master.135 In times of medical emergency, however, Hawley said the doctor should attend to a poor patient immediately, deeming as unnecessary the drawing up of a formal order for relief if the relieving officer was not nearby. A letter by Edwin Chadwick, the Secretary of the Poor Law Commission in London, dated August 22, 1836, declared that relieving the whole family was to be standard practice in England.136 The Petworth union's board of guardians evidently operated by a more compassionate ethos than the New Poor Law required or even permitted. First, at least one of their doctors by tradition aided any poor person asking for help, not just those strictly meeting the legal definition of "pauper." Second, even before receiving Chadwick's letter, they had opted for the broader legal interpretation of helping the whole family, not just the father. Petworth Union's fairly liberal administration guaranteed the laborers a reasonable amount of medical care, but more restrictive unions elsewhere would have covered only those legally declared to be paupers, which normally meant only the able-bodied in the workhouse, and the non-able-bodied (including the elderly) without.
Extrapolating from Petworth to all of England is an obviously hazardous act. More restrictive policies operated elsewhere. Thomas Sockett, the rector for Petworth parish, described a case involving a man named Holden, living in Tillington, Midhurst parish. After asking for relief, he found that the union withheld medical aid. Free medical aid was first denied because only male heads of households were to receive it, not wives or children. Later, he heard that renting a house worth eight pounds a year cost him all free medical help. Although he did pay that much rent nominally, this denial ignored that half of the house was sublet to another man for three pounds eighteen shillings per year. He ultimately got no relief, except perhaps two weeks later. Showing that English medical practice's backwardness rivaled the antebellum South's, the laborer tried to help his wife like the physician had done before. After getting some leeches, he applied them as the doctor had, who "had blistered her head and put on leeches."137 When medical help was this primitive and errant, the conflict between intentions and results is obvious. Assuming medical treatment was routinely this bad, the skinflint board of guardians governing Midhurst, by denying free medical "aid," helped the poor more than the relatively compassionate Petworth board!
Establishing medical clubs were another way to help laborers and others who were poor pay for medical care. Similar to the clothing club described above (p. 54), and friendly societies in general, they guaranteed benefits when the member was sick in return for paying some small amount weekly or monthly. As Thompson notes: "Small tradesmen, artisans, labourers--all sought to insure themselves against sickness, unemployment, or funeral expenses through memberships of 'box clubs' or friendly societies." According to Huggett, a typical laborer as a member might pay one shilling a month in return for potential benefits of one shilling a day for six weeks and six pence a day for another six weeks when sick and unable to work. Why were these clubs so scarce among laborers compared to the artisans, at least before c. 1815? Since class consciousness or political activism developed more slowly among the laborers than the skilled tradesmen (see below pp. ), the former naturally lagged behind the latter in organizational activities. Clearly, compared to the skilled, the unskilled were less likely to be politically concerned and more likely to possess fatalistic attitudes towards accepting conditions as they were, as Mayhew experienced in London. But consider a more immediate, practical issue: If a laborer and his family are just barely above subsistence, spending an extra shilling or two a month may be an impossible burden to bear. As Rector Sockett commented: "I think it quite a mockery to propose a medical club to a man that has not shoes to his feet." Furthermore, the local parish authorities might set their face against a club because it would make the laborers too independent. Arch remembered his local parish's parson refused to preach a sermon to help a club raise funds, although it still was organized anyway. Since rural areas contained fewer people to control and a likely even more concentrated elite possessing the great powers the central government had delegated it and a possible near monopsony over the local labor market, the rural elite has relatively more power to exert against any attempts at organization by the laborers compared to their urban counterparts. Additional problems could come from within: Members, usually having only grade school educations at best, could commit fraud or mismanagement. The former ultimately destroyed the benefit society that shepherd Caleb Bawcombe had been a member of (c. 1885) for three decades. He sued its secretary for refusing to pay him because of narrow, legalistic reasons for the six weeks he had been laid up. Helped by others, he won, but the judge ordered the club to be dissolved and its money to be distributed to its members since its secretary was exposed as a cheater.138 Although friendly societies were hardly a panacea because of the laborers' tight finances, they still represented a level of freedom in open collective action that American slaves could only dream about.
The laborer's right to reject a medical treatment seems unimportant, but it demonstrates the difference between a free man and a bondsman. At times it mattered, despite its theoretical nature. Arch had a running battle against the local authorities who wished to vaccinate his children over his objections. Four times He went to court, represented by just himself. Four times he won and stopped them, something which no slave could boast of. Admittedly, his reasons for opposition were dubious. He disliked the mass vaccinations at school, saying he was not going to have his "children treated as if they were cattle." He told the bench that his children were healthy. He said no hereditary diseases can be traced back for many generations in his family. He feared that their blood could be tainted by the "filthy matter . . . too often used for vaccination purposes." His reasoning was specious: The eighteenth-century's crude inoculations were still a mighty contributor to the overall death rate's decline, even before the introduction of Jenner's improved process of smallpox vaccination (1796).139 Nevertheless, this situation shows the farmworkers and slaves occupied sharply different legal categories, despite being as mistreated as a class by enclosure and the multitude of petty tyrannies committed by the local gentry, large farmers, and parsons. Slaves simply could not testify in courts of law against whites at all. But if the laborers were well-informed legally (which, admittedly, they usually were not), they could wrest favorable decisions from even hostile magistrates, as Arch did. The laborers did not always have to accept what the local authorities provided for them, in medical matters or other areas of life, although the costs of insubordination could be high, while the slaves had less choice concerning what they received from their masters and mistresses, against whom disobedience usually brought much harsher, swifter punishments.
Workhouse infirmaries imposed a regime of regimentation, but likely presented decidedly more orderly and clean conditions than most infirmaries in the South that were intended for slaves. Showing its high level of control over the inmates, Petworth Union's workhouse for the elderly at Kirdford, Sussex denied them the freedom to walk anywhere without permission except for the garden/backyard area outside it.140 Jeffries described one place where an elderly agricultural worker stayed that lacked the freedom and sentimental value of his own cottage, but which provided better food and care: "In the infirmary the real benefit of the workhouse reached him. The food, the little luxuries, the attention were far superior to anything he could possibly have had at home. But still it was not home."141 Certainly the cleanliness of this particular workhouse beat hands down the disorderly squalor and filth that Kemble encountered in an infirmary on a plantation whose general treatment of the slaves was better than the neighboring masters' average standards. Although workhouse inmates were not treated much as individuals, their conditions surely beat the dirt floor of some "infirmary" as a place to regain health compared to staying at home.
Whose Medical Care Was Better?
Since the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth-century's health care was undeniably crude and primitive, the medical care slaves or agricultural workers received from their superiors remains for us today more a test of intentions than results. The fewer slaves or farmworkers that doctors bled, blistered, or gave useless patent medicines to, the better off they were. The stingy board of guardians or master who refused to pay for doctors may have helped their charges more than the seemingly compassionate authorities who paid the fees of physicians producing more pain and death than cure and life. Based on the sources above, parishes and unions providing doctors for the paupers in their midst may have been given more regular care than a majority of slaves received, if for no other reason than England's higher population densities helped doctors serve more people in a given day by reducing the amount of travel between patients. But those English workers not declared official paupers at the time they fell ill likely received less help since they would either have to pay for medical expenses out of pocket or lean on the doctor's sense of altruism. Those fortunate enough to live in a parish or union that provided medical help to basically all laborers, not just the legal paupers, were probably better off than a majority of slaves. As for the bondsmen, the masters and mistresses owning them may have had more immediate self-interest in helping them when sick, just as a farmer who owns a cow calls a veterinarian when it has a disease. But self-interest only unreliably "guaranteed" slaves received medical help, since self-interest could also dictate its denial or cutting corners on its provision, such as slaveowners or overseers trying to administer medicines or treatments on their own and avoiding the calling in of doctors until the last minute. Slaves in areas where doctors were reasonably accessible may have on average received more professional medical attention than those English farmworkers on their own because they were not declared paupers legally.
Reflecting their different cultures and legal statuses, the slaves and farmworkers had different ways to get their own medical aid. The slave conjurors, being warlocks or witches as well as healers, became someone in their own community with a source of authority independent of the white establishment's. Besides the problems caused by the "magical" side of their healing arts, the conjurors' treatments probably helped no less and hurt no more their brothers and sisters in bondage than the white physicians did. The slave midwives did more good on average for their community by helping fellow slave women through the travail of birth, but they lacked the same level of power if they were not conjurors also. As shown by their limited freedom to organize medical benefit clubs, the English agricultural workers were able to engage in collective action to help meet their medical needs. But their tight family budgets were roadblocks against the sparing of a shilling or two a month, which discouraged many from joining or organizing these groups. Those engaged in collective action also took on the risk that one or more persons involved may let the whole group down by failing to do their jobs effectively, such as by committing fraud or causing bankruptcy. How these subordinate groups independently got medical care varied because of the agricultural workers' greater freedom legally allowed them to organize collectively, while the slave community, drawing on their African cultural heritage, turned to the conjurer's treatments and his perceived magical powers.
The Overall Standard of Living: Were the Slaves or Farmworkers Better Off?
Without reliable, broad-based quantitative statistics, it is difficult to decisively prove which group of two was better off materially or the same group in different generations. Conditions that vary regionally merely add further complications, such as the differences between the Border States and Deep South for the slaves, or northern and southern England for the farmworkers. Diversity within the subordinate group cannot be dismissed, which could be caused by individual ability, the character of the specific master(s) a slave or farmworker has, and family relationships. Finally, the material standard of living only partially covers the quality of life. When making broad group generalizations, such as comparing all Southern slaves to all English agricultural workers to determine whose standard of living was higher, dogmatism should be avoided and these caveats remembered. But although this realm allows one literary source to be pitted against another, some generalizations are still possible.
For the southern English agricultural workers (who composed a solid majority of their group) and typical rural slaves, there was likely little to choose between the quality and quantity of clothing or housing. Perhaps the slaves of the Deep South of smaller planters and farmers had worse clothes, but its hotter climate ensured they had less need for them than the English did, which partially justified their owners' complacency. Apparently most in both groups probably owned only one or two changes of clothes, excluding the nicer clothes some slave servants had, or the "Sunday best" saved for church. Both often lived in one-room houses with dirt floors and non-glazed windows, having perhaps a loft for the children to sleep in. The slaves might have been better off since wood was plentiful in the New World, making construction and repairs cost less than in most of England. The English had to use other materials which nonskilled people had more trouble building with than the logs thrown together for many a frontier cabin. As for medical care, the average slave may have had better access to a physician's care than the average English farm laborer who was not legally a pauper, assuming the South's lower population densities did not sharply reduce the number of house calls made per day, and that smaller planters and farmers paid for medical help as much as large planters. Turning to diet, the slaves had much more meat and probably more food overall, but the southern English agricultural workers ate white wheat bread that was clearly less coarse than the crude corn bread many slaves ate. Ironically, the free southern rural laborers of England approached bare subsistence closer than the African-American bondsmen, thanks to enclosure, rapid population growth in a long-settled realm, and the belt-tightening of the New Poor Law (1834). Northern English agricultural workers, who composed perhaps one-third or one-fourth of all English farmworkers, were usually significantly better off than the slaves.142 Their higher wages (and superior access to allotments or other land) kept meat solidly in their diets, allowing them to pay for more clothing and better cottages. Similarly but less dramatically, the Border States' slaves enjoyed better treatment and conditions than the Deep South's. Hazarding a broad-brushed judgment, it appears the farmworker's material standard of living was no higher than slaves on average, who often were marginally better off than the southern agricultural workers considered alone, at least in diet.
Trickle-Down Economics with a Vengeance: How the Slaves Benefited
How could a slave labor force arguably have a marginally higher standard of living than (much of) a free one? Several unusual factors produced this result. First, even American slaves benefited some from living in a part of the world where population density was low and natural resources were abundant, especially wood and land. True, the white slaveholders expropriated most of the benefits that the slaves would have had if they had been free. This is "trickle-down economics" with a vengeance! In the South, wood for homes, heating, and cooking was nearly a free good. Masters knew slaves put to work growing corn and raising hogs in addition to the cash crop could cover most of their living expenses, leaving largely to themselves the surplus generated by the cash crop. The prudent, risk-averse planter or slaveowner made his or her slaves pursue subsistence as a collective by raising corn and hogs. Benefiting from cheap land, this strategy made many slaveowners rich, since the cash crop's receipts greatly exceeded the direct cash expenses, at least in good years. By contrast, since land was relatively scarce and expensive in England, the landlords and gentry passionately clung to it; even most farmers had little or none, let alone the farmworkers. As the industrial revolution began, England's growing population ensured competition for land ownership would intensify. Southern England's general deforestation guaranteed fuel for cooking and heating would be expensive. Hiking fuel's costs still more, its scarcity often required it to be transported considerable distances. Furthermore, the landlords and farmers used access to land as a social control/labor discipline device. They often hesitated to lease even tiny parcels of land as allotments to the agricultural workers. By making their labor force totally dependent on wages and forcing it into the labor market to survive, they wanted to keep them from pursuing a subsistence strategy in order to control its actions better. By contrast, under their masters' direction and control, the slaves normally had to pursue subsistence, but their lack of freedom ensured they wouldn't become too independent of their owners. By owning the slaves and their produce, and keeping firm control of the distribution of food (under the gang system), the slaveholders grasped the throats of the slaves firmly even as they raised most of the food they ate. But in England, since neither the labor force nor the product of its labor was owned by the rural elite, controlling the laborers was intrinsically more difficult. The landlords and their tenants alienated the labor force from the means of production (the land through enclosures), creating a more easily controlled, wage-dependent rural proletariat since farmworkers were denied the ability to eke out a living from the local commons all or part of the year. The American slaveowner almost whimsically granted his slaves small patches of land to grow vegetables thanks to the abundance of land on the frontier, but those trying to persuade English landlords and farmers to provide allotments to farmworkers often resembled dentists trying to pull teeth from balky patients. In short, since southern England had a higher population density and lower resource base than the American South, this difference helped to ensure farmworkers likely had a lower standard of living than the slaves, particularly for food and fuel.
Theoretically, since the slaveholders owned all slaves and anything their labor produced, but the rural English elite owned neither the farmworkers nor their labor, it seems the latter should automatically be better off materially. The counter-intuitive result arises because the farmworkers had all the burdens of freedom without all of its advantages, while the bondsmen's material security in having (theoretically) guaranteed food, shelter, and clothing had some basis in fact. The landlord/farmer class in England devised a system under which the rural laborers still had to fend for themselves (excepting the parish dole and private charity), especially as service declined, but tilted the laws against their labor force. The process and outcome of enclosure demonstrated the reality of class-based legal bias above all. When dividing up the land into awards, the enclosure comissioners routinely ignored the customary rights of non-landowners to the parish commons to raise animals or obtain fuel. If they actually legally owned nothing, they received nothing. Even the recipients of a patch of land often soon sold it because their share of the expenses of building fences and the commissioners' legal costs exceeded what cash they had.143 The game laws also were biased against the laborers, which not only outlawed them from hunting for food, but even often restricted the farmers from destroying the pests that damaged their crops, an issue returned to below (pp. 303-4, 367-69). By contrast, in America, even slaves were usually free to hunt. The poor and settlement laws combined to impede migration, helping tilt many local rural labor markets still further in the farmers and landlords' favor by discouraging competition for Hodge's labor by industry. Other ways that the law favored the upper class's material interests is dealt with in the final section dealing with methods of elite control (pp. 303-7). Clearly, the English landlord/farmer class had not set up a class-neutral system of laissez-faire. Instead, taking advantage of the laborers at almost every turn possible, they systematically tilted the law to limit the laborers' freedom to sell their labor to the highest bidder. The rural elite imposed a laissez-faire regime on the laborers only to the extent it favored their class interests, but inflicted anti-free market controls on the rural lower class, such as the settlement laws, when excessive fidelity to the principles of classical economics contradicted their own collective self-interest. For now, fuller details of how the English rural elites controlled the farmworkers have to wait until the last section. Consequently, although Hodge was no slave, his superiors definitely oppressed and exploited him, which explains how his standard of living often arguably fell beneath that of the real slaves of the American South.
3. THE QUALITY OF LIFE: SLAVES VERSUS AGRICULTURAL WORKERS
The Quality of Life and the (Material) Standard of Living Compared
The people I saw around me [in Steventon, Berkshire] were, many of them, among the poorest poor. But when I visited them in their little thatched cottages, I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the conditions of the most favored slaves in America. They labored hard; but they were not ordered out to toil while the stars were in the sky, and driven and slashed by an overseer . . . Their homes were very humble; but they were protected by law. No insolent patrols could come, in the dead of night, and flog them at their pleasure. The father, when he closed his cottage door, felt safe with his family around him. No master or overseer could come and take from him his wife, or his daughter. . . . The parents knew where their children were going, and could communicate with them by letters. The relations of husband and wife, parent and child, were too sacred for the richest noble in the land to violate with impunity. Much was being done to enlighten these poor people. Schools were established among them, and benevolent societies were active in efforts to ameliorate their condition. There was no law forbidding them to learn to read and write; and if they helped each other in spelling out the Bible, they were in no danger of thirty-nine lashes, as was the case with myself and poor, pious, old uncle Fred. I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants [laborers, since they were employees, and land] was a thousand fold better off than the most pampered American slave.144
Above Harriet Brent Jacobs, fugitive slave, working for her employer as a nanny while in England, expertly, eloquently, and concisely states what some quantitative historians seemingly overlook sometimes: The quality of life and the standard of living are not coextensive. The laborers undeniably had a better quality of life than most slaves. "Quality of life" captures all the aspects of life that contribute to happiness and an informed worldview. Although food, clothing, housing, medical care and other material aspects of life are captured under the heading "the quality of life," they are but a part of it. The quality of relationships with other people, such as family, friends, bosses, and agents of the state, weighs heavily in contributing towards personal happiness, as do education and religious experience. The most highly esteemed and influential slaves from the white viewpoint, such as the head driver on a large plantation, lacked the basic legal rights and protections that even the most oppressed and half-starved Wiltshire laborer possessed. Consider Kemble's description of headman Frank on her husband's rice-island estate. He had the authority to whip a fellow slave three dozen times, could give permission for slaves to leave the island, had the key to the stores, determined who would work where, and handed out the rations. He had many positive personal qualities. But he could only helplessly endure, knowing full well the ultimate futility of violence, while the white overseer took his wife as a mistress for a time and had a son by her. "Trustworthy, upright, intelligent, he may be flogged to-morrow if [the overseer] or [Kemble's husband] so please it, and sold the next day, like a cart-horse, at the will of the latter."145 Since so much contributes to personal happiness besides the material basics, the standard of living cannot properly serve as a true proxy for a society's overall social well-being. In this section, the quality of life, including such aspects as education, family relationships, the position and treatment of the elderly and children, and religious activities (as developing part of an informed worldview and broader outlook on life under such highly circumscribed conditions), of English farmworkers and African-American slaves is compared, demonstrating how the former were unquestionably better off.146 Although the quality of life is more ephemeral and less susceptible to quantification than the material standard of living, it still is of first importance. Unlike what some economic historians seem to think, man does not live by bread alone.
Literacy and Education for African-American Slaves
The amount of formal education that most American slaves received is summarizable in one word: none. As freedwoman Rose Williams recalled: "Massa Hawkins . . . has no books for larning. There am no education for the niggers." Masters and mistresses could easily justify this policy from their viewpoint. They feared that if their slave work force could read, 'rite, and do 'rithmatic, then it would become restless, discontent with their condition, and possibly revolt. To prevent this from happening, the law in most slave states threatened heavy penalties against anyone daring to teach slaves how to read. Today, since the leading forms of mass communication (TV, radio, and motion pictures) demand little or nothing in the way of literacy from their audiences, and since most people in the developed world are literate, which encourages them to take this for granted, the contemporary world easily forgets how total was the ignorance that darkened the minds of those unable to read in the pre-electronic media age. Besides public meetings, the printed word was nearly the only means to reach a mass of people at once in the nineteenth century. By keeping the slaves illiterate, masters and mistresses forced their bondsmen to depend mainly on rumor and hearsay passed from one person to the next as what he or she "knew." Illiteracy helped keep slaves in line by making escapes to the North even more hazardous. Even Douglass, a literate slave, did not know that Canada existed. If a bondsman neither can read a map nor already knows the geographic area he or she is planning to flee through, escape attempts become dangerous, even foolhardy. He or she could easily get lost and go in the wrong direction, especially when pausing to ask for directions from anyone with a white face was risky. Beyond the practical advantages of literacy, there is also the intrinsic excellence developed in the human mind by training it in reason, logic, and knowledge, which (certainly in the nineteenth century) came from analytical reading. Since the faculty of reason is the highest human faculty, it is a crime against the victims' humanity to have the deliberate policy of not just intentionally neglecting it, nay, but prohibiting its development and full use. As Aristotle explains in the Nicomachean Ethics:
That which is proper to each thing is by nature best and more pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.
The slaveowning class, by pursuing an intentional policy of stunting the minds of their slaves, weakened in them the faculty that makes man different from the animals, thus undermining what made them human instead of a mere "beast of burden."147 Despite the English upper class harbored fears like their American counterparts', English conditions ultimately sharply differed from America's, because as the nineteenth century progressed, the government increased its efforts to educate the farmworkers.
Bondsmen repeatedly said either that they did not know how to read as slaves, learning only after they became free, or that they were the rare literate exceptions. Reuben Saunders, born and raised in Georgia, a slave set free by his master after living in Mississippi, commented: "I was never caught there with a book in my hand, or a pen. I never saw but one slave in Georgia, who could read and write, and he was brought in from another State." Questioning one slave preacher's credentials, his master's oldest son asked: "'Bird, you can't preach, you can't read. How on earth can you get a text out of the Bible when you can't even read? How'n hell can a man preach that don't know nothing?'" To defend his ministry, the slave replied that "Lord had called him to preach and He'd put the things in his mouth that he ought to say." After the young master heard Bird preach "the hairraisingest sermon you ever heard," he gave him a horse to preach anywhere nearby. Nevertheless, illiteracy was certainly no aid to this slave's ministry. A more unusual case of a slave who grew up illiterate was Williamson Pease of Tennessee. His master and mistress tried to teach him at home, but, "I would get out of the way when they tried to teach me, being small and not knowing the good of learning." Far more commonly, many a slave who wanted the ability to read was kept from gaining it. W.E.B. Dubois once estimated that maybe 5% of the slaves were literate by 1860, with a disproportionately higher percentage of them living in the towns and cities than in the countryside, where controlling the slaves was easier, and in some parts of the Upper South than in the Deep South, where laws against teaching slaves to read were nonexistent or more weakly enforced.148
Why Slaveholders Wanted Illiterate Slaves
Simply put, slaveholders wanted their bondsmen iliterate in order to control them better. A simple, tactical objection to literate slaves was that if they could read and write, they could forge passes for leaving the plantation, as Douglass once did in a failed escape attempt. But the broader, more strategic problem was that literacy would create discontent among the slaves as the veil of ignorance rose off their eyes. They would realize and feel more acutely the lost opportunities and great burdens of their servile condition. Since knowledge is power, a literate slave's greatly increased access to information also would help him or her plan escapes or revolts more effectively. Douglass explained that his mistress in Baltimore had been teaching him how to read. But suddenly, his master (Hugh Auld) terminated the lessons, warning her:
If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now . . . if you teach that nigger [Douglass] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontent and unhappy.
Ironically, through a form of reverse psychology, his master's broadside against his wife strongly motivated Douglass to learn how to read, since he realized it would open his mind. Illiteracy denied knowledge to the slaves, helping create "the white man's power to enslave the black man." Kemble found her husband's overseer had similar views:
No; he had no special complaint to bring against the lettered members of his subject community, but he spoke by anticipation. Every step they take toward intelligence and enlightenment lessens the probability of their acquiescing in their condition. Their condition is not to be changed--ergo, they had better not learn to read.
Aptly illustrating the slaveholding class's sensitivities about educating slaves into uncontrollability, a missionary once received a petition that over 350 large planters and leading citizens in South Carolina had signed. They opposed his wishes to instruct slaves only orally in religious truths:
Verbal instruction will increase the desire of the black population to learn. . . . Open the missionary sluice, and the current will swell in its gradual onward advance. We thus expect a progressive system of improvement will be introduced, or will follow from the nature and force of circumstances, which, if not checked (though it may be shrouded in sophistry and disguise), will ultimately revolutionize our civil institutions.149
Fearing a slippery slope to emancipation or rebellion began with slaves receiving any kind of (non-artisanal) education, they opposed all formal instruction. For its own purposes, the white ruling class' logic was impeccable: We must deny slaves education which increases their discontent, makes them harder to control, and leads them to revolt.150
Despite all the roadblocks against bondsmen learning to read, some still found paths to literacy. Undoubtedly, slaves learned to read from members of the class most opposed to literate bondsmen: slaveholders. The slave-owning class was neither totally united nor consistent in practice in keeping slaves illiterate. Hence, a few favorites were taught how to read, such as house servants (e.g., Douglass). In South Carolina, the grand jurors of Sumter County, greatly concerned that some masters taught their slaves how to read, warned of "consequences of the most serious and alarming nature" if this practice did not end. As a girl, Harriet Brent Jacobs learned how to read from her mistress: "While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory." Wanting all her slaves to be able to read, Mary Lee, the wife of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, cast the gift of literacy widely on her Virginia plantation. She delegated the actual teaching job to two of her children. In one rather unusual case which Olmsted records, a small Mississippi planter with twenty slaves, did not teach any of his slaves to read, but let one teach all the rest. He was thoroughly convinced that "Niggers is mighty apt at larnin', a heap more 'n white folks is," citing the case of an apparent seventeen-year-old who learned to read as well as any man he knew in a mere three months. Freedman Arnold Gragston, born and raised a slave in Kentucky, said his master, who owned ten slaves, had one special slave whose job was to teach the rest on his plantation, and others nearby, how to read, write and figure. James Sumler of Virginia got the younger white children (of his master evidently) to teach him how to read while hiding in a hayloft on Sundays.151 Although such masters were not common, they still illustrate that the Southern ruling class was not as monolithic in keeping the slaves illiterate as its public declarations may indicate, since it sometimes felt that at least a few "pet" slaves were worthy of the gift of literacy.
More problematic for the white power structure (since it was uncontrolled and often not detected), some slaves taught other slaves to read. Benedict Duncan of Maryland learned from a Sunday school teacher, as did Christopher Hamilton of Missouri, but the former first learned his letters from his father. Harriet Brent Jacobs taught one old man how to read, who badly wanted to be able to read the Bible in order to serve God better. Under the cover of a Sunday school held in the home of a free black man, Frederick Douglass was teaching up to forty students how to read. Several of his students became fully literate. Jenny Proctor, freedwoman of Alabama, told what she and her fellow bondsmen did to learn to read:
None of us was 'lowed to see a book or try to learn. They say we git smarter than they was if we learn anything, but we slips around and gits hold of that Webster's old blue-back speller and we hides it till 'way in the night and then we lights a little pine torch, and studies that spelling book. We learn it too.
Furthermore, some states, such as Tennessee and Kentucky, had no laws against teaching slaves how to read. Henry Morehead, while still a slave in Louisville, Kentucky, paid his own expenses for attending a night school to learn how to read and spell. But even in this more moderate Border State, his owners objected. They brought in policemen to close the school.152 Self-help measures allowed some slaves to learn how to read in defiance of the laws against it, by helping one another become literate, or finding someone else who would teach them.
Despite the slaves' own efforts at self-help and the cracks in the united facade the white ruling class presented against educating slaves to read and write, masters and mistresses usually sucessfully darkened the American slave's mind. Franklin is much too optimistic when he claims:
It is remarkable how generally the laws against the teaching of Negroes were disregarded. Planters became excited over the distribution of abolition literature in the South, but they gave little attention [?!] to preventing the training of slaves to read, which would have rendered abolition literature ineffective to a large extent.
Potentially draconian penalties threatened those teaching slaves how to read. Even death was not reckoned too harsh a penalty by the time Kemble published her journal. Earlier, heavy fines for the first two offenses, and imprisonment for the third, were Georgian law in the 1830s. Jacobs warned the old man she taught that "slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read." The formal law's punishments were one thing to fear; the dangers of the lynch mob's summary "law" quite another. Freedwoman Ellen Cragin's father asked an old white man who taught him, "Ain't you 'fraid they'll kill you if they see you?" He replied, "No, they don't know what I'm doing, and don't you tell 'em. If you do, they will kill me." When their whips could do the same job more quickly, masters need not wait on the legal system to deal with recalcitrant slaves reaching out to enlighten their minds. Ellen Betts, freedwoman of Louisiana, remembered how her master punished his slaves when they strived for literacy: "If Marse cotch a paper in you hand he sure whup you. He don't 'low no bright niggers round, he sell 'em quick. He always say, 'Book larning don't raise no good sugar cane.'" Kemble found the prior overseer of her husband's estates firmly discouraged slaves from learning to read. Despite having a literate father, Israel explained why he was not:
You know what de white man dat goberns de estate him seem to like and favor, dat de people find out bery soon and do it; now Massa K---- [the prior overseer], him neber favor our reading, him not like it; likely as not he lick you if he find you reading; or, if you wish to teach your children, him always say, 'Pooh! teach'em to read--teach'em to work.' According to dat, we neber paid much attention to it.
Master Edwin Epps asked Northrup, already literate before he was kidnapped and sold south, whether he could read:
On being informed that I had received some instruction in those branches of education, he assured me, with emphasis, if he ever caught me with a book, or with pen and ink, he would give me a hundred lashes. . . . [He said] he bought 'niggers' to work and not to educate.
As a field hand, he found nearly impossible to get even a single sheet of paper and ink to write with, let alone have a letter mailed off plantation.153 So even when a slave was lucky enough to be able to read, his master could, totally arbitrarily, effectively strip him of this ability by preventing its exercise.
English Farmworkers, Literacy, and Education
Although the literacy levels of the agricultural workers of England were hardly stellar, they still greatly exceeded those of Southern rural slaves. Admittedly, a very minimal definition of "literacy" is used here: the ability to read and write one's signature. Major improvement occurred as the eighteenth century ended and the nineteenth progressed. For England (and Wales) as a whole, lumping together both urban and rural averages, literacy has been estimated to be about 25 percent even in 1600, rising to roughly 55 percent in 1750, reaching around 65 percent in 1800, and then remaining on a slightly inclined plateau until about 1850. During the 1850-1900 period, England made rapid progress, as it moved towards a universal compulsory public school system, so literacy reached the 95 percent level around 1900. Since urban areas had a higher level of literacy than rural areas, these statistics have to be adjusted downwards to estimate the latter's rate alone. Even in 1867-68, the middle aged and elderly in Cambridgeshire only rarely could read. In 1911, Hudson encountered a 76-year-old woman in Wiltshire who said when she was young poverty prevented her from getting any schooling. Newlyweds often could not sign the register in church. An investigator for the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture found in Leicester that only one-fourth could read and write well, one-fourth could only read, one-fourth did both some, and one-fourth or more were illiterate. R.S. Schofield found that illiteracy for the 1754-1844 period ranged between 59 and 66 percent for male laborers and servants, but a higher rate inevitably prevailed among females. His figures are based upon whether they could sign their examination papers produced by investigations of their settlement status when applying for (or potentially so) relief in a particular parish. Overall illiteracy ranged from 30 percent (Dorset) to 60 percent (Bedfordshire) in 1838-39 in the counties where the Swing riots of 1830-31 occurred, with the female average consistently higher than the male average.154 Since farmworkers were the lowest group on the occupational scale in the countryside, where average literacy levels were low, their high illiteracy figures come as no surprise. Rural artisans and farmers both had higher literacy rates than agricultural laborers.
The statistically-based figures cited above of average literacy are based upon the bare minimal ability of reading and writing one's signature. Reading a newspaper, magazine, or book with comprehension is quite another matter. As Hobsbawm and Rude note: "The ability to scrawl one's own name [on the marriage register at church] is no effective test of literacy." A low effective literacy rate cuts off farm laborers from knowing the activities of others elsewhere, largely limiting their mental horizons to only what they personally witnessed, which Somerville noted while in Berkshire. The laborers opposed any division of the commons, even when dividing it into petty farms would benefit them, since they knew no better way by anything they had seen or experienced personally: "In the first place, all husbandry by plough or spade, which they are accustomed to see, or have ever seen, (read of, they cannot, few of them can read,) is so different in its results from what it might be, that they very naturally believe their own eyes rather than the mere assertion of a stranger." A "few" sounds far less than 34 to 41 percent. One way to explain the difference is that functional illiterates often can scrape by reading and writing a bare little. Semi-literacy remained a major roadblock against them learning of better ways to do things from anything written. This problem was surmountable if farmers or others more apt to be capable readers showed them how to use some new technique or way to earn a living, as Cobbett's promotion of straw-plaiting as a domestic industry shows.155 The literacy rates cited above should not be taken to mean the ability to read (say) a newspaper editorial with 50% comprehension, and then be able to mentally critique it effectively.
A Brief Sketch of the Development of English Public Education
The development of English public education was a slow, gradual process which is only briefly summarized here. There had been many schools, church- or chapel-related, but the government did not run directly any overall system. The typical quality of these schools was questionable. Arch said his mother was nearly as important in educating him as the parson's village school that he attended for a bit less than three years (ages six to eight). That school gave him all the formal education that he received in 1830s Warwickshire. His mother read to him from the Bible and Shakespeare. As he got older, she gave him writing and arithmetic exercises to do after he finished work for the day. Shepherd Isaac Bawcombe learned how to read from a laboring lodger staying with his family who had fallen evidently from a higher position in society. Similar to Arch, Bawcombe benefited from home schooling, but unlike him, he received no formal schooling: "The village school was kept by an old woman, and though she taught the children very little it had to be paid for, and she [Bawcbombe's mother] could not afford it." Schools were quite common in Leicestershire and Lincolnshire (c. 1867-68) because of the clergy's influence and even the interest of the agricultural workers themselves in educating their children. A grant of £20,000 in 1833 for building schools was the first time the central government of Britain appropriated money for schools. But only with the Reform Bill of 1867 and the Education Act of 1870 did England, as part of Britain, clearly move towards a system of universal and compulsory public education. The latter act allowed local school boards to be set up which could force students to attend up to age thirteen. School boards only needed to be created where local church-affiliated schools were inadequate.156 These laws affected the whole of Britain, not just English rural laborers. But what special challenges did public (government) schools and their students in the English countryside face?
The public schools for laborers and others living in rural England often bore the burdens of indifferent support from parents and their employers, limited facilities, and an early drop-out/school-leaving age. The investigators for the 1867-68 Report examined local conditions of education carefully, particularly noting what ages children tended to stop going to school and enter the work force full time. Two of the four questions they sought answers to concerned restricting child labor by age limits and about school attendance. They found a fundamental conflict within the family economy about the role of children: Since farmworkers lived so close to subsistence, their children's need to acquire an education clashed with their parents' need for them to pull their own weight financially as soon as possible. The parents' earnings, especially for those working irregularly because of rain or their own habits, were not high enough to allow for the sacrifice of a child's earnings for the longer run benefits stemming from education. Although this did gradually change, rural laborers also often had apathetic attitudes about sending their children to school. Stemming from their superior economic conditions, parents who were laborers in Northumberland and Durham cared more for educating their children. Unlike Hodge in the south, in the north he was much farther above the level of subsistence, so he (and Mrs. Hodge) could more easily afford the opportunity costs of sending children to school and foregoing their immediate earnings. In Yorkshire, because the parents had higher wages, they were more likely to leave their children in school longer. Even in these high-wage counties, the financial help from children working remained important, especially when they were part of a large family with many young children.157
At What Age Did Child Labor Begin and Schooling End?
The ages at which the farmworkers' children left school in the mid-nineteenth century to go to work seem ridiculously low by contemporary standards, but these must be seen against the backdrop of the typical laboring family's constant struggle to survive financially. Because the farmworkers' finances were so tight and because enclosure and the consolidation of small farms into large ones had cost them so much of their ability to better their conditions, even the commissioners of the 1867-68 Report conceded that it was unfair to deny farmworker parents the ability to receive wages from their children as early as possible so long as any resulting injury to the latter from going to work was preventable. Different conditions prevailed in different parts of England, since in some places seven to ten year olds went to work, while in others they waited until age thirteen. In northern Northumberland, children rarely worked before age fourteen, except during summers when eleven and twelve year olds were hired. In southern Northumberland, none under ten worked, except the children of small farmers, whose nine year olds went to work on their own farms. In Leicestershire, where lower wages prevailed, the age of children leaving school actually was falling because the increased cultivation of root crops was raising the demand for child labor to harvest or weed them. Children started work normally around eight years old, and even some six year olds joined them. The average age for quitting school had fallen from twelve or thirteen to ten. In low-wage Cambridge, some six year olds went out to work, and many more aged seven and eight did likewise. Boys left school at age nine, "never to return." But in higher-wage Yorkshire, nine was the youngest normal age for children to leave school, but so many left near that age that 74 percent attending school were under ten years old. In Northamptonshire, boys began to work at age eight, seven sometimes, and almost all were before reaching their tenth birthday. After age ten, if work was available, they often were employed all year around.158 In southern English counties, such as Leicester, Northampton, and Cambridge, children routinely went to work and left school earlier than those in northern English counties, such as Northumberland, Durham, and (most of) Lincoln, which varied as a function of their parents' wages: Those farther above subsistence as they earned more could leave their children in school longer, while those closer to absolute poverty sent them out to work as soon as it was practical.
"Going to work" and "leaving school" were not necessarily simultaneous events. Since agricultural work was seasonal, children could be employed in the summer months, then put back into school during fall and winter. In his or her first years of work, a child sent into the fields during one part of the year may be in the school house other times, during the winter and fall months before spring planting time arrived. Indeed, even into the 1890s, schools in Northampton made their schedules fit the seasonal demands of agriculture, not vice versa. Morgan discovered school log books with entries noting that attendance was lower than average when harvest was not yet finished or had just begun. Hence, one entry in a book kept for a school in Berkshire noted for July 22 and following days in 1878: "Attendance smaller than usual owing to the commencement of harvest operations." Like many others, it judiciously closed its doors for several weeks during the late summer's harvest period. Mistakenly opening on September 6, 1875, it immediately shuttered its doors again for another week: "School should have been reopened today but there were so few in attendance that it was closed for another week." In 1873 an entry simply noted for July 21, 22, 23: "Attendance on these days was limited on account of Harvest." Establishing night schools for laboring children was another way to fit school around the work. One investigator for the 1867-68 Report suggested possibly that all children from five to ten years old should be legally required to go to school, and night schools should be established for ten to thirteen year olds.159 Eight of Woburn Union's 16 parishes had evening schools, which had a total of 165 students out of a population of 11,682. In Bedfordshire overall, 29 of its 50 parishes had evening schools with an average attendance of 546, and 952 names on their registers.160 But just because these schools existed, meeting day or night, does not mean they necessarily supplied a reasonable education. Arch saw night schools
at their best [as] mostly makeshift affairs. The boys would often attend them in the slack winter months from November to March, or they would put in their day schooling then, but the irregularity and the poor teaching did not give the ordinary lad a fair chance of getting even a decent elementary education.161
Clearly, employers and laboring parents (as they struggled near subsistence in southern England) saw the work of the latter's children and the wages they earned during peak periods in the agricultural year as outweighing in importance their children's potential long-run intellectual development. As the government attempted to make nearly a whole generation of laborers' children truly literate for the first time, it had an uphill battle in persuading parents and employers that education was valuable when these children often ended up doing the same jobs as their parents, for whom literacy had mattered little, and when parents, usually having little education themselves, only knew its value dimly, if at all (unlike Douglass and many other literate slaves).
Ignorance Versus Skewed Knowledge: Different Models for Controlling
a Subordinate Class
The education of masses, including the laborers, presented the English upper class with a perplexing dilemma. The two competing models of social control vis-a-vis education were both tempting. On the one hand, they could work to deny the downtrodden literacy, keep them ignorant, narrow their mental horizons, and so make them more contented in the work of drudgery that inevitably the vast majority of human beings had to endure. As Arch described this approach:
'Much knowledge of the right sort is a dangerous thing for the poor,' might have been the motto put up over the door of the village school in my day. The less book-learning the labourer's lad got stuffed into him, the better for him and the safer for those above him, was what those in authority believed and acted up to. . . . These gentry did not want him to know; they did not want him to think; they only wanted him to work. To toil with the hand was what he was born into the world for, and they took precious good care to see that he did it from his youth upwards.
Members of the elite sometimes revealed that their objectives were exactly what Arch said they were. Giddy, not only an M.P. but president of the Royal Society, rose up to speak in 1807 against educating the poor extensively:
It would in effect be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture, and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching them subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as was evident in the manufacturing counties; it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books, and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors; and in a few years the result would be that the legislature would find it necessary to direct the strong arm of power towards them.
During the reactionary 1790s in England, local landowners even attacked the conservative Hannah More's schools in the 1790s, which strongly preached patriotism to the children and avoided teaching them how to write as they learned to read: "Of all the foolish inventions and new fangled devices to ruin this country, that of teaching the poor to read is the very worst." Obviously, American slaveholders made this choice, using the ignorance of their slaves as a control mechanism.162
On the other hand, the powers-that-be could bring the lamp of learning to the masses, but selectively control its light by placing in the curriculum concepts or ideas conducive to continuing their control and leaving in darkness those which did not. After encountering a well-dressed little girl in Hampshire, Cobbett found Lady Baring had not only given her the clothes, but had taught her to read and sing hymns. He commented, after spotting at least twelve more girls dressed similarly: "Society is in a queer state when the rich think, that they must educate the poor in order to insure their own safety: for this, at bottom, is the great motive now at work in pushing on the education scheme." Even Arch briefly alludes to this approach: "Of course he [the farmworker] might learn his catechism; that, and things similar to it, was right, proper, and suitable knowledge for such as he; he would be the more likely to stay contentedly in his place to the end of his working days."163 Conspicuously, at least some American slaveholders objected to similar education, even when done only verbally, in the petition Olmsted quoted from. (See above, p. 99). The English upper class may have neglected educating the working class compared to the rest of western Europe, but, unlike Southern slaveholders, it did not strive to halt the dissemination of literacy among the masses to the extent the latter sought it.164 Exceptions do arise, such as the case where local farmers pushed their laborers to take their children out of a school that had been built on someone's allotment, since they feared it would teach the value of allotments. Education was much more strongly discouraged by the practical needs of employers for labor at seasonal peaks and parents to have children work to help their families survive financially. By giving laboring parents a powerful incentive to pull their children out of school and put them into the fields as soon as possible, the rural elite's efforts to screw down wage rates through enclosure, the New Poor Law, and the settlement laws may have done more indirectly to discourage effective literary among the laborers than any direct attempts at suppression. England simply did not have the laws against teaching reading or writing to the lower class that, in the American South, generally existed against teaching slaves. This showed the English upper class was neither united nor adamant in its objections to the laboring poor becoming literate. Presumably, the Protestant emphasis on individuals reading the Bible helped to keep anti-literacy laws from being passed, but this belief did not hinder the equally Protestant slaveholders in America from passing and enforcing such laws in most of the South. As the nineteenth century drew on, the English elite increasingly opted for the second option of social control vis-a-vis education, of bending the curriculum to teach the masses to be patriotic, industrious, obey the state and queen, etc. As the mechanization of English agriculture gradually proceeded throughout the nineteenth century, the newly invented farm machinery required increasingly literate laborers to learn its proper operation and repair, giving the upper class a good practical reason to promote literacy.165 So although American slaveholders used ignorance as a major way to subdue the slaves, the English upper class increasingly opted to provide (skewed) knowledge to control refractory laborers and artisans.
Slaves--The Treatment of Elderly "Aunts" and "Uncles"
The treatment of the elderly serves as a useful indicator for testing the realism of a culture's rhetoric about caring for the weak. Although the tradition of many cultures teaches the young to respect the old for their wisdom and knowledge, these lessons are undermined by the practical problems of the old becoming economic burdens as their health declines and fails. Filial piety towards the elderly by the young, although upheld by references to the Fifth Commandment, was not always forthcoming. Furthermore, at least in England and other nations with a Anglo-Saxon-Celtic culture, the elderly in the past, not just the present, normally did not live in the same household as their children.166 They survived independently, whether by charity, odd jobs, relatives' support, poor relief, accumulated savings, or avoiding retirement until death or declining health. Hence, the aged's quality of life usefully serves as one yardstick for judging an upper class's claims of paternalism about those in the subordinate class unable to do productive work anymore.
The Southern slaveholders unhestitatedly spouted paternalistic rhetoric concerning how they cared for their workers when they were old, sick, and worn-out, but the capitalists of the north (by and large) did not.167 The reality is much more mixed. Often the older slaves received enough to physically survive, but little more. Kemble found miserable conditions for retired elderly slaves on her husbands' estates, even though his plantations were reputed to treat their bondsmen above average. Two very elderly black women, having retired as actively working slaves for their master, lived in "deplorably miserable hovels, which appeared to me to be occupied by the most decrepid and infirm samples of humanity it was ever my melancholy lot to behold." On her husband's sea-island estate, she witnessed a truly pathetic old man in an infirmary die before her very eyes: "Upon this earthen floor, with nothing but its hard, damp surface beneath him [besides a little straw], no covering but a tattered shirt and trowsers, and a few sticks under this head for a pillow, lay an old man upward of seventy dying." She compared slaves' conditions when old to that of aged laborers confined to the workhouse as paupers, and said the former were little better.168 This old man's case illustrates that the slaveholders' altruistic rhetoric of paternalism obscured the reality of a system whose harshness at least equaled laissez-faire's on the old.
Altruism and Self-Interest Did Not Necessarily Conveniently Coincide to
Protect Elderly Slaves' Lives
Unfortunately for slaveholders, in the case of caring for older slaves, self-interest was not, by and large, conveniently allied to altruism. The slaveholder apologist's old canard that a master would seek to protect his property from harm and treat it well out of self-interest generally collapses when applied to elderly slaves doing little or no productive work. The owner rationally then should hope for the speedy deaths of his useless dependents to save on food and clothing rations. As Kemble noted: "It is sometimes clearly not the interest of the owner to prolong the life of his slaves; as in the case of inferior or superannuated laborers." Hence, it is easy to document all sorts of perfectly economically rational yet calloused behavior towards elderly slaves. Harriet Jacobs knew an old slave woman, made nearly helpless by sickness and hard labor, whose owners lacked the paternalistic sentiment to take her with them when they moved to Alabama: "The old black woman was left to be sold to any body who would give twenty dollars for her." Attempting to sell an aged slave could backfire: Walker knew one case where a slave was whipped for overstaying Christmas vacation, and because he was too old to be successfully sold in the slave markets of New Orleans and Mobile! In a case that distressed Barrow, he was told to let go of an elderly escaped slave that his slaves had captured the day before: "Uncle Bat. told my boy to turn old Demps Loose & let him go. been runaway some months, a verry Bad Example. he shall not stay in this neighbourhood."169 The master of Old Demps evidently felt it cost less to let him fend for himself as a runaway than to care for him on the plantation. Since elderly slaves were net drains on their owners' account books, the latter had a self-interest in hoping none of the former lived long enough to retire on their plantations.
Did Slavery Provide More Security Against Starvation Than Laissez-Faire?
A standard condemnation of the North's general system of laissez-faire lay in its intrinsic lack of security for wage workers, including providing for retirement. As soon as an employer judged a worker as not contributing to his bottom line, such as due to diseases, crippling accidents, senility, or a depression cutting sales, he (unless of paternalistic minority) would lay off or fire one determined to be worthless to his economic self-interest. Enduring uncertainty was inevitable for members of the North's proletariat, excepting those who could fall back on the family farm. Slavery, its apologists trumpeted, was morally superior because it provided economic security for slaves in sickness or old age under a system of altruistic paternalism that was attributable to its reciprocal obligations between master and bondsman.170 However, this defense of the peculiar institution always had a fundamental weakness: Since the slaveholder received so much arbitrary authority over his slaves legally, having still more de facto because of the weakness of the criminal and civil justice system in the sparsely-populated, lynch mob-prone South, promises of security were often hollow, and nearly unenforcible against any master or mistress breaking them. Frederick Douglass described his grandmother's fate when his master died, and the plantation's slaves fell into the hands of heirs who did not know them:
My grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children . . . her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die!
Quoting from a Southern newspaper, Olmsted noted a similar case of a nearly seventy-year-old slave, driven into the woods to die. The coroner's formal pronouncement on the case was, "Death from starvation and exposure, through neglect of his master."171 Although the elderly slaves who suffered the fate of neglect or abandonment were only an unfortunate minority of those few fortunate enough even to live to a ripe old age, still these cases illustrate how unenforcible the paternalistic promises of care were, because the master had nearly unlimited power legally to demand almost anything from his slaves short of their lives. Since the Southern slaveholder's absolute and arbitrary will replaced the Northern capitalist's more constrained power over his work force's personal lives, slaves found a "paid retirement" to be deniable upon the whim of their owners, thus negating the promises of slavery as guaranteeing security.
Odd Jobs for Elderly Slaves
Often older slaves continued to work at least some, for better or for worse. Some still worked in the fields. Charity was one of the oldest slaves on Kemble's husband's sea-island cotton estate. She not only had to do field work, but had to walk a roundtrip of nearly four miles to and from her work area, a distance familiar to many English agricultural laborers. Composing the opposite extreme were "old and sick" slaves who persuaded their masters to let them retire; some of them suddenly became amazingly productive after Emancipation! Masters and mistresses often put their bondsmen to work at various light duties when they became too weak for regular field work. For example, old men in one frontier area sometimes did guard duty around the quarters to protect young slave children from wild animals, as Armstrong heard.172 A stereotypical job for old bondswomen was to provide day care for the children of the field hands and other parents not at home during the day.173 Charles Ball's grandfather, nearly eighty years old, was excused from the heavy field labor of raising tobacco, but received a half-acre patch near his cabin where he raised much of his own food.174 As aged slaves did these activities, they remained useful to their owners--and perhaps felt more useful to themselves as well--by continuing to do at least some work in the autumn years of their lives.
Depending on the master or mistress' whim, the treatment of the elderly slaves in America varied enormously. Although some, perhaps even a narrow majority of those lucky enough to live into old age may have enjoyed their final years with old friends and family--assuming they had not been sold off earlier!--in familiar surroundings, others were condemned to death or neglect in a manner worthy of the most cutthroat, profit-seeking factory owner. Furthermore, because of sales, slaveholders moving to other areas with their slaves, estate divisions due to inheritances, and slaves being given away as gifts, an elderly slave may end up living far from many or most of his or her descendants and relatives. After his father ran away, Charles Ball found that his grandfather was his only relative still left in Maryland that he knew of when he was still a boy. The converse of this--young Charles was the only relative his grandfather had nearby, owned by another master--was evidently equally true. Helping aged slaves tests the slaveholders' altruism to the limit, since little self-interest would remain in preserving the lives of slaves no longer capable of working enough to support themselves. But as Genovese observes, the younger slaves really supported their old kinfolk, not the masters themselves.175 Because relatively few slaves lived long enough to enjoy retirement, especially since infant mortality rates were high, slaveholders were less burdened than they would be under contemporary life expectancies. Proportionately fewer blacks reached old age than whites anyway (which is still holds true for contemporary American society). The 1850 census reported that the average ages at death were 21.4 for blacks and 25.5 for whites nationally, and for 1860, 3.5 percent of the slaves, but 4.4 percent of the whites, surpassed 60 years of age. The crude death rates were 1.8 percent for slaves versus 1.2 percent for whites.176 Since some were self-sacrificing and others were not, slaveholders compiled a distinctly mixed record, which extinguishes any still-lingering stereotypes about all aged slaves being well taken care of.
The Senior Hodge: Cared for, or Fends for Himself?
In England, the parish normally cared for the elderly when they were not still working. Like today, they generally did not move in with their married children to be supported by them under the same roof.177 Since England was a free society without slavery, relatively little incentive existed for a farmworker to fake ill health in order to retire early. After the New Poor Law (1834) tightened rules on the granting of outside relief, especially by imposing the workhouse test on the able-bodied, this incentive evaporated for the self-respecting. Many elderly people in England continued to work as long as possible. Tommy Ierat, a shepherd in Somerset, reached the age of seventy-eight before coming home one day to his wife, when he first announced his retirement thus: "I've done work." A shepherd named John worked for some sixty-five years, retiring at age eighty-five when his master did also. Caleb Bawcombe shepherded until he was almost seventy, when he joined his wife's venture in starting a small business some forty-five miles away.178 Admittedly, shepherds are not representative agricultural laborers since their jobs are less physically taxing than those cultivating the soil. Furthermore, since shepherds were hired by the year, they enjoyed far greater job security and stability than most other agricultural workers. But other elderly farmworkers still could do various light tasks, thus leaving heavier tasks for the young men and women. The anonymous "Hodge" of Jeffries' account, forced into the workhouse when he could work no longer, had continued to work well past age seventy at various light tasks:
He still could and would hoe--a bowed back is not impediment, but perhaps rather an advantage, at that occupation. He could use a prong in the haymaking; he could reap a little, and do good service tying up the cut corn. There were many little jobs on the farm that required experience, combined with the plodding patience of age, and these he could do better than a stronger man.179
Due to financial necessity and the lack of formal pensions for all but the most fortunate laborers, farmworkers generally worked as long as they could to avoid relying on parish relief and, especially after 1834, the high chance of commitment to the workhouse as a pauper.
Once they could no longer support themselves, the central earthly concern of most elderly farmworkers was about how the parish and/or their children would care for them. A very high percentage under the Old Poor Law (pre-1834) received parish relief in old age, according to Thomson: "It constituted . . . a formalized institution of income distribution to which the two-thirds to three-quarters of the population who were non-propertied could look with near-certain expectation of regular and prolonged assistance in old age."180 Since his destiny was almost unavoidable, he lost the incentive to save and be self-disciplined as he grew older because, regardless of self-exertion, his physical strength inevitably gave out. He would have to ask for parish relief, likely resulting in committal to the dreaded workhouse after 1834. As Arch put it:
Why, even if he had managed, by the most strenuous efforts, to keep himself afloat on life's stream, he was almost bound to see his little raft of independence slowly, surely drifting on to the mudbanks of pauperism at the close of his voyage. . . . What did he care then, if at the end of his rollicking road the poorhouse door would be yawning wide to receive him? He couldn't help that, he had given up trying. He drowned the thought in his glass, and chalked up his score with a laugh, and went down a bit faster.181
However, depending on how great a fear a given laborer had of commitment to the workhouse and/or his desire to maintain self-respect by avoiding dependence on others, this scenario might not play out in his life. He (or she) might strenuously work all his might to put off the day of reckoning as long as possible. Now under the Old Poor Law, the elderly received outside relief in the form of small pensions of roughly two shillings six pence a week, sometimes more. Such handouts allowed them to get by without having to move in with their children or into the workhouse. Because of this law, children over the generations grew accustomed to normally not supporting their aged parents directly, but letting the parish do it.
A fortunate few received private pensions from their employers or some other charity. For example, John, a Wiltshire shepherd who died about 1855, had worked for the same farm nearly sixty years. When his master decided to retire, he offered his aged shepherd twelve shillings a week and a rent-free cottage in the village he was moving to. Despite being a very generous offer for its day and age, John turned him down since he wanted to stay in his native village. But despite his refusal, his master still made for him a "sufficient provision." Shepherd Isaac Bawcombe benefited from a charity which "provided for six of the most deserving old men of the parish of Bishop" because a sportsman rewarded him for not allowing or committing any poaching on the land where he tended his sheep. Ironically, since he was just sixty years old and still in excellent health, he had no need to retire. The charity gave him a rent-free cottage, eight shillings per week, even some free clothes. James Foard, a guardian for Petworth union, Sussex, said Petworth parish had "a good deal" of charities, "principally for old people, who [receive] a room to live in, and a certain sum yearly." Administered totally independently of the poor laws, these charities helped those "unable to work . . . of good character."182 But since charity only helped a small minority of the aged, most laborers had to depend on the aid that the poor laws dispensed to survive when old.
The Effects of the New Poor Law on the Elderly, Non-Working Poor
With the arrival of the New Poor Law, conditions changed. Many of the old had their pensions cut--often down to one shilling six pence or one shilling nine pence a week--or were thrown into the workhouse. Some even starved to death, slowly or quickly, after their outdoor relief was reduced or denied when they refused to live in the workhouse. As Snell notes, the parish authorities also began to force the children of aged parents to contribute towards their upkeep. They punished the recalcitrant by throwing them into jail. Farm laborer Samuel Dawson, earning just twelve shillings a week, landed in Bedford gaol for two months in 1875 because he refused to pay one shilling a week to help support his parents. But as even Snell admits, not all the aged, non-working laborers were forced to go into the workhouse under the New Poor Law. Instead, the percentage committed varied depending on whether the authorities tightened the screws against outdoor relief (such as in the 1830s and 1870s) or loosened them (the 1850s). Some parishes practiced more creative ways for supporting the elderly. In one area, some old men were given two acres as allotments, which kept them off the parish. But being useless for the truly crippled, this program was hardly common also.183
Interestingly, the 1837 Committee investigating the New Poor Law's effects (in its first report) repeatedly found in its chosen area of study--Petworth Union, Sussex--that the elderly did receive outdoor relief: "The aged and infirm are relieved, whenever they prefer it, at their own homes, or at the houses of relations or friends with whom they live; and by the general testimony of the witnesses their condition has been improved by an increase of pay."184 Time and time again, witnesses called before the committee, even critics of the 1834 Law, admitted that the condition of the elderly was the same and/or had improved. Instead, they said laborers with large families suffered the most since they depended now only on wages, and had to make due without the old supplemental allowances paid for each child they had. As the rector of Petworth, Thomas Sockett, certainly a critic of aspects of the New Poor Law, remarked:
It has been very injurious to the deserving labouring man with a large family; but that with respect to the old people, it having been, I must say, mercifully administered in Petworth, it has not been injurious. I think the aged and infirm are as well off as they were before the New Poor Law came into operation.185
Similarly, a member of the board of guardians at Petworth and another hostile witness, James Foard stated that the New Poor Law was "very injurious to men with large families, very oppressive," but that other groups had remained unaffected by the law. "Very few" of the old lived in the union's workhouse, and no more than had before.186 When a relative could help them, they could voluntarily choose whether they went into or left the workhouse. Like what Jeffries saw, he said "they are more contented and happy" when living outside the workhouse. This option also cost the parish less!187 Other witnesses made comparable comments to the committee.188 Admittedly, Petworth parish/union was unusually compassionate in its administrative practices. It apparently was in some hot water for liberally interpreting a certain emergency provision of the New Poor Law that allowed outdoor relief for the able-bodied, which may have been why the committee even had interrogated its authorities to begin with. But this case still shows that the Poor Law Commission in London was not forcing the local authorities to put the elderly poor into the workhouses, at least immediately after the passage of the 1834 law. Consequently, Snell may have underestimated the amount of continuity for the care of the elderly poor before and after 1834 in areas outside of Norfolk and Suffolk.189
How the Local Authorities Profited from the Workhouse Test
The New Poor Law's main point was to deter applicants by banning outdoor relief to the able-bodied and creating the workhouse test for destitution. The local powers-that-be of rural England did not seek full workhouses, because it cost more to maintain someone in them than at his or her own home on a pension. Because only the most desperate and needy would ask for relief when it could only be had on very unpleasant terms, the workhouse test always had some justification when applied to the able-bodied. However, except perhaps as a device for detecting those faking ill-health or for encouraging the semi-able bodied to struggle on as long as possible independently, the test was unjustifiable when applied to the enfeebled elderly and others incapable of working steadily. Arch's own experience, when he cared for his own father, illustrates these issues well. Arch's wife, who had been making an important two shillings a week cleaning laundry, had to give that up to serve as a nurse to her father-in-law, which placed his family in a serious financial squeeze. The parish overseer thought Arch could get some help from the parish to care for his father. As it was, the board of guardians denied him even one shilling six pence per week, which only partially replaced his wife's earnings anyway. They said they were willing to take his father into the workhouse, and have him pay one shilling a week towards his upkeep. On the surface, their offer seems completely illogical economically because caring for Arch's father in the workhouse would probably cost three to four shillings a week. The parish quite possibly would be one shilling six pence to two shillings six pence a week worse off for committing his father to the workhouse than it would be for giving Arch a mere one shilling six pence a week relief pension to care for him, even when counting Arch's would-be one shilling a week contribution. But then, out of family pride and self-respect, Arch made the choice the workhouse test was created to encourage. He totally rejected the parish's offer to take his father in, replying, "I'd sooner rot under a hedge than he should go there!" By rejecting parish relief, he did exactly what the framers of the New Poor Law's workhouse test had counted on: Applicants would refuse to take relief when the cost of accepting it in dignity and freedom was too high. Hence, the parish ended up saving one shilling six pence per week, after having risked losing up to two shillings six pence per week had Arch placed his father in the workhouse. This case also illustrates how the New Poor Law intensified the ill-feeling between the classes in rural England. The guardians saved one shilling and six pence a week, but at the cost of making Arch resentful and angry. The ratepayers saved their quids but at the cost of sleeping less easily at night. Because of the New Poor Law, low wages, and enclosure, the rural elite knew the laborers hated them such that they could without warning torch their grain stacks, burn their barns, smash their threshing machines, and poach their game.190
Whose Elderly Were Better Off? The Farmworkers' or the Slaves'?
Before hazarding a summary judgment about whether old slaves or elderly farmworkers were better off in their twilight years, certain trade-offs and qualifications must be considered first. If the elderly farmworkers in question were workhouse inmates, who endured orderly but spartan conditions, prison-like restrictions on movement, and isolation from their children, grandchildren, and even spouses, many aged slaves were better off by comparison. The elderly slaves suffered similar restrictions on movement--the pass system--and their plantation's conditions were hardly luxurious. However, an elderly slave's chance of starving to death likely equaled a farmworker's. Laborers risked starvation after refusing to go into the workhouse and being denied a sufficient relief pension when they had no relatives nearby to help them (or other means of support), but then elderly slaves were really always in danger because of their owners' nearly absolute and arbitrary whim, since their support could suddenly vanish without warning. But IF most or all of the elderly slaves' descendants, relatives, and old friends had NOT been sold off or forced to move elsewhere when a master or mistress died or relocated far away, the quality of their human relationships when old would have been better than the agricultural laborers'. They would have died after by accompanied by familiar faces in their declining years, unlike the elderly farmworkers in workhouses, who were largely isolated from the surrounding society and who generally only associated with other workhouse inmates, assuming they were not further segregated by sex or other category. But even after the passage of the New Poor Law (1834), a significant number of elderly farmworkers still received outdoor relief because they were not deemed able-bodied. Additionally, in the period before 1834, back to 1750 and earlier, the elderly agricultural laborers normally were better off than the slaves, if they had received outdoor relief in the form of a small pension and stayed in the same cottage with the same sentimental sights and sounds they may have known for fifty years or more. The slave's level of security against starvation in old age likely differed little from that of most free workers in the United States, and fell beneath that of English farmworkers under the low-tech welfare state created by the Old Poor Law of Elizabeth (1601). The claim that the lot of slaves was preferable to the fate of agricultural workers in old age only largely rings true in the post-1834 period, and only to the extent that the elderly laborers ended up in workhouses, and the elderly slaves were not separated by sale or moving from most or all of their relatives.
A Slave's Childhood: Full of Fun or Full of Fear?
What quality of life did the children born into bondage have in their early years? How much work did the children of slaves do? Notoriously, the industrial revolution in England featured a heavy dependence on the labor of children (and women) in coal mines and textile mills, which because of the large numbers employed and the high intensity of work involved became appalling. Since the masters and mistresses in the American South industriously worked at exploiting the labor of adult slaves, how did they treat slave children? Was the slave childhood full of fun and play until the early teen years, as an apologist for slavery might claim? Certainly "Uncle" Jim, cited below (p. 121), nostalgically recalled his youth. Or was it full of fear--fear of separation by sale from a mother or brother, fear of the overseer's lash landing on a father or sister, fear of a lack of food or clothing? Douglass abruptly realized his inferior status for the first time when he saw the fearful whipping that one of his aunts endured, complete with awful screaming and pleading. He hid, being afraid he would be next.191 As noted above (pp. 96-102), the slaves' education was normally not just merely benignly neglected but ferociously attacked. The lives of slave children were filled, not by school, but by either play or work, since the first possibility was routinely overlooked when not totally forbidden.
Serious field labor or domestic service normally began around age twelve, which was later than what the children of many English agricultural laborers experienced. Kemble complained that "stout, hale, hearty girls and boys, of from age eight to twelve and older, are allowed to lounge about, filthy and idle" at her husband's rice island estate in Georgia. The only "work" they had was watching the infants and toddlers of the men and women in the fields. "Aunt" Sue, once owned by a Virginia master, said she really began work as a "missy-gal" (domestic servant) at age thirteen. Charles Lucas of Virginia told Drew he was "kept mostly at the quarters until age twelve or thirteen," where useful fieldwork was hardly possible. Olmsted found that the labor of younger slaves was so discounted by one planter/overseer in Virginia that they sometimes escaped his attention. He routinely failed to record them as inventory during Christmas time until age twelve or thirteen! On a large, long-established plantation not far from Savannah, Georgia, the paternalistic master did not commit slave children to regular fieldwork until age twelve, excepting some light duties such as bird scaring. In an extreme case, one master in Georgia "didn't put his boys into the field until they were 15 or 16 years old." Since this case arose in a lowland area dominated by the task system, however, the children still did work, but with their parents full time as a family unit growing crops on their own plots before reaching these ages. Illustrating the opposite extreme, although it was a fairly common age for many English farmworkers' sons to go to work, Henry Banks of Virginia told Drew he was put to work at age eight, at "ploughing, hoeing corn, and doing farm work generally." Booker T. Washington, born a slave in 1856, fared worse:
no period in my life devoted to play. From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labour . . . During the period that I spent in slavery I was not large enough to be of much service, still I was occupied most of the time in cleaning the yards, carrying water to the men in the fields, or going to the mill, to which I used to take the corn, once a week, to be ground.
Pro-slavery apologist J.H. Hammond once boasted that no slave worked before age ten, most did not work until age twelve, and they did only light work for a few years after that. Genovese found Hammond to be reasonably accurate, maintaining that on average most did not work until age twelve, with some falling a few years to either side of this age. Certainly, this generalization by Fogel lacks broad support: slave children began working as early as three or four years old, nearly half worked by age seven, and almost all worked by age twelve. Since age twelve really appears to be a turning point in the lives of many slave children, Genovese's judgment is solidly based. At this age, they became a producer under labor discipline instead of a dependent largely excused from it, so the system's brutality first fully struck them under the watchful gaze of the overseer or master while working in the fields or (perhaps) big house.192
Pastimes for Slave Children
What did slave boys and girls do until around the age of twelve? Generally most played with abandon. In reminiscences tinged with nostalgia, aged freedman "Uncle" Jim negatively compared the higher levels of supervision children had when he was an old man to when he was young:
Dey let us play lak we want to in de ole days. We had a big yawd, an'a plantation so big we didn' know whar it begin an' whar it ended at. We run all over de place, an' jus' so we didn' break no laig, er somepun, an' git hurt, we's all right. Nobody hollerin' atter us all time. Nowadays, de white folks won't let de chillun git out dey sight. An' de cullud folks won't, neither. All time makin' 'em keep clean, an' wear good clo'es, an' stay in de house, an' not talk loud. . . . Pres'dent Lin'cum done sot de cullud folks free, but de chillun ain't got no freedom no mo'!
Freedwoman Louise Dugas similarly recalled that she and other slave children played around the sugar refinery on her master's sugar plantation: "Us chillun eat dat sugar 'twill our stummicks so sweet dey hurt! Go off an' play while, 'twill de feelin' leave, den eat some mo'!" Frederick Douglass, clearly not someone inclined towards nostalgic recollections of slavery, remembered his boyhood (up to age seven or eight) favorably about how much time he had to play, if not for food and clothing. "I was not old enough to work in the field, and there being little else than field work to do, I had a great deal of leisure time." He only needed to do a few light tasks like driving up the cows in the evening, cleaning the front yard, etc. While visiting an old-time lowland plantation near Savannah, Olmsted witnessed a surely common scene on large plantations throughout the South. Some twenty-seven slave children, mostly babies and toddlers with some eight or ten year olds tending the youngest ones, played on the steps or in the yard before the veranda of the big house. "Some of these, with two or three bigger ones, were singing and dancing about a fire that the had made on the ground. They were not at all disturbed or interrupted in their amusement by the presence of their owner and myself."193 The consciousness of being a bondsman, as someone almost certainly doomed to a lifelong drudgery in the fields with small chances for advancement or intellectual enlightenment, simply was not fully grasped by young slaves. The traditional defense mechanisms of a subordinate class in wearing a mask before one's superiors, the guarding of every word spoken when "on stage" before the master or some other superior white, had only partially penetrated the consciousness of these young children playing before their owner in front of “the big house.” A child develops these mechanisms only over time as parents teaches them about them, an issue which is returned to below (pp. 329-330). The children abruptly had to become more calculating with their words after being thrust into a productive role through fieldwork, domestic service, etc., round about age twelve, in order to avoid whippings or other punishments.
Slave children could play with the white master's children with little consciousness of racial differences until about six years of age or older. Harriet Jacobs remembered a scene where a white child played with her slave half-sister: "When I saw them embracing each other, and heard their joyous laughter, I turned sadly away from the lovely sight." She did so, knowing what was likely in store for "her slave sister, the little playmate of her childhood" when grown-up, which was due to her beauty. Olmsted witnessed in Virginia on a train
[a] white girl, probably [the] daughter [of the white woman seated behind her], and a bright and very pretty mulatto girl. They [including an older black maid] all talked and laughed together; and the girls munched confectionary out of the same paper, with a familiarity and closeness of intimacy that would have been noticed with astonishment, if not with manifest displeasure, in almost any chance company at the North.194
Slave children played various formal games with one another and with the whites, such as marbles, hide-and-seek, hide-the-switch, horseshoe pitching, jump rope, and different versions of handball and stickball. They also played games representing their condition of bondage, such as auctioning one another off and whipping each other with switches. "Uncle" Smith Moore of Alabama reminisced about playing with the white boys when young, even riding colts and steer together. Kemble was greatly disturbed that Sally, her still very young daughter, would learn the wrong lessons from romping with slave playmates:
I was observing her to-day among her swarthy worshipers, for they follow her as such, and saw, with dismay, the universal eagerness with which they sprang to obey her little gestures of command. She said something about a swing, and in less than five minutes head man Frank had erected it for her, and a dozen young slaves were ready to swing little 'missis.' --, think of learning to rule despotically your fellow-creatures before the first lesson of self-government has been well spelt over!
Such deference, given to the master and mistress' offspring, soon inculcated the habit of command--or lording it over others--into their minds. A white child had to be seven to eleven years old before this habit seriously sank in, which is when the spark of reason ("concrete operations") first comes into life. Correspondingly, as the young slave passed age six, his parents taught him increasingly about the need to guard his words, especially as he may see such scenes as the overseer or master overruling his parents' authority, or even whipping them, thus making obvious the need to protect them and his fellow slaves in general from the whites' punishments.195
Plantation Day Care: How Slave Childhood Was Different
The central role of what amounted to institutionalized day care on the plantations was perhaps the biggest difference between the childhood of a slave and his white counterparts, in England or America. Since masters drove both the mothers as well as fathers into the fields to work, older brothers and sisters while under the eye of one or more old women who had retired from field labor largely cared for the youngest children left behind. For much of the day, since older children (not necessarily of the same family) watched younger ones, the children were left on their own. The old women did not care for the young children so much as watch the older children do so, as Genovese notes: "By and large, the children raised each other." Kemble saw on all the plantations she visited and lived on that children under the age of twelve cared for all babies in arms. Eight or nine year olds got the job of carrying nursing babies to their mothers in the field, and then back to the quarters, watching them during the hours their mothers (and fathers) worked elsewhere. As Kemble observed, "The only supervision exercised over either babies or ‘baby-minders’ was that of the old woman left in charge of the Infirmary, where she made her abode all day long." Obviously, the adults exercised little control over the children, except when they committed some major offense, since this aged bondswoman probably had her hands full just watching over the infirmary's patients. Needless to say, since these children fundamentally needed adult supervision themselves, having eight year olds watch over young babies (who were not necessarily their siblings) made for day care of dubious quality. Freedwoman Ellen Betts of Louisiana remembered caring for children when she was still a child herself:
Some them babies so fat and big I had to tote the feet while 'nother gal tote the head. I was such a little one, 'bout seven or eight year old. The big folks leave some toddy for colic and crying and such, and I done drink the toddy and let the children have the milk. I don't know no better. Lawsy me, it a wonder I ain't the biggest drunker in this here country, counting all the toddy I done put in my young belly!196
This woman admitted she was not the best babysitter when she herself was young. She surely provided poorer care than the babies' mothers or fathers would have; she certainly made for a worse role model for the babies under her supervision than nearly any adult present on the plantation would have. Almost inevitably parents have more self-interest and concern for their offspring than eight-year-old children who frequently were not even relatives of the babies in question. Such crude day care, made up of children watching babies under the loose supervision of one or more old women, resulted in less disciplined, more ignorant children than would have been the case had the slave women not been driven into the fields for a full workday, thus demonstrating that largely dissolving the sexual division of labor weakened the black family under slavery.
Is All Work Bad for Children?
Is all work bad for children, slave and otherwise? Although child labor has gained much notoriety from the textile industry in England during the industrial revolution because of the intensity and length of the work day that the children endured, could not something more casual, especially when part of the family economy under the parents' direct supervision, be in fact valuable to children in building discipline and training them for their future roles in society? Looking at the institution of slavery through the eyes of a middle class Englishwoman, Kemble saw the idleness of the children as a problem, not an asset, since it increased the women's work load:
Every able-bodied woman is made the most of in being driven afield as long as, under all and any circumstances, she is able to wield a hoe; but on the other hand, stout, hale, hearty girls and boys, of from eight to twelve and older, are allowed to lounge about, filthy and idle, with no pretense of an occupation but what they call 'tend baby.'
This task actively took little of their day, since it mainly involved carrying the babies needing to be nursed to their mothers in the fields and back. Besides this, the older children basically left them to kick, roll, and rest about in or near their cabins, activities they often joined in themselves. If Kemble is believed, the slave children on her husband's estates were less creative in their pastimes than others elsewhere! If the lives of young slaves were empty of education, work, or training for an occupation, filling them instead with aimless leisure time was of "questionable benefit"--even though the children enjoyed it!--when taking a broader view.197
Being communally cared for, slave children were correspondingly fed communally as well, in a remarkably crude, animal-like manner. Throughout the South adults on plantations fed them as if they were pigs. Typically, one or more old women, having charge of the slave children's day care, placed food in a trough, and called the children to eat. After scrambling to show up first, they quickly dug in. Equipped only with their bare hands or perhaps a piece of wood, they gobbled down as much as they could grab in order to get the most. Frederick Douglass described the feedings he experienced when young on his master's Maryland plantation:
We [children] were not regularly allowanced. Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would comes and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.
"Uncle" Abner in Arkansas, in a memory saturated with the nostalgia of a care-free childhood (or deference to the white interviewer), remembered a similar procedure:
Granny put a big trough on de po'ch, an' pile de food in. Lawsy! No food taste so good since! Cawn bread an' yams, an' hunks o' meat. Milk ter drink in de tin cups. Eat yo' stummick full, fight wid de res' o' de chillun erwhile, an' roll over on de flo' ter sleep!
It seems that, because of how he was raised, he still did not realize even as an old man how degrading trough feedings were. The crude communal feeding of slave children, to the extent it was done, obliterated the slave family's role in providing for their children directly. These feedings must have told slave children early in life that they were different from whites because no white child was fed out of a trough, as Genovese notes.198 The master and mistress, by feeding slaves this way, often treated them like the cows, pigs, and horses in their barns and sties, as their most valuable livestock, not as fellow human beings, not withstanding any possible contrary propaganda.
The Slave Childhood: Good, Bad, or Indifferent?
It is rather rash to make a summary judgment of the quality of life for millions of slave children. But generalizations, with the attendant qualifications and exclusions, are necessary so the past can be viewed more clearly than the jumbling confusion caused by listing a hundred or a thousand concrete particulars which most people soon forget. The childhood of slaves featured little work until the immediate pre-teen years, little or no education, and an abundance of play time. The plantation system minimized the role of parents in raising their children by obliterating the sexual division of labor in fieldwork, leaving the children largely to their own devices under the daily but loose supervision of one or more elderly "grannies" for much of the day. Communally feeding the children like animals was merely a product of the crude day care system established on the plantation. This system left the children unusually ignorant even for an uneducated class of people, since younger children had much less knowledge and fewer lessons from experience to pass on, and simply couldn’t care as much or as well as the babies’ mothers and fathers did. This childhood of idleness and ignorance made the transition to regular fieldwork all the more jarring, as the masters and mistresses, who may have earlier indulged their pickaninnies, thrust them out into the fields under the threat of the lash. As Olmsted observed: "The only whipping of slaves I have seen in Virginia, has been of these wild, lazy children, as they are being broke in to work. They cannot be depended upon a minute, out of sight."199 The individual relationships a child has with his or her parents is the main determinate of the quality of a person's childhood. For the broader issue of the negative effects slavery had on inter-family relationships because of the master's or mistress' interfering in them for work discipline purposes, see below (pp. 167-176). Nevertheless, because of a lack of parental/adult supervision, the slave childhood may have been often enjoyable, at least until the reality of low caste status came fully crashing in mentally and emotionally somewhere between ages six and twelve (or when regular work began), but it made for unusually ill-disciplined, ignorant youngsters whose parents largely squeezed their civilizing function into Sundays or between when they worked and slept.
Hodge's Childhood: More Work, but More Worthwhile?
When comparing the lives of children of English agricultural workers and African-American slaves, two key differences stand out. First, the farmworkers’ children had lives filled with more work, since their age of going to work was lower, as well as more formal education, especially as the nineteenth century drew on, compared to the slaves’ offspring. These two activities inevitably cut back on the amount of playtime they had before around the age of twelve. Second, the farmworkers remained almost unaffected by the quality of life issues associated with how slavery subverted the slaves’ parental authority and weakened family life because the master or mistress imposed work discipline by manipulating the family members’ loyalties to one another by threatening sales or by whippings. Farmers could threaten to fire and blacklist their laborers, but since mostly only men made up the work force, especially in the south and outside the peak harvest and haymaking seasons, they simply lacked the power to interfere within the laborers' families to the same degree. Hodge's sons and daughters encountered far less fear and thus wore a thinner mask than the stereotypical “Sambo’s” children. Due to the sexual division of labor and, increasingly, mass education, the children of farm laborers were also normally much better supervised during the day than young slaves. The ill-effects of the primitive day care, such as that found on Southern plantations, hardly existed in rural England, because Mrs. Hodge normally was found at home, especially in the south. As male unemployment rates rose towards the end of the eighteenth century on into the early nineteenth, women and children were pushed out of the agricultural labor market and into the home.200 Although the children of farmworkers had less pleasure from playtime compared to the young slaves, their childhood likely was more worthwhile to the extent they received some formal education, some practical work experience (if the hours were not excessive, etc.), and were around adults more, including their parents, whose knowledge and experience in life made them much better role models than the eight year olds "minding baby" in the American South.
As demonstrated earlier in the section dealing with education (pp. 105-107), the children of agricultural laborers went to work normally a number of years before the children of slaves did, excepting in northern England where higher parental wages prevailed than in the south. Boys commonly began work at eight or nine years old in much of England. Caleb Bawcombe regularly began to help his father with the flock at age nine. But in relatively high-waged areas, children often only began to work regularly at age twelve, thirteen, or even fourteen. Since generally their first years at work were highly irregular and especially tied to seasonal labor demands, the age at which children first entered the labor force did not mean full time, year-around work began for them then. In Northamptonshire, country boys eight to ten years old worked for an estimated ten to twelve weeks a year at least for two shillings a week, which is hardly full-time employment. The authors of the 1867-68 Report found that work for children under age ten was "precarious, occasional, and fluctuating," but soon afterwards became increasingly regular, especially for boys. Working for the first time when he was nine, Arch said he scared crows for twelve months straight for several farmers. So he either had an unusual experience or he included the slack periods in between stints. Bird scaring was common, if seasonally irregular, work in Northampton for the youngest boys (seven or eight years old), giving them ten weeks of work (spring), three (summer), and three more (winter). In northern Northumberland, children rarely worked before age fourteen, except during summers, when eleven and twelve year olds did also. The normal July-November seasonal peak for agriculture provided much more work for children then than at other times. The Fens stood out as an exception, since there children worked with the winter turnip crop. This area was notorious for the gang system, which helped "to force children into premature employment." Yorkshire, without this system, had seasonal work for boys begin at age twelve.201 These ages for going to work (excepting Arch's) likely reflect some tightening of the labor market in the late 1860s in agricultural areas, (a key ingredient in the brief successes of Arch's National Agricultural Labourers' Union in the early 1870s), which makes projecting them backwards more than two or three decades hazardous.
Just How Common Was Child Labor, Especially in the Countryside?
Earlier on, from the early eighteenth century until the 1840s, many contemporaries considered child unemployment and underemployment to be a problem, which puts in context Kemble's complaints about idle young slaves lounging about on her husbands' estates while the women were overworked.202 Agriculture presented further problems for employing children, for unlike mining or cotton spinning, domestic industry or factories, their small size and strength unambiguously worked against them. H.H. Vaughn noted in 1843 that, unlike climbing chimneys or running carts of coal in mines with low ceilings, smallness was no advantage: "In most out-door work weight and strength are an advantage." They could not easily be employed full time. R.H. Greg, in a 1837 defense of the factory system that saw industry as the savior of idle children, even exaggeratedly claimed: "Boys are of little use, girls of still less, in agricultural countries, before the age of 18." Now this view plainly overstates the case. The infamous masters of the gang system found gathering children (and women) into groups to weed or harvest root crops a perfectly workable solution to the Fens’s labor shortage. This area's farmers found the hiring of plowboys (ages eight to eleven), and children to weed (seven to eleven for boys, seven to thirteen for girls) financially wise. In Leicester, due to more land and root crops coming into cultivation, farmers employed children down to even six years old. Vaughn's claim still has its germ of truth, for children (like women) were in the "last hired, first fired" category; farmers normally viewed them as "a cheap and amenable labour force which could be used flexibly as the seasons dictated."203 But as many local labor markets tightened in the 1860s into the early 1870s, they were increasingly hired even in the long-depressed agricultural counties of the south of England. Somewhat earlier, the 1851 census found very few five to nine year olds (2.0 percent of boys, 1.4 percent of girls) were employed, and still many ten to fourteen were not employed (36.6 percent for boys, 19.9 percent for girls). True, it seems these figures may not accurately capture much of the part-time or seasonal work children engaged in.204 Still, they warn against extrapolating back the ages given for children going to work in the 1867-68 Report to periods of higher adult male unemployment in agricultural areas in the south of England, where industry generally was a weak competitor for labor.205
Traditionally, one important transitional point in the lives of laborers' children was when they were first hired into farm service under a yearly contract with a farmer who boarded them at his expense at his house. This career stage began generally around the age of fourteen; a later shift in status to day laborers developed after they married. Women went into service, not just men, especially in the more pastoral counties in the southwest as (especially) dairymaids. Fundamentally, "farm servant" was synonymous with being unmarried, and "day laborer" with being married. Service's chief benefit was to increase the young worker’s economic security. No threat of applying for parish relief in the slack winter months hung over those so employed, especially in arable areas with their greater the seasonal peaks and dips in the demand for labor compared to pastoral areas. This practice imposed greater stability on the young, encouraging them to save for a delayed marriage, especially because the monetary wages normally were paid in one lump sum near the end of the service period. The farm servant also received a settlement in the parish he lived in, allowing him to apply for parish relief there, after a year’s completed service. The experience of service followed by marriage and day labor gradually declined as the eighteenth century closed and the nineteenth opened in much of southern England, especially the southeastern grain-growing, arable region. What caused this decline? As population growth caused higher unemployment, farmers gained an incentive to hire labor only by the month, week, or even day. The poor laws' settlement provisions, which discouraged the yearly hirings that later gave farm servants the right to apply for relief in the parish of hire, were another factor. Then enclosure in combination with the poor laws in the south promoted population growth: Both encouraged early marriages since single people had trouble getting any relief, and discouraged saving, since the wages earned by now exclusively wage-dependent laborers were enough only for a bare subsistence. Farm service, as a key transition point of childhood into adulthood in the world of work, gradually became a relic of the past as the eighteenth century closed and the nineteenth century opened, except for northern areas and in certain occupations such as shepherd, where steady, year-around work was necessary. Increasingly, men and women (when employed at all) spent their whole careers as day laborers, without the farm servant stage in their work lives.206
The Parental Push for Child Labor
Parents had a strong financial incentive to put their children to work as soon as possible, excepting when schooling was a serious option. Some resisted this course, perhaps remembering their own more-carefree childhood.207 Working class parents typically faced the problem that during the family life cycle their income was at its lowest point when the number of young mouths needing to be filled was at its highest then when the children and their mother could do little work outside the home. When a family had (say) five children ages one, three, five, seven, and ten, the mother (granted the traditional sexual division of labor) had to watch the children and could not easily work at jobs outside the home. Children at these ages normally could not be put to work, except maybe the oldest. In agricultural districts without any domestic industry, often finding work for young children and their mothers was hard, even though their earnings were vitally necessary to put the family above the barest of subsistence levels. The New Poor Law fell hardest on families at this nadir point in their lives, because it eliminated the Speenhamland system's per child allowances paid by the parish. In areas of high unemployment, the natural tendency in England's patriarchal society was to minimize the unemployment rate for men at the cost of pushing women and children largely out of the labor market, excepting the peak summer months, which included harvest. Cobbett lamented the concentration of weaving and spinning in the north, which undermined the old domestic industries in the south, including weaving and spinning cloth just for household use, thus leaving women and children, especially girls, out of work (see above, pp. 53-54). As the sexual and regional divisions of labor increased in intensity, they helped to accentuate the natural burdens of the family life cycle for southern England's agricultural workers, excepting the few places where some domestic industry persisted. Because American slaves were guaranteed support in food and day care (at least in theory), they rarely had to face independently the pressures of the family life cycle, unlike English farmworkers. But the bondsmen’s guaranteed support and security came at the cost of independence and freedom, since the financial constraints on childbearing were largely eliminated by necessarily being their masters’ property. Hence, while the children of Hodge had to endure the tightening pressures of family life cycle when their parents had many offspring, which the children of slaves avoided, the farmworkers had much more independence and freedom of action, which slaves never enjoyed because of their unfree status.
The investigators working for the 1867-68 Report were acutely aware that they should avoid recommending an age limit on children working that would greatly burden the poor. They knew the parents’ earnings, especially when even many men experienced irregular employment, were not enough for them to easily sacrifice the earnings of their children for higher considerations such as education. As Arch noted: "Children were employed till the law compelled them to be sent to school, and when the father was able to earn so little who can wonder at it? Boys, as soon as they were big enough, would be sent out into the fields, just as I was." In Cambridgeshire, low wages encouraged parents to put their children to work as early as possible. If a husband earned twelve shillings per week, ten shillings six pence went towards flour for bread, so children had to work in order for the family to survive. In Northampton, the loss of earnings by those aged eight to ten would only constitute some twenty shillings a year to the parents, but these were much higher elsewhere (four pounds seven shillings a year in Lincoln and Nottingham). In the Thames valley area (and surely elsewhere!), parents under high financial pressure naturally tended to neglect their children's education.208 Ironically, the children of small freeholders in the Humber/Fens area had less education than did the hired laborers'. This curious result stemmed from the small farmers putting their children to work on their farm as soon as possible.209 Because so many families lived so close to bare subsistence, parents had to make their children work early in life, thus prioritizing the immediate earnings needed for financial survival over longterm improvement resulting from their children’s education.
Day Care an Uncommon Experience
Due to the high unemployment rates for men and especially women in many agricultural areas, and the introduction of the scythe in arable districts, which required great strength to use, laborers’ children rarely experienced any kind of day care. The sexual division of labor combined with high unemployment in southern England ensured children received plenty of adult supervision. Even when harvest came, and virtually everyone was put to work (at least as the mid-nineteenth-century mark is passed) in agricultural parishes, children might still directly assist their parents in harvest. The family often worked as a unit, with the husband using a bagging hook to cut down the stalks of wheat, the wife following closely behind, gathering and tying them together, with one or more children pulling and preparing the ties for their mother to use. Many times, after negotiating with the farmer for a given piece work rate, a number of families entered a field at once, each working on its one or two allotted acres. A family of farmworkers also worked together to raise food when given an allotment, since the children and mother would tend the plot during the day while the father was away working for some farmer. The rest of the family could hoe, weed, plant, and pick food from the plot themselves, giving them additional (self)employment and badly-needed food. Some children even used wheelbarrows to gather manure from the public roads for their family’s plot! Then, in the evenings or early mornings, or otherwise when not working for others, the father would work on the family’s allotment also. In this situation, the productive unit was the family. Clearly, a child’s experience while working for his or her father or mother typically differs sharply from the impersonal supervision exercised by a farmer or one of his carters. It’s unlikely that farmers treated even long-term farm servants or apprentices to husbandry nearly as well as their fathers and mothers would. Normally, day care made no appearance in the lives of laborers' children, at least when both the parents were alive. But one older child may end up watching younger brothers and sisters in areas where the women also worked in the fields routinely, such as southern Northumberland. Jeffries idyllically describes how the parents would lock out of the cottage their older child, who then watched her younger brother or sister play out in the beautiful spring countryside. Day care--or paid baby-sitting--might make its appearance in an area such as Yorkshire, where the women also did field work regularly. Here, this practice’s consequences produced various complaints: The women kept their cottages less tidily, they neglected their families, they gave opiates to their children, and they paid "an old woman" daily so much to care or them!210 (Talk about shades of nearby industrial Manchester!) The English agricultural workers’ family still was much more apt to be an active, productive economic unit than the black slaves’ family (excepting some in lowland task system areas) because the latter was much more subordinated to the productive process than the former as masters mostly eliminated the sexual division of labor and created a greater average division of the family unit spatially during the workday by separating mothers and their children more commonly than the farmers in England did with the laborers.
Young Hodge at Play
Although the life of young Hodge was more filled with work and especially education than a young slave’s, the former still had time to play. Getting themselves thoroughly dirty, younger pre-school children might romp about outside their parents' cottage in the fields or perhaps in a nearby farmyard carefully out of sight of the adults. Maybe the oldest sister would watch her younger siblings play around the ditches and hedges, gathering flowers or even acorns which the farmers would pay for. The habit of the parents, if both were gone, was to lock their children outside. Less innocently, two boys in the village of Ridgley that Somerville described were keen at raiding nests, following clearly in their poaching fathers' footsteps. Caleb Bawcombe managed to combine with play routinely while watching his father's flock. He and his brother were playing "on the turf with nine morris-men and the shepherd's puzzle," when their mother suddenly appeared one time. While engaged in crow-scaring, Arch sometimes mischievously looked for trouble by bird-nesting, trespassing, etc., in more idle moments. He favorably compared the outdoors environment he enjoyed to what children in the mines endured: "And I had the trees to look at and climb, hedgerow flowers to pluck, and streams to wade in." Although his mother's home schooling competed against play, he did not mind this regime. As a teenager, working as a stable boy for what were good wages for his age and county, he continued to study, seeing how limited the opportunities for amusement in his village were:
The village lad had two kinds of recreation open to him. He could take his choice between lounging and boozing in the public house, or playing bowls in the bowling alley. That was all. There were no cricket or football clubs, no Forester's meetings.211
The first option led into the wasteful, profligate way of life the middle classes, local farmers, and gentry routinely condemned, which he did not find tempting. Children, as always, will find some way to play, but on balance the farmworkers’ offspring had more work, more schooling, and less playtime than the slave’s children.
The Relative Quality of Life for the Children of Slaves and Laborers
Excepting how masters could subvert parental authority by whippings, sales, etc., and the fear inspired by the same, slaves until about age twelve typically had a more carefree childhood than agricultural workers. Although young farmworkers worked rather irregularly before age twelve or more, they still did more work at younger ages than most young slaves. Furthermore, especially as the nineteenth century advanced, education increasingly became a reality for the offspring of laborers, which meant the school often filled days without work, at least outside agriculture's summer/harvest seasonal peaks. So while young slaves had more playtime, the children of laborers were much more likely to gain some education, as limited or crude as it may have been, and to receive what arguably was useful work experience. Unlike the contemporary United States, where society is wealthy enough to guarantee thirteen years of school to its entire population, the pressures of bare subsistence in the farmworkers’ world often made child labor necessary for a family to survive independently as an economic unit. Slave children also were much more likely to experience day care, at least on the plantations, where the "baby minders" were still young children themselves, often unrelated to their young charges. By contrast, young Hodge enjoyed–-a perhaps problematic term here--much more adult supervision, since women had largely been driven out of the agricultural labor force outside of seasonal peaks by the time the nineteenth century began, limiting them to a more strictly defined homemaking role. The high adult male unemployment rates, at least in southern England, indirectly ensured their children received more supervision from their parents, whose greater experience in life made them better role models. Day care was rare, at least in the south, although an older sister (likely) may have watched younger siblings. While school increasingly did split up the laborers' family during the day, as in contemporary society, they still had adult care and attention. At least at harvest, the laborers' family also sometimes did function as a unit, instead of being separated during the day, unlike for the bondsmen. So outside of the kind of frightening experiences Douglass tells, the slave's childhood likely was more enjoyable to about age twelve on average, but the farmworker's youth likely was more worthwhile, benefiting from the advantages of more education, more family and adult direction and care, and (arguably, if not especially intense or long in hours) useful work experience.
Religion--A Source for Enlightenment, Social Unity, and Social Conflict
To the skeptically inclined, the juxtaposition of religion and the quality of life initially may appear peculiar, but consider the reasons for relating the two. Religion, especially for those peoples who are illiterate or semi-literate, is the main source of an integrated view of existence, by bringing a man’s or woman’s mind above the routine material cares of life. It attempts to explain the unknown, since the (ostensible) purpose of revelation is to bring humanity knowledge that is necessary to live the right kind of life in the here-and-now, but which is unobtainable by reason, philosophy, or science, or cannot be with the same degree of certainty. It is the main source of morality and behavioral restraint above the level of fear of authority or what the neighbors think. As long as the Thrasymachuses of the world would define justice, and morality in general, as "nothing else than the advantage of the stronger," religion's specific precepts and commandments will serve as the main restraining force on people's actions since philosophy is generally perceived at having failed to provide a satisfactory natural law theory as the foundation of right and wrong.212 Religion also supplies a purpose for an individual’s decisions about values in this life through asserting they affect his fate in the afterlife. It elevates the concerns of believers above those which also preoccupy animals to eternal verities which have to be reckoned with, granted the truth of the religion in question.
Organized religion, although first and foremost it concerns man's relationship with God (or the gods), also brings people together in order to worship the divine, through rituals, assemblies, pageants, processions, etc. Here religion becomes contested terrain between a society’s elite and subordinate classes, since nominally all humans have to be concerned about what the supernatural powers-that-be desire of them. Both the rich and poor are destined for the same fate--the grave. Religion can serve instrumental purposes for this present life as well, which the elite may twist to serve their own purposes. When it comes to an upper class imposing hegemony and a subordinate class resisting it, religion is often a central battle ground. The powerholding class in society can bend religion into a system of social control to benefit itself even as the subordinate class may manipulate the same religion to justify its resistance, despite a mutually shared faith may bring the two sides together into the same social settings to serve the same God or gods. Religion can serve simultaneously as a site of social unity and as a setting for social conflict since it provides people with a collective activity outside of work, as well as a means of raising their minds above the purely material to take a broader, more philosophical view of life. It reminds its adherents that something other than self-interest should guide their actions in life.213
Christianity, being the religion shared by both the English farmworkers and converted African-American slaves, contains elements of use to both sides in their power struggle, even as it serves as a means of unifying each side in a common concern about God's purpose for their lives. Christianity emphasizes the need to obey authority, of obeying the powers that be as ordained of God (Rom. 13:1-7), of rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's (Matt. 22:21), and to keep the command of the king (Eccl. 8:2). It tells slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5-6; Col. 3:22), and not to steal from them (Titus 2:9-10). On the other hand, the state is not the ultimate authority for Christians. It presented a theoretical threat to the totalitarians of this past century who wanted the whole heart, mind, and soul of all the citizens of whatever nation they ruled over. Thus, after the Sanhedrin told them to stop preaching about Christ and the resurrection, Peter and the other apostles defiantly replied (Acts 5:29): "We must obey God rather than men." Similarly, during the previous run-in with the Sanhedrin, Peter and John proclaimed (Acts 4:19): "Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge." Christianity, even as it tells those of a subordinate class to obey their superiors in this world, it humbles the elite philosophically by saying all persons are equal in His sight (Gal. 3:28): "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." "For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave” (I Cor. 7:22). It condemns giving a rich man precedence in the assembly of believers (James 2:1-4). It states the rich are not favored in God’s sight, at least if they are covetous of their property or oppress the poor (James 5:1-6; Matt. 19:21-26; Amos 4:1-3; Isa. 3:14-15; Eze. 18:12-13; 22:29). Furthermore, and perhaps most ominiously for slaveholders, Jehovah is portrayed as the freer of the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:5-7, 20:2). Hence, the Bible presents material susceptible to manipulation by an elite bent on exploiting a subordinate class and for a subordinate class to condemn and--if it denies that Christianity teaches pacifism--resist the powerful. Although it makes for poor hermeneutics and bad systematic theology, each side is apt to use the parts of the raw material of revelation that favors its cause, while conveniently ignoring that which does not.
Slave Religion--The Slaveholders’ Options on Christianizing the Slaves
Because Christianity contains teachings that an elite may not always find to its liking, it can become divided over whether inculcating Biblical precepts to a subordinate class is in its material self-interest. Of course, the elite’s strongly religiously motivated members will evangelize heedless of any negative consequences to their position in this life,214 but normally altruistic idealism cannot be counted on to predominate in the upper class. The elite faces here the same problem it does with disseminating or denying education to the masses. A society’s rulers have to choose between two models of social control: skewed knowledge or ignorance (see above, pp. 107-9). Christianity presents a similar problem theoretically, for those, like Napoleon, who approach religion as an insrument for controlling other people's behavior. On the one hand, after noting all the useful statements about obedience not just to God, but to secular authorities in the Bible, slaveholders could see converting their slaves as advancing their self-interest, over and above any otherworldly benefits. A Machiavellian analysis could conclude teaching them Christianity was valuable. Having been written in an ancient world full of slaves, yet not condemning slavery as an institution, the Bible (usefully) tells slaves to obey their masters. After all, Rome was full of slaves, many ancient Christians were slaves, and some Christians even had slaves (e.g., Philemon) Harriet Jacobs, although overstating the impetus of Turner's rebellion in promoting evangelism among the slaves, expressed this option forcefully: "After the alarm caused by Nat Turner's insurrection had subsided, the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters."215 On the other hand, the Bible contains many statements about the duties of the rich and powerful towards the poor and weak which an oppressed class could forge into useful ideological weapons for hammering their superiors with. The Old Testament's description of God using Moses to free the childen of Israel from slavery in Egypt surely resonated with American slaves. The New Testament's proclamations about being free in Christ (re: II Cor. 3:17-18; Luke 4:17-21) or all being equal in God’s sight (Col. 3:11) were potentially troublesome to slaveholders.216 Then, pragmatically speaking, large numbers of slaves gathered together for religious assemblies may prove hard to control.
American slaveholders' mainstream response eventually made a compromise between the two models: They evangelized their slaves, but presented a perverted Protestant Christianity which overbearingly emphasized the need to obey while purposely neglecting those parts of the Christian message that might be, well, ah, dangerous. Conveniently cast aside was the Reformation's message that each man must be able to read and interpret the Bible himself as God's Spirit directed him. Evangelization based on selective exegesis was easily carried out, with whatever not serving the slaveowners’ interests edited out, for since they kept their slave population largely illiterate and bookless, the bondsmen were mostly incapable of checking on their masters and mistresses’ teachings by opening and reading the Bible for themselves.217
The Earlier Practice of Not Evangelizing the Slaves
Earlier in Southern slavery's history, the other model--of leaving their slaves in heathenish ignorance–-slaveholders had considered, even practiced. Some still advocated this approach in the 1830s, such as a former long-time overseer turned planter himself that Kemble's husband had employed. Conversions of Africans when they first arrived in the New World have been argued to be exceedingly rare; even their children’s religious status was normally ignored. While visiting South Carolina, evangelist George Whitefield, one of the foremost leaders of the Great Awakening, pointedly condemned the American South for treating its slaves like animals. He urged their Christianization and improved conditions for them. The Great Awakening led slaveholders to abandon the previous policy of neglecting to convert their slaves. As Gallay observes: "Most planters feared their bondspeople would move from religious training to religious rights and perhaps on to civil or to political rights." They feared emancipations would follow conversions: "The few slaves who were permitted religious instruction were required to make a formal statement in which they denied any expectation that baptism would lead to freedom." When the legal status of slaves in early colonial Virginia was still unclear, before the General Assembly passed a law in 1667 that specifically denied that baptizing slaves would liberate them, some gained freedom for this reason. The Great Awakening changed such attitudes significantly, because the spirit of revivalism wants everyone saved now. The itinerate preachers found persuading both lost black and white sheep to repent equally fine works. So from the 1740s on much greater efforts were made to convert the slaves to Christianity, as slaveholders gradually abandoned the policy of leaving slaves pagan to preserve distinctions between whites and Africans which had helped justify the enslavement of the black man.218
The Gospel of Obedience Distorts the Christianity Given to the Slaves
As the slaves came into the churches, the slaveholding class labored mightily to ensure the slaves learned the message of obedience. Clergymen throughout the South had to teach this distorted “Gospel” or else risk losing the slaveholders’ support for evangelizing their slaves.219 One pamphlet on the subject of evangelizing the slaves that Kemble found evidently strongly stressed teaching the lesson of obedience. The bondsmen's newfound religion was not to be allowed to escalate the difficulties of imposing work discipline on them. Slaves repeatedly complained about how often white preachers told them to obey their owners from the pulpit. Lucretia Alexander, once a slave in both Mississippi and Arkansas, summarized a typical sermon:
The preach came and preached to them in their quarters. He'd just say, 'Serve your masters. Don't steal your master's turkey. Don't steal your master's chickens. Don't steal your master's hogs. Don't steal your master's meat. Do whatsomever your master tells you to do.' Same old thing all the time.
Another slave woman refused to go to church, so she got locked up in her master's seedhouse. She complained:
No, I don't want to hear that same old sermon: 'Stay out of your missus' and master's henhouse. Don't steal your missus' and master's chickens. Stay out of your missus' and master's smokehouse. Don't steal your missus' and master's hams.' I don't steal nothing. Don't need to tell me not to.
Using Ephesians 6:5 as his text, Jacobs heard Anglican clergyman Pike teach what must have been a stereotypical message telling slaves to obey their masters and to fear God if they slacked off at work, lied, stole, or otherwise injured their masters' interests. Evidently, his lesson for a slave audience remained largely unchanged from week to week: "I went to the next Sabbath evening, and heard pretty much a repetition of the last discourse." Some black preachers gave similar messages, because either white supervision restricted their choice of material or they "sold out" to the whites. Masters and mistresses in the South clearly wanted a clipped form of Christianity to serve as an ideological underpinning to slavery through emphasizing the message of obedience although the slaves resisted it.220
By making Christianity carry out their instrumental purposes, the slaveholders brought a bent, distorted gospel to the slaves. The Christian message lost much of its authenticity when masters and mistresses harnessed it for imposing work discipline on their bondsmen. Freedman Charley Williams of Louisiana said he largely missed the core of its teachings because what he heard was so twisted:
Course I loves my Lord Jesus same as anybody, but you see I never hear much about Him until I was grown, and it seem like you got to hear about religion when you little to soak it up and put much by it. Nobody could read the Bible when I was a boy . . . We had meetings sometimes, but the nigger preacher just talk about being a good nigger and "doing to please the Master," and I always thought he meant to please Old Master, and I always wanted to do that anyways.
This black preacher may have taught what pleased those wielding nearly absolute power over him. But his probable inability to read the Bible also handicapped him from bringing the full Christian message to his flock. For he could not teach what he did not know, and if he had not heard the message of equality in God's sight, he could not easily teach it knowledgeably to others, assuming he had enough bravery to do so. Lunsford Lane, a North Carolina freedman turned abolitionist speaker in the North, said he had heard certain New Testament texts about slaves obeying their masters routinely recited in sermons intended for audiences held in bondage. While observing these sermons telling the slaves to obey had "much that was excellent" mixed into them, the message of obedience still strongly remained present. Sometimes their propaganda paid off: A number found theft declined and discipline improved as slaves "got religion."221 At least for this life, the slaves benefited less clearly. They were told to obey without hearing much the corresponding message about their masters’ obligations to them or about master and slave having equality in Christ. This mangled form of Christianity also made the true experience of conversion more difficult. While many, perhaps most slaves may have received the general evangelical Protestant Christian message of "repent and accept Christ as Savior to gain eternal life," a minor point of the Christian religion--slaves must obey their masters--was artificially exalted into the pride of place to suit the slaveholders' interests. The time and effort spent teaching this point caused other, more important doctrines to be left gathering dust, either partly or completely pushed aside. Being an artificial construction that served the ruling class’s instrumental purposes, the Christianity that the white masters and mistresses and the preachers under their influence bequeathed to their slaves often lacked an essential authenticity and integrity.
The Slaves Add to the Religion Given Them by their Masters and Mistresses
The slaves clearly received a watered-down faith from their masters and mistresses, one which was transparently bent towards serving their obvious material interests. The slaves filled the vacuum in their religious lives by drawing upon their own cultural heritage from Africa. The Catholic Christianity of the Indians in Latin America was influenced by their ancestors' pre-Columbian religious practices; likewise, the Protestant Christianity of the slaves took on traditions and a character partly derived from the traditional animist religions of Africa, thus producing an analogous syncretistic combine.222 But because the slaves were a minority even in their region, and further imports of slaves directly from Africa had been cut off since 1808 (excepting those smuggled in), the Africanisms found in African-American religious beliefs were proportionately much fewer than those showing up in the Caribbean or Brazil.223 Nevertheless, such influences showed up in the United States. The beliefs of Charles Ball's African-born grandfather were full of Africanisms. His rather eccentric religious beliefs certainly look to be Islamic, perhaps in a Sufi-influenced version because formal doctrine was de-emphasized. A detectable strain of Deism seems to appear here also, which may point to the abolitionist editor's own beliefs influencing his interpretation of what he heard Ball say about his grandfather. His case was exceptional, because he expressed these beliefs without combining them with the faith of the slaveholders. The testimony of freedman William Adams of Texas exemplifies the much more usual syncretism, in which the Christian belief in casting out demons subsumes a voodoo-like belief in hexes and preventing them. When a child he
hear[d] them [his mother and other adults] talk about what happens to folks 'cause a spell was put on them. The old folks in them days knows more about the signs that the Lord uses to reveal His laws than the folks of today. It am also true of the colored folks in Africa, they native land. Some of the folks laughs at their beliefs and says it am superstition, but it am knowing how the Lord reveals His laws.
Adams’s case demonstrates how the slave conjurors’ practices and powers coexisted with Christian beliefs within the same individuals. These conjurors’ gave the slaves an independent source of religious authority from what white preachers or their masters and mistresses believed. Berry and Blassingame see the frenzied yelling, "the ring shout, the call-and-response pattern of sermons, prayers and songs, the unrestrained joy, and [the] predilection for total immersion" as derived from African rituals and customs.224 The slaves combined beliefs from their own African religious tradition with the twisted Protestant faith of their owners to help explain or mentally cope with slavery’s privations.225
No Surprise: The Slaves' Lack of Religion Freedom
Turning from the content of the slaves' beliefs to how much freedom they had to practice them, often slaveholders and overseers restricted or even simply prohibited the slaves from expressing their faith.226 All the stories about the slaves’ receiving punishment for expressing their religious beliefs shows the master class was less interested in the souls of their bondsmen and more concerned about keeping control than their propaganda proclaimed. Planter Barrow, never one much for sending his slaves off plantation, once reluctantly let them leave for religious reasons: "gave the negros permission to go over to Robt. H. Barrows to preaching, . . . being near & leaving home but seldom, granted them permission."227 Barrow's slaves also might have had meetings without his permission. As a slave in Virginia, William Troy had been at many illict meetings of his church. Despite their precautions, such as holding gatherings at night, patrols sometimes did break them up. David West, from Virginia, reported a similar experience: Patrollers whipped those caught at or after night services. Eli Johnson was threatened with no less than 500 lashes for leading prayer meetings on Saturday nights. An eloquent plea before his master and mistress allowed him to evade punishment. Note how his request, which contains an apparent allusion to Ps. 22:17, implicitly appealed to an Authority above his owner's:
In the name of God why is it, that I can't after working hard all the week, have a meeting on Saturday evening? I am sent for to receive five hundred lashes for trying to serve God. I'll suffer the flesh to be dragged off my bones, until my bones stare my enemy in the face, for the sake of my blessed Redeemer.
Slaveholders opposed unsupervised meetings, held at suspicious hours, watched by no whites, because their slaves might be castigating them behind their backs--or planning something worse. At least, they thought, their slaves should be resting for work the next day if the meeting was otherwise innocuous. Even at meetings which slaveholders allowed, patrollers (or other white observers, such as the master or overseer) stood present. Indeed, throughout the South that was legally required. Mrs. Colman Freeman was born free, but witnessed patrollers whipping slaves who attended such meetings without passes when they did not escape first by running into a nearby river! "Uncle" Bob of South Carolina had a master who broke up meetings by using his whip. The slaves' solution? They went to a outlying cabin, turned up-side-down a washing kettle propped up off the floor by boards, and used it to muffle the sound of singing and praying as they gathered around it!228 Clearly, the master class had little interest in giving their bondsmen the freedom to meet for services, especially from those they or their representatives were absent.
But slaveholders restricted other religious activities by their slaves besides meetings. In an exchange reminiscent of Peter's with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:19), one slave named Adam replied to the overseer threatening him with a hundred lashes when he was about to be baptized: "I have but two masters to serve, my earthly and my heavenly master, and I can mind nobody else." The Christian doctrine that obedience is owed to God above all earthly powers' contrary commands here definitely bears fruit! Kemble knew her husband’s overseer whipped one man for allowing his wife to be baptized. Illustrating how much the slaveholders denied their own Protestant heritage when attacking their slaves' right to read, Jacobs noted: "There are thousands, who, like good uncle Fred [she was illegally teaching him how to read], are thirsting for the water of life; but the law forbids it, and the churches withhold it. They send the Bible to heathen abroad, and neglect the heathen at home."229 For after the slaves received knowledge of Christianity, what they decided to do with its content inevitably did not always please their owners, who frequently ended up restricting how their human chattels expressed their newfound faith.
The Slaves Try to Unbend a Bent Christianity
Although the slaveholders upheld Christianity at least nominally, they knew the full free exercise of religion by their bondsmen could threaten their material interests. They wanted the benefits of teaching the slaves to obey by using their religion’s tenets, but without the drawbacks. Unfortunately for their propaganda purposes, since Christianity was a "package deal," they could not go picking and choosing which doctrines they wished the slaves to hear when the latter had strong motives to seek those being withheld. Mary Reynolds of Louisiana never went to church when she was a slave. Prayer meetings had to be quietly conducted because her owner’s black driver threatened his fellow slaves with whippings when he heard them. Even under such restrictions, she still heard the Christian doctrine that all people are equal in God's sight, albeit in a somewhat mangled form: "But some the old niggers tell us we got to [still] pray to God [so] that He don't think different of the blacks and the whites." Some whites really did try to deny this truth, by saying the slaves were not even human! One white preached this to the slaves, as freedwoman Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered:
Now I takes my text, which is, Nigger obey your master and your mistress, 'cause what you git from them here in this world am all you ever going to git, 'cause you just like the hogs and the other animals--when you dies you ain't no more, after you been throwed in that hole.
Attempts to shield the slaves from the implications of objectionable doctrines by teaching them a bastardized Christianity were inevitably doomed to failure. Once the genie is out of the bottle, stuffing him back in is impossible.230 The slaves could use Christian teachings their masters disliked hearing, such as by demanding recognition that they were brothers in Christ (i.e., fellow human beings). The master class’s attempts at religious censorship inevitably partially failed, undermined by literate slaves, idealistic whites, etc. When masters and mistresses revealed that a Higher Authority stood above their own, they made a righteous defiance available to the bondsmen which was based upon the very religion that their owners taught them, something which had potentially dangerous repercussions.
Despite the hazards, most masters and mistresses pressed forward with the project of evangelizing their slaves, especially in the generation or two before the Civil War (1800-60). They often consented to having their slaves join them at services, which demonstrates once again whites accepted a certain degree of integration under slavery, so long as they kept the blacks in utter subjection. This principle was perfectly illustrated by the slaves’ receiving communion last, after the whites had, at an integrated service. Freedwoman Nicey Kinney of Georgia saw her master and mistress as "sure believ[ing] in the church and in living for God." They all together routinely attended on different weeks three different churches. Mistress Sallie Chaney made sure her slaves did no work on Sunday, and that they went to church services, which were held on her Arkansas plantation. Bennet Barrow thought a planter neighbor of his "verry foolish in relation to religion among his negroes," evidently because he was always trying to convert them and so forth. The Bryans of colonial South Carolina were totally determined to preach to and teach to their slaves and those on neighboring plantations in large emotional meetings. As a result, a committee of the colonial legislature condemned the Bryans’ activities and a grand jury indicted them. Jonathan Bryan even wanted to build a "negro school"! Olmsted noted that Bishop Polk of Louisiana worked strenuously not just to convert all 400 of his slaves, but he performed their marriages and baptisms by the standard rites.231 At least some masters and mistresses saw converting their slaves to Christianity as a religious duty, without always having the ulterior instrumental purpose of using their faith as an ideology that taught obedience, since they went beyond the bare minimums required.
Slave Preachers: Their Role and Power
The white elites always eyed suspiciously the slave preachers, who made up for a general lack of education through lung power and sheer emotionalism when conducting meetings. They had about the highest position a slave in the eyes of fellow slaves could attain without gaining it based on his master's property or authority.232 Masters had good reasons for their mistrust. The preachers could start an outright revolt, like Nat Turner. Failing to do something that deadly and spectacular, they might serve as public questioners of the slaveholder regime.233 They could reveal and expound doctrines of Christianity the masters would prefer to be swept to some corner or under the rug. They could become an alternative source of power on the plantation, like the conjurers in their own sphere, because God was seen as authorizing their role. Because of the Protestant teaching of the priesthood of all believers, which allowed even poor, illiterate whites to preach, slaveholders knew that totally eliminating the slave preachers was not a realistic possibility granted the religious milieu they moved in. The general policy became more one of regulation than elimination, although their owners could censor them or sell them off. Barrow rued the day he let his slaves preach, writing he would opt for simple elimination: "Gave negros permission to preach shall never do it again too much rascallity carried on."234 Despite policies like Barrow's, slave preachers often led emotional services, full of singing, moving, and shouting in a call and response pattern. Since they were normally under suspicion and/or direct white supervision, excepting illicit night gatherings, they frequently had to preach "authorized" sermons about obeying their masters and stealing none of their property, or at least neutral ones not obviously susceptible to interpretations that readily undermined the slaveholders' regime ideologically. Some apparently even “sold out” completely for material benefits and respect from the white authorities, as Blassingame maintains, or they even honestly believed slaves had to obey their owners.235 Still, despite the compromises they often had to engage in, the slave preachers, as a group, were the most threatening among the slaves to the planter and master class's project of achieving hegemony over their human chattels, followed by the conjurers.
Although American slaves generally failed to develop a religious millennialist tradition like subjugated peoples elsewhere, African-American slave religion could still, under unusual circumstances, subvert work discipline on the plantations. For example, the proclamations of the whites’ own millennialist movement spilled over, affecting the slaves' own beliefs. William Miller, a Baptist layman turned preacher, predicted the world would end in 1843, later emending that prophecy to 1844, based upon his interpretation of Daniel 7:25's "2,300 evenings and mornings." Bennet Barrow, never much of a church-goer, complained that one-fourth of the white population "are run crazy on the subject of Miller prophosey, that the world would come to an End some time this year." But for him, the real problems began when Miller’s predictions began to terrify his slaves. He noted, in his diary entry for April 11, 1843: "Negros are much frighed [frightened] the thoughts of the world coming to an end any day." Some kind of trouble, although it remains unspecified, must have inspired him to later sermonize against such a belief: "Gave my negros a Lecture 'to day' upon the folly of their belief that the world would End to day, & their superstitious belief in Dreams &c." As the prophesied Judgment Day passed without happenstance, the slaves evidently fell back into their normal routines. A more dramatic showdown erupted on Kemble's husband's rice-island estate years earlier, when a black prophetess named Sinda predicted a soon-to-come Judgment Day. Her fellow slaves became so frightened that they stopped all work in a virtual strike. The overseer found no combination of argument, criticisms, or flogging got them to work before the predicted day would come. He patiently waited it out, warning her before the rest that she would be "severely punished" if her prediction was false.
Her day of judgment came indeed, and a severe one it proved, for Mr. K---- [the overseer] had her tremendously flogged . . . the spirit of false prophecy was mercilessly scourged out of her, and the faith of her people of course reverted from her to the omnipotent lash again.236
The unanimous passive rebellion here made this a remarkable incident, for it briefly placed the lone white overseer in a nearly helpless situation while avoiding the terrible “kill or be killed” violence that normally characterized slave revolts. But since the slaves were told, "Stand by and see the salvation of the Lord" (Ex. 14:13), they passively awaited the outcome of a false prophecy. They just fell back into their old ways of relating to the white overseer when it all came to nought. Since their "strike" relied on direct supernatural deliverance, unlike millennialist movements where a dynamic prophet incites the masses into taking things into their own hands, when the expected prophesied event did not take place, they had no practical alternative but to return to their old patterns of submission to white authority, since they were not following Franklin's not-always-Biblical dictum that the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Did Slaveholders Achieve Religious and Ideological Hegemony Over Their Slaves?
Were the slaveholders and planters successful in establishing an ideological hegemony over the slaves through religious teaching? This question will have to returned to below in order to analyze it more than is possible here. Now Genovese makes hegemony the cornerstone of historical interpretation in Roll, Jordan, Roll. He borrowed this framework from Gramsci, who developed it to explain why the workers in advanced industrialized countries had failed to overthrow their capitalist elites despite the absence of continuous and massive coercion. Genovese fits religion's role in creating hegemony into his overall framework of paternalism, which created a system of reciprocal obligations between the masters and the enslaved, allowing the latter sometimes to reproach and restrict the former’s actions by asserting they had (customary) rights in return for an (outward) acceptance of their enslaved condition. They focused on improving their conditions from "within the system" rather than by unrealistically seeking liberation from it. In religious matters, it is necessary to account for why African-American slaves mostly lacked a violent, millennial faith that sought to revolt and turn the world up-side down compared to (say) Caribbean slaves influenced by Voodoo. The bloody revolt in Virginia led by Nat Turner, a literate slave preacher, merely rises up as the great exception to the American experience. Genovese attributes the difference to the non-millennial faith of black preachers and their congregations. This happened for four basic reasons. First, they accepted the practical realities of being out-numbered, out-gunned, and out-organized by the whites and their governmental/social order. Second, because African religion had a strong this-world emphasis that denied an ultimate end-time ultimate consumation, the slaves tended to infuse such a sensibility into their form of Christianity. Third, the preachers pointed to God Himself as the deliverer through someone He would call like Moses rather than a charismatic political black preacher-prophet among themselves. Lincoln, i.e., the leader of the (Northern) white establishment politically, ultimately filled this role when liberation finally came. Fourth, millennial movements developed in cases in which the underclass and superiors both had a fully developed civilization and culture. But an equality of cultural integrity and heritage did not exist in the South between whites and blacks. Illiterate African-American slaves, through the brutal shock of being torn from their homeland, dumped into a subordinate condition under the rule of a majority alien European culture, cut off from substantial continuing contact with their old culture, joined by a mixture of fellow slaves descended from different tribes who spoke different languages (assuming these had not been already forgotten by those born into slavery), had to accept substantial assimilation to the dominant culture even to be able to communicate and work with one another, let alone their white owners.237 Importantly, in a brilliant but overreaching counter-attack, James Anderson takes Genovese to task for maintaining the slaves had basically accepted ideologically their condition of slavery, as part of his onslaught against the view the slaveholders had successfully established hegemony over their bondsmen. Anderson observes that Genovese discounts alternative sources of authority for the slaves, such as the conjurors or skilled artisans among them. Resistance to hegemony is composed only of a formal counter-ideology, "organized effort, and political ingenuity.” Summarizing his opponent’s views, Anderson writes: “Resistance rests upon sound and conscious mental activity; in other words, it is political brilliance."238 But a subordinate class need not have a highly developed counter-ideology in order to reject the superordinate class’s ideology. Genovese, according to Anderson, fails to document that most slaves really accepted the evil social system into which they were born. Running away to the North still manifested black opposition to slavery; large, collective, armed revolts need not erupt routinely to prove the slaves rejected slavery as a good way of life. Anderson's polemic clearly calls into question how successfully the slaveholders achieved hegemony over the slaves through a paternalistic ethos.
How can the conflict about the reality of hegemony over the slaves, religious and otherwise, be disentangled? This dispute depends on how someone defines "resistance" and where--what social sites--that resistance appeared. If the only “resistance” that counts is composed of large, organized campaigns formed around a coherent counter-ideology, then American slaves obviously never achieved this level of political activity. But successful hegemonic incorporation becomes hard to prove after it is realized that resistance occurs in different ways at different social sites. Subordinates can act one way before the dominant class, and another among themselves alone, alternatively putting on and dropping off a mask that conceals their true beliefs. James Scott uses the terms "onstage" to refer to social situations in which the dominant class or group interacts with their subordinates. By contrast, when both are "offstage," and the dominant and the subordinate classes part company, each side can speak more freely about the other than when together, especially the latter. The record of writings, conversations, speeches, etc., produced when both interacted together is the "public transcript”; what each group produced when out of the other’s presence is its “hidden transcript.” Genovese's concept of hegemony suffers a limited understanding of the public transcript’s limitations for proving what the slaves really believed: What the slaves said may not be what they really did believe, since the elite largely controls the public transcript. The ruling class’s coercive power, real or imagined, intimidates the subordinate’s class’s willingness to speak out, thus constantly muddying the accuracy of the public transcript’s record of the latter’s real beliefs. The slaves could have used the ideology of paternalism, and even some of the religious doctrines of Christianity, to restrain their owner’s actions as instrumentally as some masters used Christianity to teach their slaves to obey them. But when off by themselves, at a social site of their own choosing, such as a late-night church service in the woods, their slave preachers may have preached of a day when all blacks would be free. Maybe they even proclaimed a classic millennial upside-down world where the bondsmen were the rulers and the masters the slaves. (Of course, the beliefs expressed at illicit activities are almost unknown, because little documentation about them exists, which is the usual nature of the hidden transcript).239 If there were such social sites, like a plantation’s quarters at night, largely or completely beyond the ability of the slaveholders to destroy or watch, then the slaves may have developed a crude counter-ideology that would sustain their spirits to resist their owners’ continuous oppression. While a lack of documentation makes the hidden transcript mostly irretrievable, especially for a mostly illiterate group as utterly subjugated as the slaves, occasional peeks at it are possible, such as through the slave narrative collection. The hidden transcript also increasingly slips into the public transcript as the chaos of the Civil War's last two years totally undermines the entire social system of slavery in the South, and the level of fear slaves have about speaking out plummets. Scott's conception of a hidden transcript generated by a subordinate group offstage likely inflicts a mortal wound on Genovese's theory of hegemony generally, including its implications for the slaves’ religious beliefs specifically.240
The religion of the slaves--largely a mixture of very basic Christian doctrine and some African practices and rituals--served a number of valuable purposes to the bondsmen. It offered them hope for the future afterlife and helped comfort them during the trials of the present life, because their faith told them the oppression that they suffered under would not last forever. By providing them with social gatherings, which (allegedly) served transcendent purposes, it helped weld local slave communities together. It provided an offstage social site (at least when illicitly used) where the trials of being a slave were openly discussed with others suffering the same condition. It bestowed on them an independent source of authority above the master’s that they could appeal to--the Christian God’s--and also from the slave preachers, who they saw as His representatives on earth. Despite masters and mistresses selectively taught slaves a religion supposedly shorn of subversive tendencies, it still handed them another ideological resource to criticize their owners’ failures. It also encouraged them to practice what they supposedly believed morally. Although the slaves normally could not count on them, there were some limits to slaveholder hypocrisy. Christian teaching sometimes could restrain slaveholders, such as when one white man rebuked a slaveowner who had beaten his slave (tied to a tree) with a cat-o'-nine tails for a long time:
Old Deacon Sears stand it as long as he can and then he step up and grab Old Master's arm and say, "Time to stop, Brother! I'm speaking in the name of Jesus!" Old Master quit then, but he still powerful mad.241
In this case, in which one white restrained another, the slave received only some comfort. But in other instances the slaves received much more, such as those of Eli Johnson and Adam, in which the slaves themselves made implicit appeals to a Higher Power above their masters and/or overseers, and their superiors responded to their pleas. Because slaveowners sharply reduced or eliminated the slaves’ outlets for personal expression that were normally available to free people, such as in business and social clubs, the slaves poured additional passion into their religion. This was one of the few venues where the bondsmen had a degree of cultural and social autonomy which many masters (at least by the mid-nineteenth century) willingly tolerated, or even actively promoted. In the field of religion, from both the conjurers with their African-derived beliefs and the slave preachers with their syncretistic faith, the slaves received a source of authority besides that of the slaveholders, which was a development that helped them mentally, emotionally, even spiritually, to survive the oppression of bondage.
English Agricultural Workers and Christianity
While religion played a central role in the social lives of the slaves (when their masters permitted it), it mattered less to the English farmworkers. The slaves often were largely prohibited from any other organized group activities besides church services on a regular basis, outside of the holiday-related parties masters might hold during the Christmas season in late December. They poured their passion into what was permitted them, above and beyond the Africanisms expressed in highly emotional church services. In contrast, the farmworkers had other social outlets, such as benefit clubs, friendly societies, even the pub, which decreased the emphasis placed on church services when they lacked a strong religious motivation. Since they were not as oppressed as the slaves by the legal system, they could engage in more activities largely or completely organized by themselves, including (after Parliament repealed the Combination Acts) even unions for some in the 1860s and 1870s.
Reasons for the Established Church's Unpopularity with the Laborers
Why many farmworkers lacked faith (as expressed by church attendance) in organized religion can also be explained politically. The Anglican church and its parsons personified the establishment in England, and its interests in keeping the laborers in line. They increasingly saw the Established Church as a tool of the gentry and farmers for controlling them. The message of obedience to the secular authorities as the powers-that-be which are ordained of God once again resonates, though perhaps less often than in American slave states.242 John Wesley, although the founder of Methodism, himself died a good Anglican. Upholding Toryism in politics, he repeatedly taught this doctrine.243 Emphasizing the next life as the cure for the present life’s material inequalities appears in English preaching, as does the implicitly subversive teaching that all persons are equal in God's sight.244 The farmers themselves resented the burdens of the tithing system that supported the church. Then the laborers, fairly or not, saw the tithes as yet another reason for their low wages.245 The farmers frequently used the burden of tithe-paying to justify cutting or not raising wages, thus helping mobilize the laborers’ resentment to serve their own agenda on occasion, such as in some areas during the Swing riots.246 The charity which the parsons and their wives dispensed came not freely, but at the cost of the laborers’ having to obey clerical demands. Since in many parishes pluralists held the livings, another problem arose. Supposedly attending to more than one parish, they often didn’t appear in "their" parishes for months or years on end. So if they did not care enough to live in a given laborer’s parish, why should he or she care about going to church to listen to some ill-paid curate preach?247 Parsons and other Establishment churchmen gave sermons sometimes as loaded as white preachers gave to slaves concerning the laborers’ God-ordained need to obey the secular authorities over them. Having recalled scenes where at least 500 "boys and men" would have left similar churches in the past, Cobbett commented on why he saw very few laborers leave a church at Goudhurst:
Here I have another to add to the many things that convinced me that the labouring classes have, in great part, ceased to go to church; that their way to thinking and feeling with regard to both church and clergy are totally changed; and that there is now very little moral hold which the latter possess.248
Hence, in many areas where the farmworkers especially resented the establishment (the power axis of gentry/farmers/parsons), Dissent and Non-conformity gained popularity, thus filling Methodist chapels while emptying Anglican churches.
The Church’s unpopularity with many laborers had many identifiable roots. One source was simply the unequal treatment they received at church services with the well-off, who were supposedly their equals before God and brothers in Christ. Cobbett--unrealistically--extolled the glories of making everyone in the medieval past stand or kneel for the entire church service because then: "There was no distinction; no high place and no low place; all were upon a level before God at any rate." He noted the favoritism shown to the rich at church by how and where they sat: "Some were not stuck into pews lined with green or red cloth, while others were crammed into corners to stand erect, or sit on the floor." In these situations, the laborers were necessarily treated with contempt by their alleged betters through social discrimination in an alleged "house of God." Arch mentioned similarly that, at the local Anglican services in Barford, Warwickshire, the laborers and others in poverty had "lowly places" where they had to "sit meekly and never dare to mingle with their betters in the social scale." Curtains were put up to shield the wealthier folks from the gaze of Hodge nearby. The parson's wife threw her weight around by ordering the laborers and their wives one day to sit on opposite sides of the aisle. Worst of all, as a mere seven year old eyeing through a keyhole what happened when his father took communion, Arch noticed the squire took it first, followed by the farmers, the tradesmen and artisans, and last and least in the local social hierarchy, the laborers:
Then, the very last of all, went the poor agricultural labourers in their smock frocks. They walked up by themselves; nobody else knelt with them; it was if they were unclean . . . I wanted to know [asking his mother] why my father was not as good in the eyes of God as the squire, and why the poor should be forced to come up last of all to the table of the Lord.249
Similarly, American slaves received communion last in mixed congregations. At services conducted like this, James 2:1-4 was an unlikely text for the day!
How the Local Elite Can Use Charity to Control the Poor
At least when they were not absentee pluralists, the local clergy sometimes provided aid to local laborers. The rector of St. Giles, Wiltshire, at the seat of Lord Shaftsbury, gained great praise from his extensive charitable works. But his good deeds, as Somerville observed, wrought some bad results: the loss of habits of independence and the inclination of charity’s recipients to feel that they must have it and "were not previously as well provided for as they should be." In short, even non-government handouts still tend to breed dependency and discontent. Arch mentioned that his local parson and his wife served up soup and gave out coals to local laborers. Their charitable acts were little to their credit, however, because they used them to control the laborers receiving them. By threatening to withdraw these gifts for any laborers or their wives who disrespected or disobeyed them, they routinely received acts of obeisance from the otherwise reluctantly compliant. For example, the laborers' wives at church had to curtsey to the parson's wife. In one instance, when she suddenly ordered the hair of all the girl students in her parish "cut round like a basin, more like prison girls than anything else," Arch's mother battled this decree and won, but at a certain cost: "From that time my parents never received a farthing's-worth of charity in the way of soup, coals, or the like, which were given regularly, and as a matter of course, from the rectory to nearly every poor person in the village." As an adult, Arch successfully fought a similar crusade for his nine-year-old daughter. She wished to wear a hair net decorated with some white beads to school, which the parson's wife tried to stop because: "We don't allow poor people's children to wear hair-nets with beads." Obliquely extracting acts of deference by threatening to withdraw charity paled by comparison with the parson’s (and farmers’) direct threats to cut off aid from those daring to attend with some Dissenters who preached in a local back lane's old barn. Having already lost all access to handouts, Arch's mother without hesitation attended there--but the threats may have kept other laborers from doing likewise.250 These incidents illustrate how charity can be a tool of social control wielded by the elite against the poor. Although a potential donor does not use physical force by denying someone a handout, those directly owning the means of production produce a powerful incentive for obedience by threatening to withdraw aid from those largely or completely without productive private property. The subordinate class then may have little choice (besides migration) except to comply with the strings attached to such costly "gifts." By these machinations with charity, the Church gained the bodies of some people at weekly services but often lost their hearts.
The tithes were the leading reason for the Church’s unpopularity among the farmer and laborer alike. Two types of tithes existed generally, the great or rectorial tithe, and the small or vicarial tithe. The first entitled its owner (for it could be and was sold to non-clergymen) to one-tenth of the produce of the soil and forests, such as one-tenth of the wheat or hay grown in the parish. The second was given only to the highest resident clergyman, which may be the rector, the vicar, etc. Strongly sympathizing with the rioters, an anonymous pamphlet published during the Swing riots described how the tithes reduced "Swing" from a small farmer to a laborer whose services the parish auctioned off to another farmer at three shillings a week. “Swing” replied to the equally fictional parson who came to collect one-tenth of his crop when he was really entitled to two-thirds less because of two prior fallow years: "Why surely . . . your reverence will not rob my poor little children, by taking two-tenths more than you have a right to?" The pamphlet may be fictional, but the resentment expressed was real, and captured the flavor of much popular opinion in the countryside. These views were shared by the semi-literate laborer who wrote to the Rector of Freshwater (Isle of Wight) after some small act of arson had been committed against him: "For the last 20 year wee have been in a Starving Condition to maintain your D[---] Pride . . . As for you my Ould frend you dident hapen to be hear, if that you had been rosted I fear, and if it had a been so how the farmers would lagh to see the ould Pasen [Parson] rosted at last."251 Clearly the Church, by latching onto the state's power to gain it mammon, lost itself many hearts and minds because it forced people to support a particular organized religion that personified the local establishment. Had the Church adopted the early nineteenth-century American model of volunteerism, under which people only support and attend "the church of their choice," it would have held its parishioners much better than it did.
The Laborers’ Turn to Nonconformity and Its Mixed Results
Like other occupational groups in England, as the laborers' support for the Church waned, that for Methodism and other Nonconformist groups waxed. Depending on what its examiners emphasize, Methodism's effects on the laborers' (and other workers') willingness and ability to resist their superiors results in rather wildly disparate interpretations in the historiography. Undeniably, a peculiar correlation existed between annual peaks in radical activity (and/or its aftermath) and Methodist conversions in areas noted for working class unrest.252 On the one hand, E.P. Thompson sees this movement as producing cathartic effects on working class emotions by draining away energy, money, and time from the radical reformers in the early nineteenth century. By emphasizing discipline at work, such as through punctuality and steady attendance, Methodism has been called a tool of factory owners that served their requirements for work discipline over and above its general message that advocated submission to the state.253 On the other hand, by teaching its members practical ways to organize themselves (such as through the handling of money) into larger, more orderly groups and giving them (sometimes) managing and even preaching roles in the local chapels, Methodism helped lay some of the foundation for unionization of the work force. In the Established Church, the laborers came just to listen; in the Chapels, they came to participate. They had a real hand in administration, in trying to convert others, arguing doctrine, etc.254 Joseph Arch personifies effects like these. He was a Nonconformist and even an occasional lay preacher before founding the first national farmworkers union.255 George Loveless, one of the martyrs in the infamous Tolpuddle case was not only a Methodist, but had a "small theological library."256 Despite Wesley's personal conservatism and the mainline Methodist ministry’s, these cases show that Christianity's message of the equality of all persons in God's sight naturally did not stay corked up, in some workers and laborers' minds, in some bottle labeled "spiritual only," but it flowed out as they also applied it to the affairs of this world. Then a few who thought this way turned the incidental training in organization that Methodism gave to the working class back against their employers (including the farmers) through unions and friendly societies (which sometimes served as fronts for unions).257
Christianity: An Instigator of Laborers' Resistance?
Joseph Arch’s own life provides excellent examples of how Christianity's teachings could be turned against the elite nominally upholding them. At a meeting gathering together union delegates from all over England, while they sang a stirring pro-union hymn, he thought: "Joseph Arch, you have not lived in vain, and of a surety the Lord God of Hosts is with us this day." In his version of Christianity, God clearly supported his efforts to unionize the farmworkers. Later, sounding like an Old Testament prophet, in a long speech given to his fellow laborers, he thundered:
I have heard that, in various parts of the country, the farmers have threatened to pinch their labourers this winter, and to reduce their wages to ten shillings a week. . . . Will that stop foreign competition? No! and God will avenge the oppressor. I believe that the succession of bad harvests are a visitation of the Almighty upon the farmers for their treatment of their labourers, and upon a luxurious and dissipated aristocracy. I believe in a God of Providence, and as sure as the sun rises and sets, He will avenge Himself on the oppressor. The farmer must not be too confident.
He employed similar Old Testament allusions when recalling how and where he led the founding of the agricultural laborers' union in 1872:
I know that it was the hand of the Lord of Hosts which led me that day; that the Almighty Maker of heaven and earth raised me up to do this particular thing; that in the counsel of His wisdom He singled me out, and . . . sent me forth as a messenger of the Lord God of Battles. . . . Only through warfare could we attain to freedom and peace and prosperity; only through the storm and stress of battle could we reach the haven where we would be. I was but a humble instrument in the Lord's hands, and now my work is over, my warfare is accomplished.258
Plainly invoking a religious sanction, even calling, for his work as a union leader, he condemned his enemies in the elite with language reminiscent of Ezekiel’s or Jeremiah’s. The bent Christianity which the elite emphasized--which taught obedience to the state and its sundry representatives–-Arch upends here. The subversive side of Christianity--the part emphasizing the rich should not oppress the poor, and that spiritual salvation is harder for them than for the poor–-Arch wielded against the farmers and aristocracy. As a general procedure, the subordinate class can condemn the elite by using the latter’s own ideology whenever they are hypocrites or fail to live up to the paternalistic Christian model they supposedly uphold. The elite naturally finds it harder to parry the poor’s points when couched in the elite’s own ideology. (Whether or not the poor really believe in the elite’s ideology (i.e., “false consciousness”) is another issue). Hence, Christianity, in certain hands, can become a fountainhead of resistance and action rather than a source of passivity and resignation in the affairs of this life. Being a package deal, and a double-edged sword, Christianity’s upper class promulgators could not always count on evangelization producing “useful” results.
Similarities in Southern White American and English Lower-Class Religion
The laborers enlisting in Methodism or another Nonconformist sect ultimately desired greater meaning out of their lives than the material world could provide, because of its oppression and disappointments. This religion told them they could achieve happiness without wealth by changing their outlook on life. But then what made its message any different from Anglicanism’s? The evangelical nonconformists stressed the need for a personal conversion event called becoming "born again," i.e., a highly emotional, even ecstatic, experience of oneness with God stemming from accepting Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah and Savior for their sins through His sacrifice. Since this experience does not come willy-nilly, but takes a high level of personal conviction and emotional upset over one's past life, Methodist preachers notoriously fomented emotional church services in order to help produce it. Cobbett looked down upon them with contempt for the evident irrationality and disorder involved, singling out the congregational singing as the only positive feature:
His hands [the Methodist minister's] were clenched together and held up, his face turned up and back so as to be nearly parallel with the ceiling, and he was bawling away, with his "do thou," and "mayest thou," and "may we," enough to stun one. Noisy, however, as he was, he was unable to fix the attention of a parcel of girls in the gallery, whose eyes were all over the place, while his eyes were so devoutly shut up. After a deal of this rigmarole called prayer, came the preachy, as the negroes call it; and a preachy it really was. Such a mixture of whining cant and of foppish affectation I scarcely ever heard in my life. . . . After as neat a dish of nonsense and of impertinences as one could wish to have served up, came the distinction between the ungodly and the sinner. . . . Monstrous it is to think that the Clergy of the Church really encourage these roving fanatics.259
Now compare Cobbett's contemptuous description of a Methodist service in Kent, England, to Olmsted's more objective but still somewhat skeptical observations of a spiritual meeting in the American South, held mostly for the whites, although the blacks present outnumbered them. The similarities show that lower-class Southern whites did not mainly derive an emotional style of religion from the slaves. In the American situation, a greater level of chaos prevailed: While the minister strived to win souls in a rather rude building, people kept coming and leaving, children crawled in the aisles (one even got into the pulpit a few times), and some dogs accompanied their masters. The preaching style was a twin of the Methodist service’s that Cobbett witnessed:
The preliminary devotional exercises--a Scripture reading, singing, and painfully irreverential and meaningless harangues nominally addressed to the Deity, but really to the audience--being concluded, the sermon was commenced by reading a text, with which, however, it had, so far as I could discover, no further association. Without often being violent in his manner, the speaker nearly all the time cried aloud at the utmost stretch of his voice, as if calling to some one a long distance off; as his discourse was extemporaneous, however, he sometimes returned with curious effect to his natural conversational tone; and as he was gifted with a strong imagination, and possess of a good deal of dramatic power, he kept the attention of the people very well.
Tumult accompanied the altar call as crying and groaning men and women stepped forward to kneel before the "howling preacher," who cried "aloud, with a mournful, distressed, beseeching shriek, as if he were himself suffering torture." The blacks watching it all, confidently awaiting their turn later with the same preacher, generally had "a self-satisfied smile upon their faces; and I have no doubt they felt that they could do it with a good deal more energy and abandon, if they were called upon." Although the African heritage of the slaves predisposed them towards energetic, emotional religious exercises, the parallels between the American and English cases demonstrate the poorer whites in the South or in England's industrial areas were likewise inclined towards a religion requiring their active participation. All three groups had a desire for an expressive faith that required their input and energy, whether it be through emotional church services, an active personal sense of having become converted as an adult, or getting involved in the organization of believers that supported the ministers. (After all, any religion downplaying emotion and/or rituals in favor of reason is a poor candidate for popularity with people of little or no education a priori). The blacks, drawing upon their own heritage, simply took advantage of the opening lower-class evangelical religion gave for expressing their emotions. They built upon it, adding ceremonies, such as the call-and-response singing and preaching, and the ring shout/dance, or simply did more energetically what the whites did. The emotionalism of Methodist services in England, among a people whose national temperament was traditionally described as including a "stiff upper lip," fatally undermines W.E.B. Dubois' claim that Southern whites merely had a "plain copy" of slave worship services.260 The blacks’ example may have encouraged some lower-class whites to express their emotions at religious services more strongly than their white Methodist kinsmen in industrial England's working class did, but their basic pattern of worship would have remained the same even if no slaves had been brought to the New World.
Somehow Seeking Participation in and Control of One's Destiny:
The Consolations of Faith?
Both slaves and laborers turned to evangelical Christianity to provide them with the meaning of life. They sought something that placed their own destiny in their own hands, as against living in a material world with often oppressive masters and employers and nearly zero social mobility. Through a faith where "he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman," where the eternal state was far more important than the present life, "a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away," at least some became more content in this life, seeing the trials of this life as preparation for the next. The truly ancient Stoic advice that one can control and change one's attitude or thinking when one cannot change one's material or physical environment bears fruit here. They also sought meaning through active participation in something, in some organization controlled at least partially by themselves, where people like themselves had some significant input. The slave preacher (or conjuror!) had almost the only influential social role a bondsman could have that was not directly derived from his master's power and ownership of property. The driver, the "mammy," even the skilled artisan, received positions based on their willingness to serve obediently their master or mistress. But on religious matters the slaves themselves frequently received a chance to organize a social group and its activities generally to their own liking, even though watchful whites carefully screened the ideological content emanating from the pulpit. Similarly, the laborers adopting Nonconformity, even when under the banner of mainline Methodism, took part in chapels where they determined their activities and influenced their organization much more than in the churches. Some, such as Arch, even received a chance to preach since formal qualifications (i.e., a seminary degree from university training) were not considered always essential. Now, it can be argued that slaves or laborers who adopted these beliefs drained energy from resistance movements that could have challenged the elite's hold on them. Nevertheless, the laborer embracing Nonconformity, or the slave participating in an illicit late-night meeting, figuratively voted "no confidence" about their masters’ religion as they presented it to their subordinate class. Although modern-day skeptics may dismiss them as passive in effect, such decisions of faith still subverted the elite's ideological hegemony. In a material world fraught with bondage, oppression, and hopelessness, they sought some means to assert they had ultimate control over their own destinies, and to participate in something that shaped their lives, instead of feeling their masters and natural events solely determined their fates. For these oppressed men and women, the consolations of faith for them were neither unimportant nor futile in their ultimate effects, bringing as it did meaning to lives otherwise vain and useless, largely consumed by the burdens their elites imposed.
The Slave Family: How Well Did It Survive Slavery?
One of the most endlessly contentious issues in the historiography of African-American slavery concerns how badly it damaged the black family as an institution. Contemporary politics always lurks in this debate’s background, and not just merely the civil rights movement, race riots, affirmative action, and abolition of Jim Crow. More specifically, the 1965 Moynihan report, which blamed the poverty of the inner cities on the black family's weaknesses going back to the time before emancipation, became a target of not just politicians or civil rights leaders, but historians. Moynihan maintains that the black community's disproportionately high number of female-headed, single-parent families, combined with absentee fathers, created in the ghettos a system of matriarchy by default, leading to increased crime and poverty from ill-raised children. At the time, his report created a storm of controversy, but rising concerns about the effects of increased white illegitimacy (and divorce) rates since then have combined with general political rhetoric nowadays about "family values" to vindicate mostly Moynihan's thesis in the culture at large in more recent decades, even though it only partially explains the genesis of poverty among American blacks.
Now, what does it mean to say the family is a "strong" or "damaged" institution, black and otherwise? Here, “a strong family” shall be defined as a stable traditional nuclear family of a husband, a wife, and their children, that avoids events such as divorce, illegitimacy, and death which either prevent its formation or break it up afterwards by separating its members, especially before the children become self-supporting adults. The purpose of the family in this context is to raise successfully well-adjusted, well-socialized children who will be able to make reasonable decisions and support themselves without burdening society by committing crimes, living off the dole for extended periods, or committing various other social pathologies. The black family under slavery endured additional events broke it up above and beyond those present among free people. Since slave marriages in the American South had no legal standing, masters and mistresses had the power to separate the husband or wife by sale from his or her mate. They also could take slave children from both or either of their parents in order to display them on the auction block. Since slaveholders normally (excepting in a state or two) held their bondsmen as chattels, personal moveable property, they could take them wherever they wished when relocating to another farm or plantation. So if one master owned the wife, and another the husband, the one moving away had no legal obligations to purchase the spouse left behind. Slaves also were disposed of as gifts, divided among heirs of an estate, rented for greater or lesser periods, or sold to meet the debts of bankrupt slaveowners. All these events often caused the separation of husbands and wives, of mothers, fathers, and children. Slaveholders frequently had no wish to maintain the marriage or parental bonds of their slaves since the goal of maximizing profits may require them to treat their human chattels as totally interchangeable units of labor. Consequently, the black family under slavery suffered additional constant assaults upon its stability besides what free people already endured, such as divorce, illegitimacy, and death. While the extra assaults never "destroyed" the black family as an institution, for numerous slaves fortunately avoided such disasters, or resourcefully patched new relationships together after their owners obliterated the old ones (if perhaps illicitly from the viewpoint of strict Biblical sexual morality), they still contributed to a sense of rootlessness, alienation, and greater inability to commit to stable relationships among many bondsmen. Because the slave family unit suffered additional strains imposed artificially by outsiders, this section devotes far more space to American slaves than to English farmworkers, for the latter’s conditions were “normal,” at least relative to a free society (meaning, one without serfdom or legal bondage) conforming to western European norms.
Importantly, the African-American slave family differed from those elsewhere in the Americas because of the nearly balanced male/female sex ratio in the United States, especially after the colonial period. Monogamy soon became the norm for the black American slave family, just as for whites, even though some curious exceptions occasionally appeared where masters did not care how many "wives" their male slaves took since their marriages had no legal standing anyway.261 The closing of the legal international slave trade for America after 1807 motivated masters and mistresses to maintain an even gender ratio among their bondsmen because they wanted to promote family arrangements that would keep up the birth rate. A disproportionately male slave population, as was the case south of the border, could not be expected to reproduce itself. The masters found an even sex ratio promoted their interests, and also the black family's stability--but such happy coincidences of slaveholder-slave self-interests in this realm proved to be few and far between.
The key difference between the quality of family life for the agricultural workers and slaves revolves around how their differences in legal status enabled slaveowners to subordinate the family unit of their slaves to the needs of agricultural production in ways almost impossible to do with English farmworkers, a theme returned to again below (pp. 167-176, 189-190). Slaveholders routinely manipulated or took advantage of the relationships between the members of slave families to serve their instrumental purposes in increasing output and profits. Master Jones could always threaten a defiant (married) “Sambo” with, in so many words, "If you don't shape up, I'll sell your wife [or you] South." In the English case, while a farmer could fire and work to blacklist a rebellious laborer, or (mostly post-1832) wave the sword of Damocles of the dreaded workhouse over a recalcitrant farmworker’s head if put out of work, he simply neither could threaten to dissolve the laborer's family as the ultimate sanction for violating work discipline nor manipulate the family's relationships to his own ulterior ends to anywhere near the same degree. Slaveholders could routinely whip their slaves, and most did, but no farmer could dare expect to get away with whipping adult farmworkers. The astute but ruthless slaveowner or overseer could take advantage of the relationships within the black family to maximize the effects of imposing submission by the lash. One particularly cruel overseer in Alabama "sometimes, to cramp down the mind of the husband, . . . would compel him to assist in the punishment of his wife."262 Miscegenation also undermined the quality of black family relationships. But here, the master, his sons, or his overseer sought sexual gratification instead of profit. The slaves’ quality of life fell way beneath the agricultural workers’ as a result of how their different legal statuses allowed slaveholders to subordinate totally human relationships within the slave family, such as husband and wife, mother and daughter, brother and sister, to weaken or to destroy them in order to serve work processes performed for someone else's ends of monetary or even sexual gain. The slaveowners’ ultimate crime against the black family was to treat it as a means to serve their own ends of increased profit outside the confines of Scriptural law, instead of letting this institution’s relationships serve its members’ ends of personal happiness and character growth.
The Family Bonds of Slaves Made Conditional upon the Stability of Slaveholders
In a number of ways, slaves had their family bonds solely conditionally upon the continued life and financial success of their (individual) owners. If a master (or perhaps mistress) went bankrupt or died, slave family bonds were dissolved to serve the interests of creditors or heirs. As Gundersen notes: "The value of slaves as property meant that black family stability was tied to the life cycle of their owners." The heirs split up the children of Harriet Brent Jacobs' grandmother. Her uncle Benjamin, "the youngest one, was sold, in order that each heir might have an equal portion of dollars and cents."263 Frederick Douglass himself experienced the terrible anxiety and excitement of a large estate’s division. All its slaves dreaded being turned over into the hands of a particularly cruel son of the recently deceased master. Douglass fortunately avoided that particular disaster. But the whole process of division, seemingly totally capricious at times to its victims, illustrated how the slaves' family and social lives meant little or nothing to the whites who, having total control over the slaves' destinies, settled the estate:
Our fate for life was now to be decided. We had not more voice in that decision than the brutes [farm animals] among whom we were ranked. A single word from the white men was enough--against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties--to sunder forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings.264
When financial trouble struck white slaveholders, slaves knew what was likely to follow, as "Uncle" Shade, once a slave in Georgia, commented: "Dey knowed all de white folkses troubles. Knowed when white man got ter raise money it mean you gwine see de spec'lator's buggy drivin' up, an' somebody gwine be sold!" Because his kind master went bankrupt, John Little was sold away from his family at public auction to a virtually inhuman one living ten miles away in the same county of North Carolina. His mother strived to get neighbors to buy him, but they refused, believing the slave traders would pay more. One man in Louisiana told Olmsted about men he knew as a child and had gone to school with who eventually fell on hard times, which came generally from their own fiscal irresponsibility and prodigal lifestyles. Another told him about one largely wiped out by the weather: "Had two bad crops. Finally the sheriff took about half his niggers." Since the master of Charles Ball died with heavy debts, some of his slaves were sold to different masters, including Ball’s brothers and sisters: "Our new master took us away, and I never saw my mother, nor any of my brothers and sisters afterwards." Under these conditions, the preservation of relationships within slave families depended not only on the master’s kindness, but also upon his continued life and financial success. Slave families were vulnerable to division from any upsets that disturbed the whites owning them.265
Living amidst a nation settling a wilderness, slave families were split up for another reason: The whites frequently moved while carving out new farms and plantations on the frontier or elsewhere in the South. Since the wilderness seemed limitless, the white settlers found it profitable to exhaust the soil's fertility and then move on for another spot to exploit. As a result, the American white population was much more mobile than the laborers who were scraping out a living near some village in southern England–-a reality full of ominous implications for slave family stability. Different slaveholders often owned different members of the same slave families. The practice of one master owning the husband, and another the wife and children, was especially common. Family divisions routinely took place without the sound of an auctioneer's gavel simply by one planter moving his slaves to some new, more fertile piece of land in another state or county. When visiting Texas, Olmsted noted that after the land was sold separately from the slaves, "the whole body of slaves move away, leaving frequently wives and children on neighbouring plantations. Such a cause of separation must be exceedingly common among the restless, almost nomadic, small proprietors of the South." After carefully examining 65 slave narratives, Davis finds the relocation of owners was the second most common reason for slaves to move, accounting for some 46 relocations out of 350, following rentals at 103 moves. In five of the sixty-five cases, slaves accompanied their masters when moving long distances westward. Constituting an extreme case, the master of Henry Bruce moved nine times in less than ten years. Fogel and Engerman claim that 84 percent of all interregional movement of slaves resulted from masters relocating. But after examining the statistical basis for this number, Gutman and Sutch demolished it. After committing a arithmetic error in division, Fogel and Engerman casually accepted Calderhead's assumption that 50 percent of the slaves migrating in Maryland were sold outside the state, leaving 50 percent to have moved with their masters. As Gutman and Sutch observe: "But even when the error is corrected, the result is still a totally baseless number produced by a faulty procedure." So even when no sale took place, white slaveholder relocations still routinely destroyed slave families by separating their members.266
The Routine Destruction of Family Relationships under Slavery
During sales, slaveholders often ignored the family "bonds" of the human beings they owned. Such stories are legion. Freedwoman Joanna Draper's story shows that masters knew selling a slave woman away from her childern was despised, but her owner still did it anyway: "He sold her (my husband's mammy) off and lied and said she was a young girl and didn't have no husband, 'cause the man what bought her said he didn't want to buy no woman and take her away from a family." R.S. Sorrick, sold as a slave himself at the age of one, told Drew that he knew of one-month-old babies being sold away from their mothers! Dan Josiah Lockhart was sold at age five, "and when I first saw my mother to know her, I had a wife and child." "Uncle" Shade, born in Georgia, saw his seven brothers and sisters sold off to various different owners. Some of his brothers and sisters were resold twice as one trader sold to another, a process that scattered them over two or three states. He told Armstrong: "Did we ever find de chillun whut de spec'lators tuk? Naw suh. You know how 'tis. When de fambly once scattered, it's hard to get togedder ergain!" After one slave trader purchased and planned to take far away all seven of one mother’s children via the auction block, the woman cried in agony: "Gone! All gone! Why don't God kill me?" Sales affected others besides mothers and their children. Without warning, Charles Ball’s owner sold him away from his wife and children. He was not even allowed to see them again before leaving. His parents' marriage had ended similarly, when a Georgia trader took his mother away from Maryland, leaving his father behind. One slave woman auctioned off in Richmond, Virginia had been forced to separate from her husband two days earlier. While she had seven children, only three were sold with her. Why can similar stories about slave sales destroying family relationships can be recited seemingly endlessly? As Gutman and Sutch observe, as indicated by New Orleans sales invoices which number in the thousands, most sales of individuals reflect the destruction either of marriage or parental-child bonds: "The predominance in the New Orleans sales of single individuals, far from being evidence of the security of the slave family, is evidence that slave sales typically broke up slave families, since, as Bancroft knew, nearly every slave belonged to a family."267
Conscious of the family relationships of their bondsmen, at least some masters and mistresses tried to preserve them by attaching conditions to sales or restricting who could buy them. Under an ideal system of slaveholder paternalism, family bonds should only be broken under "necessity." Unfortunately, as shown above, "necessity" proved to be of common occurrence because of unpredictable events disrupting the lives of white slaveowners. For example, Mrs. Polk wanted to trade a family of slaves on her estate in Mississippi to avoid having to move them away from family and friends. This effort failed, although it was still hoped an exchange would occur later.268 Despite being often ignored, an anti-selling ethos did show up in slaveholder culture. Planter Captain Wayne Bedford was told, when he was twelve years old by his dying father, "to grow up, keep the plantation going, keep the slave families intact and above all take care of his mother."269 One bill collector, after showing up at planter Barrow’s door, "offered him a family of negros."270 Louisiana codified a bit of this paternalistic ethos by prohibiting the selling of children of age 10 or lower away from their mothers (fathers were irrelevant) unless they were orphans.271 According to Sweig, this law, passed in 1829, caused the number of single children ten years or less being sold to fall from 13.5 percent before April 1, 1829 to just 3.7 percent afterwards, based on incoming coastwise shipping manifests. Apparently responding to public criticism (or their own consciences), one major slave trading firm in New Orleans, Franklin and Armfield, chose to deal mainly in slave families after 1834.272 But such moves were mere baby steps. If the slaveholders really had taken seriously the slaves' family ties, they would have passed laws totally prohibiting the involuntary separation (for any cause) of husbands and wives, and of children from their parents when under the age of (say) eighteen. The general lack of such laws in the American South (outside of this Louisiana statute and any like it) proves most slaveholders valued flexibility in the labor market much more than the preservation of their slaves’ family relationships, any paternalistic pro-slavery propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding.
Fogel and Engerman's Mistakenly Low Figures on Marriage Breakup
Notoriously, Fogel and Engerman maintain relatively few slave marriages were broken up, based on a questionable reading of the New Orleans slave sale records. They said 84 percent of all sales of those over age 14 involved unmarried individuals, that 6 percent were sold with their mates, and widows and voluntary separations made up at least 25 percent of the rest (i.e., about 5 percent overall). Therefore, by a six-to-one (84 percent to 16 percent) ratio, single women were sold more commonly than married. Based on their fallacious figure (critiqued above) that sales caused only 16 percent of all interregional slave movement (even Calderhead’s guess was 50 percent), they conclude: "It is probable that about 2 percent of the marriages of slaves involved in the westward trek were destroyed by the process of migration."273 Their calculations rest upon some very questionable assumptions, which Sutch and Gutman examine at length. Most importantly, the New Orleans invoices rarely say anything about marital status, excepting the cases where married couples or families were disposed of as a unit. Using a sample limited to women aged twenty to twenty-four, Fogel and Engerman assume that broken marriages only happened when married women were sold with one or more children, but without a husband. Their assumptions overlook childless married couples, those whose children had all died, and all cases in which traders intentionally sold the (normally older) children apart from their parents. Slave traders in the frontier southwest had strong motives for selling slave mothers and fathers separately from their children because the newly opened plantations in that region only wanted hands able to work productively right away. Using probate records, Fogel and Engerman maintain only about half (53 percent) of slave women aged 20-24 (from which they extrapolate to the whole population of slave women) had children. This calculation’s plausibility melts before Kemble's observations about the universality of 16-year-old mothers and 30-year-old grandmothers on her husband's Georgian estates.274 Ironically, their own statements show married slave women (i.e., the 16 percent figure) were frequently separated from their mates by the auction block: If 6 percent were sold with their husbands and 25 percent were widows (an assumed figure--only 5.18 percent in the general population were), then sales did separate nearly 70 percent (100% - 25% - 6% = 69%) of all married couples sold in New Orleans. Here quantitative history supplies an excellent example of the GIGO principle at work: If certain false or questionable hypotheses are initially assumed, number crunching afterwards will not magically change them into "facts." Above all, Fogel and Engerman implicitly equate a broken slave family with a broken slave marriage, which blithely ignores how selling off children away from their parents also breaks family ties.275 Far more reliable broad-based quantitative data produce a much higher percentage of masters tearing up slave marriages. Based upon ex-slaves registering their marriages with the Freedman's Bureau, Blassingame derives a figure of 32.4 percent (out of a sample of 2888) while Gutman obtains 22.7 percent (from a sample of 8700).276 Undeniably, a high percentage of slave families suffered forcible separations because the slaveholders' labor market valued individuals’ work potentials as interchangeable units of labor far more than their family relationships.
How the Slaves' Fears about Family Breakup Could Make for Continual Anxiety
Like the sword of Damocles, a constant dread of sudden disaster hanged over the heads of slave family members. Without warning, at a slaveowner’s whim or turn of fate, he or she could destroy their family relationships through sale, moving, death, etc. This fear could transform itself into an all-consuming anxiety when a given bondsman had a personal make-up so inclined. Sarah Jackson had a good master, who even offered her and her children freedom. She took it because of a quite literal worry about the morrow: "I had served all my days, and did not feel safe at night: not knowing whom I might belong to in the morning. It is a great heaviness on a person's mind to be a slave. . . . I did not know how long before it would be my own fate. . . . I am better here [Canada] than I was at home,--I feel light,--the dread is gone." William Johnson explained why he fled bondage: "The fear of being sold South had more influence in inducing me to leave than any other thing. Master used to say, that if we didn't suit him, he would put us in his pocket quick--meaning he would sell us." Although Johnson was apparently a single man, having no marriage to lose through sale, this general fear gnawed away even on him. George Johnson of Virginia shared a similar anxiety, for the recalcitrant were more apt to be sold than whipped where he lived: "The slaves were always afraid of being sold South." Harriet Tubman constantly worried herself: "Then [after she grew older] I was not happy or contented: every time I saw a white man I was afraid of being carried away. I had two sisters carried away in a chain-gang,--one of them left two children. We were always uneasy."277 Once safely on the free soil of Canada, all these former slaves lost their nagging fears of being sold away from all they knew in this world, and likely being dumped elsewhere merely as some slaveholder's factor of production.
The Process of Being Bought and Sold as Itself Dehumanizing
The fear of being sold was one burden of slavery--quite another was the
dehumanizing process of sale itself. Here a buyer and seller likened your value to barnyard animals’, and weighed it in the balances of the cash nexus. You changed hands as if you were a piece of merchandise, with no end of your own choice but to serve the buyer's purposes in life. The physical inspection process, during which you as a slave had to strip your clothes off in order to help the prying eyes of unknown strangers inspect your body's various orifices, exemplified the intrinsic assault that sale constituted on your dignity. Katie Rowe of Arkansas once described how her master sold his slaves:
He had a big stump where he made the niggers stand while they was being sold, and the men and boys had to strip off to the waist to show they muscle and iffen they had any scars or hurt places, but [ah!--the privileges of Victorian womanhood!–EVS] the women and gals didn't have to strip to the waist. The white men come up and look in the slave's mouth just like he was a mule or a hoss.
During one slave auction in Richmond, Virginia, one witness described a potential purchaser, tagged by him "Wide-awake," conducting a physical inspection of the "merchandise" after having stared at “it”:
Moved by a sudden impulse, Wide-awake left his seat, and rounding the back of my chair, began to grasp at the man's arms [who was accompanied by a boy], as if to feel their muscular capacity. He then examined his hands and fingers; and, last of all, told him to open his mouth and show his teeth, which he did in a submissive manner.
This same witness later saw a black man told to strip behind a screen, where a dozen "gentlemen" rigorously examined his entire body, with "every tooth in his head . . . scrupulously looked at." As dreadful as the process of being sold was, the real pain came afterwards, from enduring separation from your loved ones, which for Douglass meant the friends he wanted to run away with before their scheme was exposed.278
How Slavery Undermined the Families of Slaves
The fear and indignities of sale or other ways separation from friends and relatives took place were but a subset of the damage slavery inflicted upon the enslaved black family. Slavery subverted the bondsmen's families by having the master organize his plantation or farm's work force as a collective serving his ends, having functions of life that normally would have been done by members of a family that he owned instead being done by others or by himself. The more activities others on the plantation performed for the family as part of their regular, non-household work, the weaker it became as a functioning unit because the plantation's organization for work supplanted roles that otherwise would have been performed within it. The master's work organization replaced whatever family economy the slaves would have developed, excepting those in task system areas who raised crops on patches of land in their free time off work. As noted above, old women and young children took care of the young babies of the mothers (and fathers) working in the fields. Clearly, the ever-so-practical masters denied to apply the Victorian idealization of the sex roles as expressed through the separate spheres to their adult female slaves, who went out into the fields with their men instead of caring for their children as homemakers during the day. Some large plantations replaced the cooking done by the slave families individually with communal kitchens, raising greatly the regimentation level of meal times. On the rice-island estate Kemble's husband owned, each one of the four settlements on the plantation had a "cook's shop," where "the daily allowance of rice and corn grits of the people is boiled and distributed to them by an old woman, whose special business this is." While here the bondsmen evidently still prepared food separately, perhaps by warming it up again for lunch, the basic cooking processes were still done communally. The more that the master did or had done for his bondsmen by them as part of their assigned job duties outside of their families, and the more he subordinated their preferences for a stronger sexual division of labor by driving both the women and men into the fields, the weaker as a functioning unit the slave family became.279
How Slavery Weakened the Father's Role
The father’s role clearly sustained the worst damage from the slave family's subordination to the overall work organization, a point which was inflamed by the controversy surrounding the Moynihan report in the 1960s. The causes for this are many, but a major reason was certainly the light weight masters placed on the father-child bond compared to the mother-child tie. Rarely, if ever, was a father sold with his children without the mother’s presence, but sales of mothers together with just their children were relatively common. The masters, undoubtedly influenced by their own patriarchal outlook on life, tended to see the men first as workers, and fathers second, but judged women’s role as mothers as equaling or exceeding their importance as workers. Slave mothers added to their owner’s wealth as she gave birth, but a slaveholder often rated the father's role, especially when another master owned him, as scarcely exceeding a stud’s or sperm donor’s. Partly because the slaves often chose to "marry abroad," that is, to choose a wife or husband owned by another slaveholder, the father’s role was lessened. This practice was enormously common--by one count, two-thirds of nuclear slave families had multiple owners, including cases in which the master owning the children differed from the one owning one of the parents. The husband, especially if he lived a considerable distance away, or his master was rather stingy with passes, often was a mere "weekend father" to his children. In this context, the length of the slaves' workday and the exhausting burdens of heavy field labor looms large, which surely would discourage long walks to a nearby plantation where the husband’s wife was. "Uncle Abram," a slave Northrup knew while enslaved in Louisiana, had a wife who lived seven miles away. He had permission to visit her once every two weeks on weekends. As "he was growing old, as has been said, and truth to say, [he] had latterly well nigh forgotten her." Since the master had such great power over his slaves, including control over their food supply, and the adults of both sexes worked in the fields or in the master's home, the slave father consequently lost the role of provider to his wife and children. Since she was with the children all weeknights, the slave mother did most of the daily housework that was crammed in between sleeping and days in the fields (or owner’s house). By feeding, dressing, and caring for her children much more, she maintained a much firmer family bond with them than the off-plantation father did. Her "quantity time" swamped any supposed "quality time" the father may have had with his children on weekends. Kemble's depressingly pessimistic analysis of slave fatherhood had a solid basis: "The father, having neither authority, power, responsibility, or charge in his children, is of course, as among brutes, the least attached to his offspring." Although Blassingame and especially Genovese emphasize that the slave "man of the house" sometimes helped his family through hunting, fishing, etc., the white master nevertheless had fundamentally undermined the importance of the slave father's position by subordinating his workers' family roles to their roles in the plantation’s or farm’s work process.280
The slaveowner’s total dominance weakened the slave father's role in other ways as well. The biggest, potentially most damaging threat to the man's role in the slave family came from his inability to stop physical punishments or sexual advances by masters who did either. Indeed, a major motive for “marrying abroad” was a husband’s desire to avoid seeing his wife be whipped or letting her see him be whipped. As Moses Grandy explained: "No colored man wishes to live at home where his wife lives for he has to endure the continued misery of seeing her flogged and abused, without daring to say a word in her defense." Harriet Jacobs was happy her lover, a free black carpenter, was not a slave, but even with his superior legal status he still had "no power to protect me from my master. It would have made him miserable to witness the insults I should have been subjected to." She encouraged him to move to the North, since she knew her master would not let her marry him anyway. True, sexually exploiting a slave woman could be hazardous to the health of the exploiter. Sometimes they paid with their lives since some bondsmen would kill them. Jacobs herself was happy when they had the boldness to "utter such sentiments [of opposition] to their masters. O, that there were more of them!" On the other hand, as a result of the dehumanizing, de-masculinizing effects of slavery, Jacobs lamented: "Some poor creatures have been so brutalized by the lash that they will sneak out of the way to give their masters free access to their wives and daughters."281 Despite the assaults on slave manhood and fatherhood, the passionate battles many husbands and wives fought against forced separations show that many had marriage and family relationships approaching normality. An enslaved man faced terrible impediments in fulfilling his position in nurturing his children and living in understanding with his wife, a role hard enough to make men to fulfill in contemporary free society. That some did is a testimony to the power of the human spirit under oppression, while those who failed suffered under burdens no American bears today.
Where the fathers failed, the mothers frequently picked up the slack. Slavery did strengthen the mother's role in the slave family at the expense of the father's, i.e., "matriarchy" did develop to some degree. The mother's unusually strong role had two major sources. First, by imposing field labor on both sexes, slaveholders basically eliminated the sexual division of labor by creating a kind of forced equality. Second, the practice of having a wife or husband "living abroad" produced a sense of independence in the women because their men simply were not often physically present for much of the day or week.282 The slave wife on her own would care for her children, cook, work, etc. without her husband around except on weekends (or perhaps weeknights) after he had used a pass to go visit her. The men themselves effectively took on the mentality that their master's place was a barracks, while "home" was where their wives lived. Because they were not the providers, and did not own or control property which made their wives dependent on them and what they earned, they intrinsically had less control over their wives compared to free men, as White notes. Planter Barrow strongly opposed letting slaves marry off plantation. Giving a number of reasons against the practice, he in part enumerated: "2d Wherever their wives live, there they consider their homes, consequently they are indifferent to the interest of the plantation to which they actually belong." And because "marrying abroad" was so routine, the "weekend father/husband" role was ubiquitous in the slave community. As noted above, two-thirds of slave nuclear families by one quantitative study had members owned by multiple masters; "marrying abroad" was surely a major reason for the divided ownership. Since such a slave family’s stability was surely conditional to what could happen to two masters, not just one, this arrangement increased the likelihood of forced separations if one master or the other should move, die, go bankrupt, etc. One reason Barrow attacked "marrying abroad" was to avoid involuntary separations. Hence, the practice of "marrying abroad," of seeing the grass as greener on the other side of the fence when choosing a mate, caused a sense of rootlessness in the men, requiring by default the women to take on additional responsibilities at home and work which made them more independent of their husbands.283
Factors Which Encouraged Slaves to Treat Marriage Bonds Casually
No slave state recognized marriages between slaves. Legally the slaveholders’ regime no more concerned itself about an enslaved man and woman living together than about two barnyard animals copulating. Because these ceremonies had no legitimacy, the master had the authority to perform slave weddings; he often joined slave couples together. Some weddings were relatively elaborate, such as those for some favored domestic servants, and still more had a minister perform them.284 But since the normal slave wedding was performed very casually, this very lack of gravity to the ceremony induced many to take their vows correspondingly lightly. In one case, after the master gave his permission, and he said to bring the slave woman to the big house, the couple exchanged their vows thus:
'Nat, will you take Matilda fo' yo' wife?' 'Yes suh,' Pappy say. 'Matilda, you take Nat fo' yo' husban'?' 'Yes, Massa,' she say. 'Den consider yo'self man an' wife!' he say. An' de names went in de book, whar us-all lil' nigger went down later on.'
Another master routinely used a white preacher to marry his slaves, but a neighboring white master, recalled freedwoman Millie Evans of North Carolina, joined together his slaves himself. "He would say to the man: 'Do you want this woman?' and to the girl, 'Do you want this boy?'" After having the couple jump the broom, he'd say, "That's your wife" to the groom. Olmsted found some dispensed with any ceremony at all, after their owner gave them permission. The former long-time overseer that Kemble's husband had employed took the marriage bonds of the slaves very casually in practice. If he heard anything about disagreement between a slave husband and wife, he would make them switch partners in order to curb the marital wrangles.285 These practices illustrate how the surrounding white society actively destroyed slave marriages even when no sales or relocations took place, since the couples were not forced or even allowed to work out their problems to help ensure stability in the quarters. Since the masters knew slave marriages were not legally binding, they often failed to take them seriously themselves, which then encouraged their slaves also to take their vows casually, even when many did not.
How Slavery Encouraged a Casual Approach to Family Relationships
A lack of commitment to family relationships often afflicted bondsmen, as amply documented below. This tendency in part came from the alienation the system of slavery produced among them, in which many felt more or less rootless and untied to a particular place or set of fellow humans.286 Alienation could serve as a defensive mechanism for emotional and psychological protection against loss a priori. Alienation could also be produced among the slaves after they personally experienced being uprooted and transported from all they had known to some distant plantation where their ability to raise and pick cotton was all that mattered. Hence, a feeling of separation or withdrawal from a position, place, or object of previous sentimental attachment could be either a preemptive measure or the eventual consequence of being forcibly separated from family members and friends. Unlike white families in the larger society, the slave family received no benefit from any legal protections and relatively little from positive societal pressures on its members to preserve their relationships with one another.287 Overseer Ephraim Beanland, who was about to move James Polk's slaves down to Mississippi to open a new plantation, tried to buy the wife of a slave that a neighboring master owned, but without success: "I went yesterday and ofered Carter $475 for Seasers wife and she is not willinge to go with you [Polk] so I tell Seaser that she dose not care any thinge for him and he sayes that is a fact."288 The white master’s wish to move his slaves was hardly the only problem here, for he authorized his overseer to offer some cold hard cash to preserve the slave marriage in question. For whatever reason, Caesar's wife used Polk's move as a convenient way to divorce her husband. A casual approach to sexual relationships did appear in the quarters. One slaveholder told Olmsted that the slaves would spend a few weeks "trying each other" before choosing settling down with a particular mate.289 One frustrated master found his slaves avoided quarrels and stole little, but he could not "break up immorality . . . Habits of amalgamation, I cannot stop." The wife of a white pastor for a black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, incredulously discovered that many took their marriages very lightly. They wanted divorces for apparently trivial cases of disagreement or incompatibility. One man sought to get rid of his wife for wanting to spend all he made on clothes, while one woman visited the pastor's home to make this request: "I came to ask, please ma'am, if I might have another husband."290 The two whites here condemned the sexual promiscuity and casual relationships these actions manifested. But because the white community fundamentally had taken the blacks’ family relationships rather offhandedly itself, it had little reason to expect anything better. It denied their slaves’ relationships legal recognition by authorizing the willy-nilly separations that masters for any whimsical reason at their command could impose on slave couples. It’s wrong to expect all the black community to respect their marriage relationships as sacred when their white owners clearly denied they were by their own actions.
Even the parental-offspring relationship was often treated casually. Although the passion expressed by many slave mothers as their children were separated by the auction block from them for the rest of their lives is truly notorious, others dealt with their offspring quite impersonally. The father-child bond was much weaker than the mother-child tie, for reasons like those given above. Kemble found one baby of a slave family had just been "mercifully removed [from] the life of degradation and misery" to which its birth had doomed it. The father, mother, and nurse who also was its grandmother, all seemed apathetic and indifferent to its death, either from, Kemble inferred, the
frequent repetition of similar losses, or an instinctive consciousness that death was indeed better than life for such children as theirs . . . The mother merely repeated over and over again, 'I've lost a many; they all goes so;' and the father, without word or comment, went out to his enforced labor.
The root of the high infant mortality rates may have been a semi-intentional carelessness, over and beyond the bad treatment and material conditions, such as minimal maternity leaves, that many slave mothers endured. Barrow negatively cited Luce for "Neglect of child. Its foot burnt." This case was hardly unique. Edie, on Kemble's husband's estate, lost all seven of her children. On Polk's plantation, Evy’s babies never lived long after their births. Why did Barrow's slave Maria neglect to tell him earlier about her baby's sick condition before it died? Why did "Candis" say her child was just a little sick when, after checking, "Old Judy" found it lay dying, "'pulseless.'" And Matilda chose not to tell the overseer she was pregnant until a few minutes before her baby’s birth. The child died the next day, evidently because the midwife could not arrive to help soon enough. Although a skeptic of a sometimes weak mother-child tie could always attribute all these deaths to simple bad luck, disease, bad treatment, and poverty, a theme of almost willful neglect still seems to lurk in their background. Consider Bassett’s speculations about Evy's string of infant deaths:
But we may judge that a controlling cause was her inefficiency in taking care of them. Perhaps she did not feel much interest in their health. They were not hers, but her Master's. Why should she be interested in taking care of master's negroes? Here was mother love at a low ebb. . . . Fortunately not all slave women were indifferent on this point.291
Although this analysis cannot be decisively proven without direct access to the slave women's own thoughts, sometimes it should still be seen as a serious possibility. The sense of alienation many slave mothers likely felt from life itself may have made them careless about continuing it in others when existence was a continuous, burdensome round of drudgery organized to serve mainly someone else's ends in life.
Children also sometimes felt a weak emotional tie to their parents, as freedwoman Linley Hadley's story demonstrates: "My papa went on off when freedom come. They was so happy they had no sense. Mama never seen him no more. I didn't either. Mama didn't care so much about him. He was her mate give to her. I didn't worry 'bout him nor nobody then." True, since her owner arranged (or helped to arrange) her parents’ marriage, the husband-wife relationship was correspondingly weak, so they used the arrival of freedom as a convenient moment to get divorced. Nevertheless, the daughter felt no emotional loss about her father’s permanent departure. Frederick Douglass felt no particular ties to the plantation he had lived on before going to Baltimore. He knew no father, who was a white man, his mother was dead, and he rarely saw his grandmother. Although he lived with two sisters and one brother, "the early separation of us from our mother had well nigh blotted the fact of our relationship from our memories." He felt no homesickness when moving away:
The ties that ordinarily bind children to their homes were all suspended in my case. I found no severe trial in my departure. My home was charmless; it was not home to me; on parting from it, I could not feel that I was leaving any thing I could have enjoyed by staying.292
Douglass's case exemplifies the sense of alienation, detachment, and rootlessness that slavery inflicted on many bondsmen. Consider the inevitable reactions of slaves, after having developed close relationships with their spouses or children, who were then suddenly sold away from all they knew as home and family. They frequently had to finish out their lives on a distant plantation among (initially) strangers under the lash of some brutal overseer or owner who saw slaves as workers above all, not as fathers, husbands, or sons, mothers, wives, or daughters. Certainly the slaves felt little sense of loyalty to the larger white community, i.e., America as a whole, because of the bad treatment and conditions they endured, not to mention how some education was necessary for the creation of nationalism to begin with. A detached, uncommitted outlook on life, developed as a protective psychological mechanism, perhaps affected a majority of slaves, certainly likely a significant minority, which has ominous implications for the looseness of their family bonds.
Other Ways Slavery Destroyed Family Relationships
Slavery damaged the slaves’ family relationships in other ways, even among those seriously committed their families. Slaves planning to run away faced the cruel dilemma of choosing between freedom and family. As noted below, the slaves’ desire to preserve family relationships was a major deterrent against running away. One woman in Virginia, caught between conflicting orders her master and her foreman gave about getting ice for the former while she was sick, "took to the woods" and was not seen again. She left behind a young nursing infant who soon died, despite another woman took care of it. Escaping after being very badly treated, Christopher Nichols, a Virginian slave, knew liberty had a high price for him: "I left a wife and three children, and three grandchildren,--I never expect to see them again in this world--never." One slave woman in Alabama had six children by six different men, spectacularly illustrating how slavery could undermine family stability. Three of her husbands were sold, another died, and "two others failed to making any lasting attachments." Hence, one of those children, "Aunt" Olivia, had no memories of her father, and commented: "On count o' de husban's changin' so freqump, we all raise up widout any reg'lar Pappy."293 Perhaps for one of these reasons--sale or divorce--was why Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered nothing about her father. Joanna Draper of Mississippi had been rented out to some place about a hundred miles distant from her original master's place after being sold. Around the age of twelve, she was freed, leaving her on her own from then on. Here the indifference, the rootlessness, the alienation, are all obvious in her statement about why she did not go back to her parents: "I don't know why I never did try to git back up around Hazlehurst and hunt up my pappy and mammy, but I reckon I was just ignorant and didn't know how to go about it. Anyways, I never did see them no more." William Harrison, once a Virginian slave, had been sold away from his parents when he was about eight years old. After serving in the Union Army, he did go to look for his parents, but couldn't find them. He had heard that his mother had been sold from Selma, Alabama, to Birmingham. While searching for her, he stayed one night with a family in Birmingham. Years later, he found out from his brother who he had met while in the army that he had accidently stayed with his mother! Although possibly the product of an overactive imagination, the ultimate Oedipal nightmare of how slavery scrambled family relationships concerned a man who married his own mother by accident after full emancipation came.294 This grab bag of cases illustrates how slavery could mangle slave family relationships, through a melange of sales, leasing, distant, failed childhood memories, and a lack of commitment to family obligations. In other cases, a thirst for freedom robbed them of their family relationships when they chose the former above the latter. Slavery in the Southern states and the general westward movement towards the frontier combined together to form a vast engine for confusing, destroying, and weakening many slaves' family lives.
How the Master Could Routinely Interfere in Slave Family Relationships
The master or mistress’s steady intervention in slave family life helped produce instability in its relationships besides the damage inflicted when they dissolved the family itself by sale, moving, etc. Slaveowners might choose to punish a husband and/or wife for fighting, arguing, or committing adultery. The master, instead of the parents, might punish a slave child for some petty infraction. Since the master loomed above the slaves as a paterfamilias, a father of fathers, some (likely among the domestic servants, not field hands) might have turned to a kind master, and asked him to solve family problems which, had they been free, they would have worked out on their own. Striking at the slave family’s deepest foundations, miscegenation was another way a master could interfere with it. The master (and/or his sons)--rarely was it ever a mistress--would sexually exploit the women under his (or their) authority, and have children by them. The master (or overseer) here thrust himself between the slave woman and her man in order to satisfy his own sexual appetites.295 Forced to stand aside, the black husband usually had to tolerate this intruder into his marriage bed, although some bravely retaliated in a self-sacrificial defiance, surely knowing the dangers involved.296 If the woman was unmarried, her offspring were necessarily illegitimate, and normally lacked a father figure and role model to give them direction in life, assuming they were not sold outright to appease the mistress’s jealousy. Harriet Jacobs's daughter, whose father was a prominent white man, later becoming a congressman in Washington, D.C., lived with him as a domestic servant and slave. He showed no love towards her despite being affectionate to his white daughter by his wife.297 Work discipline issues here spill into the slaves’ personal lives, because the master would regulate and control the off-work lives of his slaves far more than a typical employer would regulate the lives of his employees, excepting live-in helpers such as domestic and farm servants. Since the master claimed the bondsmen themselves as his property, controlling them when they were not working was also part and parcel of his responsibilities over his "troublesome property." Since the slaves normally lived upon the master's land in "company housing," this further increased his power over them, with the important variation that the employees were "company owned" as well! Thus masters and mistresses also weakened slave family ties by their constant daily interference when doing things for the slaves that free blacks would have done on their own or through the (mostly) former’s sexual misconduct and its inevitably unpleasant consequences.
Forced arranged marriages were another way a master or mistress could interfere in their slaves' family lives. The slaveholders normally let romantic love between the men and women they owned take care of their desires for their "negro property" to multiply, be fruitful, and replenish the American wilderness. Nevertheless, slaveowners had the power to impose, not just to destroy, marriages. Charley Nicholls's master in Arkansas said he was going to choose a good woman for him. When he suggested he might help him in the selection process, his owner laughed and said: "Charles, nobody yo' age got any sense, white or cullud!" After the master presented him with "de house-gal," Anna, the choice impressed him. The grin on her face then showed the feeling was mutual. They went on to have no less than twenty-four children together. (One has to wonder whether the master knew his domestic servant had her eye on Nicholls already!) But master-arranged marriages were unlikely sources of soul mates. Consider now the surely far more common and less happy outcomes of such matches as illustrated by Rose Williams’s case. Her master told her to live with Rufus, a big bully of a man, when she was about sixteen years old and still in virginal ignorance. During the first night, she threw him out of bed and banged him over the head with a poker. She had another run-in with him the next night, when she threatened him with the poker again: "Git 'way from me, nigger, 'fore I bust your brains out and stomp on them." Afterwards, her master offered her two choices: Either accept a whipping at the stake or live with Rufus in order to have children for him. Out of the fear of the whip and appreciation from his buying her with her parents the year before, she yielded. William Grose, formerly a slave in Virginia, was sold away from his wife, a free woman. His new master sent for a woman, who after coming in, was unceremoniously assigned to him: "That is your wife . . . Cynthia is your wife, and [to his brother sold with him] Ellen is John's." When doing such things, masters treated their human chattels like animal stock, implicitly acting as if the slaves treated the most physically intimate relationship possible between two people as a purely animal function. Which specific individual was assigned to another mattered little; producing children who increased their owner's net worth mattered much. In Rose Williams' case, her master pointed out he had paid big money for her, so he wanted her to have children. Her mistress said since both Williams and Rufus were "portly," the master wanted them to "bring forth portly children.” What about quality of character and compatibility in personality when men and women choose mates? Well, those characteristics take a back seat to the slaves’ duties to serve as profitable breeding stock for their owners. As it has been observed, unlike the case for traditional societies where arranged marriages remain the norm to this day, those imposed on the slaves were done not in the interests of the families (or the parents of the children) being joined together, but to benefit some third party, the slaveholder. Master-arranged marriages inevitably raised the levels of alienation within the slave family unit and increased the "voluntary” separation rate among bondsmen since the unifying bond was forced, as Linley Hadley's comments above illustrate. Although the slaves did not have to endure imposed marriages often, they certainly were yet another factor that contributed to slave family instability that the slaveowners inflicted.298
Just How Common Was Miscegenation?
How common was miscegenation? It constituted a major, blatant, and direct subversion of the bondsmen’s marriages by their masters. Fogel and Engerman argue that the miscegenation rate was around 1-2 percent per generation. Surprisingly enough, unlike most of their innovative claims, this assertion can survive the scrutiny of their critics. Gutman and Sutch's rebuttal, which proposes a transmission rate in the 4-8 percent range per generation, builds upon an earlier, higher estimate of the percentage of white genes in the African-American population of .31 by Glass and Li. A later, improved estimate by Roberts brought it down to about .20 by substituting data from West African populations (i.e., from Africans of the same ethnic stock as most American blacks) for those Glass and Li took mostly from elsewhere in Africa. The newer estimate assumes ten generations passed, with a gene flow rate of .02 to .025 per generation. Glass later maintained the upper and lower bounds were .0241 and .0336 for the gene flow per generation, down from his and Li's earlier estimate of .0358. In light of Glass's and Roberts's revised figures, and Reed's three fairly similar estimates for total white genes in the black population (which are .273+0.037, .220+.009, and .200+.044), Gutman and Sutch's higher transmission estimates are unsustainable. Additionally, Fogel and Engerman are conservative when they assume 30-year generations, since shorter generational lengths (c. 25 years) are plausible when using Gutman's own averages of slave mothers' ages at their first birth, their husbands’ ages, and average slave life expectancies.299 If more generations passed during the same period of time, each generation needs a lower percentage of white male fathers to reach recent total figures for a given percentage of white genes existing in the black gene pool. On the other hand, Fogel and Engerman apparently look back too far (to 1620) for an appropriate date for white gene transmission to begin. Gutman and Sutch suggest 1710 or 1720, while Glass and Li prefer 1675 or 1700. These two variables largely cancel each other out (length of generation and starting point) for the pre-1900 period. Sutch and Gutman assert that Reed as well as Glass and Li excluded mulattos, but the latter’s methodology contradicts their claim.300 As Glass and Li note: "Since the hybrid individuals between Whites and Negroes are in the United States regarded socially as Negroes, any interbreeding between the two populations will result chiefly in a 'one-way' gene flow from the White to the Negro population." Glass later made similar statements, making a point of repeatedly downgrading the reliability of studies that excluded light-skinned blacks. Precisely for the same reason, Reed even excludes two studies from New York City based upon only dark-skinned blacks. He kept the Evans and Bullock county results from the South, which reveal a low level of white gene transmission (.106 total; transmission rate estimated to be .02 by Fogel and Engerman). In contrast, the figures for Northern cities are significantly higher, such as Detroit (.26 total, with a rate of .052). Strongly bolstering Fogel and Engerman’s low transmission rate estimates is the extreme case of the Gullah sea island blacks of Georgia. They basically had only contact with white masters, overseers, and their families before the Civil War, and relatively little contact with whites since, so their level of white genes will serve as an excellent indication of how much fundamentally involuntary miscegenation occurred. Their total of white genes is a mere 3.66 percent; the corresponding transmission rate per generation is .006.301 Fogel and Engerman clearly can defend the upper bound (i.e., the 2 percent figure) of their 1-2 percent transmission rate by generation, contrary to what their critics have charged.
Despite the Pressures, Slaves Still Maintained Some Form of Family Life
Despite all the damage slaveholders inflicted on slave families, surely the average bondsman was passionate about at least some of his or her relationships, even when a disturbingly high number took one or more of the basic bonds of the nuclear family (parent-child or husband-wife) lightly. Furthermore, the slaves had strong motives for concealing what they really believed from all whites, especially their owners and overseers; the bondsmen could keep whites in the dark about the real strength of these ties. For example, according to overseer John Garner, the "Boy charls," who had arrived last spring, "run away some fore weeks agow witheout any cause whatever." But was this literally true? Even the overseer knew better: "I think he has goun back to tennessee where his wife is." That was a long trip from where Polk's Mississippi plantation lay. After visiting his brother's plantation in Mississippi, William Polk found one slave mother strongly worried about her sick daughter’s health: "Her mother (LucY) says from her complaints of her breast, she fears she [the daughter] is going in the manner in which Alston, Hamp and Charity did, though it may be only the fears of a mother occasioned by solicitude for her welfare." And the child could return deep love to his or her parent. As a boy, Warren McKinney was a slave in South Carolina, where he fought back against the whipping of his mother by his master: "When I was little, Mr. Strauter whipped my ma. It hurt me bad as it did her. I hated him. She was crying. I chunked him with rocks. He run after me, but he didn't catch me." Although constituting only three minor pinpricks of evidence, these incidents still testify how passionately the bondsmen could uphold their family relationships. But even in McKinney's case, the rootlessness and the alienation that slavery caused still may have reached into his family: "When the war come on, my papa went to build forts. He quit Ma and took another woman."302 Although free people do make similar decisions, the slave family still underwent stresses and strains that free families did not. Unsurprisingly, a number cracked under the pressures, and became indifferent to one or more important nuclear family relationships. Much more remarkably, many did not despite the damage wrought by "living abroad," miscegenation, sales and relocations inducing separations, non-legally recognized marriages, the performance of functions for the slave family by others that it would have done for itself if free, and the subordination of the slave family to the process of imposing work discipline. Consider by contrast how casually and indifferently many today in America take their family relationships, parental and conjugal, while having advantages unimaginable to the bondsmen; when considering the centrifugal pressures they encountered, the oppressed and mostly illiterate slaves held some form of family life together remarkably well.303