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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 


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 
Diet 18 

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' 

Diet 32 

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 3 6 

The Superior Conditions of the Northern English Farmworkers 

Meat as a Near Luxury for Many Farmworkers 3 9 

The Effects of Enclosure and Allotments on Hodge ' s Diet 

Comparing Food Received by English Paupers, Slaves, and 

Nation's Army 42 

Better Bread Versus Little Meat? The Slave Versus 

Diet 43 

Clothing for Slaves 44 

Bad Clothing Conditions for Slaves 45 

Differences in Clothing Provided for Slaves with Different 

Position 46 

The Factory Versus Homespun: The Master's Decision . 48 
Slaves and Shoe Shortages 49 


Fogel and Engerman's Optimistic Take on Slaves' Clothing 
Rations 51 

Clothing and English Agricultural Workers 51 

The Low Standards for Farmworkers, Especially in Southern 

England 52 

Homespun More Common in America than England by C. 183 


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 

Limits 71 

Little Difference for Slaves and Farmworkers in the Quality 

Their Housing 73 

Agricultural Workers- -Sanitation/Cleanliness 74 

Slaves- -Furniture and Personal Effects 76 

English Agricultural Workers: Home Furnishings, Utensils, 

etc 78 

Fuel- -Sambo ' s Supply Versus Hodge's 7 9 

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 

Benefited 93 


The Quality of Life as Opposed to the (Material) Standard of 
Living 95 

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 

Laissez-Faire? 110 

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 

Poor 115 

How the Local Authorities Profited from the Workhouse Test 


Whose Elderly Were Better Off? The Farmworkers' or the 

Slaves'? 118 

The Slave Childhood: Full of Fun or Full of Fear? . . 119 

Pastimes for Slave Children 120 

Plantation Day Care: How Slave Childhood Was Different 

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 

Countryside 12 8 

The Parental Push for Child Labor 13 

Day Care Not a Common Experience 131 

Young Hodge at Play 132 

The Relative Quality of Life for the Children of Slaves and 

Laborers 133 

Religion- -A Site for Enlightenment, Social Unity, and Social 

Conflict 134 

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 

Laborers 149 

How the Local Elite Can Use Charity to Control the Poor 

The Laborers' Turn to Nonconformity and Its Mixed Results 


Christianity: An Instigator of Laborers' Resistance? 154 

Similarities in Southern White and English Lower Class 

Religion 155 

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 

Breakup 164 

How the Slaves ' Fears about Family Breakup Could Make For 

Continual Anxiety 165 

The Process of Being Bought and Sold as Itself Dehumanizing 


How Slavery Undermined the Families of Slaves .... 166 

How Slavery Weakened the Father's Role 167 

Factors Which Encouraged Slaves to Treat Marriage Bonds 

Casually 170 

How Slavery Encouraged a Casual Approach to Family 

Relationships 171 

The Ways Slavery Destroyed Family Relationships . . . 173 
How the Master Could Routinely Interfere in Slave Family 

Relationships 174 

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 

Life 187 

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 


The Sexual Division of Labor: African-American Slaves 196 
Kemble on a Stricter Sexual Division of Labor's Advantages 

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 


Women's Work in Arable Areas at Harvest Time Increased 

Later in the Century 2 04 

The Female Dominance of Dairy Work Declines 2 05 

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 

The Division of Labor: Blessing or Curse? 211 

Who Was Better Off Depends on the Values One Has . . . 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 

Finishing Work for the Day- -Some Variations 217 

Hours of Work- -Agricultural Workers 218 

Were Workdays Shorter for the Farmworkers than the Slaves? 


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 

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 


on Unemployment 228 

How "Voluntarily" Did Slaves Work? The Necessity of 


and Supervision 23 

Why the Whip Had to Be Used to Impose Work Discipline on the 

Slaves 231 

How Commonly Were the Slaves Whipped? The Time on the Cross 

Controversy 233 

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 

Examples of Corporal Punishment Backfiring 23 9 

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 

Individualists 249 

Ignorance as a Control Device Revisited 252 

How Masters Would Manipulate the Slaves ' Family Ties in 

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 

Discipline 260 

The Inf rapolitics of Task (Quota) Setting 261 

The Gang System's Advantages 262 

The Patrol/Pass System 264 

The Slaveowners Who Liberally Granted Passes or Dispensed 

Them Altogether 266 

How the Divisions Among White Slaveholders Benefited the 

Enslaved 267 

How Mistresses and other Family Members Often Restrained 

Treatment 268 

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 

in England 2 72 


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 

England 277 

The Basic Strategy to Better Control the Farmworkers . 278 

Enclosure as a Method of Social Control and "Class Robbery" 


Enclosure: Direct Access to the Means of Production and 

Some Food Both Lost 280 

Open and Close Parishes: One Dumps Laborers onto the Other 

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 2 90 

Falling Productivity: One More Consequence of the Old Poor 

Law 2 92 

The Workhouse Test as a Tool for Increasing Labor 

Productivity 2 93 

The Workhouse Test Was a Tool for Lowering Wages Also 2 94 
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 

Elite 298 

Another Positive Mode of Creating Work Discipline: 

Piecework 300 

The Legal System and Its Influence on the Laborers . .3 03 
The Justice of the Peace/County Court System Necessarily 

Expressed Class Bias 303 

The Biases of the Courts Against the Laborers Should Not Be 

Exaggerated 3 04 

Ignorance of the Law as a Control Device 3 05 

Examples of How the Contents of the Law Could be Against the 

Laborers 306 

The Important Differences Between Controlling the Laborers 

and Slaves at Work 307 

Ideological Hegemony, Paternalism, Class Consciousness, and 

Farmworkers 309 

Did Some in the Elite Begin to Repudiate Paternalistic, 

Communal Values? 309 

How the Rural Elite Tried to Have Paternalism and Capitalism 

Simultaneously 310 


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 


When the Laborers as a Class in Itself Began to Act for 
Itself 317 

A Comparison of Respective Elite Control Strategies: Slave- 
owners and Squires 318 

How Much Success Did These Two Elites Have at Hegemony? 



The Inf rapolitics of Daily Life 325 

Analytical Problems with "Day-to-Day Resistance" 

(Inf rapolitics) 325 

The Continuum of Resistance from Inf rapolitics to Organized 

Insurrection 326 

The Need for a Subordinate Class to Wear a Mask to Conceal 

Their Knowledge 328 

Early Training in Mask Wearing 32 9 

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 

Other 343 

Manipulating White Authority for the Slaves ' Own Purposes 


How Pleadings and Petitions Could Restrain Masters and 

Mistresses 343 

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 . 3 52 

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 

States 357 

Many Slaves Knew How Much the Deck Was Stacked Against 

Successful Revolt 359 

Why then, If Revolts Were So Rare, Were the Whites So 

Paranoid? 360 

Resistance to Slavery in the United States Is Dominated by 

Inf rapolitics 362 

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 Inf rapolitics Over 

Riots 366 

Social Crime- -The Inf rapolitics of Poaching 367 

The Laborers' Counter- Ideology Against the Elite's Game Laws 


The Role of Theft, More Generally Defined, in English 

Rural Inf rapolitics 369 

The Correlation between Poverty and Theft 370 

Hodge's Thinner Mask 370 

How Farmworkers Could "Run Away" - -Resistance Through Migra- 
tion 372 

The Reluctance of Laborers to Move and Other Obstacles to 

Migration 373 

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 


Comparing Two Subordinate Classes' Methods of Resistance 



Resistance and the Subordinate Class's Quality of Life 386 

Slavery Is on a Continuum of Social Systems of Subordination 


Selected Bibliography 390 



The Standard Yet Problematic Comparison of Factory Workers with 

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."^ 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.^ 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 

^Robert E. May, "John A. Quitman and His Slaves: 
Reconciling Slave Resistance with the Proslavery Defense," 
Journal of Southern History 46 (Nov. 1980) :554; Jurgen Kuczynski, 
The Rise of the Working Class (New York, 1967) , p. 181, quoted in 
Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves 
Made (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1976), p. 59; 
Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New 
York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1966), p. 231. 

^Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian 
Serfdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 
1987) , p. ix. 


like ships in the night, not knowing the valuable insights one 
group may have for the study of the other's field. ^ 

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 

^Being a historian of both American labor history and of 
African-American slavery, Herbert Gutman is a clear exception. 
As explained below, Genovese in Roll, Jordan, Roll does use the 
insights of E.P. Thompson on work discipline when analyzing the 
work ethic of the slaves, but this should not be seen as typical 


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.* 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 

^Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in 
the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p. 31 


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) 

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.^ 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. 


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 Poverty ^ 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.^ 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.^ Furthermore, what the average slave received 

^Joseph Arch, Joseph Arch The Story of His Life , ed. 
Countess of Warwick (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1898), pp. 376- 
377, 389. 

^R.M. Hartwell, et al. Eight Essays on Industrialization and 
'the Condition of England' (n.p.: Institute of Economic Affairs, 
1972) . 

^Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution , (Cambridge: 
Cambridge University Press, 1979), 2d ed., pp. 13, 22. Of 
course, E.A. Wrigley and R.S. Schofield's The Population History 
of England 1541-1871 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University 
Press, 1981) has revolutionized the subject of the growth of the 
English population during the eighteenth century by ingeniously 
projecting backwards from the 1871 census. 

^Planter Bennet Barrow noted the taking of the "Cencus" in 
his Diary on May 31, 1840: "Taking the Cencus of the United 
States--the products, cotten corn horses mules cattle Hogs 


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?^ 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 

sheep Potatoes Poultry, quantity cloth made. Fodder hay." 
Edwin Adams Davis, Plantation Life in the Florida Parishes of 
Louisiana, 1836-1846 as Reflected in the Diary of Bennet H. 
Barrow, Columbia University Studies in the History of American 
Agriculture, no. 9 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 
p. 197. All sources quoted in this work have the literal 
language retained, regardless of what grammatical or spelling 
offenses they commit, with their original emphasis kept, unless 
otherwise noted. 

^For conditions in Northumberland, see Great Britain, 
Parliament, Parliamentary Papers (Commons), 1867-68 , vol. xvii. 
Commission on the Employment of Children, Young Persons and Women 
in Agriculture, first report, p. xiv. The British Parliamentary 
Sessional Papers are hereafter referred to as BPP. This report 
itself below may be called simply "Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture . " 


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.^" 
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.^^ 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 

^°This emphasis is disputable, especially when adopting 
Snell ' s approach of examining what the poor themselves considered 
important. Simply put, although food is a major part of the 
material standard of living, it is not so important to the 
overall quality of life, excluding true famine conditions. The 
distinction between the quality of life and the standard of 
living is developed below. See K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the 
Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 9-14. 

^^Olmsted commented, during his travels in eastern Texas 
before the Civil War: "The meals are absolutely invariable . . . 
The bread is made of corn-meal, stirred with water and salt, and 
baked in a kettle covered with coals. The corn for breakfast is 
frequently unhusked at sunrise. . . . Wheat bread, if I am not 
mistaken, we met with but twice, out of Austin, in our whole 
journey across the State." Frederick Law Olmsted, The Cotton 
Kingdom: A Traveller's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the 
American Slave States , 2 vols. (New York: Mason Brothers, 1861), 
1:368-69. While visiting Neu-Braunf els, Texas, he found no wheat 
in the market. Frederick Law Olmsted, The Slave States , ed. 
Harvey Wish (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), p. 158. 


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 . ^^ 

Hence, the normal bondsman and woman expected a diet that 
included several pounds of pork or bacon and, even more 
certainly, corn.^^ 

^^Benjamin Drew, A North- side View of Slavery The Refugee: 
or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (Boston: John P. 
Jewett and Co., 1856; reprint ed.. New York: Johnson Reprint, 
1968), pp. 71, 381. Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom , 2:109. See 
also 1:102 and 2:172, 241. Testifying to the nearly universal 
racism of whites. North or South, racial slurs are quoted when 
found in the sources. B.A. Botkin, ed.. Lay My Burden Down : A 
Folk History of Slavery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 
1945), p. 172; Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of 
Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself (1845; 
reprint ed.. New York: New American Library/Penguin, 1968), p. 
2 8 ; Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and 
Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man (New York: John S. 
Taylor, 1837; reprint ed.. New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1969), 
pp. 42-43. 

^^Further evidence for the near universality of the 
"standard ration" appears in Kenneth F. Kiple and Virginia H. 
Kiple, "Black Tongue and Black Men: Pellagra and Slavery in the 
Antebellum South," Journal of Southern History , 43 (Aug. 1977) 
413, n. 7; Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on 
the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery , 2 vols. 
(Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1974), 1:110; Richard Sutch in 
Paul A. David, et al . , Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study 


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!^* 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."^^ 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 . ^^ 

in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery (New York: 
Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 235. 

^*John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life 
in the Antebellum South , rev. and enl . ed. (New York: Oxford 
University Press, 1979), p. 254. 

^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 172; Drew, Refugee , pp. 
131, 155. 

^'^Linda Brent, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861; 
reprint ed., San Diego: Harvest/HBJ Book, Harcourt Brace 
Jovanovich, Publishers, 1973), p. 11. Because of its rather 
incredible events and novelistic "feel," this narrative has had 
its authenticity questioned in years past. But more recently 
excellent evidence for its authenticity has appeared. See Jean 
Fagan Yellin, "Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs' Slave 
Narrative," American Literature , 53 (Nov. 1981) : 479-86 . 
Nevertheless, the feel of a morality tale still hangs over it. 
It tells the story of one slaveholder who supposedly on his 


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. ^^ 

Foqel 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.^® 

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.^^ 
The slaves struggled to get food on their own, such as by hunting 

deathbed shrieked, "I am going to hell; bury my money with me." 
When his eyes failed to close after his death, silver dollars 
were laid on them! This "incident," which she did not personally 
witness, sounds suspiciously like what this master's slaves 
wished and felt ought to have happened than what did in fact 
happen. Incidents , pp. 46-47. 

^^"Compensated undernutrition, " the dietetic condition in 
which the human body operates at a lower metabolic rate due to 
months or years of low caloric intake, may also explain how 
slaves lived on such rations without great physical damage. See 
David Eltis, "Nutritional Trends in Africa and the Americas: 
Heights of Africans, 1819-1839," Journal of Interdisciplinary 
History , 12 (winter 1982) :471. This condition still makes its 
sufferers less energetic, less mentally alert- -and more easy to 
control . 

^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:113. 

^^Some gathered evidence indicates the average height of 
American-born slaves was greater than their African counterparts. 
See Eltis, "Nutritional Trends," 453-75. For the greater natural 
population growth of Southern slaves as contrasted with those 
elsewhere in the Americas, see Fogel and Engerman, Time on the 
Cross, 1:25-29. Frederick Douglass believed "in the part of 
Maryland from which I came, it is the general practice, - -though 
there are many exceptions" that the slaves were fed enough. 
Narrative, p. 65. 


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.^° 

Much of the debate on the slave diet between Fogel and 

^°Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:109-115; Robert 
William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, Time on the Cross 
Evidence and Methods- -A Supplement (Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 
1974), 2:90-99; Richard Sutch in David, Reckoning , pp. 231-283. 


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. ^^ 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. ^^ Since the bondsmen likely suffered from dietary 

^^William D. Piersen, "White Cannibals, Black Martyrs: 
Fear, Depression, and Religious Faith as Causes of Suicide among 
New Slaves," Journal of Negro History , 62 (Apr. 1977) :153. He 
also notes that clay eating could be used to feign illness, which 
suddenly makes it a labor discipline issue. Fogel and Engerman 
cite Twyman in denial of this interpretation: Time on the Cross , 
2:99. But Sutch strongly rebutts their claims that this practice 
does not occur due to vitamin deficiencies, noting their 
selective quotation of Twyman. See David, Reckoning with 
Slavery , pp. 277-79, n. 129. 

"Kiple and Kiple, "Black Tongue," 411-28; Sutch in David, 
Reckoning , pp. 270-81. In Fogel and Engerman' s defense, however, 


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 

it should be noted Eltis found a nutritional survey of Nigeria of 
the 1960s that indicated Africans got lower amounts of riboflavin 
and thiamine than Southern slaves. They also had lower calorie 
and protein intakes. See "Nutritional Trends," 470. 


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."^^ 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.^* 

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. "^^ But the cost of 

^^Douglass, Narrative, p. 65; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 
pp. 26, 120; my emphasis, Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:241; Frances 
Ann Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 
1838-1839 (New York: Harper & Bros., Publishers, 1863), p. 65; 
Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , eds . Sue Eakin and Joseph 
Logsdon (1853; reprint ed.. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State 
University Press, 1968), p. 153; Brown is found in F.N. Boney, 
"The Blue Lizard: Another View of Nat Turner's Country on the 
Eve of Rebellion," Phylon , 31 (winter 1970) :356. 

^*See also Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 549; Stampp, 
Peculiar Institution , pp. 284-85. 

^^Kemble, Journal, p. 18. Note how similar Henderson's 
experience was to what household servants in Georgia Kemble saw 
who had "even less comfort [than field hands], in one respect, 
inasmuch as no time whatever is set apart for their meals, which 


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.^*^ 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 

they snatch at any hour and in any way that they can- -generally, 
however, standing, or squatting on their hams round the kitchen 
fire." Journal , p. 66; Drew, Refugee , p. 156. 

^^Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 370. 


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 ! ^'^ 

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 Grader 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."^® 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.^^ The evidence Grader 

^^Kemble, Journal, p. 314; Mary Boykin Ghesnut, A Diary from 
Dixie , ed. Ben Ames Williams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Go., 
1949), p. 24; Orland Kay Armstrong, Old Massa's People: The Old 
Slaves Tell Their Story (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Go., 1931), 
pp. 31, 109, 110. 

^^Diana G. Grader, "Slave Diet at Monticello," American 
Antiquity . 55 (Oct. 1990): 700. 

^^Evidently, the habits of excessively chopping up the bones 
affected even the master's table sometimes. Kemble said her 
slave cook/butcher had such "barbarous ignorance" that she 
challenged "the most expert anatomist to pronounce on any piece 


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 .^° 

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 

(joints they can not be called) of mutton brought to our table to 
what part of the animal sheep it originally belonged." Her 
eventual solution was to teach him how to butcher it properly, 
demonstrating on the carcass of what her cook pronounced "de 
beutifullest sheep de missis eber saw." See Kemble, Journal, pp. 

'°Crader, "Slave Diet," 698-703, 708-10, 713-15. Jefferson 
had distributed the largest amounts of fish to various more 
favored slaves, including some domestic servants, and some very 
old field workers. 


(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.^^ 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 traff icing" 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 

^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 90; see also p. 84; 
Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , p. 153; Kemble, Journal, pp. 20, 
216; Douglass, Narrative, p. 42; Grader, "Slave Diet," p. 698. 
See also Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 487-88. 


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. "^^ 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 

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 

^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 90, 121; Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 2:238-39; Davis, Plantation Life , p. 409. See also pp. 
51-52. Barrow's diary entry for March 19, 1842, p. 253 indicates 
he let them have their own pieces of land: "All hands repairing 
their Gardens;" Kemble, Journal, pp. 47-49; John Spencer Bassett, 
The Southern Plantation Overseer as Revealed in His Letters 
(Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1925), p. 187. See also pp. 
203, 210 for discussions by this overseer concerning paying her 
slaves . 


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. "^^ 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 

^^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:241; Douglass, Narrative, p. 
66; Drew, Refugee, p. 278; Kemble, Journal, pp. 134, 278; Boney, 
"The Blue Lizard," 356. 


from their masters.^* 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. 

^^Crader, "Slave Diet," 7 04-5; for Payne's and Gate's 
testimony and the evidence for buttermilk, see Botkin, Lay My 
Burden Down , pp. 84, 112, 127, 147; Davis, Plantation Life , p. 
409; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:320. Olmsted spotted while in 
Mississippi one slave woman smoking a pipe! Cotton Kingdom , 
2:69; Bassett, Plantation Overseer , pp. 25-27; Stampp, Peculiar 
Institution , pp. 370-71. For more on slave theft, see pp. 338-40 


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 2 6 percent lower than northern England's. By James 
Caird's calculations, the difference was 37 percent. ^^ 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) 

^^For regional wage variations, see John L. Rule, The 
Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850 (New 
York: Longman Group, 1986), p. 48, and the frontispiece of James 
Caird, English Agriculture in 1850-51 , 2d ed. (London: Longman, 
Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1852); In southern Lancashire, James 
Caird (p. 284) found that "native labour is so scarce that the 
farmers declare they could not get on at all without the aid of 
the Irish." See also pp. 511-13; Thompson, Making , p. 219; 
Brinley Thomas, "Escaping from Constraints: The Industrial 
Revolution in a Malthusian Context," Journal of Interdisciplinary 
History , 15 (spring 1985) : 746; Caird, English Agriculture , p. 
511. Brinley cites this source, but how he derives the 26 
percent figure remains obscure. 


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. "^*^ 

The Southern English Agricultural Workers' Diet Was Poor, Often 

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: 

^'^Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 12; The rector and Conservative was 
in the Times, quoted by Frederick Law Olmsted, The Walks and 
Talks of an American Farmer in England (1859; reprint ed., Ann 
Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1967), p. 243. 


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. ^^ 

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 183 0) 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 

^^William Cobbett, Rural Rides in the Counties of Surrey, 
Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, 
Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Somersetshire, Oxfordshire, 
Berkshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, and Hertfordshire , ed. E.W. 
Martin (1830; reprint ed., London: MacDonald & Co., 1958), pp. 
110, 254-55, 276. Since Cobbett visited areas in the 
economically depressed south, what he witnessed cannot safely be 
extrapolated to the north of England. 


(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.^® 

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 8 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. 

^®W.H. Hudson, A Shepherd's Life: Impressions of the South 
Wiltshire Downs , new Am. ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co . , 
1921), p. 81; Alexander Somerville, The Whistler at the Plough , 
ed. K.D.M. Snell (Manchester, England: J. Ainsworth, 1852; 
reprint ed., London, Merlin Press, 1989; Fairfield, NJ: Augustus 
Kelley, 1989), pp. 38, 75, 119, 264; Olmsted, Walks and Talks , 
pp. 243-44; Great Britain, Parliament, BPP, 1837, vol. xvii. 
Reports from the Select Committee to Inquire into the 
Administration of the Relief of the Poor under the Provisions of 
the Poor Law Amendment Act with Minutes of Evidence and 
Appendices, part 1, second report, pp. 3, 7-8, 14-15. Below, 
this report may be referred to simply as "Committee on the New 
Poor Law"; Phyllis Deane and W.A. Cole, British Economic Growth 
1688-1959 (1962), p. 75, quoted in Brinley Thomas, "Feeding 
England During the Industrial Revolution: A View from the Celtic 
Fringe," Agricultural History 56 (Jan. 1982): 338. 


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 2 5 percent of them lived upon it, while 5 
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.^^ 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.'*" 

Despite Cobbett ' s opposition, a man full of the prejudices of the 

^^Somerville, Whistler , pp. 119-20; Hudson, Shepherd's Life , 
pp. 220-21; Thomas, "Feeding England," p. 331. See also Rule, 
Labouring Classes , pp. 51-53; E.P. Thompson, "The Moral Economy 
of the English Crowd in the Eighteen Century, " Past and Present , 
no. 50 (February 1971), p. 80 (Charles Smith); Thomas, "Escaping 
from Constraints," p. 747; J.L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, The 
Village Labourer (1911; reprint ed., London: Longmans, Green & 
Co., 1966), p. 123. However, Caird found in Lancashire by 1850, 
compared to 1770, that "oat-bread" had become "much superseded, 
even in the country districts, by wheaten bread" which now sold 
at a slightly lower price. English Agriculture , pp. 283-84. 

*°Cobbett, Rural Rides , p. 110; Cobbett as cited by 
Somerville, Whistler p. 2 96. Once when on a stagecoach 
Somerville and his fellow passengers talked about the relative 
merits of the crops in Suffolk and Buckingham. After discussing 
what kinds they liked to eat, he asked the stagecoach's guard 
what type of potatoes he liked. He replied: "Give me . . . good 
old English fare, and good old English times, and dang your 
potatoes and railroads both!" Whistler , p. 50. 


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 . *^ 

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 

^^Somerville, Whistler, pp. 62, 249, 303, 405, 414 


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 

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."*^ 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 

^^Richard Jefferies, Hodge and His Masters , 2 vols. (1880; 
reprint ed., London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1966), 2:71; See Arthur 
Young's comment in Hammond and Hammond, Village Labourer , p. 122; 
Thompson, "Moral Economy," p. 81; see also footnote 19, p. 82. 


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.*^ 

The Monotony of the Farmworkers ' Diet in the South of 

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."** 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.*^ The hot dinner 

*^01msted. Walks and Talks , p. 243; Snell, Annals, pp. 4-14; 
Thompson, "Moral Economy," p. 82. 

**Caird, English Agriculture , pp. 84-85; Somerville, 
Whistler , pp. 18, 32; Jefferies, Hodge , 1:78; Olmsted, Walks and 
Talks, p. 237. 

*^Great Britain, Parliament, BPP, 1824, vol. VI, Select 
Committee on Labourers' Wages, as found in Nigel E. Agar, The 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker in the Nineteenth Century (n.p.: 
Publications of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society) 60 
(1981) :66. Indicating that conditions for unskilled laborers had 


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. *^ 

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 

changed little even during the First World War, the sample menus 
for a lower middle class household were far superior to a 
laborer's in Peel's Eat -Less -Meat -Book of 1917. Some 
agricultural laborers still ate up to fourteen pounds of bread a 
week during the First World War. (Unlike Germany, the diets of 
the English working class on the whole actually improved during 
World War I) . Arthur Marwick, The Deluge: British Society and 
the First World War (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1965; reprint 
ed.. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1970), pp. 123-25, 135, 193, 

*^Jef fries, Hodge , 1:72; an example of such moralizing is in 
2:80-91; Olmsted, Walks and Talks , p. 243. 


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.*^ 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 

*^Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 221-22; Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. vii, xii-xiii. 


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!"*^ 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.*^ 

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 

*®Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. 
xvii, XX; Somerville, Whistler, p. 128; John Burnett, ed.. Useful 
Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 
1920s (1974; reprint ed., London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 51-52. 

^^Comparing slaves given rations largely regardless of work 
done and laborers earning wages presents some theoretical 
problems. Normally, slaves earned no wages, except for extra 
work outside normal hours, and were given a ration of food each 
week or month regardless of the amount of work done. But the 
agricultural laborers, if they had no access to a commons, an 
allotment, or were not under a yearly contract as a farm servant, 
had their standard of living virtually defined by their wages. 
So when examining their diets, wages stand as a partial proxy for 
comparison purposes when specific information on pounds of food 
eaten per person per week are not available for the laborers. 


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.^" 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. "^^ 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 183 0, 
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.^^ But as 

^°Somerville, Whistler , pp. 32, 335-36; See also p. 120; 
Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, second report, p. 8; 
Cobbett, Rural Rides , p. 400; Phillip D. Morgan, "The Ownership 
of Property by Slaves in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Low Country, " 
Journal of Southern History , 49 (Aug. 1983) :399-420; For 
butcher's meat as a luxury, see Caird, English Agriculture , p. 2 9 
and Somerville, Whistler, p. 228. 

^^Jefferies, Hodge , 1:97. Jefferies portrayed one old 
farmer who rose by practicing the utmost parsimony. But as he 
grew older and his teeth weaker, he started ordering butcher's 
meat. His equally stingy wife furiously opposed this luxury, 
which normally was one leg of mutton each week. His teeth could 
no longer take "the coarse, fat, yellowy bacon that [had] formed 
the staple" of his diet, "often . . . with the bristles thick 
upon it." Hodge , 1:55. 

"Great Britain, Parliament, BPP, 1843, vol. VII, Report 
from Select Committee on Labouring Poor (Allotments of Land), pp. 
3, 12, 14, 20, 113. This report may be referred to simply 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 Id^ per 
quarter before; not to be had now at any rate." Repeatedly they 

"Committee on Allotments" below. 


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. "^^ 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-f if teen 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 

^^Thompson, Making , p. 217; Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, first report, p. il; Arthur Young, 
General Report on Enclosures: Drawn up by Order of the Board of 
Agriculture (London: B. McMillan, 1808; reprint ed.. New York: 
Augustus M. Kelly, Publishers, 1971), pp. 14, 150-52; Somerville, 
Whistler , p. 42. 


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.^* 
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 . ^^ 

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. ^^ Since arable agriculture was a highly seasonal 

^*For the influence of the Swing Riots on allotments, see 
Hammond and Hammond, Village Labourer , p. 157; Committee on 
Allotments, BPP, 1843, pp. ii-iv; Young, General Report , pp. 47, 
107, 166, 348-50; Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP , 
1867-68, p. XXV. 

^^Cobbett, Rural Rides , p. 308; see also p. 336. 

^^Thomas Smart, father of thirteen children with seven still 
living when he was forty- six years old, was asked by the Select 
Committee on Labourers' Wages: "Do you know any labourers with 
so large family as you have, who have brought them up without 


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."^' 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 

assistance from the parish?" He replied: "Never one but me." 
(He mentioned having taken burial expenses from the parish, but 
nothing else earlier) . BPP , 1824, vol. VI, pp. 53-56, as in 
Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 64-65, 67. 

^^Olmsted, The Cotton Kingdom , 2:240; Davis, Plantation 
Life, p. 409. 


alone. "^^ 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. "^^ 

Clothing for Slaves 

The amount of clothing slaves received is relatively well- 
documented, because it was a significant item of expense often 
bought of f -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 

^^as cited in Thompson, "Moral Economy," p. 82. 

^^Edward Butt, a relief officer for Petworth union, Sussex, 
stated that he resigned from that position not just because of a 
2 01. /year salary cut, but also because: "I was hurt in my 
feelings to see the pitiful cries of the poor; it would hurt any 
man to see a parcel of young children, and have no more to give, 
it would touch the heart of a flint -stone; I could not bear it; I 
did not wish to mention that [initially to the Committee] . " 
Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, second report, p. 6. 


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 . ^° Hence, the 

'^°Davis, Plantation Life , p. 409. See also pp. 46-47. On 
p. 114 he says: "Gave women Calico dress." For blankets given, 
see pp. 219-20 (seventy bought); p. 377 (thirty bought); Drew, 
Refugee , pp. 155-156 (Henderson) Admittedly, since he was mostly 
a child during this period, he was not likely to be issued a 
blanket individually; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:105, 193, 200- 
210, 211; For pay for working irregular times, see Ball, Slavery 


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 

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." 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 

in the United States , p. 44 

"Drew, Refugee , p. 278; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:40, 52; 
Kemble, Journal, pp. 52-53. 


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- -of fered 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 diff runts. 

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 f o ' 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." 

Differences in Clothing Provided for Slaves with Different 

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 

"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 122; For exceptions, see 
pp. 81, 85; Douglass, Narrative, pp. 43, 44; For Finch's and 
Epp ' s recollections, see Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 72, 
73; Charles Ball of Maryland said that "Children not able to work 
in the field, were not provided with clothes at all, by their 
masters." Slavery in the United States , p. 44. 


hands, since they had to look presentable to the big house's 
visitors." 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 f oiks ' 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."" 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 

"Stampp, Peculiar Institution , pp. 289-90; Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 1:52. However, exceptions occurred: While visiting one 
neighboring (and declining) plantation on a Georgian sea island, 
Kemble encountered barefoot, "half -naked negro women" who 
"brought in refreshments." Journal , p. 2 96. Similar standards 
likely prevailed for many rural small slaveholders in the 
interior regions of the South. 

"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 141-42; Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 1:242; George P. Rawick, ed.. The American Slave: A 
Composite Autobiography 19 vols. (1972- : Westport) , South 
Carolina Narratives , II (2), 36, quoted in Genovese, Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , p. 370. 


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 

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." Bondsmen and women indulged in what Kemble 

"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 145; Northrup, Twelve Years 
a Slave , p. 164; Kemble, Journal, p. 281; Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 1:211. He commented while in Virginia, p. 105: "On 
Sundays and holidays they usually look very smart, but when at 
work, very ragged and slovenly." 

"Charles Ball chose to stop wearing the straw hat his wife 
gave him while working. He feared standing out since he was the 
only slave on the plantation with a hat. Ball, Slavery in the 


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?"" 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." 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 

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 

United States , p. [1]47. 

"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:267-268 


Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 63; Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 
People , pp. 188, 193-195; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:68-69; Joan 
Rezner Gundersen, "The Double Bonds of Race and Sex: Black and 
White Women in a Colonial Virginia Parish, " Journal of Southern 
History , 52 (Aug. 1986) :369; Bassett, The Plantation Overseer , p, 


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." 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. "^° Judging from 

"Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 551. 

^°Bassett maintained going barefoot in warm weather was 
expected. Plantation Overseer , p. 271; the testimony of Reynolds 
and Kinney is in Bo t kin. Lay My Burden Down , pp. 82, 122; Davis, 
Plantation Life , p. 23 9; Brent, Incidents , pp. 17-18; Douglass, 


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. ^^ 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. 

Foqel 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 
headkerchief s) . Blankets were issued once every two or 
three years . 

Narrative, p. 43; for an exception, see Cicero Finch of Georgia 
in Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 72; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 
1:104. Curiously, Olmsted found in one area of Tennessee a 
majority of poor whites routinely went barefoot in winter, even 
when the snow was four or five inches deep without thinking it 
was much of a problem! Cotton Kingdom , 2:128. 

^^Bassett, Plantation Overseer , p. 271; Davis, Plantation 
Life, pp. 82, 101, 133, 213, 342, 409; for the use of local 
cobblers, see Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 188; Botkin, Lay 
My Burden Down , p. 63. 


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. ^^ 

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. ^^ Conspicuously, by comparison, African-American 

^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:116-17; Sutch in 
David, Reckoning , pp. 298-99; Ball, Slavery in the United States , 
pp. 146-[1]47; cf. Stampp, Peculiar Institution , pp. 289, 291-92. 

^^Rule, Labouring Classes , pp. 66-67; Somerville, Whistler , 
p. 382; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 31; Cobbett, Rural Rides , p. 96. 


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.^* 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. 

^^Cobbett, Rural Rides , pp. 51, 306, 433; Somerville, 
Whistler, p. 281; Having one set of clothes is mentioned in Rule, 
Labouring Classes , p. 68. 


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 . "^^ 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: 

"Somerville, Whistler, pp. 119, 120, 413, 414 


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.^^ 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 

'^Cobbett, Rural Rides , pp. 99-100; Committee on New Poor 
Law, BPP, 1837, second report, p. 14. 


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. "^^ 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 

^^Caird, English Agriculture , p. 73; Anonymous, A Country 
Rector's Address to His Parishioners (London: Hatchard & Son; 
and C.J.G. & F. Rivington; and J. Swinnerton, Macclesfield, 
183 0), p . 19; A Plain Statement of the Case of the Labourer; for 
the Consideration of the Yeomen and Gentlemen of the Southern 
Districts of England (London: Whittaker, Treacher, and Arnot, 
1830; and Winchester: Robbins and Wheeler, 1830), p. 24; reprint 
ed., Kenneth E. Carpenter, ed.. The Rising of the Agricultural 
Labourers: Nine Pamphlets and Six Broadsides 1830-1831 , British 
Labour Struggles: Contemporary Pamphlets 1727-1850 (New York: 
Arno Press, New York Times Co., 1972) . The latter 's sample 
budgets, with their modicum of comfort, are found on pp . 4, 21- 
23. When compared to the testimony of Thomas Stuart, a 
Bedfordshire farm laborer, they appear realistic. This man spent 
fifteen shillings a year "for a pair of strong shoes to go to 
work in," and the sample budget said men's shoes cost thirteen 
shillings. He spent less on shoes for the rest of his family 
than the sample budget did, however, saying his whole family in 
one year "stands me in 2 £ for shoe bills." See the excerpt of 
the Select Committee on Labourers' Wages, BPP, 1824, vol. VI, in 
Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 67. 


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 stiff led, 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. ^^ 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 

^^cf. Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:236 


Harriet Payne commented: "Everything happened in that one 
room- -birth, sickness, death and everything . "^^ Slaves often 
lived in log cabins which allowed them to see through the chinks 
between the logs. Dirt floors were a standard feature.^" 
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 

Providing scant comfort to the slaves, the local poor whites' 
homes were "mere square pens of logs" of little better quality.®^ 

"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 112, 147. 

®°Jenny Proctor of Alabama remembered that some cracks were 
chinked up and some were not. Marion Johnson, once a slave in 
Louisiana, could count the stars through the cracks in his 
mother's cabin. Millie Evans of North Carolina recalled that 
"nice dirt floors was the style then." Showing the master was 
not especially neglectful for one quarters of twelve cabins, ex- 
slave Rose Williams regarded it as good in quality, yet still 
noted: "There am no floor, just the ground." Botkin, Lay My 
Burden Down , pp. 62, 89, 139, 161. Solomon Northrup described 
his cabin as being built of logs, without window or floor, with 
large crevices letting in the necessary light and unnecessary 
rain! Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , p. 12 8. 

^^Drew, Refugee , p. 155. Kemble found similar conditions at 
St. Annie's, in which the bondsmen's homes failed to keep out the 
rain. Journal, p. 23 9; Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery 
(1901; New York: Airmount Publishing Company, 1967), pp. 15-16; 


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. "^^ 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 

Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:207. 

^^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:38, 340, 373; Kemble, Journal, 
p. 242; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 75. 


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.®^ 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 ' ? 

"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom . 1:52, 237-38; 2:166, 193, 195; 
Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 57; Marion Johnson's testimony 
in Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 139. 


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 . ^* 

Foqel 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 

®*01msted. Cotton Kingdom . 1:360, 373-74; 2:44-45 
(generally), 2:4-5 (Texas), 2:105-106 (Mississippi), 2:112 
(Alabama); Kemble, Journal, p. 116, 248; see also Genovese, Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , pp . 532-34. 


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.^^ Fogel and Engerman clearly 

^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:116; Sutch in 
David, Reckoning , p. 2 94; Kemble, Journal, p. 30. The housing 
comparisons with the sea-island cotton estate and other local 
places are on pp. 178-79, 187, 234, 236, 242; Bassett, Plantation 
Overseer, p. 2 62; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 52 5; 


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.®^ 

Genovese also reads too much into his citations of Olmsted 
and Kemble . Olmsted was not making a general point about all 

Blassingame, Slave Community , p. 2 54; Stampp, Peculiar 
Institution , pp. 2 94-95. Genovese ' s portrayal of the poor 
whites' housing conditions is similar to the above. Roll , 
Jordan, Roll , pp . 533-34. 

^^Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 52 6; Richard Sutch in 
David, et al. Reckoning , pp. 292-98. 


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.'' 

After analyzing his citations of Ketiible 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. '^ The poor housing 
masters and mistresses provided to their slaves clearly failed to 
promote the Victorian ideals of sexual purity that they generally 

'^Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave 
States in the Years 1853-1854 with Remarks on Their Economy (New 
York, 1856; reprint ed.. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904), 
2:317. Genovese 's reference to pp. 659-60 is to the 1856 
edition. Also see Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:320; Kemble, 
Journal, pp. 24, 134-315, 234; cf. pp. 66-67. 

'^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:218; Bonnie Thornton Dill, "Our 
Mothers' Grief: Racial Ethnic Women and the Maintenance of 
Families," Journal of Family History , 13 (1988) :420; Genovese, 
Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 462-63. 


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."^^ 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 
"secure 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) . ^° Although Fogel and Engerman like to 
think otherwise, deep concern by bondsmen or masters about 
cleanliness was not typical. ^^ For good reasons most slave 
dwellings were neither especially neat nor orderly places. ^^ 
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 

^^Kemble, Journal, p. 23, 24, 30-31, 213. Interestingly, 
Kemble ' s work features not only an almost complete lack of 
racism, but a nearly continual rebuttal against it, which was 
surely rare for whites living in America. Perhaps it was in part 
due to her being an Englishwoman, for Jacobs experienced no 
racism in England, unlike in the North: "During all that time 
[ten months in England] , I never saw the slightest symptom of 
prejudice against color." Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , 
p. 190; compare pp. 18 0-82. 

^°Crader, "Slave Diet," pp. 694, 713; Davis, Plantation 
Life , pp. 153, 190. See also Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 
311; Note Harriett Payne's comments, Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 
p. 147. 

^^As Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:121 note: 
"Few matters were more frequently emphasized in the instructions 
to overseers than the need to insure not only the personal 
cleanliness of slaves but also the cleanliness of their clothes, 
their bedding, and their cabins." Since such instructions were 
likely those written by the owners of the largest and best- 
established plantations, naturally any paternalistic impulses on 
hygiene would show up disproportionately in whatever records 
Fogel and Engerman examined. Nevertheless, as Kemble ' s husband's 
two plantations demonstrate, even large, long-established 
plantations could be very ill-kept places populated with ill- 
washed slaves. 

^^Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 52 8. 


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. ^^ 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.^* 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.^'" 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. ^'^ Consequently, the 

^^David Hoseason Morgan, Harvesters and Harvesting 1840- 
1900: A Study of the Rural Proletariat (London: Croom Helm, 
1982) , pp. 184-85. 

^*Caird, English Agriculture , p. 95. 

^^Ibid., pp. 75-76. See also Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, first report, p. xxv. 

^^Under the settlement law of 1662, a newly arrived worker 
to one parish could be forcibly removed to his parish of 
origin/settlement if he or she was likely to become chargeable 
(i.e., take relief) within 40 days of arrival, at the expense of 
the parish of settlement. But starting in 1795, the law 
prohibited evicting the poor until they became actually 


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 . ^^ 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 

chargeable to the parish, and it switched the expense of removal 
to the parish ordering the eviction. See Deane, First Industrial 
Revolution , p. 153. 

"Cf. Caird, English Agriculture , pp. 75-76. 


(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."^® 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."^^ In the general 

^^Rule, Labouring Classes , p. 76; Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 44, 
127. He cited the 1867-68 Parliamentary Commission on conditions 
in agriculture to bolster his case. Admittedly, as a union 
leader, he had an incentive to exaggerate how common bad 
conditions were; Somerville, Whistler , pp. 172, 380; See the 
testimony of Emma Thompson and Mark Crabtree in Agar, 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 90-91, 127; Parliamentary History , 
Feb. 12, 1797, as cited in the Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, first report, p. iv. 

^^Rule, Labouring Classes , pp. 78-81; The Vicar of 
Terrington as quoted in John Patrick, "Agricultural Gangs," 
History Today , March 1986, p. 24. Similar concerns also appear 
in Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, first 
report, pp. 24-25. Caird incidently noted this problem. English 
Agriculture , p. 516. 


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 . "^°° 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.^°^ 

How the Artist's Eye Can Be Self -Deceiving When Evaluating 

^°°Somerville, Whistler, p. 271; Olmsted, Walks and Talks , p. 
239. Similarly, Somerville denied a certain Mr. Bennet ' s 
statement that England was "highly civilized" if he included the 
laborers, especially since they no longer ate and lived in the 
farmers' own homes. Whistler, p. 147. 

^°^Rule, Labouring Classes , p. 81; Olmsted, Walks and Talks , 
p. 239, mentions a minister who declared society intentionally 
and permanently should always have one part dependent on the 
charity of another part . 


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.^°^ 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 

^°^Rule, Labouring Classes , p. 78; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 44; 
Olmsted, Walks and Talks , pp. 76, 208-10. 


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. ^°^ 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- 

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 

^°^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, 
first report, p. xxv; Somerville, Whistler , p. 380; Caird, 
English Agriculture , p. 389. 


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."^°* 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 f armers ' 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 

^°*According to Edward Butt, before the French Revolution 
cottages went for 40-50s . /year . Two guineas for a cottage with a 
garden was common. Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, 
second report, p. 8; Commission on Employment in Agriculture, 
BPP, 1867-68, first report, p. xxv; For the cottage-owner's 
comments, see Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first 
report, p. 14; Somerville, Whistler , p. 416. 


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 . ^°^ 

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 

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 

^"'^Caird, English Agriculture , pp. 161, 197, 516; Commission 
on Employment in Agriculture, BPP , 1867-68, first report, pp. 
xvi, XXV, xliv. 


discouraged building further cottages, over and above the poor 
law's own negative incentives on the construction and maintenance 
of cottages. °^ 

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 

^°^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. 
xi, XV (improving cottage quality) , Iv (profitability problem) ; 
Committee on New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first report, p. 14; Caird, 
English Agriculture , p . 12 5; 


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. ^°^ 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 

"'^Caird, English Agriculture , pp. 76, 98 (Duke of 
Wellington), 182 (Duke of Bedford), 197, 516. Somerville made 
similar observations about Wellington's cottages, adding that 
these were "the best cottages and gardens given to the poor at 
their rent (£3 10s. a-year) that I have seen in any part of the 
kingdom." Whistler, p. 131; Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 
21 (Culley's observation), 69 (Duke of Bedfordshire), 301 (Lord 
Beverly) , 389-90 (Northumberland/Waterf ord) , 401-2 (Duke of 
Devonshire); Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867- 
68, first report, p. xvi ; Somerville, Whistler , pp. 371, 375-76. 


and squalor," as Rule correctly observes.^"® 

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. 

Agricultural Workers- -Sanitation/Cleanliness 

"^Committee on New Poor Law, BPP , 1837, first report, 1837, 
p. 14. In the second report, p. 7, for the parish of Petworth, 
Lord Egremont charged nearly one -third less rent for comparable 
housing (tenements for the poor) than the tradesmen who owned 
houses there; Somerville, Whistler, p. 172; Rule, Labouring 
Classes, p. 78 . 


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. ^°^ 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 

^°^Rule, Labouring Classes , p. 87; Jeffries, Hodge , 1:167; 
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England , 
eds . and trans. W.O. Henderson and W.H. Chaloner (New York: 
Macmillan Co., 1958), p. 110. 


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. ^^° 

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. ^^^ 

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' 

^^°Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 352. But during this same general 
time period, Jeffries noted the increasing pressures for 
improving sanitary conditions in villages, which the landowners 
normally had to shoulder the burden of paying for. Even if they 
delayed making improvements, "it is impossible to avoid them 
altogether." Hodge , 2:113; Caird, English Agriculture , p. 390. 

'"Jeffries, Hodge . 2:70. 


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 

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 . ^^^ 

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 

"^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 121, 62 (Evans), 315 
(Johnson); Douglass, Narrative, p. 43; Northrup, Twelve Years a 
Slave, p. 12 8; Kemble, Journal, pp. 67, 315; Drew, Refugee , 1969, 
p. 109; At one fairly typical poor white's cabin, Olmsted took 
off his stockings initially when going to bed, but almost 
immediately put them back on, pulling them over his pantaloons. 
"The advantage of this arrangement was that, although my face, 
eyes, ears, neck, and hands, were immediately attacked, the 
vermin did not reach my legs for two or three hours . " Cotton 
Kingdom , 2 :107 . 


masters generously handed out these items. ^^^ 

English Agricultural Workers: Home Furnishings, Utensils, and 

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 . "^^* 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. 

^^^Kemble, Journal, pp. 66-67, 314-15; Charles E. Orser, Jr., 
"The Archaeological Analysis of Plantation Society: Replacing 
Status and Caste with Economics and Power, " American Antiquity , 
53 (1988) 737-38, 746-47; Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , pp. 
148-49. His testimony conflicts with Stampp's view that a 
majority of slaveowners provided frying pans and iron pots to 
their bondsmen. Ironically he makes this assessment just after 
citing Northrup in The Peculiar Institution , p. 287. Compare his 
treatment (pp. 287-88) with Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 
530-532; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 121 (Reynolds), 161 
(Williams); Blassingame, The Slave Community , p. 255. 

^^^Minutes of Evidence Before Select Committee on the Poor 
Law Amendment Act, BPP, 1838, vol. XVIII, part II, as reprinted 
in Agar, The Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 90-91; Somerville, 
Whistler, p. 46. 


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 . "^^'^ 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, 

"^Somerville, Whistler, pp. 257, 413. He described (p. 406) 
that in Heyshot parish, Sussex, laborers had to sell their 
gardens, small orchards, and houses in order to get relief. They 
only needed it to begin with because the local farmers resented 
their independence, so they refused to hire them except at 
harvest or some other time of high demand. 


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. ^"^ 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. ^^^ 

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. ^^^ 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. ^^^ The hedges which fenced 

"■^Kemble, Journal, pp. 47-48; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:87 
(charcoal), 103 (my emphasis, Virginia), 104-5, 215 (like fires), 
2:180 (collect firewood). 

^^^The South was "where fuel has no value." Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 2:250. Genovese describes the sexual division of labor 
for fires and fuel: The men collected the firewood, while the 
women lit or kept the fires burning. In Africa, the sex roles 
are reversed; the women collect the family's firewood even to 
this day. Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 525. 

^^^Olmsted, Walks and Talks , p. 73; Deane, First Industrial 
Revolution , pp. 104, 110. 

^^^Young, General Report , pp. 158-61. Only blacksmiths used 
coal near where Isaac Bawcombe lived in Wiltshire in the 1840s, 


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 .^^° 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. ^^^ 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.^" 

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 

where peat was the main fuel. Hudson, A Shepherd's Life , pp. 75- 
76. Somerville said the thinness of the turf in Heyshot parish 
made it a very poor fuel. Where it was a thick mold, "the turf 
is excellent fuel," but it seems he is judging this by relative 
English standards. Whistler , p. 405. Note also Cobbett, Rural 
Rides, p. 234. 

^^°Young, General Report , pp. 83, 86; Committee on the New 
Poor Law, BPP , 1837, second report, p. 8; Cobbett, Rural Rides , 
p. 196; note also pp. 206, 252-53; Somerville, Whistler , pp. 62- 
63 . This example also showed how annual service could be 
exploitive as labor paid by the day. This boy was paid just 
three shillings a week. 


Rule, Labouring Classes , p. 47; Hammond and Hammond, 
Village Labourer , pp . 12 6-28. 

^^^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p, 



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-prof itably 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. ^^^ 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). 

^^^Hudson, Shepherd's Life , pp. 210-11; R.W. Bushaway, 
"'Grovely, Grovely, Grovely, and All Grovely': Custom, Crime and 
Conflict in the English Woodland," History Today , May 1981, p. 
43; Hudson, Shepherd's Life , pp. 212-13; Hammond and Hammond, 
Village Labourer , pp. 128 (charity's limits), 197 (breaking 
bough) . Arch remembered the rector's wife handed out soup and 
coals in his parish when he was a child. But her charity served 
as a control device to help humble the poor before their 
"betters" and to keep them attending the Established Church. At 
least eventually, his mother refused to take any. Arch, Joseph 
Arch, pp. 15, 17-18, 21-22. 


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) . ^^* 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 $3 or more annually afterwards . ^^^ The slaveholders' 
investment in their bondsmen encouraged high expenditures on 
their medical care, even when paternalism did not. 

^^*Most Southern slaveholders could not be mistaken for homo 
economicus , as Kemble knew. They were not calculating 
businessmen like "Manchester manufacturers or Massachusetts 
merchants" who would rarely sacrifice financial interests "at the 
instigation of rage, revenge, and hatred." In a portrait 
familiar to readers of Olmsted's travels, she said: "The 
planters of the interior of the Southern and Southwestern states, 
with their furious feuds and slaughterous combats, their 
stabbings and pistolings, their gross sensuality, brutal 
ignorance, and despotic cruelty, resemble the chivalry of France 
before the horrors of the Jacquerie . . . With such men as 
these, human life, even when it can be bought or sold in the 
market for so many dollars, is but little protected by 
considerations of interest from the effects of any violent 
passion." Kemble, Journal, pp. 3 01, 3 03. The roughneck, non- 
calculating culture of Southern slaveowners seriously weakens the 
standard apologetic for slavery, since the owner's self-interest 
could not be counted on to restrain how he treated his property. 

^^'^Eugene Genovese, "The Medical and Insurance Costs of 
Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt," Journal of Negro History 45 
(July 1960) :152; Davis, Plantation Life , p. 48. 


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."^^'^ This "race mixing" he took for 
granted despite his rigid insistence on enforcing the color line 
other times. ^^^ 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 

^^"^Davis, Plantation Life , p. 278. Fogel and Engerman note 
that doctors' bills listing both the slaves and owning family's 
members treated on the same visit do exist. Time on the Cross , 

^^^For example, he condemned the repairman of his gin for 
talking to his blacks as if they were equals. He ran off his 
property the proud, well-dressed mulatto son of a nearby planter 
who dared to pass through his plantation's quarters. Davis, 
Plantation Life , pp. 186-87, 206-7. 


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 . "^^^ 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. ^^^ 

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 

^^^Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 198, 280. Barrow had 
vaccinated himself and his children against some (unnamed) 
disease earlier (p. 87) . Bassett, Plantation Overseer , p. 29 
(Plowden) , p. 115 . 

^^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 71, 92-93. 


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 if fen 
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. ^^° 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 

"°Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 122 (Reynolds), 71-72 
(Kendricks) ; Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 315; Fogel and 
Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:120; Bassett, Plantation Overseer , 
p. 29. Weston also provided a hospital for his slaves, p. 28; 
Kemble, Journal, pp. 32-33, 214; Stampp (p. 313) notes an ideal 
hospital built on James Hamilton Couper's Georgia rice 
plantation. Its ideal conditions, including steam heat and floors 
swept daily and scrubbed once a week, should not be seen as 
common. Kemble said that her husband's slaves were better off 
than many owned by other masters in their neighborhood. 


charm] ; er, de toe-nails of a chicken is mos ' pow'ful!"^^^ 
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' Brief iel '. " 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. "^^^ 

^^^On the independent source of authority the conjurors had, 
see Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 221; Kemble, Journal, p. 63; 
Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 64-66. 

^^^On the value of slave midwives, see Mary Beth Norton, 
Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American 
Women, 1750-1800 (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman & Co., 1980), p. 
31; Kemble, Journal, pp. 28-29, 317; Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 


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 . ^^^ 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.^^* 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 

People , p. 176; Bassett, Plantation Overseer , p. 141 

^^^In northeast England after about 1720 parishes routinely 
hired doctors to care for the parish poor. Earlier cases, such 
as Newcastle paying a surgeon in the 1560s, also appear. P. 
Rushton, "The Poor Law, the Parish, and the Community in North- 
East England," Northern History 25 (1989): 146. 

^^^Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first report, 
pp . 22, 50, 67. 


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 
183 5) 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. ^^^ 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. ^^ 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. 

^^''One doctor told Edward Butt, the relieving officer for 
Petworth parish under Gilbert's act, and briefly relieving 
officer for Petworth and Kirdford parishes under the New Poor 
Law, that he would not wait to get the relief orders from him 
before aiding the poor: "I shall never stop for your orders, 
because you may away at a distance; before I can get the order 
from you, a person may be dead." Ibid., second report, p. 2. 

"'ibid., first report, pp. 51-52, 67. 


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. "^^^ 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 

'"ibid., pp. 18-19 


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. ^^^ 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).^^^ 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 

"^Thompson, Making , pp. 241 (Mayhew) , 419 ("Most were 
artisans,") 421. Thompson sees benefit clubs as one of the main 
sources of the development and expression of class consciousness 
and the working class ' s sense of organization in resisting the 
elite in English society; Frank E. Huggett, A Day in the Life of 
a Victorian Farm Worker (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 
1972), p. 60; Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first 
report, p. 18; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 34; Hudson, A Shepherd's 
Life, pp. 299-304. 

^^^Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 54-56; On the value of inoculations 
early on, see John Rule, The Vital Century: England's Developing 
Economy, 1714-1815 (New York: Longman Group, 1992), pp. 11-12. 


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.^*° 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."^*^ 
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 

^*°Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, second report. 

pp . 8-9 

"^Jeffries, Hodge , 2:145. See also p. 144 


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. ^*^ 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 

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 

^*^This crude approximation of the relative proportion of 
northern English farmworkers is supported by the figures for 
total population by county found in Phyllis Deane and W.A. Cole, 
British Economic Growth 1688-1959 Trends and Structure , 2d ed. 
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), p. 103. 


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.^*^ The 
game laws also were biased against the laborers, which not only 

^^^Although accepting the elite's legal categories. Young 
does see the problems in ignoring the poor's customary rights 
General Report , pp. 12-14, 32-33, 155, 158; cf. p. 99. 


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. 


The Quality of Life and the (Material) Standard of Living 

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. ^** 

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. "^*^ 
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 

"^Brent, Incidents , pp. 188-89. 
"'^Kemble, Journal, pp. 44, 140-41 


were unquestionably better off .^*^ 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 

^*'^The conditions of work and the resulting relationships 
that existed between the superior and subordinate class's 
individuals on the job are an important aspect of the quality of 
life. But since the struggles between these two groups and the 
methods of resistance and control are so closely tied to the 
quality of life aspects of work, this subject is covered in 
sections four and five. 


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. "^*^ 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 

^^^Freedwoman Rose Williams of Texas, Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down , p. 161; Douglass, Narrative, p. 92; 1178a5-8; The Basic 
Works of Aristotle , ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 
1941), p. 1105; Kemble, Journal, p. 115. In this context she 
mentions a mentally retarded woman who is as capable at field 
work as other slaves without this handicap. By contrast, she 
noted London, a literate slave and preacher on the same 
plantation, must have felt deep frustration since he had a more 
informed outlook on life and the world. 


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. ^*^ 

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: 

^*®Drew, Refugee , pp. 50 (Rose), 275 (Sanders); Botkin, Lay 
My Burden Down , p. 50; As Douglass noted: "A city slave is almost 
a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation." It was in 
Baltimore that he learned to read, continuing on the with aid of 
white children after his mistress stopped teaching him. 
Narrative, p. 49-50, 53-54; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 


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 . ^^^ 

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. ^^° 

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 

^^^Douglass, Narrative, pp. 49, 94, 97; Similarly, escaped 
slave Henry Morehead stated: "The time is now, when the colored 
men begin to see that it is the want of education which has kept 
them in bondage so long;" Drew, Refugee , p. 180; Kemble, Journal, 
p. 130. See also p. 9; as quoted in Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 

^^°Nat Turner, in 1831 the leader of the bloodiest American 
slave rebellion which erupted in Virginia, was literate, which 
certainly did not persuade slaveholders to encourage literacy 
among their human chattels. After this revolt killed some sixty 
whites, the white South suffered an abiding trauma that lingered 
into the Civil War. Stampp, Peculiar Institution , pp. 132-34. 


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 . ^^^ 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 

^^^as quoted in Richard D. Younger, "Southern Grand Juries 
and Slavery," Journal of Negro History 40 (Apr. 1955) : 168-69 ; 
Brent, Incidents, p. 6; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 26; 
Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:69-71; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 
185; Drew, Refugee , p. 97. 


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 

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. ^^^ 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 ' f raid 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 

"^Drew, Refugee , pp. 110, 175, 180-81 (Morehead) ; Brent, 
Incidents, pp. 74-75; Douglass, Narrative, pp. 89-90; Botkin, Lay 
My Burden Down , p. 91. 


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. ^^^ 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. 

^^^John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom A History of 
Negro Americans , 5d ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), p. 
145; Kemble, Journal, pp. 158, 271; Brent, Incidents , p. 74; 
Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 50, 126; Northrup, Twelve Years a 
Slave, p. 175. 


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. ^^* 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 

^^*John R. Gillis, The Development of European Society, 1770- 
1870 (Lanham, MD : University Press of America, 1983) , p. 216 

(chart); Hudson, A Shepherd's Life , p. 60; Commission on 
Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, first report, pp. xxi, 
xix; R.S. Schofield, "Dimensions of Illiteracy, 1750-1850," 
Explorations in Economic History , 10 (1973) : 450, cited by Snell, 
Annals, p. 36; Eric J. Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain Swing 

(London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1969), p. 64. 


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 . ^^^ 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 

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 . ^'''^ These laws affected the whole of Britain, not just 

^^''Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , p. 64; Somerville, 
Whistler, p. 104; Cobbett, Rural Rides , pp. 123-24. 

^^■^Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 9, 24-27; Hudson, Shepherd's Life , 
pp. 142-43; Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867- 


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. ^'"^ 

At What Age Did Child Labor Begin and Schooling End? 

68, first report, p. xviii; David Thomson, England in the 
Nineteenth Century 1815-1914 (London: Penguin Group, 1950), p. 
135; Pamela Horn, "Child Workers in the Victorian Countryside: 
The Case of Northamptonshire," Northamptonshire Past and Present 
7 (1985-86) :175. 

^^^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, 
first report, pp. vii, x-xi, xv, xx . In 1870s Wiltshire parents 
had realized the value of education much more. Jeffries, Hodge , 
2:67. (This work was mainly based upon his experience writing 
for a Wiltshire and Gloucestershire newspaper in the early 
1870s) . 


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. ^^^ 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 

^^^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp , 
ix (variations), xiii, xiv (Northumberland), xviii-xix 
(Leicestershire) , xxii (Cambridge/Yorkshire) , xxvi 
(Northamptonshire) , xlviii-il (concession) . Arch mentions both 
extremes in ages. Joseph Arch , pp. 247-48. 


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.^^^ 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.^" 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 

^"Horn, "Child Workers," 177-178; Morgan, Harvesters and 
Harvesting , pp. 64-67; Commission on Employment in Agriculture, 
BPP, 1867-68, p. xxix. 

^'^°Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP , 1867-68, 
cited by Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 19. This county was 
heavily agricultural, so most (c. 80 percent) of its inhabitants 
were farmworkers and their families. Woburn Union, confining its 
figures to agricultural laborers ' children exclusively, overall 
had 839 in attendance with 1100 on the schools' registers for 
children under the age of 13 out of a population of 11,682 in 
1861. See p. 13. 


getting even a decent elementary education.^" 

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 

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 

"^Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 248 


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. ^'^^ 

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."^" 
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 

^"Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 25; Windham's Speeches , 3:17, cited 
by J.L. and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer 1760-1832: The 
New Civilisation new ed. (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1928), 
p. 56; Gillis, Development of European Society , p. 215; One 
Southern overseer who visited England noted that the same 
arguments were used against educating the farmworkers and the 
slaves. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 193. 

^"Cobbett, Rural Rides , pp. 51-52; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 25. 


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.^" 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.^" 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 

^"Hammond and Hammond, Town Labourer , pp. 55-56. H.G. Wells 
obliquely alludes to the two options as chosen by two different 
nations: "The oligarchy of the crowned republic of Great Britain 
may have crippled and starved education, but the Hohenzollern 
monarchy corrupted and prostituted it." The Outline of History: 
Being a Plain History of Mankind , ed. Raymond Postgate, 2 vols. 
(Garden City, NY: Garden City Books, 1956), 2:830. 

^"Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, p. 69; Commission on 
Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. xxiii, xxxii. 


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.^" 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 . ^" 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.^" This old man's case illustrates that the 

"■^Steven R. Smith, "Age in Old England," History Today , Mar, 

1979, p. 174 


Genovese provides a good but overly optimistic summary of 
how well slaveowners cared for their elderly slaves: Roll , 
Jordan, Roll , pp. 519-23. Although he carefully balances between 
an optimistic and pessimistic interpretation, a tilt toward a 
pessimistic viewpoint (like Stampp's) is more justifiable. 

^"Kemble, Journal, p. 92, 313; cf. p. 246. While noting the 
pro- slavery argument that their elderly were not isolated from 
their family and friends as the laborers confined to 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."^" 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 

A standard condemnation of the North's general system of 

workhouse in England were, she still found old slaves were 
terribly neglected on her husband's estates. The workhouse 
infirmary that Jeffries described was certainly better than this, 
as mentioned above (p. 110) . 

^"Kemble, Journal, p. 3 03; Brent, Incidents , p. 14; 
Narrative of Jonathan Walker ; Davis, Plantation Life , p. 2 62. 


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. ^^° 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. "^^^ 

^^°In his "Rules of Highland Plantation, " Bennet Barrow 
enunciated clearly the price of retirement and guaranteed 
subsistence at his perceived expense, including in sickness and 
retirement: "If I maintain him in his old age, when he is 
incapable of rendering either himself or myself any service, am I 
not entitled to an exclusive right to his time [when younger]"? 
Davis, Plantation Life , p. 407. Clearly, a slave paid dearly in 
return for the security his master (actually, fellow slaves) 
provided for him in old age . 

^^^Douglass, Narrative, p. 62; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 
2:251. Olmsted eloquently observed that slavery stultifies the 
talents and abilities of its human chattels while, in practice , 


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. ^^^ 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.^^^ 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.^^* 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 . 

providing "no safety against occasional suffering for want of 
food among labourers, or even against their starvation any more 
than the competitive system" (i.e., capitalism). 

^^^Kemble, Journal, p. 247; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 
522; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 63. 

^^^Kemble, Journal, p. 313; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 
69; Douglass, Narrative, p. 22; Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 
313; Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:209. 

"^Ball, Slavery in the United States , pp. 21-22. 


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.^ 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. ^^^ Since some were self-sacrificing and 

^^'^Ball, Slavery in the United States , p. 21; Genovese, Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , pp. 522-23. 

^^■^Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 318. By citing the 
highest available figure for slave life expectancy (36 years) , 
Fogel and Engerman try to deny the force of these figures in 
demonstrating differential treatment for slaves and free whites. 
The higher black death rates result from black women having a 
higher fertility rate concomitant with a higher infant mortality 
rate, and from the South 's (allegedly) less healthy climate. 
Time on the Cross , 1:124-25; 2:243-44. Substantially lower 
estimates for life expectancy for slaves are actually more 
common, such as Zelnick's 32 years, Farley's 27.8 for female 
slaves, and Elben's 32.6 for the same. They ignore the 
implications of higher mortality rates for black infants in 
demonstrating how material conditions for slaves were worse than 
for free whites. The idea the South 's climate was 
epidemiologically inferior to the North's is also disputable. 


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 .^^^ 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 
lerat, 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.^^^ 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 

The North-South difference in infant mortality can easily 
attributed to the difference between bondage and freedom, instead 
of a less healthy climate. Sutch in David, Reckoning with 
Slavery , pp. 283-87. Conceptually, the major point Stampp 
implicitly makes is still true: Of all those born, 
proportionately fewer black babies lived to be elderly than white 
ones. See Peculiar Institution , p. 319. 

"''Smith, "Age in Old England," p. 174; Snell, Annals, pp. 


"'Hudson, Shepherd's Life , pp. 46, 47-48, 318-19 


required experience, combined with the plodding 
patience of age, and these he could do better than a 
stronger man. ^^ 

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."^^° 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. ®^ 

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 

"Jeffries, Hodge , p. 143. 

^®°David Thomson, "Welfare and the Historians," in The World 
We Have Gained: Histories of Population and Social Structure , 
eds . Lloyd Bonfield, R.M. Smith, and K. Wrightson (Oxford, 1986) 
p. 370; cited by Rushton, "The Poor Law," p. 151. See also 
Snell, Annals, pp. 364-67. 

^^^Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 36 


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 . "^^^ 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 

^^^Hudson, Shepherd's Life , pp. 46-47, 55; Committee on the 
New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first report, p. 35. 


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.^^^ 

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."^^* 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. ^^^ 

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 

^^^Snell, Annals, pp. 131-33; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 257; 
Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, p. 22 0. Thomas Sockett, the 
rector of Petworth, Sussex, said pensions of 2s. /week were normal 
for older people not working in Petworth parish. Committee on 
New Poor Law, BPP , 1837, first report, p. 15. 

^^^Committee on New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first report, 
preface to minutes of evidence, p. 7. See also p. 9. 

^^'^Ibid., p. 1. See also p. 15. Admittedly, he said he 
would have voted for the New Poor Law had he been a Member of 
Parliament. Ibid., second report, p. 23; first report, p. 16. 
But, going against Cobbett and Arch's stereotype of the uncaring, 
Tory- supporting establishment churchman, he harshly condemned 
some parts of the law that injured the poor. 


few" of the old lived in the union's workhouse, and no more than 
had before.^^*^ 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 1 ^^ Other witnesses made comparable comments to 
the committee . ^^^ 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. ^^^ 

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 

^^'^Ibid., p. 21. Only those with no family to care for them 
ended up in the workhouse. Otherwise, they lived with family 
members (including wives) , and received pensions of two shillings 
a week. 

^^^Ibid., p. 31. Arch estimated the parish paid at least one 
shilling a week more to place an elderly person in the workhouse 
than to give a relief pension of two shillings a week. "As has 
been calculated, it costs the ratepayers from three shillings and 
ten pence to four shillings a week per adult." Joseph Arch , pp. 

"®Ibid., pp. 38, 41, 43. The assistant Poor Law 
Commissioner, William Henry Toovey Hawley, flatly denied that 
some rule prohibited the relieving of the aged and infirm at 
home. Ibid., p. 66. Farmer Edward Butt, having worked many 
years as a relieving officer for the poor under Gilbert ' s act for 
the Petworth parish, believed the elderly were better off under 
the new law than before. Ibid., second report, p. 4. 

^®^"0f course, out-relief of sorts continued for some elderly 
people; although one should be wary of generalising arguments on 
'continuity' before and after 1834 which are based on Norfolk and 
Suffolk." Snell, Annals, p. 131. 


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 . ^^° 

Whose Elderly Were Better Off? The Farmworkers' or the Slaves'? 

Before hazarding a summary judgment about whether old slaves 

"°Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 257-60; Snell, Annals, pp. 135-37; 
Somerville, Whistler , pp. 153, 156. 


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 . ^^^ 
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: 

^^^On child labor, see Thompson, Making , p. 349; Douglass, 
Narrative , pp . 24-26. 


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 . ^^^ 

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. 

^^^Kemble, Journal, p. 121; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 
94; Drew, Refugee , pp. 72, 105; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:131, 
239; Morgan, "Ownership of Property by Slaves," pp. 402-3; 
Washington, Up from Slavery , p. 17; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 
pp. 502, 505. Armstrong notes "adolescence" as the age for going 
into the fields. Old Massa's People , p. 92; See Peter Kolchin, 
"More Time on the Cross? An Evaluation of Robert William Fogel ' s 
Without Consent or Contract," Journal of Southern History 58 
(Aug. 1992) : 494. 


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. "^^^ 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 

^^^Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 78-79; Douglass, 
Narrative, pp. 43-44; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:239. 


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. ^^* 

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 

^^^Brent, Incidents , pp. 28-29; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 
1:39. This incident illustrates again how whites, with blacks in 
bondage, willingly engaged in "race mixing" that would have 
appalled post-reconstruction segregationists. "When the negro is 
definitely a slave, it would seem that the alleged natural 
antipathy of the white race to associate with him is lost." 
(1:40) . 


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.^^'' 

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! ^^'^ 

^^'^Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 505-6 (games played) , 510-11 
(mask training); Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 69; Kemble, 
Journal, 57-58; Stampp, Peculiar Institution , 378; 

^^^Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 508; Kemble, Journal, 312- 
13. Note p. 31 also, where no adult was in sight supervising the 


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 

babies or the baby-minders in a cabin; Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down , 126. 


children enjoyed it! --when taking a broader view.^^^ 

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 

"'^Kemble, Journal, p. 66, 121, 122, 312. She rebukes a 
Times [of London?] correspondent who noted on the estate he 
visited that "all the children below the age of twelve were 
unemployed." Olmsted had a similar perspective: "Until the 
negro is big enough for his labour to be plainly profitable to 
his master, he has no training to application or method, but only 
to idleness and carelessness." Cotton Kingdom , 1:131 


notes. ^^® 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. "^^^ 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. 

^^^Douglass, Narrative, 44; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 
56; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 507. 

"^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:131. 


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. °° 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 

'°°Snell, Annals, 40, 45-46, 49-66, 309, 348-50. One of the 
questionnaires which parishes filled out as part of the inquiries 
into the Old Poor Law, BPP, 1834, vol. xxx, reported this process 
at work clearly. Selattyn, Shropshire reported: "Women and 
Children are not now so much employed as formerly, because 
labouring men are so plentiful, and their labour so cheap." Hugh 
Cunningham, "The Employment and Unemployment of Children in 
England c. 1680-1851," Past and Present , no. 126 (Feb. 1990), 


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. ^°^ 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 

^"Hudson, Shepherd's Life . 67; Horn, "Child Workers," 173; 
Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, ix 
(generally) , xiii (Northumberland) , xxvi (Northampton) , xvii 
(Fens), XX (Yorkshire); Arch, Joseph Arch , 29. 


husbands' estates while the women were overworked. ^°^ 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. "^°^ 
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 

^°^Cunningham, "Employment of Children, " strikingly covers 
this subject in depth, noting that many saw industry and mining 
as a solution to the problem of idle children burdening their 
parents. He concludes on p. 150: "It is usual to think of the 
school rescuing the working child from the factory; it is more 
plausible to think of it removing the idle child from the street. 
In 1871 when the number in the census 'at home' was still high, 
the Registrar-General suggested that school was the proper place 
for these 'unemployed children'." Also note Mary B. Rose, 
"Social Policy and Business; Parish Apprenticeship and the Early 
Factory System 1750-1834," Business History 12 (Oct. 1989) :6-7; 
the statements by Defoe and Pitt in Hammond and Hammond, Town 
Labourer , 144. Thompson's critique of child labor, alluded to 
above (p. 119), when placed amidst such evidence for child 
unemployment, largely applies to those children employed in the 
factory and mining districts, where the labor intensity and 
length of the workday were undeniably extremely demanding. 

^°^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. 
xvii, xviii; Horn, "Child Workers," 174. 


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.^°* 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. ^"'^ 

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 

^°*Sonya 0. Rose raises a similar point in connection with 
the household economy functioning in domestic industry, not 
agriculture. When children are working for their parents 
directly and not for an employer for wages, those gathering data 
for a census are more apt to overlook them. See Rose, "Proto- 
Industry, Women's Work and the Household Economy in the 
Transition to Industrial Capitalism, " Journal of Family History 
13 (1988) :188. 

^"Cunningham, "Employment of Children," 140-47. Even the 
1867-68 Report found, at least in the Thames Valley area, only 
relatively few employed under the age of ten and that only one 
eleventh under age eight were employed. Commission on Employment 
in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p. xxix. 


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. ^°^ 

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. ^°^ 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. 

^""^Snell develops this theme at great length in Annals . Note 
especially pp. 67-103, 210-219, 322-327. See also Cunningham, 
"Employment of Children," 123, 148. 

^°^Cunningham, "Employment of Children," 120. 


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.^"® 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. °^ Because so many families lived 

^°^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p, 
xi (recommend age) , xxi (Cambridge) , xxvi (Northampton) , xxxi 
(Thames); Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 247. 

^°^This evidence, but coming from the English side, backs 
Genovese ' s claim: "The southern slaveholders knew, too, that 
their slave children fared closer to the style of their own 
pampered children than to that of the children of 


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 

nonslaveholders, who had to help their parents by doing rough 
work at early ages." Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 504. Again, Kemble 
and others raise an important point: Was keeping a child in 
idleness without an education better than putting them to work 
under their parents' eyes (as opposed to a textile mill owner 
owner's impersonal supervision and high intensity work regime)? 


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!^^° 
(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 

^^°See Morgan, Harvesters , pp. 23-27, 98; Committee on 
Allotments, BPP, 1843, pp. 211, 222, 225, 226, 227; Commission on 
Employment in Agriculture, BPP , 1867-68, pp. xiv 
(Northumberland), xxiv (Yorkshire); Jeffries, Hodge , 2:73-74. 


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 .^^^ 

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 

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 

^"Jeffries, Hodge , 2:65-67, 73-74. Somerville portrayed 
laborers' children as picking flowers also. Whistler, pp. 281- 
82; Hudson, Shepherd's Life , p. 68; Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 27, 
28, 33-34. 


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 

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. ^^^ 
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 

Organized religion, although first and foremost it concerns 
man's relationship with God (or the gods), also brings people 

^^^Plato, Republic , 338c; The Collected Dialogues of Plato 
Including the Letters , Bollingen Series LXXI, eds . Edith Hamilton 
and Huntington Cairns, trans, of Republic , Paul Shorey 
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 588. 


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.^^^ 

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 

^^^cf. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 161-68. Of course, this 
analysis assumes the elite and masses of the same society mostly 
share the same religion. 


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 

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,^^* 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 

^^^Joseph, Hugh, and Jonathan Bryan, all of a wealthy 
colonial planter family in South Carolina, were such idealists. 
See Alan Gallay, "The Origins of Slaveholders' Paternalism: 
George Whitefield, the Bryan Family, and the Great Awakening in 
the South," Journal of Southern History 53 (Aug. 1987): 383-88. 


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. "^^ 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 .^^^ 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 .^^^ 

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 

^^'^Brent, Incidents, p. 69. 

^^"^See Winthrop D. Jordan, The White Man's Burden: 
Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: 
Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 91-92. 

^^^Kemble mentions the two models. Journal, pp. 71-72, 131. 
Freedwoman Jenny Proctor of Alabama for a while believed she had 
no afterlife based upon what one white preached to blacks on her 
plantation because "we didn't have no way finding out different. 
We didn't see no Bibles." Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 91. 


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 
Christ ianizat ion 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.^^® 

The Gospel of Obedience Distorts the Christianity Given to the 

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. ^^^ One pamphlet on the subject of 
evangelizing the slaves that Kemble found evidently strongly 

^^^Kemble, Journal, p. 131; Gallay, "Origins of Slaveholders' 
Paternalism," 380-81. See also Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 
185; Paul C. Palmer, "Servant into Slave: The Evolution of the 
Legal Status of the Negro Laborer in Colonial Virginia, " South 
Atlantic Quarterly 65 (summer 1966) : 360-61; Jordan, White Man's 
Burden , pp. 89, 97, 98. 

^^^Note the local clergy's timidity with the one-time 
overseer of Kemble ' s husband's estates, who opposed church 
gatherings off or even on the plantations he managed. Kemble, 
Journal , pp . 2 67-68. 


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 

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.^^° 

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: 

^^°Kemble, Journal, p. 91; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 
25-26; Brent, Incidents , pp. 70-71; Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 
People , pp. 225-27; Blassingame, Slave Community , pp. 84-89; 
Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 207-9. 


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. "^^^ 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 

The Slaves Add to the Religion Given Them by their Masters and 

^^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 118; Bassett, Plantation 
Overseer , pp. 14-15 (Lunsford Lane); Stampp, Peculiar 
Institution , pp. 158-59; Robert Starobin, "Disciplining 
Industrial Slaves in the Old South, " Journal of Negro History , 53 
(April 1968) : 113. 



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. ^^^ 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. ^^^ 
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, 

^^^Of course, Catholicism itself (especially) is a 
syncretistic combine of the Roman Empire's religions, Jewish 
beliefs, and doctrines specifically originating from Jesus of 
Nazareth and Paul. Easter and Christmas were substituted for the 
Passover and Day of Atonement, Sunday for Saturday, the saints 
and Mary replaced the gods of the pantheon concerning each having 
specific control of various natural processes affecting humanity, 
etc . 

^^^For Brazil, note Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 180. In 
some areas where organized Voodoo emerged, such as southern 
Louisiana, the African side of the combine was fully dominant, or 
even all that was present. Blassingame, Slave Community , 41; 
Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 217, 220. 


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. ^^* 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 .^^'^ 

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. ^^^ 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 

^^*Ball, Slavery in the United States , 21-24; Botkin, Lay My 
Burden Down , 36-38; Mary F. Berry and John W. Blassingame, 
"Africa, Slavery, & the Roots of Contemporary Black Culture," 
Massachusetts Review , autumn 1977, 515. They overstate their 
case because the poor whites at services, especially revival 
meetings, had an emotional interpretation of religion as well, 
coming from the Protestant belief in being "born again." The 
emotional services held by Methodists and others among the 
English working class shows American whites need not have copied 
the blacks in this regard. Note Stampp, Peculiar Institution , 
376-77; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:265-71; Genovese, Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , 239-40. 

^^'^Stampp, Peculiar Institution , pp. 371, 374-76; William C. 
Suttles, Jr., "African Religious Survivals as Factors in American 
Slave Revolts," Journal of Negro History 56 (April 1971) : 96-100 , 
102; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 182-83. 

^^"^Olmsted maintained that the generality of preaching in the 
South to the slaves had been overstated, that many masters still 
discouraged it. Cotton Kingdom , 2:213-14. 


over to Robt . H. Barrows to preaching, . . . being near & leaving 
home but seldom, granted them permission. "^^^ 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!^^^ 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 

^^^Davis, Plantation Life , 198. One overseer kept the slaves 
in his care from going to a nearby church because it would join 
together slaves from different plantations. This left them with 
services just once a month. Kemble, Journal, 220. 

^^^Drew, Refugee , 89 (West) , 331 (Freeman) , 353-54 (Troy) 
383-84 (Johnson); Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 231; Cf . Cato of 
Alabama's testimony in Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 86. 


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."^^^ 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. 

^^^Drew, Refugee , 332; Kemble, Journal, 167-68; Brent, 
Incidents, 7 5 . 


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 . ^^ 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. ^^^ 
At least some masters and mistresses saw converting their slaves 
to Christianity as a religious duty, without always having the 

^^°Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 91, 121; Kemble uses a similar 
analogy. Journal, 90. 

^^^Kemble, Journal, 73 (segregated communion), 150 (a largely 
segregated church) ; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 81 (Kinney) , 147 
(Chaney) . See also 62, 143, 145-46; Davis, Plantation Life , 184; 
Gallay, "Origins of Slaveholders' Paternalism," 386-87; Olmsted, 
Cotton Kingdom , 2:213. 


ulterior instrumental purpose of using their faith as an ideology 
that taught obedience, since they went beyond the bare minimums 

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 . ^^^ 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. ^^ 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."^^* 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 

^^^Even a capable and conscientious white pastor could also 
get awesome respect from his black flock: Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 2 :226 . 

^^^Olmsted described the effects of having a respected 
position on their character. Cotton Kingdom , 1:260. 

"*Davis, Plantation Life , 91. 


to obey their owners. ^^^ 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 f righed [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. ^^'^ 

The unanimous passive rebellion here made this a remarkable 

^^'"Blassingame, Slave Community , 130-37. 

"■^Davis, Plantation Life , 283-85. Note 286 also; Kemble, 
Journal, 84 . 


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. ^^^ 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 . "^^^ 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 

"^Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 88-93, 271-79. 

^^^James D. Anderson, "Aunt Jemima in Dialectics: Genovese 
on Slave Culture," Journal of Negro History 61 (Jan. 1976) :113. 


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) .^^^ 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 

^^^What one slave preacher said when he got so excited during 
services that his mask slipped may hint at what was preached at 
such gatherings. Forgetting that a white man was watching him, 
he prayed: "Free indeed, free from death, free from hell, free 
from work, free from white folks, free from everything." Henry 
Clay Bruce, The New Man. Twenty-nine Years a Slave. Twenty-nine 
Years a Free Man (York, PA, 1895), 73, cited by Blassingame, 
Slave Community , 135-37. 


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.^*" 

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 

^*°James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance 
Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, 1990), 
passim. Scott rejects the concept of hegemony altogether, 
whether it be the strong version in which the masses gain false 
consciousness from the elite's propaganda and then really believe 
in the ideology of the superstructure, or the weak version, 
wherein the elite settles for the masses simply becoming resigned 
and passive about their plight. His rejection is too complete, 
at least for advanced industrial countries with a history of free 
elections and free speech. In such nations, the masses may 
really come to accept some of the elite's ideology as being in 
their self -interest- -such as property rights and (in America) the 
Horatio Alger myth. (How else could Rush Limbaugh, and right- 
wing talk radio in general, get such high ratings?) Still, Scott 
has dealt a mighty blow against Gramscian theorizing. 


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.^*^ 

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 

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 

^^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 96 


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. ^*^ John Wesley, 
although the founder of Methodism, himself died a good Anglican. 
Upholding Toryism in politics, he repeatedly taught this 
doctrine. ^*^ 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. ^** 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. ^*^ 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. ^*^ 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?^*^ 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 

^^^Thompson, Making , 351; Hammond and Hammond, Village 

Labourer , 215. 

^^^Thompson, Making , 41. Similarly, note the message of 
patience and submission taught by the Conference of Methodist 
Ministers, in an address adopted in 1819 almost 30 years after 
Wesley's death: Hammond and Hammond, Town Labourer , 280-81. 

^^^Hammond and Hammond, Town Labourer , 223-24, 329. 

^^'^For the farmers' resentment against the tithes, see 

Cobbett, Rural Rides , 191 


Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , 109, 118, 130, 152, 158- 
59, 231-33. 

^^^Cobbett blasts the Established Church for such abuses, 
where the parsons take their tithes for a given parish, but 
totally neglect to serve it, failing even to maintain a rectory 
or (in one Wiltshire case) a church in it. Cobbett, Rural Rides , 
365-66, 400-403. 


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.^*® 

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 

'*'lbid., 170. Note also 178 


come up last of all to the table of the Lord.^*^ 

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. ^^° 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 

^^^Cobbett, Rural Rides , 176; Arch, Joseph Arch , 16-17, 19-20 
^^°Somerville, Whistler, 34; Arch, Joseph Arch , 7-8, 15, 17- 

18, 21-22, 50-52, 53-54 


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 2 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 rested I fear, and 
if it had a been so how the farmers would lagh to see the ould 
Pasen [Parson] rested at last."^^^ 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. 

^^^On the two types of tithes, see J.W. Anscomb, 
"Parliamentary Enclosure in Northamptonshire Processes and 
Procedures," Northamptonshire Past and Present , 7(1988-89): 413; 
The Life and History of Swing the Kent Rick-Burner (London: R. 
Carlile, 1830), 17, in Carpenter, Rising of the Agricultural 
Labourers ; "Swing" letter, quoted by E.P. Thompson, Making of the 
English Working Class , 233 . 


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. ^^^ 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. ^'^^ 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.^^* Joseph Arch personifies effects like these. He was a 
Nonconformist and even an occasional lay preacher before founding 
the first national farmworkers union. ^'"'^ George Loveless, one of 
the martyrs in the infamous Tolpuddle case was not only a 
Methodist, but had a "small theological library. "^^^ 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 

^^^Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , 288-91; J. A. Hargreaves, 
"Methodism and Luddism in Yorkshire, 1812-1813," Northern History 
26 (1990) : 161. 

^^^Thompson, Making , 3 54-65; Hammond and Hammond, Town 
Labourer, 284-86. 

^^^Hammond and Hammond, Town Labourer , 270-71. 

^"Arch, Joseph Arch , 47-48, 50. 

^^'^Thompson, Making , 41; Rule, Labouring Classes , 310-11. 
The Tolpuddle case involved six farmworkers from Dorset who were 
sentenced in 1834 to be transported for seven years merely for 
administering oaths despite forming a union itself was legal. 


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) . ^^ 

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 

^"Thompson, Making , 42 


is accomplished. ^^^ 

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 

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, " 

^^^Arch, Joseph Arch . 114, 313, 402 


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. ^ 

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 

^"Cobbett, Rural Rides . 177-78. Compare 171-72 


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 . ^'^° 
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 

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 

^"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:265-71; W.E.B. Dubois, cited by 
Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 23 9. 


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.^" 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 

^"Blassingame, Slave Community , 149-50. The earlier 
colonial period saw more of an imbalance until near its end. 
Note the figures for King William Parish, Virginia in Gundersen, 
"Double Bonds of Race and Sex," 354-56. For cases of polygamy 
being tolerated, see Kemble, Journal, 207, 226. Also note 
Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , 169. 


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."^" 
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 

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. "^" 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 

^"Drew, Refugee , 141. 

^"Gundersen, "Double Bonds of Race and Sex," 370; Brent, 
Incidents, 4 . 


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.^" 

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.^" 

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 

^"Douglass, Narrative, 60; for a more optimistic spin on 
estate divisions, note Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 125-27; 
Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 2:232. Herbert G. Gutman 
decisively shatters their optimism in Slavery and the Numbers 
Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross (Urbana, IL: University 
of Illinois Press, 1975), 132-36. 

^"Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 258; Drew, Refugee , 198; 
Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:154; Ball, Slavery in the United 
States, 16. See also 77-78; Note Bobby Frank Jones, "A Cultural 
Middle Passage," in Herbert Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game , 


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 .^" 

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 

^"f.N. Boney, "Thomas Stevens, Antebellum Georgian," South 
Atlantic Quarterly 72 (spring 1973) : 238-39; Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 2:3; Jack E. Davis, "Changing Places: Slave Movement in 
the South, Historian 55 (summer 1993) : 661-63. In passing, he 
notes Tadman ' s estimate that no more than 3 percent of 
interregional slave migration came from slaves accompanying 
moving owners; Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:48; Sutch 
and Gutman in David, Reckoning , 100-105. 


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 

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 

'"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 102; Drew, Refugee , 45, 121; 
Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 258-60; Brent, Incidents , 14; 
Ball, Slavery in the United States , 16, 35-36; Chambers ' s 
Journal , Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:375-77. One or more of these 
seven children may have died earlier, long before this sale took 
place; Gutman and Sutch in David, Reckoning , 132. 


hoped an exchange would occur later. ^^^ 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."^" One bill collector, after showing up 
at planter Barrow's door, "offered him a family of negros."^^° 
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. ^^^ 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.^^^ But such moves were mere baby steps. If the 

^"Bassett, Plantation Overseer , 197. Note that even with an 
intact nuclear slave family being relocated to their new master 
because of inheritance, she was still told that they seemed to be 
in distress over separating from friends and other family 
members . 

^"Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 316-17. 

^^°my emphasis, Davis, Plantation Life , 184. 

^^^Judith Kelleher Schafer, "New Orleans Slavery in 1850 as 
Seen in Advertisements," Journal of Southern History 47 (Feb. 
1981) :36. 

^^^Herman Freudenberger and Jonathan B. Pritchett, "The 
Domestic United States Slave Trade: New Evidence," Journal of 
Interdisciplinary History 21 (winter 1991) :454-55. The source of 
this figure was the certificates of good character which 
Louisiana briefly required for all slave sales. Fogel and 
Engerman maintain only 9.3 percent of slaves sold were children 
under thirteen in Time on the Cross based on sales invoices. A 
later sampling of theirs using these certificates of good 
character of children ten years old and less produced a figure of 
11.1 percent. See Freudenberger and Pritchett, Ibid., p. 453; 
Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:49-50. Gut man and Sutch 
demolish Fogel and Engerman 's calculations that indicated most 
young slaves sold were orphans in David, Reckoning , 130-131. 
Pritchett and Freudenberger ' s data also refute their claim that 
this Louisiana law was seldom enforced. See Fogel and Engerman, 
Time on the Cross , 2:53-54. Significantly, Schafer found twenty- 
eight ads listing children separately under eleven, of whom only 
six were said to be orphans, in New Orleans newspapers for 1850. 


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 . 

Foqel 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. "^'^ 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 3 -year-old grandmothers on her husband's 

"New Orleans Slavery," 36-37. 

^^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:49; 2:51-52 


Georgian estates. ^^* 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.^^ 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) .^^'^ 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 

^'^Kemble, Journal, 58; cf the mention of fourteen-, sixteen- 
, and eighteen-year-olds in Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:80. Very 
few of these children were illegitimate: Only three unmarried 
mothers were on the rice island estate Kemble stayed at. 
Journal, 134-35. Fogel and Engerman used probate records to 
establish a high average age for slave mothers at the first birth 
of a child. But they commit so many fallacies with the data 
(including equating oldest surviving child with a first birth at 
the time of probate) , any re-examination of the evidence totally 
controverts their claims. See Fogel and Engerman, Time on the 
Cross, 1:138-39; Gutman and Sutch in David, Reckoning , 136-46; 
Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game , 140-52. 

^^'^For the general discussion about this issue, note Fogel 
and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 2:48-53; Gutman and Sutch in 
David, Reckoning , 112-33; Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game , 

^^"^Blassingame, Slave Community , 341, 361; Gutman and Sutch 
in David, Reckoning , 128-29. 


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. "^^^ 
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 

^'^'^Drew, Refugee , 2 9 (William Johnson) , 3 (Tubman) , 52 
(George Johnson) , 179 (Jackson) . Since the WPA narratives are 
heavily weighted towards those who were only children while in 
bondage, they might not often mention this kind of fear, which is 
the province of adults. 


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 
submi s s i ve manne r . 

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. ^^^ 

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 

^'^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 106; Chambers ' s Journal , 
Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:374, 377; Douglass, Narrative, 97 


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 .^^^ 

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 

^^^Kemble, Journal, 18. Note also Genovese, Roll, Jordan, 
Roll , 495; Stampp, Peculiar Institution , 287. After 
emancipation, the forced equality in field work soon disappeared, 
for the freedmen and freedwomen preferred and adopted the sexual 
division of labor that the whites had. See Dill, "Our Mothers' 
Grief, " 422 . 


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 of f -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. ^^° 

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." 

^®°0n the damaged father's role, see Stampp, Peculiar 
Institution , 344-46. The two-thirds figure is based on a 1866 
military census of ex- slaves who lived in Princess Anne County, 
Virginia, where the blacks questioned stated who owned them in 
1863. Gutman, Slavery and the Number Games , 105; Northrup, 
Twelve Years a Slave , 16 9; Kemble, Journal, 60; Genovese, Roll , 
Jordan, Roll , 486-89; Blassingame, Slave Community , 179. 


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. 0, 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 . "^^^ 
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 

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. ^^ The slave wife 
on her own would care for her children, cook, work, etc. without 

^^^ Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy , 16, quoted in Peter 
Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom 
(Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1987), 211. 
Cf . Kemble, Journal, 17 5; Brent, Incidents , 41-43; Blassingame, 
Slave Community , 172 . 

^^^This practice also increased the men's feeling of 
independence because they received the freedom to walk to another 
plantation using a standard or monthly pass. Bennet Barrow 
opposed allowing of f -plantation marriages in part because: "3d-- 
it creates a feeling of independance, from being, of right, out 
of the control of the masters for a time." Davis, Plantation 
Life, 408. 


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. ^^^ 

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.^®* But since the normal 

^^^Deborah G. White, "Female Slaves: Sex Roles and Status in 
the Antebellum Plantation South, " Journal of Family History , Fall 
1983, 255; Davis, Plantation Life , 408, 409; On the frequency of 
marrying abroad, see Gutman and Sutch in David, Reckoning , 103-4 
and Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:81; On seeing the "grass is 
greener elsewhere," see Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 155. The 
bondsmen also had good reasons for their custom, but it had its 
intrinsic costs, including increased involuntary separations. 

^^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 147; Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 
People , 166-68. 


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. ^^^ 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. ^^^ 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 

^^''Armstrong, Old Massa 's People , 166; Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down ,65; Mary Reynolds of Louisiana disliked a similar casual 
wedding she had (124) . Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:81; Kemble, 
Journal, 167 . 

^^'^Stampp, Peculiar Institution , 342-43. 


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. ^^^ 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."^^^ 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.^^^ 
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. "^^° 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 

^®^See Dill, "Our Mothers' Grief," 418. 

^^^Bassett, Plantation Overseer , 84. 

^"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:81. 

^^°01msted. Cotton Kingdom , 2:225-27. The latter two cases 
may be of free blacks instead of slaves; the context does not 
make it completely clear. 


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. ^^^ 

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. ^^^ 

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 

^^^On the difference of slave parents, see Stampp, Peculiar 
Institution , 346; Kemble, Journal, 95, 174; Davis, Plantation 
Life, 201, 269, 432; Bassett, Plantation Overseer , 141, 264-65. 

^^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 228; Douglass, Narrative, 44- 


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,--! 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. "^^^ 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 

^"Drew, Refugee , 71-72 (Nichols) ; Armstrong, Old Massa' s 
People , 172. True, she put an optimistic (perhaps nostalgic) 
spin on the situation: "But we got 'long jus' fine!" 
Nevertheless, today it is known that on average the uncertainty 
stemming from family instability produces far more children with 
major psychological problems than stable family environments do. 
A case of a Kentucky slave woman having seven children by seven 
different men appears in Stampp, Peculiar Institution , 346. 


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.^^* 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 

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 . ^^^ 
Forced to stand aside, the black husband usually had to tolerate 
this intruder into his marriage bed, although some bravely 

^^^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 55, 89, 102, 156. 

^^''Clarence L. Mohr, "Slavery in Oglethorpe County, Georgia, 
1773-1865," Phvlon . 32 (Spring 1972): 11. 


retaliated in a self -sacrificial defiance, surely knowing the 
dangers involved. ^^'^ 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.^^^ 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. 

Master-Arranged Marriages 

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 

^^"^Note Stampp, Peculiar Institution , 359-60 
^"Brent, Incidents, 35, 105, 193. 


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. ^^^ 

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 

^^^Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 164; Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down , 161-62; Drew, Refugee , 84. While exaggerating the 
frequency of arranged marriages, Franklin makes insightful 
comments on their negative consequences. From Slavery to 
Freedom, 148. 


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 3 -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 .^^^ 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 

^^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:133, 2:110; 
Bentley Glass and C.C. Li, "The Dynamics of Racial Intermixture- - 
an Analysis Based on the American Negro, " American Journal of 
Human Genetics 5 (Mar. 1953): 10; D.F. Roberts, "The Dynamics of 
Racial Intermixture in the American Negro- -Some Anthropological 
Considerations," American Journal of Human Genetics 7 (Dec. 
1955) : 361-62, 366; Bentley Glass, "On the Unlikelihood of 
Significant Admixture of Genes from the North American Indians in 
the Present Composition of the Negroes of the United States," 
American Journal of Human Genetics 7 (Dec. 1955) : 371; T. Edward 
Reed, "Caucasian Genes in American Negroes," in Laura Newell 
Morris, ed.. Human Populations, Genetic Variation, and Evolution 
(San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1971), 427-48; 
Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game , 146, 154; Sutch in David, 
Reckoning , 283-84. 


their claim. ^°° 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.^°^ 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 

^°°Gutman and Sutch in David, Reckoning , 151. Gutman and 
Sutch argue the Evans and Bullock county results are biased 
downwards because they say mulattoes were excluded from them and 
because proportionately more mulattoes migrated north or to 
Southern cities than blacks. But Fogel and Engerman maintain 
that southern urban areas even in 1850-1860 had a 
disproportionately high percentage of mulattoes when their 
movements were still (largely) regulated by slaveholders. Time 
on the Cross , 2:113. Clearly, more miscegenation happened in 
urban areas than in rural, since the bondswomen in cities had far 
more contact with whites and were less tightly supervised than on 
plantations and farms. After discussing the reliability of the 
1860 Census reports' figure that about 13 percent of black 
Americans had white ancestry, Genovese maintains most 
miscegenation took place in cities. Roll, Jordan, Roll , 414-15. 

^°^Glass and Li, "Dynamics of Racial Intermixture," 8; Glass, 
"Unlikelihood of Genes from North American Indians," 371, 372, 
375, 377; Reed, "Caucasian Genes in American Negroes," 436; Fogel 
and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 2:111, 112. 


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. "^°^ 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 

^°^Bassett, Plantation Overseer , 107, 129; Botkin, Lay My 
Burden Down , 241. 


remarkably well.^°^ 

The Key Issues Involved in Examining the Quality of Farmworker 
Family Life 

The state of the family life of the English farmworkers now 
needs some close examination. Here the flood tide of controversy 
greatly ebbs. The overall level of stability of the farmworkers' 
family life institutionally produces little grist for the mills 
of contemporary English politics. As Snell notes in passing, 
"family break-up [is] a subject of great interest because of the 
rising modern divorce rate, but one on which there has been 
little historical discussion in Britain."^"* By contrast, the 
slave family's instability, when debated by American historians, 
carries not just the freight of our mutual obsession with race, 
but the burden of controversies in the larger society over 
welfare reform, "family values," inner-city crime, etc. The 
stability of the laborer's family correspondingly receives much 
less attention below, in part because it did not suffer the 
peculiar distortions that resulted from the basically unlimited 
authority of slaveholders over their slaves, who really had no 
"private life" shielded from their owners' eyes. The fundamental 
norms of then-contemporary lower class and peasant family life in 
western Europe, such as the prevalence of the nuclear family 
household and the rarity of divorce, apply to the English case. 

But one key theoretical consideration needs exploration 
first which has important implications for the quality of family 
life for both English farmworkers and African-American slaves: 
Were family relationships in the lower and working classes in the 

^°^When describing the greater number of roles a slave could 
play in Latin America compared to the United States, Stanley E. 
Elkins wrongly declares: "He [the Latin American/Caribbean 
slave] could be a husband and father (for the American slaves 
these roles had virtually no meaning) ." Conspicuously, Elkins 's 
summary judgment overlooks the slave woman and her roles as wife 
and mother, which (following the insights of Gilder in Men and 
Marriage ) are much more durable and less socially constructed 
than the man's roles as husband and father. By apparently taking 
the universal "he" of his sentence too narrowly and literally, he 
accidentally eliminated half of all American slaves ' experience 
with family life! Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional 
and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 
1959), 136. The imbalanced sex ratios in which men outnumbered 
women on many Caribbean and Latin American plantations undermine 
his argument as well. 

'°'Snell, Annals, 359-60. 


past much more motivated by practical material self-interest than 
at present? Marriages in peasant villages were typically mostly 
based upon the practical self-interest of the older adults of the 
families being joined together, such as the inheritance of land 
and dowries. Does the reality that romantic love weighed little 
in the balances of peasant marriage contracts mean the husband 
and wife involved mainly saw themselves as traders merely trying 
to get the most out of the other? Did the privations of pre- 
industrial life, with its concept of limited resources that 
needed careful conservation and rationing as expressed by 
limiting how many could marry and when they could do sonumbers 
and timing of those marrying, increase the selfishness of 
people's relationships? Did they see the dependents of the 
family, such as young children and old people incapable of 
fieldwork, as at best unpleasant burdens to bear, and at worst 
parties to be permanently disposed of as quickly as possible? 
Or, despite the privations of life, did married people in the 
lower classes living close to the subsistence level have 
fundamentally affectionate, caring relationships with one 
another? Did the increasing sexual division of labor produced by 
men working away from home more as industrialization advanced, 
which increasingly confined women to domestic duties after the 
spread of Victorian ideals about the separate spheres, raise the 
level of alienation within families instead of lowering it? On 
the quality of the pre-industrial masses' family life, Eugen 
Weber and John Gillis, who paint a pessimistic picture, face off 
against K.D.M. Snell, who upholds an optimistic view.^°^ 

The "Weber/Gillis" Thesis Summarized: Was Brutish Family Life 
the Norm? 

Weber deals exclusively with the case of the French 
peasantry, while Gillis ' s work has a broader focus, and deals 
mostly with western European nations ' conditions as part of a 
political and social history of late eighteenth century and 
nineteenth century Europe. Weber and Gillis depend on sources 
left by middle class observers seeing the cruelty or callousness 
that frequently accompanied peasant (or other, lower class) 
family life. No direct access to the minds of the peasants 
themselves is now possible, except perhaps through proverbs or 
the filter of official documents. The latter are always 
problematical because the poor often had a strong self-interest 
to shade or conceal the truth from their superiors in rural 

^"''Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization 
of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford, California: Stanford 
University Press, 1976), 167-91; Gillis, Development of European 
Society , 3-12, 31-32; Snell, Annals , 9-14, 369-73, 399-410. Also 
note, as implicitly siding with Weber and Gillis, George Huppert, 
After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe 
(Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986), 2-7, 117-27. 


society. Since lower-class people lived so close to subsistence 
levels, the productive adults developed habits and mores in 
family life intended to reduce the number of dependents, young or 
old. The constant struggle to survive drained affection out of 
marriage and parental relationships. It was no formula for 
marital bliss when forming marriages in peasant village societies 
that the financial benefits (such as the inheritance of land) 
that the families involved would gain greatly exceeded in 
importance the man and woman's levels of romantic attraction and 
personal compatibility. 

Because of the crude transportation available, villages, 
having only limited local resources to offer their inhabitants, 
had to aim for self-sufficiency. As a result, men and women 
could not marry until their mid to late twenties in order to cut 
down on the number of children born that would need support. In 
turn, which is due to a high infant mortality rate and low life 
expectancies of forty years or less, a family needed to have so 
many children born to produce the desired one male heir. To get 
even a 60 percent chance of achieving this goal, four births were 
necessary. Because of the struggle to feed them, families with 
more than a few children farmed them out to relatives, patrons, 
and masters through apprenticeship and domestic service from 
young ages, eight and up. Adults saw children mainly as mouths 
to feed when young. Clearly earmarking the expendability of 
children, adults who perceived newly arrived children mostly as 
burdens had the motive for resorting to infanticide. As Gillis 
summarized: "Mothers regarded their hungry infants as little 
beasts, insatiably aggressive and destructive. 'All children are 
naturally greedy and gluttonous, ' one seventeenth- century doctor 
concluded." When the children grew older, they would see the 
old, meaning their parents in particular, as obstacles to self- 
fulfillment because they could not marry themselves until their 
parents died or resigned active management of the land (or other 
property, such as artisanal tools and animal stock) . Delayed 
marriage and involuntary lifelong celibacy were common as a 
result, unlike in most non-Western European societies. As 
parents aged, the tables could be turned on them; their children 
then may have desired quick and early deaths for them. For 
example, middle class observers heard peasants calculatingly 
discussing their parents: "He is not good for anything anymore; 
he is costing us money; when will he be finished?" More 
generally, peasant sayings such as the following circulated: "We 
inherit from the old man, but our old man is a sheer loss!" and 
"Oh! it's nothing, it's an old man."^"*^ The elderly might be 
driven from one house to another among resentful children, 
becoming subject to conditions leading to a slow- -or 
quick- -parricide or matricide. Grimness and estrangement born 

^°'^Gillis, Development of European Society , 5, 7; Weber, 
Peasants into Frenchmen , 175. 


out of material self-interest may have characterized the family- 
life of the western European lower classes, a product ultimately 
of the constrictive ratio of cultivatable land to human food, 
which encouraged especially the productive in peasant society to 
resent their dependents. 

Since above English agricultural workers and American slaves 
are compared, the presumably poor family life of French peasants 
could be deemed irrelevant. After all, Snell is. dealing with the 
English case, while Weber is not. To buttress his optimistic 
picture of the laborers and artisans' family life, Snell cites 
letters English emigrants sent to America, Canada, or Australia 
that expressed strong family sentiments. Letter after letter, he 
observes, contain language like this extract's: 

Dear wife and my dear children this comes with my kind 
love to you hoping to find you all well as its leaves 
me at present thanks be to God for it dear wife . . . 
dear wife give my kind love to my mother and my 
brothers and sisters and i hope they will send me word 
how thay all be . . . from your loving husband antill 

The rural workers ' autobiographies which mention the positive 
quality of their marriages, such as those by Somerville or Arch, 
also support Snell' s viewpoint . ^°^ How can the data from Weber, 
Gillis, and Snell be reconciled, besides trying to duck the 
implications of Weber's data by saying it concerns Frenchmen and 
not Englishmen? 

The Limits to Snell ' s Rebuttal Against Seeing Lower Class Family 
Life as Harsh 

Snell ' s mistake resembles Fogel and Engerman's when they 
implicitly equate slave marriages being broken up by sale with 
slave family breakup. The main tension that Weber and Gillis 
observe emerges between the productive adults owning some type of 
property, rented or owned, and their dependents, whether they are 
children or aged parents. The resentment characterizing family 
relations stems from the productive being forced to support the 
nonproductive because of their family relationships. Additional 
bitterness results from adult children who are unable to marry 
until they have come into the possession of their parents' 
property when the latter die or retire. In reply, parents 
complain that their adult children are disobedient and 
ungrateful. (To Weber, the generation gap is nothing new!) 
Furthermore, the French peasantry and English farmworkers dealt 
with marriage differently. English laborers rarely (if ever) had 
arranged marriages because they normally had no property (or 

^"Snell, Annals, 10, 370 


position based on it) worthy of notice by parents or heirs. But 
French peasants often did have property interests requiring 
protection, so parents serving family interests often carefully 
chose mates, or otherwise limited the number of possible choices, 
for their children in order to avoid such problems as divided 
inheritances. For this reason, their marriages would be less 
happy than the English laborers', if all other things were equal, 
because a love match is more likely to avoid marital discord, at 
least when the couple kept physical attraction from blinding them 
from considering personal compatibility and character. Huppert 
puts well the potential cost of arranged marriages to the wife's 
happiness : 

The secret torments experienced by girls pushed into 
marriage against their inclination rarely stand 
recorded in official documents, even though their 
plight was clearly one of the most common dilemmas of 
the times and subject of innumerable popular plays, 
stories, and songs. 

Knowing disinheritance was the sword of Damocles hanging over 
their heads, reluctant bridegrooms faced a less severe version of 
the same problem. So when Snell maintains working class 
marriages were (generally) good, this is not identical to all 
family relationships, because Gillis and Weber focus on the 
tensions of the parent -child bond . Since Snell also leans upon 
letters written from countries where resources seemed limitless, 
where a great and mostly empty wilderness ached to be filled 
(e.g., America, Canada, Australia), Gillis's theme of the limited 
good constricting and burdening everyone in a biologically- 
determined circle of life is inoperative. Men in these countries 
with so much land, work, and high wages available compared to 
England worry little by comparison about earning the minimal 
amount to support wives or children. The wives themselves could 
find lots of paid work or useful labor in raising food available 
as well, lessening or eliminating the need for their husbands to 
support them. Since wizened parents are poor candidates for 
emigration to distant foreign countries' frontier regions, the 
need to financially support them is rendered a non- issue, beyond 
possible remittances via the mail. A scarcity of resources 
provokes the family clashes that Gillis, Weber, and (implicitly) 
Huppert discuss, but this problem is an unlikely concern for a 
man writing home from some sparsely populated frontier region to 
his wife, children, or parents. Finally, as Snell himself 
admits, such letters may reflect the adage that absence makes the 
heart grow fonder. ^°^ So although the disharmony levels of 
peasant marriages on the Continent arguably surpassed that of the 
farmworkers, Snell' s evidence does not refute Gillis and Weber's 

^°®Snell, Annals, 11, 370; Huppert, After the Black Death , 


grim interpretation of family relationships between the 
productive and dependents, old or young. 

When dealing with elderly agricultural laborers and the poor 
law, Snell himself notes that their family relationships could be 
badly strained when parish authorities forced adult children to 
support their elderly parents, as noted above: "The pressure on 
relatives to pay (and this extended beyond children, even, 
informally, to neighbours) placed a heavy strain on the family, 
and must frequently have raised ill-feeling between spouses and 
animosity against the elderly. "^°^ The agricultural workers 
frequently felt this burden was an unfair imposition because over 
the generations they had come to assume that the (Old) Poor Law 
would make others care for their aged parents. By contrast, the 
French peasantry was totally unaffected by any poor law. They 
had long been accustomed to making private arrangements dealing 
with their aged parents- -which obviously failed to reduce much 
the level of resentment it generated. One witness, rather 
shocked, described the peasants' attitude toward their parents: 
" [The family members are] harsh on the dying as they are hard on 
themselves. [They] are not embarrassed to say in his hearing 
that he is dying and will kick the bucket anytime. His wife and 
his children mutter bitter words about wasted time. He is a 
burden and he feels it."^^° The French historian Bonnemere 
described the attitudes from others that an old man in 1850s 
rural France endured: 

[He] carries the wretchedness of his last days with him 
from cottage to cottage, unwelcome, ill received, a 
stranger in his children's house. At last he dies 
. . . but it well for him to make haste, for greed is 
there, and greed nerves the arm of hidden parricide .^^^ 

Snell ironically records family relationships strained for 
similar reasons when the English parish authorities intervened: 

It was reported that: 'Many sons contribute to support 
of aged parents only when forced by law'; that children 
might move away from the area 'to evade claim'; that 
'Quarrels frequently arise between children as regards 
giving the help'; or that the 'aged prefer a pittance 
from the parish (regarded as their due) to compulsory 
maintenance by children; compulsion makes such aid very 

^°^Snell, Annals . 367. 

^^°Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen , 175. 
^^^Gillis, Development of European Society , 4 


bitter' .''' 

The attitude reflected in the last clause was due to how the Poor 
Law, Old or New, made somebody else pay for the aged's upkeep. 
The ratepayers were forced to support the nonproductive, unlike 
in countries without a poor law, such as France, Ireland, or 
Scotland. Because the New Poor Law tightened the screws on 
relief's availability, adult children were increasingly forced to 
support their aged parents, thus making the quality of family 
life of the English laborers suffer from the same problems the 
French peasantry had long faced, who supported their elderly 
directly without any third parties in-between. 

How Not Being Independent and Self -Sufficient Could Improve 
Family Life 

Conspicuously, the slave family in the American South 
avoided internal family conflicts about supporting their elderly. 
Because the slave family was not financially self-sufficient, but 
was subordinated to the slaveholders' interests in production, 
these conflicts were eliminated. Bondsmen did not undergo the 
pressures of the family poverty life cycle, which were 
concomitant with the burdens of freedom and independence. All 
the slaves, children and elderly included, ate from a common pot, 
so to speak, since none (typically) had to support themselves 
directly. Since the master and mistress stood between the 
productive adults on one side and the children and retired old 
slaves on the other as the protectors and supporters of all their 
human chattels' interests and needs, the slaves' resentments 
mostly focused on their owners and overseers, not against the 
unproductive in their midst. After all, by its very nature, 
slavery discouraged self -motivated hard work by every slave since 
the amount of work done usually had little effect on how much 
anyone owned or earned, thus placing a premium on everyone being 
as lazy as the lash allowed. Upholding themselves as the 
supporters of the slaves' children and elderly, the slaveholders, 
because they owned the land, labor, animals, and crops, became 
the intermediaries between the productive and nonproductive 
slaves. The slaves perceived any shortages of food, shelter, and 
clothing as the stingy master or overseer's fault; 
correspondingly, they saw none among their own families as a 
financial drain. Since the slave family lacked the burdens of 
freedom, its members did not have to depend on each another as 
much, because the plantation's work process organized and did for 
its slaves so much of what free families had to do on their own. 
Overall slave family instability remained much higher than free 
families' despite this reduction in inter-generational 
disharmony, which was a curious byproduct of the master's making 
all his slaves economically dependent on him, because the 

^"Snell, Annals, 367 


peculiar institution still produced powerful centrifugal forces 
that forcibly broke up slave families for the reasons described 
above. The privations that result from the outer world's 
hostility and indifference can drive families to stay together; 
the ease that comes from other institutions performing functions 
for the family that it could do independently, such as child care 
and cooking, can encourage families to drift apart. 

The Weber-Gillis thesis has its own implications for the 
slave family, despite its origins in analyzing general European 
conditions: If lower-class family life in Europe was "nasty, 
brutish, and short," could have it been the same among the 
slaves? A number of differences obviously arise here, including 
cultural traditions derived from Africa (e.g., an emphasis on the 
extended family) , and how the system of slavery itself directly 
attacked the slave family in the name of the profits that 
slaveholders derived from labor mobility and flexibility when 
dividing its members up. The conflicts between the enslaved and 
masters trumped any among slave family members themselves 
whenever any financial or material motivations arose, since 
masters controlled how much any of their slaves received, outside 
of theft and some outside earnings for off -hours work. Dubois's 
extremely pessimistic portrayal of slave family life varies 
sharply from Gillis and Weber's descriptions of lower class 
European family life, despite all believe a low quality of family 
relations prevailed. Depicting the depths to which the slave 
family could plummet, Dubois here exaggerated the plight of 
average field hands on plantations without resident masters: 
"The homes of the field hands were filthy hovels where they 
slept. There was no family life, no meals, no marriages, no 
decency, only an endless round of toil and a wild debauch at 
Christmas time." Since the master or mistress could countermand 
any of the slave father's desires, he lacked authority in the 
home, making him easily sink "to a position of male guest in the 
house, without respect or responsibility." The slave mother was 
also absent, but for different reasons: She was a full-time 
field hand or domestic servant who lacked time to care for her 
children well. When she was sexually used by the master, his 
sons, or the overseer, her husband still could not protect her. 
She could be suddenly and arbitrarily separated by his or her 
master from him. Given these dismal realities, Dubois summed up 
the slave family's condition: "Such a family was not an organism 
at best; and, in its worst aspect, it was a fortuitous 
agglomeration of atoms. "^^^ 

Despite some similarities, different causes produced clearly 

W . E . B . Duboi s , The Negro American Family , ed . W . E . Burghardt , 
Atlanta University Publications, no. 13 (Atlanta: Atlanta 
University Press, 1908), 47, 49, cited by Fogel and Engerman, 
Time on the Cross , 2:201-2. 


different effects between what Dubois describes and what 
Gillis's, Weber's, or Huppert's depict for the family units they 
portray. In the case of the African-American slaves, the 
master's power to divide slave families in order to promote his 
self-interest and to subordinate them to profit-producing work 
processes produces sharply different stresses from what laborers 
or peasants endured. In contrast, in having to struggle to 
maintain some degree of financial solvency and independence above 
the margin of subsistence, peasants often resented the burdens 
imposed by nonproductive family members such as the elderly or 
young children. The kinds of alienation the two groups were apt 
to suffer from varied as well. The slaves were prone to sense a 
rootlessness characterized by the feeling that they belonged to 
no place or set of people, besides to their masters and 
mistresses. But the French peasants' sense of anomie likely had 
opposite causes: Many felt constricted in and too tied down by 
major, life-changing decisions, such as marriage, in their local 
villages. They had to deal with and support family members that 
they had little desire to help. Although because masters and 
mistresses largely determined their slaves' occupation and place 
of residence, slaves suffered from this kind of alienation as 
well, but within their families, different factors operated. 
Most slaves had far more freedom to choose a mate than French 
peasants did, with their arranged marriages or highly limited 
choices within their native villages. Hence, although Gillis and 
Weber's thesis plausibly points to lower class Europeans having a 
low quality of family life, their theory cannot be easily 
transferred to American slaves because they faced very different 
societal pressures. 

The Limits to Applying the Gillis-Weber Thesis to the English 

So then, what are the implications of the Gillis-Weber 
thesis for the quality of the English laborers' family life? It 
only partially fits because the laborers had more freedom to 
choose who they married, often like the slaves. Their families 
routinely lacked the financial interests that, among French 
peasants, encouraged arranged marriages or narrowed dramatically 
the pool of potential spouses. As wage earners or dependents on 
parish relief during the Speenhamland era of family allowances, 
they had no need to wait until their parents died to marry. To 
the extent proletarianization spread because of domestic 
industry's development or subsistence farming's decline, this 
process had the advantage of freeing adult children to marry 
before their parents died or retired so the family farm or 
business could be turned over to them. Furthermore, enclosure 
and the poor law both tended to lower the laborers ' average 
marriage age because they largely removed the laborers' need to 
build up a nest egg of savings while working as (unmarried) farm 


servants before becoming (married) day laborers. ^^* The pressures 
of families having to survive independently, excepting any 
charity or parish relief, still promoted among them 
uncompassionate responses towards dependent elderly parents or 
young children. In a lament made to Somerville, note the torn 
feelings one Wiltshire man felt over the death of his son: 

We had another boy, but he died two weeks aback; as 
fine a boy as you could wish to see he wur, and as much 
thought on by his mother and I; but 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. Ah! we may love our children never so 
much, but they be better gone; one hungry belly makes a 
difference where there ben't enough to eat.^^^ 

Although feeling sadness over his son's death, this father also 
felt relieved by the removal of the burden of buying food for his 
son when his family scraped so close at the margins of 
subsistence. The father earned only eight shillings a week to 
support what before was a family of five. Slaves would have no 
such mixed feelings over a child's death, because they had no 
need to support directly that child in a financially separate, 
self-supporting family. Instead, all their children were 
communally cared for under the (nominal) slaveholder's aegis as 
part of the plantation's (or farm's) functions. Slaves felt no 
financial burden from having a large family because they were all 
automatically fed part of the plantation's standard rations and 
their offspring received crude day care while the adults worked 
in the fields. Few slaves worried about the pressures that the 
family poverty life cycle describes because they did not support 
their offspring directly. But the factors Weber and Gillis 
spotlight that lowered the quality of family life for French 
peasants (and others) did affect the English farmworkers, but to 
a lesser extent, because although they did attempt to 
independently support themselves, their marriage relationships 
likely were better, being more based on love matches or personal 
compatibility, because their families lacked serious property 
interests . 

Some Evidence Bearing on the Quality of Farmworkers ' Family Life 

It is easy to show that this or that laborer's family 
apparently had strong ties. Their resistance against being split 
up when placed in a workhouse, either by sex when all were placed 
in one, or when just part of a family might go in, could summon 

^"Snell, Annals, 53-54n., 210-17; Somerville, Whistler, 385; 
Rule, Vital Century , 23-25. 

^"Somerville, Whistler, 38. 


all the passions of the human spirit, much like the archetypal 
slave auction scene. Having been ordered to enter the workhouse 
with his wife, one aged laborer compared it to sundering what God 
had placed together "that we may live apart and meet death in our 
old age each alone," in order merely to deter others from 
applying for relief. In one terribly tearful scene, one 
Wiltshire laborer told his family they were just about out of 
food, so to get any bread one of his children (all of them being 
under age ten) would have to go into the workhouse . Two begged 
not to be sent. Their mother said any of them would have their 
hearts broken if they went. The oldest girl said, "Oh, don't 
send me, I be willing to eat less bread not to go, and Billy says 
he be the same; father, we will not cry for bread when we be 
hungry no more, so be ' s us ben ' t sent to the union." Seeing 
their determination to stay together at such a high cost, the 
father could only hug and kiss them.^^*^ The strength of the 
laborers' family relationships can also be demonstrated less 
dramatically. Arch's wife desired plaintively that he stay and 
work around their home more, instead of tramping about to earn 
much better wages far away. In this or that aged couple, as 
Hudson noted, when the wife or husband dies, the other soon 
follows her or him to the graveyard. Laborers' wives were said 
to dislike cottages with a second story because they could not 
watch their children or an old relative as well, which implies 
not all elderly relatives were ill-cared for.^^^ The laborers' 
family life hardly can be characterized as being only grim and 
devoid of affection. 

Nevertheless, the laborers' family life also had a dark 
side. The sexually- segregated male culture of the pub and 
beerhouse, including the drinking bouts, wasted wages, and 
idleness that so irked middle class critics, was hardly conducive 
to making happy households. True, it is easy to exaggerate how 
common these problems were. The role of the aristocracy, gentry, 
and farmers in creating the laborers' economically hopeless 
position in their post-enclosure, high under- and unemployment 
rural world could also be mistakenly overlooked. But still the 
ultimately self-chosen ill-effects of the tavern on marital and 
filial relations are undeniable. Then in some cases, husbands 
abandoned their wives and children to be supported by the parish. 
Snell found 289 cases of family desertion out of 4,961 settlement 
examinations, which occurred when the local parish authorities 
considered ordering a removal or when they investigated a relief 
applicant's parish of settlement. Five percent of the 
examinations made under the Old Poor Law (in the 1700-1834 

^^"^Somerville, Whistler , 354, 395-396. Compare Arch, Joseph 
Arch, 35; Snell, Annals , 352. 

^"Arch, Joseph Arch , 47; Hudson, Shepherd's Life , 55, 57-58, 
62-63; Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, 58. 


period) revealed cases of desertion. They almost always featured 
the husband as the one guilty of abandoning his family, often 
while serving as a soldier or member of the militia. The number 
of abandonments rose to 10.5 percent of those examined under the 
New Poor Law (1835-1880) . This increase is likely the product of 
a change in the applicant pool: Instead of showing more family 
break-ups occurred overall, the new law deterred all but the most 
desperate from applying for relief. Middle-aged women with two 
or three children to support and no husband to assist them were 
more apt to be at their last extremity, and were less likely to 
let the post-1834 regime deter them from applying for relief, 
than intact families that included a husband temporarily out of 
work. While illegitimacy was something of a problem (Tess 
Durbeyfield had her real-life counterparts) , it was neither 
common nor as problematic since (unlike contemporary inner-city 
America) normally the father and mother did marry after their 
child's birth. Indeed, the working and lower classes deemed the 
ability of a woman to become pregnant before marriage to be a 
positive sign, as proof of her fertility. (Of course, the men 
seldom blamed themselves when such proof was lacking!) One woman 
expressed her mate's attitude thus: "My husband acted on the old 
saying about here, 'No child, no wife', and I had one afore I was 
married." Cohabitation before marriage was not rare. Although 
the practice produced some instability in laborers' families, 
because the men might abandon the women they impregnated, others 
in their village pressured such men to do the honorable thing in 
a dishonorable situation. The English agricultural workers' 
behavior here was typical for western Europe. ^^^ The New Poor 
Law's bastardy enactment attempted to discourage this custom, 
which seemed to have some effect at least in Petworth Union: The 
number of illegitimate births fell from nineteen to ten from 1834 
to 1836.^^^ The masculine beerhouse culture, the modest number of 
desertions, and the hazards of bearing children before marriage 
clearly betray that the English laborer's family did have 
problems. But only possibly excepting the first listed did these 
problems differ much from what elsewhere prevailed in much of 
Europe. The stability of laborers' families definitely far 
exceeded that of American slaves. Nevertheless, this evidence 

^^^Despite Jeffries obviously stereotypes Hodge, his account 
about "The Low 'Public'" contains enough subtleties to show it 
should be taken seriously. Hodge , 2:80-92; Snell, Annals , 359- 
63; Snell, Annals , 354, especially footnote 97; Gillis, 
Development of European Society , 6 . 

^"Snell, Annals, 354; Committee on New Poor Law, BPP , 1837, 
50, 53-54. However, in some rather confusing, seemingly 
contradictory testimony, Arthur Daintrey, a member of this 
union's board of guardians, said the New Poor Law discouraged the 
marriage of already pregnant women because obtaining an order of 
affiliation under it cost so much. 


helps support the Gillis-Weber thesis concerning how low the 
levels of affection could plunge for workers' family life, even 
though the English laborers' case here appears to be better 
overall than the French peasantry's. 

Why the Slave Family Was Fundamentally Worse Off than the Laborer 

Despite the English farmworker's family had its share of 
instability and its own version of resentments between the 
productive and nonproductive, its relationships were still in 
much better repair than the slave family's. The slaveholders 
created the difference, by prioritizing their needs for a 
flexible labor supply while pursuing profit over the quality of 
their slaves' family relationships. Englishmen and Englishwomen 
simply never had to endure family breakup as a direct sanction by 
their employers or as an immediate result of the death or 
bankruptcy of some farmer for which they worked. They did face, 
of course, the same challenges to staying committed to their 
family relationships that free people everywhere had. True, the 
parish authorities (i.e., the local government) interfered some 
through apprenticing children in cases of "parental 
irresponsibility."^^ The local "powers-that-be" also could split 
up the families of the unemployed who applied for "indoor" relief 
under the New Poor Law before they entered the workhouse. But 
these acts of intervention hardly approached what slaveholders 
could do privately without the approval of others. Masters and 
mistresses routinely, if not always, treated slave family 
relationships cavalierly. The lack of legal recognition of slave 
marriages then encouraged the bondsmen to treat their family ties 
lightly as well. Laborers never had to suffer the pain of 
involuntary permanent separation of a son or daughter, brother or 
sister, mother or father, aunt or uncle, etc., from them because 
of an employing farmer or landlord's arbitrary whims. Certain 
whole problems that could rent apart a enslaved black family in 
the American South the laborers never had to experience, such as 
sexual assaults by their employers and landlords for which they 
had no legal recourse against, which was miscegenation's core 
problem. Arranged marriages (i.e., those masters forced on their 
subordinates), although uncommon among the slaves, were non- 
existent among laborers. The laborers never had to deal with the 
major issues that generally weakened slave family life, such as 
"living abroad" being a routine way of life causing literal 
distance within many slave families, the father's role as 
provider being made largely superfluous because the slaveholders 
provided automatic rations for their slaves, the mother's role 
being undermined by fundamentally involuntary work in the fields 
requiring the use of crude master-provided day care, and the 
youngest children being raised largely in the daytime by somewhat 

^^°Snell, Annals, 356 


older children and not their parents under the guidance of one or 
more old women on the plantations . ^^^ Now the family economy 
among the laborers was gravely weakened towards the end of the 
eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth as 
enclosure generally wiped out their direct access to the means of 
production. But among the slaves this institution hardly existed 
outside the task system areas, since husbands and wives rarely 
worked with each other to support directly their family 
independently. So despite the problems in English laborers' 
family life, which increased during the rise of enclosure and the 
decline of service (which had promoted the accumulation of 
savings) , which both encouraged the irresponsible, beerhouse 
culture among the men in areas without allotments, the slaves' 
fared far worse because the slaveholders could, in order to serve 
their own material interests, directly intervene and break up the 
slave family into scattered individuals. 

Why the Laborers Had a Higher Overall Quality of Life Than the 

Although arguably African-American slaves had a material 
standard of living equal or greater than English laborers' in 
various areas, the former's quality of life was much lower. Now 
Olmsted would have denied this conclusion. Having traveled and 
made inquiries into the conditions of the lower and working 
classes in Britain, Germany, France, and Belgium, as well as 
America, Olmsted has a viewpoint that cannot be casually 
dismissed (my emphasis) : "And as respects higher things than the 
necessities of life--in their [the European lower classes'] 
intellectual, moral, and social condition, with some exceptions 
on large farms and large estates in England , bad as is that of 
the mass of European labourers, the man is a brute or a devil 
who, with my information, would prefer that of the American 
slave. "^^^ But when judging by the quality of life criteria used 
above, even considering the low place Hodge sank to in many parts 
of Southern England, even when on these large farms and estates, 
he still was undeniably better off than the slaves in many ways, 
as Harriet Jacobs believed. In particular, their family 
relationships were not constantly disrupted and destroyed by 
their superiors' pursuit of profit. They had freedoms and rights 
under the law which no slave had, such as the ability to testify 
in court against their social superiors. Since they had superior 

^^^Since the slaves themselves chose to emulate the 
traditional sexual division of labor after emancipation, this 
implicitly was how they judged their own situation. To apply 
Srp.ildlg'ffi vghaitnte: catetiiitt.ullMd.. dtricp bjimlpirkyi: ctBielmiF#eLvra3i produce results 
that historians employing contemporary values may find 
disagreeable. Snell, Annals , 9-14. 

^^^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:242-43. 


access to gaining the ability to read, write, and do basic 
arithmetic, the farmworkers' low intellectual level still 
surpassed the slaves' . Excepting in a few liberal states such as 
Kentucky, nobody could legally teach a slave how to read. By 
contrast, especially as the nineteenth century passed, the 
English government made major efforts to try to educate all the 
laborers, even though the standards were often low and slack. 
And earlier on, a number of independent and church-affiliated 
schools operated in the countryside, thus giving the laborers a 
much higher rate of literacy even in the late eighteenth century 
than rural slaves had. Although the English elite sometimes eyed 
very suspiciously the idea of educating the masses, they never 
took harsh, punitive legal measures against promoting literacy 
among their subordinate class, unlike the Southern slaveholders. 

The Problems of Comparing the Slaves ' and Laborers ' Quality of 


Comparisons between the laborers and slaves about the 
quality of their religious experience are difficult because of 
some of the extraneous factors involved. Undeniably, the 
laborers had more freedom to practice the faith of their choice. 
At least, they did not endure the punitive measures some 
slaveholders turned against their slaves, such as completely 
barring them from leaving their plantation (or farm) to attend 
some religious service, or whippings for daring to practice this 
or that ceremony of the Christian religion. Of course, some 
laborers paid a price for choosing Nonconformity, such being 
denied charity by the local parson or blacklisting by local 
farmers affiliated with the Established Church. But even then, 
if the laborer was truly determined to worship God in a manner 
dictated by his conscience, he still had the (costly) option of 
moving from his home parish- -a freedom the slaves lacked. The 
growth of Methodism and other Nonconformist sects in England in 
the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrated that 
the pressures the Established Church could exert through the 
local gentry, farmers, and clergy were too weak to always prevent 
members of the lower and working class from defecting from its 
fold even in rural areas. But clearly religion played a 
proportionately greater role in the slaves' lives than in the 
laborers' since the latter had more organized social outlets into 
civil society than the former, such as the pub, benefit clubs, 
friendly societies, even perhaps a union. Many laborers were 
indifferent to religious concerns, but religious apathy rarely 
characterized the slaves generally, even though the Christianity 
they practiced was rather questionable .^^^ The social side of the 
slaves' religious practices probably often totally swamped the 
self-denying and doctrinal side of their nominal convictions. 

'"Jeffries, Hodge . 1:165-67 


How much did such activities as shouting for the Lord, ring 
dances, and even much call-and-response singing really attempt to 
honor and worship God? How much were they simply an emotional 
release while participating in an interesting social activity? 
One antebellum white minister said slaves lacked a sense of 
repentance from sin or faith in Christ. While claiming to have 
all sorts of visions or dreams from the Lord, they were very 
superstitious and ignorant of Christianity's most basic tenets. ^^* 
Not helping matters any, their owners systematically harnessed 
Christianity for their own work discipline and social control 
objectives by over-emphasizing the Bible's call of obedience to 
secular authorities while routinely and conveniently overlooking 
their Christian obligations to the slaves. Although Hodge likely 
was little better informed doctrinally than many bondsmen, even 
the Established Church's Christianity was less badly bent to 
serve the governing class's goals than what the slaves received. 
Nonconformity sometimes also provided a useful corrective on this 
point to the Established Church's biases. The laborers also had 
more freedom to participate actively in the organizational side 
of their faith (such as in the collection of money and the 
arranging of meetings) when part of a Nonconformist group, a 
freedom the slaves largely lacked even when they had their own 
black preachers and could meet separately from whites. And when 
one of their own stood in the pulpit, often white observer (s) 
watched, forcing him to self-censor his preaching in a way which 
Nonconformist ministers or even the Church's clergy (from their 
rich benefactors) avoided. Those slaves who were free to 
practice some kind of religion may have gotten more socially from 
it and have a sense of participation in it than average laborers, 
who often either were indifferent and stayed home or attended 
services of the Church and mostly just listened. But, especially 
when they could read the Bible, the laborers in a Nonconformist 
sect likely had a much more informed and freely practiced faith 
than most slaves had. The laborers in these groups developed 
more organizational skills, which had practical effects when 
putting together friendly societies and unions to resist 
systemically the powerful in their society. Hence, because of 
Hodge's greater religious freedom, he had may have gotten more 
out of his religious convictions at least when part of a 
Nonconformist group than the stereotypical (and seeming) "Sambo," 
who endured proportionately more ruling class distortions in the 
religion he received and more censorship and restrictions on his 
own religious activities, but who likely got more emotionally and 
socially from meetings (when composed mostly of his own group) 
than the laborers attending the Established Church. 

How Elderly Slaves Could Have Been Better Off Than Elderly 

^^*See Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:223-24 


Turning to the subject of the quality of life for the 
elderly, the slaves as a group might have been better off than 
the laborers, granted certain limitations and qualifications. To 
the extent elderly laborers landed in the workhouse under the New 
Poor Law (post- 1834) , separating them from friends and family in 
their sunset years through confinement, and to the degree to 
which elderly slaves lived out their last years among their own 
relatives and friends from earlier years, then arguably the 
slaves were better off. After all, both groups suffered similar 
limitations on their freedom, since the inmates of workhouses 
were confined to their premises, and elderly slaves on their 
plantations or farms had to stay when lacking passes, like their 
younger counterparts. However, the Old Poor Law's treatment of 
elderly laborers, and even sometimes under the New (such as in 
Petworth Union as shown above) , through their being granted small 
pensions as outdoor relief, would have had more favorable 
conditions than slaves of the same age. The elderly slaves also 
faced a likely greater risk of abandonment or neglect by their 
masters and mistresses, notwithstanding any paternalistic 
propaganda to the contrary, than the English laborers did under 
the Old Poor Law at least. By giving slaveowners virtually 
unlimited authority to deal with their "troublesome property" as 
they felt fit, especially in practice in sparsely populated, 
semi -frontier areas where the law was weak and the mob was 
strong, the alleged guarantees of security slavery promised for 
retired slaves were unenforceable. To the extent the elderly 
slaves had been separated earlier in life from children, 
siblings, spouses, and/or friends meant that retired slaves may 
be still be surrounded by strangers or mere acquaintances even 
when their own master had not sold off (or moved) the aged 
themselves earlier in life. So granted the foregoing exclusions 
and exceptions, the aged farmworker was normally treated better 
than the elderly slave, except during a certain period (c. 1835 
to 1865) when arguably the average older slave's conditions 
surpassed the average workhouse -confined elderly laborer's. 

How the Slaves ' More Carefree Childhood Was Not Necessarily a 
Better One 

As for the treatment of children, the differences between 
the slaves and the agricultural workers might be small, depending 
on what values someone chooses when visualizing the proper goals 
of childhood and the correct organization of family life. Before 
the 1850s or so, because of the frequently high unemployment 
rates even for adult male laborers that helped drive women out of 
the farm labor force in southern England, the offspring of 
laborers may have stayed home except during such peak seasons as 
planting and/or harvest. But at least towards the middle of the 
nineteenth century (from the 1850s especially), the laborers' s 
children likely went to work earlier than slaves' s offspring. 
This generalization would hold at least in southern England where 
low wages prevailed and/or where the gang system operated in 


combination with the cultivation of root crops that children (and 
women) could easily weed and dig up. Hodge may have gone to work 
at age eight in such areas, while the young slave might not be in 
the fields until age twelve on average. On the other hand, the 
laborers' offspring had a much greater access to education, and 
benefited much more from direct adult supervision, especially by 
their parents, compared to the slaves' s children. The quality of 
daycare young slave children gave to the toddlers and babies 
assigned to them for much of the day under the supervision of one 
or more old women on plantations rarely could equal what guidance 
came from the passion and effort that a mother (or father) could 
muster for their own flesh and blood. Laborers' offspring also 
often gained a few years of basic elementary education, at least 
as the nineteenth century progressed and the government became 
more serious about trying to educate all English children. Even 
on the subject of work itself, certain young slaves may not have 
benefited from getting (say) four more years of playtime than 
laborers' children. The likely low labor intensity of the tasks 
farmers assigned children, such as birdscaring for some weeks 
part of the year, hardly equaled (say) a young cotton piecer's 
grueling, full-time, year-around schedule of seventy hours a week 
while running around so many spindles in a textile mill. 
Kemble ' s criticism of young slaves lounging and rolling about the 
ground while their mothers worked in the fields should not be 
automatically dismissed as mere reactionary middle class 
commentary. (Of course, as a mother herself, she would naturally 
identify with the burdens the slave mothers' bore unaided by 
their children) . Since these young slaves may not legally get an 
education when not in the fields, they have to spend their 
childhoods largely unproductively . At least when young Hodge was 
put to work, such as during harvest together with his family, he 
helped to support himself, and maybe even others in his family 
with an income that his parents sorely needed. When considering 
a child's obligation to support himself or others in his family 
when his parents cannot carry the full load alone (such as during 
the low point of the family poverty cycle) , it becomes harder 
still to condemn such relatively casual child labor. So although 
young slaves may have had a more carefree childhood ages eight to 
twelve than young farmworkers (assuming the high unemployment 
rates of much of the period under study in the South did not keep 
them out of the workforce until they were older) , the latter were 
more likely than the former to benefit from an education, have 
more parental supervision, and help himself or his family more 
through performing productive wage work. 

The heaviest and most obvious weight against the slaves' 
quality of life came from their family relationships being 
conditional on their owners' whims and emotional states, and 
remaining provisional upon the soundness of their owners' health 
and financial conditions. Furthermore, plantation slaves 
especially had functions normally done by families individually 
instead collectively done by others as part of the work 


organization, such as weekday daytime child care and (sometimes) 
food preparation. The casual way slaveowners treated the 
bondsmen's family relationships, legally and in practice, by 
example also encouraged the slaves themselves to treat their own 
family ties lightly. Their attempts to evade some of the most 
humiliating aspects of the slaveholders' system of work 
discipline through "living abroad" had its own costs by 
increasing the possibilities of involuntary separation through 
having multiple owners and by removing the father from his 
children's lives for much of the day or week. By contrast, the 
English laborer's family would have approximated standard free 
European norms since its intra-relationships were not made a 
secondary priority to the individual members ' role as factors of 
production. True, to some degree a farmer could manipulate the 
family ties of his laborers for his own purposes. He could 
require the children of a family to work for him, by threatening 
he would fire their father otherwise. But he simply could not 
threaten to dissolve the laborer's family as punishment for 
failing to follow his wishes. He could try to blacklist the 
laborer, and attempt to inflict the dilemma of migration or 
possible starvation on a laborer (if his fellow farmers locally 
held up a common front) , which was the ultimate penalty he could 
bring to bear. While an employer could threaten recalcitrant 
laborers with the workhouse (which could split up families) , this 
punishment was only available to the extent the laborers felt 
compelled to apply for aid under the New Poor Law. As free men, 
they could still migrate (i.e., "run away") . And the divisions 
inflicted by the workhouse were much rarer, involved much shorter 
distances, and were much more temporary than what the slaves 
typically endured. Although the Weber-Gillis thesis, even when 
mitigated to fit English conditions, indicates the laborers' 
family life was not exactly idyllic, still the slaves' conditions 
were much worse because their family relationships were 
expendable when they interfered with their owners' pursuit of 
profit . 

A comparison of the quality of life for the slaves and 
farmworkers reveals that the slaves undeniably endured much worse 
conditions than the farmworkers, unlike the much smaller 
differences in their standards of living. The slaveholders' 
casual and calloused treatment of slave family bonds, as shown by 
splitting up husbands and wives, mothers, fathers, and children, 
through wills, gifts, sales, and migration, by itself proves this 
clearly. Even when the evidence is more controverted, such as 
how slaves aged eight to twelve generally worked less than their 
English counterparts (at least in the post-1850 period as the 
labor market tightened) and elderly slaves possibly were treated 
better in retirement than old workhouse -confined laborers, 
requires a number of added conditions and qualifications for the 
slaves' quality of life to be deemed more desirable than the 
laborers'. In a number of ways young Hodge was arguably better 
off, by benefiting from more parental and adult supervision 


during weekdays, gaining some barebones education, and having 
even to work itself. He may have needed, for example, to help 
support himself and/or others in his family, and farm work for 
children was nowhere as intense and burdensome as what many in 
the mills suffered. As for comparative religious experience, the 
laborers had more freedom to practice their beliefs without 
coercion; those in Nonconformist sects furthermore benefited from 
participating in a faith that built their organizational and 
mental skills. But the slaves often poured much more emotional 
energy into church activities because they had fewer social 
outlets than the many agricultural workers who indifferently 
stayed at home or passively attended the Established Church's 
services. The slaves allowed to go to meetings which let them 
freely express their customs and rituals without being restrained 
by a major white presence may have gotten more out of services at 
least socially than laborers in the last two categories. So 
although some individual points could be disputed, the slaves 
still were definitely worse off than the agricultural laborers in 
their quality of life. 

The Hazards of Historical Analysis that Uses the Values of Those 
in the Past 

The quality of life analysis made above clearly takes 
certain assumptions for granted. What values should a historian 
use when judging someone's quality of life? Snell maintains 
that it is more sensible to evaluate by the poor's own standards 
rather than using the historians', especially those who emphasize 
real wage increases and nutritional intake, who implicitly 
believe man is merely homo economicus . Elsewhere he observes the 
hazards of applying the historian's own values in contradiction 
or ignorance of the lower class's values in the past: "For 
example, the implications for the quality of life of family 
break-up (if it became more prevalent) should depend on an 
assessment of the attitudes and control the poor themselves had 
over this- -rather than a historian's view on the sanctity or 
dispensability of married life."^^'' Although valuable, this 
approach has its limits. Consider the freed slaves after 
emancipation who chose to emulate the whites ' sexual division of 
labor and so largely ended heavy field work by adult black 
females. Presumably historians employing contemporary feminist 
constructs could not necessarily evaluate positively what the 
freedmen and freedwomen did after freedom came. Snell' s approach 
would forestall any historians from critically analyzing some 
past lower class' values. ^^^ Obviously, here again the old morass 

'''Snell, Annals, 9-10, 13-14, 369 (quote) . 

''"^Interestingly, Snell ' s approach turns the Whig 
interpretation of history on its head. What is now privileged are 
the values of a majority of average people in the past, instead 


over the objectivity and absoluteness of any moral code or set of 
values confronts historians, with Snell ' s views ultimately 
tending towards a kind of cultural relativism vis-a-vis the 
values of some past lower class rather than those of some obscure 
tribe anthropologists have discovered in the jungles of New 
Guinea or the Amazon. Obviously, it is rather futile and beyond 
the scope of this work to settle completely such a broad 
philosophical question here. Plainly however, nobody should 
automatically accept as moral whatever any group of people do by 
tradition presently or in the past, otherwise (say) legalized 
segregation, slavery, infanticide, suttee, foot binding, or 
female genital mutilation could no longer be condemned. To the 
extent historians may believe in some given moral absolute or 
imperative values (such as, say, a prohibition of genocide or the 
equality of the sexes to various degrees) , they ought to use 
their own (objectively-based) values when examining the 
conditions or quality of life of some past lower class group as 
well. Above, most of the values implicitly used to judge and 
compare the quality of life of the slaves and laborers are 
assumed to be fundamentally universal such that most contemporary 
Westerners would agree (ideally) with what the laborers and 
slaves themselves did value. Those values include stability in 
family relationships, freedom of association with others without 
coercive separations by third parties mainly motivated by profit, 
a sense of altruism towards the elderly and young, freedom of 
conscience and practice in religious activities, and the 
avoidance of what encourages a sense of rootlessness, alienation, 
and anomie among people. Other values implicitly used above are 
more controversial, such as those involved in evaluating how 
beneficial or harmful was the (often) casual, intermittent labor 
of children ages eight to twelve as opposed to giving them mere 
idle free time with nothing else such as education to fill it to 
them and their families. Regardless of what values historians 
use to make quality of life and standard of living comparisons, 
or whether they believe values are absolute or relative to some 
culture or group, their identity should be made explicit, as 
Snell does in his work. They should not implicitly be smuggled 
in, as those inclined to a purely material view of mankind's 
needs (e.g., caloric intake and real wage changes) often do. For 
man does not live by bread alone. 

Undeniably, the comparisons made above inevitably fall into 
some kind of reductionism because so many variations from what 
could be called "average" happened in the past real worlds of the 
slaves and laborers. Changes also continually occurred, which 
increase the difficulties of generally describing conditions in 
any long time period. For example, the material standard of 

of emphasizing the (relatively few) originators and developers of 
present-day values in various movements or individuals in the 
past . 


living as well as the quality of life for the slaves generally 
improved in the period being surveyed (1750-1865) as housing for 
more settled areas improved and harsher punishments such as 
branding died away. By contrast, it steadily grew worse for 
southern English agricultural workers because of enclosure, the 
decline of service, rising under- and unemployment, and the New 
Poor Law's harshness from 1750 until about 1850. After the mid- 
century point, the laborers' conditions began to improve as a 
result of the spread of allotments and the tightening of local 
labor markets that made the (brief) successes of Arch's union 
possible in the early 1870s. Although drawing such lines is 
inevitably hazardous, quite possibly the rising average standard 
of living for slaves approached and surpassed that of the 
(southern) farmworkers during the period of the French Wars due 
to the fiscal burdens of those wars and the step-up in enclosures 
towards their end. Changes and variations in this general 
picture must be kept in mind, such as the regional differences 
that gave the northern English farmworkers a higher quality of 
life and (especially) standard of living than their southern 
counterparts, and granted the slaves of the Border States better 
treatment than those of the Deep South. Although generalizations 
and evaluations about what was typical and atypical are the heart 
and soul of social history, historians should always be wary of 
committing overkills in grinding out reductionist conclusions 
concerning "the average whatever" in the past while forgetting 
the rich diversity of historical phenomena. Occasional bows 
toward at least recognizing regional variations, as done above, 
helps to avoid this pitfall. Hence, while we need a focus on 
what is "average" and "typical" to avoid getting lost in a maze 
of disparate concretes and isolated details, we also must seek 
some balance to avoid reductionism that so eagerly pursues "the 
average" that all else is sacrificed in that hunt. 


The Sexual Division of Labor: African-American Slaves 

It must always be remembered that white masters and 
mistresses determined the sexual division of labor among American 
slaves, not the latter themselves. Driven into the fields along 
with their men, black women during their (generally) dawn-to-dusk 
workdays had their children cared for by a primitive day care 
system. Slaveholders imposed this system in order to increase 
the labor participation rate of their human capital in tasks that 
directly increased agricultural production and profits. 
Inevitably, their choice decreased the slaves' level of household 
labor that provided real, if economically unmeasurable and rather 
intangible, comforts. After all, how could an economist doing 
Keynesian national income accounting (or anyone else) properly 
quantify the positive social effects of better cooked and 
prepared meals, better mended clothing, or (especially) the clear 
benefits of having mothers spend more time with their own young 


children? Since these matters did not directly improve the 
bottom- line figures of slaveholders' account books, they chose to 
reduce how much housework slave women did. Because generally 
fieldwork was deemed unacceptable for white women, including even 
indentured servants, to do regularly, but to drive black slave 
women into the fields was par for the course, this practice may 
have had a racist motivation also.^^^ The colony of Virginia 
recognized slave women's direct role in agricultural production 
by counting them when figuring the tithe, but it excluded the 
white women. As Gundersen concludes: "Black women were 
considered a basic part of the agricultural labor force in a way 
that white women were not."^^^ So slaveowners forcibly imposed a 
weakened form of the sexual division of labor upon their 
bondsmen, which had the curious consequence of creating a crude 
approximation of sexual equality, especially among the field 
hands . 

Kemble on a Stricter Sexual Division of Labor's Advantages 

Throughout the South, slaveowners expected black women to 
work in the fields. When noting that men and women had to 
perform the same size of task assignments before the current 
overseer arrived to manage her husband's estates, Kemble 
sarcastically commented: "This was a noble admission of female 
equality, was it not?" She approved of his reduction in the 
amount of work allotted to the women as compared to the men, but 
she still disliked mothers with five or ten children having to do 
as much work as women with none. Kemble felt having to do both 
housework as well as regular field labor was an aching burden. 
Although blaming the "filthy, wretched" condition of the children 
and "negligent, ignorant, wretched" mothers upon slavery in 
general, she maintained a sharper sexual division of labor would 
be necessary to change their plight: 

It is hopeless to attempt to reform their habits or 
improve their condition while the women are condemned 
to field labor; nor is it possible to overestimate the 
bad moral effect of the system as regards the women 
entailing this enforced separation from their children, 
and neglect of all the cares and duties of mother, 
nurse, and even housewife, which are all merged in the 
mere physical toil of a human hoeing machine. 

Then she explains the case of Ned, the engineer/mechanic who 
tended to the engines in the rice-island plantation's steam mill 
for shelling rice. His wife's health had largely been ruined by 

^^^At least, by c. 1700 this seemed to be the case in 
Virginia. Kolchin, Unfree Labor , 32; 454-55, n. 27. 

^^^Gundersen, "Double Bonds of Race and Sex," 367. 


a combination of heavy field work and child bearing. As a 
result, she now spent most of her time in the estate's miserable 
"hospital." What this woman endured Kemble compared to the 
lifestyle and standard of living that a Northern artisan's wife 
had. Such a free man would earn enough so his wife would only 
have to do housework. If his wife became an invalid, he likely 
would be able to hire or get some outside help for her.^^^ Kemble 
clearly believed both freedom and a sharper division of labor 
between the sexes would have benefited the slave women. 

Kemble ' s attitudes on a woman's role in the world of work 
require some closer examination. Although she was an actress by 
profession and certainly not personally strict practitioner of 
the Victorian ideology of the separate spheres herself, then- 
contemporary middle class sensibilities on the subject still 
strongly influenced her. She also had at this writing two very 
young children of her own; the burden of caring for them would 
have encouraged her to want her husband's financial support. She 
surely projected her own personal situation onto the slave 
mothers who had far more children than she had, yet also had to 
work long days for very little return outside the home. She 
found the thoughts of having to do the same herself simply 
appalling. After all, the jobs most of these slave women had 
hardly promoted what today might be called "self -actualization, " 
even if they had been paid wages for them. Most people would 
find becoming a "human hoeing machine" to be intrinsically 
unappealing. She, as a middle class woman, could benefit from 
the positive side of the separate spheres, at least while being 
burdened with young children and not practicing her profession. 
Dill notes that middle class women who placed a premium on family 
stability could benefit from it- -which women with young children 
are especially apt to find worth the trade-offs required: 

Notwithstanding the personal constraints placed on 
women's development, the notion of separate spheres 
promoted the growth and stability of family life among 
the white middle class and became the basis for the 
working-class men's efforts to achieve a family wage, 
so that they could keep their wives at home. Also, 
women gained a distinct sphere of authority and 
expertise that yielded them special recognition.^^" 

Besides the reality that female field hand slaves "enjoyed" a 
basic sexual equality that resulted from a system of coercion and 
exploitation, Kemble ' s own personal situation as a mother caring 
for young children likely inspired her to take an insistent stand 
against having women work long hours while their older pre-teen 

^^^Kemble, Journal, 28, 121, 122, 151-52 (Ned) 
"°Dill, "Our Mother's Grief," 418. 


children lounged about in idleness. 

Jobs Female Slaves Had 

Slave women routinely performed tasks in the field that 
white women either never did, or only did when their husbands 
were dead or absent for a long time. Olmsted witnessed a scene 
where slave women spread manure from baskets carried on their 
heads, with one filling her apron with it before moving it. The 
ability of some slave women who plowed using double teams 
particularly impressed him. Although he "watched with some 
interest for any indication that their sex unfitted them for the 
occupation, " he found "they twitched their ploughs around on the 
head-land, jerk[ed] their reins, and yell [ed] to their mules, 
with apparent ease, energy, and rapidity." Mrs. Ellis, a slave 
who escaped from Delaware, testified: "I did a great deal of 
heavy out-door work, --such as driving team, hauling manure, etc." 
Northrup described four "large and stout" lumberwomen who were 
"excellent choppers" and "were equal to any man" at piling logs. 
In his area of Louisiana, women would "plough, drag, drive team, 
clear wild lands, work on the highway, and so forth." 
Furthermore, "some planters, owning large cotton and sugar 
plantations, have none other than the labor of slave women." 
Although the tendency was to have women hoe and men plow, "the 
exceptions to [this] rule were so numerous as to make a mockery 
of it." So slave women often did heavy work like the men, even 
if proportionately fewer did such tasks or as much of them when 
they were pregnant or soon after giving birth. ^^^ 

To get a more specific picture of which jobs slaveowners 
assigned to men, women, or both, Barrow's diary repays analysis. 
Since he owned and managed a large plantation, his operations 
featured more specialization than small farms with just a handful 
of slaves would have. In order to keep some slaves busy on days 
when it rained or other conditions idled them, he had the women 
spin cotton. This was one of his most common diary notations 
besides mentions about the weather, certain specific field 
operations, and notes concerning his crops' conditions . ^^^ In an 
occupation that (earlier) in the eighteenth-century America 
symbolized femininity (i.e., "spinsters,") Barrow chose never to 
place men at work at it, suffering them to be sometimes idle 

"^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:216-17, 201-2; Drew, Refugee , 
44; Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , 116-17; White, "Female 
Slaves," 250, 251. Fogel and Engerman maintain that "plow gangs 
were confined almost exclusively to men, and predominantly to 
young men," but this is unduly dogmatic. Time on the Cross , 

"'Davis, Plantation Life . 77, 78, 79, 80, 86, 121, 125, 141, 
234, 243, 247, 252, 304, 305, 310, 315, 344. 


instead of (in the name of filling his wallet) making the men 
also do it.^^^ On one day of very heavy rain, May 5, 1845, he 
wrote with obvious annoyance: "Women spinning- -Men doing 
nothing . "^^^ He also gave women tasks that were unfeminine by 
early Victorian standards besides what they did in regular field 
work by hoeing or picking cotton. He made them haul hay, build 
fences, roll logs, clear land, even work on the dam.^^'" At some 
of these tasks men helped or did at other times, such as when all 
hands rolled logs or a "few men" assisted the women. Besides 
regular field work, the men's odd jobs included working on the 
roads, getting timber, chopping and sawing wood, repairing 
chimneys, getting rails, and pressing cotton into bales to 
prepare it for shipment. ^^^ The scattered tasks Barrow assigned 
to slaves of both genders included making fences, clearing land 
(although this tended to be a male task) , and "trashing cotton, " 
which involved removing extraneous matter out of picked cotton. ^^' 
The "sucklers," meaning nursing mothers formed into a gang for 
various odd jobs, performed such light tasks as planting peas, 
trashing cotton, replanting corn, and spinning cotton. ^^ 
Although for regular tasks such as hoeing or picking cotton 
Barrow assigned both sexes to them, he definitely still drew some 
lines between men and women for various odd jobs. 

Since enslaved men and women often did similar jobs, how did 
this tendency affect their marriage relationships? As noted 
above, the institution of slavery seriously weakened the 
husband's role. Unlike men in the surrounding free society 
characterized by patriarchal practices, the slave husband had 
little ability to control his wife through owning some part of 
the means of production or through being the main wage worker in 
his family, placing his wife in an economically-dependent 
position. His wife worked directly for her master or mistress, 
receiving a certain standard ration for herself and her children 
regardless of whether or not her husband lived on the same 

^^^Spinning as a symbol of femininity is discussed in Norton, 
Liberty's Daughters , 15, 18-20. 

^^^Davis, Plantation Life , 355; similar expressions are found 
on 99 and 188. 

"'ibid., 86, 142, 223, 252, 256, 317, 344. 

"'ibid., 77, 78, 93, 105, 121, 154, 222, 300, 304. 

'"ibid., 80, 82, 105, 211, 212, 222, 223, 234, 243, 246, 
252, 256, 305, 310, 315, 317. The disproportion of men trashing 
cotton compared to women stems largely from Barrow' s tendency to 
have the women spin on rainy days, but the men trash cotton. 

"'ibid., 80, 93, 192, 317 


plantation or farm as she did. She received the same ration for 
herself regardless of whether she was unmarried, divorced, or 
widowed. Financial necessity and the burdens of pregnancy and 
bearing children simply were not important factors in driving 
slave women into the arms of their husbands, keeping them 
together as marital "glue." A relatively equal sexual division 
of labor caused men to treat their wives more like equals, as a 
coworker in life under ideal circumstances. Even after he and 
his wife had escaped slavery, John Little took for granted the 
heavy labor his wife did besides him in Canada: "My wife worked 
right along with me: I did not realize it then, for we were 
raised slaves, the women accustomed to work, and undoubtedly the 
same spirit comes with us here." So together they chopped trees, 
logged trunks, and cleared the land generally in Ontario's 
wilderness. His wife gained self-respect from her abilities in 
doing such work: "I got to be quite hardy- -quite used to water 
and bush-whacking; so that by the time I got to Canada, I could 
handle an axe, or hoe, or any thing. I felt proud to be able to 
do it --to help get cleared up, so that we could have a home, and 
plenty to live on." Clearly, even after the Littles gained 
freedom, the habits gained from slavery's weak sexual division of 
labor promoted equality within their relationship. This freed 
couple's comments support White's speculation: "Since neither 
slave men nor women had access to, or control over, the products 
of their labor, parity in the field may have encouraged 
equalitarianism in the slave quarters . "^^^ 

Exceptions to the Slaves' Weak Division of Labor 

The picture drawn above of a weak sexual division of labor 
among American slaves drawn above needs some important 
qualifications. Although the field hands and domestic servants 
had fairly equal numbers of men and women among both, the ranks 
of drivers and artisans were almost exclusively filled by men.^*° 
Slave women also did most of their own housework, in part because 
of "marrying abroad." This widespread practice put the husband 
and wife on different farms or plantations because they had 
different owners. The husband ended up often ended up treating 
where he worked during the day or week as a virtual barracks, not 
as his true home. "Home" was where he visited his wife and 
children at night or on weekends. As a result, while their 
husbands were gone, the full burden of cooking, cleaning, 
washing, and feeding children by absolute necessity fell on their 
wives. Even when present, he may have done little housework- -a 

"^Drew, Refugee , 217-18, 233; White, "Female Slaves," 251. 

^*°Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:141. Note the 
general descriptions of these two groups- -"the men between" and 
"men of skill" (my emphasis) - -in Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 


phenomenon familiar to many contemporary women enduring their own 
"second shift" of housework. Because of their long work days, 
slave mothers often gave little attention to housework or child 
rearing. Booker T. Washington recalled that his mother normally 
had little time to help her children during the day: "She 
snatched a few moments for our care in the early morning before 
her work began, and at night after the day's work was done." 
Also because of the burdens of pregnancy, the recovery process 
after delivery, and the need to nurse their children, slave women 
may, for some short given period, have been given different, 
lighter tasks or even excluded from work altogether. Planter 
Barrow's gang of "sucklers" reflected this practice. On Kemble's 
husband's rice -island estate, a number of the slave women 
petitioned to have the time they could avoid hoeing the fields 
after birth increased from three weeks to four. Mary, one of 
these slaves, mentioned Kemble's babies and her "carefully 
tended, delicately nursed, and tenderly watched confinement and 
convalescence" while entreating her to have less exhausting labor 
assigned to them the month after giving birth. Although 
evidently their petitions for increased maternity leave went 
nowhere, they still demonstrate the practice's reality. 
Inevitably it placed women in a different labor role from their 
husbands at least briefly. Of course, as White and Johnson note, 
not all masters lessened the burdens of pregnant women. Some 
women did gain positions of prestige, in jobs largely or 
exclusively limited to their gender, such as midwife, skilled 
seamstress, cook, and/or "mammy" in domestic service. ^*^ So 
although the sexual division of labor was generally weak among 
the slaves because most were field hands or (unspecialized) 
domestic servants, a much sharper specialization characterized 
the higher echelon jobs, and the special female burdens arising 
from reproduction caused at least some temporary distinctions to 
appear among average slaves. 

Plantation Day Care Revisited 

Rudimental day care and, sometimes, communal cooking 
socialized functions on plantations that slave families otherwise 
would have done individually. As a result, their owners boosted 
the labor force participation rate from a free average of about 
one-third to about two-thirds through (especially) forcing women 

^^^Washington, Up from Slavery , 17; Blassingame, Slave 
Community , 180-81; Kemble, Journal, 182-83. See also 79. 
Kemble, for her part, could scarcely keep herself composed during 
the latter 's request, having been struck at the sentimental 
center of her life; White, "Female Slaves," 251-53; Michael P. 
Johnson, "Smothered Slave Infants: Were Slave Mothers at 
Fault?," Journal of Southern History 47 (Nov. 1981): 512-14; 
Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 353-61. 


and older children into the fields. ^*^ By having one or more old 
women look after the children who really took care of the babies 
and toddlers during work hours, the master class greatly narrowed 
the differences between the work of women and men.^*^ These 
children carried the babies to their mothers to nurse them, when 
they did not get them on their own.^** Olmsted knew one fairly 
enlightened master in Louisiana who gave nursing mothers two 
hours with their babies at noon, and let them get off work one 
hour earlier in the evening. These mothers carried a heavy load 
in toiling all day then getting their children afterwards. Once 
a slave on a cotton sea- island estate, freedman Benjamin De 
Leslie described the burden this way of life imposed on his 
mother: "Us chillun [were] lef ' wid er granny. Mammy 'd come in 
at dark, bare feet wet wid de sweat whut run down all day. . . . 
Reckon folks terday don' know much 'bout wu'k."^*'" Masters 
greatly increased the hours of field work (or domestic service) 
and correspondingly reduced the amount of leisure time, 
education, and housework their female slaves would have had if 
they had been free. As a result, they got more work and thus 
agricultural production from the average slave through greatly 
weakening the sexual division of labor. But shipping out more 
cotton bales (or barrels of molasses) came at the cost of 
undermining the slave family's stability by reducing the 
importance of the father's role and by assigning childrearing to 
somewhat older children themselves in a communal setting, as 
discussed previously. 

Force and exploitation were the foundation for the degraded 
equality of the sexes that generally prevailed under slavery. As 
Davis wrote: "The unbridled cruelty of this leveling process 
whereby the black woman was forced into equality with the black 
man requires further explanation. She shared in the deformed 
equality of equal oppression." After freedom came, black 
families soon adopted generally the whites ' sexual division of 
labor. ^*^ Some today might criticize their choices, but at least 

^*^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:206-207. For 
communal cooking, note Bassett, Plantation Overseer , 31. 

^*^For examples of this system, see Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 
People , 23, 68-69; Douglass, Narrative, 22; Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 1:239; Boney, "Blue Lizard," 354; Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down, 147. 

^^^Kemble, Journal, 31; Drew, Refugee , 141. 

^^'^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:318; Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 
People , 212. 

^^'^Angela Davis, "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in 
the Community of Slaves," Massachusetts Review , winter-spring 


whites were not coercing them to choose otherwise. Certain non- 
quantifiable aspects of the quality of life for these families 
improved through such a decision, which allowed for more 
housework of a higher quality, parental supervision of children, 
and additional time for children or even adults to get an 
education. Fundamental decisions affecting the quality of life 
such as the sexual division of labor should be decided by those 
personally affected, not outsiders using force to bring about 
particular results for their own economic benefit. 

The Sexual Division of Labor: English Agricultural Workers 

A major difference between the sexual division of labor 
between American slaves and English farmworkers was the 
transformation of the latter 's during the time period being 
surveyed (c. 1750-1875) . By contrast, since driving women into 
the fields was well established even in colonial times, here 
little changed during the nineteenth century for the bondsmen. 
In the English case from the late eighteenth century on into the 
nineteenth, as male unemployment rose as due to enclosure and 
population growth, farm laboring women generally were pushed out 
of the labor force, at least in the southeastern arable areas of 
England. The parish of Selattyn in Shropshire returned a 
questionnaire for the 1834 Poor Law Report stating: "Women and 
Children are not now so much employed as formerly, because 
labouring men are so plentiful, and their labour so cheap." The 
parish authorities, facing a major problem in finding work even 
for married men, ranked employing women much lower since they 
could always be (conveniently) seen as homemakers primarily, 
having a built-in job ready made to keep them busy and out of 
trouble. By contrast, unemployed and underemployed men were 
considered much more dangerous and troublesome. They idled their 
time away in beerhouses and pubs, got drunk, had fights, and went 
poaching for game to feed their families. Their role in society 
when without wage work to do was much more anomalous and 
purposeless than that of women, whose ability to bear children to 
continue the species gave them more in-built meaning to their 
lives. Their inborn aggressive tendencies, since they led easily 
to various crimes, were made to order for increasing the petty 
sessions' docket size. So beyond any of the standard prejudices 
against women having certain jobs- -attitudes which were 
significantly weaker in the late eighteenth century than in the 
Victorian period anyway as Snell explains- -the local parish 
powers-that-be had their reasons for prioritizing the employment 
of men.'*' 

1972, 88-89; Dill, "Our Mothers' Grief," 422; Genovese, Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , 451, 501. 

'*'0n the subject of women being pushed out of the labor 
force, see Rab Houston and K.D.M. Snell, "Historiographical 


Women's Work in Arable Areas at Harvest Time Increased Later in 
the Century 

From the 1850s on, the number of women employed full time or 
for long periods in field labor apparently increased in arable 
areas during harvest or other seasonal peaks in the yearly 
agricultural cycle. They were hired more then because as the 
size of England's harvests grew, mechanization had not kept apace 
to help much in bringing the crops in.^*® As many local labor 
markets tightened in the third quarter of the nineteenth century 
onwards as a general rural depopulation through migration 
occurred, women increasingly reentered the fields during harvest. 
Often their work was subsumed as part of the family economy, when 
the whole family, husband, wife, and children, harvested grain 
together under a piece-work agreement with a local farmer. Even 
the ancient practice of gleaning, which women and children had 
always dominated, continued long into the nineteenth century. ^*^ 
Snell and Morgan's differences in outlook on women's 
participation in the labor force lie in the former's emphasis on 
the 1700-1850 period and on the south where women had become 
increasingly scarce in the fields, while the latter deals with 
1840-1900, and deals with England more generally . ^^° 

The 1867 Report on Women and Children in Agriculture 
reflects the changes Morgan brings to light. The Report paints a 
diverse picture of how much women were employed in field work. 
In some areas, none worked in the field, for others, they 

Review: Proto-Industrialization? Cottage Industry, Social 
Change, and Industrial Revolution," Historical Journal , 27 (June 
1984) :487; Snell, Annals, 21, 40-66, 156-58; 1834 Report, as 
quoted in Cunningham, "Employment and Unemployment of Children, " 
135. For a general analysis of men's nature relative to women's 
and its influence on their sex roles, see George Gilder, Men and 
Marriage . 

^*^An evident exception to this generalization concerned 
largely pastoral areas such as Dorset, where by the late 
nineteenth century (c. 1885), women did field work only 
uncommonly. Snell, Annals , 392-394. However, Jeffries' account 
of women field workers in Wiltshire, another heavily pastoral 
county in southwestern England, points in another direction. 
Jeffries, Hodge , 2:61-62. 

^^^Morgan, Harvesters and Harvesting , 11, 15, 20, 21, 24, 26, 
52, 93, 102, 109-10, 115, 152. 

^^°Even though Snell ' s subtitle mentions 1660-1900, his work 
only sparsely covers the last half of the nineteenth century, 
especially when discounting his discussion of the inaccuracies in 
Thomas Hardy's portrayal of English rural life. 


appeared sometimes, while in some places, they routinely- 
worked.^^^ Women customarily labored in the fields where 
competition for workers was strong, such as the industrial north. 
In northern Northumberland, women, normally unmarried adults, 
were "bound" in what was called "bondage" (i.e., under contract) . 
These women did heavy farm work for local farmers while still 
living at their parents' homes. One sample farm in this area had 
eight men, eight women, and three "lads" as the "regular staff." 
In southern Northumberland, married women often worked, earning 
one pound a week.^^^ As Patrick noted, the gang system's 
perceived moral scandals and exploitation in the Fens largely 
sparked the writing of the 1867-68 Report. Under this system, 
gang masters employed women and children in groups to 
(especially) plant, weed, and harvest root crops because not 
enough laborers lived near by. Rounding up groups of ten to 
forty women and children from a nearby village, the gang masters 
led them to relatively distant farms to work. In the Humber-Wold 
area, the wives of steadily employed male laborers avoided field 
work, but the wives irregularly-employed "catch work" laborers 
and their children worked in order to make up for lost ground 
financially. Here women and children commonly harvested 
potatoes. In Yorkshire, farmers made tacit agreements with male 
laborers that, as a condition of employment, their wives and 
children also had to be placed in their service. These 
agreements failed to guarantee them steady employment, but they 
meant this "auxiliary labor" was not allowed to go shopping 
around for higher wages elsewhere nearby during the peak harvest 
and/or haymaking seasons. In the south, female workers were 
still scarce, at least as year-around laborers. Northampton 
reported only 190 female laborers out of a group of 8,975. 
Jeffries, who mainly based his perceptions of English agriculture 
on what he saw in 1870s Wiltshire, maintained that female field 
work had declined, especially for the winter months, even if a 
number still worked in the summer and spring. ^^^ Clearly, many 
women still did field work in the third quarter of the nineteenth 
century, especially in northern England and during seasonal 

^^^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p. 
X . 

^^^Ibid., pp. xiii, xiv; Agar, "Bedfordshire Farm Worker," 
15, citing Culley's investigation for this report. 

Conspicuously, the sample Bedfordshire farm employed fourteen men 
and eight boys, but no women, while the Northumberland one did, 
befitting the difference in the sexual division of labor between 
the north and south broadly speaking, at least for arable 
districts . 

^^^Patrick, "Agricultural Gangs," 22-26; Report on Employment 
in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. xvi, xxii (Humber-Wold) xxvi 
(Northampton); Jeffries, Hodge , 2:61-62. 


peaks . 

The Female Dominance of Dairy Work Declines 

Women had long dominated dairy work. Because of the demand 
for dairymaids, female laboring employment and their wages had 
fallen little in pastoral areas in the southwest of England 
during the 1780-1840 period, as Snell notes. ^^* Skilled, 
experienced dairymaids and the farmers ' wives who supervised the 
maids and/or took on their work themselves brought in a cash 
income that helped pay the rent. A dairy farm's mistress might 
supervise two to twenty maids, with each maid tending ten cows in 
turn, working from before dawn into the late evening. They also 
had a significant amount of independence from direct male 
supervision since their menfolk often knew little about the 
process of making cheese from milk. Indeed, a small farmer with 
the misfortune of having only sons and no daughters might be 
forced into raising livestock and abandoning dairying! But then, 
in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men 
interested in improving methods and thus profitability invaded 
this female preserve. They saw dairywomen as archconservatives 
unconcerned with innovation and progress in their craft. Male 
managers and cheese factors, wishing to serve the market more 
efficiently by applying a scientific approach to dairying in 
general and cheesemaking in particular, gradually began to shed 
light on what had been largely a female mystery. As a result, 
women here increasingly lost control of their old domain. Many 
farmers' wives, such as one Jeffries describes, abandoned this 
line of work when alternatives presented themselves, because it 
required long hours and much hard work. Interestingly enough, 
the move by farmers ' wives into the parlors and housework 
strictly considered happened before the Victorian ideology about 
the separate spheres held sway. Machinery assisted in this 
transition, which allowed farmers to use fewer dairymaids 
overall, and less skilled personnel to supervise the tasks 
involved. Hence, a largely female sanctuary within the 
agricultural work force fell increasingly under direct male 
domination in the nineteenth century, even though dairymaids were 
still hired as live-in farm servants by larger farmers when their 
own wives' and daughters' labor was insufficient, assuming their 
female family members had not abandoned dairying themselves.^'''' 

How the Separate Spheres' View on Sex Roles Influenced the 1867- 
68 Report 

^"Snell, Annals, 40-45, 158; Deborah Valenze, "The Art of 
Women and the Business of Men: Women's Work and the Dairy 
Industry c. 1740-1840," Past & Present , no. 130 (Feb. 1991), 142- 
69; Jeffries, Hodge and his Masters , 1:85. 


In the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture, the 
potential negative effects of field labor on women's roles as 
wives and mothers is a major issue. Many involved with preparing 
the Report saw the world of work for women and proper sex roles 
through the lens of the separate spheres. One of the four main 
questions the Report investigated concerned whether or not women 
should work and its possible damage to their morals or their 
performance of domestic duties. The Commissioners even 
considered the policy proposal of making the employment of girls 
under the age of sixteen illegal. In Yorkshire, a special school 
was created to train girls in household duties such as 
laundering, cooking, and washing. It was said to be good for 
drawing the tastes of young girls "away from the license of field 
work" to domestic service and "future duties in life." Female 
field labor was said often to cause women laborers to keep their 
cottages less tidily and to neglect their families. They also, 
it was said, gave opiates to their children at home to quiet them 
[shades of Engels' depiction of Manchester!], and even hired "an 
old woman" to care for them. A working wife's messy cottage was 
even blamed for helping drive her husband to the local public 
house and into its noxious influences. By contrast, single women 
held in "bondage" (i.e., under contract) in northern 
Northumberland received a much more positive portrayal. Their 
heavy field labor was simply noted not to be harmful morally, 
meaning, injurious to performing what was deemed the proper sex 
roles when they married later. From Nottingham and Lincolnshire 
came a similar report about female field work's non-effects on 
their roles as wives and mothers. The moral problem seen here 
concerned the women and older girls corrupting the younger 
ones- -presumably through bawdy talk and so forth- -which meant the 
solution was age, not sexual, segregation. The rector of Stilton 
charged that gang work made girls "rude, rough and lawless," thus 
making them unfit for "domestic duties and [which] consequently 
disqualif ie [d] them for their future position of wives and 
mothers." Others lodged similar complaints, adding that field 
work developed a "love for unhealthy liberty" in these girls, who 
said they liked its freedom compared to domestic service's. With 
different counties of England being investigated for the negative 
effects field work had on the sex roles of women who performed 
it, the Report's consideration of whether and how much to 
restrict the employment of girls depended not merely on the 
generic issue of how much child labor exploited children and kept 
them out of school, but also on its perception of the specific 
negative effects on girls' future roles as wives and mothers. ^^^ 

^^"^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp , 
vii, X (generally), xxiv (Yorkshire), xiii (Northumberland), 
xviii (Nottingham/Lincolnshire) ; See Stilton in Patrick, 
"Agricultural Gangs," 25. Caird found in Norfolk condemnations 
of female field work similar to the 1867-68 Report's: "They 
contend that it [regular field work for women] has a most 


why Did Laboring Women Increasingly Fall Out of the Field Work 

Did women themselves initiate the changes in the sexual 
division of labor? Or did middle class mores on the subject of 
femininity seep down to the laborers, whether from men or women, 
such as through laborers' daughters being hired as domestic 
servants? The desires of many farmers and/or their wives to move 
upscale relate to this issue. Many pursued middle class cultural 
attainments, and sought to separate themselves more clearly from 
the laborers both in status and in physical proximity, such as by 
exchanging live-in servants for day laborers. Somerville noted 
through his travels and conversations that he had that: 

The farm-houses and farmers ' families are much finer 
than twenty, and thirty, and forty years ago; so much 
more refined, with richer furniture, and "accomplished" 
manners, that the unmarried labourers are no longer 
permitted to live within the farm-house, nor eat at the 
farmer's table, nor step within the farmer's door. 

Cobbett complained about farmers putting on gentlemanly airs and 
having (in a particular case) "worst of all ... a parlour! 
Aye, and a carpet and bell-pull too!" To the extent women 
believed in expressing their femininity by learning French, 
playing the piano, reading literature, etc., in farmhouse 
parlors, and by abandoning dirty, backbreaking work to hired men, 
the ideas behind the attempts of farmers' wives to embourgoisify 
themselves trickled down to the laborers through the domestic 
servants they hired. On this general theme, Jeffries asks: 

Has not some of the old stubborn spirit of earnest work 
and careful prudence gone with the advent of the piano 
and the oil painting? While wearing the dress of a 
lady, the wife cannot tuck up her sleeves and see to 
the butter, or even feed the poultry, which are down at 
the pen across 'a nasty dirty field. '^'^^ 

After the servants got married themselves, they often tried to 
emulate some of what their former master and mistress did, to the 

demoralising effect, causing women thus employed to lose all 
feeling of self-respect, rendering them bad housewives when 
married, and unfit, from want of experience, to exercise that 
strict economy in expenditure, and to provide those small 
fireside comforts which are so necessary in a labourer's wife." 
English Agriculture , 175-76. 

^"Somerville, Whistler , 147, cf. 42; Cobbett, Rural Rides , 
219-220; See also Snell, Annals, 67-71; Jeffries, Hodge , 2:97, 


extent their pocketbooks may have allowed. Simply put, did women 
began to withdraw themselves from field work before the ideology 
of the separate spheres held strong sway, or were Victorian 
middle class ideas about the sex roles the main cause for the 
change? Which drove the changes in sex roles more at this time, 
the superstructure of society or the forces and relations of 

As described both below and above, the rising male 
unemployment rate in many local rural labor markets in the south 
of England in the late eighteenth century was a major reason for 
women leaving the fields. This development took place before the 
middle class sensibilities of the Victorian era had a chance to 
operate on the laborers or even many of the farmers . The 
Victorian period merely saw this change completed , which had 
begun due to economic rationalization in southeastern arable 
districts. As Snell plausibly argues: 

But insofar as they [moral sentiments antagonistic to 
women working] cannot readily be dated from before 
1800, at the very earliest, their significance seems 
heavily undercut by the evidence that the major sexual 
division of labour began at least fifty years before 
such 'middle-class' attitudes towards the roles of 
women can have had inf luence .^^^ 

The dairywomen of Cheshire, unwilling to give up their work, 
rejected the ideas of J. Chalmers Morton (c. 1870) on the 
subject. They denied their work was "drudgery," saying that the 
quality that could come from home-made cheese was worth their 
continued efforts as against his advocacy of applying factory 
methods. Their declining control over the dairy industry was 
obviously not their notion. On the other hand, the ideas of a 
woman's "proper place" may have encouraged at least some women to 
withdraw from the labor force and be relegated increasingly to 
doing housework or domestic service only. The 1867 Report on 
Employment in Agriculture found in Lincolnshire and Nottingham 
that the girls were less inclined to do field work themselves . 
In these two counties, above age twelve or thirteen, they were 
not found in the fields in some areas. On the other hand, 
although Jeffries believed that the number of women field workers 

^^^Snell, Annals, 51-57, 66. Although left unstated, 
presumably the economic rationalization Snell mentions involved 
the increasing use of scythes in place of sickles for the 
harvesting of grain. But the substitution of one for the other 
was hardly an overnight process, since various methods of 
harvesting grain were sometimes employed side-by-side. The slow 
place of technological progress still allowed some women to do 
harvesting work even late in the nineteenth century. Morgan, 
Harvesters and Harvesting , 17-20, 25-29, 97-98, 115. 


had greatly declined (in the general area of Wiltshire in the 
1870s) , still "there does not appear to be any repugnance on 
their part to field-work. "^^^ The weight of the evidence points 
towards late eighteenth/early nineteenth century changes inspired 
by the economics of enclosure, poor relief, and population growth 
in pushing women out of the labor force because of a rising male 
unemployment rate instead of women actively accepting the 
Victorian idea of femininity and voluntarily withdrawing 
themselves from the paid labor force, or passively going along 
with their husbands ' or employers ' ideas that women ideally 
should be supported by their husbands and mainly do housework. 

Allotments Partially Restore the Family Economy 

The spread of allotments during the nineteenth century, in a 
small way, brought or kept women in the agricultural labor force. 
Enclosure and many families' heavy dependence on the father's 
wages for support had largely destroyed in southern arable areas 
the family economy. But it was partially restored through 
husbands, wives, and children all working on their small plots of 
land as a family, though not necessarily all at the same time of 
the day. Perhaps the father tended the plot on Sundays or some 
day he was off from work; the mother and her children might till 
it during spare time on regular weekdays, not just Sundays. 
Sometimes even three generations of a family worked together. 
Often women and children, who would have been idle otherwise, 
cultivated the plots, while the men worked full time for farmers. 
But in Bedfordshire even late in the century (1893), the women 
did not work on the allotments because they had been used to 
earning significantly more money through such domestic industries 
as straw-plaiting and lace-making. Since these industries had 
largely collapsed by then, the women clearly had failed to adjust 
fully to the new conditions . ^'^° More importantly, the family 
economy had persisted because family members harvested grain 
together, as mentioned above, as different members took on 
different tasks. Nevertheless, allotments played a role in 
keeping women in the agricultural work force, albeit not for 
wages . 

Quality of Life Issues and the Sexual Division of Labor 

Towards the end of Annals of the Labouring Poor , Snell 
explores the downside of the increased sexual division of labor 

^^^Valenze, "Women's Work and the Dairy Industry," 168; 
Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p. xviii; 
Jeffries, Hodge , 2:62. 

^"Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, 18, 107; William 
Bear's report, 1893 Royal Commission on Labour, BPP, 1893-94, 
XXXV, as found in Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , 31. 


and the decline of the family economy in favor of centralized 
production in factories and workshops. With the father taken 
from home to work elsewhere, and the mother confined increasingly 
to non-wage -paid housework and childrearing, the home became less 
important economically. Increasingly, the family became "a unit 
of primary socialisation and recreative convenience." His 
analysis of Thomas Hardy's novels focuses on how a sharp sexual 
division of labor creates emotional distance between a husband 
and wife, thus causing them to share no work together, but only 
pleasures. As a result, a couple fail to learn well each other's 
real character. Although the upper and middle classes largely 
had had a distinct sexual division of labor for centuries, this 
relationship now spread among the working and laboring classes, 
in such occupations as artisans, farmworkers, and unskilled city 
workers, during the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries . ^'^ 

Snell's analysis about the pitfalls of a sharp division of 
labor in undermining the working class family' s cohesion strongly 
differs from others saying a weak division of labor produced the 
family ills prevailing among the American slaves. The legacy of 
slavery in this regard decades later became especially 
controversial because of the Moynihan report's discussion of the 
social problems caused by matriarchy and illegitimacy in the 
1960 's black family. In particular, enslavement sometimes nearly 
reduced slave father to a mere stud, because of the way the 
master stood between the slaves and the means of production as 
the slave's provider, instead of slave families independently and 
directly supporting themselves. Through the practice of 
"marrying abroad, " the slave husband and wife deliberately chose 
to work apart from one another in order to avoid (especially) the 
terrible scenes where one had to watch or even help to inflict a 
whipping or punishment on the other. Since the slave husband 
often came to visit his wife just on weekends, this arrangement 
was an extreme case of married couples coming together only to 
share pleasures in life, and not the work that supported them and 
their children. The slaveholders did destroy the family economy 
among the slaves, excepting those in task system areas who 
assiduously tended their animals and plots of land, since the 
family members did not work together as an economic unit of 
production. But in addition, slave families did not even 
directly support themselves because the slaveowners issued 
standard rations to all the human chattels on their plantations 

'"Snell, Annals, 408; see also 304, 309, 369-73, 399-410. 
Of course, centralized work places did have their practical 
advantages for home life, as George M. Trevelyan comments: "The 
working class home often became more comfortable, quiet and 
sanitary by casing to be a miniature factory." English Social 
History (New York and London: Longmans, Green & Company, 1942), 
487, as cited by Robert Hessen in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The 
Unknown Ideal (New York: The New American Library, 1967), 116. 


and farms. Even if the husband and wife did live on the same 
plantation, they were often separated during the day by working 
in different gangs segregated by sex and/or cultivating function 
(such as plowing versus hoeing) . Furthermore, unlike a couple or 
family working together in domestic industry in their own home, 
they could not set their own work hours or have flexibility in 
taking breaks that would allow them to freely interact together. 
Of course, some of the differences between what Snell sees among 
the English farmworkers or artisans and others observe in the 
slave family come from the special features of slavery that made 
the master's authority the ultimate and controlling force in the 
slaves' physical lives, not the sexual division of labor itself. 
Nevertheless, while Snell argues that a sharp sexual division of 
labor produces alienation between the sexes because the husband 
and wife do not spend enough "quantity time" during work hours 
with one another, others have blamed a weak sexual division of 
labor in part for weakening the slave family because the father's 
role is made largely superfluous relative to the mother's. 

The Division of Labor: Blessing or Curse? 

Snell ' s critique of the Victorian sexual division of labor 
is a subset of attacks made (such as by Marx) against the 
alienation that centralized factory production created through 
the specialization of jobs and the impersonal cash nexus between 
employer and employee. Thompson's discussion of the concept of 
time and work, and the switch over from a task-orientation to a 
time-orientation, is really an attack on the division of labor: 

Mature industrial societies of all varieties are marked 
by time-thrift and by a clear demarcation between 
"work" and "life". . . . But if the purposive notation 
of time-use becomes less compulsive, then men might 
have to re-learn some of the arts of living lost in the 
industrial revolution: how to fill the interstices of 
their days with enriched, more leisurely, personal and 
social relations; how to break down once more the 
barriers between work and life. 

The "clear demarcation" appears because one goes to a separate 
workplace from home, works there for so many hours, and then 
returns home to "enjoy life," i.e., leisure time with one's 
family which is largely under one's own control. The division of 
labor, which originally was part of the foundation for early 
civilization's development, presents a basic trade-off to society 
as a whole: Workers benefit from the increased productivity and 
shorter workdays an intricate division of labor yields, but may 
suffer mind-stultifying, narrow tasks tending machinery or 
pushing paperwork in a bureaucracy, thus causing increased 
alienation. Of course, much of the manual labor in artisans' 
workshops or the fields was hardly exciting or self-fulfilling 
either! As M. Dorothy George comments: "It seems unlikely that 


the average weaver, toiling hour after hour throwing the shuttle 
backwards and forwards on work which was monotonous and 
exhausting, had the reactions which would satisfy a modern 
enthusiast for peasant arts."^" (Some people also may personally 
prefer work to be at a different location from home: It allows 
them to escape from it!) To send the father of the family out to 
work, to earn or to seek to earn the "family wage" English labor 
unionists desired, while exclusively relegating the mother to 
housework and child care during his absence, increased 
productivity, but also weakened the feelings of affection or 
family ties between the couple in question. To have their 
children go to school (or daycare) further broke up the family 
economy, for they gained knowledge and possibly alien values that 
neither the mother nor father agreed with, while spending many 
hours out of either parent's care. Snell and Thompson properly 
see the problems with an increased division of labor, whether 
sexual or among those at a central place of production such as a 
factory, but its advantages need consideration also. Eventually , 
at least, increased specialization led to higher productivity, 
higher wages, and shorter hours. The workweek has fallen from 
(say) 75 hours to 40 over a period of 150 years while real wages 
have sharply risen. Today most people in Western nations enjoy a 
high standard of living so far above the subsistence level that 
even their lowest stratum are more overweight than those of the 
middle or upper classes above them. Would these people 
voluntarily give up such great material advantages for the 
perceived improvements in family relationships (or allegedly less 
work place alienation) that would be brought by a return to 
subsistence farming, literal cottage industries, and mass 
education's abolition? Although many do have the financial 
resources to buy land and engage in individual experiments of 
simplifying their lives in a Thoreauian manner, few choose to do 
it. (Not everyone could choose this option. Because subsistence 
farming and domestic industry have such a low productivity, 
probably about 80 percent of the Western world's present 
population would become superfluous, and- -ahem- -require 
elimination) . Snell ' s analysis also takes for granted the high 
quality of the lower classes' family relationships in western 
Europe in the pre-industrial past, a claim which Weber and Gillis 
seriously question. So although an increased division of labor 
has its drawbacks, its benefits must be added to the balances 

^^^Marx's views on alienation are described by Fritz 
Pappenheim, The Alienation of Modern Man: An Interpretation Based 
on Marx and Tonnies (New York: Modern Reader Paperbacks, 1959), 
84-97; E.P. Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial 
Capitalism," Past and Present , no. 38 (Dec. 1967), 93, 95; M. 
Dorothy George, England in Transition: Life and Work in the 
Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin, 1953) 139, as cited by 
Robert Hessen in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New 
York: The New American Library, 1967), 116-17. 


before idealizing the advantages of domestic industry and 
subsistence farming for family and marriage relationships. 

The issue of the sharpening sexual division of labor during 
industrialization needs some examination in this context. Even 
the likes of Dill could see its benefits, at least for middle 
class women whose time and energies were freed for charitable, 
religious, and political activities. Kemble obviously concurred. 
Viewing American slavery from the vantage point of a Victorian 
middle class Englishwoman, she found simply intolerable the 
thought of enduring daily some ten or more hours of field work on 
top of caring for young children and housework. Of course, the 
separate spheres' chief drawback as an organizing principle for 
society stemmed from its theoretically pigeonholing narrowly the 
talents of half of the human race into a specific set of tasks 
(housework, child care, etc.) when their individual abilities and 
talents often could have been more fully developed outside the 
home in various careers. By placing serious limits on individual 
women's choices in life, especially for those who could not or 
would not marry, this ideology constrained their personal 
autonomy by social custom, private discrimination, and laws 
against entry into specific professions and jobs. But for those 
women more attuned to the life of a homemaker, the separate 
spheres presented some advantages, since they (theoretically) 
forced men to be more stable in their work habits and protective 
of their wives. For these reasons, many saw the principal 
problem with the slave family's relationships as the man's lack 
of a real function besides siring offspring, thus enabling him to 
be more irresponsible about his duties towards his wife and 
children. The slave father's dereliction of duty directly 
resulted from the slaveholder's furnishing automatically rations 
of food, clothing, and shelter to an enslaved wife and children 
without any real regard for his (or her) level of work effort. 
Nowadays, contemporary Western society has been dissolving the 
separate spheres since its (semi-) capitalist economy tends 
towards labor shortage during booms and war, thus encouraging 
women to work outside the home. Women then farm out many of the 
child care and housework responsibilities to others (assuming 
they do not come home to face the infamous "second shift" while 
their husbands lounge about, doing almost nothing) .^" This 
change means contemporary society has sharply moved away from the 
Victorian model on sex roles, and towards those once found on 
Southern plantations. Excepting mainly those presently dependent 
on governmental transfer payments, because each family still has 
to support itself directly by its own efforts, the negative 
effects from more androgenous sex roles on the quality of family 

^"For example, note poetic lament concerning housework piled 
on top of field work by the (fictional) early eighteenth century 
rural laboring wife "Mary Collier" in Thompson, "Time, Work- 
Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism," 79. 


life today are much lower they were on the slaves, although the 
results from having less "quantity time" together still remain. 
After all, to have both men and women working outside the home 
does not solve the problem Snell describes, unless they happen to 
work together for the same employer or in a family business as a 

Who Was Better Off Depends on the Values One Has 

Clearly the plantation slave and mid-Victorian laborer 
pitched their camps at spots near the opposite extremes of the 
division of labor's general continuum. The best position for 
societal well-being lies somewhere in the middle between these 
two extremes. Enough differentiation between the sexes should 
remain for people to benefit from the complementary roles 
possible and to give individuals through society some basic 
guidance to their identity, which reduces the amount of 
confusion, alienation, and anomie they may feel otherwise. But 
enough similarity (or social tolerance for similarity) should 
exist to allow individual men and women to make freely their own 
choices based on individual talents and interests. The slaves 
themselves simply had no ability to make such choices before 
emancipation. But soon after freedom came, they chose to emulate 
the free white society's division of labor as influenced by the 
ideology of the separate spheres. Using Snell 's basic approach, 
under which the poor's judgment of what values matter to them 
most trumps what (say) a modern-day professional economist thinks 
they should have valued, this outcome shows they evaluated 
negatively the sexual division of labor imposed on them by their 
owners. Although not as artificially imposed, English female 
laborers were increasingly pushed out of the labor force in the 
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As applied to 
the farmworkers, the Victorian model of the separate spheres 
takes on the feel of a male make -work program. The local 
parishes conveniently could just assumed women would find 
something to do at home, while seeking some way to keep men out 
of the beerhouses and hunting (re: poaching) grounds. But 
illustrating how different its values are, contemporary Western 
society has freely chosen a sexual division of labor that 
resembles a Southern plantation's more than Victorian England's. 
To determine which model provides a higher quality of life 
depends in turn upon hotly contested values and how intrinsically 
different is the biological (and psychological) nature of men and 
women. The Sears-EEOC case illustrates how old-fashioned 
patriarchalists can use to their own advantage the in-house 
debates between "equality" and "difference" feminists.^" To the 

^"a valiant attempt to square this particular circle appears 
in Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New 
York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 167-77. For the view 
that traditional gender roles are not only based on biological 


extent outsiders force a way of life upon some group- -here, 
masters imposing a certain sexual division of labor among 
American slaves- -its quality of life is lower than where it was 
freely chosen. Otherwise, as this terrain is so controversial 
presently, each person after examining the evidence- -historical, 
scientific, and anthropological--naturally ends up choosing, 
based on his or her values, the model or mid-point between the 
two extremes that would supposedly make for the best society. 
Who was better off between the slaves and farmworkers concerning 
the sexual division of labor depends on what values historians 
and others apply when judging a people's past way of life. 


The Central Reality of Work and the Elite ' s Needs for Controlling 
Its Workers 

Today and in the past, the central reality of most adults' 
lives is the set of tasks and activities that make up the means 
by which they earn a living. Especially in the pre-industrial 
and early industrial past, people back then compared to today in 
the developed world lived shorter lives, worked more hours daily 
and weekly, and worked more years before retiring, assuming that 
was even possible before they died. In the case of the African- 
American slaves and English agricultural workers, their daily 
tasks were fairly similar although they normally tended different 
crops. Both groups benefited from any and all the reputed 
intrinsic advantages of doing farm work instead of factory or 
shop work, such as from laboring in fresh air outside at tasks 
that were meaningful and understandable in the context of the 
overall production process. This section does not deal with the 
specific techniques or tasks of the slaves or farmworkers in 
fields or homes, but with "management's" attempts to control 
them. After covering two basic aspects of working conditions, 
concerning the number of work hours and days off from the job, 
how the elites controlled their subordinate classes is described 
below. The former needed the labor power of the latter, but 
(usually) wanted it on the best possible terms, compensating it 
as little as possible without sparking revolts, strikes, or 
uprisings that would be expensive to quell. How the slaves and 
farmworkers resisted their respective dominant classes may be 
occasionally touched upon in this section, but that is mainly 
dealt with in the next . 

The methods of controlling the slaves and laborers 
inevitably differed. Since the latter were legally free, they 
could quit and move elsewhere (excepting the settlement laws' 
restrictions) . But since the slaves were not, corporal 

differences, but that society needs to maintain them to avoid 
"sexual suicide," see George Gilder, Men and Marriage . 


punishment was often necessarily employed to compel labor, with 
additional aid to work discipline provided by the fear of the 
auction block. The English elite used more indirect, collective 
legal measures such as enclosure and the poor laws to extract 
labor power from the farmworkers. Since individual masters and 
mistresses owned and controlled the slaves both on and the job 
and off, managing them tended to be correspondingly more direct 
and individualized, as illustrated by the pass system, after the 
slave codes had set the basic legal framework in place. The 
English rural elites, in contrast, had counted on a tilted free 
market to bring them labor. They rigged the law of supply and 
demand for labor to favor themselves, such as by using enclosure 
and the settlement laws to ensure a ready supply of laborers for 
the peak summer season in arable agriculture . The laborers then 
semi -freely chose to work for this or that individual local 
farmer or landowner. But slavery required a stricter system of 
control, since the bondsmen had no freedom to choose to work for 
different masters or mistresses legally, but had to work for 
those that owned or rented them. (Some slaves were permitted to 
"moonlight" for pay on Sundays, but compensation for that 
practice existed by permission, not by right) . Since slaves had 
little or no intrinsic self-interest to work for their 
"employers," their owners had to use much more coercion to keep 
them in line compared to what their English equals exerted on the 
farmworkers. Because the slaves were their property, 
slaveholders had far more legal right to inflict pain and to 
damage the bodies of their "troublesome property." They also had 
the legal power to interfere in and control their human chattels' 
off -work lives. The reality of paternalism is examined below, 
since both elites used this social order's ideology to justify 
their ascendency, through proclaiming the existence of a mutual 
reciprocal system of altruism underlay their rule over the 
subordinate classes. It is decidedly dubious that these elites 
established ideological hegemony over the laborers and slaves 
through paternalism or some other means. Since both these work 
forces mainly or completely worked for others, and not directly 
for themselves as in subsistence agriculture (or artisans in 
their own shops), the elite's machinations for controlling them 
clearly suffused their work lives. 

Dawn to Dusk: Work Hours for Slaves 

First of all, two of the conditions of work itself should be 
examined before analyzing the elite's attempts to enforce 
compliance. How long did the slaves work each day? Their time 
at work tended to fill all available daylight hours. Slaves 
rarely slept past dawn, although more paternalistic masters 
deviated from this standard. Their lifestyle sharply differed 
from that for many poor whites around them. The latter had 
relatively leisurely days since they could get by through 
hunting, fishing, and/or some subsistence agriculture. Most 
slaves got up at the crack of dawn or earlier. The overseer's or 


master's bell or horn aroused them and warned them that they had 
little time left in the quarters before their presence was 
required in the fields. John Warren told Drew he had to get up 
at four o'clock on the Mississippi plantation he lived at. He 
had just fifteen minutes to eat breakfast in the field before 
work began. Similarly, Dick Smith, once a slave in Louisiana, 
told Armstrong he got up at four o'clock in summer, five o'clock 
in winter, when the latter was two hours before sunrise. 
Freedman Tines Kendricks of Georgia remembered how the mean old 
mistress would be up "'Way 'fore day . . . hollering loud enough 
for to be heared two miles, 'rousing the niggers out for to git 
in the field ever 'fore light." Freedwoman Jenny Proctor 
recalled that her mother as a cook had a three o'clock rising 
time. Olmsted's experience confirmed these accounts about the 
slaves getting up early. Once he had to feed his own horse at a 
place he stayed in Louisiana, since all the slaves had left 
before daybreak. Another time, he found the slaves already at 
work after he awoke at four o'clock following an awful night's 
sleep during which insects repeatedly attacked him in a small 
planter's house in Mississippi.^" Bondsmen clearly routinely 
started field labor at dawn if not earlier. 

Using Force to Get the Slaves into the Fields in the Morning 

Since the slaves did not directly benefit from work, but 
normally got fed and clothed the same regardless of their 
productivity levels, masters and overseers had to enforce 
strictly the starting time for work. They often inflicted 
whippings on the dawdling. As Douglass recalled, although the 
bondsmen might have been doing housework or cooking late the 
night before, they had better hear the horn in the morning at 
dawn. Otherwise, the consequences were often dire: "If they are 
not awakened by the sense of hearing, they are by the sense of 
feeling; no age nor sex finds any favor." The overseer, with the 
Dickensian name of Mr. Severe, stood armed, ready and waiting 
with a "large hickory stick and heavy cowskin, " for anyone not 
immediately heading off for the fields after morning reveille. 
Naturally, the overseer or hands-on master arose when his slaves 
did, as freedman "Old Man Ned" of North Carolina recalled about 
his owner. Having dispensed with overseers, Bennet Barrow by 
1845 had turned over daily operations to his black driver. One 
day he decided to get up with his slaves at daybreak, which 
produced (to him) impressive results: "Began at day Light 

^"On hours of work generally, see Stampp, Peculiar 
Institution , 73-79; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 60-61; One 
sugar plantation owner disliked the poor whites living nearby 
because their lives of relative ease tended to demoralize his 
bondsmen. Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:331, 2:37, 88 (work hours! 
Drew, Refugee , 183; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 87; Botkin, 
Lay My Burden Down , 70, 89. 


Overseering- -Coffee at day Light out 'till 12 --negroes worked 
harder to day than they have done in at Least 5 years . " On the 
other hand, when his slaves got up late one day, he partially 
blamed himself: "Hands made a Bad beginning this morning got 
out Late Ploughs &c . Began overseering in Earnest, neglect my 
business all the year perswuaded it injured my health- -negros 
very much out of Geer." But this kind of mistake was uncommon, 
as the slave narratives bear witness. One sign of a harsh master 
was that he made his slaves get up very early daily in order to 
maximize the work effort extracted from them. Escaped slave 
Henry Banks described how one of his Virginian masters dealt with 
slaves who rose up slower than the sun in the morning: "Let 
daybreak catch me in the house, instead of currying the horses, 
that was as good for a flogging as any thing else." Henry Gowens 
suffered under a cruel overseer in Alabama. After receiving "a 
first-rate English watch to keep his time and blow the horn by, " 
he ordered the slaves to eat nothing before twelve noon. After 
blowing the horn two hours before daybreak, he said he expected 
everyone up and at work one hour later at the second horn 
blowing. He threatened: "If I find any of you lagging back 
after the last horn blows, I shall whip you up to the spot where 
the work is to be done." J.W. Terrill, once a slave in Texas, 
remembered that the overseer awoke the hands at three o'clock. 
If they got up late, he tied them to a tree at night with nothing 
to eat, and later gave them thirty-nine lashes from a long, wide 
belt. The testimony of Aaron Sidles, who for years traveled up 
and down the Mississippi as a steamboat's steward, shows how 
generally force was used near daybreak on the slaves. The first 
thing in the morning he heard were the bells rung to awaken the 
slaves on farms or plantations on either side of the river. "The 
next thing, before it was light enough to see, I heard the crack 
of the overseer's whip, and the cries of the slaves, 'Oh! pray, 
Mas'r! Oh! pray, Mas'r!' Every morning I heard it from both 
sides of the river. "^" Clearly, masters and overseers had to 
apply or threaten to apply a lot of physical force to get the 
slaves on task around or before sunrise, unlike the English 
landowners and farmers, who relied mainly on the laborers 
prodding themselves to get to work on time in the morning since 
they could be fired or have their pay docked for being late. 

The most extreme semi -standard hours slaves had to endure 
was during grinding season on sugar plantations. Slaves here may 
have been worked to death literally. Having been a slave in 
Alabama, Cato felt he had been well treated, but knew that: 

^"Douglass, Narrative, 29; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 
353. Concerning overseers, note Bassett, Plantation Overseer , 
12; Davis, Plantation Life , 329, 354; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 
166; Drew, Refugee , 50 (Banks), 97 (Gowens), 190 (Sidles). Cf . 
Sidle ' s testimony with Isaac Griffin's on 199 and John C--n's on 
192 from their travels on the Mississippi. 


"Some [of] the niggers hated syrup -making time, 'cause when they 
had to work till midnight making syrup, it's four o'clock up, 
just the same. Sunup to sundown was for field niggers." Olmsted 
found a Louisiana sugar planter whose slaves worked the two- to 
three -month grinding season around the clock. They worked in 
relays, each on for eighteen hours and off six, which kept three- 
fourths of them constantly at work. In contrast to Gate's 
testimony, the slaves on this plantation actually evidently liked 
grinding season, since a garrulous house slave's comments 
corroborated the master's testimony. Olmsted questioned 
carefully at length this slave without his appearing guarded or 
defensive. These long hours were made more tolerable by giving 
them lots of food and coffee and by encouraging them, "as much as 
possible, to make a kind of frolic of it." Despite this attempt 
to paint a human face on obvious exploitation, Olmsted still 
observed: "No farm, and in no factory, or mine, even when double 
wages are paid for night-work, did I ever hear of men or women 
working regularly eighteen hours a day. If ever done, it is only 
when some accident makes it especially desirable for a few days." 
Despite (some?) sugar planters tried to make these schedules 
bearable, somehow even enjoyable, they still could well have 
extracted a deadly toll. One group of Louisiana sugar planters 
admitted that working slaves to death and replacing them every 
seven years was more profitable than driving them less hard, and 
"maintain [ing] them in diminished efficiency for an indefinite 
length of time."^" Extreme conditions taxed the bondsmen's 
health, even when they could be persuaded to tolerate or enjoy 
long hours which lasted for only two or three months and only 
after the preceding slack period had given them extra rest. 

Finishing Work for the Day- -Some Variations 

The end of the slaves' workday varied much more than its 
start. The task system areas, mainly in the lowland coastal 
regions of Georgia and South Garolina, allowed the slaves to 
finish working for their master for the day as soon as they 
completed their set assignment ("task") . This may explain why 
the slaves were done by three thirty in the afternoon on Kemble ' s 
husband's cotton sea-island estate. On his rice-island estate, 
the workday was longer and the labor more physically draining. 
Here the bondsmen worked from daybreak to six in the evening, but 
they had time off for lunch at noon. But more typically, slaves 
worked until sunset. Mr. Freeland, a straightforward average 
master of Maryland, worked his slaves hard, but Douglass thanked 
him for doing so only between sunrise and sunset. George Johnson 
of Virginia worked from sunrise "and quit work between sundown 
and dark." "Aunt" Tilda of Mississippi told Armstrong that she 
worked from "de daylight to noontime" and after lunch, "wu'k[ed] 

^"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , 86; Olmsted, Gotten Kingdom , 
1:327-328, 337-338, 2:46-47, 239; Kemble, Journal, 303. 


till de sun go down an' de overseer whoop: 'All in! Day's 
done!' an' back to de cabins ergain." However, many slaves 
worked far longer hours. Olmsted knew two plantations in 
Mississippi that roused up their bondsmen at three thirty in the 
morning, and they frequently worked until nine at night. 
Appalled that her children were still enslaved, Mary Younger knew 
they still labored late at night despite starting work before 
daylight. William Brown, once a Virginian slave, had worked 
sometimes as late as ten at night in some seasons. Because the 
slaves would feed his horse at the place he spent the night at, 
Olmsted found they generally worked until nightfall after already 
appeared in the fields when he first looked out early in the 
morning. On a plantation near Natchez, since the hands worked 
until nine thirty in the evening after getting up at about five 
in the morning during summer, the hoe gang members worked about 
sixteen hours in a day. The plow gang worked less because their 
break was about two hours long versus (perhaps) a half hour for 
the hoe gang. On one plantation in Virginia, however, they only 
worked eleven hours a day because of a two-hour break at noon, 
which corresponded to the better treatment for which Border Slave 
States were known. Although undeniable variations in what hours 
slaves worked appeared among different plantations and farms, 
Sutch and Ransom have calculated quantitatively that the average 
slave (male, female, and child) worked approximately 16-22 
percent more than the average free laborer. North and South. 
This figure was based on a comparison of how many hours slaves 
worked in 1860 with those of the freedmen in 1870. Genovese, as 
well as Fogel and Engerman, are too optimistic when saying free 
workers, especially when wives and children are included, 
normally worked as many and/or more hours than the slaves.^" 

Hours of Work- -Agricultural Workers 

When they were employed, the English agricultural laborers 
and slaves often worked remarkably similar hours. In both cases, 
the dawn- to-dusk nature of agricultural work during planting, 
growing, and harvesting season drove their daily schedules. 
Carters, foggers (cow feeders) , and milkers had to tend to their 
animals seven days a week, arriving early in the morning and 
later in the afternoon or evening to feed them. Shepherds 
accompanying flocks in the fields were effectively "on call" for 
twenty- four hours a day because they had to watch over the flock 

^"Kemble, Journal, 52, 65, 255, 260, 315; Douglass, 
Narrative, 88; Drew, Refugee , 52 (Johnson), 260 (Younger), 280 
(Brown); Armstrong, Old Massa's People , 210; Olmsted, Cotton 
Kingdom , 1:103 (Virginia), 2:100 (Mississippi), 2:179-80 (near 
Natchez); David and Temin in David, Reckoning , 211-12. These 
figures also are based upon the number of days worked per year, 
not just the hours per day that was worked. Genovese, Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , 61; Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:208. 


at night, especially during lambing season. Their job was task- 
oriented, not time-oriented, so they may be working when others 
laborers slept and relaxing while others worked. As Jeffries 
noted about shepherds: "His sheep rule his life, and he has 
little to do with the artificial divisions of time." During 
harvest season the laborers' hours grew long and late. But in 
winter, especially in arable areas, even when they were not 
underemployed or unemployed, they worked short hours: They would 
leave the fields by five o'clock at nightfall.^" Since their 
employers had to pay them for each hour or day they worked, the 
laborers remained on the job only as needed, excepting farm 
servants under a one-year (or less) contract. In contrast, since 
masters and mistresses had to feed, clothe, and otherwise meet 
the needs of their bondsmen regardless of their output, they had 
a continual incentive to work their human chattels as many hours 
as possible. Every moment a farmworker slacked off cost his or 
her employer also, but only for a mutually agreed upon set 
period, such as a day, week, or month. When a slaveholder 
purchased a slave, he had bought all at once all of that slave's 
potential labor for a lifetime: So, arguably, time was a-wasting 
every moment that slave was idle, except for meeting the minimum 
physical requirements of sleep, meal periods, etc. Although on 
paper the slaves and farmworkers seem to work daily about as many 
hours because of agricultural labor's intrinsic diurnal nature, 
the former often worked fewer many hours overall in a given year 
than the latter, which was attributable to winter (and general) 
unemployment . 

Were Workdays Shorter for the Farmworkers than the Slaves? 

The agricultural workers at times worked dawn to dusk like 
the slaves. As a young man in a mowing gang during harvest. Arch 
worked from five in the morning to seven at night. Batchelor in 
1808 noted how the hours during harvest grew longer, "extend [ing] 
. . . from sunrise to sunset, or when carrying the corn, as long 
as the day-light permits." Somerville encountered three 
Wiltshire carters, who all got up at four in the morning to 
attend to their horses. Two of them arrived home for dinner at 
seven o'clock, and the other left the stable at about half past 
seven. But normal hours were shorter than these. Some laborers 
signed an allotment agreement that prohibited them from tending 
their plots of land between six in the morning and evening 
without first asking their master's (farmer's) permission. 
During these hours they presumably worked elsewhere when 

^"Thomas Batchelor, General View of the Agriculture of the 
County of Bedford (London, 18 08) , found in Agar, Bedfordshire 
Farm Worker , 11; Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial 
Capitalism," 60; Jeffries, Hodge , 2:57-63, 130, 132. He noted 
that wages were higher in summer than in winter, which 
corresponds to the number of hours worked daily. 


employed. In confirmation of this surmise, Batchelor described a 
Bedfordshire farmworker's typical hours: "Day-labourers are 
expected to work as long as the light is sufficient in the 
winter: and from six o'clock in the morning till six at night, in 
summer. Of this nearly an hour and a half are consumed in 
meals. "^^° For the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture, 
Culley reported for northeastern Buckingham and Bedfordshire that 
the hours of work were normally six in the morning to six in the 
evening in summer, and from dawn to dusk in winter, with one and 
a half or two hours off for meals. In most of Buckingham, the 
hours of work were six to five, with one and a half hours off.^^^ 
Basing it upon the responses of Oxfordshire farmers to a survey, 
Andrew Doyle published in 1881 a list of typical working hours 
for laborers. Many worked from seven to five, six to six, or 
nine hours altogether, excepting harvest or haymaking seasons. 
Some worked eight hours or less in total. ^^^ As the nineteenth 
century passed its mid-point on into the late 1860s, many 
laborers increasingly wanted a more carefully defined workday, in 
place of the loose concept of working dawn to dusk. This desire 
reflects a transition from task-orientation to time-orientation, 
which the farmworkers used advantageously when bargaining with 
employers. After having defined the workday more strictly, the 
laborers could then receive overtime pay if they exceeded normal 
hours during harvest or some other peak period. 

The figures mentioned above show the laborers often stopped 
work earlier than many slaves in non-task system areas, at least 
those Olmsted had seen in the Deep South. Interestingly enough, 
the difference in latitude made "dawn to dusk" vary between 
England and the subtropical South. The farther north one goes, 
the shorter the daylight periods are in winter and the longer in 
summer. One agricultural worker who worked twelve hours a day in 
summer, told Sommervile that he worked "as long as I have light 
to see in winter." Since dusk approached by about four thirty, 
and nearly full darkness arrived by five, for about three months 
laborers averaged only about eight and a half hours of work per 

^^°Arch, Joseph Arch , 37-38; Batchelor as in Agar, 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker , 12, 13; Somerville, Whistler, 32; 
Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, 112. The slaves normally had 
less time than this for meals. One of Douglass's chief 
complaints against Covey, to whom his master had rented him, and 
with which he later fought, was that he routinely cut their meal 
times too short. Narrative , 88. 

^^^As in Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , 19 

^^^Doyle ' s list as in Morgan, Harvesters , 107-8. Cf . Doyle's 
figures with Bear for the Royal Commission on Labour in 1893 for 
Bedfordshire. Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , 30. 


day.^^^ Excepting harvest and haymaking, the agricultural 
workers ' workday did not expand to fill all available daylight 
hours during the summer. The slaves then normally worked past 
six in the evening. England's colder climate and shorter growing 
season also limited the amount of agricultural work possible for 
the laborers compared to the slaves. ^^* For example, wheat 
harvesting in England normally was finished by late September, 
but the process of picking, cleaning, and packing cotton might 
begin in late August and continue into December. Even with the 
addition of hand threshing, which was increasingly superseded 
during the nineteenth century despite the intimidating 
retrogression provoked by the Swing riots, seasonal patterns 
affected grain harvesting in English arable areas more than the 
American South' s stereotypical corn/cotton/hog agriculture. The 
laborers were considered to work only eight or nine hours because 
one and a half or more hours for meals being factored in. Many 
slaves lacked this benefit have during their workday, who may 
have had one fairly short break of (perhaps) one half hour or 
more to eat near noon, though some had up to two hours off.^^'' 
Certainly, the laborers' one and a half hour's worth of breaks 
seemed to be much more widespread than the slaves having a 
similar period off. These reasons point to the average Southern 
slave having a relatively longer workday than the average 
farmworker on a year-around basis, when excluding work on 
allotments and gardens. ^'^ 

The Length of the Workweek and Days Off- -Slaves 

Since the owner of slaves possessed all their future time in 
their lives, and at his discretion determined how much of it was 
to be taken up in work, he always had an incentive to make slaves 

^^^Somerville, Whistler, 37; Jeffries, Hodge , 2:62; Agar, 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker , 3 . 

^^*Cf . this with the discussion of Northern versus Southern 
agriculture's relative efficiency in David, Reckoning , 209-11. 

^^'^Kemble, Journal, p. 65; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:103; 
2:100, 179; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 56, 87, 210; 
Benjamin Drew, Refugee , pp. 97, 128. In a number of these cases 
the exact length of the break is not given, but where it is 
stated or implied, often it was for a half hour or less, when it 
was not two hours instead! 

^^"^Some laborers got off at five or six, and then worked on 
their allotments from six fifteen or six thirty to the end of the 
evening, but this was not done in winter. Others worked on them 
early in the morning at four or five, before going in to work for 
a local farmer or landowner. Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, 
pp . 1 - 2 , 15. 


work as many days as possible. Especially in country of largely 
unsettled wilderness which positively ached for human labor to 
transform it into productive farmland from a profit-seeking 
viewpoint, the slaveholders normally had no end of tasks for 
their bondsmen to perform. Under these circumstances, that so 
many slaves had Sundays off and sometimes part or all of 
Saturdays in the antebellum South may be a little surprising. 
Here slaveholders' paternalism did bear some practical fruit, 
since many believed Sundays were reserved for church attendance 
and rest from work, and applied this to their slaves. Other days 
off included the Christmas-New Year holiday season and (much more 
rarely) other holidays such as the Fourth of July. The weather 
and the growing season played a role in giving days off. A rainy 
day often canceled all field work for all or part of the day. 
Sometimes, due to the state of the growing crops and the 
effectiveness of the hoeing that killed the weeds, there was 
little work to do on some summer days. So besides the "official" 
days off such as Sundays or Christmas, some slaves got other days 
off as well. 

Slaves Normally Did Not Work on Sundays 

Normally slaves got Sundays off. Perhaps the number of 
slaves who received all or part of Saturday off was somewhat 
greater than the number of those who were forced to work on 
Sundays routinely. On the one hand, there are the cases where 
the slaves got the whole weekend off. Freedwoman Mom Hester 
Hunter remembered that: "My old missus was a dear old soul, and 
she would see to it that all her niggers wash and iron and cook 
on Saturday 'cause she never allow no work gwine on round where 
she was when Sunday come, be that she know 'bout it." Giles 
Smith, once a slave in Alabama, recalled: "Us always have 
Saturday afternoon and Sunday off." "Aunt" Florida, born a slave 
on one of Jefferson Davis' plantations in Mississippi, said that 
all day Saturday was given to the slaves as a day off, as well as 
Sunday. His Hurricane and Brierfield plantations were the only 
ones she knew of where the master gave off this much time each 
week to the slaves. Joseph Sanford, a one-time Kentucky slave, 
told Drew the overseer his master hired gave his slaves half of 
Saturdays off. His owner disliked this practice, but had to 
tolerate it for the time being since he had agreed to give the 
overseer a free hand in management. On the other hand, cases of 
slaves involuntarily laboring on Sundays occur, showing the 
supposedly paternalistic Southern slaveholders were often as 
profit-motivated as any Northern industrialist or merchant. 
These cases were not limited to sugar plantations in grinding 
season, Northrup maintained, but was commonly imposed during the 
height of the cotton picking season. Isaac Williams, once a 
slave in Virginia, planned to run away but was handcuffed by his 
master before he ran away. When this occurred, he told him: "I 
have done all I could for you, night and day, even carting wood 
on Sunday morning, - -and this is what I get for it." John Holmes 


knew of one master with two or three farms who did not give 
Sundays off. He forced his slaves to move from one farm to 
another on Sundays to be ready for work Mondays. John Warren, 
once a slave in Tennessee and Mississippi, was happy he did not 
"have now to drive a wagon Sundays to haul cotton bales. "^^^ 

In colonial South Carolina, slaves often had to work on 
Sunday, either directly for their master, or necessarily on plots 
for the food they ate. Gallay has maintained that due to the 
rise of paternalism promoted by Whitefield and the Great 
Awakening in the late 1730s and 1740s, and with the first really 
widespread and serious attempts to convert the slaves to 
Christianity, they increasingly received Sundays off in order to 
attend church. Certainly, by the time of the last generation 
before the Civil War, Sundays off from forced labor had become 
standard in the South, as abundant testimony demonstrates.^^® 
However, slaves working voluntarily for pay on Sundays was fairly 
common, as well as those who tended their plots of land to raise 
food for themselves or for sale.^^^ Such labor was not 
necessarily "voluntary" in that the standard rations of food or 
clothing did not generally cover necessary household items, as 
Northrup described: 

[A slave] is 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. ... To ask the master for a knife, or 
skillet, or any small convenience of the kind, would be 
answered with a kick, or laughed at as a joke. 
Whatever necessary article of this nature is found in a 
cabin has been purchased with Sunday money. However 
injurious to the morals, it is certainly a blessing to 
the physical condition of the slave, to be permitted to 
break the Sabbath. Otherwise, there would be no way to 
provide himself with any utensils, which seem to be 
indispensable to him who is compelled to be his own 

"^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 151, 170; Armstrong, Old 
Massa's People , p. 42; Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , p. 14 9; 
Drew, Refugee , pp. 59 (Williams), 163 (Holmes), 186 (Warren), 360 
(Sanford) . 

^'^Gallay, "Origins of Slaveholders' Paternalism," pp. 380, 
3 93; For slaves receiving Sunday off, see Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down, p. 147; Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 188, 407; Olmsted, 
Cotton Kingdom , 2:71-72; Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 79, 
168; Kolchin, Unfree Labor , p. 107. 

^^^Drew, Refugee , p. 360; Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 



By not giving their bondsmen necessary household items, masters 
and mistresses could drive them to work for them on Sundays for 
pay since the "standard rations" were not enough to really get 
by. So while Sunday (or late night) paid labor could be called 
"voluntary, " in that the slaves were not whipped for not showing 
up, they often virtually had to do it in order to prepare food, 
sit, and sleep in their cabins at a level higher than animals in 
lairs or nests. Although fully forced Sunday labor was uncommon 
for slaves in the American South in the thirty years before the 
Civil War, slaveholders had lowered the compensation given for 
most of the time slaves worked so much in their favor that when 
the slaves came to them "voluntarily" to work for necessities 
they would have been able to buy had they not been slaves, paying 
slaves for Sunday work still manifested a distorted "free market" 
for labor. 

Holidays the Slaves Did Not Work on 

While sometimes slaves received other holidays off, such as 
the Fourth of July, almost universal was the custom of giving 
slaves some part of the Christmas to New Year's season off from 
work.^®^ The bondsmen might be given presents, money, or a fancy 
dinner by their master or mistress at this time. Planter Barrow 
gave his slaves $500 in 1839 and $700 in 1840 at Christmas time. 
In 1841 he gave them a number of articles he had bought for them 
in New Orleans. However, in 1842 due to a poor economy, he gave 
them lots of food and drink during this season, but no money or 
manufactured items. The length of this break varied greatly. 
Barrow gave his slaves 12 days off during the 1840-1841 holiday 
season, while other masters were often much more stingy. Jenny 
Proctor described how on her master's estate in Alabama Christmas 
lasted as long as the tree that burned in the master's fireplace. 
Taking advantage of this custom, the slaves spent the whole year 
looking for, and then had burned, the biggest sweet-gum tree they 
could find, in order to make the holiday season last longer. 
When they could not find one, and had to use oak, they only had 
three days off on average. The master also had his way of 
retaliating against his slaves taking advantage of this custom: 
"Old Master he sure pile on them pine knots, gitting that 
Christmas over so we could git back to work." Douglass and the 
slaves that he knew received six days off, basically all the time 
between Christmas and New Year's Day. Harriet Jacobs said the 

^®°Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , pp. 148-49. 

^^^For examples of slaves being given other holidays off, see 
Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 134-35; Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down, pp. 143-44; Sudie Duncan Sides, "Slave Weddings and 
Religion," History Today , 24 (Feb. 1974): 84. 


slaves who were to be rented were hired on New Year's Day, and 
reported to work the next day. They then worked until Christmas 
Eve, and had the next seven days in December off before beginning 
the cycle anew if they were hired out again. So while the custom 
of allowing the slaves to celebrate Christmas was virtually 
universal in the South, the length of the time they had off 
during this already seasonally slow period of the agricultural 
calendar varied considerably upon the individual slaveholder in 
question- -Northrup mentions three, four, five, and six days.^^^ 

Unplanned Days Off Due to Weather or the State of the Crops 

Slaves received also received days off because of natural 
events related to the weather and the state of growing crops. ^^^ 
Even the Christmas break took advantage of this, since most 
plantations had little regular work to do outside of those 
growing sugar. By late December, normally the harvesting was 
complete and the crop processed and packed for shipment. Masters 
and mistresses could easily give their bondsmen a week off then. 
Another event that caused slaves to have unscheduled days off, at 
least from field work, were rainy days. Based upon Bennet 
Barrow's diary it becomes obvious that his slaves were routinely 
pulled from tending the crops on rainy days, and put to work (if 
female) at spinning often, while the men (at least sometimes) got 
away with doing little or nothing, as noted above (p. 199) .^^* 
Then when the crops had already been well -tended during the 
summer, and simply needed some time to grow before further work 
was necessary, Barrow gave his slaves days off. For August 1, 
1838, he commented: "Hoeing old above- -4 sick--verry little work 
to do." In 1840, after on Friday, May 15, his "hoe hands [had] 
verry light work, " he gave his "negros [a] Holliday after 10 ok" 
on the next day, a Saturday. On June 11 of this same year, he 
noted: "Pleasant morning. Hoe hands waiting for work for 6 days 
past, worked piece of new ground cotten fourth time 'scraped'" 
On June 15, 1841, he said that he "shall stop hoes to night 'till 
it rains." In an entry for June 8, 1838, he commented: "This 
time last year was out of work owing to the dry spring." For 
June 8, 9 and 10 of 1837, he wrote: "No work in the field. . . . 
stoped work untill it rains . . . gave the hands to day." The 
last of these three days was a Saturday. On Saturday, May 21, 

^^^Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 139, 218, 247, 248, 279. See 
also p. 51; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 92; Douglass, 
Narrative, p. 83; Brent, Incidents , p. 13; Northrup, Twelve Years 
a Slave , p. 163. 

^"Cf. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 567-69. 

^®*For example, see Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 272, 301-302, 
349, 352. Cold weather also could have similar effects: Ibid., 
p. 321. 


1842, with his slaves having "finished hoeing corn by one oclock" 
his "negros [had a] holliday since." Evidently, when not much 
work needed to be done on the crops, he tended to give them part 
or all of Saturday off, such as the half day he gave off for May 
23, 1840 or the whole day for Saturday, May 29, 1841. After 
noting his "crop [was] in fine order" a couple days earlier, he 
gave his slaves Saturday, June 16, 1838 off. For Saturday, June 
23, 1838, he wrote: "Intended giving all hands to day- -but found 
30 acres not half worked." Similarly, Kemble observed that the 
hands got done by a rather early three thirty in the afternoon, 
on a sea island plantation that grew cotton like Barrow's, and 
commented: "The chief labor in the cotton-fields, however, is 
both earlier and later in the season. At present they have 
little to do but let the crop grow."^®'^ Hence, the slaves may 
have gotten all or part of Saturday off or received shorter days 
than sunrise to sunset in summer when the crops did not need much 
further cultivating to kill the weeds. 

Despite the incentives for their owners to maximize the 
amount of work extracted from their bondsmen, they clearly did 
not necessarily drive them to the limits of endurance. No doubt, 
this result in part was due to how the death rate of slaves would 
have increased as their masters and mistresses drove them for 
longer hours. If slaveowners were ideal homo economicus profit- 
maximizers, they would make their slaves work as many hours as 
they could, so long as profits produced by the incremental work 
did not exceed the costs of sicknesses and deaths caused by the 
additional hours of labor imposed. As it was, certain social 
institutions, such as the church's teachings about ceasing from 
work on Sundays and having slaves attend services on that day, 
always tended to restrain the bulk of masters and mistresses from 
probing the limits of their human chattels' endurance. A degree 
of practical paternalism, perhaps as much driven by self-interest 
as personal religious conviction, was responsible for this. 
While slaves such as Douglass saw much religious hypocrisy in the 
South about their treatment, Gallay still has argued that 
Christianity, in the form of the revivals of the Great Awakening 
of the mid-eighteenth century, was the principal source of the 
paternalistic ethic in dealing with the slaves, which was often 
expressed by practices like having Sundays off. The days off for 
Christmas, New Year's, etc. also fell into this category. 
Natural events, such as bad weather or having to wait for the 
crops to grow further, also placed a damper on slaveholders 
seeking the make their slaves work as much as they could. So 
although the slaves worked very long hours, especially in newly 
settled regions in the Deep South, the surrounding white society 
had certain practices from their social institutions and also 
experienced natural phenomena that restrained them from driving 

'"Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 118, 119, 120, 124, 195, 196, 
198, 232, 233, 258; Kemble, Journal, p. 274. 


their slaves to the maximum extent possible even with the built- 
in financial incentive involved. 

The Days of Work for Agricultural Workers 

Most English agricultural workers suffered from the opposite 
problem the slaves did: They had too many days off, not too few. 
Farmworkers, at least most of those in southern England, suffered 
from chronic underemployment and unemployment throughout most of 
the period examined here, especially from about 1780 to 1850. 
They needed more work, not less. American slaves suffered the 
opposite problem of working too much, especially in the Deep 
South away from the long- settled Atlantic Seaboard where 
paternalism and a lack of a strong profit-making drive 
characterized proportionately more slaveholders. Had the English 
laborers been able to eke out a living off the local commons, or 
using an allotment, they would have suffered much less from 
unemployment. As it was, with the enclosure movement being so 
strong in the 1790-1820 period, and allotments only seriously and 
more commonly becoming available only after (say) 1850, 
agricultural workers became almost exclusively dependent on 
wages, and especially those of the male head of household. 
Unlike many poor whites in the American South, who through 
hunting, fishing, and some casual agriculture, could meet their 
most basic needs generally without much routine, methodical 
labor, this back-up option disappeared for most English 
farmworkers by the end of the French Wars. Furthermore, with the 
decline of service for the unmarried in Southern England, 
especially in arable areas in the southeast, young farmworkers 
had to endure the strong seasonal variations that characterize 
arable agriculture as much as their day laboring elders. 
Dependence on parish relief for the entire winter season was a 
common fate in these areas. The financial incentives of the 
farmers or directly-employing landowners were the opposite of the 
slaveholders' in this regard: Since the former only paid their 
workers when they worked, they had an incentive to minimize the 
amount of work they did in order to minimize their wage bills. 
In contrast, since the slaveholders by purchasing slaves had 
bought theoretically all of their future work potentials, and had 
to feed and clothe them regardless of how much they worked, their 
incentive was to make them work as much as possible. For the 
English farmer relying on day laborers, wages were a totally 
variable cost, so long as he hired no farm servants for a fixed 
period and ignored the rates going up as the number of poor 
increased, but for the slaveowner, the costs of slave ownership 
were mostly fixed, between the initial purchase price and the 
automatic rations the slaves were entitled to. The farmers, 
taking advantage of the reserve army of the unemployed, tended to 
employ laborers only as they needed them, even on a day-to-day or 
week-to-week basis, fomenting insecurity among the farmworkers as 
a whole. Somerville encountered in 1845 an apt analogy one 
Wiltshire farmer used to explain how he treated his men: 


On inquiry [concerning a speaker at an anti-corn law 
meeting using the term "pitting potatoes"] I found this 
to refer to a farmer who had said that he did with his 
labourers as he did with his potatoes: he did not keep 
all the potatoes out for use every day; and he did not, 
like some farmers, try to find work for the men all the 
year round. When he did not need them he put them in 
the workhouse until they were needed. ^^"^ 

Any discussion of the number of days farmworkers labored has to 
be considered against a grim backdrop of the decline of service, 
the enclosure movement, chronic underemployment, seasonal 
unemployment in arable areas, make -work activities, and the 
common experience of taking parish relief, including stays in the 
workhouse . 

Those Laborers Who Had to Work Sundays, and Those Who Did Not 

As noted above, the laborers who tended animals necessarily 
faced seven-day workweeks, such as carters and shepherds (p. 
218) . While they had to work everyday, these laborers did 
benefit from having regular work year around, which was why those 
living in pastoral areas suffered from less seasonal unemployment 
than those in arable areas, since the needs of livestock for food 
and other care were daily affairs. Caleb Bawcombe told Hudson 
why shepherds had to work everyday: 

Some did say to me that they couldn't abide shepherding 
because of the Sunday work. But I always said. Someone 
must do it; they must have food in winter and water in 
summer, and must be looked after, and it can't be worse 
for me to do it . 

For regularly employed field laborers, Saturday work was 
expected, but none for Sundays. They did not like working extra 
hours of overtime past the customary quitting time on Saturdays. 
Jeffries describes the situation of one Farmer George who, while 
leading a crew haymaking, made an unpopular decision late on 
Saturday that required extra overtime work from his men. 

The men grumble when they hear [his decision] ; perhaps 
a year ago they would have openly mutinied, and refused 
to work beyond the usual hour. But, though wages are 
still high, the labourers feel that they are not so 
much the masters as they were- -they grumble, but obey. 

Jeffries elsewhere notes that half days on Saturdays were more 
often observed in an urban setting than a rural one. In the 

^^"^Somerville, Whistler, p. 385 


country, those tending the animals did not get off much sooner 
than they would have otherwise, nor were a half day and a full 
day very different during winter months. Bear noted in 1893 that 
the number of men working on Sundays on a Bedfordshire farm was 
one-fourth to one-half of those normally employed, with one-third 
being rarely exceeded. The number of hours worked by them on 
this day was four to six, changing with the job and season of the 
year. As always, those tending animals are the busiest on a 
Sunday: "Cowmen, who have to milk twice a day, are occupied 
longest on Sunday, taking all seasons of the year into account." 
Farm servants did no necessary work on Sundays, performing only 
such tasks as caring for the animals. Strikingly, even during 
harvest time, field workers often did not work Sundays. Arch 
noted that his union's branch secretaries had to try to catch 
field laborers when they came home briefly on weekends during 
harvest time: "In hay and in harvest time the men would often be 
away from their homes for five, six, and seven weeks, coming back 
late on the Saturday night, and leaving again either late on 
Sunday night on early on Monday morning." ®^ Clearly, the 
laborers whose services were not absolutely necessary on Sundays 
were not expected to work that day, such as field workers during 
most (or all!) of the year, but those tending animals had to be 
present everyday for at least a few hours, including Sundays. 

Many laborers still may have worked on Sundays, like slaves 
who had the day off nominally. Instead of working for someone 
else, they worked for themselves on their allotments, if they had 
one. During winter, they did not work on their allotments 
because nothing grew on them then. But for the rest of the year 
laborers worked on them during days they had off when not 
employed. One man who let out allotments placed in the terms of 
the lease a number of restrictions, one of which prohibited 
Sunday work. Jeffries portrays Hodge as merely strolling down to 
his allotment to see how the crops were coming on Sundays, but 
not actually working on it.^^^ Obviously, in a number of cases 
without such restrictions, Sunday work by a farmworker or his 
family on their allotment must have been common. The laborer 
then did not have Sundays off any more than the slaves who worked 

^^^For how pastoral areas were different from arable in 
seasonal unemployment, note Snell, Annals , pp. 40-49; Hudson, 
Shepherd's Life , p. 327. Note also p. 329; Jeffries, Hodge , 
1:81, 2:71; Bear, Royal Commission on Labour, 1893, as found in 
Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 30-31; M.C.F. Morris, The 
British Workman: Past and Present (London: Oxford University 
Press, 1928), p. 121. The chapter this statement appears in was 
said to characterize the years 1840-1860; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 

^^^Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, pp. 1-2, 112; 
Jeffries, Hodge , 1:71-72; cf. 2:165. 


the same day to get the money to buy basic kitchen utensils or 
necessary clothing. 

Seasonal and Other Changes in the Workweek, and Their Effects on 

Like the slaves, farmworkers lost days of work to due to 
rain or the weather in general. Robert Long, who farmed 280 
acres in Bedfordshire, found in early July in 1866 that all the 
rain kept him from getting on with the hay. Only as the weather 
permitted could they work with the turnips on one part of the 
farm. He had his teams do "odd jobs carting out dung and carting 
in gravel to the yards, and also to the New Close ruts that have 
been made larger lately since the weather has been so showery." 
Although a banal event, especially in the English climate, 
rainfall could significantly affect a farmworker's family budget. 
The Commission on Employment in Agriculture noted that the 
nominal wage rates per week exceeded what the laborers were paid 
in actuality often because a number had irregular work habits or 
lost days due to the rain. The seasonal fluctuations due to 
winter, especially in arable areas, sharply affected how much 
labor was needed. Even in Durham in northern England, once the 
potatoes were gathered, work ceased until spring. Some of the 
desperation fueling the Swing riots was, according to Hudson, 
because "it was customary, especially on the small farms, to get 
rid of the men after the harvest [such as in October or November] 
and leave them to exist the best way they could during the bitter 
winter months . " Other days were lost because of a chronic 
surplus of laborers seeking employment in many areas in southern 
England. The "ploughman" Somerville set up to debate a guardian 
and others said in Wilton, Wiltshire one third of the population 
was normally without work, another third had it only three days a 
week, and only one third was employed continuously year around. 
In a problem found elsewhere in England as well, there was in the 
Humber-Wold area in 1867-68 one group was composed of steadily 
employed men, while another were irregularly employed "catch 
work" laborers, who had no fixed employer. The latter 's wives 
and children worked in gangs in order to keep up financially. 
Interestingly, in strong contrast to how many slaves might fake 
illness to get a day off since they lost little by doing so, the 
laborers' loss of some days due to sickness was seen as one more 
factor that affected their earnings negatively .^^^ Even with the 
poor rates hiked due to layoffs of laborers, at least in "open" 
parishes where the extra laborers lived in the same parish as the 
ratepayers, employers often judged it financially expedient to 
lay off many laborers in the winter months just to hire them back 

^^^ Diary , as found in Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 10 7; 
Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p. xi 
(rain) , xv (Durham) , xvi (Humber-Wold) , xxix (sickness) ; Hudson, 
Shepherd's Life , pp. 219-20; Somerville, Whistler, p. 45. 


in spring. Unlike the case for slaves, whose masters had an 
incentive to make them work as much as possible because the 
substantially fixed costs of maintaining a slave were largely the 
same whether they worked zero hours or seventy, the farmers and 
landowners of England had an incentive to have laborers work as 
little as possible above what was judged profitable and/or 
necessary for maintaining agricultural production. The 
difference between the two work forces came from who bore the 
costs of idleness, creating very incentives for these two elites 
when dealing with their respective work forces. In England, the 
laborers lost financially, not their employers, while for the 
slaveowners, every idle day lost of compulsory labor cost them, 
not their slaves, who had to be fed regardless of the weather. 

The slaves clearly worked more hours per day and per week 
than the agricultural workers normally. The farmworkers did not 
necessarily benefit from this difference, for much of it was due 
to underemployment and unemployment. Unlike the slaves, who were 
at least theoretically guaranteed a certain amount of food and 
clothing regardless of how much they worked, since the 
agricultural workers were attempting to independently support 
their families, a lack of work could have dire effects on their 
financial and even physical conditions. Furthermore, the 
frustration and unease caused by chronic underemployment and 
unemployment eroded away the laborers' feelings of independence, 
especially as they so often had to resort to parish relief in 
winter time in arable areas. Modern microeconomic theory, which 
sees the number of hours filled by work as a purely negative 
activity that is willingly traded off for additional hours of 
leisure in a labor supply curve, overlooks how a person's 
identity, especially for men in Victorian society, largely 
consisted of what job or occupation they had. When they lacked 
work, especially for periods of months on end, this chewed away 
at their self-respect, and encouraged non-productive activities 
such as idling away hours in pubs and various crimes (at least 
from the upper class's viewpoint) such as poaching. In the case 
of the slaves, they almost never had a problem in being supplied 
enough work, especially in a frontier wilderness area that 
characterized so much of the South even in 1860. Their problem 
was the exact opposite: Their masters and mistresses were apt to 
work them for too many hours, sometimes to the limits of 
endurance and past. The situation of the slaves and farmworkers 
varied because their respective elites' profit motives manifested 
themselves in different ways. With the decline of service, the 
employers of farmworkers minimized their costs by employing them 
as little as possible since they had to pay them each time they 
worked. For the slaves, their owners had purchased in advance 
all their potential work efforts, so to maximize profits they 
would have them work as much as possible. Of course, this 
summary ignores how paternalism in one form or another might 
restrain farmers from hiring laborers on a day-by-day basis only, 
and slaveholders from making their slaves work sixteen hour days 


six or seven days a week. Nevertheless, both groups of workers 
were oppressed by their respective ruling classes, but one group 
was controlled through a lack of work, while the other was 
controlled by having too much imposed on it. 

How "Voluntarily" Did Slaves Work? The Necessity of Coercion and 

"Slavery" defines a relationship that involves the will of 
the owner of a slave having fundamentally total de jure control 
over another human being's life. The will of the master or 
mistress theoretically should become identical to the will of the 
slave. The slave is to give up all self-interest that conflicts 
with the will of his or her owner. He or she treats the slave's 
life not as an end in itself, but as a means to the slaveholder's 
own ends in life. In point of fact, this goal was never 
practically attained, because the human spirit or human nature 
does not naturally submit completely to someone else, especially 
when the self-interest of the subordinated person normally 
directly conflicts with following the commands of the master. 
The slave wants to work as little as possible, yet receive not 
only the standard rations, but steal some more on the sly from 
the master's stores. The slave naturally desires to be free from 
the absolutely binding will of his master, yet legally is tied to 
him for life or until sale. He naturally resents how his life's 
fate is determined by his master, with no court of appeal against 
his decisions, except perhaps in rare, extreme cases of 
mistreatment. The amount of self-interest that binds most slaves 
to their owners is small, excepting those who may have "sold out" 
and benefit from working to enforce the master's rules, such as 
drivers, or those who by having long-standing, mult i -generational 
personal and intimate contact with the white family that owned 
them and by enjoying better physical comforts sometimes came to 
identify with "their white folks," such as certain domestic 
servants like mammies or valets. Continual struggle 
characterized the relationships between the field hands and many 
domestic servants on the one hand, and the slaveholders and their 
hired lackeys, the overseers, on the other. Kemble once listened 
to her husband's overseer who was "complaining of the sham 
sicknesses of the slaves, and detailing the most disgusting 
struggle which is going on the whole time, on the one hand to 
inflict, and on the other to evade oppression and injustice." 
Slavery was a "state of perpetual war," consisting normally of 
low-intensity "day-to-day resistance," punctuated by occasional 
revolts, pitched battles, and executions .^^° 

^^°Kemble, Journal, p. 50. From the slave's viewpoint, Allen 
Parker said nearly the same thing, as cited by Blassingame, Slave 
Community , p. 317; Note Redpath ' s phrase in Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down , p. 2. "Day-to-day resistance" is described in Stampp, 
Peculiar Institution , pp. 97-109. Note that the revolts and 


The central objective of masters and mistresses was to 
maximize their slaves ' work effort with a minimal investment in 
time, money, and force to extract it. While paternalistic 
masters and mistresses may have denied the typical profit 
maximizing goal that they said characterized the Northern 
merchant or industrialist, still most slaveholders pursued 
similar goals, outside of some who had lived on the same land and 
had owned the same families of blacks for generations along the 
Eastern Seaboard, often upon soil of largely exhausted fertility. 
Slaveholders confronted a major problem in pursuing this 
objective: The measures undertaken that made their black work 
forces more easily controlled often simultaneously injured 
damaged their capability to work as effectively or productively. 
They wished to keep their slaves from taking care of themselves, 
yet not destroy their ability to carry out their daily toil.^^^ 
As Barrow commented in his "Rules of Highland Plantation" : 

You must provide for him Your self and by that means 
creat in him a habit of perfect dependence on 
you- -allow it ounce to be understood by a negro that he 
is to provide for himself, and you that moment give him 
an undeniable claim on you for a portion of his time to 
make this provision, and should you from necessity, or 
any other cause, encroach upon his time- -disappointment 
and discontent are seriously felt.^^^ 

An obvious example of the practical costs in keeping slaves in 
line was from denying them an education in most parts of the 
South. Keeping a subordinate class ignorant makes it much easier 
to control, yet also hampers its ability to labor as effectively 
for the dominant class. One good practical reason for keeping 
the slaves illiterate was to prevent them from forging passes 
that allowed them to leave their home plantations for 
destinations elsewhere, including northward. ^^^ True, because the 
slaves normally engaged in field work or domestic service that 
required neither literacy nor numeracy, this policy's costs to 

pitched battles were much less common in North American slavery 
than in the Caribbean and Latin America. 

^^^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:60-61. 

^^^Davis, Plantation Life , p. 407. This comment attacks the 
system prevailing in Caribbean slavery, where the slaves had to 
work so many days on their masters' estates, and then spend so 
many days working on their own gardens to raise food for 
themselves, like medieval serfs. In some cases the task system 
in mainland North America came close to this. 

^^^Note the testimony of James Smith of Virginia in Drew, 
Refugee , p. 351. 


the elite was largely limited to the artisans whose minds were 
darkened by it. But the costs were there, and the Southern elite 
by and large judged these perfectly acceptable. Their objective 
was not to develop the full human potential of their personal 
chattels by improving their minds and abilities, but to extract 
labor services from them in order to raise profitable cash crops. 
The slaves' own ends in life were largely irrelevant, except as 
theirs interfered with the plans and desires of their owners in 
their lives. The masters of the slaves channeled and stunted the 
development of the slaves abilities and talents in order to 
fulfill the their own ends in life, as part of the process of 
imposing social control and labor discipline. 

Why the Whip Had to Be Used to Impose Work Discipline on the 

To meet the purposes of imposing work discipline, the 
slaveowners had a number of tools at their command. The most 
obvious, as well as the most used and abused, was coercion 
through corporal punishment. Although some few masters and 
mistresses were able to dispense with it, by and large the whip 
stood out as the emblem of authority for the slaveowner as well 
as the overseer. ^^* Time and time again, slave narratives 
describe the savage beatings that slaveholders or overseers 
inflicted on the blacks under their authority. Beatings were 
inflicted for malingering at work, running away, mistakes made 
from inexperience or incompetence while on the job, and for about 
any imaginable petty and not-so-petty offense that came before 
the generally passionate, rough-hewn, easily-provoked 
slaveholders and overseers of the South. ^^^ Olmsted once had the 
rare experience of being a Northerner who witnessed a full-blown 
thrashing of a shirking young slave woman. He questioned the 
overseer who had so passion less ly inflicted this beating on her 

^^^Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 174. For cases of slaves 
not whipped, or not whipped as adults, or masters who rarely 
whipped their slaves, note Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 66, 
143; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 68; Drew, Refugee , p. 282; 
Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:70. While such cases show that 
masters who never whipped their adult slaves were not complete 
oddities, they certainly constituted a mighty small minority of 
those who owned slaves in the South, as Genovese observed. Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , p. 64. 

^^'"For a sample of the available evidence on this point, see 
Botkin, ed.. Lay My Burden Down , pp. 9, 43, 85, 160, 164; Kemble, 
Journal, pp. 175, 200; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 180; 
Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 109, 127, 133, 134; Brent, Incidents 
in the Life of a Slave Girl , p. 197; Douglass, Narrative, pp. 71- 
72; Drew, Refugee , pp. 42, 49, 51, 54, 68, 74-75, 132, 138, 210, 
227, 257, 382; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:280. 


whether it was necessary. He replied: 

If I hadn't [whipped her] , she would have done the same 
thing again to-morrow, and half the people on the 
plantation would have followed her example. Oh, you've 
no idea how lazy these niggers are; you Northern people 
don't know anything about it. They'd never do any work 
at all if they were not afraid of being whipped. ^^ 

Clearly, this overseer, who was regarded as one above average in 
ability, believed in the utter necessity of using (or threatening 
to use) physical force to get the slaves he supervised to work. 
Unlike the case for free wage workers, where denying them work 
and the corresponding wage payments would eventually starve them 
out, the slaveholder automatically supplies what the slave needs 
for survival (and normally little above that) , so he has little 
natural desire to work out of personal self-interest or from the 
desire to feed his family. In place of the driving force of 
self-interest or serving their family, and from the manifest 
inability for most slaves to fundamentally change their position 
in life from being a personal chattel owned by another, the 
external motivation supplied by the whip had to generally replace 
internal self -motivation. 

How Commonly Were the Slaves Whipped? The Time on the Cross 

How often were slaves whipped? Fogel and Engerman, using 
Bennet Barrow's diary, maintained: 

His plantation numbered about 2 00 slaves, of whom about 
12 were in the labor force. The record shows that 
over the course of two years a total of 160 whippings 
were administered, an average of 0.7 whippings per hand 
per year. About half the hands were not whipped at all 
during the period. 

Their calculations were not based on the main text of the diary, 
but on an appendix in the published version assembled by the 
editor, Edwin Davis. It lists "misconduct and punishments" for 
1840-41. A problem with the text as presented here is that for 
many diary entries an "X" is placed next to the name of the slave 
whipped by Barrow, but he, characteristically, was not fully 
consistent at doing this. Strictly counting just the "X"'s, one 
comes up with 156 whippings that were so marked in his diary. It 
appears this was mostly what Fogel and Engerman counted. In 
rebuttals them on this point, Gutman and Sutch maintained 175 
whippings were administered against the slaves on Barrow's 
plantation, which must include whippings that were not marked by 

^^■^Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:207 


an "X" in the diary's appendix. About 155 names get listed in 
the appendix with an offense or a blank space (the equivalent of 
ditto marks?) next to them, but no tell-tale "X." In two cases, 
a whipping was noted in the entry besides the name, yet no "X" 
was placed by the slave's name, with one of these mentioning how 
the six slaves listed immediately above, also without "X"s by 
their names, were whipped for being late in reporting to work in 
the morning. In another case, the main entry for the diary 
mentions how a group of five slaves were whipped for killing a 
hog in the field, but the appendix has no "X"s by their names. 
Once, when two carters and four house slaves were whipped, the 
main entry notes this, but no "X"s appear by the slaves' names in 
the appendix. Twice Alfred (the driver) was whipped during this 
time, but his name never appears in the appendix as one who was 
punished. The whipping for one slave woman was unlisted in the 
appendix. She was whipped for an incident that involved Barrow's 
cook. After she complained about the injustice of being whipped 
because the cook really was at fault, Barrow allowed her to give 
the cook "a good drubing " in compensation! ^^^ Evidently, by 
counting these additional 22 whippings and adding it to the 156 
ones that do have "X"s by their names (one of these cases having 
one "X" to stand for two slaves being whipped) , Gutman and Sutch 
came up with (though the math and the exact way they arrived at 
their count is not clear) their 175 figure. Note that if all the 
names with offenses or blank spaces but no "X"s are also counted 
along with the ones which do have "X"s, one suddenly comes up 
with Barrow having administered some 33 whippings in about 23 
months, a wildly different figure, but one which seems plausible 
from the listing of offenses in the appendix even when no 
punishment (i.e., an "X") is signified besides the names listed. 
Clearly, Fogel and Engerman underestimated the number of 
whippings that occurred on Highland plantation with their 160 
figure, although even Gutman and Sutch 's correction may still be 
too low. 

Fogel and Engerman 's calculation uses a figure of 12 active 
field workers in Barrow's labor force, which is a much bigger 
problem than their underestimate of the number of whippings. 
This figure is way too high for the number he had during the time 
the diary's appendix covers (mostly 1840-41) . For example, for 
his entry of August 12, 1842, he said he averaged sixty- five 
hands during one day of cotton picking, which was the time of 
year when virtually every man, woman, and child that could work 
was mobilized for field labor. On September 11, 1842 he had 
seventy- two pickers at work, which included a number of children. 

^^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:145; For their 
general analysis of the Barrow diary and whipping frequency, see 
Sutch and Gutman in David, Reckoning , pp. 57-6 9; Gutman, Slavery 
and the Numbers Game , pp. 17-34; Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 181, 
191, 192, 205, 239, 437, 439. 


For November 3, 1838, he had forty- two pickers in the field, and 
on September 10, 1842, he had sixty-nine pickers, including 
eleven children. Evidently, the figure of 12 hands is deduced 
from Barrow's will and estate inventory, which was probated in 
1854, but by then he had far more slaves than in 1840-41. They 
also used a base of two years instead of twenty-three months 
which (with the exception of the final entry) is all the appendix 
covers. As a result, Fogel and Engerman's figure of 0.7 
whippings per hand per year seriously underestimates the number 
of whippings inflicted. Gutman and Sutch calculate 1.19 
whippings per hand per year, a 69 percent higher figure. 
Furthermore, Barrow used other punishments which are not included 
in this count, such as overtime work, imprisonment, chaining, 
shooting, head raking, even humiliation by having men wear 
women's clothes or placing one slave wearing a red flannel cap on 
a scaffold in the quarters. (This list includes punishments 
inflicted outside the period the appendix covers) . Since their 
calculations here are plainly incorrect, Kolchin lets Fogel and 
Engerman off too easily when summarizing this historiographical 
dispute, allowing the intellectual fog coming from controversy 
obscure Gutman and Sutch 's clear refutation of them.^^^ 

Now a broader question needs to be asked about Fogel and 
Engerman's conclusions about the relative rarity of whippings on 
Highland plantation. Instead of asking how often an individual 
slave was whipped per year, Gutman and Sutch ask how often did 
Barrow's bondsmen see someone among their number whipped. After 
all, the purpose of punishing one slave is not just to deter that 
one individual slave from shirking, running away, etc. in the 
future, but all the rest as well. Much like the overseer Olmsted 
talked to, who said if he did not whip the slave woman he saw 
avoiding work, half the plantation the next day would do likewise 
(above, p. 232), Barrow counted on the deterrence value of 
punishment by example. Gutman calculated that a flogging 
occurred every 4.56 days on Barrow's plantation on average. ^^^ 
This result means Barrow continually induced fear by wielding the 
whip, which his slaves had to consider when thinking of breaking 
his rules since the worst regularly happened to others they knew, 
on an average of three times every two weeks. 

The Deterrence Value of Occasional Killings 

A more drastic punishment existed, although its cost were 
very high, and by inflicting it on some individual it could only 
change the behavior of other slaves: death. Sometimes the slave 

^^^Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 268, 272, 421, 422; 392-406 
(will); Gutman and Sutch in David, Reckoning , pp. 62-63; Kolchin, 
Unfree Labor , p. 123. 

^^^Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game , p. 19. 


was killed by a master or overseer, sometimes by a lynch mob, 
sometimes by the judicial system after receiving the full measure 
of due process that a slave (and his or her financially self- 
interested owner) could expect. Regardless of source, they all 
combined to remind the bondsmen that a fate worse than corporal 
punishment awaited those who committed the worst crimes. 
Furthermore, unpredictably, for petty offenses, a master in the 
heat of passion or in the throws of insanity could also inflict 
it. In some cases slaves were killed or executed by burning them 
alive. One slave in Tennessee who killed his master was executed 
thus, with many a fellow slave witness of his dreadful end: 

He was roasted, at a slow fire, on the spot of the 
murder, in the presence of many thousand slaves, driven 
to the ground from all the adjoining counties, and 
when, at length, his life went out, the fire was 
intensified until his body was in ashes, which were 
scattered to the winds and trampled under foot . Then 
'magistrates and clergymen' addressed appropriate 
warnings to the assembled subjects. 

This extreme case, stoutly justified in the local press, was not 
unique, as Olmsted indicated in a footnote that one judge had 
gathered evidence of slave burnings "every year in the last 
twenty" (c. 1840-60) . Barrow strongly approved of the burning 
alive of two runaways who killed two white men and raped two 
white women. A "great many [were brought] to witness it & 
several hundred negros &c . Burning was even too good for them." 
Executions by burning were also "authorized" by lynch mob, such 
as the hardly singular case of a Alabama justice of the peace 
who, being intimidated by a crowd of seventy or eighty men, 
allowed them to vote to burn alive the slave who killed a white 



Being whipped or shot to death by one ' s owner was a much 
more likely fate than being burned at the stake. While clearly 
uncommon, it occurred enough that slaves knew it could happen to 
them, especially when so much arbitrary and absolute power had 
been committed into the hands of their owners. Since the 
slaveholders by regional character were passionate, emotional men 
who placed perceived points of honor above cold-blooded financial 
calculations, the slaves had something more to fear. Sometimes, 
they killed in arguable cases of self-defense: "One day he [a 
slave named Joe] turn on Marse Jim with a fence rail, and Marse 

*°°01msted. Cotton Kingdom , 2:349, 354; Davis, Plantation 
Life , p. 262; including other such atrocities is Ball, Slavery in 
the United States , pp. vi-viii; Alan D. Watson, "Impulse Toward 
Independence: Resistance and Rebellion among North Carolina 
Slaves, 1750-1775," Journal of Negro History 63 (Fall 1978) :327. 
Also note Kemble, Journal, p. 3 04. 


Jim had to pull his gun and kill him." Much more likely, a slave 
was killed for violating some rule or otherwise violating his or 
her owner's expectations. Mary Younger told Drew she knew of a 
mistress who lived nearby who whipped no less than three of her 
slave women to death. Younger also helped one badly whipped man 
by greasing his back- -who still soon died. One slave girl was 
hanged by her master and mistress for revealing to Union soldiers 
where they had buried the family's silver, money, and jewelry 
after they had left. Douglass described several cases of slaves 
being killed- -nay, murdered- -by their owners without punishment, 
such as one for trespassing on another master's property and 
another for being slow to assist with a crying baby because she 
had fallen asleep.*"^ 

The Danger of Corporal Punishment Backfiring, Requiring "Massive 

One especially dangerous flash point was when a slave 
challenged his master's authority by refusing some (lesser) 
punishment. Then, his owner just might up the ante and kill him. 
The reasoning was that if one slave could get away with refusing 
to obey his master, then others would soon follow suit, and the 
whole system of involuntary labor would collapse. Austin Gore, 
an overseer in Maryland Douglass served under, shot a slave to 
death who had been whipped some by him, but had briefly escaped 
to the temporary sanctuary of a nearby creek before being 
permanently dispatched by a musket. He explained to Colonel 
Lloyd, the slave's owner, why he killed him: 

His reply was, (as well as I can remember,) that Demby 
had become unmanageable. He was setting a dangerous 
example to the other slaves, --one which, if suffered to 
pass without some such demonstration on his part, would 
finally lead to the total subversion of all rule and 
order upon the plantation. He argued that if one slave 
refused to be corrected, and escaped with his life, the 
other slaves would soon copy the example; the result of 
which would be, the freedom of the slaves, and the 
enslavement of the whites. 

Singling out Demby as an example was evidently effective, because 
a "thrill of horror flashed through every soul upon the 
plantation" excepting the overseer himself when the deed was 
done. Mother Anne Clark described how her father suffered a 
similar fate for refusing a whipping: 

He never had a licking in his life. . . . one day the 
master says, "Si, you got to have a whopping," and my 

*"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 41 (Master Jim) , 211 
(Union); Drew, Refugee , p. 259; Douglass, Narrative, pp. 41-42 


poppa says, "I never had a whopping and you can't whop 
me." And the master says, "But I can kill you," and he 
shot my papa down . *°^ 

The policy of sacrificing some slaves ' lives to frighten the 
rest into submission was time and again judged a cost-effective 
tactic by slaveholders. 

Freedman Cato of Alabama described this approach to discipline 
thus : 

When they [the slaves] was real 'corrigible, the white 
folks said they was like mad dogs and didn't mind to 
kill them so much as killing a sheep. They'd take 'em 
to the graveyard and shoot ' em down and bury ' em face 
downard, with their shoes on. I never seed it done, 
but they made some the niggers go for a lesson to them 
that they could git the same . 

The well-attended hanging of a slave woman who set her master's 
barn afire and killed thirteen horses and mules was evidently 
such an exercise. While these acts of terrorism were rare, they 
did not have to be common to usefully promote social control and 
work discipline from the slaveholders' viewpoint. Similarly, the 
calculation that "only" 127 blacks out of 6 million (0.003 
percent) were lynched in 1889 implicitly greatly understates the 
deterrent effects that the mere known existence of this practice 
had in keeping the black man in line. Just hearing about the 
death of a slave at the hands of his master was enough to keep 
many in line, and when push did come to shove, a master's threats 
to kill a recalcitrant slave often were enough to get him to fall 
into line, since the worst possible result was known to happen in 
these situations. So when Mary Grayson's mother saw her master 
waving a shotgun from his buggy, loudly threatening her to "git 
them children together and git up to my house before I beat you 
and all of them to death!," they knew "he acted like he was going 
to shoot sure enough, so well all ran to Mammy and started for 
Mr. Mose ' s house as fast as we could trot."*°^ In these cases, 
the deterrent value of prior terrorism, exercised on a few 
individuals sacrificed for the greater good (?) of maintaining 
the overall system paid off, whether done by masters 
individually, a lynch mob, or the court system, making the mere 
threat of using deadly force enough to make most slaves fall into 
line . 


*°^Douglass, Narrative, p. 40; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 

*"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 67 (arson), 86 (Cato), 132 

(Grayson) ; Gutman uses this lynching statistic this way. Slavery 
and the Numbers Game , p. 19. 


How Even Good Masters Could Suddenly Kill a Slave in the Heat of 

Southern masters professing paternalism might have denied 
pursuing this policy, or at least would have disavowed killing 
slaves except for major crimes such as murder. Barrow, who 
clearly was quick to punish his own slaves, condemned a 
neighboring planter named A.G. Howell for (it was said) 
castrating three slaves, and killing others, including leaving 
some in the stocks until they were dead. He also judged him for 
ironing up one slave boy up his leg and thigh, creating a nearly 
solid scab in the process, after which he chained him around the 
neck. Concerning another man who whipped a black to death, 
Barrow wrote: "Man tried for Whipping a negro to Death. trial 
will continue till to morrow- -deserves death- -Cleared! " Masters 
such as Barrow did not believe in killing slaves except for major 
offenses. Nevertheless, the mere fact a number of masters were 
not so paternalistic- -or predictable when losing their 
temper- -meant death always remained a possible penalty for 
bondsmen with all but the kindest masters. After all, Barrow 
himself, who condemned Howell's cruelty, one time was mad enough 
to write that he "would give 'freely' $100 to get a shot" at one 
runaway slave who he had actually shot at and hit four years 
before. At that time, Barrow said he would shoot him if he ran 
away, soon following through with his threat after making it.*°* 
Hence, even a fairly typical large planter such as Barrow, who 
was neither especially cruel nor kind, could kill one of his own 
slaves under the right circumstances, an outcome his slaves 
undoubtedly weighed when calculating whether and when they should 
disobey him. 

Miscellaneous Punishments that Masters Inflicted on Slaves 

Masters and mistresses had a multitude of alternative 
punishments besides whipping and outright killing to keep their 
work forces in line. One approach was to stake slaves in chains, 
and let them suffer under the hot sun. Another was to set up 
stocks, and place the slave's head and hands through the boards, 
perhaps for weeks at the time for a serious offense such as 
trying to run away to the North. One slave woman for refusing to 
work was for a whole year made to sit on a log daily where the 
ants bit her. Planter Barrow, as noted above (p. 234), was 
particularly inventive in some of his punishments for his slaves, 
which included making male slaves dress in women's clothing. 
During Christmas one year he exhibited a recently captured 
runaway slave on a scaffold while sporting a red flannel cap. 
Another time he made a slave "wear a sheet topped with red- 
feathered flannel ear muffs." Less creatively, he imposed 
overtime on slaves who had worked badly and imposed a general 

*°*Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 148, 174, 202, 211, 239, 359 


ducking in water. One slaveowner's particularly disgusting but 
ingenious penalty consisted of making a slave eat the worms that 
he had missed taking off tobacco leaves.*"^ Imprisonment also was 
an option, both private and public. Planter Barrow had a jail of 
his own for recalcitrant slaves, such as one who pretended to be 
sick, one cotton picker who tried to pass off a ten pound rock as 
cotton, and others who ran away. Many a slave who committed some 
major crime or had run away and had been caught ended up in some 
local jail until his owner picked him up--or sold him. Douglass 
experienced this fate after his conspiracy with others to escape 
failed, and he was briefly in jail before his master picked him 
up. Others that Drew interviewed ended up in jail because of 
failed escape attempts or, once, in connection to a successful 
one.*°^ So in addition to the obvious expedients of whipping and 
sometimes killing slaves who did not obey, a multitude of other 
punishments existed, including sale.*°^ 

Examples of Corporal Punishment Backfiring 

Whenever a slaveholder inflicted corporal punishment on a 
slave, an element of risk lurked because it could backfire. The 
slave might resist the whipping, or could run away in 
retaliation, which raised the costs of routinely using the whip 
unpredictably, since a master or mistress could not fully know in 
advance what would happen. Barrow experienced a number of times 
a backlash against punishments he meted out. After Tom Beauf 
picked badly, so Barrow whipped him, leaving a few cuts on his 
back. The next day in the evening he left the field, and he had 
"not seen him since." After whipping him for not picking enough 
cotton the day before, Dennis ran away the next day. Barrow once 
wanted to weigh G. Jerry's basket at dinner time (noon) . He 

^"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 92, 164, 226; Davis, 
Plantation Life , pp. 50, 91, 112, 154, 175; John Thompson, The 
Life of John Thompson, A Fugitive Slave (Worcester, MA: 1856) , 
p. 18, cited by Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 172. 

*°^Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 165, 166, 175, 269; Douglass, 
Narrative, pp. 97-99; Drew, Refugee , pp. 63-64, 206, 379. 

*°^Selling recalcitrant slaves was another punishment 
slaveholders inflicted, perhaps the most effective one in their 
arsenal, because it manipulated slave family ties for the 
purposes of imposing labor discipline, a point already covered 
above (p. 159) . As Genovese noted: "The masters understood the 
strength of the marital and family ties among their slaves well 
enough to see in them a powerful means of social control. . . . 
No threat carried such force as a threat to sell the children, 
except the threat to separate husband and wife. . . . Masters 
and overseers . . . shaped disciplinary procedures to take full 
account of family relationships." Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 452. 


evaded handing it over, and got whipped for it. This act 
"offended his Lordship & he put out." Another time, he told 
Dennis- -the troublemaking slaves in Barrow's diary tend to be the 
same ones all the time- -that he intended to whip him, evidently 
for not picking enough cotton, and he ran away. Barrow 
commented, after sending another after him: "I had rather a 
negro would do any thing Else than runaway." Besides running 
away, trying to punish a slave had another possible result: The 
slave could fight back, possibly even killing the slaveowner or 
his overseer. Aunt Nicey Pugh of Alabama said that: "There was 
a white woman who was kilt by a nigger boy 'cause she beat him 
for sicking a dog on a fine milch cow." John Little, who had 
been a slave in Virginia and North Carolina, described to Drew 
once how he felt. His character and past history of resistance 
indicates his meditations were no mere idle thoughts: 

I sometimes felt such a spirit of vengeance, that I 
seriously meditated setting the house on fire at night, 
and killing all as they came out. I overcame the evil, 
and never got at it- -but a little more punishment would 
have done it. I had been so bruised and wounded and 
beset, that I was out of patience. ... On that night 
when I was threatened with the paddle again, I was 
fully determined to kill, even if I were to be hanged 
and, if it pleased God, sent to hell: I could bear no 
more . 

Slaves also could retaliate by a production slowdown, after being 
forced to work more hours than they wished.*"^ While corporal 
punishment may have been cheaper in application normally than 
imprisonment, as Fogel and Engerman note, when it backfired this 
was not true, when the expenses of lost labor time and pursuing a 
runaway piled up, or when the overseer or master were injured or 
even killed for trying to whip a slave who refused to consent to 
the punishment.*"^ 

Did Slaveowners Successfully Implant a Protestant Work Ethic in 
the Slaves? 

Fogel and Engerman remarkably claim that not only had the 
master class sought to imbue the slaves with the Protestant work 
ethic, but often succeeded in accomplishing that goal: 

*°®Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 130, 135, 163, 165; Botkin, 
Lay My Burden Down , p. 152; Drew, Refugee , p. 220; Stampp, 
Peculiar Institution , p. 101. 

*°^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:146-47. Barrow 
knew of one incident where a driver was killed for trying to whip 
a slave. Davis, Plantation Life , p. 156. 


[Planters] wanted devoted, hard-working, responsible 
slaves who identified their fortunes with the fortunes 
of their masters. Planters sought to imbue slaves with 
a "Protestant" work ethic and to transform that ethic 
from a state of mind into a high level of 
production. . . . The logic of [Stampp's] position 
made it difficult to acknowledge that ordinary slaves 
could be diligent workers, imbued like their masters 
with a Protestant ethic. *^° 

Their claim's fundamental problem is a lack of evidence from the 
slave's own viewpoint that he or she was so motivated, and 
identified with the slaveholder's own interests so closely. 
While some house servants, who had been owned by multiple 
generations of the same white family on the same plantation may 
have come to closely identify with their owners' interests, this 
assuredly generally was not the case with most field hands. The 
master's self-interest in trying to maximize work and minimize 
expenses in maintaining them was too diametrically opposed to the 
slave's self-interest in working as little as possible and 
increasing what food, clothing, etc. he got from his owner. *^^ 
Fogel and Engerman exaggerate the extent to which most 
slaveholders had worked out an elaborate system of positive 
incentives to give slaves a reason to work beyond negative 
sanctions such as whipping. *^^ Instead of seeing whipping and 
other manifestations of physical force as a supplement to 
incentives coming from wages for overtime work, Christmas 
bonuses, promotions, and manumissions, these positive incentives 
should be seen as largely superfluous additions to a slaveholder 
regime characterized by violence, force, and physical punishment. 

*^°Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:147, 231. 

*^^Barrow appealed to his slaves' self-interest through his 
"Rules of Highland Plantation." Commenting on what might happen 
if they were scattered about due to being allowed to go wherever 
they wished after work was done: "Who can tell the moment When a 
plantation might be threatened with destruction from Fire- -could 
the flames be arrested if the negroes are scattered throughout 
the neighborhood, seeking their amusement. Are these not duties 
of great importance, and in which evry negro himself is deeply 
interested . . . Wherever their wives live, there they consider 
their homes, consequently they are indifferent to the interest of 
the plantation to which they actually belong." When considering 
such chronic runaways as G. Jerry and Dennis, or such defiant 
slave women as Patience and Big Lucy, this appeal to identify 
with their master's interests apparently did not penetrate the 
quarters very deeply. Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 406, 408. 

*^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:147-53. 


Proof that slaves were mainly kept in line by force and the 
threat of it comes from how work discipline so often collapsed 
and many slaves fled from their masters when armies of a power 
hostile to slaveholders ' interests were nearby, whether it was 
the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or- -especially- -the Civil 
War. If the slaves had had so many positive incentives to work 
for their masters, masses of field hands would not have fled from 
their plantations as the Union army moved southward, and others 
would have been so defiant or uncooperative while they 
remained /^^ The slaveholder's use of force on his labor force, 
and protection against rebellion or mass non-compliance with his 
orders, ultimately relied on others in society backing him up 
with force when he was challenged, since the slaves on 
plantations and farms often greatly outnumbered their owners. 
The disorganization caused by war served as an opportunity for 
the subordinate class- -here, the slaves- -to publicly express 
their true feelings and beliefs by word and deed since some 
nearby army hostile to the dominant class provided potential 
protection against their superiors' ability to use coercion 
against subordinates who were supposed to always obey them. 
Because the private thoughts and oral expressions of the bulk of 
the slaves are irretrievably lost as part of what Scott calls the 
hidden transcript, normally we cannot know what thoughts 
motivated them. However, the various slave narratives composed 

*"Botkin, ed.. Lay My Burden Down , p. 124, 133, 198, 215; 
Kemble, Journal, pp. 210, 274, 335; May, "John A. Quitman and His 
Slaves," p. 569; Wallace Brown, "Negroes and the American 
Revolution," History Today , 14 (Aug. 1964) : 557-58 ; Clarence L. 
Mohr, "Bibliographical Essay Southern Blacks in the Civil War: 
A century of Historiography, " Journal of Negro History 59 (April 
1974) :183-88, 193-95; Frank A. Cassell, "Slaves of the Chesapeake 
Bay Area and the War of 1812," Journal of Negro History 57 (April 
1972) : 144-55; William F. Messner, "Black Violence and White 
Response: Louisiana, 1862," Journal of Southern History , 41 
(Feb. 1975):19-36; Jeffrey R. Young, "Ideology and Death on a 
Savannah River Rice Plantation, 1833-1867: Paternalism amidst 'a 
Good Supply of Disease and Pain, " Journal of Southern History 59 
(Nov. 1993):702-3; Sylvia R. Frey, "The British and the Black: A 
New Perspective," Historian 38 (Feb. 1976) : 226-38 ; John Cimprich, 
"Slave Behavior during the Federal Occupation of Tennessee, 1862- 
1865," Historian 44 (May 1982) : 335-46 ; Franklin, From Slavery to 
Freedom, pp. 87, 92, 119, 216-18. Genovese, due to his 
overarching model of paternalism as the hegemonic ideology of the 
master class being really accepted in a modified form by the 
slaves to suit their own purposes, underestimates how disruptive 
war was in maintaining labor discipline. Resistance to slavery 
need not have been manifested by violent revolts, but by masses 
of slaves running away, a lower risk strategy which still often 
obtained the desired goal. Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 143-45, 148- 


by a small minority of slaves (often with the help of 
abolitionist whites) give valuable insights into how the slaves 
did look at the system of oppression they suffered under /^* The 
protecting presence of armies hostile to the dominant class in 
the South allowed the bondsmen to "speak truth to power." They 
could publicly express their beliefs about those over them in 
authority, and defy that class by running away or refusing to 
obey this or that order issued by their owners.*^'' In this 
extreme situation, during the Civil War, with the old regime, 
being clearly and fundamentally challenged, indeed, in its death 
throes- -the true beliefs of the slaves came out into the open and 
into the public transcript. Then, it stood revealed many did not 
accept their master's paternalistic ideology in reality, but had 
earlier professed it and used it tacitly against their masters 
when they were far more powerless against the dominant class ' 
ability to coerce them. Fogel and Engerman's claims that the 
slaves had to some greater or lesser degree internalized the 
Protestant work ethic is fatally undermined not just by a lack of 
positive evidence, such as citations from the slave narratives, 
but by the quasi -freedmen who fled to areas where the Union army 
was present, or who stayed on their masters' plantations, but 
increasingly disobeyed them or requested wages for routine work. 

The Slaves' Sense of Work Discipline Like that of Other Pre- 
Industrial People 

Fogel and Engerman's claims about the slaves being 
inculcated with the Protestant work ethic is closely tied to the 
issue of how much the slaves had a time-orientation as opposed to 
a task-orientation in their work habits, and how punctual they 
were getting to work in the morning, and methodical in working 
once there. Their work habits were a subset of those of pre- 
industrial peasant peoples everywhere, including Europe, where 
hard work in irregular spasms was valued, but consistently 
punctual and regular daily labor was not. The type and amount of 
work necessary was tied to the seasonal and diurnal rhythms of 

*^*Actually, we know the slaves' "hidden transcript" better 
than the agricultural workers ' , because there are far more slave 
narratives and autobiographies than diaries and autobiographies 
by farmworkers . 

^^''For example, although the Union army evidently was still 
far away, the war's disorganizing effects questioned the 
slaveholder regime ' s legitimacy, making the slaves more restive 
and free to speak, still existed in this case. After his grown 
son had paraded around in a Confederate officer's uniform, one 
North Carolinian master shot and killed a slave for defiantly 
saying, after mumbling it first: "I say, 'Look at that goddam 
soldier. He fighting to keep us niggers from being free." 
Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 194-95. 


planting, tending, and harvesting crops. English artisans, 
having "Saint Monday" off, often started the workweek with little 
or no work, but worked furiously long hours towards its end, 
collapsing into exhaustion late on Saturday, just to repeat the 
cycle again next week. This irregular cycle illustrates how 
workers may work hard , but not especially regularly. The pre- 
industrial peasant mentality was also characterized by not 
working once a customary level of subsistence had been reached, 
and even while any money remained in the pocket. Defoe described 
cynically such a worker this way: 

There is nothing more frequent than for an Englishman 
to work till he has got his pockets full of money, and 
then go and be idle or perhaps drunk till this is all 
gone. . . . Ask him in his cups what he intends, he'll 
tell you honestly, he'll drink as long as it lasts and 
then go to work for more . *^^ 

A hike in wages paid per hour backfires on the employers of 
people who think this way because they work proportionately fewer 
hours, as per the backwards bending labor supply curve. 

In the particular case of the enslaved blacks, they were 
brought into a labor system in America which, for all their 
masters and mistresses ' efforts to make them work regularly, was 
still largely regulated by the seasonal agricultural work cycle. 
Turning the slaves into methodical clock-punchers was simply not 
fully practical or necessary because agricultural work is highly 
irregular even in subtropical areas such as the American South. 
A factory work regime in its classical form is strictly time- 
oriented and not tied to daylight or seasonal rhythms. 
Admittedly, the sugar planters, having around-the-clock slave 
labor in their sugar refineries, approached this model, but even 
then it was done during a grinding season, not year around. 
Field work on their plantations was still dominated by seasonal 
rhythms. Furthermore, the whites themselves in the South who 
were supposed to be inculcating this Protestant work ethic into 
the slaves, hardly exemplified it themselves, whether planter or 
poor white. After all, one of the key differences between a 
Yankee businessman and a paternalistic planter, pro-slavery 
apologists stated, was that the former was much more methodical 
and regular in pursuing wealth than the latter, who knew when 
relaxing was good in itself. James Sumler saw the implicit 
hypocrisy on this score among whites, which encouraged him to 
escape from slavery in Virginia: "After I got to years of 
maturity, and saw the white people sitting in the shade 
[presumably his master's family in particular], while I worked in 

*^^As quoted in Gillis, Development of European Society , p, 


the sun, I thought I would like to be my own man."*^^ As for the 
poor whites, much like the English cottagers who eked out a 
living on the end of their village ' s commons before enclosure 
wiped out that way of life, they often scraped by through 
hunting, fishing, some casual subsistence farming, perhaps 
supplemented by some wage labor in order to get cash for goods 
that had to be purchased. Olmsted routinely found throughout the 
South that large planters when asked about the local poor whites 
always felt them to have a bad influence on their slaves because 

the contrast between the habits of the former- -most of 
the time idle, and when working, working only for their 
own benefit and without a master- -constantly offered 
suggestions and temptations to the slaves to neglect 
their duty, to run away and live a vagabond life, as 
these poor whites were seen to. 

Genovese's excellent discussion of the slaves and their work 
ethic, which draws upon Thompson's insights on work discipline 
being imposed on the English working class, clearly demonstrates 
the shallowness of Fogel and Engerman's claim that planters often 
succeeded in inculcating the Protestant work ethic into their 
slaves, especially when they lacked it to a significant degree 
themselves to begin with, and had to use force so often to keep 
their bondsmen working . *^^ 

Genovese's Paternalism: How Successful Were Planters in Imposing 

Another ideological control device the slaveholders used to 
control the slaves needs discussion here besides Fogel and 
Engerman's Protestant work ethic. The foundation of Genovese's 
work Roll, Jordan, Roll concerns the slaves accepting their 
masters' ideology of paternalism with its reciprocal duties 
between the enslavers and the enslaved, as per Gramsci's notions 
of hegemony. Even if the slaves often changed and adapted this 
ideology to favor their own purposes in life, turning what 
privileges their masters and mistresses granted them customarily 
into rights, they still accepted the overall system of 
paternalism, if not always slavery itself. Genovese maintains: 

But despite their [the slave preachers'] will and 

*^^Drew, Refugee , p. 98. Cf . Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , 

pp. 297, 309 


Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:356; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, 
Roll , pp. 285-324. See also Gutman and Sutch and David and Temin 
in David, Reckoning , pp. 55-57, 69-74, 89-93, 204-7; Gutman, 
Slavery and the Numbers Game , pp. 8, 14-18, 25-31, 39-42, 85, 
165, 171-73. 


considerable ability, they could not lead their people 
over to the attack against the paternalist ideology 
itself. . . . The range from abject acceptance of 
slavery through insistence on a decent return to 
outright defiance should not obscure the underlying 
thread. Some accepted slavery in fear of freedom; 
others in awareness of superior force; others only 
because they were held down by the manifestation of 
that force. Almost all, however, with lesser or 
greater intensity, fell into a paternalistic pattern of 
thought, and almost all redefined that pattern into a 
doctrine of self -protection. *^^ 

Genovese' view raises the issue of whether most slaves developed 
"false consciousness," i.e., really accepted the ideology of 
their masters and made it their own as well. 

Scott Versus Hegemony 

Scott's analysis casts serious doubt upon this score. In 
contrast to Genovese ' s analysis, is it not possible that the 
slaves could have merely proclaimed publicly their devotion to 
what their masters believed in order to obtain some practical 
advantage, while privately denying it? They could appeal to 
their masters and mistresses on the basis of the latter 's views 
of ruling for the good of the slaves in order to obtain (say) 
better rations, less punishment, and so forth. The ideology of 
the dominant class can be used by the subordinate class to 
condemn the former when they fall hypocritically short of its 
ideals, yet still allow them to appear in conformity with their 
superiors' beliefs. Often the weak have some practical self- 
interest in creating an appearance of hegemony by their 
superiors, and will go through the motions of publicly appearing 
to accept their values, while among their own kind alone, they 
will deny them. Merely noting the rituals of deference, such as 
slaves not talking back to an overseer ordering to do something 
in a particular case, but looking downwards and shuffling away, 
does not mean those so engaged have accepted their masters' 
ideological "hegemony in the sense of active consent." For 
example, consider the implications of what Douglass experienced 
initially with his Baltimore mistress. She had not dealt with a 
slave under her control before, and so was not aware of the 
rituals of deference slaves were supposed to manifest towards 

I could not approach her as I was accustomed to 
approach other white ladies. My early instruction was 
all out of place. The crouching servility, usually so 
acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when 

^"Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 6, 143-44 


manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; 
she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it 
impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the 


Now, when Douglass performed these rituals of deference with his 
masters, was he really accepting his role as a slave for life? 
Inwardly, he obviously was not, whether in the recesses of his 
mind or in his conversations with other slaves when no master or 
mistress was present (part of the "hidden transcript"), such as 
those he conspired with to escape to the North. 

Speaking more generally, slave religion served, at least on 
some level, as the main source of at least a semi-coherent 
counter- ideology for many slaves when they had meetings among 
themselves alone. It was said that Gabriel and Martin Prossner 
in Virginia at religious services regularly harnessed the Old 
Testament story about God freeing the children of Israel through 
Moses to gain recruits for their conspiracy: "The Israelites 
were glowingly portrayed as a type of successful resistance to 
tyranny; and it was argued, that now, as then, God would stretch 
forth his arm to save, and would strengthen a hundred to 
overthrow a thousand." Similarly, at Vesey's planned rebellion 
in South Carolina, which appeared to be centered on the 
membership of the African Church of Charleston, one alleged 
conspirator said that he "read to us from the Bible, how the 
children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage . " 
Somewhat differently, but still using a religious base for his 
counter- ideology, was the charismatic Nat Turner, whose visions 
as a prophet led him to start a rebellion. The most crucial of 
these visions, in May 1828, had God telling him that 

the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the 
Yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I 
should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for 
the time was fast approaching when the first should be 
last and the last should be first. 

These examples indicate how slaves could use the Bible's religion 
to reply against their masters' official religious ideology of 
patience, humility, and obedience. But these proclamations 
remained behind the scenes, when whites were not watching. 
Officially, the slave preachers had little choice but to teach 
what their masters wanted them to when whites were present, but 
this changed when they were by themselves, as freedman Anderson 
Edwards of Texas recalled: 

*^°Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance , pp. xii, 11, 
17-18, 24, 66, 70-71, 87, 93-95, 105-6; Douglass, Narrative , p. 


when I starts preaching I couldn't read or write and 
had to preach what Master told me, and he say tell them 
niggers iffen they obeys the master they goes to 
Heaven; but I knowed there's something better for them, 
but daren't tell them ' cept on the sly. That I done 
lots. I tells 'em iffen they keeps praying, the Lord 
will set 'em free.*^^ 

It is necessary to be wary of accepting the slaves' proclamations 
of loyalty and gratefulness at face value, for the heart may not 
be agreeing with what the tongue feels compelled to say. 

Obviously, the problem here is the lack of documentation 
concerning what most slaves really thought as they went through 
such rituals of deference, and professed their undying love for 
their master, and so forth. Now sometimes light can be shed on 
the hidden transcript, which reveals how the oppressed analyzed 
their condition when among themselves alone, through the slave 
narratives (such as Douglass's). Sometimes it erupts into the 
public transcript (which the dominant class largely writes, 
disseminates, and controls) through occasional outbursts, etc. 
Still, determining what most slaves really thought inevitably 
comes down to fortuitously impressionistic literary evidence. 
Unfortunately for historians, there were no Gallup polls using 
statistical samples of slaves to record what they believed about 
their masters, mistresses, overseers, and slavery itself. Little 
of what was said in the slave quarters when no master or overseer 
was within earshot has come down to us. Almost entirely, the 
preserved records are composed of the public transcript. Still, 
there is reason to believe that the slaves always sensed that 
they were oppressed and exploited, judging from their dull, 
plodding work habits, their theft of food and other items, and 
the number who ran away at least temporarily. They saw 
practically what freedom meant, from how their master's family 
lived, and from neighboring poor whites, so it was not something 
they had to completely imagine on their own. Of course, enough 
cases exist of slaves appearing truly sad at the passing of a 
good master, not running away when the Yankee army passes 
through, or other human intimacies between white and black that 
likely indicate many slaves really did accept some sense of 
reciprocal duties (or rights) between them and their masters, 
especially in the case of domestic servants, as Genovese 
observes. Although Genovese is fully cognizant that much slave 
behavior, at least on the job, was or could have been deceitful. 

*^^As quoted in Vincent Harding, "Religion and Resistance 
among Antebellum Negroes, 1800-1860," in August Meier and Elliott 
Rudwick, eds . , The Making of Black America , vol. 1: The Origins 
of Black Americans ; 2 vols. Studies in American Negro Life (New 
York: Atheneum, 1969), pp. 182, 185, 187-88; Botkin, Lay My 
Burden Down , p. 26. 


intentionally incompetent, or "putting on old massa, " the 
dangerous implications of duplicity for his application of 
Gramsci ' s model of hegemony to American slavery were not 
seriously considered. ^^ 

Were the Slaveholders Really Believers in Paternalism? : The 
Implications of Jacksonian Democracy and Commercial Capitalism in 
the American South 

Genovese's thesis that the master class successfully 
implanted their hegemonic ideology of paternalism in the slaves ' 
minds also depends on whether the slaveholders themselves really 
believed in it. Could have the typical masters of the South been 
just as motivated by profit as the money-grubbing Yankee 
merchants and industrialists that pro-slavery apologists 
portrayed while defending a paternalistic "peculiar institution"? 
The roughneck crew portrayed in Olmsted's description of the 
frontier interior planters, alluded to above, with their passions 
and desires to make money off "cotton and negroes," is a world 
apart from the long-settled paternalistic great planters of 
lowland South Carolina or those attempting to sustain their pride 
while eking out a living with a few slaves on soil of declining 
fertility in Tidewater Virginia. Once a book-peddler on board a 
steamboat in Louisiana attempted to sell a "Bible Defence of 
Slavery, " which clearly had a paternalistic overtone to it 
judging from the frontispiece he displayed. He thrust the book 
into the hands of a would-be purchaser, and was yelled at with 
the following: 

Now you go to hell! I've told you three times I didn't 
want your book. If you bring it here again I'll throw 
it overboard. I own niggers; and I calculate to own 
more of 'em, if I can get 'em, but I don't want any 
damn'd preachin' about it. 

Was such a man, part of the striving, roughneck, quick-tempered, 
gun- and knife-packing crowd Olmsted described, really motivated 
by the love of his slaves to embrace the paternalistic "peculiar 
institution"? Or, did he judge this was the best way for him to 
make money? He did not even try to keep up the pretense it was 
the former. Similarly, one relatively poor white who lived in 
northern Alabama, a miner who also kept a small farm, told 

The richer a man is . . . and the more niggers he ' s 
got, the poorer he seems to live. If you want to fare 
well in this country [as a lodger] you stop to poor 
folks' housen; they try to enjoy what they've got. 

"^Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 91, 119, 292-93, 295, 
306, 308, 335, 342-61 (sharing intimacies). 


while they ken, but these yer big planters they don' 
care for nothing but to save 


This account may reflect class prejudice, of poor white against 
rich planter. Still, it undermines the idea the slaveowners 
seriously lived the profit-devaluing paternalism that pro-slavery 
ideologues such as Fitzhugh spoke in their names. Or, if they 
did not live it, how much did they merely believe in it, since a 
certain level of hypocrisy is inevitable among those who uphold 
any ideology due to human moral weakness? 

While the older, long-settled regions of Tidewater Virginia 
and lowland South Carolina had large planters by the mid- 
nineteenth century whose families had owned slaves over several 
generations, most of the rest of the South was still at best a 
semi-settled wilderness heavily affected by the frontier 
mentality.*^* Boney describes one typical smaller planter named 
Thomas Stevens, who although he at one time owned thirty-one 
slaves, never could mobilize more than five or six prime adult 
male field hands in the field at once. Having started out as a 
miller, carpenter, and distiller, he raised livestock as well as 
crops on his farm. As described in a slave narrative by one John 
Brown, he was a hard driver of his slaves, of his sons, of 
himself, and expressed both rage and occasional brutality against 
his slaves while pursuing increased production on his farm. To 
Boney, "planter" in his thinking should involve someone who owns 
50 or 100 slaves, not just 20, because: "The designation of 
planter carries strong connotations of elitism and aristocracy 
which distort the basic reality of the antebellum South." In 
contradiction to Genovese or Beard, he views the South 's whites 
as dominated by a capitalistic, bourgeois ethic, characterized by 
ambition, striving, and profit-making. "No matter how many 
slaves most planters accumulated, they tended to remain bourgeois 
businessmen, fundamentally middle-class agriculturists in hot 
pursuit of the fast buck. . . . The great majority of Southern 
whites were thoroughly bourgeois, optimistically pursuing profit 
by hard work and sharp bargaining." The individualistic 
mentality of these men seeking upward social mobility by their 
own efforts is very different from that of European, especially 
Continental, aristocrats who stereotypically eschewed commercial 
ventures and active participation in the management of their 
land. The planters of the South had a much more commercial 

^"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom . 1:346, 2:117. 

*^*01msted noted that the South 's dominant crop was grown on 
5,000,000 acres out of over 500,000,000 acres, leaving much of 
the rest to wilderness. Cotton Kingdom , 1:24. See also 
Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 43-44, for how the frontier 
mentality affected the South 's legal system by encouraging extra- 
legal violence . 


mentality than their supposed European counterparts, and a number 
were, according to Degler, "actively engaged in railroading, 
banking, ginning, and manufacturing of all kinds." Conforming to 
this description. May describes John Quitman, a major Mississippi 
planter and politician, as "immersed in land speculations, 
banking activities, Mississippi railroad development, the Natchez 
Steam Packet Company, and southern commercial conventions." He 
served as an officer for a number of corporations.*^^ Degler even 
suggests, in an argument reminiscent of Fogel and Engerman's, 
that if the slaveholders earned a rate of profit comparable to 
that of bourgeois Northerners that they "must have been working 
as hard at making profits . . . unless one assumes it was all 
accidental . "*^'^ The character of the utterly pragmatic, 
temperamental, roughneck smaller planters and slaveholders 
Olmsted encountered time and time again on his travels, whose 
conversations were dominated by slaves, cotton, and other "shop 
talk," strongly support Fogel and Engerman's revisionist view of 

^^'^Boney, "Thomas Stevens," 232-33; Carl N. Degler, "The 
Foundations of Southern Distinctiveness," Southern Review 13 
(spring 1977) :230; May, "John A. Quitman and His Slaves," p. 564. 
Both Degler and May cite the work of Morton Rothstein, and May 
cites William Scarborough, to support their views. 

^^'^Degler, "Foundations of Southern Distinctiveness," p. 233. 
See Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , vol. 1, pp. 67-73. 
For a reply, note David and Temin in David, Reckoning with 
Slavery , pp. 39-43. Their argument does has force, because (in a 
perfectly efficient market) the relatively few marginal 
purchasers of slaves who were purely motivated by profit-making 
considerations would be enough to bring the rate of return to 
equilibrium with other profit-making activities in commerce or 
industry. However, how much could the "tail" of a few profit - 
motivated planters wag the theoretical "dog" of purely non- 
economically motivated slaveholders in reality, especially since 
the market for slaves (in particular) was not exactly fully 
efficient? Their point loses force because the mere existence of 
profits presupposes someone desires them, just as the existence 
of wages presupposes laborers' self-interest in earning them. 
Furthermore, even in their example of the budget -constrained 
"Cavalier fop" who has no profit-making motive concerning his 
slaves, self-interest is still present , even if more weakly, 
because within his limited resources " on average he would hold 
more slaves were slaves cheap (vis-a-vis others things) than he 
would were slaves relatively dear" (p. 41) . They ignore how the 
further off this market would go from the general rate of return 
in the economy as a whole, proportionately increasing amounts of 
capital would "bleed" from the slave-owning sector. Profit- 
seeking entrepreneurs will shift capital from one sector to 
another as the rates of return between different sectors grow 
increasingly wider. 


a capitalistic, profit-seeking slaveholding class. 

Counter-Attacks Against Portraying Slaveholders as Bourgeois 

Several lines of attack have been launched against 
characterizing southern slaveholders as striving individualists 
seeking profit and upward mobility through their own efforts as 
part of a larger system of capitalistic commercial agriculture. 
Arguing against Oakes, Gallay notes that the great planters 
dominated the South politically and ideologically. By Stampp's 
calculations based on the Census, the elite composed of those 
owning over a hundred slaves constituted less than three thousand 
families in the South out of a population of some 1,516,000 free 
families. Even for small slaveholders, there remained "the 
hierarchical structure of the plantation with its dependent 
relationships."*^^ This leads us to the question of the nature of 
paternalism, and how compatible it is with a capitalist mode of 
production. Stamp as well as Fogel and Engerman note that 
paternalism can be quite compatible with enlightened self- 
interest or profit-making in some cases, as the success of 
traditionally paternalistic companies such as IBM (although its 
"no layoffs" policy is dead nowadays) and Eastman Kodak. *^ 
Paternalism as a social system is not just about the duties of 
the subordinate and dominant classes to each other, but it gives 
the dominant the right to punish and control their subordinates 
for their own good, just as a father punishes his children for 
their own good.*^^ That such punishment also serves the interests 
of the dominant class--well, that is just incidental. Or is it? 
As Anderson noted in his review of Genovese ' s Roll, Jordan, Roll , 

*^^Gallay, "Origins of Slaveholders' Paternalism," p. 371; 
Stampp, Peculiar Institution , pp. 30-31. Gallay maintains this 
ruling elite owned over half of the slaves. Stampp calculates 
that only one-fourth of all the slaves belonged to those who 
owned less than ten, that somewhat more than half lived in units 
of twenty, and one-fourth lived in units of over fifty. If we 
accept Boney's definition of a "planter," which evidently tilts 
towards those who really could delegate the management of their 
plantations to others so they could pursue women, wild game, and 
card playing, then a strong majority of slaves were not owned by 
such planters . 

*^^Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:73; Stampp, 
Peculiar Institution , pp. 163-64. 

*^^For example, as an illustration of this ethos, we find in 
the New Testament (Hebrews 12: 6-7) : "For those whom the Lord 
loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. 
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with 
sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?" 


the masters ' ideology allowed them to turn the slaves into 
dependent children, permitting them to whip and otherwise punish 
the slaves continually: 

In [Genovese's] attempt to bind the master and slave in 
an intimate relationship, he failed to understand that 
the masters, in their own minds, denied the slaves the 
quality of gratitude in order to commit brutality 
without regret or responsibility. George Fitzhugh 
needed to say that Africans had less self-control and 
that the 'master occupies toward [his slaves] the place 
of parent or guardian.' But historians need not accept 
this as genuine fatherly concern.*^" 

Anderson's point leads us to a spectacularly unsurprising 
conclusion: The ideology of the upper class tends to be self- 
serving and self -justifying, at least when they are confident in 
the exercise of their power. Normally, when a businessman 
proclaims his belief in paternalism, such as Carnegie, who 
simultaneously proclaimed both philanthropy and Social Darwinism, 
or the businessman who declared during a strike that the best 
interests of the workers would be served by the Christian 
businessmen of America, historians eye it very suspiciously. 
Should not a similar level of skepticism be directed against 
Southern slaveholders' proclamations of the same beliefs? After 
all, as Degler observed, many were no more than a generation 
removed from personally wielding the hoe, ax, or plow themselves, 
which gives precious little time for an aristocratic ethos to 
develop from the nouveau riche milieu out of which sprang 
frontier success stories. Boney raises the issue of whether they 
deceived themselves or just others: "Whether they fooled 
themselves into believing otherwise [that they did not have a 
profit-seeking bourgeois outlook, but were aristocratic 
paternalists] or only misled later generations is another 
question entirely." The close personal ties and human intimacies 
that make up a truly practiced system of paternalism would occur 
mostly only with domestic servants, drivers, some artisans, and 
perhaps a few field hands a master or mistress may have played 
with as a child. For example, Olmsted noted how "two or three 
well-dressed negro servants" greeted some of the white passengers 
on a ship on the James River in Virginia with enthusiasm, even 
kisses. One fat mulatto woman shouted loudly and pathetically, 
"Oh, Massa George, is you come back!" to a "long-haired 
sophomore." By contrast, the same level of feeling was not felt 
by the field hands present: "Field negroes, standing by, looked 
on with their usual besotted expression, and neither offered nor 
received greetings." Stampp cites cases of masters distraught 
over the deaths of a personal attendant and a gardener, but who 
did not seem especially disturbed emotionally by the deaths of 

*^°Anderson, "Aunt Jemima in Dialectics," pp. 112-13 


field hands. The case of James Hammond is particularly striking. 
While he was sincerely distressed over the death of his gardener, 
he was emotionally (though not financially) indifferent to the 
deaths of two field hands: "Neither a serious loss. One 
valuable mule has also died."*^^ For these reasons, in a view 
clearly different from Genovese's, Stampp is largely correct when 
broadbrushing this summary statement: "Plantation paternalism, 
then, was in most cases a kind of leisure-class family indulgence 
of its domestics . "*^^ For the most part, many masters and 
mistresses- -Barrow being an excellent case in point- -probably 
looked at the mass of their slaves often as "Theory X" management 
might deal with the members of an uncooperative labor union, as 
employees who need constant supervision, prodding, verbal abuse, 
and punishments to get anything done, without any great emotional 
attachment to most of the individuals involved, making it easy to 
replace any of them. Hence, if most of the elite or middling 
slaveholders were striving, individualistic, profit-seeking 
capitalists, who often honored paternalistic ideology as mere 
platitudes at best, largely reserving its practice to domestic 
servants, then the hegemonic function of paternalism in keeping 
the bulk of the slaves in line is gravely weakened, for the 
dominant class cannot pass down to its subordinate class what it 
does not believe itself. *^^ 

*^^Degler, "Foundations of Southern Distinctiveness," 231; 
Boney, "Thomas Stevens, Antebellum Georgian," 233; Olmsted, 
Cotton Kingdom , 1:142; Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 325. 

*^^Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 326. Genovese implicitly 
rebuts this argument. Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 10. He maintains 
that slaveholders often knew all their slaves by name, as well as 
their individual personalities. However, this is not enough for 
close emotional bonds to form. Many high school teachers, facing 
120-150 different students in the course of a day, may soon know 
all their individual names and many individuals' personal quirks 
and talents. Nevertheless, the serious emotional bonds that come 
from the intimacy of sharing what is on each other's minds are 
likely limited to a relative few out of this group. 

*^^Degler noted that Fitzhugh's brand of true conservatism, 
who repudiated the liberal tradition of Adam Smith and John 
Locke, constituted only a small minority viewpoint among whites. 
These views could not be sold to the poor white voters who 
personified "Jacksonian Democracy" in the South. While Calhoun, 
a much more influential figure than Fitzhugh, repudiated natural 
rights and defended slavery, he still remained in the liberal 
tradition by comparison. He did not look at political and social 
institutions as organic wholes as Burke did, but something 
changeable based upon reason, as illustrated by his proposal for 
a concurrent majority in approving legislation. Degler suggests 
that white Southerners, by emphasizing the racial component of 


Ignorance as a Control Device Revisited 

As observed earlier in the section dealing with education 
(pp. 107-9), an elite can control its subordinate class by- 
inculcating knowledge that legitimizes its authority and favors 
its continued control. Promoting the ideology of paternalism or 
the implantation of the Protestant work ethic among the slaves 
can be seen as a subset of this approach, although for them very 
little of this occurred through formal education and book 
learning. The other option employs ignorance as a control device 
for keeping a lower class in subjection. Southern slaveholders 
applied this method to their bondsmen in many ways. By keeping 
slaves in ignorance of geography, local or continental, it made 
successful escapes to the North or Canada much more unlikely. It 
is hard to escape to someplace not known to exist, or, if known, 
when how to get there remains unknown. Even Douglass, a literate 
slave, did not know of Canada's existence, and nothing in America 
past New York northwards, which still was not fundamentally safe 
due to the (old) fugitive slave return law. So he thought, when 
conspiring with a group of fellow slaves to escape: "We could 
see no spot, this side of the ocean, where we could be free." 
Similarly, John Hunter, who escaped from slavery in Maryland, 
commented: "A great many slaves know nothing of Canada, - -they 
don't know that there is such a country." Freedman Arnold 
Gragston, was a slave in Mason County, Kentucky, right near the 
Ohio River. Before he assisted the Underground Railroad in 
helping slaves escape by rowing them across that river, he 
labored under some seemingly astonishing misconceptions about an 
area so close to himself: "[I] didn't know a thing about the 
other side. I had heard a lot about it from other slaves, but I 
thought it was just about like Mason County, with slaves and 
masters, overseers and rawhides." These stories indicate the 
slaves generally knew little originating from abolitionists and 
other Northerners propagandizing against slavery, with what was 
known being badly diluted and distorted by the "whispering lane" 
effect. Because it was nearly impossible for slaves to get this 
information otherwise. Ball made a special effort to memorize the 
names of towns, villages, rivers, and where ferries were located 
on them as he was taken from Maryland to Georgia to enable him to 
find his way back one day.*^* 

American slavery more than it was elsewhere, allowed them to read 
the blacks out of society and political life as being innately 
inferior. This heavy dose of racism allowed them to have an 
individualistic, liberal capitalism with a republican government 
based upon universal white manhood suffrage among themselves 
while keeping blacks in chains. Degler, "Foundations of Southern 
Distinctiveness," 234-39. 

*^*Douglass, Narrative, p. 92; Drew, Refugee , p. 115; Botkin, 
Lay My Burden Down , p. 186; Ball, Slavery in the United States , 


Ignorance also helped keep slaves in bondage or in fear of 
acting on their freedom after emancipation came. Texas freedman 
Anderson Edwards and his fellow slaves did not know for a year 
after freedom had been proclaimed that in fact they were free. 
Their master had kept them in the dark until some Union soldier 
paid a visit and ransacked the plantation. One freedman was 
forced to work after emancipation for his master four years, 
until he stole a horse to get away, another for three years until 
his mistress freed him after his master was hanged, and one did 
not know she was free until she ran away and a black man told her 
she was free. The federal government wisely sent agents to fan 
the Southern countryside to investigate whether the freedmen were 
being paid and telling them they were free, because it could not 
trust the former masters to tell their slaves that they were no 
longer slaves. During the war, Georgian newspapers went to 
considerable trouble to spread scare stories about the treatment 
of ex- slaves in the North or in the Union army to discourage 
runaways, counting on the masters to tell these tales to their 
bondsmen, which evidently had some effect.*^'' Clearly, "knowledge 
is power" for an oppressed class in a very practical sense 
because it becomes much harder for an elite to tightly control a 
subordinate group that knows substantially as much as its rulers, 
such as due to widespread public education. *^^ 

How Masters Would Manipulate the Slaves ' Family Ties in Order to 
Control Them 

Another control device, already described above (p. 159) in 
the section dealing with the family life of the slaves, was for 
masters and mistresses to manipulate the family relationships of 
the bondsmen for labor discipline purposes. The Southern Baptist 
minister Holland Nimmons McTyeire stated in his essay "Duties of 
Christian Masters" that slaveholders should build up the family 
unit among the slaves for reasons that also benefited their self- 
interest : 

Local as well [as] family associations, thus cast about 
him, are strong yet pleasing cords binding him to his 
master. His welfare is so involved in the order of 

pp . 4 8-49 


Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 76, 102-3, 233, 249. See 
also Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 319; Clarence L. Mohr, 
"Before Sherman: Georgia Blacks and the Union War Effort, 1861- 
1864," Journal of Southern History 45 (Aug. 1979) :332. 

*^'^Some of the other effects of using ignorance to control 
the slaves was dealt with in the section on education (pp. 107-9] 
and the quality of life (p. 97) above, so they need not be 
repeated here . 


things, that he would not for any consideration have it 
disturbed. He is made happier and safer, put beyond 
discontent, or the temptation to rebellion and 
abduction; for he gains nothing in comparison with what 
he loses /^^ 

Family ties also had the practical effect of discouraging slaves 
from running away, since they did not want to leave wives, 
husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, 
etc. behind in the South if they fled alone. And if they fled in 
a group, they became easier to track down and catch. One 
Georgian overseer was not at all afraid that abolitionists would 
successfully tempt a slave to escape he was sending to the North 
with his family because: "I take care, when my wife goes North 
with the children, to send Lucy with her; her children are down 
here, and I defy all the Abolitionists in creation to get her to 
stay North . ""^ Jacobs, if she had not been a mother, would have 
found it much easier to flee to the North, but she felt compelled 
to try to have her children freed as well: "I could have made my 
escape alone; but it was more for my helpless children than for 
myself that I longed for freedom. Though the boon would have 
been precious to me, above all price, I would not have taken it 
at the expense of leaving them in slavery. "*^^ Douglass made a 
similar point, but because his family life had been very weak, he 
latched onto the importance of friends , such as those in his own 
life, as discouraging slaves from running away: "It is my 
opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, 
but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their 
friends."**" Always one of the most powerful ways family ties 
could be used against the bondsmen was for a slaveholder to 
threaten to sell them or some other family member as the ultimate 
punishment for disobedience. Colonial Georgian William Simpson 
noted that a slave he sold wrote "to his wife frequently, and 
appears by his letters to be in great distress for want of her." 
He had sold him for being disobedient, but now said he was 
considering buying him back to rejoin husband and wife.**^ But in 
most cases family members separated by sale were unlikely ever to 
see each other again, unless it was a local one. Using the 
family ties of their slaves to control them, through discouraging 

*^^as quoted in Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game , p. 101 

*^^Kemble, Journal, p. 2 98. 

*^^Brent, Incidents , pp. 91-92. 

**°Douglass, Narrative, p. 110. 

**^Joyce E. Chaplin, "Slavery and the Principle of Humanity: 
A Modern Idea in the Early Lower South, " Journal of Social 
History , winter 1990, p. 309. 


escapes or using the threat of sale, the slaveholding elite used 
against them some of the very aspects of their character that 
proved their humanity, and that they were not animals, to the 
whites . 

Positive Incentives Only a Supplementary Method for Controlling 
the Bondsmen 

Using positive incentives was another way for masters and 
mistresses to deal with their slaves, such as rewards for working 
hard. While the stick inevitably looms much larger than the 
carrot in slaveholders' dealings with their slaves, as argued 
above against Fogel and Engerman (pp. 233-35, 240-44), positive 
incentives did exist, and played a supplementary role in 
controlling and disciplining the slaves. One standard way to get 
extra work from the slaves was to pay them for overtime hours, 
such as for work on Sundays and late nights. Although a master 
or mistress could compel the slaves to work these hours, the 
negative repercussions (work slowdowns, the neighbors' 
criticisms, etc.) were such that they usually paid them for the 
extra work. When done with their tasks for the day, several boys 
worked willingly for Kemble to clear paths on her husband's 
estate for pay within twenty- four hours of her making the offer. 
Similarly, some carpenters there made a boat they sold for sixty 
dollars to a neighboring planter built in their spare time. 
Patrick Snead, born a slave in Savannah, Georgia, worked as a 
cooper making barrels. His task was to make eighteen a week, but 
since he "could make more than twice as many . . . [he] began to 
have money." John Clopton, once a slave in Virginia, worked 
nights to earn the money to buy a hat and some clothes because 
his master supplied him with no hat and few clothes. Olmsted 
found one farmer in Louisiana who paid slaves fifty or seventy- 
five cents a day to work for him Sundays. Another Mississippi 
planter's blacks earned money for extras such as tobacco by 
working Saturdays and Sundays, with one clearing fifty dollars in 
a year by making boards with axes. Paid work did have its 
problems for slaves, because they could be more easily cheated by 
their employer, who could refuse to pay them, and then they had 
no legal redress. One slave in Mississippi was not paid three 
dollars for a number of Sundays he had worked for one white 
farmer. John Quitman's slaves received pay for chopping wood on 
Sundays. His brother-in-law Henry Turner complained that the 
slaves were "very troublesome in the way of asking for their dues 
when not paid" for chickens they had raised on the Monmouth 
plantation in Mississippi.**^ As noted above earlier (pp. 222- 
223), while the slaves willingly did extra work (i.e., without 
the compulsion of the whip) , it was not totally voluntary because 

**^Kemble, Journal, p. 25, 258. Note also pp. 40, 177, 279- 
80; Drew, Refugee , pp. 101, 161; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:39, 
103, 181; May, "John Quitman and His Slaves," pp. 556-57. 


the masters did not give them enough to allow them to get by at 
all comfortably without the extra work's earnings. After all, if 
Clopton's master gave him the necessary food, but hardly any 
clothes, when he chooses to work Sundays to buy clothes, this 
work was not truly voluntary. The master's arbitrary power in 
reducing the sustenance provided to his slaves forced them to 
work overtime "voluntarily" for real necessities . A slave who 
did a bad job in overtime work did not face the whip, but the 
penalty of going shirtless, hatless, knifeless, panless, etc., 
was harsh enough. 

Slaveholders also had less formal incentives than pay for 
overtime work. Freedwoman Mary Reynolds remembered that her 
master in Louisiana at Christmas time gave a suit of clothes to 
the cotton picker who had picked the most. Henry Laurens and his 
overseer wished to give an incentive to his most dutiful slaves 
and get others to imitate their example. Instead of giving them 
the standard "white plains" for clothes, they were given blue 
cloth and metal buttons for their clothes. Barrow bought for his 
slaves Atean and Dave Bartley a suit of clothes for each one time 
in August because of their "fine conduct picking cotten &c . " 
More generally, slaves worked perhaps because it was an 
intrinsically understandable part of the production process, 
unlike the work of many industrial workers monotonously engaged 
in making or assembling the parts of machines. Some self- 
interest did exist, because they generally grew the corn and 
raised the hogs they were fed with. Some were industrious 
because they felt they had a stake in successfully completing 
work, as Blassingame noted: "Many slaves developed this feeling 
because the planters promised them money, gifts, dinners, and 
dances if they labored faithfully."**^ Others worked on their own 
time on some patch of land their owner allowed them to cultivate, 
growing crops they could eat or sell to raise cash, in a manner 
remarkably similar to the allotments of English agricultural 
workers. One master found it easier to control his slaves by 
threatening deductions from the revenue produced by them on the 
patches of land they worked. The privilege to raise crops on 
their own time became particularly important in the task system 
areas, where some slaves developed major holdings of animals 
through their families ' voluntary work once the involuntary task 
for their masters were finished, in a manner reminiscent of 
medieval serfdom, where peasants worked on their lord's land so 
many days per week, and on their own so many days per week.*** 

**^Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 123; Chaplin, "Slavery and 
the Principle of Humanity," 309; Davis, Plantation Life , p. 157; 
Blassingame, Slave Community , p. 292. See also Orser, 
"Archaeological Analysis of Plantation Society, " 742 . 

***For examples of this practice, see Botkin, Lay My Burden 
Down, p. 158; Kemble, Journal, p. 47; Davis, Plantation Life , p. 


Hence, while slaveholders did offer slaves positive incentives, 
these should not be seen as motivating work more than negative 
"incentives" such as the whip, executions, and the threat of 
sale. The very nature of slavery eliminated positive incentives 
as the fundamental motivator for the enslaved because, usually, 
"No effort of your own can make you free, but no absence of 
effort shall starve you."**^ 

One of Fogel and Engerman's mistakes concerning the 
pervasiveness of incentives for slaves was to equate gifts given 
to slaves at Christmas time with an incentive system. They cite 
Barrow's year end bonuses, claiming: "The amounts received by 
particular slaves were proportional to their performance." The 
diary does not support this claim, because Barrow did not say 
which slaves received how much from the overall amounts given to 
all the slaves listed in his diary. These cash gifts appear to 
be gifts unrelated to work performance, which means then they 
could not have had motivating effects. For example, Barrow wrote 
for December 24, 1838: "Hands went to Town payed them last 
night $500." Similarly, for December 24, 1841 we find: "verry 
cold. Gave the negros money last night $700. all went to Town to 
day." During one year, 1842, due to financial hardship, he 
dispensed with monetary gifts altogether, explaining why he did 
SO: "Gave the negros as much of Evry thing to eat & drink during 
the Hollidays as they Wanted times so hard no able to give any 
thing more." When someone "gives" someone something, it is not 
an incentive in any direct sense, because it is not tied to 
personal productivity. Sides portrays the mistress distributing 
Christmas gifts largely regardless of merit: "[She] distributed 
the gifts to the slaves, trying to treat them all equally, though 
allowing herself to give an extra present 'where some notable 
conduct warranted it.'" Some plantations also distributed the 
winter rations of clothes, blankets, and shoes this time of the 
year, which were not gifts, but what the slaves were 
automatically entitled to, regardless of work effort. Barrow's 
Christmas time gifts for slaves were likely no more "incentives" 
for his slaves than any given to his own children.**^ 

253; Bassett, Plantation Overseer , pp. 187, 203, 210; Olmsted, 
Cotton Kingdom . 1:238, 251; 2:180, 195-96, 238-39; Alex 
Lichtenstein, "'That Disposition to Theft, With Which They Have 
Been Branded, ' : Moral Economy, Slave Management, and the Law," 
Journal of Social History 21 (spring 1988) : 424-26 ; Morgan, 
"Ownership of Property by Slaves," pp. 399-420; Stampp, Peculiar 
Institution , pp. 164-66. 

**^Kemble, Journal, p. 280. 

**'^ Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:14 8; Davis, 
Plantation Life , pp. 139, 218, 279; Sides, "Slave Weddings and 
Religion," 83. For more on this issue, see Gutman, Slavery and 


Fogel and Engerman emphasize the incentive effects of 
rewarding slaves better jobs who served their masters and 
mistresses well: 

Slaves had the opportunity to rise within the social 
and economic hierarchy that existed under bondage. 
Field hands could become artisans or drivers. . . . 
Climbing the economic ladder brought not only social 
status, and sometimes more freedom; it also had 
significant payoffs in better housing, better clothing, 
and cash bonuses. 

Although referring to The Jamaica Planter's Guide , they cite no 
direct evidence that American slaveowners operated this way. 
Their indirect evidence came from interpreting a skewed age 
distribution found in a heavily sugar-growing parish they 
surveyed, which was biased towards older men among the artisans. 
They said this meant older men were rewarded with better jobs due 
to serving their masters better when younger. Problematically 
for them, this age distribution could also be explained by a 
declining demand for trained slaves towards the late antebellum 
period, perhaps due to European immigration to urban areas in the 
South. **^ 

One major problem confronts the claim the slaves desired to 
climb up an occupational pyramid for better jobs and material 
conditions: The slaves with the better jobs, such as drivers and 
domestic servants, were often seen as stooges serving their 
master's interests and enforcers of his rules by the ordinary 
field hands in the quarters. A job that gave a slave high 
prestige in the eyes of the master often had correspondingly low 
status in the eyes of the bulk of the slaves, at least if the 
slaves in the high positions were seen as generally identifying 
with and consistently serving their master's interests without 
giving others any slack.**® A number of slaves clearly felt the 

the Numbers Game , pp. 44-47 


Fogel and Engerman, Time on the Cross , 1:149, 150, 2:117- 
118, 262; Gutman and Sutch in David, Reckoning with Slavery , pp. 
74-86. They also explain here how Fogel and Engerman 's inflated 
figures on the percentage of black drivers and overseers 
(supervisors of drivers) were inaccurate. 

**®Blassingame, Slave Community , pp. 258-60, 316; Orser, 
"Archaeological Analysis of Plantation Society," pp. 740-41. For 
the general unpopularity of the drivers with other slaves, note 
Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 85, 90, 91, 94, 120, 121; 
Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 217-18. The ex-slaves 
interviewed in the FWP narratives may have emphasized the 
brutality of the drivers due to fearing saying negative things 


trade-offs involved were worth it, because to demote (or threaten 
to) a domestic servant to field work was an effective control 
device precisely because he did wish to keep the job he already 
had /*^ It does make sense that the more reliable, loyal, 
intelligent, and/or diligent slaves would end up as drivers, 
artisans, or domestic servants, such as Atean, who ended up a 
foreman on Barrow's plantation. Still, the high level of 
capriciousness in promotion decisions easily undermined the 
incentive effects involved, especially if these slaves picked up 
the opprobrium of their fellows as they rose. While artisans and 
drivers did have better conditions than ordinary field hands, 
Fogel and Engerman fail to link "specified performance standards" 
and "the strength of the existing inducements- -material and 
other" to those wishing "to escape the lot of the ordinary field 
hand," ignoring how an occupational hierarchy's mere existence 
does not guarantee merit, as opposed to nepotism or chance, is 
the main way of assigning positions within it.*^° 

The Brutal Overseer as a Historical Reality 

One very basic decision a master had to make about 
organizing his plantation's operations concerned whether he hired 
an overseer or performed his own supervision, leaning upon black 
drivers more. If he hired an overseer, then the problem was the 
master did not necessarily like "paid management's" motives when 
managing his slaves. Since an overseer did not own the slaves he 
managed, he was more apt to mistreat them, especially when given 

about their past white master and/or overseer to white 
interviewers that gathered their reminiscences. William L. Van 
Deburg, "Slave Drivers and Slave Narratives: A New Look at the 
'Dehumanized Elite,'" Historian 39 (Aug. 1977) : 728-30 . However, 
in at least two of the narratives found in Botkin cited above, 
the slaves were willing to say negative things about their 
masters as well, thus blunting Van Deburg ' s point. 

**^Kemble, Journal, p. 153; Brent, Incidents , p. 41. 
However, if the slave was a valuable artisan, punishing him this 
way normally cost too much. Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 

*^°Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 272, 359, 419, 421; David and 
Temin in David, Reckoning , pp. 45-46; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, 
Roll , pp. 370-71, 393. The nearest any master might have come to 
Fogel and Engerman' s model of long-run incentives was the large 
plantation of Zephaniah Kingsley in Florida. It featured a 
three-tiered hierarchy: freedmen, the drivers who were next in 
line to be freed, and the mass of slaves, which included a flow 
of continual newcomers from Africa. See J. P. White, "Christmas 
at the Plantation," North American Review 278 (Nov. /Dec. 1993) :5- 


the high turnover rate endemic to this profession, which made him 
still less likely to care about the individual bondsmen he 
supervised. In order to make a large crop, he was apt to drive 
the slaves too hard. One English traveler from Mississippi wrote 
to the London Daily News in 1857 that: 

[The overseer's] professional reputation depends in a 
great measure upon the number of bales or hogsheads he 
is able to produce, and neither his education nor his 
habits are such as to render it likely that he would 
allow any consideration for the negroes to stand in the 
way of his advancing it. . . . His skill consists in 
knowing exactly how hard they may be driven without 
incapacitating them for future exertion. *^^ 

Overseers have a well-deserved reputation for brutality .*^^ 
Generally overseers in the South were emotional, uneducated men 
possessing a violence-prone frontier mentality, often deficient 
in the "people skills" required to manage slaves successfully. 
Since keeping slaves in line was a continual struggle, and the 
use of raw force and punishment was frequently necessary because 
they had little incentive to work, these realities soon hardened 
most overseers who were not harsh to begin with. As the case 
Olmsted witnessed, in which one overseer unemotionally inflicted 
a brutal beating on a shirking slave (cited above, p. 232), the 
very nature of the system, with its minimal incentives for the 
slaves to work outside of avoiding physical punishment, made 
banal cruelty necessary for its continued functioning. 

The overseer on a large plantation could be corrupted by his 
position of nearly unlimited power, especially if the master was 
not physical present. One antebellum South Carolina newspaper 
suggested that: "[Overseers] who combine the most intelligence, 
industry, and character, are allured into the service of those 

^"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:189. 

*^^Gathering "horror stories" of harsh overseers is easy, and 
little exists to rebut the overall impression they give. Unlike 
the case concerning good versus bad masters, where even among the 
slaves a more divided opinion exists, testimony about overseers 
is nearly always negative. See Botkin, ed.. Lay My Burden Down , 
pp. 36, 104, 106; Kemble, Journal, p. 180, 223-24; Davis, 
Plantation Life , p. 154; Bassett, Plantation Overseer , pp. 112, 
145-47; Douglass, Narrative , pp. 38-40; Drew, Refugee , p. 29, 
183; Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave , pp. 17 0-71; Franklin, From 
Slavery to Freedom , p. 139. One striking exception to this 
generally dismal picture was the overseer from Pennsylvania who 
protected Northrup from a master about to hang him with the aid 
of two other overseers for whipping him. See Northrup, Twelve 
Years a Slave , pp. 77, 83-85. 


who place all power in their hands, and are ultimately 
spoiled. "*^^ Even such a man as Barrow, who never hesitated to 
apply the whip when he felt it necessary, complained about the 
brutality of his own overseer, as well as their general class, 
from a slaveholders ' viewpoint : 

More Whiping to do this Fall than all together in three 
years owing to my D mean Overseer- -never will have 
another unless I should be compelled to leave ... I 
hope the time will come When every Overseer in the 
country will be compelled to addopt some other mode of 
making a living- -they are a perfect nuisance cause 
dissatisfaction among the negros- -being more possessed 
of more brutal feelings--! make better crops than those 
Who Employ them.*" 

As a result, he stopped hiring overseers, and relied on black 
drivers for the immediate supervision of his slaves. As will be 
seen below (pp. 341-42), the slaves could exploit the weaknesses 
and tensions in the master-overseer relationship for their own 
ends of evading work. 

The Task Versus Gang Systems: Different Approaches to Work 

Choosing between the task and gang systems was another 
fundamental management decision for a farm or plantation. While 
the gang system was much more widespread, as the task system was 
largely limited to lowland Georgia and South Carolina, still a 
number of slaveholders experimented or found compromises between 
the two systems. Both should be discussed because of the trade- 
offs between the two from the viewpoint of the slaveholders and 
the bondsmen. The task system consisted of giving individual 
slaves a particular set quota of work in the field, and when they 
were done, they had the rest of the day off to do largely as they 
pleased. The gang system consisted of supervising slaves in a 
group while they worked, driving them through the field to do 
particular jobs, with no particular limit on the length of the 
work day other than the rising and setting of the sun. The task 
system benefited the stronger slaves who could be done earlier in 
the day, but the full onus of individual responsibility fell on 
them for any careless or shoddy work done in order to finish 
early or for any other reason. The gang system tended to benefit 
the weaker hands, since the number of hours they would have 
worked at a particular task would have been the same under either 
system. It allowed slaves as a group to evade responsibility for 

^"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 2:189. 

*^*Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 99, 154. He also complains 
about overseers on pp. 89, 90, 232. 


bad work, because an overseer or master found it harder to 
discover which individual slave (s) did bad work. As Young noted: 
"Whereas slaves toiling in gangs could surreptitiously work at 
less than full speed, the task laborer was accountable if the 
assigned work was not completed by the end of the day." The 
enslaved blacks generally appeared to enjoy work in groups over 
individual labor in isolation, which may have given a them a 
preference for the gang system, excepting for its intrinsic 
disadvantage of suffering under much more surveillance and 
intense regulation from the white overseer, master, or driver. 
The principal advantage of the task system from the master's 
viewpoint was that it reduced the amount of immediate supervision 
required from drivers, overseers, himself, etc. Freedman Mose 
Jordan recalled for Armstrong this advantage from the slave ' s 

'When you git dat done, you can go fishin' ! ' Massa say. 
An' dat was de bes' way ter wu'k. De overseer lay off 
de task. Dis many rows f o ' de boys an' gal, dat many 
f o ' de big bucks an' women' folks. 'Git dat done, an' 
you kin quit, ' he say. Den de folks wu ' ked ter git it 
don. Dat better 'n whippin' em! 

The driver or overseer would set the task at the beginning of the 
day, and then periodically check during the day to see whether 
the tasks assigned were completed, and how well the work had been 

The Inf rapolitics of Task (Quota) Setting 

The task system made for continual struggles between the 
slaves and their owners over the size of the tasks imposed. The 
masters tried to "up" the tasks set, while the slaves leaned on 
custom- -suddenly transmuted into a "right" --to keep the tasks the 
same size. Olmsted noted that: "In nearly all ordinary work, 
custom has settled the extent of the task, and it is difficult to 
increase it." In this situation, despite all the legalisms about 
the will of the master being absolute and the slave having to 
always obey and make himself a mere extension of his owner's 
will, a degree of "negotiation" occurred between the two sides. 
The masters who raised the daily task by too much risked "a 
general stampede to the 'swamp '--a danger the slave can always 
hold before his master's cupidity." The slaves could employ what 
amounted to a strike against their owners. This was a rare case 
of the slaves collectively organizing to resist their owners 
without using violence. The task system was so entrenched in 

^^'^Young, "Ideology and Death," 697; Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 
People , p. 213; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 321-23; Stampp, 
Peculiar Institution , pp. 54-56; Fogel and Engerman, Time on the 
Cross, 1:236-37; Kolchin, Unfree Labor , pp. 79, 347. 


this area- - "Eastern Georgia and South Carolina" - -that any master 
who denied this "proscriptive right" would "suffer in his 
reputation" and "experience much annoyance from the obstinate 
'rascality' of his negroes." The infrapolitics-- "day-to-day 
resistance" --of the task system involved battles over quota 
setting which are quite similar to those between management and 
labor in modern industry, especially in the mid-twentieth century 
socialist economies of Eastern Europe. When masters see slaves 
getting done at noon, one o'clock, two o'clock, long before 
sundown, they would want to "up" the norms imposed. Harry 
Porter, a one-time field hand, recalled that if his fellow 
bondsmen on his plantation "got through early or half an hour 
before sundown . . . [their master] would give them more the next 
day." Sometimes lowland masters imposed day work, and attempted 
to keep the slaves working steadily all day long. But this 
backfired, with the slaves often doing less work than they would 
have under the task system. ^'^'^ The task system had the great 
advantage of attempting to harness the slaves' self-interest (and 
their sense of task -orientation in their work) on behalf of their 
master, since the sooner they finished, the sooner they could 
work on their own plots of land and raise food for themselves or 
crops to sell. 

Consider this good example of a struggle between slaves and 
"management" over the size of the tasks imposed. One group of 
pregnant slave women pleaded to Kemble to ask the master to lower 
the size of tasks required of them. She really did not want to 
do this, especially when they said he had refused their request 
already, but she weakened before their emotional cries for 
relief. *^^ The slaves here exploited potential differences in the 
white elite that ruled over them--in this case, pitting the 
mistress against the master- -a issue returned to below (pp. 268- 
69) . Because the slaveowners had at their disposal the ability 
to inflict overwhelming physical force on their workers, an 
option not available to modern-day management, by using threats 
they could raise the quotas set for their bondsmen. One planter 
in Virginia, after firing his incompetent overseer, found that 
slaves were only expected to chop a cord of firewood a day, which 
he found ridiculously low. He told one slave to cut two, who 
replied that was too hard, that he "Nebber heard o' nobody's 
cuttin' more ' n a cord o'wood in a day, roun ' hear. No nigger 
couldn' do it." This master replied: "Well, old man, you have 

^"Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 1:247-48; Cf . Genovese, Roll, 
Jordan, Roll , p. 621; Morgan, "Ownership of Property by Slaves," 
pp. 400-401. Notice how organizing work by task appealed to the 
slaves' sense of time and work (task-orientation), while trying 
to get them to work methodically by the clock was a failure 
(time-orientation) . 

*^^Kemble, Journal, p. 135. 


two cords of wood cut to-night, or to-morrow morning you will 
have two hundred lashes- -that ' s all there is about it. So, look 
sharp!" From that point on, he got two cords of wood from each 
slave given that job, although his neighbors still got only one. 
He also made each slave maul two hundred rails a day, when his 
neighbors were stuck with one hundred per day. While down in 
lowland South Carolina or Georgia, Olmsted found the slaves 
around there were assigned only to do one cord of wood per day, 
and a hundred rails mauled, which indicates they had successfully 
hoodwinked "management" generally .*^^ On paper, the slaves seem 
legally helpless against the force their owners could bring to 
bear to compel work from them. But the generally low quotas of 
work prevailing in many cases demonstrate masters and overseers 
did not use all the force possible at their disposal. Since the 
Southern white work ethic (in terms of time-oriented punctual 
consistency) was not especially strong, the slaves through 
continual foot-dragging successfully tricked their owners into 
accepting a level of work performance half or less than that free 
labor was expected to accomplish. 

The Gang System's Advantages 

The gang system had the advantage that when the greater 
level of supervision involved- -not to mention violence 
applied- -was done intelligently, the slaves accomplished more 
than under the task system. The overseer and master had a number 
of tricks to speed up work without direct use of the lash. 
Barrow found by organizing a race he could get his slaves to pick 
more : 

hands all running a race- - "picking Gotten" - -Hands 
avreaged higher to day than I ever had them to do. 191 
1/2 by dinner [noon] . . . never had or heard of such 
picking as my hands picked yesterday Glean Gotten in 
the morning- -usual Gotten in the evening- -averaged 364 
1/2. highest 622. lowest 225--42 pickers. 15311 lbs. 

Another tactic was to try to have the slaves sing songs with a 
fast pace that sped up work, that fit the task at hand, or at 
least made the day's work go by more pleasantly. Thinking more 
strategically, they also tried to prohibit sadder, depressing 
songs since they might make them less happy in their condition of 
lifelong bondage . *^^ Illustrating how the task system could allow 

^^^Olmsted, Gotten Kingdom . 1:136, 247-48. 

*^^Davis, Plantation Life , p. 13 6; Armstrong, Old Massa ' s 
People , p. 24 0; Blake Allmendinger, "Acting and Slavery: 
Representations of Work in the Writings of Fanny Kemble," 
Mississippi Quarterly 41 (fall 1988): 512; Starobin, "Disciplining 
Industrial Slaves," 112; Blassingame, Slave Community , pp. 126- 


widespread malingering when the quotas were set too low by 
custom, consider freedman Mose Jordan's memory of the cotton 
picker's task (quota) for his plantation for one day: 150 
pounds. This case confirms the planter who told Olmsted that the 
average slave did an amount of work only half or less than that 
of free labor, when considering what Barrow was able to get out 
of his slaves, at least on unusually good days. One time, on 
September 10, 1842, his sixty-nine pickers, which included eleven 
children, averaged 3 05 pounds, one gathering 52 0, setting a kind 
of record, Barrow thought. Many of the first-year pickers, 
presumably children, were able to pick 12 0-145 pounds that day.*^° 
A quota of 150 pounds, being obviously lower than what a full 
day's labor by an experienced, healthy, and persistent adult 
could perform, demonstrated that the slaves on Jordan's 
plantation successfully kept the tasks set at a fairly low level, 
perhaps benefiting from unusually paternalistic or incompetent 
management. The gang system had the advantage (from the master's 
viewpoint) of being able to drive the slaves while working, which 
on good days made them more productive than the task system, for 
when slaves cultivated crops on their own time after finishing 
their daily task, this did not directly help the master 

When choosing between the task and gang systems, the white 
slaveholders faced a fundamental trade-off. The task system, by 
allowing slaves to grow their own crops in the extra time they 
had left over after their daily tasks were done, gave the slaves 
more freedom for trading and increased involvement in the 
economy, but it reduced the costs of supervision and force being 
applied while raising crops. The gang system allowed slaveowners 
to greatly narrow the slaves' cultivating and trading activities, 
significantly restricting the illicit liquor/stolen goods trade 
slaves carried on with neighboring poor whites. It also reduced 
the amount of free time they had to lounge about and maybe get 
into trouble. But this system cost more in requiring continual 
surveillance and applying violent force to keep them working. 
Notoriously, "when an overlooker's back is turned, the most of 
them [slaves] will slight their work or be idle altogether."*" 
Masters and mistresses also controlled the slaves more because 
they were almost exclusively dependent on the standard rations 
doled out to them, of both food and clothing, instead of having 
the ability to buy or raise their own. Another trade-off was 
that to increase individual responsibility tended to reduce group 


^"Armstrong, Old Massa's People , p. 213; Davis, Plantation 

Life, p. 421. 

^" Debow's Review 18 (March 1855) :339, quoted by Kolchin, 
Unfree Labor , p. 79. 


responsibility, and vice versa. The task system increased 
individual responsibility, but at the cost of allowing slaves as 
a group to have serious though surreptitious influence on the 
size of the work quotas imposed on them, through a process of 
implicit "negotiation." The gang system decreased individual 
responsibility, for it was harder to know who had done a given 
bit of shoddy work, but increased the ability of the master to 
control the group as a whole, potentially rebounding to his 
benefit when done intelligently without an excessive use of 
violence . 

The Patrol/Pass System 

The pass/patroller system was another important part of the 
slaveholders' means of control over their slaves. Nominally all 
slaves not on their owner's (or renter's) property had to have a 
pass giving them permission to be elsewhere, especially in rural 
areas. Any white person, including those not knowing them 
personally, could ask them to produce a pass. During certain 
hours, especially at night, any slave could be punished by 
patrollers if he was up and around off his master's property. 
The patrollers were normally poor whites who were hired (or 
effectively conscripted slaveholders) to roam about checking 
whether slaves were obeying the pass and curfew restrictions. 
Those without valid passes could be whipped on the spot. While 
this system tended to only be slackly observed when white fears 
of slave rebellion were low or in areas with few slaves, 
patrollers were the main force in rural areas with police powers 
that dealt with slaves. 

The slave patrols deservedly picked up a reputation for 
inflicting brutal punishments. They were often composed of poor 
whites seeking to prove their superiority over blacks whose 
living conditions (or ability to read) were little different from 
their own. Freedwoman Manda Walker of South Carolina described 
how one patrol beat her father. His pass had expired because the 
creek between his master's place and his wife's had overflown, 
making it difficult to cross on a mule. After commenting, "The 
time done out, nigger," the patrol proceeded to brutally whip him 
in front of his wife and children until his wife ' s master told 
them to stop. This burst of legalism shows the patrol was merely 
seeking an excuse to whip a black man, since nature did present a 
legitimate obstacle against this man getting home on time. 
Jacobs said the office of constable where she lived was 
considered a degradation to any white wealthy enough to buy a 
slave, but one poor white was happy to have it because: "The 
office enabled its possessor to exercise authority. If he found 
any slave out after nine o'clock, he could whip him as much as he 
liked; and that was a privilege to be coveted." While Jacobs 
likely exaggerated concerning how much the constable was allowed 
to whip legally, the law was often ignored in Alabama, as former 
slave Philip Younger described: 


In Alabama, the patrols go out in companies at about 
dark, and ride nearly all night. If they meet a 
colored man without a pass, it is thirty-nine lashes; 
but they don't stop for the law, and if they tie a man 
up, he is very well off if he gets only two hundred. 
If there is a party assembled at the quarters, they 
rush in half drunk, and thrash round with their sticks, 
perhaps before they look at a pass, --all must be 
whipped unless they rush out. 

He also described one patrol which whipped a free black woman 
married to a barber since "she was in a little better standing 
than the patrol was." These stories illustrate the patrols' 
general brutality, which was surely motivated in part by the 
desire of the poor whites to confirm their superiority over what 
they would call "uppity niggers," for sometimes people will 
affirm all the more strongly their differences from some despised 
group of "others" when those differences are all the more 
minimal .*" 

The requirement for slaves to have passes when off- 
plantation was an essential control device for slaveholders. By 
regulating their movements, it reduced the risk of slaves 
gathering to plot revolts and also made it easier to spot and 
catch runaways. After receiving a request from one slave to 
visit a family member on another plantation who had just been 
sold off, Kemble commented: 

There seems generally a great objection to the visit of 
slaves from neighboring plantations, and, I have no 
doubt, not without sufficient reason. The more I see 
of this frightful and perilous social system, the more 
I feel that those who live in the midst of it must make 
their whole existence one constant precaution against 
danger of some sort or other. 

But how strictly masters adhered to these regulations varied 
wildly, depending on their whims and the whites ' state of concern 
over slave rebellion. Some masters were not only strict in 
granting passes, but also tried to keep their slaves on their 
plantation or farm as much as possible, such as Barrow: 

I never give a negro a Pass to go from home without he 
first states particularly where he wishes to go, and 
assigns a cause for his desiring to be absent. if he 
offers a good reason, I never refuse, but otherwise, I 

^"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 168-69; Brent, Incidents , 
p. 123; Drew, Refugee , pp. 249-50. For more on the patrol 
system, see Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 617-19; Stampp, 
Peculiar Institution , pp. 214-15. 


never grant him a Pass, and feel satisfied that no 
practice is more prejudicial to the community, and to 
the negros themselves, than that of giving them general 
Pass ' es . 

He opposed letting slaves go wherever they want after finishing 
work, as obviously at least some masters he knew did, because if 
they routinely stayed on their own plantation, getting used to 
the friends and family they had there, pure habit would reduce 
the burdens imposed by restricting their movements. This plan 
evidently did not work for the master of Jenny Proctor of 
Alabama, who appears to have been as strict as Barrow: 

The only way any slaves on our farm ever goes anywhere 
was when the boss sends him to carry some news to 
another plantation or when we slips off way in the 
night. Sometimes after all the work was done a bunch 
would have it made up to slip out down to the creek and 
dance. We sure have fun when we do that, most times on 
Saturday night.*" 

Barrow's wish to create a "closed system" where the slaves could 
be content by a forcibly imposed habit ignores the human mind's 
ability to imagine other possibilities, such as from the freedom 
of movement of slaves on neighboring plantations, watching the 
whites come and go themselves, or resentment and "negative 
psychology" encouraging rule violations. 

The Slaveowners Who Liberally Granted Passes or Dispensed with 
Them Altogether 

Some masters were very loose in granting passes, or even 
dispensed with them altogether. Freedman Calvin Hays of 
Mississippi had a master, a prominent judge and slaveowner, who 
told his bondsmen this: 

'Yo' don' need no pass! If dey [the patrollers] lay de 
han ' on ye, tell 'em who yo ' is, an' lemme know if dey 
whip ye!' So you'd be goin' 'long, jus' tendin' yo ' 
business, drivin' er wagon inter town er to de cotton 
press, an' pattyroller ride up. 'Who you, nigger' he 
say. 'One de Mays' people!' you say. 'Go on, den!'*" 

The more trusted slaves who personally attended on the master's 
family might also gain an exception from the pass system, or be 

*"Kemble, Journal, p. 2 5 9; Davis, Plantation Life , pp. 4 07- 
08; Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , p. 92. 


Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 150-51. Freedman Tony 
Washington tells of a similar practice, ibid., p. 32. 


given very general passes. Cato needed no pass, unlike his fellow 
slaves on an Alabama plantation, being the houseboy and nephew of 
the master: "I had a cap with a sign on it: 'Don't bother this 
nigger, or there will be hell to pay. ' " Alfred Robinson, the 
body servant of one Colonel Reed of Kentucky, being instantly 
recognizable locally, needed no pass: " ' I ' se Alfred, de Gunnel's 
valet!' I'd tell de folks. Dat got me by widout er pass." One 
patrol complained to a slaveowner about the very general pass he 
gave a slave who nursed him when he was sick: "'Why, dis pass 
would let dat nigger go to Europe ! ' " Steering a more middle 
ground. South Carolina rice planter C.J. Weston required every 
slave who left to have tickets for passes, but granted them 
liberally, in a manner Barrow would have sharply objected to: 
"No one is to be absent from the place without a ticket, which is 
always to be given to such as ask it, and have behaved well."*" 
While theoretically very strict controls existed on the slaves ' 
movements, even the masters were not always terribly keen on 
enforcing them strictly, let alone what the slaves themselves 
could get away with without their owners' permission. 

How the Divisions among the White Slaveholders Benefited the 

Divisions among slaveholders, their families, overseers, and 
neighbors often combined to restrain- -or, sometimes, 
accentuate- -how harshly the bondsmen were treated. In a number 
of cases, the slaves took advantage of the whites' discord, 
pitting one white person with authority against another, often 
benefiting from the resulting clash. Concern over what their 
neighbors thought helped restrain how harsh masters and 
mistresses were against their slaves- -a classic argument of pro- 
slavery polemics that, nevertheless, was rooted in some reality. 
Jacobs was thankful that she lived in a small town, because 
having neighbors close by restrained Mr. Flint, her owner: 

Bad as are the laws and customs in a slaveholding 
community, the doctor, as a professional man, deemed it 
prudent to keep up some outward show of decency. . . . 
The application of the lash [which her master had 
avoided inflicting on her] might have led to remarks 
that would have exposed him in the eyes of his children 
and grandchildren. How often did I rejoice that I 
lived in a town where all the inhabitants knew each 
other. If I had been on a remote plantation, or lost 
among the multitude of a crowded city, I should not be 
a living woman at this day. 

However, neighborhood gossip could also work the other way. It 

^"Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 86 (Cato), 113 
(Robinson) 146 (Europe); Bassett, Plantation Overseer , p. 25 


imposed not just a floor on harsh treatment, but a ceiling on 
good treatment. As Philip Younger, a slave in Alabama for over 
half his life, described: 

Once in a while a man is kind, as kindness is out 
there, and then he is hated by all the other masters. 
They say, " his niggers spoil our niggers." These 
servants are not allowed on the other plantations at 
all, --if caught there, they will put as much on them as 
they can bear. 

Some slaves in Georgia violated the law by selling corn, cotton, 
and other crops without their owners' permission. This practice 
was frowned upon not just because stolen crops might be sold, as 
Mohr stated, but "because it caused 'dissatisfaction' among 
slaves who were not allowed such liberties." Genovese noted one 
planter who said it was futile to enforce discipline on your 
plantation when a neighboring planter does not, because, as 
another explained, the bondsmen easily spot the differences and 
become displeased. When the masters did not maintain a common 
front and equalize how they treated their human chattels, the 
slaves ' murmurings and complaints due to comparing differences 
between different local "administrations" made controlling them 
harder. But since the slaveowners had a common self-interest 
against their slaves' demands, their community standards of 
treatment were not going to be especially high. Olmsted wondered 
whether the striving ruffian individualists he encountered on one 
steamboat in the South would have their passions "much restrained 
by the fear of losing the respect of their neighbours." Because 
the master's will over his own slave was legally paramount, the 
neighbors' complaints about the cruelty of some master or 
mistress in their midst was mostly limited to the force of moral 
suasion. After Christopher Nichols, once a slave in Virginia, 
had been horribly whipped for trying to run away, all the whites 
who saw him the next day working in the mill "said it was a shame 
to use anybody in that way."*" He did not count on these 
criticisms to restrain his master in the future, so he soon ran 
away again, this time successfully. Despite these caveats, much 
as a child will complain to his parents that the kid next door 
was allowed to do such-and-so, so why cannot he, the slaves, 
being similarly powerless, could make similar comparisons, and by 
complaining at least sometimes get better treatment from their 
owners . 

How Mistresses and Other Family Members Often Restrained 111- 

*"Brent, Incidents , pp. 28, 33-34; Drew, Refugee , pp. 70 
(Nichols) , 24 9 (Younger) ; Mohr, "Slavery in Oglethorpe County, " 
8; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , p. 41; Olmsted, Cotton Kingdom , 


The mistress often could influence the master or overseer to 
treat the slaves better. Consider how one slaveboy mistakenly- 
thought his master told him to "eat it" when in fact he said 
"heat it," when referring to some cold, leftover "hopping John," 
which was cowpeas, boiled with pork or bacon, sometimes with rice 
added. The master was going to whip him, but did not when his 
wife demurred: "Oh, no, he is young and didn't understand." In 
one white slaveowning family in South Carolina, because the wife 
had owned a number of slaves when she married her husband, she 
treated her slaves markedly better than those of her husband. 
She "would 't allow no slashing round 'bout where she was," and 
pushed her slaves to keep their quarters more tidy. One time, as 
her husband was about to whip one of her slaves, she said, "John 
C, you let my nigger alone," and was obeyed. Another mistress 
was mercilessly whipped for treating her husband's slaves well by 
unchaining them and cooking them a meal one time.*" More stories 
about mistresses being more kind than their husbands, such as by 
attempting to dissuade them from selling a slave off, could be 
given.*" Admittedly, the mistresses sometimes were worse than 
their husbands. Harriett Robinson, once a slave in Texas, 
remembered how her mistress ("Miss Julia") routinely beat her 
during the Civil War, while her master did not touch her. One 
day, when she told her brother to whip her, the master came home 
after hunting, and blasted their treatment of her: "You infernal 
sons of bitches, don't you know there is three hundred Yankees 
camped out here, and if fen they knowed you'd whipped this nigger 
the way you done, they'd kill all us. If fen they find it out, 
I'll kill all you all." This master's opposition to his wife's 
harsh treatment was probably motivated purely by pragmatism, for 
evidently he had done nothing to stop all the earlier beatings. 
In the case Tines Kendricks of Georgia described, the mistress 
was plainly meaner than her husband, being stingy, and awaking 
her slaves loudly before dawn. She "cuss and rare worse 'n a 
man."*" So while "the fairer sex" was more commonly a 
restraining force on its husbands' (or fathers') treatment of 
their slaves, certainly sometimes the mistresses were crueler 
than their husbands. 

Younger family members sometimes restrained the punishments 
meted out on a slave. Ball said the white daughters of the 

*"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 50, 76, 148. 

*"Ball, Slavery in the United States , pp. 57-58; Kemble, 
Journal, pp. 102-3, 135, 170; Armstrong, Old Massa's People , pp. 
31, 32, 81; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 82-83. Also note 
the implications of Jacobs saying she could look for no 
protection from her young mistress against Mr. Flint in Brent, 
Incidents, p. 18. 

*"Botkin, Lay My Burden Down , pp. 70-71, 194. 


master and mistress would make a particular slave their own, and 
the white sons had their favorites as well. As a result, the 
young mistresses looked out for the interests not only of the 
slave girl, but her family as well, while the young masters "have 
many disputes with the overseer if he abuses them [their 
favorites] ." In another case, Mary Reynolds was sold because her 
master "didn't want Miss Dora [his daughter] to play with no 
nigger young-un." But because the young mistress was so 
emotionally attached to Mary, and became severely and deathly 
depressed because of her absence, a doctor was called on to see 
what was wrong. After the doctor recommended buying Mary back in 
order to save the master's daughter's life, her father did so, 
even though buying her back cost much more than what he got when 
initially selling her. In another case, one young master (as an 
adult) got his father to stop beating a captured runaway over the 
head with a club that made the latter bleed terribly.*^" The 
children of the master when in residence constituted another of 
the informal checks on the barbarity of the system. Thus, when 
the white children had grown up playing with slave children, the 
attachments formed in the childhood years formed one of the main 
foundations for a truly practiced paternalism, at least towards 
these "old favorites." ^^ 

The Central Reality of Violence as the Main Tool to Control the 

The slave population of the South was mainly controlled by 
violent coercion and the threat of it by the white ruling class 
with aid from poor whites. The slaves were not primarily kept in 
line by the successful implantation of the ruling class' 
ideology, whether it be the Protestant work ethic, in Fogel and 
Engerman's version, or the reciprocal duties/rights of 
paternalism between the rulers and the ruled, in Genovese's 
version. Genovese's model is only true if he could prove the 
slaves really accepted the ideological framework of the system 
which held them in bondage, as opposed to giving it just lip 
service publicly before their owners, and denying it among 
themselves. Successful indoctrination may have occurred among 
many of the drivers and house servants of large planters, 
especially in long-settled regions among the Atlantic Seaboard, 
but probably did not get very far otherwise. Furthermore, the 
ruling class itself may not have believed in paternalism so much 
as a striving, individualistic commercial capitalism and 
Jacksonian Democracy, which treated whites as political equals 

*^°Ball, Slavery in the United States , p. 58; Botkin, Lay My 
Burden Down , p. 119; Drew, Refugee , p. 69. However, later, after 
he had been chained to a tree, he punished by making him fall on 
his back. 

*'^^Cf. to Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll , pp. 515-19. 


(vis-a-vis the vote) , but excluded blacks on purely racial 
grounds. Such positive incentives for the slaves as better food 
and clothing, better jobs, etc. for extra work and/or unusual 
loyalty to their masters and mistresses were merely supplements 
to measures that inflicted continual violence. For while sheer 
habit may have kept many slaves in the fields much of the time, 
the slaveholders always had to whip recalcitrant bondsmen as 
examples to intimidate the rest. Judging from Barrow's 
experience with his slaves, a majority of them became 
"recalcitrant" enough to be worthy of the lash at one time or 
another. Three out of four of Barrow's cotton pickers were 
whipped at least during the appendix's 1840-41 period. Of the 50 
out of 65 who were whipped, they felt the lash no less than 13 
times in that same period. *^^ Corporal punishment had to take the 
place of internal motivation when a slave ' s will had to be forced 
to be the same as his or her owner's. 

Occasional sacrificial executions, combined with those 
slaves killed on the job by masters or overseers, further struck 
dread among those enslaved, even though barbarisms such as 
burning at the stake never totally eliminated the worst slave 
crimes, let alone routine acts of resistance like pilfering and 
malingering. Both Genovese ' s concept of paternalism and Fogel 
and Engerman's view of the Protestant work ethic being accepted 
by the slaves suffer from discounting the fundamental reality of 
violence and force as the main tools for controlling them. As 
Anderson noted when critiquing Genovese: 

It is stated that paternalism can encourage violence, 
but there is no history of violence as a means of 
repression in the Old South that is interwoven into the 
book. . . . Violence is dealt with in terms of how 
often the whip cracked [shades of Fogel and Engerman!] 
or how often police patrols tracked down slaves rather 
than with than the intensity and nature of the violence 
employed. More importantly, the whole question of 
violence in shoved into the background. 

Since slavery involves a fundamentally involuntary, unchosen 
relationship between its work force and "management," it had to 
rely on force much more than capitalist employers do. The latter 
rarely need to openly resort to it except when their property is 
attacked, blocked, or occupied by strikers. Dissatisfied workers 
in a free labor market have the right to move and look for 
another job, which constitutes its biggest "safety valve" for 
workers' frustrations, even though it is an individualistic and 
(often) burdensome choice for them to make. In contrast, Reuter 
maintained that 

the principle that controlled the allocation of 

*^^Gutman, Slavery and the Numbers Game , p. 2 6 


plantation work was naked power. Mean work went to 
slaves, other work to the owners. The duties of the 
Negroes were determined in the same way as those of the 
livestock. Those who resisted were beaten and whipped. 
As valuable property, less frequently were they hanged 
or shot.*" 

Labor discipline collapsed throughout the South whenever a 
hostile army was nearby, especially during the Civil War, proving 
that the slaves were mainly controlled by the use of violence or 
constant threats of it. The hordes of field hands which fled 
many Southern farms and plantations, and the much greater 
resistance those which remained behind put up against their 
owners whenever the Yankee army was nearby, proves slavery's base 
was not positive incentives and the slaves' accepting a 
Protestant work ethic or a paternalistic ethos of reciprocal 
duties/rights that kept them in line. If ideological factors or 
positive material incentives were what mainly kept the slaves in 
line, then the presence of a hostile army to the interests of 
slaveowners should not have had much effect on the slaves obeying 
them or running away. Hostile armies stripped away slaveowners' 
ability to use armed force to put down major revolts (or the 
threat of them) and it interfered in the judicial/police system 
of capturing and returning escaped slaves who were in "occupied 
territory." Slaves in these areas could often escape vigilantes 
and lynch mobs that unofficially meted out "justice," or found 
these forces mobilized much less often against them because of 
the implicit threat the occupying army posed. Especially in the 
Union army's case, the master class faced the danger the local 
commanders or troops may be affected by anti-slavery sentiment. 
They could set out to make as much trouble as possible, such as 
by destroying or pillaging the planters' property or subvert 
slaveowners' attempts to control their slaves. Largely only with 
the house servants generally, and the slaves of unusually kind 
masters, where the paternalistic ideology was likely seriously 
practiced by the masters and really actually accepted by the 
slaves, especially in long settled areas, did the presence of a 
hostile army have lesser effects in subverting work discipline, 
because then a stronger voluntary component existed in the 
slave/master relationship. 

The High Levels of Violence between the Slaves and Masters 
Compared to England 

As for the enslaved, because they have no free choice, this 
lead to much greater violence on both sides when revolts did 

^^^Anderson, "Aunt Jemima in Dialectics," 111; As summarized 
in Richard S. Sterne and Jean Loftin Rothseiden, "Master-Slave 
Clashes as Forerunners of Patterns in Modern American Urban 
Eruptions," Phylon 30 (fall 1969) :254. 


occur, both in the numbers of whites killed by the slaves, and in 
the ensuing judicial and vigilante killings that followed. The 
slaves' desperation was greater, their goals much higher than the 
farmworkers' during the Swing Riots, and the American whites' 
frontier/vigilante ethos ensured massive retaliation when 
"putting the black man back in his place." An "all or nothing" 
mentality characterized the slave revolts, for they knew the 
system must be totally overthrown in order to achieve their goals 
when resorting to violence. Otherwise, sooner or later, the 
white militia and (if necessary) regular army would catch up with 
them, and kill them en masse in pitched battle. During the 
Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, the rebel slaves eventually 
totalled about seventy, and killed fifty- five whites, among whom 
"neither age nor sex was to be spared." They left behind, as 
Blassingame described, "a trail of ransacked plantations, 
decapitated bodies and battered heads across Southampton, " all in 
a mere forty-eight hours of time. More than forty blacks were 
executed or murdered (by lynch mobs, etc.) in the aftermath of 
this revolt. After the 1811 revolt in New Orleans, sixteen black 
leaders had their heads cut off and placed on stakes along the 
Mississippi, twenty more slaves were hanged, and perhaps one 
hundred more were killed by "roving bands of militia and 
vigilante groups." After the exposure of the Vesey plot in South 
Carolina in 1822, which had killed no whites, some twenty- two 
blacks were executed. Their bodies were allowed to dangle for 
hours. Its court stopped after executing thirty-five in all, 
having had dozens more scheduled for death, explaining that "the 
terror of example we thought would be sufficiently operative by 
the number of criminals sentenced to death [already] . " Sterne 
and Rothseiden maintain that with whites so ready to resort to 
violence, especially with extra-legal lynchings and riots, along 
with the routine whippings and other punishments necessary to 
keep the slaves in line on plantations, the blacks readily 
learned from (especially Southern) American culture to use 
physical force as a tool during conflicts.*^* 

Both Sides Committed Far Less Violence during the Swing Riots in 

Unlike the major American slave revolts, one has to look 
long and hard to find anyone actually killed in the mob violence 
that broke out during the Swing riots in 1830-31. In the ensuing 
trials relatively few farmworkers were finally executed compared. 
The Swing Riots were much more widespread in time and space than 
any American slave revolt, with some twenty counties affected, 
reaching a peak in the November and December of 1830. Despite 
all the verbal threats made to life, limb, and property, machines 

*^*Stampp, Peculiar Institution , p. 133; Blassingame, Slave 
Community , pp. 219-20; Anderson, "Aunt Jemima in Dialectics," 
111-12; Sterne and Rothseiden, "Master-Slave Clashes," 250-60. 


smashed, ricks burned, and dangerous weapons rioters branished, 
Hobsbawm and Rude noted: 

In fact, no single life was lost in the whole course of 
the riots among the farmers, landlords, overseers, 
parsons or the guardians of law and order . . . 
However, as we have seen even these methods [rick- 
burning, beating up overseers of the poor, etc.] were 
used in moderation, and at the height of the mass 
movement, hardly at all. More than this: the limits 
of violence were known and not overstepped. Property 
was its legitimate object, life was not. 

Another noted: "They got about their task of riot politely, 
dressed according to many eyewitnesses' accounts in their best 
clothes, seldom using threatening language." With great 
difficulty a case can be located where someone was actually 
killed during the Swing riots: One Wiltshire farmer shot and 
killed a rioter just after he participated in a mob that smashed 
up some threshing machines. Demonstrating the contrast with 
Turner's merciless band. Lady Cavan was able to challenge the 
rioters' sense of propriety by saying, "Seeing you are my 
neighbours and armed, yet, as I am an unprotected woman, I am 
sure you will do no harm." The gathered laborers quickly denied 
they meant any harm, and did none. When the English authorities, 
after initially showing some sense of mercy and/or restraint on 
the local level, implemented a policy of repression, only 19 were 
actually executed, although 252 were sentenced to death. Out of 
some 1,976 cases, 800 were acquitted, with 644 being jailed and 
505 being sentenced to transportation, with 482 actually arriving 
in Australia and Tasmania. While these figures still sound high, 
it has to be remembered the Swing riots involved far more 
laborers over a much larger geographic territory compared to the 
Turner or New Orleans slave revolts. Admittedly, the death 
sentences meted out greatly exceeded the severity of the crimes 
committed. But then, in America, thirty-five slaves were 
executed in South Carolina just for (allegedly) participating in 
Vesey's abortive conspiracy to revolt, in which no whites or 
others were injured or killed, and no property was damaged.*^'' 
Furthermore, there were no lynch mobs or vigilante activities 
that punished or killed laborers involved in the Swing riots, 
while in the aftermath of both the Turner and New Orleans revolts 
these were quite active. England's agricultural working class, 
even when rioting, showed a much greater restraint in using 

^^'^Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , pp. 212, 287 (quote), 
253-58 (policies of repression) , 308-9 (punishment statistics) 
"A very English rising," Times Literary Supplement , Sept. 11, 
1969, as cited in Rule, Labouring Classes , p. 360; Hudson, 
Shepherd's Life , pp . 233-34; Hammond and Hammond , Village 
Labourer , p. 279 (Cavan), 254, 266 (policies of repression). 


violence than the slaves, and in turn the English ruling class 
inflicted much less punishment on the average rioter, compared to 
Southern American whites ' standards of punishing slaves involved 
in slave revolts, actual or abortive, by the legal process or the 
lynch mob . 

The Lower Goals and Greater Divisions among Local Elites in the 
English Case 

The farmworkers ' goals were almost pathetically lower than 
the slaves', at least as proclaimed, even when the cloak of 
anonymity could be used, such as through the threatening "Swing" 
letters. Many sought just somewhat higher wages and (at the 
instigation or passive acceptance of the farmers in some areas) 
the end of the tithe and lower rents, and the destruction of the 
machines that robbed them of work. None announced any desire for 
the land of the gentry and aristocracy to divide among 
themselves .^^"^ Not even the goal of gaining allotments or 
reversing enclosure was stated by most rioters, which implies the 
basic acceptance of their condition of proletarianization, at 
least for their main means of support. Sometimes the gathered 
crowds of laborers did "levy" (i.e. extort) immediate cash 
payments or beer from various farmers and landowners. 
Occasionally the political agenda of the radical reformers such 
as Cobbett showed up in the demands of the laborers, such as a 
complaint against sinecures, and others against taxes, but these 
certainly were not the main demands of the laborers. Resentment 
against specific officials or places involved in the parish 
relief system was displayed, such as in the destruction of the 
Selborne and Headley workhouses in Hampshire .*^^ Consider the 
demands of one crowd of 150 that gathered in Ringmer, Sussex, 
which threw forward a letter stating their grievances to Lord 
Gage when he sought the leader of the group to come forward to 
state their demands. Although the writer had the advantage of 
anonymity in stating his group's goals, all that was demanded was 
a fairly substantial wage increase (in order to avoid dependence 
on parish relief) and the dismissal of the permanent overseers of 
the poor, singling one out in particular, who were less 
sympathetic to their claims for relief. The vestry proceeded to 
grant these demands after discussion, and with cheers the 

^^'^Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , p. 184; Rule, Labouring 
Classes, p. 360. 

^^^Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , pp. 66, 102-5; Hammond 
and Hammond, Village Laborer , pp. 246-49, 258-59; See also, 
although fictionalized and opposed to the rioters' demands. 
Machine -Breaking and the Changes Occasioned by It in the Village 
of Turvey Down: A Tale of the Times (Oxford, England: W. 
Baxter, 1830), pp. 26-30, as found in Carpenter, Rising of the 
Agricultural Workers . 


assembled crowd dispersed /^^ A significant factor in the riots, 
especially on the local level as the disturbances occurred, was 
that many farmers and even some landowners, especially on the 
county level, sympathized with the laborers' demands. ^^ A number 
of the farmers in East Anglia even seized upon the situation to 
use the laborers' collected numbers to exert pressure against 
landowners to lower rents and clergymen their tithes in order to, 
they said, raise their men's wages. ®° Would-be similar actions 
by Southern poor whites- -to instigate and collude with the slaves 
in a rebellion- -are unimaginable. Slaveholders and poor whites 
remained united as classes against the blacks during all the 
slave revolts and panics that happened in the antebellum South. 
The English farmers ' sense of personal danger from the open 
unrest of their workers was far less than what slaveowners and 
their small farmer and poor white allies felt during the 
actuality of a slave revolt, where the mentality on both sides 
was kill or be killed. Despite the evident oppression of the 
laborers, they were much more restrained in their dealings with 
local farmers and landowners during the Swing Riots, and vice 
versa, than the slaves were with their owners and allies among 
the non-slaveholding whites- -and the lynch mob mentality was 
entirely absent among the English.*®^ 

The Routine Police State Measures in the South 

American slaveowners routinely employed a number of very 
coercive safety measures and precautions in order to protect 
themselves against their human chattels. Slavery involves far 
more exertion of control, surveillance, and violence on a steady 
basis than is the case in a capitalist society where labor is 
free to quit and change jobs, and move elsewhere. The Southern 
whites were much more paranoid than the English rural elite, both 
for objective reasons and because of racist ones, and feared the 
slaves might attack them violently back in retaliation for the 
ill-treatment they had received. Olmsted described how the 
standard security measures in major Southern cities approached 

^^^Hammond and Hammond, Village Labourer , pp. 250-52; compare 
the similar demands made and granted in Hobsbawm and Rude, 
Captain Swing , pp. 105, 117-18. 

^^^Concerning the counties ' rulers willingness to make 
concessions, note Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , pp. 16-17. 

*®°Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , pp. 104, 109-10, 118, 
124-25, 130, 152, 158-60, 231-33. 

*®^The remarkable restraint and order of English crowds 
during food riots also confirms this characterization. See 
Thompson, "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd," 99, 108-20; 
Hammond and Hammond , Village Laborer , pp . 116-18. 


those associated with martial law: 

But go the bottom of this security and dependence 
[between slave servants and masters] , and you comes to 
police machinery such as you never find in towns under 
free government: citadels, sentries, passports, grape- 
shotted cannon, and daily public whippings for 
accidental infractions of police ceremonies. I 
happened myself to see more direct expression of 
tyranny in a single day and night at Charleston, than 
at Naples [under Bomba] in a week; and I found that 
more than half the inhabitants of this town were 
subject to arrest, imprisonment, and barbarous 
punishment, if found in the streets without a passport 
after the evening 'gun-fire.' 

He went on to explain how a twelve-year-old girl, in a district 
where slaves outnumbered free fifty to one, stopped an old slave 
along the road, and angrily ordered him back to his plantation 
under the threat of having him whipped when he hesitated to 
return. Then 

she instantly resumed the manner of a lovely child with 
me, no more apprehending that she had acted 
unbecomingly, than that her character had been 
influenced by the slave's submission to her caprice of 
supremacy; no more conscious that she had increased the 
security of her life by strengthening the habit of the 
slave to the master race, than is the sleeping seaman 
that he tightens his clutch of the rigging as the ship 
meets each new billow. *^^ 

The pass and patrol system had controls that were far tighter 
than anything dreamed up under the settlement laws and parish 
authorities in England, as damaging as the latter were to the 
English farmworkers' freedoms of movement and of contract. The 
level of compulsion and surveillance involved in the gang system 
was far higher than anything under which the English laborers 
suffered, including under their own gang system, because corporal 
punishment could not be inflicted on adult laborers. While the 
task system appreciably reduced the amount of compulsion and 
watchfulness masters maintained, it was not common outside 
lowland Georgia and South Carolina, so it must not be taken as 
the norm. Compulsion was the name of the game, and incentives 
for working extra hours, Sundays, and holidays were just mere 
supplements to a system of control characterized by violence. 

Coercion, Not Incentives or Ideology, as the Basic Means of 
Enforcing Slavery 

*®^01msted. Cotton Kingdom , 2:350-51 


while the slaves found ways to take advantage of divisions 
between masters, mistresses, their children, and overseers, as 
well as between poor whites and planters (such as in the illicit 
liquor/stolen goods trade) , the fact remains when any slightly 
serious challenge to the overall system of slavery occurred, all 
the whites would united against the blacks, enslaved and 
otherwise. Small advantages gained by resistance while the 
overall system maintained in place did not disturb its 
characteristically fantastic levels of violence and coercion. 
While many stories may be told about huge masses slaves routinely 
working when hardly any whites were around besides an overseer, 
or the owning white family, the fact remains the slaves, at least 
certainly their leaders, knew that revolt would result in a 
bloodbath, composed mostly of their own blood once the militia or 
regular army caught up with them. The routine whippings, sales, 
imprisonments, executions, etc. indicated that the whites meant 
business, and that they were (at least publicly) undivided and 
fully confident in maintaining their social system. Unlike other 
ruling classes which have been overthrown, who became divided and 
lost their nerve and belief in the justice of their social order, 
the South 's became more dogmatic and bellicose in defending 
itself in the three decades before the Civil War. Habit, 
combined with routinely punishing enough slaves as examples to 
restrain the rest, sufficed to keep them in line in most cases 
concerning any frontal attacks on the system that oppressed them. 
As for how the slaves could and did quietly subvert the system, 
oftentimes trying to get as many material advantages as they 
could, that is discussed below (pp. 325-353) . The effects of the 
Union army's presence demonstrated that most slaves were not 
obedient because they were turned into childish, docile "Sambos" 
in personality, or due to notions of paternalism or the 
Protestant work ethic swimming around in their heads. Now some 
exceptions did exist--such as among many drivers, domestic 
servants, and even the field hands of the kindest masters where 
the duties of the ruling class were not mere words, where the 
slaves actually did come to identify with their white family and 
its interests, sometimes in a quasi-client/patron relationship, 
especially in long-settled areas. Nevertheless, the overall 
system of slavery was maintained by a continual application of 
violence, coercion, and surveillance, and any other measures, 
such as pay for overtime work, better jobs for more loyal or 
harder-working slaves, the inculcation of paternalistic ideology, 
etc. were mere supplements, not its core. 

Basic Differences between the American and English Elites ' 
Methods of Control 

Because the English farmworkers were legally free, the 
English aristocracy and gentry, as well as their allies among the 
tenant farmers, had to take a considerably different approach to 
maintaining social control and imposing work discipline on their 
work force than American slaveholders when dealing with their 


slaves. One key difference was that local government loomed much 
larger in the lives of the English farmworkers than it did in the 
lives of the slaves, whose master or mistress had the total power 
to discipline them except for serious offenses such as murder. 
England, having long been settled, had much stronger local 
administrative machinery in place, even if its actual ability to 
deploy force in times of emergency was surprisingly low. 
Compared to Southern frontier America and its vigilante/lynch mob 
spirit, a much stronger respect for the law as a means of 
settling inter-personal disputes existed, even if duels among 
aristocrats remained a standing exception to this rule until well 
into the nineteenth century. 

The Freedom of Action Local Government Officials Had in England 

In England, controlling unruly or troublesome agricultural 
workers on a routine basis while not at work was a job largely 
left to the magistrates and justices of the peace. Conveniently 
enough for local rural elites, these normally were squires, 
parsons, landowners, or various others in the local rural ruling 
class who possessed a vested economic interest in disciplining 
the lower classes. For unlike ancien regime France, with its 
central control and appointment of local officials and gendarmes, 
only intensified after the Revolution, England's rural 
officialdom normally had its roots in the immediately surrounding 
countryside where they held office. French intendants and their 
subdelegates were directly responsible to the king and his royal 
council, often served in alien areas, and were removable at will. 
By contrast, local English officials simply could not be easily 
disciplined or removed by the king, parliament, or the home 
office. Only with an address to the king from both Houses of 
Parliament could they be removed. As a result, English 
government in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was 
much more decentralized than France's, and local magistrates 
provided a check on the central government ' s powers such that the 
local landowners often could insulate themselves from London's 
effective authority. But this system correspondingly created 
hundreds, nay, thousands, of petty oligarchies, wherein squires, 
parsons, and landowners served as magistrates locally, often 
ruling on cases that indirectly or directly affected their own 
interests. Generally they could pretty much do as they wished, 
bending laws and setting precedents that served their own 
interests, largely only restrained by any sense of paternalism or 
gentlemanliness they possessed. Justices of the peace also had 
taken on many administrative responsibilities over the centuries, 
and had much authority, directly or indirectly, over the 
maintenance of parish roads, the settlement law's enforcement, 
and the setting of the poor rates. Since so much of the 
laborers ' lives and fates were wound up in the poor and 
settlement laws, power fell into the hands of the local vestries 
under the Old Poor Law and boards of guardians under the New, 
giving local government great direct influence on the laborers ' 


lives. The corresponding institutions in the American South had 
much less influence on the slaves because so much effective de 
facto judicial power had been delegated to the slaveholders 
through their ability to use corporal punishment. English rural 
elites used the local administrative machinery at the parish and 
county levels, whether through courts or the bodies that oversaw 
paupers and gave out relief, to mainly to control the laborers, 
not so much any personal power that came from being supervisors 
or employers.*^ 

Because the laborers were legally free men and women, 
employers, as employers , had much less control over the laborers 
when they were off work than the slaveowners had over their 
personal chattels. Work discipline issues spilled over much less 
into the off-work personal lives of the agricultural workers than 
for the slaves. Except in some cases under the poor laws for 
families declared paupers, it was impossible to destroy or split 
up a laborer's family in order to force compliance with his or 
her betters. The laborers, at least theoretically, had the 
freedom to quit and go anywhere in England they wished- -although, 
as we will see, the settlement laws put a considerable crimp on 
this. As a result, English rural elites had to use considerably 
more indirect measures of control than the Southern slaveholders 
had, who could, on the spot have recalcitrant slaves whipped, 
imprisoned, or sold, only rarely facing any official appeal or 
interference against their actions concerning their enslaved 
blacks . 

The Basic Strategy for Controlling the Farmworkers Better 

Since the landowners as well as the farmers had increasingly 
accepted a commercial system of agriculture (paternalistic 
rhetoric notwithstanding) , and raised crops for sale and not 
generally for immediate subsistence, they would not attack the 
free market on principle to restrict the freedoms of the 
laborers, at least by the late eighteenth century. Their 
approach instead was to rig the labor market on terms that 
favored them, making the laborers semi -freely then choose to work 
for this or that local farmer or landowner in some given parish. 
They used enclosure to try to force laborers into a complete 
dependence on wages through destroying the semi -independent, 
"scratch as scratch can" subsistence economy that eked out a 
living off the parish commons. By using the settlement laws that 
forced laborers to stay in their own parishes when they became 
chargeable to the poor laws (or worse, before 1795, when the 

*®^Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French 
Revolution , trans. Stuart Gilbert (1856; New York: Anchor Books, 
Doubleday, 1955), pp. 32-72; Hammond and Hammond, Village 
Labourer , pp. 12-17; Hammond and Hammond, Town Labourer , pp. SO- 
SO, 269; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 164. 


local parish believed they may become chargeable) , they created 
semi-captive pools of laborers. But this could be expensive, 
because the poor rates had to be jacked up to pay for all these 
people on relief. Parishes with one or a very few dominant 
landowners could manipulate the poor laws by driving out all 
laborers who might become chargeable to the parish, such as 
during the long winter slack season in arable areas. These 
parishes became "closed, " because laborers could not easily gain 
settlements or live in them without long-term contracts. 
Landowners would keep only the laborers they needed year around 
in these parishes, and relegate the "reserve army of unemployed" 
to nearby "open" villages or small towns, which was drawn upon 
during seasonal peaks such as harvest and haymaking. This 
practice also had the advantage of allowing them to dispense with 
farm servants, who gained settlements when given one -year 
contracts in the parish they worked in, and who likely became 
semi-idle in winter anyway. Parishes to which extra laborers 
were driven had the misfortune of becoming "open" because those 
who owned (or rented) the land were too large or diverse a group 
to act in a monopsonic fashion. Ratepayers (the occupiers of the 
land) in these parishes had to pay much higher poor rates (which 
amounted to real estate taxes) as a result than the landlords or 
farmers in closed parishes. With the passage of the 1834 Poor 
Law Amendment Act, landowners found another way to avoid having 
to pay relief to all but the most desperate. The New Poor Law 
banned outdoor relief to the able-bodied, and deterred applicants 
for relief by the workhouse test by even those possessing local 
settlements. So the English rural elites, by skillfully wielding 
enclosure, the settlement laws, and the poor laws, could lower 
their wage bills and poor rates by saturating the local labor 
markets with labor only as they needed it, allowing them to 
dispense with farm servants, while attempting to avoid paying for 
its "upkeep" during seasonal lows in the agricultural year 
through foisting "surplus workers" upon open parishes and through 
making small landowners (or tenants) pay higher poor rates than 
they otherwise would have and by finding ways to deter laborers 
from applying for parish relief. Let us consider each part of 
this program piece by piece. 

Enclosure as a Method of Social Control and "Class Robbery" 

Although public-spirited motives could always be cited to 
justify enclosure, it still remained a form of class aggression, 
of landowners against cottagers and laborers, in Thompson's words 
"class robbery, " since it clearly served the material interests 
of the former group as against the latter.*^* Landowners received 

*®*Thompson, Making , pp. 216-17. The purpose of this brief 
summary on enclosure is not to debate the overall merits of 
enclosure, such as the trade-off between increased production and 
high social costs like increased unemployment, loss of rights to 


a large, proportional increase in their property, since they had 
formal legal title to their rights in land. By contrast, the 
poor's customary rights to the use of the village common were not 
legally recognized. As a result, they normally got little or 
nothing from the commissioners hired to assess, apportion, and 
award the lands that had been the village commons. Usually they 
not only received nothing, but lost access to the commons, which 
now was split up among pre-existing landowners. The Earl of 
Lincoln admitted that nineteen of twenty private enclosure bills 
ignored the rights of the poor. Even when their rights were 
recognized and were awarded a small piece of land, it often had 
to be sold. In Buckingham, within two or three years of 
enclosure 50 percent of the landowners sold their land, as 
opposed to the normal rate of 2 percent selling per decade. *^^ 
Perhaps they could not pay the legal costs all landowners had to 
bear for parliamentary enclosure to take place. Sometimes they 
could not pay to build fences on their small strip of land, which 
cost proportionately more for small parcels than large, so they 
had to sell it. One calculation found it cost four pounds an 
acre to enclose twenty acres, but two acres cost thirteen pounds 
each. As a clergyman for Parndon, Essex noted, after an 
enclosure that took place in 1795: "Their little allotments all 
sold; could not enclose." Since the purchasers were the 
normally better-off landowners or farmers to begin with, this 
land was likely permanently alienated from the poor as a class . 
These general effects were reported by one veteran of twenty 
enclosure commissions thus, as summarized by another: 

Numbers in the practice of feeding the commons cannot 
prove their right, and many, indeed most who have 
allotments, have not more than one acre, which being 
insufficient for the man's cow, both cow and land are 
usually sold to opulent farmers. That the right sold 
before the enclosure would produce much less than the 
allotment after it, but the money is dissipated, doing 
them no good when they cannot vest it in stock. 

Another commissioner said that in most of the enclosures he had 
known, "the poor man's allotment and cow are sold, five times in 
six before the award is signed. "^^"^ The sellers of these small 
strips of land received from enclosure a few pounds that was 

common, etc. 

^^'^Young, General Report , pp. 12-13, 16; Commission on 
Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. 48, 52, 54; Anscomb, 
"Parliamentary Enclosure in Northamptonshire," pp. 415-416; 
Hammond and Hammond, Village Labourer , pp. 93, 97-98; Rule, Vital 
Century , pp. 86-87. 

*"Young, General Report , pp. 155, 158, 169-70; cf. p. 81. 


likely swallowed up by basic living expenses like food- -food 
often once gained by grazing their animals on the commons in the 
past, an option now terminated by enclosure. Enclosure clearly 
was a redistribution of property from the poor to the rich, which 
is only obscured because the poor's customary rights to the 
commons were not generally legally recognized- -and, even when 
they were, the resulting allotments awarded often did them little 
permanent good. 

Enclosure: Direct Access to the Means of Production and Food 
Both Lost 

As noted above, meat largely fell out of the farmworkers' 
diets during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries 
(pp. 30-33, 37, 39-41) . In many areas enclosure helped cause 
their diet to deteriorate, because the poor before it could own a 
cow, sheep, or pig, and graze it on the commons. After 
enclosure, they had to sell their cows (especially) since the 
only pasture they could use had now disappeared behind the fences 
of their richer neighbors and/or converted to arable use. The 
poor now had to pay hard cash earned from wage work for milk, 
butter, and meat that before they had gained independently from 
working for others by the generally minimal effort of having one 
or more of their animals graze on the local commons. As 
Somerville noted: "Each enclosure bill excluded the poor man 
from the common, and, upon the whole, it may be as well for them 
to live the mean life of breeders of geese, rather than be turned 
out to labour for wages less than the price of food." But more 
was lost than just additional income in the form of animal foods. 
They also lost their direct access to the means of production 
whenever enclosure struck their parish or village. With the 
destruction of the semi-subsistence economy of the poor based on 
the commons, which had kept many out of the labor market for much 
of the year, the now thoroughly proletarianized laborers were 
thrown upon exclusively depending on working for others to gain a 
living- -or upon handouts of others, whether the charity of the 
rich or the dole of the parish. Excellently summarizing this 
process, one clergyman in 1795 said enclosure and the stripping 
of cottages of attached land reduced the laboring poor "from a 
comfortable state of independence to a precarious state as mere 
hirelings, who when out of work, come immediately upon the 
parish. "*^^ Some even saw destroying the economic independence of 
the poor as a good policy since it imposed stricter labor 
discipline upon them. As one advocate of large farms claimed: 

[The benefit the poor gain from the commons] is an 
essential injury to them, by being made a plea for 
their idleness; for, some few excepted, if you offer 

^^^Somerville, Whistler, p. 32; Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p. xlvii 


them work, they will tell you, they must go to look up 
their sheep, cut furzes, get their cow out of the 
pound, or perhaps, say they must take their horse to be 
shod, that he may carry them to a horse-race or 
cricket-match ... if by converting the little farmers 
into a body of men who must work for others, more 
labour is produced, it is an advantage which the nation 
should wish for: the compulsion will be that of honest 
industry to provide for a family. *®® 

Opposing an unsuccessful 1845 bill that encouraged allotments, 
one M.P. said laborers should be " solely " dependent on wages for 
a living. So the farmworkers lost more than food when enclosure 
came, but any remaining economic independence as well from their 
social superiors, whether as employers or as dispensers of 
charity or parish relief, unless a permanent system of allotments 
was put into place. *®^ 

But even for the rich, the blessings of enclosure were by no 
means unmixed. Under the poor law, ratepayers- -who were not 
necessarily exactly "rich" --had to support unemployed laborers. 
When enclosure cut off the poor from the commons for cutting 
fuel, grazing animals, or raising vegetables, those out of work 
turned to the parish much more quickly than they otherwise would 
have if they could have maintained a state of semi-subsistence, 
semi - independence . When completely proletarianized laborers ran 
out of cash earned from wages, they and their families were 
fundamentally helpless, and had to look to others for aid. 
Enclosure commonly caused rate hikes in many parishes in order to 
support the now greatly multiplied numbers of paupers, especially 
in arable areas because seasonal unemployment was high in winter. 
One gentleman told Somerville in 1844 that he expected half the 
laboring population of his parish in Sussex to seek relief at the 
workhouse in winter. Speaking generally, the rush to enclosure 
during the French Wars and their immediate aftermath correlated 
with a rapid increase in the amount of poor relief granted from 
the 1790s until the 1815-20 post-war period. It peaked then at 

*^^J. Arbuthnot, An Inquiry into the Connection between the 
Present Price of Provisions and the Size of Farms (1773), as 
quoted in Snell, Annals , p. 173. Cf . the clergyman for Naseing, 
Essex's comment that enclosure locally had "a worthless crew 
changed to industrious labourers." Young, General Report , p. 
156; see also pp. 3 91-92. Those living near large commons were 
considered "irregular in their habits" and "were often the most 
distressed and needy of the surrounding population." Commission 
on the Employment in Agriculture, BPP , 1867-68, p. lii. 

^^^Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , pp. 35-37; Hammond and 
Hammond, Village Labourer , pp. 99-101; Rule, Vital Century , pp. 


3.2 percent of national income and twelve shillings ten pence per 
person. Snell powerfully demonstrates this relationship more 
specifically by regressing the amounts of per capita poor relief 
paid with the ten counties most affected by parliamentary 
enclosure, where over 35 percent of their land was enclosed. The 
correlation determination (r) was an astonishing .911, which 
meant "as much as 83 per cent of the variation [r^] in poor 
relief in these counties can be explained by the percentage of 
land enclosed." Even in those fourteen counties where 17 to 35 
percent of the land was enclosed a correlation coefficient (r) of 
.755 was produced, with the coefficient of determination (r^) 
coming to over 57 percent. The history of specific parishes 
proves these correlations were not coincidental. Sir Paul found 
an average increase in the rates of over 250 percent in the nine 
parishes he listed. In the extreme case of Lidlington, they went 
from one shilling to four shillings six pence in the pound, in 
Chattris, from two shillings to four shillings six pence, and 
Hethersett, five shillings to ten.*^° Thus, enclosure could 
actually damage landowners, for increasing their control of the 
laborers by stripping them of their former state of semi- 
independence using the commons caused local tax hikes. 

Open and Close Parishes: One Dumps Laborers onto the Other 

One parish, by dumping its laborers off on other parishes as 
much as walking distances and the legalities of the settlement 
laws allowed, lowered its poor rates. Creating a "close parish" 
in which ideally only the minimal number of laborers required 
year around gained settlements therein became a standard 
objective for many in the rural elite. Landlords would work to 
pull down cottages deemed unnecessary, and farmers would avoid 
hiring live-in farm servants on one-year contracts to keep from 
giving them settlements in the parish they worked in. As 
clergyman John Cox of Essex testified: "People began to see that 
by hiring by the year they created settlements in their parishes, 
and they did not do it long." A number were taken to hiring 
servants for fifty-one weeks or a few days short of a year. Ann 
Peece was dismissed a few days short of a year because "it would 
not be safe for the parish for her to continue there. "*^^ All 
laborers who became chargeable as paupers would be shipped out to 
their parish of settlement, if it was elsewhere. The laws of 
settlement before 1795 were a very powerful tool, because if 
parish authorities simply thought someone was "likely" to become 

*^°Thompson, Making , p. 221; Somerville, Whistler , p. 407; 
Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , p. 76; Snell, Annals , pp. 195- 
97 . Note that Yorkshire was broken up into three different 
"counties" for these comparisons; Young, General Report , p. 157. 

*^^As quoted in Snell, Annals , pp. 70, 77; compare Hammonds, 
Village Labourer , pp . 115-16. 


chargeable, he could be removed to his place of settlement under 
the 1662 Settlement Act. Prior to the 1795 act, certificates 
also had to be granted by the original parish of an immigrant to 
another parish in order to allow him or her to leave legally, 
which helped clarify the immigrant's place of settlement. If the 
receiving parish demanded a certificate, and it was not granted, 
it could immediately remove (i.e., "deport") the immigrant back 
to his or her place of origin. Relegated to some other nearby 
"open parish, " were all the "catch work" laborers needed only 
during seasonal peaks such as harvest, haymaking, and spring 
planting. Here ratepayers suffered from the misfortune of not 
being able to operate as a tight cartel to keep laborers from 
gaining settlements, so they had to provide relief for laborers 
often employed elsewhere for at least part of the year. Those 
not employing farm labor were forced to subsidize those who did, 
who failed either to pay a living wage (as under the 
Speenhamland/family supplement system) or to employ them year 
around. *^^ 

Even some time before the French Wars, Young encountered one 
man, Charles Turner, who by bringing in more laborers instead of 
pushing them out, acted "diametrically opposite to the vulgar 
ideas impressed by those efforts of barbarism, the poor laws of 
this kingdom: Instead of quarrelling with other parishes to see 
who should be troubled with the fewest poor, he endeavors by all 
means to increase that number in his." The effort to push out 
laborers intensified after the effects of enclosure, population 
growth, and the decline of service manifested themselves as the 
nineteenth century began. Sometimes extreme measures were 
employed to push laborers off onto other parishes. After the 
French Wars, estates for eight to ten miles around Norwich were 
systematically cleansed of laborers, while cottages were pulled 
down faster than they were built in some areas of Devon and 
Somerset. (As described above about laborers' housing (pp. 65, 
69-71), the settlement laws were a major reason for the poor 
quality of rural housing and crowding, such as the poor quality 

^^^Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , pp. 34, 182-83; Snell, 
Annals, pp. 17-19, 72-73, 78-80, 334-36; Norma Landau, "The 
Regulation of Immigration, Economic Structures and Definitions of 
the Poor in Eighteen-Century England, " Historical Journal 33 
(Sept. 1990) : 541-72; Hammond and Hammond, Village Labourer , pp. 
108-16. There is an ominous similarity between the pre-1795 
certificate system and the pass system imposed on slaves, the 
main differences being the latter was proportionately much less 
often enforced, especially in urban areas, that it was tied to 
giving aid to the poor, not a restriction on movement for the 
sake of control alone, that a local unit of government, not a 
master/employer/owner granted it, and the difficulties imposed in 
instantly spotting violators because of a lack of racial 
differences between the laborers and those who enforced it. 


cottages that tradesmen charged exploitive rents for in the open 
villages). Separating laborers' parish of work and of residence 
sometimes imposed walks of five, ten, preposterously even twelve 
miles in some cases around Norwich. This problem laid the 
foundation for the infamous gang system, as the authors of the 
1867-68 Report knew, where gang masters would gather groups of 
men, women, and/or children from (normally) open villages to work 
on distant farms. Originally, the settlement laws existed to 
protect a given parish's resources (its commons, etc.) for its 
own poor first of all as against newcomers who might overtax them 
if permitted to come in without restrictions. But in the hands 
of the landlords and large farmers they became a tool of 
oppression for driving down the poor rates. The Hammonds 
powerfully and succinctly described Hodge's predicament thus: 
"The destruction of the commons had deprived him [the laborer] of 
any career within his own village; the Settlement Laws barred his 
escape out of it."*^^ 

The Decline of Service 

The decline of service was another development farmworkers 
normally strongly opposed since it injured themselves as a class. 
From their viewpoint, it guaranteed them food and a place to stay 
when still young and unmarried for an entire year. It also 
encouraged the accumulation of savings before marriage because 
the cash part of their wage was paid as a lump sum at the end of 
their contract. Now as the accumulated effects of enclosure, 
population growth, and the near universalization of parish relief 
under (especially) the Speenhamland system piled up in the early 
nineteenth century this changed. But traditionally, starting as 
young teenagers, a man or woman working in husbandry would be a 
farm servant for so many years, and live on the farmer's 
premises. At annual hiring fairs, they (likely) would switch 
employers, and live for another year with another farmer. After 
getting married, they became day laborers hired by the day, week, 
or month, who lived in their own cottages. But in one way this 
system's decline did benefit the laborers: It reduced the amount 
of control and surveillance their superiors exercised over them. 

Now, when did service collapse? Regionally, this system 
persisted in northern England into the mid and late nineteenth 
centuries, and in some parts of the southwest, but in southern 
England it had largely disappeared by c. 1840, especially in 
arable areas in the southeast. It had begun to change in the 

^"Arthur Young, A Six Months Tour Through the North of 
England 2d ed., 4 vols. (London: W. Trahan, W. Nicol, 1771), 
2:12 9; Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp , 
xvi, xvii, XXV, xxvi ; Morgan, Harvesters , p. 192, footnote 14; 
Rule, Labouring Classes , p. 79-80; Hammond and Hammond, Village 
Labourer , p. 108. 


late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and many in 
husbandry became laborers without having passed through the farm 
servant stage first. Snell's figures, based on quantifying 1,272 
settlement law examinations for southeastern counties, found that 
while in the 1760s about 45 percent of farm servants continued 
with the same employer for two years, it fell to about 25 percent 
by the 1790s for a group of southeastern counties. For some 
counties, such as Hertsford, Buckingham, Berks, Essex, and 
Oxford, this practice ceased completely by 1820, and for Surrey, 
Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire, by 1810. While a gradual decline in 
the number of annual hirings can be seen from c. 1780, the main 
collapse dated from c. 1810, with a rapid increase in shorter 
hiring periods occurring, and a corresponding decrease in fifty- 
two week hirings, by 1840. Fifty-one week hirings, which are 
obvious contrivances to avoid giving farmworkers settlements, for 
this same area rose from nearly nil in 1810 to nearly 20 percent 
by 183 0. But down into the 182 0s and 183 0s, a large number of 
regular annual hirings still occurred. In the north, service 
remained a feature of many agricultural workers' careers, as the 
1867-68 Commission on Employment in Agriculture found. In north 
Northumberland, service included the female "bondage" system. 
This varied from standard service because the woman still lived 
at her parents' home, not her employer's. Yorkshire itself still 
had a strong system of statute hirings, in contrast to it "dying 
out in many localities" elsewhere in England. Chadwick hoped the 
New Poor Law, which abolished outdoor relief for the able-bodied, 
would operate "both on the feelings and interests of the 
employers of labour as an inducement to resort to the ancient and 
excellent practice of hiring labourers for the year certain."*^* 
This hope remained unsatisfied, for it would be hard to bring 
back this system as dead as it was by 1834 in southern England, 
unless the causes of its decline strongly reversed themselves . *^^ 

Why Service Declined 

*^*Snell, Annals, pp. 74-76, 84; Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, pp. xii-xiii, xx, xxiv; Committee on 
New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first report, p. 47 

^^''J.C.D. Clark says enclosure "may even have tended to 
increase the numbers of living- in servants, for the effect of 
more efficient agriculture was to increase, not reduce the demand 
for labor." This assumes not only that the given enclosure did 
not replace arable land with permanent pasture, but generally 
discounts how enclosure increased unemployment by driving more 
workers into local labor markets, especially in winter, since 
they could no longer eke out a living off the local commons. 
English Society 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and 
Political Practice During the Ancien Regime , Cambridge Studies in 
the History and Theory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1985), p. 68. 


So why did service decline? Contemporaries did repeatedly 
blame the rising social pretensions of farmers and their wives 
caused them to not want laborers living under the same roof with 
them. The aspirations of farmers to gentility, especially those 
with a large amount of land, was discussed above (pp. 207-8), 
emphasizing the female side, when dealing with the sexual 
division of labor. One farmer went bankrupt due to overspending 
by him and his wife, and inattention to his farm, whom Arch had 
worked for as a child. He used this case to condemn the general 
class of non-working farmers: 

Why do not these farmers, with their wives and 
families, draw in, and turn to, and live according to 
their means, instead of being above their trade? Let 
the farmer give up his hunter, let his wife doff her 
silken gowns, her furbelows and fal-lals, let his 
daughters drop their tinkling accomplishments, and let 
them give their time, their attention, and their money 
to the farm, as it is their clear and bounden duty to 

These pretensions not only manifested themselves by extravagant 
living and neglect of business, but also by casting out farm 
servants to live elsewhere. One conversation Somerville had with 
a Wiltshire laborer reveals well the laborers ' resentment against 
the farmers on this score. After maintaining that while the 
lords, squires, parsons, and farmers were all bad, the latter 
were the worst, and that Somerville himself was one of them, he 

You ha ' a daughter, playing on the piano on a Saturday 
night to drown the noise of them brutes of labouring 
men what come to get their wages through a hole in the 
wall; what cannot be allowed to set foot within a 
farmer's house now-a-days; what must be paid through an 
opening in the partition, lest they defile the house of 
a master what gets rich as they get poor.*^'^ 

Due to the high agricultural prices during the French Wars that 
increased farmers' incomes, and the effects of enclosure in 
reducing social mobility upwards from the cottagers ' ranks and 
impoverishing many laborers, the differences between the haves 
and have-nots grew during this period. The perceptions of 
contemporaries about the "embourgoisement" of the larger farmers 
as a class had a basis in fact, and this had implications for the 
discontinuation of service. 

Factors of an directly economic nature were prominent in the 

*^'^Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 30-31; Somerville, Whistler , p. 42; 
cf. p. 147 cited above (p. 208). 


decline of service. Originally, farmers desired it because they 
wanted to have a fully secure "lock" on a certain number of 
laborers ' services year around to ensure their ability to meet 
the peak seasonal demands of the agricultural year, even if it 
meant having to maintain the farm servants through the slack 
winter season in a semi-idle state in (especially) arable areas. 
But because of population increases in many rural districts 
starting from the 1740s, and correspondingly rising unemployment, 
farmers no longer needed a guaranteed minimal number of contract 
laborers. Furthermore, enclosure itself helped eliminate the 
need for farmers to tie up labor in long-term contracts because 
laborers were no longer apt to refuse short term offers of 
employment in order to attend to some aspect of scraping a living 
off the parish commons instead. The parish's "reserve army of 
unemployed" was so large farmers could hire them for the exact 
number of days or weeks needed, and dismiss them at will, on a 
daily basis. No threat existed of a real labor shortage year 
around, except (though not always even then) at harvest time, so 
farmers lost any incentive to "lock in" a minimal number of 
laborers . Another reason for farmers switching over to day 
laborers from farm servants were higher agricultural prices 
relative to the supply of money, such as during the French Wars. 
When food was cheap, but money relatively scarce, it was 
financially wise to board and feed farm servants on the farmers ' 
own premises to minimize wage payments. But when the shoe was on 
the other foot, paying the laborers and making them shift for 
themselves in cottages of their own became the more profitable 
course of action. As Cobbett put it: 

Why do not farmers now feed and lodge their work- 
people, as they did formerly? Because they cannot keep 
them upon so little as they give them in wages. . . . 
[A] number of people, boarded in the same house, and at 
the same table, can, with as good food, be boarded much 
cheaper than those persons divided into twos, threes, 
or fours, can be boarded. . . . therefore, if the 
farmer now shuts his pantry against his labourers, and 
pays them wholly in money, is it not clear, that he 
does it because he thereby gives them a living cheaper 
to him; that is to say, a worse living than formerly? 

As mentioned above (p. 282), service also declined because 
settlements were conferred upon farm servants hired for a year 
until 1834, when the New Poor Law abolished this. But the 
provision of parish relief discouraged hiring for even shorter 
terms of service because the rates were paid by all property 
holders or occupiers in a parish, which included those employing 
no workers at all. They could lay them off, even for a day 
because of rainy weather as Chadwick complained, and force others 
to subsidize the continued maintenance of their laborers at the 
semi-starvation levels of pre-1834 outdoor poor relief. In 
short, farmers found many solid financial reasons to end boarding 


their laborers over and above any social pretensions for doing 

so . 

How Poor Relief Itself Promoted Population Growth 

The Poor Laws, at least under the Speenhamland system of 
family allowances before 1834, promoted a rising birthrate, 
constituting another factor that helped hold Hodge in poverty. 
The population growth of England in the late eighteenth and early 
nineteenth centuries was not just an autonomous and exogenous 
phenomenon that helped to transform rural class relations. 
Parish relief encouraged early marriages, and discouraged 
accumulating savings, because married men and women with families 
received priority in getting work and aid through their parish, 
while single men and women were largely allowed to shift for 
themselves, or were given particularly unpleasant make-work jobs. 
Philip Hunt, a Bedfordshire magistrate, testified in 1824 that: 
"What is the course which a labourer takes to increase his income 
or wages, when he marries and has a family? He applies to the 
overseer of the parish for assistance; and that assistance in 
general is doled out in so limited a way, that very few labourers 
marry voluntarily." G.O. Fenwick, the Vicar of Kempston, 
Bedfordshire, complained in a questionnaire returned to the 
committee that drew up the 1834 Poor Law Report: "The poor laws, 
as at present administered, act as a bounty upon marriage." 
Clergyman Hugh Wade Gery, of Eaton Socon, Bedfordshire, while 
testifying in 1837, attributed the recent increase in population 
in parishes "in some measure upon the persons marrying earlier 
now, without having provided for a family, which they were in the 
habit of doing formerly, now depending upon parochial relief." 
The old delayed marriage pattern of patiently accumulating 
savings as farm servants boarding with farmers until they could 
marry (say) in their mid to late twenties increasingly 
disappeared along with service, itself undermined by rising 
unemployment. Parish relief's inducements to early marriage 
created a vicious circle that helped confine the laborers to 
poverty. The increasing population of rural England since the 
1740s had already increasingly flooded many local parish labor 
markets with potential workers, and this just added to the 
problem. The decline of service and enclosure combined to 
increase the numbers of those dependent on parish relief, 
especially during the winter months in arable areas by driving up 
seasonal unemployment, helping to universalize its influences on 
the farmworkers as a class. Especially under the Speenhamland 
and roundsmen systems of having wages supplemented by the parish, 
allowing farmers to avoid directly paying living wages to their 

*"Cobbett, Rural Rides , pp. 219-20; Chadwick's letter as 
reproduced in Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first 
report, p. 46; Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , pp. 44-46; 
Snell, Annals , pp. 69-97, 216. 


laborers, they received an incentive to marry early and have many 
children similar to American slaves: Just as slaves were 
guaranteed so much food by their masters and mistresses 
regardless of work effort and were (often) rewarded one way or 
another for having children, the local parishes guaranteed so 
much aid per family member regardless of how good a worker the 
farm laborer (male head of household) was . Under such 
conditions, the laborer and his family largely ceased needing to 
independently sustain themselves as an economic unit , and lost 
any incentives to save or limit family size, because parish 
officials increasingly became a "master" who automatically took 
care of them, albeit increasingly at semi-starvation levels. 
Firing laborers for bad work performance lost much of its sting 
as a labor discipline tool when so many received so much aid 
directly from the parish to begin with, and were totally 
dependent on the dole for much of the year anyway. With so much 
mass unemployment, so many used to being idle, and so much aid 
given by the parish, much of shame for being fired had 
disappeared- -especially when the farmers and landowners were so 
often deeply resented to begin with- -as did many of the economic 
consequences for being jobless, including when one had a large 
family increasing further in size. Hence, parish relief itself 
was a factor, combined with the decline of service and enclosure, 
in increasing population growth. *^^ 

Assorted Methods that Deterred Applicants for Relief 

Rural elites increasingly saw how unsustainable the patch- 
work Speenhamland system was when facing an ever-growing army of 
applicants for relief and their falling levels of individual 
productivity. They started looking for more ways to deter 
applicants from applying. Imposing shame on recipients by some 
visible degradation, such as making them wear a badge with a "P" 
in blue on their shoulder on the right sleeve, was common in the 
northeast of England in the eighteenth century. Laborers also 
were publicly humiliated by such practices as harnessing paupers 
to carts with bells around their necks and holding auctions for 
their labor like those for slaves. Another approach was to 
create "make work" jobs as an alternative to pure relief 
spending. Since many of these jobs were not especially pleasant, 
and could serve as an outdoor test of destitution, many had one 
more reason to avoid applying for relief any earlier than they 
had to. Although working on the roads and breaking stones 
theoretically was hard, oppressive work, often as actually done 

^^^Thompson, Making , p. 221; Committee on the New Poor Law, 
BPP , 1837, first report, pp. 53-54, second report, p. 18; Agar, 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 52, 64, 73; see also p. 76; 
Somerville, Whistler, p. 385; Snell, Annals, pp. 210-18, 348-52; 
Rule, Vital Century , pp. 23-24; Hammonds, Village Labourer , p. 


by the pauperized laborers these jobs were covers for idleness. 
Other jobs, such as oakum-picking, had deterrent effects as well. 
After citing Assistant Commissioner Hawley's report that noted 
this job "had the effect of driving many from the workhouse and 
deterring others from approaching it," Walter asked him, "Are you 
not aware that oakum-picking is considered a disgraceful and 
degrading employment in consequence of that employment being 
given in prisons?" Although Hawley denied this, the implications 
of Walter's question were clear. *^^ 

Why "Make -Work" Jobs Failed to Deter Applicants and Undermined 
Work Discipline 

Make-work jobs often backfired on those who offered them, if 
they wished to accomplish much useful by them. Similar to the 
reputation built up around those hired by the WPA under the New 
Deal to rake leaves, many laborers with these jobs performed 
little real work because the assigned tasks were perceived as 
unimportant whether performed or not, by the employers as well as 
the employed. ^°° As Thomas Batchelor noted, in the questionnaire 
he returned to the 1834 Poor Law Commissioners for the parish of 
Lidlington, Bedfordshire: 

[The laborers' productivity was] diminishing very much, 
in consequence of the evil example of paying many 
persons on the roads for doing scarcely any thing; and 
the reason why they are permitted to have wages almost 
without work is, because the farmers have no interest 
in the permanent improvements of the roads, or even the 
lands, while the laws permit the public, or the 
landowners, to receive nearly all the profits of work, 
which they refuse to pay for, or encourage by 
allowances . ^°^ 

*^®Rushton, "The Poor Law in North-East England," 147; 
Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing , p. 76; Anonymous, The Life and 
History of Swing ; reprint ed.. Carpenter, Rising of the 
Agricultural Labourers , pp. 18-19, 24; Hammonds, Village 
Labourer , p. 241; Peter Dunkley, "'The 'Hungry Forties' and the 
New Poor Law: A Case Study, " Historical Journal 17 (June 
1974) :337-338; Report on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first 
report, p. 71. 

^°°For a contemporary analysis of this phenomenon, see George 
Gilder, Wealth and Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1981), pp. 
143-44, 154, 156-61. 

^°^as in Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 74. Even when 
something was accomplished, a lack of incentive for further 
employment could exist when one ends up overwhelmed with a 
surplus inventory of gravel. One area in Yorkshire employed so 
many at stone -breaking that they piled up enough stones to last 


The laborers on the roads and in the parish gravel pits were 
notorious slackers, which undermined efforts to impose work 
discipline on them. Paying them by the day without reference to 
how much work they had done did not help matters any. Though 
commenting obviously polemically, Assistant Commissioner Hawley 
wrote one "almost magical change" brought about by the New Poor 
Law was that "the lazy groups of paupers, who heretofore infested 
the highways or thronged the gravel pits, have totally 
disappeared."^"^ Guardian Ralph Carr of Gateshead, Durham, 
complained in 1847 about the transfer of applicants for parish 
relief to the "surveyor of highways; that he employed them at 
little more than half the wages of the county; that they dawdled 
away the time in a gang; that they mended the roads very badly, 
and displaced a great deal of valuable free labour, and were 
themselves very much demoralized." James Beard, the Rector of 
Canfield, Bedfordshire, after making an offer to send some 
families to places with work, and the men who responded asked 
about what kind of beer was made there, felt: "I desired them to 
return to their places of idleness, viz. the gravel pits."^°^ 
Make work- jobs simply were poor deterrents to relief applicants 
if in fact the jobs were not difficult. 

The New Poor Law: Deterring Applicants for Relief by Using the 
Workhouse Test 

The capstone of efforts to deter applicants and tighten work 
discipline was the New Poor Law, which abolished outdoor relief 
for the able-bodied (and often for the not-so-able-bodied) and 
imposed the workhouse test. The workhouse test was hardly 
original with the New Poor Law, because even in the 1750s the 
regulations for Corbridge and Berwick in northeastern England 
applied this in principle, the Berwick rule being nearly 
identical.^"* The rural elites of England allowed the fear of the 

over eight to ten years after only three or four months. 
Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, p. 29. 

^°^A.F. Cirket, "The 1830 Riots in Bedfordshire- -Background 
and Events," Bedfordshire Historical Record Society 57 
(1978) :107; Committee on New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first report, 
p. 66; Committee on Poor Law Amendment Act, BPP, 1837, first 
report, p. 72; cf . testimony by farmer Thomas William Overman of 
Bedfordshire in 1838, Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 92. 

^"Quoted by Dunkley, "The 'Hungry Forties,'" 340; letter to 
E. Chadwick, 1836, as found in Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p, 
131; see also pp. 78-79. 

^°*Rushton, "The Poor Law," pp. 147-148. On the early 
advocacy and application of this test, see David Eastwood, 
"Debate: The Making of the New Poor Law Redivivus," Past & 


workhouse and its bad conditions to surge among their parishes' 
laborers in order to reduce the rates. Indeed, deterrence had to 
be the name of the game, because it could cost as much as three 
times more to keep one person in a workhouse rather than give 
them outdoor relief, a point dealt with above concerning Arch's 
dealings with the local board of guardians about giving his 
father a pension (pp. 117-18) . They confined the inmates by 
prohibiting them from leaving the grounds of the building, which 
was like a contemporary minimum security prison. ^°^ Somerville 
recorded how one old man by the name of Adam lamented the 
conditions he had to face: "Oh, master, what terrible things 
some of them as have been in and out again tell of that union 
house. They are put to their work and to their victuals like 
soldiers to drill." In this area, the guardians did not allow 
even elderly couples to live together, which particularly angered 
and saddened him: "To 'sunder we whom God did join together, 
that we may live apart and meet death in our old age each alone, 
to deter, for they say that is it, to deter other poor creatures 
from coming on the parish." In this case, the parish authorities 
began to exercise a power theoretically limited to slaveholders: 
They manipulated family relationships and the threat of their 
dissolution in order to compel desired behavior- -here, not coming 
to the parish. The laborers faced the dilemma of actively 
preserving their marriages and families and suffering total 
destitution, even starvation, or going into the workhouse to stay 
alive, and suffering the break-up of their most treasured earthly 
relationships. Assistant Commissioner Hawley defended separating 
the sexes in the workhouses because of "the impossibility of 
conducting the government of the workhouses where the sexes were 
not separated." °'^ Sometimes children, perhaps a few out of a 

Present , no. 127 (May 1990), p. 191 


'Peter Handler, "Making of the New Poor Law Redivivus," p. 
192, footnote 27; For more on the workhouse/prison analogy, see 
James Turner's exchanges with James Fielden, M.P., in Agar, 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 92-94. Admittedly, while the 
authors of the 1834 Poor Law Report wanted the inmates of the 
workhouses continually confined, local exceptions existed, such 
as in Peterborough union, Northampton. Its guardians voted to 
allow the infirm and aged to walk outside for four hours daily in 
certain areas. Anthony Brundage, "The English Poor Law of 1834 
and the Cohesion of Agricultural Society, " Agricultural History 
48 (July 1974) :416. 

^""^Somerville, Whistler, pp. 353-54; Committee on New Poor 
Law, BPP, 1837, first report, p. 70. Interestingly, he noted if 
elderly couples "wished to live together, the Commissioners have, 
in some cases relaxed the rule." The Northampton guardians in 
1837 received such permission, for they had partitioned off a 
room for elderly couples who wished to sleep together. Brundage, 


large family, would be separated from their parents when they 
applied for relief, as Arch remembered: "I know for a fact that, 
when some of the men had a large number of children and were 
unable to keep them, the parish authorities used to take several 
of them away and put them in the workhouse . "^°^ Even when the 
elderly couples were not split up, many still were put away from 
their children by being committed to a union workhouse at some 
distance from their home parish. '""^ The laborers' fears about 
living in workhouses were also justified in other ways, since 
they were conducive to spreading disease and under its one roof 
mixed able-bodied men and women in one nearly indescribable 
menagerie . ^°^ Making the workhouse diet less desirable was 
another tactic, although it was problematic when the diet of so 
many southern English agricultural workers was so minimal 
already. ^^° All in all, the name of the game was to deter 
applicants and thus save money by making conditions inside the 
workhouses as undesirable and miserable as possible so that only 
the most and truly desperate would apply, which served to create 
an enormous amount of resentment by the laborers as a class 
against the English rural elite. ''^^ 

Falling Productivity: One More Consequence of the Old Poor Law 

Besides trying to lower their taxes, landowners and farmers 
had another major reason to accept the workhouse test, which was 
to reimpose work discipline upon the laborers. Under the 
Speenhamland and roundsmen systems, because laborers and/or their 
families were granted so much aid regardless of work effort 
directly from the parish, and not in the form of wages, labor 

"English Poor Law," 416. 

^°^Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 35; cf. the debate over taking in 
part of a family in Committee on New Poor Law, BPP , 1837, first 
report, pp. 16, 32. 

^°^For more on this general theme, see Snell, Annals , pp. 
133-35. Engels mentions that pauperized families were divided 
within a workhouse. Condition, pp. 324-25. 

^°^See Crabbe ' s poem in Hammonds, Village Labourer , p. 144. 

^^°Somerville ' s fictitious dialog, based on solid facts, said 
the workhouse made "the diet as low as will possibly sustain 
life" in order to deter applicants. Whistler, p. 47. 

^^^For more on the deliberately bad conditions in workhouses 
and their deterrent purposes, see Engels, Condition, pp. 324, 
326-29; Dunkley, "The 'Hungry Forties,'" 335-37; Snell, Annals, 
pp. 127, 132-37; Eastwood, "Making of the New Poor Law 
Redivivus , " 190-92 


productivity began to decline. After all, if half of what a 
laborer earns is given to him by the parish automatically , the 
foundational labor discipline tool of a capitalist economy, 
getting sacked, loses its bite, especially when so many were 
fully dependent on parish relief in winter anyway. Compared to 
American slaves, whose food was mostly provided by some master 
while lacking any direct tie to work performed, the laborers 
under this system were halfway there in having their incentives 
as wage workers to work removed. As the Webbs once observed, 
when discussing the allowance system: "The labourers, secure of 
subsistence, progressively lowered the quantity and quality of 
their effort." Unfortunately for the rural elites, unlike 
slaveholders, they could not resort to corporal punishment to 
compel work from semi -idle adult laborers, which meant the 
latter 's level of productivity had potentially an even lower 
floor than that of the slaves, to whom the lash could be applied. 
Under the roundsmen system, a man who found work for himself was 
just as well paid as a roundsman if he had a large family, 
because although he only received half the wages of the former, 
the parish made up the difference. As Churchwarden T.M. Overman 
noted in a questionnaire returned for Maulden, Bedfordshire to 
the 1834 Poor Law Commission: "The labourer, when he found that 
the parish was to make up his money, became indifferent about the 
quantity he did." He felt that overall labor productivity was 
falling, that twelve men now did what used to be the work of nine 
eighteen years earlier, and 

as long as the magistrates keep up that system of 
ordering the overseers to make up men's money, the evil 
will keep increasing; it takes away that nice feeling 
that the family is maintained by himself, which must be 
restored, or property will be of little value soon.^^^ 

Young noted that it was demoralizing to be necessarily dependent 
on handouts from the parish to begin with, and when acquiring 
property such as a cottage [i.e. social mobility] was a near 
impossibility. The laborers' desires to work were deadened by 
knowing that many of the jobs they did receive under the 
roundsmen system were rather trivial and unnecessary, and the low 
pay they received was no help either. Clergyman Gery, a 
magistrate the poor would apply for relief through, knew the 
roundsmen system well, described its negative effects on 
productivity when testifying in 1817: "A very bad effect it has 
had upon them in very much diminishing their industry: those 
persons who are sent round go late and return early, and do not 
exert themselves in working." He regarded those required to go 
from farmer to farmer looking for work by the parish as "perhaps 

^^^Morgan, Harvesters , p. 192, n. 10; Overman as in Agar, 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 75; see also Gery on p . 52. 


the worst workmen ." ^^^ Labor productivity also was lowered by the 
bad habits of non-industriousness gained from "make-work" 
programs, because "the indolence acquired by loitering on the 
roads, etc. makes a larger number now necessary" to do essential 
f armwork than used to be . Southern laborers had a poor 
reputation for working well compared to northern ones, according 
to complaints by northern manufacturers. One of them as well as 
Assistant Poor Law Commissioner E. Carleton Tufnell said 
pauperism and the bad effects of poor relief undermined their 
work ethic. In 1832-33, twelve English counties reported that 50 
to 76 percent of their parishes had declining labor productivity, 
which, not coincidentally, were the ones which the Swing Riots 
afflicted generally or at least partially. Thus, between the 
pincers of falling labor productivity and rising rates, the 
landowners and farmers became increasingly unified about doing 
something to cut the rates, and reimpose labor discipline . ^^* 

The Workhouse Test as a Tool for Increasing Labor Productivity 

By imposing the workhouse test and eliminating outdoor 
relief for the able-bodied, after having enclosed the commons and 
eliminated service, the rural elites found a way to reimpose 
labor discipline, following the laxness induced by the 
Speenhamland, roundsmen, and ticket systems as well as parish 
make-work jobs. By eliminating the latter systems and outdoor 
relief generally, suddenly when a laborer was fired, and no 
farmer or actively engaged landowner would hire him, he faced the 
basic alternatives of either going into the dreaded workhouse, 
migrating, or complete destitution and even starvation. The 
laborers greatly resented the landowners and farmers as a class 
for this imposition, as Snell notes, but it generally succeeded 
in its aims. Chadwick stated the theory thus: 

As soon as the labourer is aware that the only form in 
which he can receive parochial relief is as an inmate 
of the workhouse, together with his family, subject to 
the restrictive discipline of that establishment, he 
will gradually, if not immediately, be supplied with 

^^^Arthur Young, An Inquiry into the Propriety of Applying 
Wastes to the Better Maintenance and Support of the Poor (Bury 
St. Edmunds, 1801), cited by Snell, Annals, p. 214, footnote 144; 
Hugh Wade Gery, testifying before Select Committee of the House 
of Lords on the Poor Laws, BPP, 1818, vol. V as in Agar, 
Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 50; see also Cirket, "1830 Riots in 
Bedfordshire," 75-76. 

^^^Batchelor for Lidlington, Commission on Poor Law, BPP, 
1834 as in Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 74; Committee on 
New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, first report, p. 56; Hobsbawm and Rude, 
Captain Swing , p. 51. 


motives of a totally opposite character, and 
forethought and increased industry will take the place 
of extravagance and indulgence . 

John Napper, the chairman of the Petworth, Sussex board of 
guardians, confirmed the reality of this theory when asked 
whether the laborers were better workers for their employers and 
whether their personal habits and character had improved: 

They are more attentive in their places, and they are 
anxious to get places. . . . They are more respectful 
to their employers. Before the union took place, they 
did not care whether they employed them or not, 
because, if they were not employed, they went to the 
parish and got work; now they have no chance; if a man 
leaves a farmer, the waywarden will not set him to work 
without an order from a certain number of farmers who 
recommend him, and they would not give that 
recommendation, if a man got out of work for his own 
fault . 

Thomas Sockett, the Rector of Petworth, believed the single men 
were more provident and well-behaved as the result of the New 
Poor Law, despite being a sharp critic of some aspects of it. In 
Northamptonshire, even an unfinished workhouse was "already the 
terror of many" and made "the idlers . . . more obedient." ^^ The 
workhouse test clearly served as an excellent tool to reimpose 
labor discipline after the slackness of the Old Poor Law's 
outdoor systems of parish relief, although this change surely 
also reflects a thickening of the laborers ' "mask" before their 
superiors, since the negative consequences of disobeying or 
annoying them had risen. 

The Workhouse Test Was a Tool for Lowering Wages Also 

The fear induced by the "bastilles" of the English 
countryside also helped the rural ruling class to ratchet down 
wages. After all, if a laborer refused some farmer's offer of 
employment at a low wage, and nobody locally was offering 
anything higher, then he (or she, if the head of household) was 
forced to enter the workhouse, unless he left the parish for work 
elsewhere. The working class generally dreaded committal to 
workhouses as much as prison, a fear their superiors took 
advantage of. Proof that wages were lowered on a large scale is 
shown by Snell ' s use of Bowley's statistics on agricultural 
wages, where for southern England generally they fell from an 
average of eleven shillings two pence per week to eight shillings 
nine pence a week, a 21 percent drop from 1833 to 1850. More 

^^'^Committee on New Poor Law, BPP, 1838, first report, pp. 7, 
38, 46; Brundage, "English Poor Law," 412. 


clearly, proof of an immediate drop was found in that wages had 
fallen to nine shillings nine pence per week by 1837, a drop of 
13.4 percent from already low levels. Furthermore, these figures 
exclude the drop in family income caused by eliminating family 
allowances, etc. under the New Poor Law, which made their losses 
still greater. Since the wages of farmworkers in the South 
already bordered on subsistence levels, the rural elite's program 
to increase work effort from their laborers often dangerously 
backfired: The workers became so ill-fed, they simply could not 
work as well. Guardian James Foard of Petworth, Sussex said some 
were better able to work under the old system, because: "I 
consider that those who have large families cannot now get that 
sustenance which they ought to have to do a day's work." Caird 
noted the farmers of Wiltshire made a false economy by paying 
their laborers "a lower rate of wages than is necessary for the 
performance of a fair day's work." While speaking specifically 
of Berkshire, Somerville applied his comments generally to 
southern conditions by stating: "We have those people always 
under-fed, even if always employed. "^^"^ Under such circumstances, 
which increased poaching and other crimes by those laborers 
intent on avoiding half -starvation, the farmers and landlords had 
succeeded all too well in lowering wages and imposing labor 
discipline- -at least when the laborers were under their gaze 
during daylight hours. 

Allotments as a Social Control Device 

Having grasped the throats of the laborers perhaps a little 
too securely through proletarianizing and subordinating the 
laborers through enclosure, the workhouse test, and the decline 
in service, some among the English rural elites began to 
reconsider their program of totally cutting off the laborers ' 
direct access to the means of production. Leasing allotments to 
the laborers was the main solution the enlightened among the 
elite proposed to partially reverse total wage dependency. Due 
to enclosure, "until the allotment system was revived the English 
labourer was severed from all connexion with the land."^^^ Their 
advocates pushed them as a means to lower the rates and reform 
the moral character of the laborers possessing them. Laborers 
having them committed fewer crimes such as poaching and petty 
thievery, and had less time to be idle and less interest in 

^^'^Snell, Annals, pp. 128-31. These are money wages only, 
but Snell maintains prices were similar for 1833 and 1837, and 
that for 1850 prices were only "marginally lower;" Committee on 
New Poor Law, BPP , 1837, first report, p. 24; Caird, English 
Agriculture , p. 85; Somerville, Whistler, p. 128. 

^^^Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP, 1867-68, p. 


visiting the beerhouses because they spent more of their "leisure 
time" (i.e., time off from wage work) cultivating them. In 
Hadlow parish, Kent, allotments led to a fall in crime from 
thirty-five offenses to a mere one from 1835 to 1837.^^® One 
witness who had let out allotments for years described how 
attaching conditions to them made controlling the laborers 
easier: "One of the rules is, that he shall not be dismissed if 
he does not commit crime, and they value that amazingly." One 
thief suddenly became very repentant when threatened with the 
loss of his patch of land. Designed to tame the lawless habits 
of certain villages in west Buckinghamshire, one rule stated all 
those convicted of any offense lost their allotments. Similarly, 
although he was dealing with miners in a rural setting in the 
mid-eighteenth century, William Danby of Swinton gave his workers 
small farms out of uncultivated moor land. He said allotments 
increased sobriety and industry, and reduced riot, idleness, 
insolence, and time in pubs without him using violence to control 
them at his coal mine. He told Arthur Young his motives, a 
classic expression of paternalism, in which social control 
measures aid upper class objectives while simultaneously 
improving the lower class's quality of life: 

"If," said he, "I can give these fellows a better 
notion of a local property and happiness, I shall gain 
a power over them, which I can easily turn to their 
good, and the benefit of their families, as well as to 
my own convenience . " 

Although Danby was dealing with eighteenth- century miners, 
remarkably similar stories about farmworkers given allotments are 
found in the Report on Allotments of Land (1843), illustrating 
the deep desire of almost anyone working on the land to have some 
part of the earth that could be called "one's own." Furthermore, 
by giving them a stake in society, even so small as one as a 
half- or quarter-acre leased "at will," the laborers' desires to 
strike back at their social superiors were reduced. One parson 
in Wiltshire noted how the mob- -presumably a reference to the 
Swing Riots- -got almost no support in his parish because then 
their own land was at risk. In Bedfordshire, larger estates 
offered them at the time of the Swing Riots to quell unrest. 
Allotments also increased respect for property rights among the 
laborers generally. Since, as Golding, an agent for the 
Bedfordshire estate of the Dynevor family stated, "the men would 
suffer anything rather than forfeit their allotment," the rural 
elites sometimes used powerful this positive incentive- -the 
carrot of allotments- -in place of the stick of workhouse tests 

^^^Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, p. v; see also pp. iv, 
6, 22, 40, 49, 84, 110, 137; Commission on Employment in 
Agriculture, BPP , 1867-1868, pp. xxxi, xxiv. 


and enclosures . ^^^ 

Allotments Help Reduce Increases in Rates Caused by Enclosure 

Allotments had the advantage of lowering the price tag of 
enclosure for the rich, because it had led directly to hikes in 
the local poor rates. Since arable agriculture- -especially- -is a 
highly seasonal business, the winter inevitably created much 
unemployment among the laborers . They lacked any other means of 
earning a living or getting food, since they had to sell all 
their cows and could not cultivate any gardens on the commons, so 
they had to come to the parish to relief to get by in winter, 
causing the rates to rise. The generally pro-enclosure General 
Report strongly advocated providing allotments for the pasturing 
of cows to laborers because the tax "burden which has of late 
years proceeded with so rapid an increase, as to threaten very 
heavy evils to the landed interest." One investigator hired by 
the Board of Agriculture found when visiting a district in 
Rutland and Lincoln that even in years of scarcity those 
cottagers who had cows- -some 753 owning 1195 cows- -did not ask 
for parish relief. He found those parishes where the poor had 
few or no cows (or cottages of their own, by implication) that 
the rates were the highest, at five shillings eleven pence in the 
pound. One family in Mayfield, Sussex, having been chargeable to 
the parish even when food prices were low, after being given a 
cow suddenly ceased being a burden, even prices were high. Those 
who had built their own cottages on the commons or otherwise 
owned them outright also avoided being a burden to ratepayers in 
some areas. Similar stories of allotments allowing many laborers 
to avoid applying for relief suffused the 1843 Report. One area, 
after it gave out allotments, found afterwards almost no one had 
applied for relief. In another, it not only reduced applications 
for relief, but one witness felt allotments lowered population 
growth in his parish compared adjacent parishes without them. If 
laborers did have them, they could avoid applying for relief when 
they were sick as well.^^° The steward of landowner Thomas Dodge 
Cooper of Toddington, Bedfordshire was encouraged by how the 
allotments let by his estate allowed the laborers to go home 
quietly in the evenings, "doubtless, with the pleasing 
anticipation of their labour eventually making them independent 
of the Parish, as their Fathers, or rather Grandfathers had been 
formerly." These stories indicate, so long as the poor law could 
not be abolished outright as some middle class critics had 

"^Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, pp. 12, 24, 40, 84; 
Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , pp. 7, 22; Young, Six Months 
Tour, 2:261-64. 

^^°Young, General Report , pp. 14-15, 164-66; Committee on 
Allotments, BPP , 1843, pp. 11, 15, 17, 22; see also pp. v, 12, 
32, 113; Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 342-43. 


desired in 1834, the rural elites' own financial interests in 
reducing the rates seemed to be allied to leasing allotments to 
the poor. Nevertheless, the English elite's desire to breed 
dependency among the laborers to increase their power and control 
at the expense of greater income, which was elsewhere manifested 
by landlords ' use of insecurity in tenure to control their tenant 
farmers' votes, and by the scarcity of allotments nationally, 
especially before the 1830 Swing riots, remained the leitmotif of 
rural class relations . ^^^ 

Why the Rural Elite Still Sometimes Opposed Allotments 

In a number of cases, farmers and/or landowners opposed 
providing allotments to laborers, even from a narrow conception 
of financial self-interest in reducing the rates, or only changed 
their opposition after having seen the advantages due to others 
who persisted in providing them despite their criticism. From 
the rural elite's standpoint, the problem with allotments was 
that they partially reversed what enclosure and the decline of 
service had wrought: total wage dependency, as (reluctantly) 
supplemented by parish relief and private charity. This 
overriding goal must be either abandoned, or at least attenuated, 
when allotments are introduced, because they provide the laborers 
with some direct access to the means of production, instead of 
working for somebody else who owned or leased it, who paid them 
only for the tasks they performed while on it. One lawyer and 
landowner in Essex leased allotments while facing the opposition 
of neighboring farmers. While one reason given was because the 
laborers would scour the roads for manure to place on their 
allotments, he felt they were opposed also because it made the 
laborers too independent of them. In one case in Yorkshire when 
unusually large allotments were given, of one acre to two and a 
half, the farmers were very unhappy because the laborers 
excessively cultivated their plots, and so withdrew much more 
from the local labor market. In St. Giles, Wiltshire, the 
farmers refused to regularly employ any man who had an allotment. 
Somerville said this was because the farmers wanted the laborers 
instantly available at all times: "He calls the men when he 
choose in the morning, keeps them to any hour at night, detains 
them always late, but especially at those seasons of the year, 
spring and harvest, when the allotments would most require their 
attention." Farmers were still complaining against allotments 

"^Cirket, "1830 Riots in Bedfordshire," 109-10; Hammonds, 
Village Labourer , pp. 156-57; Committee on Allotments, 1843, BPP, 
p. iii. For an example of how at-will tenancies or insecure 
tenure could intimidate farmers when public voting was done, see 
Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 59-60; cf. Somerville, Whistler , p. 129. 
As for allotments still not being especially extensive even mid- 
century, see Commission on Employment in Agriculture, BPP , 1867- 
68, first report, p. xxxii. 


late in the century. Indeed, allotment advocates sometimes said 
the pieces of land should be kept deliberately small so that the 
laborers stayed in the local labor market, looking upon their 
patch of land as a supplement to family finances, not its main 
support. When once one badly managed farm was split up into 
allotments, these were kept very small--about one-fourth of an 
acre each- -to keep the recipients from becoming small farmers who 
avoided wage work, and from wasting time from going to town to 
market what they raised. In a number of cases, while the farmers 
and landowners had initially been opposed to granting allotments 
in their local parishes, after someone among their number stuck 
out their neck to get the ball rolling, they found a number of 
advantages to the system, and so changed their minds . ^^^ 

Miscellaneous Ways Allotments Were Used to Benefit the Rural 

Since providing allotments so strongly clashed with the 
rural ruling class ' s overall approach for controlling the 
laborers by proletarianizing them, the system largely only made 
headway based how it reduced rates, curbed the amount of crime, 
and appealed to the paternalistic ethos of some landowners. Even 
when patches of land had been leased to the laborers, landowners 
strived to ensure they could not get any more land and become 
petty farmers. Arch criticized this policy in his 1886 maiden 
speech in parliament: 

If I have energy, tact, and skill, by which I could 
cultivate my acre or two, and buy my cow into the 
bargain, I do not see any just reason why my energies 
should be crippled and my forces held back, and why I 
should be content as an agricultural labourer with a 
rood of ground and my nose to the grindstone all the 
days of my life. 

Destroying the old social mobility among the laborers that a 
village commons provided seemed part of the landowners and 
farmers' agenda (though perhaps not intentionally), because when 
Hodge farmed his own land he was not available to cultivate 
someone else's. In many cases though certainly not all, the 
laborers were also charged a higher per acre cost for their 
allotments than farmers with land of similar quality. Arch knew 
of many cases of this, commenting generally that: "Now five 
shillings for twenty perches equals two pounds per acre, and yet 
a farmer on the other side of the hedge will get his for twenty- 
five shillings." Interestingly, he implicitly conceded the 
landlords found it was more costly to administer many small 

"^Committee on Allotments, BPP, 1843, pp. 2, 16, 39, 47, 
106, 108; Somerville, Whistler , pp. 33-34; Morgan, Harvesters , 
pp. 139-40, 148. 


tenancies than two or three big ones, as he went on: "If the 
landlord can afford to let allotment land at twenty- five shillings 
per acre to the farmer, he can surely let the labourer have it 
at, say, thirty shillings . "'^^^ In many cases landlords charged 
what the market would bear over and above the extra 
administrative costs and risks, knowing the laborers were 
desperate enough for the land in question. One witness for the 
1843 Commission knew of cases where laborers were hurt by being 
charged a very high rack rent of up to eight pounds per acre due 
to the high demand. Jeffries knew of this practice, though in a 
less extreme form, since "the cottagers could pay a rent for an 
acre which, in the aggregate, was three times that given by the 
ordinary farmer." Even the highly praised and philanthropic 
clergyman of St. Giles, Wiltshire, Mr. Moore, charged twelve 
shillings per half -acre, while the farmers were charged four or 
five shillings less. The laborers also suffered from having 
little security of tenure for their plots of land, like many 
farmers. Arch said his father had his allotment changed four 
times during his lifetime, because after the laborers had 
improved a particularly poor piece of land up to good condition, 
the field was then let to a farmer. The laborers with allotments 
suffered in a somewhat more extreme form all the problems Caird, 
Arch, and Somerville repeatedly describe concerning the ill- 
effects caused by the insecurity of land tenure for farmers on 
English agriculture. When one landowner withdrew allotments in 
Sharpenhoe, Bedfordshire in order to punish those who joined 
Arch's union in the 1870s, his act illustrated the 
political/economic power his class had when tenure was 
withdrawable at whim.^^* So while allotments undeniably were a 
boon to the laborers, the good they did was attenuated by the 
firm desire of the farmers and landowners to keep the farmworkers 
in the local labor market by deliberately keeping the pieces of 
land let so small they had to remain a supplement to the 
farmworkers' income, often charging them a disproportionately 
high rent for the privilege, and by making their use of it 
conditional upon continued good behavior as judged by their 
social superiors. 

Another Positive Mode of Creating Work Discipline: Piecework 

"^Arch, Joseph Arch , pp. 344-45, 360. Actually the 
administrative costs and the loss of rent may not have been much 
greater, other than agents spending more time while collecting 
from more people, because laborers with allotments reliably paid 
their rent in at least some cases. In one case, the landlord had 
lost only one-quarter of 1 percent of rent charged. See 
Committee on Allotments, BPP , 1843, pp. 17, 112, 119. 

"^Commission on Allotments, BPP, 1843, p. 47; Jeffries, 
Hodge , 1:152; Somerville, Whistler , p. 33; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 
344; Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 7. 


The positive incentive of piecework also was used to create 
work discipline among the laborers, similar to how the task 
system and pay for working non-normal hours helped control the 
slaves. Since the laborers possessed the pre-industrial 
mentality of task-orientation, offering piecework was a wise 
policy, especially when some clearly objective task had to be 
completed, such as bringing in the harvest in arable areas. The 
farmers (or employing landowners) also applied some elementary 
psychology, although it also cost them more financially. Arthur 
Young explained it thus, but very similar language appeared some 
seventy years later in the report by the Committee on Allotments: 

You will find that the prices of the piece-work are, in 
general, out of proportion to the daily prices; they 
are so much higher [by one -fourth over work paid by the 
day in his estimate] : and this is the case, not with 
any particular county or place, but universally. No 
labourers will take work by the piece, without a 
certainty of earning more than the common pay, in 
return for working so much harder for themselves than 
they do for their masters . ^^^ 

The source of the time-orientation that E.P. Thompson saw that 
opposed "life" and "work" comes from the directly division of 
labor, in which one person works for another as an employee, and 
is not some merely abstract notion imposed on people to get them 
to show up on time regularly: 

Those who are employed experience a distinction between 
their employer's time and their 'own' time. And the 
employer must use the time of his labour, and see it is 
not wasted: not the task but the value of time when 
reduce to money is dominant . ^^^ 

^^''my emphasis. Young, A Six Weeks Tour Through the Southern 
Counties of England and Wales , 2d ed. (London: W. Strahan, W. 
Nicoll, etc., 1769), pp. 324-325; Committee on Allotments, BPP, 
1843, p. 47. 

^^"^Thompson, "Time, Work-Discipline, Industrial Capitalism," 
60-61, 90-97. Curiously, when he waxes philosophical on the 
nature of task-orientation towards the end of this article, he 
largely forgets this crucial insight. Necessarily, if it is the 
division of labor that creates time discipline through having the 
managers and the managed in a central workplace --the essence of 
the factory system- -then who owns the means of production, 
whether it be the state or private individuals, becomes 
irrelevant to the switch over from task-orientation to time- 
orientation, as the Soviet experience in the 1930s demonstrates. 


Granted the general existence of a task-orientation among the 
laborers, excepting possibly those influenced by Methodism, the 
insightful employer could harness this frame of mind that would 
increase or speed up work done on his time by assigning and 
paying for piecework. Just as the American slaves in task areas 
would finish their assigned duties more quickly because whatever 
time was leftover was theirs, and not their masters', piecework 
produced a similar mentality in English laborers, which 
encouraged them to work harder because what they were paid was 
directly tied to what they did. Note though the size of the 
piecework premium Young saw must have declined, at least for 
southern England. James Turner, sent to investigate conditions 
of the laborers in Ampthill Union, Bedfordshire for the 1838 
report on the poor law, said those paid piecework only made one 
shilling more per week, if that. His testimony describes one 
typical manipulation of management's when setting quotas: "It is 
so contrived, when the farmer gives the work to his men, he 
contrives so that he shall earn a shilling a week more [nine 
shillings instead of eight shillings] , but they do a shilling 
more work for it."^^^ So while the farmers seemed to be giving 
something with these incentives to the laborers, that was not 
necessarily the case, since the profit motive helped inform them 
where to set the amount paid per unit of the task accomplished. 

Farmers could get laborers to work harder for them, but only 
by paying more for it- -a labor management principle very opposed 
to the "cheap labor" philosophy that dominated rural elites in 
southern England, who willingly racheted wages to or even below 
subsistence levels. ^^® Jeffries noted that hedging and ditching 
were hard work when done right, and that such work was normally 
paid by the piece, which was no mere coincidence. Arch quit one 
job that involved digging a six-foot-deep drain because he was 
being paid only one shilling six pence per day. He wanted to be 
paid two shillings six pence a day, because someone with the much 
easier task of "forking 'twitch'" on the same farm was earning as 
much as him. Besides for unusually difficult tasks, farmers also 
were apt to resort to piecework during labor shortages. Young 
said giving piecework to laborers normally hired at day wages in 
order to enclose wastelands in sparsely populated areas was 
nearly the same as paying higher wages. During harvest, when 
labor shortages were characteristic also, farmers found that this 
was one time of the year when wages were seriously bargained 
over, often with groups of laborers banding together temporarily 
to work for them, as Morgan described. Laborer Mark Rushton, 

^^^Committee on the New Poor Law, BPP, 1837, as found in 
Agar, Bedfordshire Farm Worker , p. 88. 

^^^Such policies backfired then, as they do today, for the 
basic reason Caird saw: "No labour is more unprofitable than 
that which is underpaid." English Agriculture , p. 73. 


born near the Essex/Suffolk border, remembered that: "We were 
alius hired by the week, except at harvest. Then it was piece- 
wukk." On Sir Robert Peel's estate in Staffordshire, when wheat 
was reaped, it was usually done by task work, "on account of the 
rate paid for it, from the scarcity of labour in harvest," the 
cost of labor per acre harvested was high. Late in the 
nineteenth century. Bear in Bedfordshire found that piecework was 
available normally only for hoeing and hedging, sometimes at 
harvest, and with a little mowing, in part because in areas with 
much permanent pasture made it harder to pay laborers by the 
piece. He noted the one way piecework could backfire on those 
offering it, where the infamous backward-bending labor supply 
curve phenomenon takes hold: "Several employers informed me that 
the men did not care to take piece-work, or to exert themselves 
to earn much at it if they did take it; also that after doing 
enough to come to 2s a day a man would often leave off to work on 
his allotment . "^^^ So while piecework could get the laborers to 
work harder by paying them proportionately more for their 
increased efforts, farmers offered it because of the premium 
involved only when some type of labor shortage threatened, 
whether seasonal (harvest) or geographical (sparse population) . 
Otherwise, paying by the day or week was the name of the game, 
except in those places (and times) when farm servants were 

Closely related to the decisions to pay by the day or by the 
piece concerned the laborers' relationship to time. Assigning 
task work made more sense for people with a pre-industrial 
mentality who have a relatively weak sense of methodical, 
punctual work habits, but prefer to work hard in bursts followed 
by a slack period which is again repeated the next week. In 
agriculture, much of the work was inevitably task-oriented, such 
as getting in harvest or making hay, because of the objective 
necessity of completing the task in question, unlike monotonously 
adding repeatedly one more widget on one more gadget on a 
seemingly endless assembly line in modern industry, where having 
a time-orientation makes more sense. One motive behind the 
enclosure movement was the desire to impose work discipline on 
the laborers. Those eking out a living off the commons had a 
sense of time the elite criticized as wasteful and resistant to 
doing wage labor: "In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a 
habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days 
are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting." Other 
agricultural improvers complained laborers lost time to seasonal 

^^^Jef fries, Hodge , 2:60; Arch, Joseph Arch , p. 340; Young, 
General Report , p. 105; Morgan, Harvesters , pp. 110-14; see also 
pp. 53, 95, 98, 106-7 for more on piecework's extensive use 
during harvest; Caird, English Agriculture , p. 248; Royal 
Commission on Labour, 1893, as found in Agar, Bedfordshire Farm 
Worker, p. 32 . 


fairs and weekly market days when no village shop existed nearby. 
Like the poor whites in the South who lived largely by hunting, 
fishing, and doing some subsistence agriculture, this lifestyle 
is much more casual than the tight discipline a slave lived 
under, driven into the fields six days a week for twelve or more 
hours a day. Laborer scraping together a living off the commons, 
supplemented by some casual wage labor for things they need to 
buy with cash, live a more relaxed lifestyle compared to the 
regular wage earner or farm servant, who work more hours. The 
hours seem still longer due to working for someone else, not for 
themselves in tasks they did to directly support themselves. 
Hence, one of the purposes for imposing enclosure was not just to 
more efficiently use the commons (the public-spirited motive) or 
for the rural elite to make a land grab (the more likely, self- 
interested motive) , but also to place more work discipline on the 
laborers by fully destroying the subsistence economy and forcing 
them to work for local farmers or employing landowners . ^^° 
Ironically this backfired on the elite, because enclosure lead to 
greater dependence on parish relief, especially in arable areas 
in winter, and the Speenhamland and roundsman systems did much 
more to undermine work discipline than enclosure did to improve 
it before the passage of the New Poor Law. 

The Legal System and Its Influence on the Laborers 

As mentioned above (pp. 276-77), the legal system had a much 
greater direct impact on the lives of English farmworkers than on 
American slaves. This was because the farmworkers were still 
legally free men and women, despite the privations and oppression 
they suffered under. Instead of summarily punishing some 
farmworker who had committed some offense against them, the 
landowner, parson, or large farmer could not directly retaliate 
in their roles as landowners, etc., because the state had a 
fundamentally effective legal monopoly on the use of force, 
despite such exceptions as the upper class's duels. While this 
monopoly theoretically also existed in America, the violent 
heritage of the frontier and the lynch mob made it much less of a 
reality, over and above the need of slaveowners to be able to 
immediately punish their slaves to maintain effective control 
over them. Under slavery, the state through the slave codes 
delegated much of its legal powers to use violence to private 
individuals so long as they were dealing with their human 
chattels. Inevitably, the habit of using force outside of the 
legal process spilled over into encounters with others who were