Hey everyone, I hope you’re doing great. This blog is the first installment of a five part study on the history of slavery in the U.S.
James Oakes is a distinguished American history professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He’s written extensively about slavery, abolition, radical Republicans and the Civil War. Slavery And Freedom is a summary of the consequences that slavery and slave laws had on the antebellum South.
Oakes begins by describing and defining terms. Slavery began with an act of violence, an act of human theft in which someone was captured involuntarily and sold or traded to someone else. Slavery is the complete denial of freedom, slave state legislators used strict legal terms that were antithetical to human rights and freedoms to define the peculiar institution.
Oakes wrote about how honor, respect and reputation come from one’s peers and colleagues. And how slavery was a suspended death sentence, it carried a sense of dishonor through out the South: it rendered slaves powerlessness and humiliated. This is because in honor-societies, high standards of honor go hand in hand with great dishonor.
And slaves were greatly dishonored given they were legally exclusion from southern society. As perpetual outsiders, they were denied the basic assumptions liberal capitalism promised to workers, promises like owning property, the right to the fruits of one’s labor and to not work if they didn’t want to. Dishonor pervaded into all parts of a slave’s life: enslavers frequently auctioned, sold, whipped, tortured, raped and castrated slaves.
Slavery was so pervasive, it destroyed entire families and communities. Everything the slaves produced, every task they performed and even their physical bodies were controlled by their owner. For example, slaves couldn’t make contracts, own property or form legal partnerships. And because enslavers controlled every aspect of the slave’s life, right down to marriages, work locations, sleep and work schedules, diets and clothing, enslavers defined what it meant to be unfree. But for the slave system to function at all, enslavers had to learn to not interfere too deeply in to the personal lives of slaves. If they didn’t, slaves would resist the enslaver’s demands more and more according to historian Eugene Genovese. It’s ironic then, that slaves were so excluded from laws in the South given they were so essential to the southern economy.
But slaves resisted the enslavers from the beginning and enslavers created and enforced rules to counter the slave resistance. Louisiana’s slave code of 1824 read “the slave is incapable of making any kind of contract…All that a slave possesses belongs to his master; he possesses nothing of his own…The slave is incapable of exercising any public office or private trust; he cannot be tutor, curator, executor, nor attorney; he cannot be a witness in either civil or criminal matters. He cannot be a party in any civil action, either as plaintiff or defendant, except when he has to claim or prove his freedom…Slaves cannot marry without the consent of their masters, and their marriages do not produce any of the civil effects which result from such contract.”
Alabama’s slave code of 1852 read “No master, overseer, or other person having the charge of a slave, must permit such slave to hire himself to another person, or to hire his own time, or to go at large…No slave must go beyond the limits of the plantation on which he resides, without a pass…No slave can keep or carry a gun…No slave can own property…Not more than five male slaves shall assemble together at any place off the plantation.”
There was no greater humiliation than to be denied a relationship to one’s family. Slave marriages weren’t legally recognized in slave states; marriage after all changed how one’s estate was bequeathed, it also effected how children were raised and how someone related to society in general. But slave marriages were different: enslavers frequently sold slaves and dissolved slave marriages and families, slaves had no legal siblings, parents, spouses or ancestors. As many as one-third of all slave families, or some 600,000 were broken up by their owners between 1820 and 1860. The most likely time a slave could expect their family to be broken up was after an enslaver died and their estate was divided.
But what made slave families unique was how strong their family relationships were in spite of southern dishonor and legal kinlessness. Fewer slaves ran away when familial and community relationships were strong, most runaway slaves were unmarried young men without children. Families were the center of the slave community’s resistance to slavery.
A Brief World History Of Slavery
Oakes noted that there were five genuine slave societies in world history in which slaves made up between one fourth and one half of the total population; Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Brazil, the Caribbean and the American South. But the American South was by far the worst culprit of slavery in the history of the world. Slaves made up 49.1 percent of the total southern population with 3,950,511 slaves out of 8,036,700 in the census of 1860. Ancient Rome’s slave population was about half the size of the South’s, Brazil’s slave population was less than half the size of Rome’s.
And through out world history, slaves emancipated themselves, were sometimes emancipated by military force or manumitted after so many years of indentured service. Military emancipation happened in the Peloponnesian War, Roman Civil War and American Civil War. Military emancipation also happened when British troops freed thousands of slaves in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
Aristotle, Justinian, Thomas Jefferson and John Locke wrote extensively about slavery. Plato questioned the morality of slavery when Greeks to enslaved other Greeks. Karl Marx castigated drivers for over-working slaves. Jean Jaques Rousseau wrote about how slave owners interests only serve themselves.
Oakes noted that Christians sometimes enslaved other Christians and Muslims sometimes enslaved other Muslims. And slaves were sometimes called non-believers after they were captured to ensure greater obedience to authority among the non-enslaved community.
Intersection Of Capitalism And Slavery
Slavery wasn’t a permanent life-long status in Greece, Rome, Brazil or the Caribbean but it was for the most part permanent in the American South. Why was slavery so permanent in the U.S.? Oakes’s answer to this question was there were enormous profits to be made in the American cotton industry. After antiquity, slavery made a comeback and expanded significantly during in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when European consumer demand for commodities like cocoa, coffee, rice, sugar and tobacco grew exponentially. Essentially, slavery returned because capitalism spread through out the world from 1650 to 1888.
To get an idea of how dependent Southerners, Northerners and Europeans were on slavery just try to imagine what the South would have been like without slavery in the first place. Oakes wrote slavery was the engine of southern society, without it the entire social structure would have collapsed. Slavery was how nearly all wealth was created, it was the distinction between the South and North, it’s what made the South southern.
It is doubtful a slave economy could have sustained an industrial revolution mostly because slavery lacked incentives for people to innovate. Instead slavery encouraged resentment and backwardness. In the end, universal human rights and the dynamic force of free labor ultimately overwhelmed and destroyed slavery.
Enslavers, Yeoman And Slaves
Before abolition, the Old South consisted of enslavers and drivers, non-slave owning yeomen farmers and slaves. In slave economies, wealth typically concentrates among enslavers more than it does among non-slave owners and the former group regularly displaces the latter group from their farms.
Oakes asked, who owned slaves? His answer was the wealthiest 10 percent of owners, or some 2 or 3 percent of southern men, owned 50 percent of all the slaves in the South. The majority of owners owned less than 5 slaves and only a quarter of owners owned more than 10.
Slave ownership effected the enslaver’s family dynamics: it replaced child labor and enhanced the education of the enslaver’s children: the literacy rate among the slave owning class was one of the highest in the western world. Slavery also reduced fertility rates, the more slaves an owner owned the fewer children they had. But slavery also encouraged soil exhaustion and required planters to seek expand slavery into more arable lands in the west.
Who were the yeomen? Well, yeomen were farmers and craftsmen, they valued community, independence, individualism and tradition. They detested aristocrats, corruption and government officials. They lived in the highlands, mountainous regions, had poorer quality soils and received less rainfall than the delta plantations and were incapable of producing high yield crops like cotton. Furthermore, yeoman farms generally lacked the access to public infrastructure, waterways, canals and markets that plantations did.
Yeoman farm families had higher fertility rates than enslaver-families. Labor was more evenly divided among yeoman sons and daughters, parents exercised greater control in how estates were distributed but yeoman families were also more dependent upon the labor of their children than enslavers were. As yeoman children matured, they demanded their own land to farm. This created a land crisis given land was already scarce and enslavers owned more and more of it with time.
Plantations on the other hand were large and expanded from lowland river deltas up into the countryside and highlands. Plantations were located mostly near the best soils, between one half to two-thirds of all plantations had slaves working on them, sometimes up to 90 percent of the local population was enslaved. Oakes wrote about how enslavers could be separated from their land and still create a profit: they frequently hired out slaves to work for other planters or they moved them. And moving was so common among the enslavers, only 20 percent of them lived on the same plantation 20 years later.
Slavery gentrified real estate and caused local property values and taxes to increase beyond the means of the yeoman. This process threatened the yeomen’s existence which festered into political resentment in the antebellum South. Yeomen farmers began to realign their political interests with northerners more than with enslavers, many yeomen fought for the Union during the Civil War. Throughout history, when non-slave owning farmers were displaced by slave owners, they joined an army: this happened in Ancient Rome before the Roman Civil War just as it happened in the South before the American Civil War.
Yeomen owned fewer slaves than delta-planters but just because slave ownership in the highlands was rare doesn’t mean they weren’t racist. In fact, many southern and northern Americans were racist in the 19th century. Many favored a Herrenvolk type of democracy instead of a planter-aristocracy and slaves were considered the mud-sills of society as Senator James Hammond of South Carolina put it. Oakes wrote how racism came after slavery to reinforce beliefs about slavery-capitalism and perpetuate the system.
Case Study: Slave State Laws
Slaves were usually emancipated and were made naturalized citizens in other slave-societies. But racism was such a big part of slavery and capitalism in the American South, racism pervaded into the legal system, the worst examples were of course the U.S. Supreme Court cases Prigg v. Pennsylvania of 1842 and Scott v. Sanford of 1857.
The slave resistance began to manifest itself in state slave law cases. With each new trial, a slave’s right to life might be marginally extended and the balance of power between the state, enslavers and slaves might be redefined. And each new case challenged the legitimacy of slavery itself.
One of the worst state slave law decisions came about in North Carolina in the late 1820s. John Mann, an enslaver had rented Lydia, a slave in Chowan County, North Carolina for one year. It’s unknown why Mann whipped Lydia but when she tried to escape, he shot and wounded her.
North Carolina authorities believed Mann’s shot was disproportionate to Lydia’s escape attempt and he was charged with assault and battery. The jury ruled against Mann in the criminal trial however he appealed, claiming that an enslaver couldn’t be charged with assault on a slave because slaves were the property of the enslaver.
Judge Thomas Ruffin of the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled slaves had no rights in State v. Mann in 1829. Ruffin wrote enslavers had “full dominion of the owner over the slave…the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” But in State v. Negro Will, the North Carolina Supreme Court decided that if a slave killed their overseer or owner in self-defense, the homicide would be considered manslaughter, not murder.
Will was a slave who fought Allen, his foreman over the possession of a hoe in Edgecombe County, North Carolina in January, 1834. Will broke the hoe and ran to work at a nearby cotton mill. Richard Baxter, the overseer heard of the fight, grabbed his gun, mounted his horse and told Allen to bring his whip. Will attempted to run away and Baxter shot Will in the back. Will continued to run but Baxter caught him and the two wrestled to the ground where Will stabbed Baxter with a knife in the arm, killing him. Will was tried and found guilty of first degree murder by the Edgecombe County Superior Court and was sentenced to die.
Will’s owner, James Battle investigated the matter and believed Will acted in self-defense. Battle appealed the case to the state supreme court which reversed Will’s conviction. Judge William Gaston concluded that if the homicide had been committed by a free man upon another free man, it would have been no more severe than a manslaughter charge and that the homicide lacked the premeditation required of a first degree murder.
Judge Gaston’s decision was consequential when he correctly overturned Judge Ruffin’s State v. Mann decision. Gaston recognized the slave’s right to personal security and limited an enslaver’s power in State v. Will. Abolitionists, newspapers, law journals applauded Gaston’s decision.
These cases illustrate the slaves’ resistance to the enslavers demands but they also demonstrate how arbitrary was the power of enslavers in the first place. Slaves after all were just as important, if not more important as the crops they produced and the soil they tilled. Without the slaves, cotton wouldn’t get picked, corn wouldn’t get shucked. It was in the enslaver’s interest to treat the slaves as humanely as possible.
Because slave laws presented so many legal questions, authorities found it necessary to empower slaves with rights before they could restrict the power of enslavers. Slave state legislatures began to re-write their slave codes, Alabama’s slave code read “The master must treat his slave with humanity and must not inflict upon him any cruel punishment; he must provide him with a sufficiency of healthy food and necessary clothing; cause him to be properly attended during sickness, and provide for his necessary wants in old age.” Southern legislators and judges limited the punishments permitted to an enslaver; whipping, castration and ear cropping were gradually eliminated from slave codes, capital offenses were reduced and public executions and were prohibited.
But this presented an enforcement problem for slave states, specifically how could a slave state force an enslaver to treat slaves–who were legal outsiders–humanely when enslavers wielded such great power? Where did state power end and enslaver power begin? Authorities had to assume enslavers used self discipline and complied with these laws, making these laws moot and unenforceable. Furthermore, it became difficult if not impossible to prosecute these cases given slaves were denied legal personalities and rights such as self defense, trial by jury, bearing witness, testifying against an enslaver and legal due process.
And what happened to Judge Ruffin? Well, he continued to issue more slave case law decisions and even agreed with Judge Gaston. In 1839, he wrote an enslaver’s “authority is not altogether unlimited. He must not kill. There is, at the least, this restriction upon his power: he must stop short of taking life” in the North Carolina Supreme Court case State v. Hoover. After so much legal reform, slavery was still a brutal system of oppression and theft: slaves hardly had any of the same rights enslavers had by 1860.
Case Study: Intersection Of Federal Laws And State Slave Laws
The South dominated the White House for the first 75 years of the republic by utilizing the Three-Fifths Compromise and Fugitive Slave Clause. However, problems with slavery began to arise at the federal level when the Census of 1840 revealed immigration made the northern population grow much faster than in the South. This count yielded more seats in the House of Representatives to northern states, making the Three-Fifths Compromise less consequential for the South than it had been before 1840. This bolstered the slave resistance in the South and abolition movement in the North.
Of course non-slave states in the North had relied on personal liberty laws which were founded on the Somerset principle. Lord Mansfield wrote in the Somerset case in 1772 that “no master ever was allowed here (in England) to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service…therefore the man must be discharged.”
Debate about which government, state or federal, had supreme authority began with the Nullification Crisis in 1832, it was exacerbated by northern states’ rights and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The specific question was how could northern states’ rights and personal liberty laws be respected if slave catchers were allowed to capture and return runaways to the South? Its as if personal liberty laws in the North were moot and all states were slave states, especially after the Prigg v. Pennsylvania decision of 1842. Debate escalated with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which required common citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves, denied a fugitive’s right to a trial and designated enforcement to federal commissioners and officials.
At the heart of the debate was southern fear over the slave resistance. Southerners worried the resistance could easily become a revolt if the slaves were provoked. And the South would of course suffer the most from a slave revolt given almost 90 percent of the African-American population lived in the South on the eve of the Civil War.
The Meaning Of The Civil War
Secession led to Civil War in April, 1861. Thousands of slaves emancipated themselves and ran to Union lines. Congress, led by radical republicans determined to win the war for reunion and incrementally destroy slavery ordered the Union Army to not return runaway slaves in March, 1862 which weakened the Fugitive Slave Act. Congress also passed the first and second Confiscation Acts in August, 1861 and July, 1862 respectively. The former law authorized Union Armies to seize Confederate property and free the slaves but in hindsight this was unenforceable given it was limited to the Confederacy. The latter law freed slaves of civilian and Confederate military officials in areas occupied by the Union Army in the South which increased the flow of self emancipators.
Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery was so persistent that during the Civil War that only about 14 percent of the entire enslaved population, or some 550,000 emancipated themselves. And of that number, roughly 179,000 fought for the Union Army and Navy. Freedmen made up approximately 9 percent of the entire military during the Civil War.
Revisionist historians sometimes debate about what the Civil War was really about. Was it about slavery, freedom, state’s rights, tariffs? Oakes made it clear, the slaves knew the Civil War was about them: the slaves had always resisted the enslavers, half a million slaves emancipated themselves during the Civil War. Emancipation led to revolt which changed the meaning of the Civil War from a war fought for reunion to a war fought for freedom.
Slavery and Freedom is one of the best books I’ve ever read on slavery in the U.S. Oakes told an amazing story here, I’d encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to pick it up. Thanks for reading.