The Concept of Property and Ownership in the Antebellum American South: Slaves, Slaveholders, Theft, Conflict and the Law

By John Wood
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2015, Vol. 2014/2015 No. 1 | pg. 2/3 |

Conceptualising the Customary: the Slave’s Understanding of Property

To find the slave’s concept of property and ownership, following the legal prohibitions above, is one therefore of perception rather than legality. As the slave only owned property by the leave of the master, or by theft, we must rely on investigation of the slave’s first-hand testimony to provide a history of thought on this matter.

In exploring slaves’ understanding of property there are two main kinds of sources, each of which have some problems of bias due to the historical context of when they were written and also why they were written. The most accessible source is the Federal Writers Project (FWP), collected from 1936-8 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, to combat the social and economic consequences of the Great Depression. These were recollections of surviving slaves collected by out of work authors and other ‘writers’ across the former Southern states. The other major source of slave testimony is the autobiographies and biographies written either in the period leading up to the Civil War, or to a lesser extent after it. These various biographies have the problem that many of them were ghost written or edited by abolitionist activists.29 This has the tendency to bias the accounts due to the nature of the abolitionists’ need to prove the evils of slavery to a white audience. This shows in narratives through the accounts being edited so that much of the everyday activity of the slave, essential to the social historian but dull to the contemporary reader, was not included.30

There are clearly several problems with the use of slave testimony which have been elaborated over the past half century, and it is with these in mind that we can explore the nature and understanding of property derived from testimonies of the FWP. Stanley Elkins is the first and possibly most adroit in his criticism of the intellectual paradigm surrounding the collection of the ex-slaves testimony, positing that there was an inherent bias in the selection of interviewers. This was due to the interviewers being (almost exclusively) white, coming from the same states, and sometimes the same local area, as their interviewees. So over the two or three generations between the subject materials collection and the events described, the nature of what he describes as the paternalist model,31 has only altered rather than radically changed. He shows that the early studies of slavery were dominated by Southerners who grew up within the legacy of slavery and the ‘Jim Crow’ laws and this meant the recording of their testimony by the framework of the interviewers was thus severely biased.32 This applies to our sources of slave testimony in two ways. The first is that, any theft or other duplicity from, or involving, the owners was less likely to be reported; as on at least one occasion the interviewer was the descendent of a local slaveholder,33 and in general the black interviewees were less inclined to confide in a white interviewer.34

There were also other more general problems with the evidence collected by the FWP, many of which are suggested by Blassingame, and those expanding upon his research between the publishing of his original book, The Slave Community, in 1972 and 1980.35 It however must be noted that the pendulum of historiography had moved to the opposite side during this period, rather than, as in the 1920s trying to ameliorate the legacy of slavery á la Phillips, in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement there was now a move towards finding the slave’s agency and empowerment, possibly to the point of bias.36

Time is only the most self-evident problem when assessing the interviews. Even for a slave who was only emancipated upon the passing of the 13th Amendment and was consequently interviewed at the start of the FWP, it was still exactly 70 years since they had been enslaved, and because of this, two further problems result. The first is that of memory, in that even for those ex-slaves who still had sharp memories after 70 years, they were generally vulnerable pensioners living through the Great Depression, in the region hit hardest, due to the reliance on agriculture in the South.37 In several narratives this shows up as a longing for the lack of material hardship they had as slaves compared to current conditions and other nostalgia.38 The second factor is that as young children growing up in slavery there is evidence that their condition did not impinge upon their consciousness until they were around 8-10 years old, and they only started adult work between the ages of 12 and 16.39 Thus as many of the ex-slaves interviewed were ‘only’ in their mid-70s, they themselves could only be reporting what they had been told about the adult slave regime, and those under 75 would not even have real memories of first hand observation. Age also introduces a bias due to the exceptionality of all of these slaves, in that cliometric modelling of the slave’s lifespan suggests that the life expectancy of the average slave was only in their late 30s, compared with a contemporary US whites 40-2.40 This suggests that the slaves living for 70 years following emancipation were those who were most fortunate, receiving both good diet and medical care, and one must contemplate that their narratives, therefore, may also be exceptional, rather than reflecting the average for a slave.41

With all of the above in mind as to the qualification and sensitive treatment of the ex-slaves narratives, several ideas of the slaves’ understanding of property can be drawn out. The first is the seemingly communal nature of property within the slave quarters; there seems within the narratives to be a distinct body of property, usually that given by the master to his slaves, which is the property of the slaves as a whole rather than being a possession of the narrator in particular. Throughout the various narratives there are certain references to ‘Our’ and ‘Us’ rather than ‘me’ or ‘mine.’ This may be due to the fact for many large plantations the distribution of food, clothes and shoes was a mass event. Della Briscoe notes (in the interviewers obviously paraphrased style) ‘Food was distributed on Monday nights, [there was] a staple ration of 3½ lb. meat, 1 pack of meal and 1 gal. ‘shorts’, whilst vegetables and meat was distributed daily’, whilst Jasper Battle notes ‘Jus’ a few o’ de slave famblies was ‘lowed to do cooking … Marster kept cooks up at de big house what never had nothin’ to do but cook for the slaves’.42 This is in accord with much of the current trends in the historiography of slave communities, suggesting the communal nature of many activities, whilst the gang labour system is the most obvious, a common one in narratives is ‘quilting’.43 This communal activity combined with the lack of property of individuals to give them status, meant that role of the extended family blended into the community as a whole more than in the contemporary white culture.44

Just as there was a sense of the property which belonged to the whole community, rather than the individual, there is considerable evidence that outside this sphere there was an acceptance of casual or petty theft, ranging from poaching, which could be semi-condoned by the master, to general theft from the slave owner class. The most interesting and immediately striking example is that given by Rev. Allen in listing reasons for slaves being whipped, he says, ‘[because of] taking things –the whites call it stealing.’ This is certainly not the casual sophistry one would expect from a minister and speaks for a heartfelt idea of difference. There are also many other incidences throughout the narratives of cases of theft, usually reported by those who were still children at the time of emancipation.45 For some plantations it would seem that theft was an endemic problem. Hector Hamilton recalls after the white males were drafted that:

‘Mis’ Laura took me away from de sideboa’d [where he was a house servant] an’ made me a watchman. Dat is, I wuz set to watch the commissary to see dat de niggers wuzn’ take no more den dey share o’ eats, den I looked after de chickens an’ things’.

Fredrick Douglass also mentions this during the earlier antebellum period, ‘Scarcely a day passed in the summer, but that some slave had to take the lash for stealing fruit’.46

One key notion which seems to run through the testimonies is that it was a slave’s duty to steal on behalf of a runaway slave if they could get away with it. Fanny Cannady describes this at length when recounting the tale of how Burrus, a slave on her plantation was killed for running away by a cruel master:

‘Ol’ Marse denn tole all de niggahs dat if anybody fed Burrus on de sly, de he was goin’ ta shoot them like he done shot Leonard … [later when he was found hiding out] Sally whispered an’ tole him to lie still, dat she goin’ to slip him somethin’ to eat.’

Thus even in the face of explicit threat of punishment a slave was willing to steal for another. This example suggests the bonds of the community were sufficient to transcend the difference between the property of the slaves and the masters in the slave’s eyes.47 This may have developed, in part, through what was a necessity at times. Fredrick Douglass mentions his inner conflict on, as he saw it, being forced to steal due to hunger when the master was well provided for:

‘We were reduced to… begging and stealing, whichever came in handy in our time of need… many times have we been perishing with hunger when food in abundance lay mouldering in the safe or smokehouse.’48

He later explicitly defines the slaves’ position as, ‘The morality of free society could have no application to slave society’.49

There was some evidence of the slaves being allowed personal property in the form of their own private plots for agriculture by the masters, and even being allowed to trade the excess produce at market. Whilst Jeff Forret has examined this in detail amongst the slaves operating in the rural Carolinas50 and there has been extensive research in the slave economies of the Low Country,51 there has so far been little on the slave economies of the Deep South with the exception of Vernon Palmer, who only traces the evolution of custom of slaves trading rather than extent.

It also emerges that there was some masters who allowed their slaves to work at certain times for pay, Gus Clarke says in his narrative:-

‘… but my Daddy say dat de niggers earn money on Old Boss’ place even during slav’ry. He give ‘em every other Sat’dy fer deyse’ves. Dey cut cordwood fer Boss, wimmens an’ all. Mos’ of de men cut two cords a day an’ de wimmins one. Boss paid ‘em a dollar a cord… Some cullud men saved enough to buy deyse’ves frum Boss, as free as I is now’.

This permission to earn money openly at the market seems however to be something which occurred more in the Deep South than the Upper South. In the Mississippi Narratives 4 of the 5 sampled testimonies mention being allowed to either earn through working or selling produce at the market or to the master.52 In the Georgia Narratives 3 of the 6 narratives included some mention of permission to sell at the market.53 By comparison in the Upper South there are two mentions of slaves being given permission to trade openly at the market for themselves.54 The author would speculate that this may have had its cause partially in the demography of the Deep South as compared to the Upper South.55 Another cause of these customary markets, according to Palmer, was a cultural blending with the period before the US annexation of the Louisiana Purchase territories. Due to the inheritance of the different slave codes from the Spanish Codigos Negros and the French Code Noir, where the legacy was that the slaves had to provide their own clothes and food rather than the master providing for them, there was the custom of temporary release from their duties to do this. These customs then diffused across the South due to the interstate trade of slaves.56

Paternalism in Practice? The Slaveholders’ Conception of Property and Ownership

In this section the role of the slave as property will be addressed in two respects. The first is to find the idea the slaveholders had of the slave, as both a person and their property. The second approach is to examine the ideas slaveholders had of the slaves’ property, or whether they thought of the slaves as having property at all.

The idea of slaves as key to the idea of property for slaveholders in the South is indisputable. When threatened with the loss of this property the various white groups thought it preferable to form the Confederacy and fight rather than risk the loss of this property. This being said however there were various conceptions of the slave as property by Slaveholders.

‘My child, he had no gold, his wealth lay in his land and Negroes’57 was the comment of N. B. De Saussure when describing her father’s estate at the time of emancipation, and this, for many planters, describes their conception of the slave as property; large sums of money were not the making of a gentleman, rather the quantity of land one could cultivate with ones slaves. Through evidence such as this we can see that the element within the paternalist paradigm where the slaveholder saw the slave as almost part of the extended family. George Fitzhugh in Cannibals All! gave an elegant description:-

‘Almost all Negroes require masters, whilst only children, the women, weak, poor and ignorant among the whites, need some protective and governing regulation of this kind’.58

Much of the older historiography emphasised paternalism, and between the late 1960s and early 1980s much of the historiography excoriated this ideal, as has been described earlier, so for our purpose it is only useful to show that for many it was in fact a fallacy. In many cases that paternalism was only a mask for a business where, when profit was at stake, the only role of paternalism was to provide the form rather than reality of guilt.59 Thomas Chaplin, when forced to sell ten slaves due to a debt shows the false guilt of the slave owner:-

‘I never thought I would be driven to this … extremity, nothing can be more mortifying and grieving to a man, than… some of his Negroes to be sold. [To] separate families… all to pay for your own extravagances.’60

James H. Hammond was another slaveholder who does not see a dichotomy between slaves as persons and as property to be used for profit, though for him it seems almost though there was mental self-censorship of such thoughts. Within the space of four days his diary tells of the delight of a conversation with the son of a slave who was owned by the Boone pioneer family, and then a radical change to the need to procure more slaves and open up more land in case the price of cotton fails again, as if individually slaves could have a personality, but, when taken as a whole they were as any other livestock to him.61 This comes out in many of the passages about the terrible mortality rate of his plantation, but is particularly evident when he says, ‘I have lost 89 Negroes and at least 50 mules and horses in the past 11 years, several of the horses, blood mares costing me $1000 to $1500’.62

Genovese in The Political Economy of Slavery, stresses, from a Marxist analysis, that the paternalist model was more important in interactions between the elite members of the slaveholder society, than between the slaveholders and their slaves. In this social sphere acting in accordance with paternalistic ideas was a mark of status. The relationship of the slaveholders toward their slaves however was based around economic exploitation, as it was only through profiting from productive labour of the slave that the slaveholder could maintain his estate, and live the traditional role of the ‘Southern Gentleman’. Those who could exploit the labours of their slaves most effectively became the leading members of this elite, as they could invest more capital in land and slaves, thus maintaining the economic focus over the generations.63 The slaves only benefitted from paternalism as a by-product of the desire for status among the masters.

In some cases the paternalist ideal of the master receiving the labour of the slave in return for protection was not even paid lip service; Charles Parsons visited a large plantation where the means of profit was the ‘breeding’ of slaves for sale rather than the sale of produce they made:-

‘There was very little labor [sic] done on that plantation .One Northern man would perform as much as five of those slaves. And yet I never saw a more miserable, degraded, despairing family of human beings. Debts, taxes, and expenses of all kinds were paid by the sale of slaves, and the ’soul driver’ was an almost weekly visitor… there was not an unbroken family among them’.64

This form of industrialised slave production does not fit easily with prior southern philosophical justifications of slavery, when it was the ‘soul’ not the labour as a commodity.65

Finding the nature of property that slaves were allowed by their masters, through the masters eyes, is difficult, but though periodicals, such as Southern Planter, De Bow’s Review and others, which were effectively slavery’s trade journals, we can see into the minds of the planters on comparing the ideal slave regime. In certain themes there was a consensus as to the correct allowances for the slaves. In the discussion of slave housing there was almost total accord that it should be as good as the slave owner could afford, and situated in a place the slaveholder himself would live. This, however is measured by the reduction in doctor’s fees good housing will provide when the slaves are away from dangerous ‘miasmas’.66 In other themes of ownership there was intense debate over many years. Much was debated over the subject of food distribution: Was it better for a weekly allowance to be provided all at once or rationed per day? Should each slave family cook for themselves or should it be made the permanent task of a cook slave? Various arguments were employed by each contributor, including relative cost effectiveness, trustworthiness of slaves and the racial characteristics influence upon nutrition.67

The greatest debate of the slaveholders was over the nature of rewards and commerce among slaves. Some slaveholders were utterly against their slaves having any access to money under any situation, whilst others saw it as an effective means of social control. For the former, slave possessions which were not given by the master were a risk to him, as in a society where there was some legitimate trade by the slaves that trade would become a cover for sale of stolen goods and promote independence from the master as well.68 Those of the latter viewpoint believed that through some small grants of land, or payment at holiday times for good or hard work ,the slaves could be better kept in line, not only should there be a stick, but also a carrot.69 When comparing the language of the two sides it is not surprising to note that those in the ‘anti-reward’ camp tend to stress the common perception of the time, that the ‘negro’ had an immature and infantile nature that could not be trusted with normal responsibilities without supervision, and those in the ‘pro-reward’ group the common human nature the slaves shared with the masters.70

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853) provides a comprehensive first-hand account of slavery that both corroborates and challenges Eugene Genovese’s argument in his later analysis of the... MORE»
Resistance to oppression is often found in the most unlikely of places. This article investigates the significance that families and partnerships played in fostering the emotional support necessary to sustain enslaved peoples... MORE»
For many decades, scholars have debated the importance of religion in helping slaves cope with the horrible experience of slavery in the antebellum South. However, the way they treated the subject differs and the conclusions they reached are varied. From the early 1920s through the 1960s, the accent was put on the variety of religious... MORE»
There is ample evidence of sexual relations, from rapes to what appear to be relatively symbiotic romantic partnerships, between white slave masters and black women in the Antebellum South. Much rarer were sexual relations... MORE»
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