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Slavery book notes I: Slavery in the Cities


For a new course I’m preparing as well as a couple of research projects, I’ve been reading lots of books about slavery, primarily American slavery. I thought I’d post some comments here occasionally. Not book reviews, per se, but just whatever thoughts I think are worthy of sharing on a few of the books.

For the first entry: Slavery in the Cities: The South, 1820-1860, by Richard Wade (1964). The name was vaguely familiar to me, it turns out for good reason: in addition to being something of a bigwig in the field of urban history, he’s was a Schlessinger-aligned Democratic Party operative.

The book is a fascinating read, particularly in light of recent work on the consequences and character of slavery in a capitalist era with respect to the rise of cotton. Not that Wade sets out to say anything in particular about a theme as broad as “slavery and capitalism”; it’s not a theoretically ambitious work. And my understanding is that in the 1960’s, when this was written, the notion that Antebellum slavery was a fundamentally capitalist venture was generally rejected by both economic theory (Marx and Smith are more or less on the same page here) as well as leading historians of the “two distinct economic systems” school. Baptist is particularly useful at demonstrating the folly of this assumption now, but his work is part of a more general turn to think about American slavery as part of a capitalist system. We know, now, that the notion that slavery was a system in decline in the mid-19th century, thus the civil war was unneeded because it was collapsing under the weight of its own inefficiencies, is a species of confederate apologia, and fails to capture the economic vitality of of slave capitalism with respect to cotton. But while the story of the rise of cotton is probably the most important story of slavery and capitalism, it’s hardly the only one. While Baptist tells as story of slavery interacting with capitalism at high levels of international finance, the story in Wade’s work is, at least in part, about the interaction of slavery and local, small-scale capitalism.

Wade’s book examines trends in slavery in American cities, with particular attention to the details of everyday life, in institutionalized slavery’s final four decades. The false narrative of decline regarding slavery generally is less obviously false in the cities he examines here–in most of the cities he focuses on, the slave population is either declining, or growing at a slower rate than the overall population. In the cities included in Wade’s study, slave owners tended to be small scale. In sharp contrast to rural slavery, most slaves were owned by people who had a relatively small number of slaves–plantation-level holdings were quite rare, and a higher percentage of whites owned slaves. Furthermore, there was no one or two general or task slaves, as a rule, performed. This created a number of interesting pressures. As many slave owners were not particularly wealthy, a set of pressures made for a very different dynamic. The use of slaves as domestics was common, but could be an expensive luxury. The demand for slave labor in many enterprises was also less predictable and constant than in some agricultural settings. This all contributed to the frequency of ‘hiring out’ slaves–that is, leasing one’s slave to someone who had a greater need for the labor. Hiring out made slave labor more sufficiently flexible for the labor demands of an urban economy, and in practice created expanded opportunities that seemed to undermine the institution of slavery. It was not uncommon for some slave owners to find it more convenient and profitable to let their slaves arrange for their own employment as well as their own living arrangements (space was a good deal scarcer for urban slave owners than it was on the plantation), known as ‘hiring their own time’: “they gave their master a certain sum each month; and all that they made over that they retained.” (48). Insofar as this sort of arrangement became commonplace, it created a distinctly blurred social line between slaves and free negroes, who lived together, attended the same Churches, intermarried, and so on. It also created the prospect of ‘manumission by self-purchase’–that is, slaves saving surplus earnings and purchasing their own freedom (sometimes through a proxy, in cases where the owner had an ideological opposition to manumission). I did some digging on this, trying to find historical estimates of self-manumission rates, which are hard to come by, but I did find on report (in this book) that around mid-century the self-purchased former slaves made up 26% and 42% of the free black populations of Philadelphia and Cincinnati, respectively.)

Because the evolution of hiring out to self-hire obviously undermined the institution of slavery, cities took pains to restrict the practice, albeit with little success. Wade also tells the story of so-called ‘grog and grocery’ shops, essentially bodega/corner stores that catered to slaves. They sold various goods that slaves would often be sent to pick up for their masters and also illicitly sold them alcohol. These stores were seen as a menace in part because of the alcohol access, but also because they provided a social space for slaves and free blacks to meet, exchange information, and engage in commerce on their own limited terms. Several of the cities discussed in the book went through rounds of crack-downs, but with little seeming success. They were the subject of routine angry denunciations in the local newspapers.

In both of these cases and a few others in the book, the particular way in which the existence of markets fractured white self-interest provided openings for the slave population. One city*, though, provided a glimpse of another possible future for urban slavery, one that, had it been more widely adopted, might have made the cities look more like the cotton-growing countryside: Richmond. Richmond saw less of a decline (the slave population grew only somewhat slower (~3X) than the white population (~4X) from 1820-1860, and they had one of the more stable gender ratios (most cities were seeing an increasing ratio of women to men in the slave population), and more and growing large-scale slave owners. This is in part because Richmond was, compared to the other cities, integrating slave labor into industrial work in a more systematic way, and on a larger scale, in tobacco processing and ironwork. He doesn’t get into it in much detail here, but the intense brutality of industrial slavery has been well-documented. If Richmond, rather than Baltimore or New Orleans, had been the future urban slavery absent the civil war, the tentative steps toward a kind of quasi-freedom urban slaves had managed to take could very easily have been wiped out, bringing the horror of cotton slavery to the city.

*In a fascinating and puzzling omission, Atlanta is not included in this study, and no explanation is given. Given Atlanta’s relatively high level of industrialization, I wonder if a similar dynamic might not have been taking place there.

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