Eric V. Snow



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Theoretically, since the slaveholders owned all slaves and anything their labor produced, but the rural English elite owned neither the farmworkers nor their labor, it seems the latter should automatically be better off materially. The counter-intuitive result arises because the farmworkers had all the burdens of freedom without all of its advantages, while the bondsmen's material security in having (theoretically) guaranteed food, shelter, and clothing had some basis in fact. The landlord/farmer class in England devised a system under which the rural laborers still had to fend for themselves (excepting the parish dole and private charity), especially as service declined, but tilted the laws against their labor force. The process and outcome of enclosure demonstrated the reality of class-based legal bias above all. When dividing up the land into awards, the enclosure comissioners routinely ignored the customary rights of non-landowners to the parish commons to raise animals or obtain fuel. If they actually legally owned nothing, they received nothing. Even the recipients of a patch of land often soon sold it because their share of the expenses of building fences and the commissioners' legal costs exceeded what cash they had.143 The game laws also were biased against the laborers, which not only outlawed them from hunting for food, but even often restricted the farmers from destroying the pests that damaged their crops, an issue returned to below (pp. 303-4, 367-69). By contrast, in America, even slaves were usually free to hunt. The poor and settlement laws combined to impede migration, helping tilt many local rural labor markets still further in the farmers and landlords' favor by discouraging competition for Hodge's labor by industry. Other ways that the law favored the upper class's material interests is dealt with in the final section dealing with methods of elite control (pp. 303-7). Clearly, the English landlord/farmer class had not set up a class-neutral system of laissez-faire. Instead, taking advantage of the laborers at almost every turn possible, they systematically tilted the law to limit the laborers' freedom to sell their labor to the highest bidder. The rural elite imposed a laissez-faire regime on the laborers only to the extent it favored their class interests, but inflicted anti-free market controls on the rural lower class, such as the settlement laws, when excessive fidelity to the principles of classical economics contradicted their own collective self-interest. For now, fuller details of how the English rural elites controlled the farmworkers have to wait until the last section. Consequently, although Hodge was no slave, his superiors definitely oppressed and exploited him, which explains how his standard of living often arguably fell beneath that of the real slaves of the American South.
3. THE QUALITY OF LIFE: SLAVES VERSUS AGRICULTURAL WORKERS
The Quality of Life and the (Material) Standard of Living Compared
The people I saw around me [in Steventon, Berkshire] were, many of them, among the poorest poor. But when I visited them in their little thatched cottages, I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the conditions of the most favored slaves in America. They labored hard; but they were not ordered out to toil while the stars were in the sky, and driven and slashed by an overseer . . . Their homes were very humble; but they were protected by law. No insolent patrols could come, in the dead of night, and flog them at their pleasure. The father, when he closed his cottage door, felt safe with his family around him. No master or overseer could come and take from him his wife, or his daughter. . . . The parents knew where their children were going, and could communicate with them by letters. The relations of husband and wife, parent and child, were too sacred for the richest noble in the land to violate with impunity. Much was being done to enlighten these poor people. Schools were established among them, and benevolent societies were active in efforts to ameliorate their condition. There was no law forbidding them to learn to read and write; and if they helped each other in spelling out the Bible, they were in no danger of thirty-nine lashes, as was the case with myself and poor, pious, old uncle Fred. I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants [laborers, since they were employees, and land] was a thousand fold better off than the most pampered American slave.144
Above Harriet Brent Jacobs, fugitive slave, working for her employer as a nanny while in England, expertly, eloquently, and concisely states what some quantitative historians seemingly overlook sometimes: The quality of life and the standard of living are not coextensive. The laborers undeniably had a better quality of life than most slaves. "Quality of life" captures all the aspects of life that contribute to happiness and an informed worldview. Although food, clothing, housing, medical care and other material aspects of life are captured under the heading "the quality of life," they are but a part of it. The quality of relationships with other people, such as family, friends, bosses, and agents of the state, weighs heavily in contributing towards personal happiness, as do education and religious experience. The most highly esteemed and influential slaves from the white viewpoint, such as the head driver on a large plantation, lacked the basic legal rights and protections that even the most oppressed and half-starved Wiltshire laborer possessed. Consider Kemble's description of headman Frank on her husband's rice-island estate. He had the authority to whip a fellow slave three dozen times, could give permission for slaves to leave the island, had the key to the stores, determined who would work where, and handed out the rations. He had many positive personal qualities. But he could only helplessly endure, knowing full well the ultimate futility of violence, while the white overseer took his wife as a mistress for a time and had a son by her. "Trustworthy, upright, intelligent, he may be flogged to-morrow if [the overseer] or [Kemble's husband] so please it, and sold the next day, like a cart-horse, at the will of the latter."145 Since so much contributes to personal happiness besides the material basics, the standard of living cannot properly serve as a true proxy for a society's overall social well-being. In this section, the quality of life, including such aspects as education, family relationships, the position and treatment of the elderly and children, and religious activities (as developing part of an informed worldview and broader outlook on life under such highly circumscribed conditions), of English farmworkers and African-American slaves is compared, demonstrating how the former were unquestionably better off.146 Although the quality of life is more ephemeral and less susceptible to quantification than the material standard of living, it still is of first importance. Unlike what some economic historians seem to think, man does not live by bread alone.
Literacy and Education for African-American Slaves
The amount of formal education that most American slaves received is summarizable in one word: none. As freedwoman Rose Williams recalled: "Massa Hawkins . . . has no books for larning. There am no education for the niggers." Masters and mistresses could easily justify this policy from their viewpoint. They feared that if their slave work force could read, 'rite, and do 'rithmatic, then it would become restless, discontent with their condition, and possibly revolt. To prevent this from happening, the law in most slave states threatened heavy penalties against anyone daring to teach slaves how to read. Today, since the leading forms of mass communication (TV, radio, and motion pictures) demand little or nothing in the way of literacy from their audiences, and since most people in the developed world are literate, which encourages them to take this for granted, the contemporary world easily forgets how total was the ignorance that darkened the minds of those unable to read in the pre-electronic media age. Besides public meetings, the printed word was nearly the only means to reach a mass of people at once in the nineteenth century. By keeping the slaves illiterate, masters and mistresses forced their bondsmen to depend mainly on rumor and hearsay passed from one person to the next as what he or she "knew." Illiteracy helped keep slaves in line by making escapes to the North even more hazardous. Even Douglass, a literate slave, did not know that Canada existed. If a bondsman neither can read a map nor already knows the geographic area he or she is planning to flee through, escape attempts become dangerous, even foolhardy. He or she could easily get lost and go in the wrong direction, especially when pausing to ask for directions from anyone with a white face was risky. Beyond the practical advantages of literacy, there is also the intrinsic excellence developed in the human mind by training it in reason, logic, and knowledge, which (certainly in the nineteenth century) came from analytical reading. Since the faculty of reason is the highest human faculty, it is a crime against the victims' humanity to have the deliberate policy of not just intentionally neglecting it, nay, but prohibiting its development and full use. As Aristotle explains in the Nicomachean Ethics:
That which is proper to each thing is by nature best and more pleasant for each thing; for man, therefore, the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life therefore is also the happiest.
The slaveowning class, by pursuing an intentional policy of stunting the minds of their slaves, weakened in them the faculty that makes man different from the animals, thus undermining what made them human instead of a mere "beast of burden."147 Despite the English upper class harbored fears like their American counterparts', English conditions ultimately sharply differed from America's, because as the nineteenth century progressed, the government increased its efforts to educate the farmworkers.
Bondsmen repeatedly said either that they did not know how to read as slaves, learning only after they became free, or that they were the rare literate exceptions. Reuben Saunders, born and raised in Georgia, a slave set free by his master after living in Mississippi, commented: "I was never caught there with a book in my hand, or a pen. I never saw but one slave in Georgia, who could read and write, and he was brought in from another State." Questioning one slave preacher's credentials, his master's oldest son asked: "'Bird, you can't preach, you can't read. How on earth can you get a text out of the Bible when you can't even read? How'n hell can a man preach that don't know nothing?'" To defend his ministry, the slave replied that "Lord had called him to preach and He'd put the things in his mouth that he ought to say." After the young master heard Bird preach "the hairraisingest sermon you ever heard," he gave him a horse to preach anywhere nearby. Nevertheless, illiteracy was certainly no aid to this slave's ministry. A more unusual case of a slave who grew up illiterate was Williamson Pease of Tennessee. His master and mistress tried to teach him at home, but, "I would get out of the way when they tried to teach me, being small and not knowing the good of learning." Far more commonly, many a slave who wanted the ability to read was kept from gaining it. W.E.B. Dubois once estimated that maybe 5% of the slaves were literate by 1860, with a disproportionately higher percentage of them living in the towns and cities than in the countryside, where controlling the slaves was easier, and in some parts of the Upper South than in the Deep South, where laws against teaching slaves to read were nonexistent or more weakly enforced.148
Why Slaveholders Wanted Illiterate Slaves
Simply put, slaveholders wanted their bondsmen iliterate in order to control them better. A simple, tactical objection to literate slaves was that if they could read and write, they could forge passes for leaving the plantation, as Douglass once did in a failed escape attempt. But the broader, more strategic problem was that literacy would create discontent among the slaves as the veil of ignorance rose off their eyes. They would realize and feel more acutely the lost opportunities and great burdens of their servile condition. Since knowledge is power, a literate slave's greatly increased access to information also would help him or her plan escapes or revolts more effectively. Douglass explained that his mistress in Baltimore had been teaching him how to read. But suddenly, his master (Hugh Auld) terminated the lessons, warning her:
If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now . . . if you teach that nigger [Douglass] how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontent and unhappy.
Ironically, through a form of reverse psychology, his master's broadside against his wife strongly motivated Douglass to learn how to read, since he realized it would open his mind. Illiteracy denied knowledge to the slaves, helping create "the white man's power to enslave the black man." Kemble found her husband's overseer had similar views:
No; he had no special complaint to bring against the lettered members of his subject community, but he spoke by anticipation. Every step they take toward intelligence and enlightenment lessens the probability of their acquiescing in their condition. Their condition is not to be changed--ergo, they had better not learn to read.
Aptly illustrating the slaveholding class's sensitivities about educating slaves into uncontrollability, a missionary once received a petition that over 350 large planters and leading citizens in South Carolina had signed. They opposed his wishes to instruct slaves only orally in religious truths:
Verbal instruction will increase the desire of the black population to learn. . . . Open the missionary sluice, and the current will swell in its gradual onward advance. We thus expect a progressive system of improvement will be introduced, or will follow from the nature and force of circumstances, which, if not checked (though it may be shrouded in sophistry and disguise), will ultimately revolutionize our civil institutions.149
Fearing a slippery slope to emancipation or rebellion began with slaves receiving any kind of (non-artisanal) education, they opposed all formal instruction. For its own purposes, the white ruling class' logic was impeccable: We must deny slaves education which increases their discontent, makes them harder to control, and leads them to revolt.150
Despite all the roadblocks against bondsmen learning to read, some still found paths to literacy. Undoubtedly, slaves learned to read from members of the class most opposed to literate bondsmen: slaveholders. The slave-owning class was neither totally united nor consistent in practice in keeping slaves illiterate. Hence, a few favorites were taught how to read, such as house servants (e.g., Douglass). In South Carolina, the grand jurors of Sumter County, greatly concerned that some masters taught their slaves how to read, warned of "consequences of the most serious and alarming nature" if this practice did not end. As a girl, Harriet Brent Jacobs learned how to read from her mistress: "While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory." Wanting all her slaves to be able to read, Mary Lee, the wife of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, cast the gift of literacy widely on her Virginia plantation. She delegated the actual teaching job to two of her children. In one rather unusual case which Olmsted records, a small Mississippi planter with twenty slaves, did not teach any of his slaves to read, but let one teach all the rest. He was thoroughly convinced that "Niggers is mighty apt at larnin', a heap more 'n white folks is," citing the case of an apparent seventeen-year-old who learned to read as well as any man he knew in a mere three months. Freedman Arnold Gragston, born and raised a slave in Kentucky, said his master, who owned ten slaves, had one special slave whose job was to teach the rest on his plantation, and others nearby, how to read, write and figure. James Sumler of Virginia got the younger white children (of his master evidently) to teach him how to read while hiding in a hayloft on Sundays.151 Although such masters were not common, they still illustrate that the Southern ruling class was not as monolithic in keeping the slaves illiterate as its public declarations may indicate, since it sometimes felt that at least a few "pet" slaves were worthy of the gift of literacy.
More problematic for the white power structure (since it was uncontrolled and often not detected), some slaves taught other slaves to read. Benedict Duncan of Maryland learned from a Sunday school teacher, as did Christopher Hamilton of Missouri, but the former first learned his letters from his father. Harriet Brent Jacobs taught one old man how to read, who badly wanted to be able to read the Bible in order to serve God better. Under the cover of a Sunday school held in the home of a free black man, Frederick Douglass was teaching up to forty students how to read. Several of his students became fully literate. Jenny Proctor, freedwoman of Alabama, told what she and her fellow bondsmen did to learn to read:
None of us was 'lowed to see a book or try to learn. They say we git smarter than they was if we learn anything, but we slips around and gits hold of that Webster's old blue-back speller and we hides it till 'way in the night and then we lights a little pine torch, and studies that spelling book. We learn it too.
Furthermore, some states, such as Tennessee and Kentucky, had no laws against teaching slaves how to read. Henry Morehead, while still a slave in Louisville, Kentucky, paid his own expenses for attending a night school to learn how to read and spell. But even in this more moderate Border State, his owners objected. They brought in policemen to close the school.152 Self-help measures allowed some slaves to learn how to read in defiance of the laws against it, by helping one another become literate, or finding someone else who would teach them.
Despite the slaves' own efforts at self-help and the cracks in the united facade the white ruling class presented against educating slaves to read and write, masters and mistresses usually sucessfully darkened the American slave's mind. Franklin is much too optimistic when he claims:
It is remarkable how generally the laws against the teaching of Negroes were disregarded. Planters became excited over the distribution of abolition literature in the South, but they gave little attention [?!] to preventing the training of slaves to read, which would have rendered abolition literature ineffective to a large extent.
Potentially draconian penalties threatened those teaching slaves how to read. Even death was not reckoned too harsh a penalty by the time Kemble published her journal. Earlier, heavy fines for the first two offenses, and imprisonment for the third, were Georgian law in the 1830s. Jacobs warned the old man she taught that "slaves were whipped and imprisoned for teaching each other to read." The formal law's punishments were one thing to fear; the dangers of the lynch mob's summary "law" quite another. Freedwoman Ellen Cragin's father asked an old white man who taught him, "Ain't you 'fraid they'll kill you if they see you?" He replied, "No, they don't know what I'm doing, and don't you tell 'em. If you do, they will kill me." When their whips could do the same job more quickly, masters need not wait on the legal system to deal with recalcitrant slaves reaching out to enlighten their minds. Ellen Betts, freedwoman of Louisiana, remembered how her master punished his slaves when they strived for literacy: "If Marse cotch a paper in you hand he sure whup you. He don't 'low no bright niggers round, he sell 'em quick. He always say, 'Book larning don't raise no good sugar cane.'" Kemble found the prior overseer of her husband's estates firmly discouraged slaves from learning to read. Despite having a literate father, Israel explained why he was not:
You know what de white man dat goberns de estate him seem to like and favor, dat de people find out bery soon and do it; now Massa K---- [the prior overseer], him neber favor our reading, him not like it; likely as not he lick you if he find you reading; or, if you wish to teach your children, him always say, 'Pooh! teach'em to read--teach'em to work.' According to dat, we neber paid much attention to it.
Master Edwin Epps asked Northrup, already literate before he was kidnapped and sold south, whether he could read:
On being informed that I had received some instruction in those branches of education, he assured me, with emphasis, if he ever caught me with a book, or with pen and ink, he would give me a hundred lashes. . . . [He said] he bought 'niggers' to work and not to educate.
As a field hand, he found nearly impossible to get even a single sheet of paper and ink to write with, let alone have a letter mailed off plantation.153 So even when a slave was lucky enough to be able to read, his master could, totally arbitrarily, effectively strip him of this ability by preventing its exercise.

English Farmworkers, Literacy, and Education
Although the literacy levels of the agricultural workers of England were hardly stellar, they still greatly exceeded those of Southern rural slaves. Admittedly, a very minimal definition of "literacy" is used here: the ability to read and write one's signature. Major improvement occurred as the eighteenth century ended and the nineteenth progressed. For England (and Wales) as a whole, lumping together both urban and rural averages, literacy has been estimated to be about 25 percent even in 1600, rising to roughly 55 percent in 1750, reaching around 65 percent in 1800, and then remaining on a slightly inclined plateau until about 1850. During the 1850-1900 period, England made rapid progress, as it moved towards a universal compulsory public school system, so literacy reached the 95 percent level around 1900. Since urban areas had a higher level of literacy than rural areas, these statistics have to be adjusted downwards to estimate the latter's rate alone. Even in 1867-68, the middle aged and elderly in Cambridgeshire only rarely could read. In 1911, Hudson encountered a 76-year-old woman in Wiltshire who said when she was young poverty prevented her from getting any schooling. Newlyweds often could not sign the register in church. An investigator for the 1867-68 Report on Employment in Agriculture found in Leicester that only one-fourth could read and write well, one-fourth could only read, one-fourth did both some, and one-fourth or more were illiterate. R.S. Schofield found that illiteracy for the 1754-1844 period ranged between 59 and 66 percent for male laborers and servants, but a higher rate inevitably prevailed among females. His figures are based upon whether they could sign their examination papers produced by investigations of their settlement status when applying for (or potentially so) relief in a particular parish. Overall illiteracy ranged from 30 percent (Dorset) to 60 percent (Bedfordshire) in 1838-39 in the counties where the Swing riots of 1830-31 occurred, with the female average consistently higher than the male average.154 Since farmworkers were the lowest group on the occupational scale in the countryside, where average literacy levels were low, their high illiteracy figures come as no surprise. Rural artisans and farmers both had higher literacy rates than agricultural laborers.

The statistically-based figures cited above of average literacy are based upon the bare minimal ability of reading and writing one's signature. Reading a newspaper, magazine, or book with comprehension is quite another matter. As Hobsbawm and Rude note: "The ability to scrawl one's own name [on the marriage register at church] is no effective test of literacy." A low effective literacy rate cuts off farm laborers from knowing the activities of others elsewhere, largely limiting their mental horizons to only what they personally witnessed, which Somerville noted while in Berkshire. The laborers opposed any division of the commons, even when dividing it into petty farms would benefit them, since they knew no better way by anything they had seen or experienced personally: "In the first place, all husbandry by plough or spade, which they are accustomed to see, or have ever seen, (read of, they cannot, few of them can read,) is so different in its results from what it might be, that they very naturally believe their own eyes rather than the mere assertion of a stranger." A "few" sounds far less than 34 to 41 percent. One way to explain the difference is that functional illiterates often can scrape by reading and writing a bare little. Semi-literacy remained a major roadblock against them learning of better ways to do things from anything written. This problem was surmountable if farmers or others more apt to be capable readers showed them how to use some new technique or way to earn a living, as Cobbett's promotion of straw-plaiting as a domestic industry shows.155 The literacy rates cited above should not be taken to mean the ability to read (say) a newspaper editorial with 50% comprehension, and then be able to mentally critique it effectively.

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