Eric V. Snow



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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.175 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.176 Since some were self-sacrificing and 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.177 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 Ierat, 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.178 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 required experience, combined with the plodding patience of age, and these he could do better than a stronger man.179
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."180 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.181
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 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."182 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 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.183
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."184 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.185


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 few" of the old lived in the union's workhouse, and no more than had before.186 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!187 Other witnesses made comparable comments to the committee.188 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.189
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 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.190
Whose Elderly Were Better Off? The Farmworkers' or the Slaves'?
Before hazarding a summary judgment about whether old slaves 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.191 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:

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.192
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, 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."193 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.
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