Eric V. Snow



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[A slave] is furnished with neither knife, nor fork, nor dish, nor kettle, nor any other thing in the shape of crockery, or furniture of any nature or description. . . . To ask the master for a knife, or skillet, or any small convenience of the kind, would be answered with a kick, or laughed at as a joke. Whatever necessary article of this nature is found in a cabin has been purchased with Sunday money. However injurious to the morals, it is certainly a blessing to the physical condition of the slave, to be permitted to break the Sabbath. Otherwise, there would be no way to provide himself with any utensils, which seem to be indispensable to him who is compelled to be his own cook.380
By not giving their bondsmen necessary household items, masters and mistresses could drive them to work for them on Sundays for pay since the "standard rations" were not enough to really get by. So while Sunday (or late night) paid labor could be called "voluntary," in that the slaves were not whipped for not showing up, they often virtually had to do it in order to prepare food, sit, and sleep in their cabins at a level higher than animals in lairs or nests. Although fully forced Sunday labor was uncommon for slaves in the American South in the thirty years before the Civil War, slaveholders had lowered the compensation given for most of the time slaves worked so much in their favor that when the slaves came to them "voluntarily" to work for necessities they would have been able to buy had they not been slaves, paying slaves for Sunday work still manifested a distorted "free market" for labor.
Holidays the Slaves Did Not Work on
While sometimes slaves received other holidays off, such as the Fourth of July, almost universal was the custom of giving slaves some part of the Christmas to New Year's season off from work.381 The bondsmen might be given presents, money, or a fancy dinner by their master or mistress at this time. Planter Barrow gave his slaves $500 in 1839 and $700 in 1840 at Christmas time. In 1841 he gave them a number of articles he had bought for them in New Orleans. However, in 1842 due to a poor economy, he gave them lots of food and drink during this season, but no money or manufactured items. The length of this break varied greatly. Barrow gave his slaves 12 days off during the 1840-1841 holiday season, while other masters were often much more stingy. Jenny Proctor described how on her master's estate in Alabama Christmas lasted as long as the tree that burned in the master's fireplace. Taking advantage of this custom, the slaves spent the whole year looking for, and then had burned, the biggest sweet-gum tree they could find, in order to make the holiday season last longer. When they could not find one, and had to use oak, they only had three days off on average. The master also had his way of retaliating against his slaves taking advantage of this custom: "Old Master he sure pile on them pine knots, gitting that Christmas over so we could git back to work." Douglass and the slaves that he knew received six days off, basically all the time between Christmas and New Year's Day. Harriet Jacobs said the slaves who were to be rented were hired on New Year's Day, and reported to work the next day. They then worked until Christmas Eve, and had the next seven days in December off before beginning the cycle anew if they were hired out again. So while the custom of allowing the slaves to celebrate Christmas was virtually universal in the South, the length of the time they had off during this already seasonally slow period of the agricultural calendar varied considerably upon the individual slaveholder in question--Northrup mentions three, four, five, and six days.382
Unplanned Days Off Due to Weather or the State of the Crops
Slaves received also received days off because of natural events related to the weather and the state of growing crops.383 Even the Christmas break took advantage of this, since most plantations had little regular work to do outside of those growing sugar. By late December, normally the harvesting was complete and the crop processed and packed for shipment. Masters and mistresses could easily give their bondsmen a week off then. Another event that caused slaves to have unscheduled days off, at least from field work, were rainy days. Based upon Bennet Barrow's diary it becomes obvious that his slaves were routinely pulled from tending the crops on rainy days, and put to work (if female) at spinning often, while the men (at least sometimes) got away with doing little or nothing, as noted above (p. 199).384 Then when the crops had already been well-tended during the summer, and simply needed some time to grow before further work was necessary, Barrow gave his slaves days off. For August 1, 1838, he commented: "Hoeing old above--4 sick--verry little work to do." In 1840, after on Friday, May 15, his "hoe hands [had] verry light work," he gave his "negros [a] Holliday after 10 ok" on the next day, a Saturday. On June 11 of this same year, he noted: "Pleasant morning, Hoe hands waiting for work for 6 days past, worked piece of new ground cotten fourth time 'scraped'" On June 15, 1841, he said that he "shall stop hoes to night 'till it rains." In an entry for June 8, 1838, he commented: "This time last year was out of work owing to the dry spring." For June 8, 9 and 10 of 1837, he wrote: "No work in the field. . . . stoped work untill it rains . . . gave the hands to day." The last of these three days was a Saturday. On Saturday, May 21, 1842, with his slaves having "finished hoeing corn by one oclock" his "negros [had a] holliday since." Evidently, when not much work needed to be done on the crops, he tended to give them part or all of Saturday off, such as the half day he gave off for May 23, 1840 or the whole day for Saturday, May 29, 1841. After noting his "crop [was] in fine order" a couple days earlier, he gave his slaves Saturday, June 16, 1838 off. For Saturday, June 23, 1838, he wrote: "Intended giving all hands to day--but found 30 acres not half worked." Similarly, Kemble observed that the hands got done by a rather early three thirty in the afternoon, on a sea island plantation that grew cotton like Barrow's, and commented: "The chief labor in the cotton-fields, however, is both earlier and later in the season. At present they have little to do but let the crop grow."385 Hence, the slaves may have gotten all or part of Saturday off or received shorter days than sunrise to sunset in summer when the crops did not need much further cultivating to kill the weeds.
Despite the incentives for their owners to maximize the amount of work extracted from their bondsmen, they clearly did not necessarily drive them to the limits of endurance. No doubt, this result in part was due to how the death rate of slaves would have increased as their masters and mistresses drove them for longer hours. If slaveowners were ideal homo economicus profit-maximizers, they would make their slaves work as many hours as they could, so long as profits produced by the incremental work did not exceed the costs of sicknesses and deaths caused by the additional hours of labor imposed. As it was, certain social institutions, such as the church's teachings about ceasing from work on Sundays and having slaves attend services on that day, always tended to restrain the bulk of masters and mistresses from probing the limits of their human chattels' endurance. A degree of practical paternalism, perhaps as much driven by self-interest as personal religious conviction, was responsible for this. While slaves such as Douglass saw much religious hypocrisy in the South about their treatment, Gallay still has argued that Christianity, in the form of the revivals of the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, was the principal source of the paternalistic ethic in dealing with the slaves, which was often expressed by practices like having Sundays off. The days off for Christmas, New Year's, etc. also fell into this category. Natural events, such as bad weather or having to wait for the crops to grow further, also placed a damper on slaveholders seeking the make their slaves work as much as they could. So although the slaves worked very long hours, especially in newly settled regions in the Deep South, the surrounding white society had certain practices from their social institutions and also experienced natural phenomena that restrained them from driving their slaves to the maximum extent possible even with the built-in financial incentive involved.
The Days of Work for Agricultural Workers
Most English agricultural workers suffered from the opposite problem the slaves did: They had too many days off, not too few. Farmworkers, at least most of those in southern England, suffered from chronic underemployment and unemployment throughout most of the period examined here, especially from about 1780 to 1850. They needed more work, not less. American slaves suffered the opposite problem of working too much, especially in the Deep South away from the long-settled Atlantic Seaboard where paternalism and a lack of a strong profit-making drive characterized proportionately more slaveholders. Had the English laborers been able to eke out a living off the local commons, or using an allotment, they would have suffered much less from unemployment. As it was, with the enclosure movement being so strong in the 1790-1820 period, and allotments only seriously and more commonly becoming available only after (say) 1850, agricultural workers became almost exclusively dependent on wages, and especially those of the male head of household. Unlike many poor whites in the American South, who through hunting, fishing, and some casual agriculture, could meet their most basic needs generally without much routine, methodical labor, this back-up option disappeared for most English farmworkers by the end of the French Wars. Furthermore, with the decline of service for the unmarried in Southern England, especially in arable areas in the southeast, young farmworkers had to endure the strong seasonal variations that characterize arable agriculture as much as their day laboring elders. Dependence on parish relief for the entire winter season was a common fate in these areas. The financial incentives of the farmers or directly-employing landowners were the opposite of the slaveholders' in this regard: Since the former only paid their workers when they worked, they had an incentive to minimize the amount of work they did in order to minimize their wage bills. In contrast, since the slaveholders by purchasing slaves had bought theoretically all of their future work potentials, and had to feed and clothe them regardless of how much they worked, their incentive was to make them work as much as possible. For the English farmer relying on day laborers, wages were a totally variable cost, so long as he hired no farm servants for a fixed period and ignored the rates going up as the number of poor increased, but for the slaveowner, the costs of slave ownership were mostly fixed, between the initial purchase price and the automatic rations the slaves were entitled to. The farmers, taking advantage of the reserve army of the unemployed, tended to employ laborers only as they needed them, even on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, fomenting insecurity among the farmworkers as a whole. Somerville encountered in 1845 an apt analogy one Wiltshire farmer used to explain how he treated his men:

On inquiry [concerning a speaker at an anti-corn law meeting using the term "pitting potatoes"] I found this to refer to a farmer who had said that he did with his labourers as he did with his potatoes: he did not keep all the potatoes out for use every day; and he did not, like some farmers, try to find work for the men all the year round. When he did not need them he put them in the workhouse until they were needed.386


Any discussion of the number of days farmworkers labored has to be considered against a grim backdrop of the decline of service, the enclosure movement, chronic underemployment, seasonal unemployment in arable areas, make-work activities, and the common experience of taking parish relief, including stays in the workhouse.
Those Laborers Who Had to Work Sundays, and Those Who Did Not
As noted above, the laborers who tended animals necessarily faced seven-day workweeks, such as carters and shepherds (p. 218). While they had to work everyday, these laborers did benefit from having regular work year around, which was why those living in pastoral areas suffered from less seasonal unemployment than those in arable areas, since the needs of livestock for food and other care were daily affairs. Caleb Bawcombe told Hudson why shepherds had to work everyday:
Some did say to me that they couldn't abide shepherding because of the Sunday work. But I always said, Someone must do it; they must have food in winter and water in summer, and must be looked after, and it can't be worse for me to do it.
For regularly employed field laborers, Saturday work was expected, but none for Sundays. They did not like working extra hours of overtime past the customary quitting time on Saturdays. Jeffries describes the situation of one Farmer George who, while leading a crew haymaking, made an unpopular decision late on Saturday that required extra overtime work from his men.
The men grumble when they hear [his decision]; perhaps a year ago they would have openly mutinied, and refused to work beyond the usual hour. But, though wages are still high, the labourers feel that they are not so much the masters as they were--they grumble, but obey.
Jeffries elsewhere notes that half days on Saturdays were more often observed in an urban setting than a rural one. In the country, those tending the animals did not get off much sooner than they would have otherwise, nor were a half day and a full day very different during winter months. Bear noted in 1893 that the number of men working on Sundays on a Bedfordshire farm was one-fourth to one-half of those normally employed, with one-third being rarely exceeded. The number of hours worked by them on this day was four to six, changing with the job and season of the year. As always, those tending animals are the busiest on a Sunday: "Cowmen, who have to milk twice a day, are occupied longest on Sunday, taking all seasons of the year into account." Farm servants did no necessary work on Sundays, performing only such tasks as caring for the animals. Strikingly, even during harvest time, field workers often did not work Sundays. Arch noted that his union's branch secretaries had to try to catch field laborers when they came home briefly on weekends during harvest time: "In hay and in harvest time the men would often be away from their homes for five, six, and seven weeks, coming back late on the Saturday night, and leaving again either late on Sunday night on early on Monday morning."387 Clearly, the laborers whose services were not absolutely necessary on Sundays were not expected to work that day, such as field workers during most (or all!) of the year, but those tending animals had to be present everyday for at least a few hours, including Sundays.
Many laborers still may have worked on Sundays, like slaves who had the day off nominally. Instead of working for someone else, they worked for themselves on their allotments, if they had one. During winter, they did not work on their allotments because nothing grew on them then. But for the rest of the year laborers worked on them during days they had off when not employed. One man who let out allotments placed in the terms of the lease a number of restrictions, one of which prohibited Sunday work. Jeffries portrays Hodge as merely strolling down to his allotment to see how the crops were coming on Sundays, but not actually working on it.388 Obviously, in a number of cases without such restrictions, Sunday work by a farmworker or his family on their allotment must have been common. The laborer then did not have Sundays off any more than the slaves who worked the same day to get the money to buy basic kitchen utensils or necessary clothing.
Seasonal and Other Changes in the Workweek, and Their Effects on Unemployment
Like the slaves, farmworkers lost days of work to due to rain or the weather in general. Robert Long, who farmed 280 acres in Bedfordshire, found in early July in 1866 that all the rain kept him from getting on with the hay. Only as the weather permitted could they work with the turnips on one part of the farm. He had his teams do "odd jobs carting out dung and carting in gravel to the yards, and also to the New Close ruts that have been made larger lately since the weather has been so showery." Although a banal event, especially in the English climate, rainfall could significantly affect a farmworker's family budget. The Commission on Employment in Agriculture noted that the nominal wage rates per week exceeded what the laborers were paid in actuality often because a number had irregular work habits or lost days due to the rain. The seasonal fluctuations due to winter, especially in arable areas, sharply affected how much labor was needed. Even in Durham in northern England, once the potatoes were gathered, work ceased until spring. Some of the desperation fueling the Swing riots was, according to Hudson, because "it was customary, especially on the small farms, to get rid of the men after the harvest [such as in October or November] and leave them to exist the best way they could during the bitter winter months." Other days were lost because of a chronic surplus of laborers seeking employment in many areas in southern England. The "ploughman" Somerville set up to debate a guardian and others said in Wilton, Wiltshire one third of the population was normally without work, another third had it only three days a week, and only one third was employed continuously year around. In a problem found elsewhere in England as well, there was in the Humber-Wold area in 1867-68 one group was composed of steadily employed men, while another were irregularly employed "catch work" laborers, who had no fixed employer. The latter's wives and children worked in gangs in order to keep up financially. Interestingly, in strong contrast to how many slaves might fake illness to get a day off since they lost little by doing so, the laborers' loss of some days due to sickness was seen as one more factor that affected their earnings negatively.389 Even with the poor rates hiked due to layoffs of laborers, at least in "open" parishes where the extra laborers lived in the same parish as the ratepayers, employers often judged it financially expedient to lay off many laborers in the winter months just to hire them back in spring. Unlike the case for slaves, whose masters had an incentive to make them work as much as possible because the substantially fixed costs of maintaining a slave were largely the same whether they worked zero hours or seventy, the farmers and landowners of England had an incentive to have laborers work as little as possible above what was judged profitable and/or necessary for maintaining agricultural production. The difference between the two work forces came from who bore the costs of idleness, creating very incentives for these two elites when dealing with their respective work forces. In England, the laborers lost financially, not their employers, while for the slaveowners, every idle day lost of compulsory labor cost them, not their slaves, who had to be fed regardless of the weather.

The slaves clearly worked more hours per day and per week than the agricultural workers normally. The farmworkers did not necessarily benefit from this difference, for much of it was due to underemployment and unemployment. Unlike the slaves, who were at least theoretically guaranteed a certain amount of food and clothing regardless of how much they worked, since the agricultural workers were attempting to independently support their families, a lack of work could have dire effects on their financial and even physical conditions. Furthermore, the frustration and unease caused by chronic underemployment and unemployment eroded away the laborers' feelings of independence, especially as they so often had to resort to parish relief in winter time in arable areas. Modern microeconomic theory, which sees the number of hours filled by work as a purely negative activity that is willingly traded off for additional hours of leisure in a labor supply curve, overlooks how a person's identity, especially for men in Victorian society, largely consisted of what job or occupation they had. When they lacked work, especially for periods of months on end, this chewed away at their self-respect, and encouraged non-productive activities such as idling away hours in pubs and various crimes (at least from the upper class's viewpoint) such as poaching. In the case of the slaves, they almost never had a problem in being supplied enough work, especially in a frontier wilderness area that characterized so much of the South even in 1860. Their problem was the exact opposite: Their masters and mistresses were apt to work them for too many hours, sometimes to the limits of endurance and past. The situation of the slaves and farmworkers varied because their respective elites' profit motives manifested themselves in different ways. With the decline of service, the employers of farmworkers minimized their costs by employing them as little as possible since they had to pay them each time they worked. For the slaves, their owners had purchased in advance all their potential work efforts, so to maximize profits they would have them work as much as possible. Of course, this summary ignores how paternalism in one form or another might restrain farmers from hiring laborers on a day-by-day basis only, and slaveholders from making their slaves work sixteen hour days six or seven days a week. Nevertheless, both groups of workers were oppressed by their respective ruling classes, but one group was controlled through a lack of work, while the other was controlled by having too much imposed on it.


How "Voluntarily" Did Slaves Work? The Necessity of Coercion and Supervision
"Slavery" defines a relationship that involves the will of the owner of a slave having fundamentally total de jure control over another human being's life. The will of the master or mistress theoretically should become identical to the will of the slave. The slave is to give up all self-interest that conflicts with the will of his or her owner. He or she treats the slave's life not as an end in itself, but as a means to the slaveholder's own ends in life. In point of fact, this goal was never practically attained, because the human spirit or human nature does not naturally submit completely to someone else, especially when the self-interest of the subordinated person normally directly conflicts with following the commands of the master. The slave wants to work as little as possible, yet receive not only the standard rations, but steal some more on the sly from the master's stores. The slave naturally desires to be free from the absolutely binding will of his master, yet legally is tied to him for life or until sale. He naturally resents how his life's fate is determined by his master, with no court of appeal against his decisions, except perhaps in rare, extreme cases of mistreatment. The amount of self-interest that binds most slaves to their owners is small, excepting those who may have "sold out" and benefit from working to enforce the master's rules, such as drivers, or those who by having long-standing, multi-generational personal and intimate contact with the white family that owned them and by enjoying better physical comforts sometimes came to identify with "their white folks," such as certain domestic servants like mammies or valets. Continual struggle characterized the relationships between the field hands and many domestic servants on the one hand, and the slaveholders and their hired lackeys, the overseers, on the other. Kemble once listened to her husband's overseer who was "complaining of the sham sicknesses of the slaves, and detailing the most disgusting struggle which is going on the whole time, on the one hand to inflict, and on the other to evade oppression and injustice." Slavery was a "state of perpetual war," consisting normally of low-intensity "day-to-day resistance," punctuated by occasional revolts, pitched battles, and executions.390
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