Eric V. Snow



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I sometimes felt such a spirit of vengeance, that I seriously meditated setting the house on fire at night, and killing all as they came out. I overcame the evil, and never got at it--but a little more punishment would have done it. I had been so bruised and wounded and beset, that I was out of patience. . . . On that night when I was threatened with the paddle again, I was fully determined to kill, even if I were to be hanged and, if it pleased God, sent to hell: I could bear no more.
Slaves also could retaliate by a production slowdown, after being forced to work more hours than they wished.408 While corporal punishment may have been cheaper in application normally than imprisonment, as Fogel and Engerman note, when it backfired this was not true, when the expenses of lost labor time and pursuing a runaway piled up, or when the overseer or master were injured or even killed for trying to whip a slave who refused to consent to the punishment.409
Did Slaveowners Successfully Implant a Protestant Work Ethic in the Slaves?
Fogel and Engerman remarkably claim that not only had the master class sought to imbue the slaves with the Protestant work ethic, but often succeeded in accomplishing that goal:
[Planters] wanted devoted, hard-working, responsible slaves who identified their fortunes with the fortunes of their masters. Planters sought to imbue slaves with a "Protestant" work ethic and to transform that ethic from a state of mind into a high level of production. . . . The logic of [Stampp's] position made it difficult to acknowledge that ordinary slaves could be diligent workers, imbued like their masters with a Protestant ethic.410
Their claim's fundamental problem is a lack of evidence from the slave's own viewpoint that he or she was so motivated, and identified with the slaveholder's own interests so closely. While some house servants, who had been owned by multiple generations of the same white family on the same plantation may have come to closely identify with their owners' interests, this assuredly generally was not the case with most field hands. The master's self-interest in trying to maximize work and minimize expenses in maintaining them was too diametrically opposed to the slave's self-interest in working as little as possible and increasing what food, clothing, etc. he got from his owner.411 Fogel and Engerman exaggerate the extent to which most slaveholders had worked out an elaborate system of positive incentives to give slaves a reason to work beyond negative sanctions such as whipping.412 Instead of seeing whipping and other manifestations of physical force as a supplement to incentives coming from wages for overtime work, Christmas bonuses, promotions, and manumissions, these positive incentives should be seen as largely superfluous additions to a slaveholder regime characterized by violence, force, and physical punishment.
Proof that slaves were mainly kept in line by force and the threat of it comes from how work discipline so often collapsed and many slaves fled from their masters when armies of a power hostile to slaveholders' interests were nearby, whether it was the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, or--especially--the Civil War. If the slaves had had so many positive incentives to work for their masters, masses of field hands would not have fled from their plantations as the Union army moved southward, and others would have been so defiant or uncooperative while they remained.413 The slaveholder's use of force on his labor force, and protection against rebellion or mass non-compliance with his orders, ultimately relied on others in society backing him up with force when he was challenged, since the slaves on plantations and farms often greatly outnumbered their owners. The disorganization caused by war served as an opportunity for the subordinate class--here, the slaves--to publicly express their true feelings and beliefs by word and deed since some nearby army hostile to the dominant class provided potential protection against their superiors' ability to use coercion against subordinates who were supposed to always obey them. Because the private thoughts and oral expressions of the bulk of the slaves are irretrievably lost as part of what Scott calls the hidden transcript, normally we cannot know what thoughts motivated them. However, the various slave narratives composed by a small minority of slaves (often with the help of abolitionist whites) give valuable insights into how the slaves did look at the system of oppression they suffered under.414 The protecting presence of armies hostile to the dominant class in the South allowed the bondsmen to "speak truth to power." They could publicly express their beliefs about those over them in authority, and defy that class by running away or refusing to obey this or that order issued by their owners.415 In this extreme situation, during the Civil War, with the old regime, being clearly and fundamentally challenged, indeed, in its death throes--the true beliefs of the slaves came out into the open and into the public transcript. Then, it stood revealed many did not accept their master's paternalistic ideology in reality, but had earlier professed it and used it tacitly against their masters when they were far more powerless against the dominant class' ability to coerce them. Fogel and Engerman's claims that the slaves had to some greater or lesser degree internalized the Protestant work ethic is fatally undermined not just by a lack of positive evidence, such as citations from the slave narratives, but by the quasi-freedmen who fled to areas where the Union army was present, or who stayed on their masters' plantations, but increasingly disobeyed them or requested wages for routine work.
The Slaves' Sense of Work Discipline Like that of Other Pre-Industrial People

Fogel and Engerman's claims about the slaves being inculcated with the Protestant work ethic is closely tied to the issue of how much the slaves had a time-orientation as opposed to a task-orientation in their work habits, and how punctual they were getting to work in the morning, and methodical in working once there. Their work habits were a subset of those of pre-industrial peasant peoples everywhere, including Europe, where hard work in irregular spasms was valued, but consistently punctual and regular daily labor was not. The type and amount of work necessary was tied to the seasonal and diurnal rhythms of planting, tending, and harvesting crops. English artisans, having "Saint Monday" off, often started the workweek with little or no work, but worked furiously long hours towards its end, collapsing into exhaustion late on Saturday, just to repeat the cycle again next week. This irregular cycle illustrates how workers may work hard, but not especially regularly. The pre-industrial peasant mentality was also characterized by not working once a customary level of subsistence had been reached, and even while any money remained in the pocket. Defoe described cynically such a worker this way:
There is nothing more frequent than for an Englishman to work till he has got his pockets full of money, and then go and be idle or perhaps drunk till this is all gone. . . . Ask him in his cups what he intends, he'll tell you honestly, he'll drink as long as it lasts and then go to work for more.416
A hike in wages paid per hour backfires on the employers of people who think this way because they work proportionately fewer hours, as per the backwards bending labor supply curve.
In the particular case of the enslaved blacks, they were brought into a labor system in America which, for all their masters and mistresses' efforts to make them work regularly, was still largely regulated by the seasonal agricultural work cycle. Turning the slaves into methodical clock-punchers was simply not fully practical or necessary because agricultural work is highly irregular even in subtropical areas such as the American South. A factory work regime in its classical form is strictly time-oriented and not tied to daylight or seasonal rhythms. Admittedly, the sugar planters, having around-the-clock slave labor in their sugar refineries, approached this model, but even then it was done during a grinding season, not year around. Field work on their plantations was still dominated by seasonal rhythms. Furthermore, the whites themselves in the South who were supposed to be inculcating this Protestant work ethic into the slaves, hardly exemplified it themselves, whether planter or poor white. After all, one of the key differences between a Yankee businessman and a paternalistic planter, pro-slavery apologists stated, was that the former was much more methodical and regular in pursuing wealth than the latter, who knew when relaxing was good in itself. James Sumler saw the implicit hypocrisy on this score among whites, which encouraged him to escape from slavery in Virginia: "After I got to years of maturity, and saw the white people sitting in the shade [presumably his master's family in particular], while I worked in the sun, I thought I would like to be my own man."417 As for the poor whites, much like the English cottagers who eked out a living on the end of their village's commons before enclosure wiped out that way of life, they often scraped by through hunting, fishing, some casual subsistence farming, perhaps supplemented by some wage labor in order to get cash for goods that had to be purchased. Olmsted routinely found throughout the South that large planters when asked about the local poor whites always felt them to have a bad influence on their slaves because
the contrast between the habits of the former--most of the time idle, and when working, working only for their own benefit and without a master--constantly offered suggestions and temptations to the slaves to neglect their duty, to run away and live a vagabond life, as these poor whites were seen to.

Genovese's excellent discussion of the slaves and their work ethic, which draws upon Thompson's insights on work discipline being imposed on the English working class, clearly demonstrates the shallowness of Fogel and Engerman's claim that planters often succeeded in inculcating the Protestant work ethic into their slaves, especially when they lacked it to a significant degree themselves to begin with, and had to use force so often to keep their bondsmen working.418


Genovese's Paternalism: How Successful Were Planters in Imposing Hegemony?
Another ideological control device the slaveholders used to control the slaves needs discussion here besides Fogel and Engerman's Protestant work ethic. The foundation of Genovese's work Roll, Jordan, Roll concerns the slaves accepting their masters' ideology of paternalism with its reciprocal duties between the enslavers and the enslaved, as per Gramsci's notions of hegemony. Even if the slaves often changed and adapted this ideology to favor their own purposes in life, turning what privileges their masters and mistresses granted them customarily into rights, they still accepted the overall system of paternalism, if not always slavery itself. Genovese maintains:
But despite their [the slave preachers'] will and considerable ability, they could not lead their people over to the attack against the paternalist ideology itself. . . . The range from abject acceptance of slavery through insistence on a decent return to outright defiance should not obscure the underlying thread. Some accepted slavery in fear of freedom; others in awareness of superior force; others only because they were held down by the manifestation of that force. Almost all, however, with lesser or greater intensity, fell into a paternalistic pattern of thought, and almost all redefined that pattern into a doctrine of self-protection.419
Genovese' view raises the issue of whether most slaves developed "false consciousness," i.e., really accepted the ideology of their masters and made it their own as well.
Scott Versus Hegemony
Scott's analysis casts serious doubt upon this score. In contrast to Genovese's analysis, is it not possible that the slaves could have merely proclaimed publicly their devotion to what their masters believed in order to obtain some practical advantage, while privately denying it? They could appeal to their masters and mistresses on the basis of the latter's views of ruling for the good of the slaves in order to obtain (say) better rations, less punishment, and so forth. The ideology of the dominant class can be used by the subordinate class to condemn the former when they fall hypocritically short of its ideals, yet still allow them to appear in conformity with their superiors' beliefs. Often the weak have some practical self-interest in creating an appearance of hegemony by their superiors, and will go through the motions of publicly appearing to accept their values, while among their own kind alone, they will deny them. Merely noting the rituals of deference, such as slaves not talking back to an overseer ordering to do something in a particular case, but looking downwards and shuffling away, does not mean those so engaged have accepted their masters' ideological "hegemony in the sense of active consent." For example, consider the implications of what Douglass experienced initially with his Baltimore mistress. She had not dealt with a slave under her control before, and so was not aware of the rituals of deference slaves were supposed to manifest towards her:
I could not approach her as I was accustomed to approach other white ladies. My early instruction was all out of place. The crouching servility, usually so acceptable a quality in a slave, did not answer when manifested toward her. Her favor was not gained by it; she seemed to be disturbed by it. She did not deem it impudent or unmannerly for a slave to look her in the face.420
Now, when Douglass performed these rituals of deference with his masters, was he really accepting his role as a slave for life? Inwardly, he obviously was not, whether in the recesses of his mind or in his conversations with other slaves when no master or mistress was present (part of the "hidden transcript"), such as those he conspired with to escape to the North.
Speaking more generally, slave religion served, at least on some level, as the main source of at least a semi-coherent counter-ideology for many slaves when they had meetings among themselves alone. It was said that Gabriel and Martin Prossner in Virginia at religious services regularly harnessed the Old Testament story about God freeing the children of Israel through Moses to gain recruits for their conspiracy: "The Israelites were glowingly portrayed as a type of successful resistance to tyranny; and it was argued, that now, as then, God would stretch forth his arm to save, and would strengthen a hundred to overthrow a thousand." Similarly, at Vesey's planned rebellion in South Carolina, which appeared to be centered on the membership of the African Church of Charleston, one alleged conspirator said that he "read to us from the Bible, how the children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage." Somewhat differently, but still using a religious base for his counter-ideology, was the charismatic Nat Turner, whose visions as a prophet led him to start a rebellion. The most crucial of these visions, in May 1828, had God telling him that
the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the Yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.
These examples indicate how slaves could use the Bible's religion to reply against their masters' official religious ideology of patience, humility, and obedience. But these proclamations remained behind the scenes, when whites were not watching. Officially, the slave preachers had little choice but to teach what their masters wanted them to when whites were present, but this changed when they were by themselves, as freedman Anderson Edwards of Texas recalled:
When I starts preaching I couldn't read or write and had to preach what Master told me, and he say tell them niggers iffen they obeys the master they goes to Heaven; but I knowed there's something better for them, but daren't tell them 'cept on the sly. That I done lots. I tells 'em iffen they keeps praying, the Lord will set 'em free.421
It is necessary to be wary of accepting the slaves' proclamations of loyalty and gratefulness at face value, for the heart may not be agreeing with what the tongue feels compelled to say.
Obviously, the problem here is the lack of documentation concerning what most slaves really thought as they went through such rituals of deference, and professed their undying love for their master, and so forth. Now sometimes light can be shed on the hidden transcript, which reveals how the oppressed analyzed their condition when among themselves alone, through the slave narratives (such as Douglass's). Sometimes it erupts into the public transcript (which the dominant class largely writes, disseminates, and controls) through occasional outbursts, etc. Still, determining what most slaves really thought inevitably comes down to fortuitously impressionistic literary evidence. Unfortunately for historians, there were no Gallup polls using statistical samples of slaves to record what they believed about their masters, mistresses, overseers, and slavery itself. Little of what was said in the slave quarters when no master or overseer was within earshot has come down to us. Almost entirely, the preserved records are composed of the public transcript. Still, there is reason to believe that the slaves always sensed that they were oppressed and exploited, judging from their dull, plodding work habits, their theft of food and other items, and the number who ran away at least temporarily. They saw practically what freedom meant, from how their master's family lived, and from neighboring poor whites, so it was not something they had to completely imagine on their own. Of course, enough cases exist of slaves appearing truly sad at the passing of a good master, not running away when the Yankee army passes through, or other human intimacies between white and black that likely indicate many slaves really did accept some sense of reciprocal duties (or rights) between them and their masters, especially in the case of domestic servants, as Genovese observes. Although Genovese is fully cognizant that much slave behavior, at least on the job, was or could have been deceitful, intentionally incompetent, or "putting on old massa," the dangerous implications of duplicity for his application of Gramsci's model of hegemony to American slavery were not seriously considered.422
Were the Slaveholders Really Believers in Paternalism?: The Implications of Jacksonian Democracy and Commercial Capitalism in the American South
Genovese's thesis that the master class successfully implanted their hegemonic ideology of paternalism in the slaves' minds also depends on whether the slaveholders themselves really believed in it. Could have the typical masters of the South been just as motivated by profit as the money-grubbing Yankee merchants and industrialists that pro-slavery apologists portrayed while defending a paternalistic "peculiar institution"? The roughneck crew portrayed in Olmsted's description of the frontier interior planters, alluded to above, with their passions and desires to make money off "cotton and negroes," is a world apart from the long-settled paternalistic great planters of lowland South Carolina or those attempting to sustain their pride while eking out a living with a few slaves on soil of declining fertility in Tidewater Virginia. Once a book-peddler on board a steamboat in Louisiana attempted to sell a "Bible Defence of Slavery," which clearly had a paternalistic overtone to it judging from the frontispiece he displayed. He thrust the book into the hands of a would-be purchaser, and was yelled at with the following:
Now you go to hell! I've told you three times I didn't want your book. If you bring it here again I'll throw it overboard. I own niggers; and I calculate to own more of 'em, if I can get 'em, but I don't want any damn'd preachin' about it.
Was such a man, part of the striving, roughneck, quick-tempered, gun- and knife-packing crowd Olmsted described, really motivated by the love of his slaves to embrace the paternalistic "peculiar institution"? Or, did he judge this was the best way for him to make money? He did not even try to keep up the pretense it was the former. Similarly, one relatively poor white who lived in northern Alabama, a miner who also kept a small farm, told Olmsted:
The richer a man is . . . and the more niggers he's got, the poorer he seems to live. If you want to fare well in this country [as a lodger] you stop to poor folks' housen; they try to enjoy what they've got, while they ken, but these yer big planters they don' care for nothing but to save.423
This account may reflect class prejudice, of poor white against rich planter. Still, it undermines the idea the slaveowners seriously lived the profit-devaluing paternalism that pro-slavery ideologues such as Fitzhugh spoke in their names. Or, if they did not live it, how much did they merely believe in it, since a certain level of hypocrisy is inevitable among those who uphold any ideology due to human moral weakness?
While the older, long-settled regions of Tidewater Virginia and lowland South Carolina had large planters by the mid-nineteenth century whose families had owned slaves over several generations, most of the rest of the South was still at best a semi-settled wilderness heavily affected by the frontier mentality.424 Boney describes one typical smaller planter named Thomas Stevens, who although he at one time owned thirty-one slaves, never could mobilize more than five or six prime adult male field hands in the field at once. Having started out as a miller, carpenter, and distiller, he raised livestock as well as crops on his farm. As described in a slave narrative by one John Brown, he was a hard driver of his slaves, of his sons, of himself, and expressed both rage and occasional brutality against his slaves while pursuing increased production on his farm. To Boney, "planter" in his thinking should involve someone who owns 50 or 100 slaves, not just 20, because: "The designation of planter carries strong connotations of elitism and aristocracy which distort the basic reality of the antebellum South." In contradiction to Genovese or Beard, he views the South's whites as dominated by a capitalistic, bourgeois ethic, characterized by ambition, striving, and profit-making. "No matter how many slaves most planters accumulated, they tended to remain bourgeois businessmen, fundamentally middle-class agriculturists in hot pursuit of the fast buck. . . . The great majority of Southern whites were thoroughly bourgeois, optimistically pursuing profit by hard work and sharp bargaining." The individualistic mentality of these men seeking upward social mobility by their own efforts is very different from that of European, especially Continental, aristocrats who stereotypically eschewed commercial ventures and active participation in the management of their land. The planters of the South had a much more commercial mentality than their supposed European counterparts, and a number were, according to Degler, "actively engaged in railroading, banking, ginning, and manufacturing of all kinds." Conforming to this description, May describes John Quitman, a major Mississippi planter and politician, as "immersed in land speculations, banking activities, Mississippi railroad development, the Natchez Steam Packet Company, and southern commercial conventions." He served as an officer for a number of corporations.425 Degler even suggests, in an argument reminiscent of Fogel and Engerman's, that if the slaveholders earned a rate of profit comparable to that of bourgeois Northerners that they "must have been working as hard at making profits . . . unless one assumes it was all accidental."426 The character of the utterly pragmatic, temperamental, roughneck smaller planters and slaveholders Olmsted encountered time and time again on his travels, whose conversations were dominated by slaves, cotton, and other "shop talk," strongly support Fogel and Engerman's revisionist view of a capitalistic, profit-seeking slaveholding class.
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