Eric V. Snow



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How Mistresses and Other Family Members Often Restrained Ill-Treatment

The mistress often could influence the master or overseer to treat the slaves better. Consider how one slaveboy mistakenly thought his master told him to "eat it" when in fact he said "heat it," when referring to some cold, leftover "hopping John," which was cowpeas, boiled with pork or bacon, sometimes with rice added. The master was going to whip him, but did not when his wife demurred: "Oh, no, he is young and didn't understand." In one white slaveowning family in South Carolina, because the wife had owned a number of slaves when she married her husband, she treated her slaves markedly better than those of her husband. She "would't allow no slashing round 'bout where she was," and pushed her slaves to keep their quarters more tidy. One time, as her husband was about to whip one of her slaves, she said, "John C., you let my nigger alone," and was obeyed. Another mistress was mercilessly whipped for treating her husband's slaves well by unchaining them and cooking them a meal one time.467 More stories about mistresses being more kind than their husbands, such as by attempting to dissuade them from selling a slave off, could be given.468 Admittedly, the mistresses sometimes were worse than their husbands. Harriett Robinson, once a slave in Texas, remembered how her mistress ("Miss Julia") routinely beat her during the Civil War, while her master did not touch her. One day, when she told her brother to whip her, the master came home after hunting, and blasted their treatment of her: "You infernal sons of bitches, don't you know there is three hundred Yankees camped out here, and iffen they knowed you'd whipped this nigger the way you done, they'd kill all us. Iffen they find it out, I'll kill all you all." This master's opposition to his wife's harsh treatment was probably motivated purely by pragmatism, for evidently he had done nothing to stop all the earlier beatings. In the case Tines Kendricks of Georgia described, the mistress was plainly meaner than her husband, being stingy, and awaking her slaves loudly before dawn. She "cuss and rare worse'n a man."469 So while "the fairer sex" was more commonly a restraining force on its husbands' (or fathers') treatment of their slaves, certainly sometimes the mistresses were crueler than their husbands.
Younger family members sometimes restrained the punishments meted out on a slave. Ball said the white daughters of the master and mistress would make a particular slave their own, and the white sons had their favorites as well. As a result, the young mistresses looked out for the interests not only of the slave girl, but her family as well, while the young masters "have many disputes with the overseer if he abuses them [their favorites]." In another case, Mary Reynolds was sold because her master "didn't want Miss Dora [his daughter] to play with no nigger young-un." But because the young mistress was so emotionally attached to Mary, and became severely and deathly depressed because of her absence, a doctor was called on to see what was wrong. After the doctor recommended buying Mary back in order to save the master's daughter's life, her father did so, even though buying her back cost much more than what he got when initially selling her. In another case, one young master (as an adult) got his father to stop beating a captured runaway over the head with a club that made the latter bleed terribly.470 The children of the master when in residence constituted another of the informal checks on the barbarity of the system. Thus, when the white children had grown up playing with slave children, the attachments formed in the childhood years formed one of the main foundations for a truly practiced paternalism, at least towards these "old favorites."471
The Central Reality of Violence as the Main Tool to Control the Slaves
The slave population of the South was mainly controlled by violent coercion and the threat of it by the white ruling class with aid from poor whites. The slaves were not primarily kept in line by the successful implantation of the ruling class' ideology, whether it be the Protestant work ethic, in Fogel and Engerman's version, or the reciprocal duties/rights of paternalism between the rulers and the ruled, in Genovese's version. Genovese's model is only true if he could prove the slaves really accepted the ideological framework of the system which held them in bondage, as opposed to giving it just lip service publicly before their owners, and denying it among themselves. Successful indoctrination may have occurred among many of the drivers and house servants of large planters, especially in long-settled regions among the Atlantic Seaboard, but probably did not get very far otherwise. Furthermore, the ruling class itself may not have believed in paternalism so much as a striving, individualistic commercial capitalism and Jacksonian Democracy, which treated whites as political equals (vis-a-vis the vote), but excluded blacks on purely racial grounds. Such positive incentives for the slaves as better food and clothing, better jobs, etc. for extra work and/or unusual loyalty to their masters and mistresses were merely supplements to measures that inflicted continual violence. For while sheer habit may have kept many slaves in the fields much of the time, the slaveholders always had to whip recalcitrant bondsmen as examples to intimidate the rest. Judging from Barrow's experience with his slaves, a majority of them became "recalcitrant" enough to be worthy of the lash at one time or another. Three out of four of Barrow's cotton pickers were whipped at least during the appendix's 1840-41 period. Of the 50 out of 65 who were whipped, they felt the lash no less than 130 times in that same period.472 Corporal punishment had to take the place of internal motivation when a slave's will had to be forced to be the same as his or her owner's.
Occasional sacrificial executions, combined with those slaves killed on the job by masters or overseers, further struck dread among those enslaved, even though barbarisms such as burning at the stake never totally eliminated the worst slave crimes, let alone routine acts of resistance like pilfering and malingering. Both Genovese's concept of paternalism and Fogel and Engerman's view of the Protestant work ethic being accepted by the slaves suffer from discounting the fundamental reality of violence and force as the main tools for controlling them. As Anderson noted when critiquing Genovese:

It is stated that paternalism can encourage violence, but there is no history of violence as a means of repression in the Old South that is interwoven into the book. . . . Violence is dealt with in terms of how often the whip cracked [shades of Fogel and Engerman!] or how often police patrols tracked down slaves rather than with than the intensity and nature of the violence employed. More importantly, the whole question of violence in shoved into the background.


Since slavery involves a fundamentally involuntary, unchosen relationship between its work force and "management," it had to rely on force much more than capitalist employers do. The latter rarely need to openly resort to it except when their property is attacked, blocked, or occupied by strikers. Dissatisfied workers in a free labor market have the right to move and look for another job, which constitutes its biggest "safety valve" for workers' frustrations, even though it is an individualistic and (often) burdensome choice for them to make. In contrast, Reuter maintained that
the principle that controlled the allocation of plantation work was naked power. Mean work went to slaves, other work to the owners. The duties of the Negroes were determined in the same way as those of the livestock. Those who resisted were beaten and whipped. As valuable property, less frequently were they hanged or shot.473
Labor discipline collapsed throughout the South whenever a hostile army was nearby, especially during the Civil War, proving that the slaves were mainly controlled by the use of violence or constant threats of it. The hordes of field hands which fled many Southern farms and plantations, and the much greater resistance those which remained behind put up against their owners whenever the Yankee army was nearby, proves slavery's base was not positive incentives and the slaves' accepting a Protestant work ethic or a paternalistic ethos of reciprocal duties/rights that kept them in line. If ideological factors or positive material incentives were what mainly kept the slaves in line, then the presence of a hostile army to the interests of slaveowners should not have had much effect on the slaves obeying them or running away. Hostile armies stripped away slaveowners' ability to use armed force to put down major revolts (or the threat of them) and it interfered in the judicial/police system of capturing and returning escaped slaves who were in "occupied territory." Slaves in these areas could often escape vigilantes and lynch mobs that unofficially meted out "justice," or found these forces mobilized much less often against them because of the implicit threat the occupying army posed. Especially in the Union army's case, the master class faced the danger the local commanders or troops may be affected by anti-slavery sentiment. They could set out to make as much trouble as possible, such as by destroying or pillaging the planters' property or subvert slaveowners' attempts to control their slaves. Largely only with the house servants generally, and the slaves of unusually kind masters, where the paternalistic ideology was likely seriously practiced by the masters and really actually accepted by the slaves, especially in long settled areas, did the presence of a hostile army have lesser effects in subverting work discipline, because then a stronger voluntary component existed in the slave/master relationship.
The High Levels of Violence between the Slaves and Masters Compared to England
As for the enslaved, because they have no free choice, this lead to much greater violence on both sides when revolts did occur, both in the numbers of whites killed by the slaves, and in the ensuing judicial and vigilante killings that followed. The slaves' desperation was greater, their goals much higher than the farmworkers' during the Swing Riots, and the American whites' frontier/vigilante ethos ensured massive retaliation when "putting the black man back in his place." An "all or nothing" mentality characterized the slave revolts, for they knew the system must be totally overthrown in order to achieve their goals when resorting to violence. Otherwise, sooner or later, the white militia and (if necessary) regular army would catch up with them, and kill them en masse in pitched battle. During the Turner rebellion in Virginia in 1831, the rebel slaves eventually totalled about seventy, and killed fifty-five whites, among whom "neither age nor sex was to be spared." They left behind, as Blassingame described, "a trail of ransacked plantations, decapitated bodies and battered heads across Southampton," all in a mere forty-eight hours of time. More than forty blacks were executed or murdered (by lynch mobs, etc.) in the aftermath of this revolt. After the 1811 revolt in New Orleans, sixteen black leaders had their heads cut off and placed on stakes along the Mississippi, twenty more slaves were hanged, and perhaps one hundred more were killed by "roving bands of militia and vigilante groups." After the exposure of the Vesey plot in South Carolina in 1822, which had killed no whites, some twenty-two blacks were executed. Their bodies were allowed to dangle for hours. Its court stopped after executing thirty-five in all, having had dozens more scheduled for death, explaining that "the terror of example we thought would be sufficiently operative by the number of criminals sentenced to death [already]." Sterne and Rothseiden maintain that with whites so ready to resort to violence, especially with extra-legal lynchings and riots, along with the routine whippings and other punishments necessary to keep the slaves in line on plantations, the blacks readily learned from (especially Southern) American culture to use physical force as a tool during conflicts.474
Both Sides Committed Far Less Violence during the Swing Riots in England
Unlike the major American slave revolts, one has to look long and hard to find anyone actually killed in the mob violence that broke out during the Swing riots in 1830-31. In the ensuing trials relatively few farmworkers were finally executed compared. The Swing Riots were much more widespread in time and space than any American slave revolt, with some twenty counties affected, reaching a peak in the November and December of 1830. Despite all the verbal threats made to life, limb, and property, machines smashed, ricks burned, and dangerous weapons rioters branished, Hobsbawm and Rude noted:
In fact, no single life was lost in the whole course of the riots among the farmers, landlords, overseers, parsons or the guardians of law and order . . . However, as we have seen even these methods [rick-burning, beating up overseers of the poor, etc.] were used in moderation, and at the height of the mass movement, hardly at all. More than this: the limits of violence were known and not overstepped. Property was its legitimate object, life was not.
Another noted: "They got about their task of riot politely, dressed according to many eyewitnesses' accounts in their best clothes, seldom using threatening language." With great difficulty a case can be located where someone was actually killed during the Swing riots: One Wiltshire farmer shot and killed a rioter just after he participated in a mob that smashed up some threshing machines. Demonstrating the contrast with Turner's merciless band, Lady Cavan was able to challenge the rioters' sense of propriety by saying, "Seeing you are my neighbours and armed, yet, as I am an unprotected woman, I am sure you will do no harm." The gathered laborers quickly denied they meant any harm, and did none. When the English authorities, after initially showing some sense of mercy and/or restraint on the local level, implemented a policy of repression, only 19 were actually executed, although 252 were sentenced to death. Out of some l,976 cases, 800 were acquitted, with 644 being jailed and 505 being sentenced to transportation, with 482 actually arriving in Australia and Tasmania. While these figures still sound high, it has to be remembered the Swing riots involved far more laborers over a much larger geographic territory compared to the Turner or New Orleans slave revolts. Admittedly, the death sentences meted out greatly exceeded the severity of the crimes committed. But then, in America, thirty-five slaves were executed in South Carolina just for (allegedly) participating in Vesey's abortive conspiracy to revolt, in which no whites or others were injured or killed, and no property was damaged.475 Furthermore, there were no lynch mobs or vigilante activities that punished or killed laborers involved in the Swing riots, while in the aftermath of both the Turner and New Orleans revolts these were quite active. England's agricultural working class, even when rioting, showed a much greater restraint in using violence than the slaves, and in turn the English ruling class inflicted much less punishment on the average rioter, compared to Southern American whites' standards of punishing slaves involved in slave revolts, actual or abortive, by the legal process or the lynch mob.
The Lower Goals and Greater Divisions among Local Elites in the English Case
The farmworkers' goals were almost pathetically lower than the slaves', at least as proclaimed, even when the cloak of anonymity could be used, such as through the threatening "Swing" letters. Many sought just somewhat higher wages and (at the instigation or passive acceptance of the farmers in some areas) the end of the tithe and lower rents, and the destruction of the machines that robbed them of work. None announced any desire for the land of the gentry and aristocracy to divide among themselves.476 Not even the goal of gaining allotments or reversing enclosure was stated by most rioters, which implies the basic acceptance of their condition of proletarianization, at least for their main means of support. Sometimes the gathered crowds of laborers did "levy" (i.e. extort) immediate cash payments or beer from various farmers and landowners. Occasionally the political agenda of the radical reformers such as Cobbett showed up in the demands of the laborers, such as a complaint against sinecures, and others against taxes, but these certainly were not the main demands of the laborers. Resentment against specific officials or places involved in the parish relief system was displayed, such as in the destruction of the Selborne and Headley workhouses in Hampshire.477 Consider the demands of one crowd of 150 that gathered in Ringmer, Sussex, which threw forward a letter stating their grievances to Lord Gage when he sought the leader of the group to come forward to state their demands. Although the writer had the advantage of anonymity in stating his group's goals, all that was demanded was a fairly substantial wage increase (in order to avoid dependence on parish relief) and the dismissal of the permanent overseers of the poor, singling one out in particular, who were less sympathetic to their claims for relief. The vestry proceeded to grant these demands after discussion, and with cheers the assembled crowd dispersed.478 A significant factor in the riots, especially on the local level as the disturbances occurred, was that many farmers and even some landowners, especially on the county level, sympathized with the laborers' demands.479 A number of the farmers in East Anglia even seized upon the situation to use the laborers' collected numbers to exert pressure against landowners to lower rents and clergymen their tithes in order to, they said, raise their men's wages.480 Would-be similar actions by Southern poor whites--to instigate and collude with the slaves in a rebellion--are unimaginable. Slaveholders and poor whites remained united as classes against the blacks during all the slave revolts and panics that happened in the antebellum South. The English farmers' sense of personal danger from the open unrest of their workers was far less than what slaveowners and their small farmer and poor white allies felt during the actuality of a slave revolt, where the mentality on both sides was kill or be killed. Despite the evident oppression of the laborers, they were much more restrained in their dealings with local farmers and landowners during the Swing Riots, and vice versa, than the slaves were with their owners and allies among the non-slaveholding whites--and the lynch mob mentality was entirely absent among the English.481
The Routine Police State Measures in the South
American slaveowners routinely employed a number of very coercive safety measures and precautions in order to protect themselves against their human chattels. Slavery involves far more exertion of control, surveillance, and violence on a steady basis than is the case in a capitalist society where labor is free to quit and change jobs, and move elsewhere. The Southern whites were much more paranoid than the English rural elite, both for objective reasons and because of racist ones, and feared the slaves might attack them violently back in retaliation for the ill-treatment they had received. Olmsted described how the standard security measures in major Southern cities approached those associated with martial law:
But go the bottom of this security and dependence [between slave servants and masters], and you comes to police machinery such as you never find in towns under free government: citadels, sentries, passports, grape-shotted cannon, and daily public whippings for accidental infractions of police ceremonies. I happened myself to see more direct expression of tyranny in a single day and night at Charleston, than at Naples [under Bomba] in a week; and I found that more than half the inhabitants of this town were subject to arrest, imprisonment, and barbarous punishment, if found in the streets without a passport after the evening 'gun-fire.'
He went on to explain how a twelve-year-old girl, in a district where slaves outnumbered free fifty to one, stopped an old slave along the road, and angrily ordered him back to his plantation under the threat of having him whipped when he hesitated to return. Then
she instantly resumed the manner of a lovely child with me, no more apprehending that she had acted unbecomingly, than that her character had been influenced by the slave's submission to her caprice of supremacy; no more conscious that she had increased the security of her life by strengthening the habit of the slave to the master race, than is the sleeping seaman that he tightens his clutch of the rigging as the ship meets each new billow.482
The pass and patrol system had controls that were far tighter than anything dreamed up under the settlement laws and parish authorities in England, as damaging as the latter were to the English farmworkers' freedoms of movement and of contract. The level of compulsion and surveillance involved in the gang system was far higher than anything under which the English laborers suffered, including under their own gang system, because corporal punishment could not be inflicted on adult laborers. While the task system appreciably reduced the amount of compulsion and watchfulness masters maintained, it was not common outside lowland Georgia and South Carolina, so it must not be taken as the norm. Compulsion was the name of the game, and incentives for working extra hours, Sundays, and holidays were just mere supplements to a system of control characterized by violence.
Coercion, Not Incentives or Ideology, as the Basic Means of Enforcing Slavery

While the slaves found ways to take advantage of divisions between masters, mistresses, their children, and overseers, as well as between poor whites and planters (such as in the illicit liquor/stolen goods trade), the fact remains when any slightly serious challenge to the overall system of slavery occurred, all the whites would united against the blacks, enslaved and otherwise. Small advantages gained by resistance while the overall system maintained in place did not disturb its characteristically fantastic levels of violence and coercion. While many stories may be told about huge masses slaves routinely working when hardly any whites were around besides an overseer, or the owning white family, the fact remains the slaves, at least certainly their leaders, knew that revolt would result in a bloodbath, composed mostly of their own blood once the militia or regular army caught up with them. The routine whippings, sales, imprisonments, executions, etc. indicated that the whites meant business, and that they were (at least publicly) undivided and fully confident in maintaining their social system. Unlike other ruling classes which have been overthrown, who became divided and lost their nerve and belief in the justice of their social order, the South's became more dogmatic and bellicose in defending itself in the three decades before the Civil War. Habit, combined with routinely punishing enough slaves as examples to restrain the rest, sufficed to keep them in line in most cases concerning any frontal attacks on the system that oppressed them. As for how the slaves could and did quietly subvert the system, oftentimes trying to get as many material advantages as they could, that is discussed below (pp. 325-353). The effects of the Union army's presence demonstrated that most slaves were not obedient because they were turned into childish, docile "Sambos" in personality, or due to notions of paternalism or the Protestant work ethic swimming around in their heads. Now some exceptions did exist--such as among many drivers, domestic servants, and even the field hands of the kindest masters where the duties of the ruling class were not mere words, where the slaves actually did come to identify with their white family and its interests, sometimes in a quasi-client/patron relationship, especially in long-settled areas. Nevertheless, the overall system of slavery was maintained by a continual application of violence, coercion, and surveillance, and any other measures, such as pay for overtime work, better jobs for more loyal or harder-working slaves, the inculcation of paternalistic ideology, etc. were mere supplements, not its core.
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