Eric V. Snow



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Some masters tried giving adequate rations and using religious teaching (an attempt at hegemony once again) to restrain thefts, but these general pro-active measures were not especially successful. Davis maintained that the Barrow plantation's slaves were well-fed, but his claim that they did not steal that often is undermined by the incidents recorded in Barrow's own diary. Despite all the prevention measures, theft remained a major problem. Russell commented, while visiting a friend's plantation near Natchez: "Large plantations are not suited to the rearing of hogs; for it is found almost impossible to prevent the negroes from stealing and roasting the pigs." Overseers on one large Deep South plantation told Olmsted, offhandedly "as a matter of course," that their slaves stole corn to feed the chickens and hogs they kept on their own. One slaveholder insisted on taking and locking up Olmsted's blankets and saddlebags for security, even following them to their place of safety, explaining: "Some of our own people in the house might come to them. Such things have happened here, and you never can trust any of them." Molly, a domestic servant, explained to Chesnut in a remarkably matter-of-fact tone how the white neighbors nearby had lost all their food. Her revelation illustrates how the hidden transcript was breaking out into the open as the South's fortunes were plainly on the ropes in early 1864: "Niggers stole it. Nobody else could be that mean but their own niggers. You needn't look scared, missis. Why should we take em in de bulk? We takes em as we wants em."589 In the incessant war of wits between slaves trying to steal and masters trying to prevent them from doing so, each side won its share of battles.
Various Motives for Theft
Why did the bondsmen steal? Sometimes they stole because the slaveholder was so stingy in his rations that the slaves felt compelled to steal to live, while another motive was due to a lack of variety in the slave diet, a problem noted above (pp. 21-22). The pressures of perceived necessity made for an elastic slave conscience, similar to its approach to lying. As Thomas Jefferson noted, a man with no little experience dealing with slaves:
That disposition to theft, with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense. The man in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favour of others.
But the slaves justified their behavior on another, deeper line of logic. Their culture saw theft as simple justice, of the laborer taking what was due him or her, as Olmsted found that slaveholders themselves knew:
It is told me as a singular fact, that everywhere on the plantations, the agrarian notion has become a fixed point of the negro system of ethics: that the result of labour belongs of right to the labourer, and on this ground, even the religious feel justified in using "massa's" property for their own temporal benefit. This they term "taking" and it is never admitted to be a reproach to a man among them that he is charged with it, though "stealing," or taking from another than their master, and particularly from one another, is so.
The slaves, by dubbing theft as "taking," rejected their owners' morality, saying it did not apply to their specific situation. As Kemble noted: "It is very natural these people should steal a little of our meat from us occasionally, who steal almost all their bread from them habitually."590
The Intrinsic Costs of Double-Standards in Morality
Justifying stealing had intrinsic costs, for evidently some, at least, did not just stop at their master's stores. A Liberty County, Georgia missionary once complained that masters punished their slaves for thefts committed against them, but not for those committed against other slaves.

Hence, in some places, thieves thrive and honest men suffer, until it becomes a practice to 'keep if you can what is your own, and get all you can besides that is your neighbour's.['] Things come to such a pass, that the saying of the negroes is literally true, 'The people live upon one another.'


The slaveowners' harnessed universal Christian morality to stop their bondsmen from stealing while not, in a significant number of cases, feeding them enough. Their class interest was patently obvious. But repudiating this rule had spillover costs since some slaves, at least, chose to ignore the lines drawn even in their own culture about "taking" and "stealing," although this cost is not necessarily seen by others who have analyzed this issue. The intrinsic costs were a deeper problem, since some slaves experienced mixed feelings about "taking," similar to those about lying. As Genovese noted: "But the slaves' resistance inevitably weakened their self-respect and their ability to forge a collective discipline appropriate to the long-term demands of their national liberation." The life of accommodation, deception, and theft were seemingly necessary, even successful adaptations to conditions of slavery, but were poor preparations for a life of freedom, where the bad habits learned from the institution of bondage did not go away overnight, proved maladaptive as residual thefts continued against white employers after freedom came. Willie Lee "Rose forcibly argued in 1964 [that] learning accommodation was not healthy once freedom came." As Paquette concluded:
Slave theft or shirking, for example, may challenge discrete elements of a larger moral code but given mutual dependency, also may entail drawbacks for the slaves' construction of a coherent and more just alternative order. . . . To succeed, oppressed peoples, unlike some social historians, can ill afford to misconstrue license as moral economy.591
Evading Work by Claiming Sickness
The main battleground between masters and slaves concerned work. The slaves, being unpaid for regular work, had almost every incentive to slack off. They were kept in the field and steadily working by the watchfulness of the overseer, driver, and/or master, and the threat and application of physical force. Despite the pressures brought against them, slaves resourcefully found many a way to shirk while at work, or to avoid showing up at it to begin with. Notoriously, slaves faked sickness, disease, or injury to escape work. One of Barrow's slaves was particularly inventive--he avoided work for months by pretending to be blind. After a doctor examined him and said nothing was wrong, Barrow gave him twenty-five lashes, and ordered him to show up for work, after which he absconded. One female slave evaded work for over two years by supposedly being in the process of dying from phthisis [tuberculosis]. It turned out she had become in that time a capable milliner and dressmaker, kept busy by local black ladies! These situations presented the master class with a major dilemma. The slave could be really sick, and ordering a him to work threatened his health. One overseer lamented how, thinking a slave worth $800 was shamming by claiming sickness, he ordered him to work. The slave turned up dead two days later. His policy now, like his new employer's, was to generally give slaves the benefit of the doubt--a policy inevitably congenial to them. On the other hand, the slave could be perfectly healthy, yet by using colorful language and pitiful cries and moans, try to get out of work for a day or more. The slaveholder thus remained always somewhat in the dark, yet suspecting at least some of his or her slaves sometimes were faking it. Barrow's diary notes fairly often that so many slaves were sick and so many pretending, but (evidently) receiving the day off. He complained of two female slaves being terrible shirks for being laid up twice a month. He tested and rejected the claim of one slave thus, which backfired against him: "Ginny Jerry . . . has been shirkin for some time came to me Friday morning sick--suspecting him Examined him found nothing the matter complaining of pains &c. told him to go & work it off--he has concluded to woods it off." Olmsted summarized the problems Southern slaveholders faced, showing once again the real power of the mask slaves wore before their masters in subverting labor discipline:
It is said to be nearly as difficult to form a satisfactory diagnosis of negroes' disorders as it is of infants', because their imagination of symptoms is so vivid, and because not the smallest reliance is to be placed on their accounts of what they have felt or done.
One letter writer, who was from Virginia but had lived in New York, estimated nothing less than one-sixth of the labor-days a slave normally could have worked was lost to illness, real or imagined. The slave divers who worked along North Carolina's shoreline illustrate well the remarkable difference between free labor and slave labor about whether and how much sickness was faked. They dived to place gunpowder in submerged tree stumps that snagged large sweeping nets that caught fish. They were paid a quarter to a half dollar a day above the one dollar their owners received, and rewarded with whisky as well for working. "His divers very frequently had intermittent fevers, but would very rarely let this keep them out of their boats. Even in the midst of a severe 'shake,' they would generally insist that they were 'well enough to dive.'"592 Suddenly, the moment serious incentives were offered, lazy, shirking, "sick" slaves became healthy and hardworking! So long as slaves had little self-interest in whether and how much work they did, their interest in "putting on old massa" about how sick they were in order to lie in bed all day easily trumped any intrinsic desires to work.
Work: Slowdowns and Carelessness
When the slaves found they could not avoid work altogether, the next line of defense was to do it slowly and/or carelessly, attempting to deceive the overseer and master about how much they could do. Slaves often worked only so long as they were being watched, and the moment the master turned his back, they would slack off. In South Carolina, Olmsted witnessed a particularly naked example of "eye service":
The overseer rode about among them, on a horse, carrying in his hand a raw-hide whip, constantly directing and encouraging them; but . . . as often as he visited one end of the line of operations, the hands at the other end would discontinue their labour, until he turned to ride towards them again.
Sometimes Barrow was impressed with the work of his slaves, such as on certain record cotton-picking days, but other times he saw his slaves or those of other planters as terrible slackers. While visiting a relative's property, he commented: "Never saw negroes hoe as slow as they do on Robt. H. B place." After whipping eight or ten slaves one day for not picking enough cotton, he noted that low weights did not necessarily make for higher quality: "Those that pick least weights generally most trash." A number of times he whipped slaves for slackness at work, illustrating coercion placed a floor on productivity, but did little towards achieving any kind of excellence.593 The fundamental problem slaveholders faced concerning their bondsmen was, in the words of a Virginian capitalist and slaveholder who had experience with them both in the factory and on the farm:
They will not labour at all except to avoid punishment, and they will never do more than just enough to save themselves from being punished, and no amount of punishment will prevent their working carelessly and indifferently. It always seems on the plantation as if they took pains to break all the tools and spoil all the cattle that they possibly can, even when they know they'll be directly punished for it. . . . They only want to support life: they will not work for anything more.
When offered incentives, the ability of the most slothful to instantly turn to work can be little short of miraculous. One slave, who could have earned $150/year if he hired his own time made a mere $18 one year while costing in medical bills some $45. The executor of the estate who owned him offered him his freedom if he would earn $400 (Olmsted believed). He soon earned the sum, and was granted his freedom. This story demonstrates how, contrary to what this Virginian capitalist and slaveholder thought, the slaves' slackness was due to slavery, and not due to any genetic factors. Having robbed the slave of the product of his labor and correspondingly any interest in working well, the slaveowner had to use the poor substitute of external compulsion and violence to replace his human chattel's internal motivation. The slave's own sense of justice revolted against a system that enriched his owner, and left him with the proverbial crust of bread largely regardless of work performance. That slaveowners found it so frustrating to deal with those whose self-interest by the system they had devised was so totally opposed to their own is only natural and inevitable--but fully self-inflicted!594
The Strategy of Playing the White Folks Off Against Each Other
By using the strategy of pitting one white against another, slaves sought to gain some advantage out of the ensuing conflict. The most obvious fault line among the whites was between the master and the overseer, since the two normally were of different social classes, with the master naturally tending to hold his overseer in contempt, or at least as less respectable than himself. The slaves were perfectly capable of trying to drive a wedge between the two, attempting to have the overseer fired or made more constrained in his actions. Illustrating this strategy of slave resistance, consider this case history: Two slaves, Ben and Jim, ran away from Polk's plantation to A.O. Harris, his brother-in-law. They accused the overseer, Ephraim Beanland, of whipping one of them especially severely, and said he did not encourage them at all, but was full of curses, in a letter Harris wrote to Polk. Ben refused to return, so Harris rented him out to a local ironworks for the time being. Another brother-in-law, Dr. Silas Caldwell, passed along similarly uncomplimentary news about the overseer after arriving at the plantation, although he expressed some skepticism: "I think he lacks stability. I think he has got along badly with the negroes. The negroes say he likes his liquor, but let that rest as negro news. If it is the fact it will appear." Beanland struck back, arguing that if these two slaves were allowed to runaway against his authority, then others were sure to follow. In a letter to Polk, he objected to Ben being rented out instead of brought back to the plantation: "I do not think that he [Ben] ought to be befriended in any such an maner now if I corect any of the others they ar shore to leave me thinking that if they can get back to[o] that will do." Beanland wrote a letter to James Walker, yet another of Polk's brother-in-laws. He complained about being caught between the demands of Harris and Caldwell on the one hand, and the need to discipline the slaves on the other:
I do not like in the first plase I must please Calwell and Mr. Haris as it apeares and then if I donte please everry negro on the place they rin away rite strate and then if I do not make a crop my imploier of corse will not like it and I would like to now how I can please them all and make a crop two.
In another letter to Polk, he described how other slaves were running away because of how Ben's not being returned allowed other slaves to flout his authority: "If ben is not brought back mister haris had beter take the rest of them until I get ben I now that they will run away untill I get ben." Beanland's ability to discipline his slaves was being surely undermined by Polk's in-laws siding with the slaves and listening to their negative testimony about him. Since he could not punish Ben after he ran away because of Harris's interference in particular, his power to punish one slave as an example to the rest to intimidate was being effectively nullified. In the end, Polk sustained his overseer, not his slaves or his in-laws, and had Ben returned. Soon afterwards, Beanland reported how all the slaves who had runaway were back and how "all apear[ed] satisfied." Nevertheless, this overseer plainly had a close brush with losing his job due to the power of slave witnesses to swing other whites--here, three of Polk's brother-in-laws--onto their side. Outside a Southern courtroom, the subordinate class's testimony was by no means without avail, especially when masters had reasons to distrust their overseers.595
Manipulating White Authority for the Slaves' Own Purposes
Slaves sometimes manipulated white authority by using it to get back at some other slave who had injured them somehow. Suddenly, the slave turns into an informant, in order to secure his own purposes, not so much to curry favor with the overseer or master. Freedman Mason of Mississippi described why he and another slave were whipped by patrollers while pursuing women on the next-door plantation without passes: "Me an' my cousin was projecting' eroun' doin' a little courtin' wid two gals on de jinin' plantation. Didn' have no pass. Boys over dar got awful jealous. Slip an' tell de overseer one night. He call de pattyrollers!" Similarly, another freedman described how, if a woman was offended by a man pursuing her from another plantation who she did not know, "an' she git mad an' call de overseer, yo' better duck down de fiel' right quick, caise you gwine git whipped." A somewhat different example of this phenomenon was by how one old slavewoman ordered others to shoo away turkeys whose gobblings were making it difficult for Olmsted to get directions from her: "If some of you niggers don't shew them turkeys, I'll have you all whipped as soon as your mass John comes home." At this point, her command was performed.596 She threatened to bring down white authority on other slaves, not for her own self-chosen objectives, but merely have something done to aid her in talking to Olmsted. This incident still shows how slaves could collectively use white authority to accomplish their own ends, by turning informant (or threatening to) for their masters.
How Pleadings and Petitions Could Restrain Masters and Mistresses
The complaints and pleadings of slaves had the ability to reach the hearts or minds of their owners, even though they could theoretically totally ignore their petitions from their position of nearly absolute authority. Because the slaveholders often wished to have a positive relationship with their bondsmen, at least those they had close dealings with, such as domestic servants, they frequently were willing to change their decisions. Sometimes by referring to values in the masters' own religion or code of paternalism, the slaves could restrain them, which constitutes a classic case of the subordinate class manipulating the ideology of the dominant class to protect their own interests. For example, one mistress suddenly ended a long whipping after the slave said, "Old Miss, if I were you and you were me, I wouldn't beat you this way." Some slaves successfully persuaded their masters to buy them or sell them in order to keep their families together. One freedman recalled how one slave, when his wife was being moved away with the master, successfully pleaded to be sold to the same master his wife belonged so they would stay together thus: "'Sell me, Marster! Sell me!' he say over an' over. So ter stop his pleadin', Marster sold him an' las' I seen o' him he was wavin' his arms an' singin', goin' off behin' dat wagon!" While such cases were not normal, the slaves themselves, despite being the legally powerless personal chattels of their owners, still had the ability to encourage slaveholders to sell or buy them as it was deemed in their interests. Stampp noted that a few slaves even had success at persuading their owners to free them in their wills. Barrow's slaves successfully persuaded him to extend the Christmas holiday from Friday, January 2, 1846 until the following Monday because, as he saw it, there was "not much to do."597 Illustrating the truth behind the proposition to "Ask, and it shall be given to you," slaveowners condescended to grant some requests by their bondsmen, despite no legal compulsions were involved. Persistent pleading and petitioning could and did bring useful results to the de jure powerless at least upon occasion.
The General Problem of Slaves Running Away
Slaves running away constituted a serious form of resistance to the slaveholders' continued control over their work force. By this act a slave openly repudiated the master/slave relationship, at least in cases where he or she was trying to escape permanently. In cases in which the bondsman hanged around the general locality of home, running away lacked this clear meaning, but may have been simply a means to temporarily duck punishment or get an illicit vacation away from working. These cases were trying enough. But when the slave did get far, the hassle and expenses to masters and mistresses in catching their human chattels, punishing them, and getting them to work again could be enormous. In order to capture and return one slave named Jack who had run away as far as Arkansas from Tennessee, Polk faced a bill from the slave catcher of some $126 by his overseer's calculations for his expenses alone, while in one letter he said it "cost verry near $200." The slave catcher wanted $140 for his expenses alone, but Dr. Caldwell objected, offering to pay $100. These figures easily equal or exceed the annual rental for hiring a prime field hand--the aforementioned Ben (pp. 342-43) was temporarily rented to an ironworks for $100/year. And these figures ignore the lost revenue coming from opportunity costs--the loss caused by the slave not working for his or her owners, over and above the expenses of capture. Runaways also presented a major danger, as occurred in Beanland's case temporarily, because if they were not caught and punished their example would encourage other slaves to imitate them. David Gavin, a small slaveholder in South Carolina complained in his diary in 1857 when Remus ran away: "This is the 2 or 3dd time he has ranaway, and lost together nearly a years work, I cannot afford to keep him at this rate, he will spoil the rest of my people by his bad example." It is no wonder that Barrow lamented, as cited above (p. 239), that he would rather have a slave do anything than run away.598
Why did slaves run away? Sometimes, where reaching the North was a practical goal, such as in Douglass's case and a number of others living in the Border States, it was a calculated bid to gain freedom and permanently dissolve the bonds of bondage. Escaped slave Mrs. Isaac Riley, who had lived most of her life in Perry county, Missouri, which is along the border of Illinois, had experienced excellent treatment--she had a good master, and had never known or seen overseers, patrols, family separations, or the use of the paddle and lash in her area. But with her husband desiring freedom in Canada, and after a relative of her master told her she might be treated much worse if her master should die, she fled. "I used often to think that I would like to be as free as the white people were. I often told them, when they made me angry, that they had no more business with me, than I had with them."599 In other cases, because of a threatened sale or because of a desire to be reunited with family members after they or the runaway(s) had been sold themselves, they left. Mary Grayson, once a slave in what was then Indian Territory, recalled her mother ran away and hid in a clay pit after being sold to a slave trader. It was late in the night before they found her again. John Little, nine months after marriage, was suddenly sold. After resting for two weeks at his new master's place, he ran away, and was thrown in prison--with another slave there "under the same circumstances . . . going to see his wife, as a man has a right to do." Trying to avoid punishment was another reason slaves fled from their masters. Here the masters faced a major dilemma: On the one hand, if they cracked down, and (say) whipped shirking slaves for their slackness, they could run away or fight back. But, if they let some offense(s) slide, others could imitate the rules violator, and soon all their slaves could be defying them. Barrow repeatedly faced this problem, and sometimes slaves ran away to avoid punishment or in response after it was inflicted. After whipping eight or ten slaves for not picking enough cotton, he wrote the next day: "Dennis ran off yesterday--& after I had Whiped him." In another case, his slave Ginney Jerry was one of a group of eight or ten whipped and ducked for stealing some of his hogs, and "Mr. Ginney Jerry next morning Felt insulted at his treatment & put out, would give 'freely' $100 to get a shot at him."600 Harriett Robinson, once a slave in Texas, told a story about her step-father that illustrated a particularly nasty Catch-22 masters had when punishing runaway slaves and getting them in the fields again. After absconding for another reason, he returned, the master had him whipped 300 times--and then he ran off again!601 This slaveowner surely knew if he did not punish this slave, others might imitate his example, but when he did so, the slave ran away in retaliation once again, which put him that much further behind in putting this man back to work. Because of the threat of it backfiring, the moment a master punished a slave was dangerous, because the chances for him resisting him was at its highest came when the lash was applied or in its immediate wake--such as by running away or fighting. So slaves ran away to seek freedom, pure and simple, to rejoin relatives, or as a way to retaliate against or evade punishment.
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