Eric V. Snow

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Why the Laborers Had a Higher Overall Quality of Life Than the Slaves
Although arguably African-American slaves had a material standard of living equal or greater than English laborers’ in various areas, the former’s quality of life was much lower. Now Olmsted would have denied this conclusion. Having traveled and made inquiries into the conditions of the lower and working classes in Britain, Germany, France, and Belgium, as well as America, Olmsted has a viewpoint that cannot be casually dismissed (my emphasis): "And as respects higher things than the necessities of life--in their [the European lower classes'] intellectual, moral, and social condition, with some exceptions on large farms and large estates in England, bad as is that of the mass of European labourers, the man is a brute or a devil who, with my information, would prefer that of the American slave."322 But when judging by the quality of life criteria used above, even considering the low place Hodge sank to in many parts of Southern England, even when on these large farms and estates, he still was undeniably better off than the slaves in many ways, as Harriet Jacobs believed. In particular, their family relationships were not constantly disrupted and destroyed by their superiors' pursuit of profit. They had freedoms and rights under the law which no slave had, such as the ability to testify in court against their social superiors. Since they had superior access to gaining the ability to read, write, and do basic arithmetic, the farmworkers’ low intellectual level still surpassed the slaves’. Excepting in a few liberal states such as Kentucky, nobody could legally teach a slave how to read. By contrast, especially as the nineteenth century passed, the English government made major efforts to try to educate all the laborers, even though the standards were often low and slack. And earlier on, a number of independent and church-affiliated schools operated in the countryside, thus giving the laborers a much higher rate of literacy even in the late eighteenth century than rural slaves had. Although the English elite sometimes eyed very suspiciously the idea of educating the masses, they never took harsh, punitive legal measures against promoting literacy among their subordinate class, unlike the Southern slaveholders.
The Problems of Comparing the Slaves' and Laborers' Quality of Religious

Comparisons between the laborers and slaves about the quality of their religious experience are difficult because of some of the extraneous factors involved. Undeniably, the laborers had more freedom to practice the faith of their choice. At least, they did not endure the punitive measures some slaveholders turned against their slaves, such as completely barring them from leaving their plantation (or farm) to attend some religious service, or whippings for daring to practice this or that ceremony of the Christian religion. Of course, some laborers paid a price for choosing Nonconformity, such being denied charity by the local parson or blacklisting by local farmers affiliated with the Established Church. But even then, if the laborer was truly determined to worship God in a manner dictated by his conscience, he still had the (costly) option of moving from his home parish--a freedom the slaves lacked. The growth of Methodism and other Nonconformist sects in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries demonstrated that the pressures the Established Church could exert through the local gentry, farmers, and clergy were too weak to always prevent members of the lower and working class from defecting from its fold even in rural areas. But clearly religion played a proportionately greater role in the slaves’ lives than in the laborers’ since the latter had more organized social outlets into civil society than the former, such as the pub, benefit clubs, friendly societies, even perhaps a union. Many laborers were indifferent to religious concerns, but religious apathy rarely characterized the slaves generally, even though the Christianity they practiced was rather questionable.323 The social side of the slaves’ religious practices probably often totally swamped the self-denying and doctrinal side of their nominal convictions. How much did such activities as shouting for the Lord, ring dances, and even much call-and-response singing really attempt to honor and worship God? How much were they simply an emotional release while participating in an interesting social activity? One antebellum white minister said slaves lacked a sense of repentance from sin or faith in Christ. While claiming to have all sorts of visions or dreams from the Lord, they were very superstitious and ignorant of Christianity’s most basic tenets.324 Not helping matters any, their owners systematically harnessed Christianity for their own work discipline and social control objectives by over-emphasizing the Bible's call of obedience to secular authorities while routinely and conveniently overlooking their Christian obligations to the slaves. Although Hodge likely was little better informed doctrinally than many bondsmen, even the Established Church’s Christianity was less badly bent to serve the governing class's goals than what the slaves received. Nonconformity sometimes also provided a useful corrective on this point to the Established Church's biases. The laborers also had more freedom to participate actively in the organizational side of their faith (such as in the collection of money and the arranging of meetings) when part of a Nonconformist group, a freedom the slaves largely lacked even when they had their own black preachers and could meet separately from whites. And when one of their own stood in the pulpit, often white observer(s) watched, forcing him to self-censor his preaching in a way which Nonconformist ministers or even the Church's clergy (from their rich benefactors) avoided. Those slaves who were free to practice some kind of religion may have gotten more socially from it and have a sense of participation in it than average laborers, who often either were indifferent and stayed home or attended services of the Church and mostly just listened. But, especially when they could read the Bible, the laborers in a Nonconformist sect likely had a much more informed and freely practiced faith than most slaves had. The laborers in these groups developed more organizational skills, which had practical effects when putting together friendly societies and unions to resist systemically the powerful in their society. Hence, because of Hodge’s greater religious freedom, he had may have gotten more out of his religious convictions at least when part of a Nonconformist group than the stereotypical (and seeming) “Sambo,” who endured proportionately more ruling class distortions in the religion he received and more censorship and restrictions on his own religious activities, but who likely got more emotionally and socially from meetings (when composed mostly of his own group) than the laborers attending the Established Church.
How Elderly Slaves Could Have Been Better Off Than Elderly Farmworkers
Turning to the subject of the quality of life for the elderly, the slaves as a group might have been better off than the laborers, granted certain limitations and qualifications. To the extent elderly laborers landed in the workhouse under the New Poor Law (post-1834), separating them from friends and family in their sunset years through confinement, and to the degree to which elderly slaves lived out their last years among their own relatives and friends from earlier years, then arguably the slaves were better off. After all, both groups suffered similar limitations on their freedom, since the inmates of workhouses were confined to their premises, and elderly slaves on their plantations or farms had to stay when lacking passes, like their younger counterparts. However, the Old Poor Law’s treatment of elderly laborers, and even sometimes under the New (such as in Petworth Union as shown above), through their being granted small pensions as outdoor relief, would have had more favorable conditions than slaves of the same age. The elderly slaves also faced a likely greater risk of abandonment or neglect by their masters and mistresses, notwithstanding any paternalistic propaganda to the contrary, than the English laborers did under the Old Poor Law at least. By giving slaveowners virtually unlimited authority to deal with their “troublesome property” as they felt fit, especially in practice in sparsely populated, semi-frontier areas where the law was weak and the mob was strong, the alleged guarantees of security slavery promised for retired slaves were unenforceable. To the extent the elderly slaves had been separated earlier in life from children, siblings, spouses, and/or friends meant that retired slaves may be still be surrounded by strangers or mere acquaintances even when their own master had not sold off (or moved) the aged themselves earlier in life. So granted the foregoing exclusions and exceptions, the aged farmworker was normally treated better than the elderly slave, except during a certain period (c. 1835 to 1865) when arguably the average older slave’s conditions surpassed the average workhouse-confined elderly laborer’s.
How the Slaves' More Carefree Childhood Was Not Necessarily a Better One
As for the treatment of children, the differences between the slaves and the agricultural workers might be small, depending on what values someone chooses when visualizing the proper goals of childhood and the correct organization of family life. Before the 1850s or so, because of the frequently high unemployment rates even for adult male laborers that helped drive women out of the farm labor force in southern England, the offspring of laborers may have stayed home except during such peak seasons as planting and/or harvest. But at least towards the middle of the nineteenth century (from the 1850s especially), the laborers’s children likely went to work earlier than slaves’s offspring. This generalization would hold at least in southern England where low wages prevailed and/or where the gang system operated in combination with the cultivation of root crops that children (and women) could easily weed and dig up. Hodge may have gone to work at age eight in such areas, while the young slave might not be in the fields until age twelve on average. On the other hand, the laborers’ offspring had a much greater access to education, and benefited much more from direct adult supervision, especially by their parents, compared to the slaves’s children. The quality of daycare young slave children gave to the toddlers and babies assigned to them for much of the day under the supervision of one or more old women on plantations rarely could equal what guidance came from the passion and effort that a mother (or father) could muster for their own flesh and blood. Laborers' offspring also often gained a few years of basic elementary education, at least as the nineteenth century progressed and the government became more serious about trying to educate all English children. Even on the subject of work itself, certain young slaves may not have benefited from getting (say) four more years of playtime than laborers' children. The likely low labor intensity of the tasks farmers assigned children, such as birdscaring for some weeks part of the year, hardly equaled (say) a young cotton piecer’s grueling, full-time, year-around schedule of seventy hours a week while running around so many spindles in a textile mill. Kemble's criticism of young slaves lounging and rolling about the ground while their mothers worked in the fields should not be automatically dismissed as mere reactionary middle class commentary. (Of course, as a mother herself, she would naturally identify with the burdens the slave mothers’ bore unaided by their children). Since these young slaves may not legally get an education when not in the fields, they have to spend their childhoods largely unproductively. At least when young Hodge was put to work, such as during harvest together with his family, he helped to support himself, and maybe even others in his family with an income that his parents sorely needed. When considering a child's obligation to support himself or others in his family when his parents cannot carry the full load alone (such as during the low point of the family poverty cycle), it becomes harder still to condemn such relatively casual child labor. So although young slaves may have had a more carefree childhood ages eight to twelve than young farmworkers (assuming the high unemployment rates of much of the period under study in the South did not keep them out of the workforce until they were older), the latter were more likely than the former to benefit from an education, have more parental supervision, and help himself or his family more through performing productive wage work.
The heaviest and most obvious weight against the slaves’ quality of life came from their family relationships being conditional on their owners’ whims and emotional states, and remaining provisional upon the soundness of their owners’ health and financial conditions. Furthermore, plantation slaves especially had functions normally done by families individually instead collectively done by others as part of the work organization, such as weekday daytime child care and (sometimes) food preparation. The casual way slaveowners treated the bondsmen's family relationships, legally and in practice, by example also encouraged the slaves themselves to treat their own family ties lightly. Their attempts to evade some of the most humiliating aspects of the slaveholders' system of work discipline through "living abroad" had its own costs by increasing the possibilities of involuntary separation through having multiple owners and by removing the father from his children's lives for much of the day or week. By contrast, the English laborer's family would have approximated standard free European norms since its intra-relationships were not made a secondary priority to the individual members' role as factors of production. True, to some degree a farmer could manipulate the family ties of his laborers for his own purposes. He could require the children of a family to work for him, by threatening he would fire their father otherwise. But he simply could not threaten to dissolve the laborer's family as punishment for failing to follow his wishes. He could try to blacklist the laborer, and attempt to inflict the dilemma of migration or possible starvation on a laborer (if his fellow farmers locally held up a common front), which was the ultimate penalty he could bring to bear. While an employer could threaten recalcitrant laborers with the workhouse (which could split up families), this punishment was only available to the extent the laborers felt compelled to apply for aid under the New Poor Law. As free men, they could still migrate (i.e., “run away”). And the divisions inflicted by the workhouse were much rarer, involved much shorter distances, and were much more temporary than what the slaves typically endured. Although the Weber-Gillis thesis, even when mitigated to fit English conditions, indicates the laborers' family life was not exactly idyllic, still the slaves’ conditions were much worse because their family relationships were expendable when they interfered with their owners’ pursuit of profit.
A comparison of the quality of life for the slaves and farmworkers reveals that the slaves undeniably endured much worse conditions than the farmworkers, unlike the much smaller differences in their standards of living. The slaveholders’ casual and calloused treatment of slave family bonds, as shown by splitting up husbands and wives, mothers, fathers, and children, through wills, gifts, sales, and migration, by itself proves this clearly. Even when the evidence is more controverted, such as how slaves aged eight to twelve generally worked less than their English counterparts (at least in the post-1850 period as the labor market tightened) and elderly slaves possibly were treated better in retirement than old workhouse-confined laborers, requires a number of added conditions and qualifications for the slaves’ quality of life to be deemed more desirable than the laborers’. In a number of ways young Hodge was arguably better off, by benefiting from more parental and adult supervision during weekdays, gaining some barebones education, and having even to work itself. He may have needed, for example, to help support himself and/or others in his family, and farm work for children was nowhere as intense and burdensome as what many in the mills suffered. As for comparative religious experience, the laborers had more freedom to practice their beliefs without coercion; those in Nonconformist sects furthermore benefited from participating in a faith that built their organizational and mental skills. But the slaves often poured much more emotional energy into church activities because they had fewer social outlets than the many agricultural workers who indifferently stayed at home or passively attended the Established Church's services. The slaves allowed to go to meetings which let them freely express their customs and rituals without being restrained by a major white presence may have gotten more out of services at least socially than laborers in the last two categories. So although some individual points could be disputed, the slaves still were definitely worse off than the agricultural laborers in their quality of life.
The Hazards of Historical Analysis that Uses the Values of Those in the Past
The quality of life analysis made above clearly takes certain assumptions for granted. What values should a historian use when judging someone's quality of life? Snell maintains that it is more sensible to evaluate by the poor's own standards rather than using the historians’, especially those who emphasize real wage increases and nutritional intake, who implicitly believe man is merely homo economicus. Elsewhere he observes the hazards of applying the historian's own values in contradiction or ignorance of the lower class’s values in the past: "For example, the implications for the quality of life of family break-up (if it became more prevalent) should depend on an assessment of the attitudes and control the poor themselves had over this--rather than a historian's view on the sanctity or dispensability of married life."325 Although valuable, this approach has its limits. Consider the freed slaves after emancipation who chose to emulate the whites' sexual division of labor and so largely ended heavy field work by adult black females. Presumably historians employing contemporary feminist constructs could not necessarily evaluate positively what the freedmen and freedwomen did after freedom came. Snell’s approach would forestall any historians from critically analyzing some past lower class' values.326 Obviously, here again the old morass over the objectivity and absoluteness of any moral code or set of values confronts historians, with Snell's views ultimately tending towards a kind of cultural relativism vis-a-vis the values of some past lower class rather than those of some obscure tribe anthropologists have discovered in the jungles of New Guinea or the Amazon. Obviously, it is rather futile and beyond the scope of this work to settle completely such a broad philosophical question here. Plainly however, nobody should automatically accept as moral whatever any group of people do by tradition presently or in the past, otherwise (say) legalized segregation, slavery, infanticide, suttee, foot binding, or female genital mutilation could no longer be condemned. To the extent historians may believe in some given moral absolute or imperative values (such as, say, a prohibition of genocide or the equality of the sexes to various degrees), they ought to use their own (objectively-based) values when examining the conditions or quality of life of some past lower class group as well. Above, most of the values implicitly used to judge and compare the quality of life of the slaves and laborers are assumed to be fundamentally universal such that most contemporary Westerners would agree (ideally) with what the laborers and slaves themselves did value. Those values include stability in family relationships, freedom of association with others without coercive separations by third parties mainly motivated by profit, a sense of altruism towards the elderly and young, freedom of conscience and practice in religious activities, and the avoidance of what encourages a sense of rootlessness, alienation, and anomie among people. Other values implicitly used above are more controversial, such as those involved in evaluating how beneficial or harmful was the (often) casual, intermittent labor of children ages eight to twelve as opposed to giving them mere idle free time with nothing else such as education to fill it to them and their families. Regardless of what values historians use to make quality of life and standard of living comparisons, or whether they believe values are absolute or relative to some culture or group, their identity should be made explicit, as Snell does in his work. They should not implicitly be smuggled in, as those inclined to a purely material view of mankind's needs (e.g., caloric intake and real wage changes) often do. For man does not live by bread alone.
Undeniably, the comparisons made above inevitably fall into some kind of reductionism because so many variations from what could be called "average" happened in the past real worlds of the slaves and laborers. Changes also continually occurred, which increase the difficulties of generally describing conditions in any long time period. For example, the material standard of living as well as the quality of life for the slaves generally improved in the period being surveyed (1750-1865) as housing for more settled areas improved and harsher punishments such as branding died away. By contrast, it steadily grew worse for southern English agricultural workers because of enclosure, the decline of service, rising under- and unemployment, and the New Poor Law's harshness from 1750 until about 1850. After the mid-century point, the laborers' conditions began to improve as a result of the spread of allotments and the tightening of local labor markets that made the (brief) successes of Arch's union possible in the early 1870s. Although drawing such lines is inevitably hazardous, quite possibly the rising average standard of living for slaves approached and surpassed that of the (southern) farmworkers during the period of the French Wars due to the fiscal burdens of those wars and the step-up in enclosures towards their end. Changes and variations in this general picture must be kept in mind, such as the regional differences that gave the northern English farmworkers a higher quality of life and (especially) standard of living than their southern counterparts, and granted the slaves of the Border States better treatment than those of the Deep South. Although generalizations and evaluations about what was typical and atypical are the heart and soul of social history, historians should always be wary of committing overkills in grinding out reductionist conclusions concerning "the average whatever" in the past while forgetting the rich diversity of historical phenomena. Occasional bows toward at least recognizing regional variations, as done above, helps to avoid this pitfall. Hence, while we need a focus on what is "average" and "typical" to avoid getting lost in a maze of disparate concretes and isolated details, we also must seek some balance to avoid reductionism that so eagerly pursues “the average” that all else is sacrificed in that hunt.
The Sexual Division of Labor: African-American Slaves
It must always be remembered that white masters and mistresses determined the sexual division of labor among American slaves, not the latter themselves. Driven into the fields along with their men, black women during their (generally) dawn-to-dusk workdays had their children cared for by a primitive day care system. Slaveholders imposed this system in order to increase the labor participation rate of their human capital in tasks that directly increased agricultural production and profits. Inevitably, their choice decreased the slaves’ level of household labor that provided real, if economically unmeasurable and rather intangible, comforts. After all, how could an economist doing Keynesian national income accounting (or anyone else) properly quantify the positive social effects of better cooked and prepared meals, better mended clothing, or (especially) the clear benefits of having mothers spend more time with their own young children? Since these matters did not directly improve the bottom-line figures of slaveholders' account books, they chose to reduce how much housework slave women did. Because generally fieldwork was deemed unacceptable for white women, including even indentured servants, to do regularly, but to drive black slave women into the fields was par for the course, this practice may have had a racist motivation also.327 The colony of Virginia recognized slave women's direct role in agricultural production by counting them when figuring the tithe, but it excluded the white women. As Gundersen concludes: “Black women were considered a basic part of the agricultural labor force in a way that white women were not."328 So slaveowners forcibly imposed a weakened form of the sexual division of labor upon their bondsmen, which had the curious consequence of creating a crude approximation of sexual equality, especially among the field hands.

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