Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History)


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In a general sense historians are familiar with slavery as an institution codified in Southern law. Thomas D. Consequently, the legal reasoning behind the institution remained both malleable and uncertain. Perhaps the fundamental contradiction of American slavery was the conflicting statuses of the slave as person and the slave as chattel property.

Though Morris apologizes for the relative scarcity of colonial sources for slave law, he manages to adequately address this period as well as the better documented decades after the Revolution.

Jenny Bourne, Carleton College

Despite the theoretical nature of his project, the inherent hypocrisy and inhumanity of the system remains glaringly apparent throughout the text. However, it must be said that this work is not the easiest for historians to use. Although Morris is a historian himself, this legal history reads very much like a dense legal tome. At least in this volume, he does not provide the same concise introductions and conclusions to chapters other writers offer which make it easier to glean useful information from their work.

Significantly, Morris speaks often to the historiography of Southern slavery, addressing the contributions and arguments of such notables as Stampp, Elkins, Genovese and Fox-Genovese, and Fogel and Engerman. Unfortunately, he does not often weigh in on the debates he discusses.

The most useful addition Morris could have made would be charts or timelines illustrating significant developments in laws among slave states, such as laws prohibiting the manumission of slaves or teaching them to read. In his work, Southern Slavery and the Law , legal historian Thomas Morris explains the relationship between the slave system and the legal system present in the South before the Civil War. In the U. South, infant slaves sold for a positive price because masters expected them to live long enough to make the initial costs of raising them worthwhile.

Prices rose through puberty as productivity and experience increased. In nineteenth-century New Orleans, for example, prices peaked at about age 22 for females and age 25 for males. Girls cost more than boys up to their mid-teens.

Slavery in Virginia in 1619-1860 - by Greg Carroll

The genders then switched places in terms of value. In the Old South, boys aged 14 sold for 71 percent of the price of year-old men, whereas girls aged 14 sold for 65 percent of the price of year-old men. After the peak age, prices declined slowly for a time, then fell off rapidly as the aging process caused productivity to fall. Compared to full-grown men, women were worth 80 to 90 percent as much.

One characteristic in particular set some females apart: their ability to bear children. Fertile females commanded a premium. The mother-child link also proved important for pricing in a different way: people sometimes paid more for intact families. Source: Fogel and Engerman Skilled workers sold for premiums of percent whereas crippled and chronically ill slaves sold for deep discounts.

Slaves who proved troublesome — runaways, thieves, layabouts, drunks, slow learners, and the like — also sold for lower prices. Taller slaves cost more, perhaps because height acts as a proxy for healthiness. In New Orleans, light-skinned females who were often used as concubines sold for a 5 percent premium. Prices for slaves fluctuated with market conditions as well as with individual characteristics. Less than a decade later, slave prices climbed when the international slave trade was banned, cutting off legal external supplies.

Interestingly enough, among those who supported the closing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were several Southern slaveowners. Why this apparent anomaly? Because the resulting reduction in supply drove up the prices of slaves already living in the U. Demand helped determine prices as well. The demand for slaves derived in part from the demand for the commodities and services that slaves provided. Changes in slave occupations and variability in prices for slave-produced goods therefore created movements in slave prices.

As slaves replaced increasingly expensive indentured servants in the New World, their prices went up. In the period to , slave prices in British America rose nearly 30 percent. As cotton prices fell in the s, Southern slave prices also fell. But, as the demand for cotton and tobacco grew after about , the prices of slaves increased as well. Differences in demand across regions led to transitional regional price differences, which in turn meant large movements of slaves.

Yet because planters experienced greater stability among their workforce when entire plantations moved, 84 percent of slaves were taken to the lower South in this way rather than being sold piecemeal. Demand sometimes had to do with the time of year a sale took place.

For example, slave prices in the New Orleans market were 10 to 20 percent higher in January than in September. September was a busy time of year for plantation owners: the opportunity cost of their time was relatively high. Prices had to be relatively low for them to be willing to travel to New Orleans during harvest time. One additional demand factor loomed large in determining slave prices: the expectation of continued legal slavery.

As the American Civil War progressed, prices dropped dramatically because people could not be sure that slavery would survive. Burgeoning inflation meant that real prices fell considerably more. That slavery was profitable seems almost obvious. Yet scholars have argued furiously about this matter. On one side stand antebellum writers such as Hinton Rowan Helper and Frederick Law Olmstead, many antebellum abolitionists, and contemporary scholars like Eugene Genovese at least in his early writings , who speculated that American slavery was unprofitable, inefficient, and incompatible with urban life.

On the other side are scholars who have marshaled masses of data to support their contention that Southern slavery was profitable and efficient relative to free labor and that slavery suited cities as well as farms. These researchers stress the similarity between slave markets and markets for other sorts of capital. This battle has largely been won by those who claim that New World slavery was profitable. Much like other businessmen, New World slaveowners responded to market signals — adjusting crop mixes, reallocating slaves to more profitable tasks, hiring out idle slaves, and selling slaves for profit.

One well-known instance shows that contemporaneous free labor thought that urban slavery may even have worked too well: employees of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, went out on their first strike in to protest the use of slave labor at the Works. Perhaps the most controversial book ever written about American slavery is Time on the Cross , published in by Fogel and co-author Stanley Engerman. These men were among the first to use modern statistical methods, computers, and large datasets to answer a series of empirical questions about the economics of slavery.

To find profit levels and rates of return, they built upon the work of Alfred Conrad and John Meyer, who in had calculated similar measures from data on cotton prices, physical yield per slave, demographic characteristics of slaves including expected lifespan , maintenance and supervisory costs, and in the case of females number of children.

They included in this index controls for quality of livestock and land and for age and sex composition of the workforce, as well as amounts of output, labor, land, and capital. Time on the Cross generated praise — and considerable criticism. A major critique appeared in as a collection of articles entitled Reckoning with Slavery. Although some contributors took umbrage at the tone of the book and denied that it broke new ground, others focused on flawed and insufficient data and inappropriate inferences.

The book also served as a catalyst for much subsequent research. Even Eugene Genovese, long an ardent proponent of the belief that Southern planters had held slaves for their prestige value, finally acknowledged that slavery was probably a profitable enterprise.


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Fogel himself refined and expanded his views in a book, Without Consent or Contract. They also found that antebellum Southern farms were 35 percent more efficient overall than Northern ones and that slave farms in the New South were 53 percent more efficient than free farms in either North or South.


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  • This would mean that a slave farm that is otherwise identical to a free farm in terms of the amount of land, livestock, machinery and labor used would produce output worth 53 percent more than the free. On the eve of the Civil War, slavery flourished in the South and generated a rate of economic growth comparable to that of many European countries, according to Fogel and Engerman.

    Buy Southern Slavery And The Law, 1619 1860 (Studies In Legal History)

    They also discovered that, because slaves constituted a considerable portion of individual wealth, masters fed and treated their slaves reasonably well. Although some evidence indicates that infant and young slaves suffered much worse conditions than their freeborn counterparts, teenaged and adult slaves lived in conditions similar to — sometimes better than — those enjoyed by many free laborers of the same period.

    One potent piece of evidence supporting the notion that slavery provides pecuniary benefits is this: slavery replaces other labor when it becomes relatively cheaper. In the early U. As the demand for skilled servants and therefore their wages rose in England, the cost of indentured servants went up in the colonies. At the same time, second-generation slaves became more productive than their forebears because they spoke English and did not have to adjust to life in a strange new world.

    Consequently, the balance of labor shifted away from indentured servitude and toward slavery.

    Slavery in the United States

    The value of slaves arose in part from the value of labor generally in the antebellum U. Scarce factors of production command economic rent, and labor was by far the scarcest available input in America. Moreover, a large proportion of the reward to owning and working slaves resulted from innovative labor practices. Masters found that treating people like machinery paid off handsomely.

    go site Antebellum slaveowners experimented with a variety of other methods to increase productivity. Hand ratings categorized slaves by age and sex and rated their productivity relative to that of a prime male field hand. Masters also capitalized on the native intelligence of slaves by using them as agents to receive goods, keep books, and the like. Masters offered positive incentives to make slaves work more efficiently.

    Slaves often had Sundays off. Slaves could sometimes earn bonuses in cash or in kind, or quit early if they finished tasks quickly. Some masters allowed slaves to keep part of the harvest or to work their own small plots. In places, slaves could even sell their own crops.

    To prevent stealing, however, many masters limited the products that slaves could raise and sell, confining them to corn or brown cotton, for example. In antebellum Louisiana, slaves even had under their control a sum of money called a peculium.

    Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History) Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History)
    Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History) Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History)
    Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History) Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History)
    Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History) Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History)
    Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History) Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History)
    Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History) Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Studies in Legal History)

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