On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865 (review)
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On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865. By Diane Mutti Burke. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010. Pp. 413. $69.95 cloth; $24.95 paper)

Both popular and scholarly portrayals of North American slavery typically emphasize large antebellum plantations of the Deep South as the most representative form of the institution. Even as the historiography of the field has taken on new questions—about agency, identity, gender, and other aspects of the experiences of slaves and slaveholders—the plantation image continues to hold sway as the [End Page 228] archetypical form of bondage. Yet as research in recent decades has made clear, even within the southern states, practices of slavery varied considerably by time period, region, and economic pursuit. Slaves in the colonial period, in the Upper South, and working in industry often had very different experiences than those on plantations. These are not simply "variations" or "adaptations" of plantation slavery but practices that must be understood in their own right if we hope to make sense of the complex history of race, labor, and gender. Diane Mutti Burke's work makes a significant contribution toward such understanding.

Burke's goal is to analyze the nature of small-slaveholding households in Missouri, up through the end of the institution with the coming of the Civil War. Holdings of fewer than twenty slaves accounted for the vast majority of bound population of Missouri, and small slaveholders—in addition to their numerical dominance among owners—constituted the political and economic elite. Burke is less interested in state-level political or economic developments, though, than on the nature of households. In keeping with other recent work on slavery, this emphasis allows Burke to examine how the institution played out in the lives and relationships of both men and women, slave and free, and her extensive use of manuscript sources illustrates this subject in concrete and tangible detail.

The first three chapters focus primarily on the origin and reproduction of material aspects of slaveholding households—migration to the state, construction of dwelling places, agricultural and household work, family structure, reproduction, inheritance, and the economics of buying, selling, and hiring slaves at the household level. This portion of the work emphasizes how slavery functioned within the particular social, cultural, and economic conditions Missouri, and Burke's authoritative and comprehensive description is likely to stand as the definitive source on the subject for many years to come. These chapters are told primarily from the standpoint of those who controlled households—slaveholding families—but the remainder of the book provides more insight into the lives of slaves and relations between slaves and owners. These later chapters provide [End Page 229] the most interesting portrayals of the book and are likely to be of significance to the widest audience.

Burke argues that the very uniqueness of small-slaveholding households—both the greater contribution of individual slaves to the household economy, and the intimacy that developed among men and women who worked so closely together—led to practices that illustrate in sharp relief many of the major themes in the recent historiography of the field. In small households, for example, the ability of male slaves to exert control over their own labor was heightened by the fact that refusing to work could have significant consequences for their owners' prosperity, while female slaves could capitalize on their knowledge of tensions and domestic disputes among owners in order to gain some modicum of power. Yet at the same time, female slaves in such small homes had an increased susceptibility to sexual abuse, while the intimacy of slave families, and the protection that members could provide each other, were limited by their dispersal across different households. These details, among many such examples, show how looking at "slavery's border" in Missouri adds depth and nuance to our understanding of the national history of bondage.

Keith C. Barton

Keith C. Barton is professor of curriculum and instruction and adjunct professor of history at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. His research has examined slave-hiring in antebellum Kentucky, and he is coauthor with Linda S. Levstik of Teaching History for the Common Good (2004...