It is remarkable how many historians have written penetrating and memorable books about a wide range of subjects in various parts of the South after immersing themselves in the primary sources at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland. The author of Gleanings of Freedom has certainly made such a contribution as he uncovered a wealth of material about slaves, free blacks, and white workers as well as the local economies and society in the northern tier of counties (Washington, Frederick, Carroll Baltimore, Harford, and Cecil) of Maryland during a period when the slave population was in decline and the free-black population on the rise.
The reason for this, the author reveals, was the economic woes of slaveholders in planting and harvesting wheat to be made into flour and put on a market. Declining significantly following the financial crisis of 1819 and continuing in subsequent decades with few upturns, many farmers had a difficult time making ends meet. Slaveholders who possessed a number of slaves for life during the early nineteenth century were owners who turned to term slavery, or allowing blacks to work on "good behavior" for a period of years and then releasing them as free persons of color. In fact, many farmers in the region, looking across the Mason-Dixon Line to Pennsylvania, where the number of slaves was declining following the gradual-emancipation law of 1780, came to believe that free labor was more profitable than slave labor. As the American Farmer pointed out in 1846, the most prosperous farmers of Maryland were to be found in these northern counties, where "the free labor system has obtained to a considerable extent" (p. 87).
But this demographic and labor shift, as significant it was, told only part of the story. The analysis of the relationships between various groups of workers, mostly landless farmhands, and their employers [End Page 96] presents a picture that is at once complex and revealing. Those who worked in the fields struggled mightily to survive and received low wages for their efforts. During the harvest season of four weeks or so they earned more, but the work was exhausting and sometimes dangerous. The workers—black and white, slave and free—received the same wages and sometimes mingled on holidays or at night in taverns drinking and socializing, but the author points out that poor whites "seldom found common cause with the enslaved." They may have been willing to fence goods stolen from the owners' farms, but few were willing to assist runaway slaves. In fact, slaves feared that poor whites would just as soon turn them in or even kidnap them and turn them over to slave traders heading to the southern markets. As the author indicates, most historians of American workers have examined certain groups of workers in isolation. This is a study that puts laborers in a more complex context and compares their attitudes, values, yearnings, wages, families, children, and employers in a broad mosaic of interrelated lives and struggles. Two important themes, slighted by some scholars, include imbibing liquor by the workers and temperance efforts by employers, as well as the endemic violence that permeated society—husbands beating wives, workers attacking one another, black or white, and punishments meted out by employers and slaveholders. At the same time, runaway slaves are neither glorified nor applauded, but rather the harsh realities of absconding are shown, even though the free state of Pennsylvania was a short distance off.
There are a few minor quibbles that could be made. The "rural proletariat" is probably not the right phrase to describe the workers in this study, nor is there strong evidence concerning the assertion that "Southern courts were unsympathetic towards those seeking their freedom" (pp. 154, 147). But these are minor things. In general, this is a splendid volume, interestingly written, engaging a broad historiography, and formulating convincing arguments concerning the evolution and racial complexity of the rural labor force. [End Page 97]