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Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom

Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South

Calvin Schermerhorn

Publication Year: 2011

Once a sleepy plantation society, the region from the Chesapeake Bay to coastal North Carolina modernized and diversified its economy in the years before the Civil War. Central to this industrializing process was slave labor. Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom tells the story of how slaves seized opportunities in these conditions to protect their family members from the auction block. Calvin Schermerhorn argues that the African American family provided the key to economic growth in the antebellum Chesapeake. To maximize profits in the burgeoning regional industries, slaveholders needed to employ or hire out a healthy supply of strong slaves, which tended to scatter family members. From each generation, they also selected the young, fit, and fertile for sale or removal to the cotton South. Conscious of this pattern, the enslaved were sometimes able to negotiate mutually beneficial labor terms—to save their families despite that new economy. Moving focus away from the traditional master-slave relationship in a staple-crop setting, Schermerhorn demonstrates through extensive primary research that the slaves in the upper South were integral to the development of the region’s modern political economy, whose architects embraced invention and ingenuity even while deploying slaves to shoulder the burdens of its construction, production, and maintenance. Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom proposes a new way of understanding the role of American slaves in the antebellum marketplace. Rather than work against it, as one might suppose, enslaved people engaged with the market somewhat as did free Americans. Slaves focused their energy and attention, however, not on making money, as slaveholders increasingly did, but on keeping their kin out of the human coffles of the slave trade.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia


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p. v

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Series Editor’s Foreword

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pp. vii-viii

In this new title in Studies in early american economy and Society, a collaborative enterprise between the Johns hopkins university press and the library company of philadelphia’s program in early american economy and Society (peaeS), calvin Schermerhorn explores north america’s oldest reproducing slave society...

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pp. 3-21

American slavery was an intricate dance between forced labor and the forces of modernity. This book explores the redevelopment of the coastal region of the upper South from the turn of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the Civil War through the lives of the enslaved people who built it...

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1 Networkers

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pp. 22-62

So I went out trusting in the lord,” wrote Solomon bayley of his family’s trials, “but i should soon have fainted in mind, if it had not been for the encouragement I met with, both from God and man.” that was how the enslaved cooper framed networking. on Virginia’s eastern Shore in the 1790s, he had begun a family of his own after his father and siblings were sold away by a slaveholder who lived across the chesapeake bay. he planned to go to court in delaware, as had his father and siblings, ...

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2 Watermen

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pp. 63-98

On ships, boats, docks, canals, and waterways, enslaved people participated in the upper South’s commercial redevelopment. The market whose sinews they in part constituted made possible the resources they sought, yet the same process of market intensification exposed more and more enslaved people to traumatic family separations...

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3 Domestics

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pp. 99-133

Contemporary defenders of slavery characterized it as a domestic institution framed by bonds of reciprocal duty and even affection. In 1850, George Fitzhugh termed Virginia slavery “a joint concern, in which the slave consumes more than the master, of the coarse products, and is far happier, because although the concern may fail, he is always sure ...

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4 Makers

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pp. 134-163

As modernity moved, slavery moved to match it. As upper South cities grew, slaveholders found new uses for enslaved people in the region’s processing industries. A Richmond tobacconist in 1804 advertised that he “wants to hire two negro fellows by the year, or month, to be employed in the manufacture of Tobacco, for which he will give good wages” to their owners...

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5 Railroaders

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pp. 164-201

The transportation revolution simultaneously transformed an old institution and the new commercial landscape of the antebellum South, changing the lives of enslaved people in the process. Railroads and telegraphs integrated interregional markets and sped communications. As in commercial processing, slaves were the primary workforce for railroad construction projects south of the Potomac River, and they worked to support the roads once they were in operation...

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pp. 202-213

Between the last decade of the eighteenth century and the onset of civil war, the coastal upper reaches of the southern United States became a slave market society. The ordeals of slaves’ networking to protect family members from separation feature as chapters in that history, as the enslaved were put to work in diversified agriculture, processing, and transportation in places where their ancestors..

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pp. 215-217

This book benefited from an exceptional network. Edward L. Ayers supervised the dissertation from which it developed, emphasizing broad interconnections and the deep roots of historical causation. Though I grew up in a southern place with a slave past, it was not until his colloquium on the nineteenth-century South...


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pp. 219-263

Essay on Sources

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pp. 265-273


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pp. 275-286

E-ISBN-13: 9781421400891
E-ISBN-10: 1421400898
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421400365
Print-ISBN-10: 1421400367

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Studies in Early American Economy and Society from the Library Company of Philadelphia
Series Editor Byline: Cathy Matson, Series Editor See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700378
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slave trade -- Southern States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slave trade -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • African American families -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.) -- Social conditions -- History -- 19th century.
  • Plantation life -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slaves -- Family relationships -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Economic aspects -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Slavery -- Chesapeake Bay Region (Md. and Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
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