- Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the American South
Mastered by the Clock is both delightfully original and somehow familiar. It is wonderful to read a work in the history of the nineteenth-century South in which Landes and Le Goff join Genovese as major influences. 1 It is exciting to read a work with such unique questions. Who had watches and clocks? When and how did they use them? How did clock time relate to nature’s time in relations between plantation owners and slaves? How did clocks fit into the self-image of planters who wanted to be both modern innovators and traditional paternalists? The work ranges from a discussion of the growing popularity of clocks and watches in the early nineteenth-century South to issues of labor management and the slaves’ point of view, before concluding with a chapter about negotiations over time after emancipation. [End Page 343]
Despite its originality, Smith’s work often revisits an old and familiar question: Were planters in the antebellum South modern or premodern? The author’s answer is almost always that they were becoming modern by the 1830s. They valued efficiency and condemned idleness; they read and quoted Benjamin Franklin; and they lived in a society in which postal workers, teachers, doctors, and telegraph and railroad workers encouraged precision in understanding and using clock time. It would be unfortunate if readers were merely to view this as yet another book supporting the notion that slaveowners were more modern than they were traditional. Its strength lies in giving nuance to the meaning of modernity.
The book is best at analyzing people when they did not fit into conventional categories. Antebellum planters, Smith argues, were premodern in many ways, but not in their use of time. Searching for ways to merge scientific agriculture with their picture of a personal, harmonious social order, they found that control over time was a modern tool that they could use without directly threatening their social structure. What Smith calls “a qualified notion of progress” included the use of systematic means of labor control without making those means—watches and clocks—available to the slaves (95). Time, recorded by a bell, a plantation clock, or an overseer with a watch, was not a matter of negotiation. By making slaves’ work, leisure, waking, and sleeping matters of timely routine, self-consciously modern masters could pride themselves in both their lack of physical punishment as well as their attention to the details of business matters.
In an intriguing chapter about changes in African-Americans’ understandings and uses of time, Smith concludes that so-called “Colored People’s Time” emerged less as a remnant of African sensibilities than as a way for slaves to resist the intrusions of planters who tried to control their every minute. Farm laborers hoped to escape situations in which the horn and bell controlled their actions, and “by playing on whites’ assumptions about black sloth, house servants may well have forged one of the few tools with which to resist the clock” (143). Still, African-Americans came to use clock time in their negotiations with white landowners after emancipation.
It is hard not to quibble about the sources that support the idea of a time-conscious upper class. The planters who recorded minute details in their diaries and subscribed to publications about scientific management were the southerners most likely to worry that time was money. One wonders how the diaries of a planter who was not conscious of time would read. One also wonders about the planters’ own leisure. The self-image that many created was one in which the things that mattered most were outside the control of the clock. How did stories of dinners that went on for hours or visits that lasted for weeks fit into the planters’ increasing efforts to control time?
It seems fair to mention that the prose in Mastered by the Clock will try the patience of anyone who...