- Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South
Despite the stubborn pretenses of southern slave owners to their own paternalism, at its core American slavery was always about the commodification of human beings. Slaves were not simply coerced laborers. In both a legal and a practical sense, they were capital itself, which is why they were routinely bought and sold, submitted as collateral for loans, and used to pay debts. A slave's worth was ultimately determined not by how much an owner felt an obligation toward him or her as an individual, but by whatever the market would bear. And with market imperatives constantly impinging on slave owners' calculations of how to deploy enslaved capital in a way that maximized profits, the ability of those owners to hire and rent slaves to other whites formed a critical—if often overlooked—component of the southern economy.
As Jonathan D. Martin details in Divided Mastery, slave hiring was ubiquitous throughout the South. Although precise figures are impossible to determine, Martin suggests a slave was three to five times more likely to be hired out than sold and that most slaves probably experienced being rented to someone other than their owners at least once during a lifetime. It is not hard to see why. By mediating between owners [End Page 510] who found themselves with more slaves than they could use and individuals who wanted additional laborers, slave hiring increased the regional efficiency of using an enslaved labor force. It democratized access to slave labor among white southerners, as yeomen lacking the resources to own slaves might rent the slaves of others as the first step toward joining the master class in their own right. And it enabled white southerners to adapt the slave regime to changing economic conditions and market demands across space and over time. The ability to hire out excess slaves in an increasingly diversifying economy, for example, eased the transition made by plantation owners in the revolutionary-era Chesapeake from growing tobacco to growing a less labor-intensive wheat crop, while nineteenth-century migrants to the cotton frontiers of the Old Southwest regularly hired slaves out to finance their migrations and used hired slaves for the extra labor necessary to get plantations up and running. By meeting practical needs, expanding opportunities for partaking in the benefits of mastery, and introducing flexibility to the southern political economy as it confronted shifting national and international markets, slave hiring held obvious financial and cultural benefits for white southerners.
But slavery was nothing if not an endlessly paradoxical institution. Although the practice of slave hiring clearly strengthened the system, it also strained it significantly, as the introduction of a third party to the normally dyadic master-slave relationship created all sorts of tensions among white southerners. Slave hiring divided the prerogatives and powers of mastery between a slave's owner and a hirer, but it did so awkwardly, as the goals each desired from a rental transaction worked at cross-purposes. An owner wanted to make as much money as possible from hiring a slave, but he wanted simultaneously to minimize the chances that his property would be damaged or destroyed by a cruel or careless hirer who lacked long-term interest in that property. As a consequence, owners fundamentally distrusted hirers. They tried to circumscribe the mastery they transferred at hire through contracts that stipulated everything from the price and method of payment to be received by the owner to the location and types of work to be performed by the slave to the amount and kinds of food and clothing he or she was to receive. Hirers, by contrast, wanted and believed they were entitled to the absolute mastery that came with having a slave under their command. By their reckoning, if they rented a slave, they ought effectively—if only temporarily—to become that slave's owner, with all the financial [End Page 511] and cultural privileges ownership entailed. Both as a matter of honor and of economic interest, they...