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MORE THAN SLAVES, LESS THAN FREEDMEN: THE "SHARE WAGES" LABOR SYSTEM DURING RECONSTRUCTION John David Smith In their important recent book, One Kind of Freedom, economists Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch analyze the transformation of Southern agriculture during Reconstruction. By 1880, they argue, the plantation system of the ante-bellum period had all but disappeared. ' In its stead evolved a new labor arrangement—the single family tenant farm. Southern planters, wedded to the social and racial ethos of the Old South, surrendered the plantation system unwillingly. Only after they had experimented with alternative systems of organizingtheir labor did Southern planters settle on farm tenancy.2 Immediately after the fall of the Confederacy, many planters tried to re-establish their plantation units along the same work-gang system employed under slavery, albeit with free labor. Except for fixed wage payments (either a sum of money monthly or a share of the year's crop), the plantations of 1865-1866 resembled closely those of the ante-bellum years. The freedmen, much like the slaves, worked under direct supervision, labored in gangs at prescribed tasks, were provided housing (usually the old slave quarters), and received rations from their employer. Because of the severe lack of circulating currency in the South immediately after the war, many planters were forced to pay the blacks with a fraction of the crop, a system which Ransom and Sutch term "share wages."3 Whether their wages were paid in money or a fraction of the crop, blacks objected to the wage plantation as a mere surrogate for the slave plantation. With the postwar South hungry for laborers, blacks 1 Roger L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (New York, 1977), 56. 2 Ibid., 88. 3 Ibid., 55-60, 61. Civil War History, Vol.XXVI, No.3 Copyright © 1980 by The Kent State University Press 0009-8078/80/2603-0004 $00.55/0 RECONSTRUCTION257 possessed the economic power to insist upon a labor system which smacked less of the slave regime. Within a few years after Appomattox, three forms of share arrangements—in which the rent was a share of the crop—signaled the demise of the plantation. In each arrangement a formal labor contract sealed the work agreement between the employer and his employees. By far the most common form of contracting identified by Ransom and Sutch was "sharecropping." Under this system the white planters divided their plantation estates into small farm units, one per each black family. Planters supplied farm operators with everything necessary to raise a crop—land, housing, fuel, working stock, feed for the stock, farm implements, and seed. In addition to providing the labor, the sharecropper generally paid the landlord one-half of the crop produced and furnished his family's board and clothing.4 The other two alternative forms of contracting—"share tenancy" and "share wages"—appeared far less frequently, and for years historians have confused them with sharecropping. Under the first labor arrangement the landlord supplied only the farm unit, ahouse, and fuel. The tenant furnished his own work stock, implements, and provisions. As rent for the use of the land, the tenant generally paid one-third of any grains produced and one-fourth of the cotton crop.5 In contrast to either the share tenancy or sharecropping systems, the share wages arrangement was not truly a form of farm tenancy at all. "Rather," explain Ransom and Sutch, "it was the plantation system employing the workgang system of organization in which the worker received his wages at the end of the season as portion of the crop." Under the share wages system the landlord provided the laborer with all of the factors of production, save clothing and labor. In return the workers surrendered two-thirds to three-fourths of the cotton and grain crops.6 Unfortunately historians have devoted too little attention to the share wages system when analyzing agricultural conditions in the immediate postwar South.7 Even Ransom and Sutch, the most careful students of 4 Ibid., 88-90, and Table 5.5, p. 92. 5 Ibid., 90-91, and Table 55, p. 92. ß Ibid., 90, 60-61, Table 5.5, pp. 92...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 256-266
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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