- On Slavery's Borders: Missouri's Small-Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865
Slavery, Missouri, Border states
In On Slavery's Borders, Diane Mutti Burke argues that small slaveholdings dominated the landscape of antebellum Missouri, which in turn [End Page 705] created a "slavery culture that differed socially, politically, and economically from that of plantation regions" (5). The small size of slaveholdings is the dominant variable in Burke's interpretation. These small farms provided the backdrop for a form of slavery that was intimate and remarkably flexible. While Burke's argument for the importance of scale in the lived experience of slavery is persuasive, the uniqueness of Missouri is not the most revealing aspect of her research. Instead, Burke highlights the important insight that antebellum slavery, whether violent or cooperative, whether rooted in accommodation or resistance, whether on a small farm or large plantation, was a fundamentally human exchange. The human element of slavery allowed the institution to function in multiple contexts, which made it at once resilient and tragic.
Burke's analysis of the intimacy of small-scale slaveholding makes her work a significant contribution to our understanding of American slavery as a whole. Historians have long identified the humanity of enslaved African Americans as central to understanding how the system of slavery functioned in the antebellum American South. David Brion Davis defined the "problem of slavery" as the attempt to turn a human being into a salable object, and Walter Johnson identified commodification as a contradiction that defined the relationship between the enslaved and slaveholders.1 Yet Burke's work hints at the need to adjust, not change, these formulations. Burke argues that while Missouri slavery exposed "both slaves and owners to a vast array of human exchanges ranging from empathy and cooperation to hatred and brutal violence," the institution functioned and flourished because of the intimacy of these "personal and work interactions" (6). Burke's conclusions echo Robin Blackburn's often neglected arguments that small planters, a diverse economy, and a family-centered regime made American slavery particularly resilient and productive from the outset.2 While the power dynamic was necessarily uneven, and slaveholders had the ability to destroy their slaves' lives with one act of sale, more often than not the relationship was "fraught with the ambiguity" that defines pretty much all human interactions (7).
Burke is at her best in the middle chapters of the book when teasing [End Page 706] out the intimate social relations that made up the small slaveholding world. Because she seeks to understand slavery in motion, Burke resists the urge to isolate one race or gender in her analysis, and instead explores all members of the household, "slave and free, male and female, young and old" (8). She also demonstrates that in order to understand small-scale slaveholding we need to look beyond the limits of the household. Ultimately, intimate and personal interactions between households held the entire system together because both legal and illicit mobility linked households together in a broader slaveholding neighborhood. For example, she explains how slave hiring and the small farm household organization made abroad marriages common in Missouri. Because small-scale slavery made it difficult for owners to control slave marriages, slaveholders permitted men and women to choose partners from other farms in the greater neighborhood. The dominance of abroad marriages and the realities of sale forced the enslaved to develop "alternatives to the nuclear family" (226). Using pension records, Burke carefully deduces that many abroad wives lived with their adult children, and others lived with friends and extended kin. Enslaved Missourians adapted to the uniqueness of slavery in Missouri, and slaveholding Missourians adapted to maximize the profitability and stability of the system. "In the final analysis," Burke argues, "slaveholders consented to these unions because they recognized that the fate of the entire Missouri slave system depended on cross-farm families" (202).
Similarly, Burke extends the "slave community" beyond the plantation gates, probably because there were not any gates. In contrast...