Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South
Slavery, Slave families, Upper South, Free blacks
In this valuable study, Calvin Schermerhorn argues that slaves in the Chesapeake region put the preservation of family ties above formal freedom and relied on interpersonal networks to advance their cause. Economic modernization drove these strategies by pressuring enslaved families with the threats of sale westward and local migration for seasonal and industrial labor. [End Page 533]
Money over Mastery addresses a vital question in rethinking antebellum southern history: If early republic slavery was part and parcel of modernity, how did slaves engage that process? Where earlier scholarship emphasized broad commonalities among the enslaved—the most important of which was a community imbued with the premodern values of peasant economies—more recent studies have emphasized slaves’ diversity of experience and their involvement in markets. Firmly aligned with the latter priorities, Schermerhorn argues that the enslaved used modernization opportunistically to build networks that would preserve their families. “As the modernity of slavery worked remorselessly through an intensifying market hungry for bodies and labor of slaves,” he writes, “enslaved people sought to defend blood kin from the worst aspects of the market by participating in it” (20–21).
The book looks at a range of slave networks, which Schermerhorn defines rather broadly as “strategic ties and sets of exchanges” that gave access to “human and material resources as well as information” (24). White patrons were critical links in these chains of association, and their presence blurred the “axes of conflict” that ran along the lines of race, class, and legal standing. Although at a power disadvantage in negotiating with white patrons, enslaved African Americans could manipulate these relationships to “mitigate violence, improve working conditions, and establish status” (24). Ties to patrons that protected the enslaved from the worst abuses of the system also put them in conflict with other slaves.
Schermerhorn tells this history through a series of individual case studies beginning with Charles Ball and with Solomon and Thamar Bayley, an enslaved couple in post-Revolutionary Maryland and Delaware who used networks of fellow slaves, racially mixed church congregations, politically connected employers, and even their own masters to battle kidnappers bent on selling them and their offspring in the slave market. The pull of family held Ball and the Bayleys in the South despite opportunities for escape. Only when kidnappers eventually succeeded in carrying off their families did they take flight.
Networking strategies differed according to the varied roles created by economic modernization. Maritime workers used the mobility and occasional wages afforded by their jobs to develop long-distance networks. In the case of Moses Grandy, networking enabled him to buy his freedom and that of his family. But these networks were inherently fragile, as Wilmington tugboat hand Peter Robinson learned when he was [End Page 534] kidnapped and sold on return from a daring sojourn in the California goldfields.
Enslaved domestic servants lacked the interstate mobility of watermen. In its place they used the bonds of the household to protect kin. The alliances forged sometimes involved sexual relationships with slaveholders that complicated ties to fellow slaves. For example, Corinna Hinton, the enslaved domestic partner of Richmond slave trader Silas Omohundro, helped manage his business by tending prisoners awaiting sale. Treated like a free woman, as were her children, Corinna’s actions did not constitute betrayal because “the idea of slave solidarity or a slave community born out of the shared experience of slavery was not a part of her horizon of understanding” (112).
This fragmentation of slave experience is further explored in discussions of factory and railroad workers. Henry Brown, an enslaved cigar maker, used pay earned by exceeding his factory quota to lease his wife Nancy from her master and rent a house where they could live together. When owners imposed new profit-making strategies—factory work, slave leasing, and remote labor camps—the enslaved countered with new tactics, like exploiting slaveholders’ profit motive to buy a modicum of autonomy.
Schermerhorn concludes by labeling the late antebellum Chesapeake a “slave market society” (202), powered by the slave family and its reproduction of human capital. Slaveholders’ pursuit of profit not only belied the rhetoric of paternalism, it also intensified pressure on the integrity of slave families. Networking was a rational response to the threat of forced separation, but by relying on the dynamics of the market networks “cut through corporate interests and solidarity based on slave status of racial categorizations” (207).
Money over Mastery makes several valuable contributions to the historiography of slavery in the early republic. First, it rethinks the Upper South in light of scholarship arguing for the modernity of antebellum slavery. Much of this work focuses on southwestern plantations and the slave markets of New Orleans, leaving open the question of what happened to the slaves left behind in the Chesapeake. To get at this experience, Schermerhorn explores interpersonal networks as a source of social power. By highlighting the primacy of family preservation via networking and showing how networks fragmented slave solidarity, Schermerhorn makes the case for family over freedom.
Scholars will find much to debate in this account. Schermerhorn [End Page 535] works mostly with slave narratives that overrepresented the literate, the urban, and the skilled. How many of those enslaved in the Upper South had access to the mobility and moneymaking opportunities of the few who ultimately succeeded in getting their stories published? Perhaps more controversial is Schermerhorn’s argument that family and freedom were incompatible objectives and that networks necessarily undermined slave solidarity. The argument works well when focused on particular families and immediate threats to their survival. Putting the Chesapeake’s still sizeable agricultural slaves into the story and looking at the larger collective outcomes of networking might reveal a slave politics more similar to the drive for separation and nationality that Steven Hahn found in the rural Deep South. The potential for a lively debate over these questions reflects the strength of Money over Mastery and the value that it adds to the rich historiography of American slavery. Anyone interested in slavery and the antebellum South will profit from reading it.
Frank Towers is an associate professor of history at the University of Calgary who studies the South, cities, and politics in the nineteenth century. He is the author of The Urban South and the Coming of the Civil War (Charlottesville, VA, 2004) and co-editor of The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region and Nation in the Age of Progress (Oxford, UK, 2011).