Gleanings of Freedom: Free and Slave Labor along the Mason–Dixon Line, 1790–1860 (review)
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Maryland, Slavery, Agriculture, Labor, Race, Economy

Gleanings of Freedom: Free and Slave Labor along the Mason–Dixon Line, 1790–1860. By Max Grivno. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. 269. Cloth, $50.00.)

Max Grivno’s Gleanings of Freedom investigates rural Maryland’s landowners and their struggles with the black and white agricultural laborers who worked their fields between 1790 and 1860. Placing the six northern Maryland counties of Washington, Frederick, Carroll, Baltimore, Harford, and Cecil under the microscope, Grivno offers a thoroughly researched, eloquently crafted, and fully integrated history of Maryland’s agricultural workforce, a rural counterpart to Seth Rockman’s urban focus in Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore, 2009).

The story Grivno relates is specific to its setting. Maryland boasted a diversified agricultural regime that emphasized the production of wheat rather than the cash crops customarily grown through the exploitation of slave labor. The state’s slaveholdings were small. Moreover, Maryland slaveholders’ grip on their chattel was always tenuous at best, given the state’s location adjacent to Pennsylvania. For masters in northern Maryland, the nagging presence of neighboring Pennsylvania loomed large. Having passed a gradual emancipation law in 1780, the Keystone State beckoned enslaved laborers with the siren song of freedom. Masters along the Mason–Dixon Line were understandably nervous about the proximity of their chattel to liberty. [End Page 169]

Landowners in northern Maryland did not rely on slavery alone to meet the demand for labor; rather, they selected from a smorgasbord of workers—white and black, free and slave. Hostage to the seasonal rhythms of commercial wheat cultivation, property owners desired sufficient workforces for the intense labor at harvest without the burden of supporting extraneous personnel during relatively slack times of the agricultural cycle. To strike this sort of balance, they experimented with a dizzying array of labor arrangements, cobbling together workforces best suited to their needs. They mixed and matched the labor of free black and poor white wage workers, slaves, term slaves, and, until about 1820, indentured servants. The diversity of northern Maryland rural work-forces, Grivno contends, blurred the conventional dichotomy between slave and free labor. Grivno urges his readers not to think of free and slave labor as antagonistic opposites but as running along a continuum of labor regimes. The workforce variations and flexibility exhibited by northern Maryland landowners, he argues, demonstrated the compatibility of free and slave labor.

Economic upheaval shifted employer strategies after the Panic of 1819. The prolonged depression and pecuniary embarrassments that ensued forced landowners to downsize their workforces, often by either manumitting or selling their slaves. With slavery on the decline, a casualty of hard times, those with property relied increasingly on wage workers, and a gulf widened between free and unfree labor. Landowners’ creative improvisation to secure manpower for the fields continued, but slaves factored less and less into the equation. Those bondpeople who survived the purge often proved more trouble than they were worth. As Grivno explains, nineteenth-century manumissions often marked less an expression of owners’ antislavery sentiment than a strategy to counterbalance the pesky allure of Pennsylvania as a haven for runaways. With control over enslaved laborers continuously imperiled, masters in northern Maryland employed delayed manumissions and term slavery agreements predicated conditionally upon slaves’ good behavior in a desperate, last-ditch effort to extend for a few more years their waning authority over their bondpeople. Ubiquitous threats of sale to the Deep South served the same function.

A final chapter examines race relations among Maryland’s rural labor force. In Grivno’s telling, a significant racial gap divided free black from poor white workers despite their co-laboring in the fields and sharing [End Page 170] similarly dire economic circumstances. Grivno paints an overwhelmingly pessimistic portrait in which opportunistic poor whites, in their quest for survival, kidnapped free blacks and served as slave catchers to turn a quick buck. Here Grivno perhaps too readily dismisses those instances of solidarity that crossed the color line, but in the peculiarly competitive economic climate of rural Maryland his argument makes sense. Black and white agricultural laborers alike struggled to navigate the challenges...