- Slaves for Hire: Renting Enslaved Laborers in Antebellum Virginia by John J. Zaborney
Slavery, Virginia, Slave trade
Examining an understudied topic, John J. Zaborney demonstrates the extent, variety, and importance of slave hiring in antebellum Virginia. Slave hiring was a profit-maximizing practice that often belied paternalistic notions of slavery. Planters with surplus slaves could supplement their income by hiring out a few slaves or hire them all out while traveling for extended periods of time. Churches, orphanages, and schools raised funds by hiring out slaves they owned for that purpose. Males and females were hired in roughly equal numbers as field hands, domestic servants, coal miners, and railroad builders. By the 1850s slave hiring was so commonplace that rental agreements were standardized and preprinted, as were insurance policies for hired slaves working in especially dangerous occupations. Drawing on deep archival research and weaving many compelling anecdotes into a coherent whole, Zaborney demonstrates how the hiring process shaped the lives of white Virginians, the enslaved, and the institution of slavery itself.
Zaborney characterizes the existing scholarship on slave hiring as "polarized: hired slaves either enjoyed nearly full autonomy, which weakened slavery generally, or they endured ruthless exploitation" (2). While this binary is somewhat exaggerated, it helps place Zaborney's work in the context of larger debates about slave agency and the compatibility of slavery and modernization. He argues that "most Virginia hired slaves' experiences differed little from those of nonhired slaves and that slave hiring made Virginia slavery stronger, not weaker, during the years before the Civil War" (3). Slave hiring helped slaveholders adapt to the dynamic and unpredictable economic changes that characterized the market revolution. Hired slaves also helped build transportation infrastructure and worked in factories, demonstrating the compatibility of enslaved labor with a modernizing economy.
Renting slaves could create conflicts of interests between owners and hirers, thus creating opportunities for slaves to exert a greater level of agency, themes examined at length in the only other full-length study on [End Page 580] the subject.1 By contrast, Zaborney focuses more on the mutual interests of white Virginians and the ways that slave hiring increased white solidarity. It helped reduce class tensions by allowing tenant farmers to rent slaves they could not afford to buy and thereby achieve the "free and independent status [of] white men who controlled slaves" (108). Hiring a female domestic slave could save a white wife from household drudgery, allowing her to emulate middle-class gender ideals without the full expense of slave ownership. For white men, attending slave hiring days (generally at the start of the year) provided opportunities to publicly display their masculinity and mastery as they examined slaves and haggled over prices. Thus the economic, cultural, and social implications of slave hiring increased support for slavery even among non-slave-owning whites.
Zaborney gives examples of some slaves who earned significant sums of money through incentives for overtime, or turned the competing economic interests of owners and hirers to their own advantage. But he also reports cases in which slaves' attempts to exert agency resulted in whipping or sale as punishment, arguing that slaves' agency remained sharply curtailed in most situations. Moreover, even when slaves successfully used opportunities created by hiring to exert more influence over their own lives, it was generally with the goal of mitigating problems resulting from being hired out in the first place, such as family dislocation and brutal work conditions. As Zaborney shows, slaves always struggled to preserve a level of stability and autonomy in their lives, but hiring created at least as many problems as opportunities.
Throughout his book, Zaborney touches on connections between slave hiring and the domestic slave trade. Slave owners and hirers viewed renting slaves as an alternative to the domestic slave trade; slaves were more likely to be hired out at least once than they were to be sold; and slaves who created trouble for their owners or hirers might be sold as punishment. Like the slave trade, slave hiring...