Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South

Johhny Quest

Private
Joined
Nov 11, 2020
With data and research? May be tough to find. I would suggest looking at various universities with good American history departments. Find courses on the pre-Civil War South. Contact the professors and ask them for suggestions.

I have read first-hand accounts of Confederates who described conditions in the 1850s. Generally, they say that slavery was an economic debacle for whites. Three main points

1) Unskilled white laborers could not find work around plantations or farms with large slave populations. Say you were a country boy who had a strong back and the railroad was coming to town. You'd think you'd find work ditch digging, but the railroads would either hire local slaves or buy their own. If a farmer wanted to clear a field, he'd head to the local plantation and negotiate for slave labor. So anywhere there were slaves, unskilled whites found it hard to get work.

2) But skilled whites often had problems too. Plantations would train blacks to be blacksmiths, animal trainers, animal doctors, furniture makers and engineers. (In the old days, an "engineer" was just someone who could fix machinery.) These skilled slaves would often take in outside work or be hired out. So if a person living in town wanted a horseshoe, he'd go to the local blacksmith. But if he wanted 20 horseshoes, he'd ride out to the plantation and get a much cheaper price.

3) White farmers could not compete. Small land holders could not compete with large plantations when it came to crops like tobacco, rice and cotton, but small farmers even had trouble selling other products. A plantation would grow food to feed itself and the extra could be sold for money. An old or injured slave who could no longer pick cotton could be used to grow watermelons and they could be sold far cheaper than the local white watermelon farmer could sell them for. A small white farmer who grew corn or wheat or even ran an orchard could have trouble selling his produce. With no cash to pay his bills or purchase other necessities, he'd often sell his land or hire out to the plantation.

So, bottom line, large labor pools depress wages and labor costs and that means the ability to offer cheaper goods and services. Small independents can't compete. Large plantations sucked the life out of local white communities the way Big Box stores suck the life out of small business today.

That's why I laugh when I hear people say that Southerners fought for the right to own slaves. Unless they were lucky enough to come from large plantations or take advantage of slave labor, most whites had no use for slavery. A poor white farmer might own a slave or two but even he understood that the INSTITUTION of slavery was keeping him poor.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
Good points and this would explain why there was no substantial middle class in the South at this time. Slavery was very crippling to general economic growth and prosperity for everyone since it benefited only the wealthy planters. But they held all the power and that's the way they liked it
 

Rebforever

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Oct 26, 2012
With data and research? May be tough to find. I would suggest looking at various universities with good American history departments. Find courses on the pre-Civil War South. Contact the professors and ask them for suggestions.

I have read first-hand accounts of Confederates who described conditions in the 1850s. Generally, they say that slavery was an economic debacle for whites. Three main points

1) Unskilled white laborers could not find work around plantations or farms with large slave populations. Say you were a country boy who had a strong back and the railroad was coming to town. You'd think you'd find work ditch digging, but the railroads would either hire local slaves or buy their own. If a farmer wanted to clear a field, he'd head to the local plantation and negotiate for slave labor. So anywhere there were slaves, unskilled whites found it hard to get work.

2) But skilled whites often had problems too. Plantations would train blacks to be blacksmiths, animal trainers, animal doctors, furniture makers and engineers. (In the old days, an "engineer" was just someone who could fix machinery.) These skilled slaves would often take in outside work or be hired out. So if a person living in town wanted a horseshoe, he'd go to the local blacksmith. But if he wanted 20 horseshoes, he'd ride out to the plantation and get a much cheaper price.

3) White farmers could not compete. Small land holders could not compete with large plantations when it came to crops like tobacco, rice and cotton, but small farmers even had trouble selling other products. A plantation would grow food to feed itself and the extra could be sold for money. An old or injured slave who could no longer pick cotton could be used to grow watermelons and they could be sold far cheaper than the local white watermelon farmer could sell them for. A small white farmer who grew corn or wheat or even ran an orchard could have trouble selling his produce. With no cash to pay his bills or purchase other necessities, he'd often sell his land or hire out to the plantation.

So, bottom line, large labor pools depress wages and labor costs and that means the ability to offer cheaper goods and services. Small independents can't compete. Large plantations sucked the life out of local white communities the way Big Box stores suck the life out of small business today.

That's why I laugh when I hear people say that Southerners fought for the right to own slaves. Unless they were lucky enough to come from large plantations or take advantage of slave labor, most whites had no use for slavery. A poor white farmer might own a slave or two but even he understood that the INSTITUTION of slavery was keeping him poor.
Just what kind of a book did you read to get your interpretation of the South?
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
There are many facets to the Peculiar Institution. Regional slaveholding cultures varies greatly. In Richmond, many slaves lived independently & paid their owners a percentage of their wages. In the rice fields of the Carolinas, slaves rarely achieved the 7 productive years that were the rule of thumb.

Rather than a book, I am going to suggest several lines of inquiry.

Narratives of individuals who by one means or another escaped can be very informative. The same goes with travelers or someone like Fanny Kimball who married into an elite family about to fail.

The slave dealing firm of Franklin & Armfield is an eye popper. They were the innovative geniuses of the slave trade. Fair warning, their slave jail in VA is an NPS site. Their business records are in the national archive. The details of their systematic sexual assaults would gag a buzzard.

The “Fancy Girl” market in New Orleans dealt in sex slaves. Comely light skinned young females were stripped naked on the dock. Individuals sold for phenomenal sums, $100,000 in today’s money.

The Reverse Underground Rail Road existed right up until the ratification of the 14 th Amendment. The systematic kidnapping of dark skinned & not so dark skinned young people was aided & abetted by local authorities in NY City & Philadelphia, for example. The only man who could legally hold slaves in Illinois was the kingpin of a highly organized gang who operated along the Ohio & Mississippi.

Lawsuits brought by slaves that reached the Alabama Supreme Court are fascinating. The civil suites brought by TN owners suing for damages to their rented slaves is rough reading. The raw brutality of what working slaves actually entailed isn’t for the faint of heart. Whoever heard of anyone changing the oil in a leased car was played out with human flesh.

The dollars & cents economics is exhaustively covered from a myriad of angles.

There are excellent websites dedicated to the emancipation of slaves in New England after the Revolution. Slaveholding was slaveholding whether it was in Rome or Albany, New York.

There is no single book that I would recommend. There was no such thing as “Southern Slavery.” It simply did not exist. In fact, there was no prototypical slaveholding. Did you know that Jesuits sold boat loads of orphaned Japanese girls to brothels in the Philippians & Mexico? Hundreds of thousands of the 6’8” + coal black Dinka people from the Nile valley were kidnapped to be slave soldiers for Indian Rajaa’s. Those extraordinarily tall men were highly sought after as eunuchs in China. Only about 10% survived the years it took to get to China or the savage cutting process.

My point is, slaveholding is nothing like what you would expect it to be. Pay no attention to what people want to tell you, go to the sources & cast a wide net. Fair warning, I started researching slaveholding in order to understand my elite slaveholding ancestors… to this day I have moments when ignorance would be a blessing… the level of routine heartlessness & brutality it took to keep 4,00,000 people enslaved is nightmarish.
 
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Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
With data and research? May be tough to find. I would suggest looking at various universities with good American history departments. Find courses on the pre-Civil War South. Contact the professors and ask them for suggestions.

I have read first-hand accounts of Confederates who described conditions in the 1850s. Generally, they say that slavery was an economic debacle for whites. Three main points

1) Unskilled white laborers could not find work around plantations or farms with large slave populations. Say you were a country boy who had a strong back and the railroad was coming to town. You'd think you'd find work ditch digging, but the railroads would either hire local slaves or buy their own. If a farmer wanted to clear a field, he'd head to the local plantation and negotiate for slave labor. So anywhere there were slaves, unskilled whites found it hard to get work.

2) But skilled whites often had problems too. Plantations would train blacks to be blacksmiths, animal trainers, animal doctors, furniture makers and engineers. (In the old days, an "engineer" was just someone who could fix machinery.) These skilled slaves would often take in outside work or be hired out. So if a person living in town wanted a horseshoe, he'd go to the local blacksmith. But if he wanted 20 horseshoes, he'd ride out to the plantation and get a much cheaper price.

3) White farmers could not compete. Small land holders could not compete with large plantations when it came to crops like tobacco, rice and cotton, but small farmers even had trouble selling other products. A plantation would grow food to feed itself and the extra could be sold for money. An old or injured slave who could no longer pick cotton could be used to grow watermelons and they could be sold far cheaper than the local white watermelon farmer could sell them for. A small white farmer who grew corn or wheat or even ran an orchard could have trouble selling his produce. With no cash to pay his bills or purchase other necessities, he'd often sell his land or hire out to the plantation.

So, bottom line, large labor pools depress wages and labor costs and that means the ability to offer cheaper goods and services. Small independents can't compete. Large plantations sucked the life out of local white communities the way Big Box stores suck the life out of small business today.

That's why I laugh when I hear people say that Southerners fought for the right to own slaves. Unless they were lucky enough to come from large plantations or take advantage of slave labor, most whites had no use for slavery. A poor white farmer might own a slave or two but even he understood that the INSTITUTION of slavery was keeping him poor.
In Tennessee the vast majority of slave holders were yeoman farmers owning what amounted to an extended family of about 10-14 individuals. It was the “extras”, a market term for surplus labor from VA & the yeoman farmers of border states that provided the replacements necessary in the Deep South & rice plantations. It was that production of human beings for sale that kept RE Lee’s VA plantation owning society solvent. The entire slave system was integrated in ways that even contemporary people did not understand.
 
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Joined
Jun 7, 2021
There are many facets to the Peculiar Institution. Regional slaveholding cultures varies greatly. In Richmond, many slaves lived independently & paid their owners a percentage of their wages. In the rice fields of the Carolinas, slaves rarely achieved the 7 productive years that were the rule of thumb.

Rather than a book, I am going to suggest several lines of inquiry.

Narratives of individuals who by one means or another escaped can be very informative. The same goes with travelers or someone like Fanny Kimball who married into an elite family about to fail.

The slave dealing firm of Franklin & Armfield is an eye popper. They were the innovative geniuses of the slave trade. Fair warning, their slave jail in VA is an NPS site. Their business records are in the national archive. The details of their systematic sexual assaults would gag a buzzard.

The “Fancy Girl” market in New Orleans dealt in sex slaves. Comely light skinned young females were stripped naked on the dock. Individuals sold for phenomenal sums, $100,000 in today’s money.

The Reverse Underground Rail Road existed right up until the ratification of the 14 th Amendment. The systematic kidnapping of dark skinned & not so dark skinned young people was aided & abetted by local authorities in NY City & Philadelphia, for example. The only man who could legally hold slaves in Illinois was the kingpin of a highly organized gang who operated along the Ohio & Mississippi.

Lawsuits brought by slaves that reached the Alabama Supreme Court are fascinating. The civil suites brought by TN owners suing for damages to their rented slaves is rough reading. The raw brutality of what working slaves actually entailed isn’t for the faint of heart. Whoever heard of anyone changing the oil in a leased car was played out with human flesh.

The dollars & cents economics is exhaustively covered from a myriad of angles.

There are excellent websites dedicated to the emancipation of slaves in New England after the Revolution. Slaveholding was slaveholding whether it was in Rome or Albany, New York.

There is no single book that I would recommend. There was no such thing as “Southern Slavery.” It simply did not exist. In fact, there was no prototypical slaveholding. Did you know that Jesuits sold boat loads of orphaned Japanese girls to brothels in the Philippians & Mexico? Hundreds of thousands of the 6’8” + coal black Dinka people from the Nile valley were kidnapped to be slave soldiers for Indian Rajaa’s. Those extraordinarily tall men were highly sought after as eunuchs in China. Only about 10% survived the years it took to get to China or the savage cutting process.

My point is, slaveholding is nothing like what you would expect it to be. Pay no attention to what people want to tell you, go to the sources & cast a wide net. Fair warning, I started researching slaveholding in order to understand my elite slaveholding ancestors… to this day I have moments when ignorance would be a blessing… the level of routine heartlessness & brutality it took to keep 4,00,000 people enslaved is nightmarish.
Wise words and good suggestions. Thank you. Like you I wanted to understand my slave holding ancestors, and stumbled across this first person account of a slave in Kentucky, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/johnson/johnson.html
which I read with horror, not just because of the casual stomach churning brutality, but because I recognized every single family name and location. I grew up in precisely that area of Kentucky and the truth of the story was evident in the details.
 

lupaglupa

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Joined
Apr 18, 2019
Location
Upstate New York
I'm late to answer, @Reconstructed Rebel, but yes, I have read that book. It's been a while since I read it when it first came out but I pulled my notes. The thrust of the book is a look at the ways that most whites in the South were excluded from economic success, in a significant way by the institution of slavery. Merrit has a lot of statistics (I certainly noted many) about income inequality in the antebellum South. I thought the book was interesting but not comprehensive. It's worth reading IMO, though you would likely want more than just this book to get a full picture.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
I'm late to answer, @Reconstructed Rebel, but yes, I have read that book. It's been a while since I read it when it first came out but I pulled my notes. The thrust of the book is a look at the ways that most whites in the South were excluded from economic success, in a significant way by the institution of slavery. Merrit has a lot of statistics (I certainly noted many) about income inequality in the antebellum South. I thought the book was interesting but not comprehensive. It's worth reading IMO, though you would likely want more than just this book to get a full picture.
Thanks so much for the review. I'm just beginning to dig into this and was struck by the comment from @Rhea Cole that "Regional slaveholding cultures varies greatly," which made perfect sense. When, if ever, is " one size fits all" a reality? I was hoping this book would be comprehensive, but, agreed, best to read as much as possible to get the full scope.
 

wausaubob

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Apr 4, 2017
Location
Denver, CO
Slavery was a powerful advantage in opening new land and creating new production. The owner could drive people to work much harder than a independent farmer would work. That rapidly increased production, but also caused commodity prices to be weak. The non slaving farmer had to stay away from cotton, he couldn't afford the risks. The non slave owner had to concentrate on corn and pork and other things, in which he could feed his family and sell the excess with much less risk. I would rely on Gavin Wright and Roger Ransom for information about the economics of slavery.
 
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