City Slaves: Agency through Opportunity

Abigail Graber '08

In the first half of the nineteenth century, revolutions in industry, labor, and transportation proceeded rapidly in the Northern United States, drastically altering its economic and social landscape. Northern textile mills employed tens of thousands of women by the 1840s; canals and railroads crisscrossed the country; and the development of a sizable population of urban workers gave rise to an ideology of "free labor" that became integral to the northern identity.[1] In contrast, the South largely absented itself from modernization. As the cotton gin exponentially increased the ease of cotton production, cotton grew to dominate the southern economy, and slavery grew with it. The expansion of slavery seemed to entail the expansion of a labor force easily adaptable to a manufacturing system. "Employing" an industrial slave took a third the cost of employing a free laborer.[1] However, despite the apparent monetary advantages of large, industrial cities built on slave labor, southern gentlemen found the social costs prohibitive. Once in an urban landscape, slaves were exposed to a host of opportunities for self-improvement and rebellious activity, both of which were equated as misbehavior in the minds of the master class, that seriously undermined the efficacy of slavery as both an ideology and a workable system. Slaves had developed methods of agency over their 150 years of plantation bondage, but cities allowed a greater and, to white southerners, more dangerous expansion of those methods. The wider threat posed by the apparent examples of slave agency thus shaped the southern slave system by provoking white southerners to develop their resources in an almost exclusively agricultural manner in order to protect the social norms that allowed slavery to persist.

Hidden forms of slave resistance emerged even under the gang-system of plantation labor, where slaves were worked from dawn until dark under the watch of their masters' overseers. Frederick Douglass noted that slaves possessed little to no free time and sleep time on the plantations. "[W]hen their day's work in the field is done, the most of them having their washing, mending, and cooking to do, and...very many of their sleeping hours are consumed in preparing for the field the coming day."[1] Even when thus supervised and exhausted, slaves managed acts of subversion, including breaking equipment, stealing from their masters, feigning illness, and faking stupidity. Slaves also established group identities that allowed them to execute more overt acts of resistance. Planters supported alliances between slaves inasmuch as they could be viewed as "cords binding [a slave] to his master."[1] Slaves used these strong community bonds, both legal (e.g. sexual, encouraged by planters to reproduce their slave force) and illegal (e.g. religious, as in prohibited black churches and slave marriages) to achieve their own ends.  A complex network of communities engaged in aiding fugitives stretched through the South from the city slave pens to the countryside plantations. Even in the pens, where connections were most transient, slaves endeavored to make "local knowledge social knowledge," coming together as a community to share their individual experiences, which helped to educate each other about possible dangers ahead.[1]

Such modes of resistance were already well established in slave culture before the onset of industrialization in the mid-1800s, and predictably, blacks sold into urban slavery took them to the cities. The very nature of the urban environment, however, exaggerated slaves' ability to resist their masters both through the old methods and through ways more challenging to the fundamental ideological tenants of slavery. "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell," Douglass remembered hearing from Hugh Auld, his master in Baltimore.[1] Though his language was crude, Auld's thinking was generally right. Once provided with the opportunities for self-improvement afforded to him by city life, "no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell," wrote Douglass.[1] Opportunity struck Douglass and others in his position in the unexpected form of unsupervised free time, a luxury the plantation slave sorely missed. The limited scope of manufacturing meant that city slaves were often hired out as domestic helpers, a far less labor-intensive position than that of cotton picker. Such slaves tested the slavemasters' theory that a slave "is by far happier than he would be if emancipated, and left to think, and act, and provide for himself."[1]

Left to act for themselves, urban slaves associated with people to whom they would have had only strictly controlled access on plantations. Free blacks provided a new kind of community for their captive brethren, one that encouraged thoughts of liberation in the enslaved. For example, the slave Frank found an escape from the slave pen in the city of New Orleans, "watching the free people of color in the street and walking among them."[1] Slaveowners lamented urban masters' lack of control over their chattel. "[Slaves] assemble together whenever they wish...and mature their own plans of insurrection," stated the South Carolina state legislature in 1822.[1] While white fears of insurrection were exaggerated, black communities, both slave and free, in which slaves could participate were more plentiful, open, and accessible in cities than on plantations. Furthermore, an ambitious slave with leisure time among whites in whom proper slaveholding behavior was not yet ingrained could learn valuable skills from those willing to teach. When Frederick Douglass' mistress discovered that teaching a slave to read was a heinous violation of her role as a slaveholder, Douglass took matters into his own hands, seeking literacy through his white playfellows. ("As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers."[1]) Douglass and others like him discovered in independent reading and education "the pathway from slavery to freedom."[1]

Even those slaves working in industry and other urban occupations could better subvert the slave system than they would have been able to on a plantation. Though comparatively few slaves worked in factories, the incentive-based task system[1] used in manufacturing taught slaves the value of their labor as a market commodity; they discovered their own economic self-worth as laborers, which they then applied by seeking out those who would teach them employable skills. Even slaves who never had the opportunity to work in industry were able to seek out other forms of work in the city. Slaves filled positions as blacksmiths, coopers, shipwrights, shoemakers, and any number of other urban jobs. In doing so, they attained a level of economic freedom unknown to their plantation-bound counterparts. Plantation slaveowners objected that skilled slaves "earned money by overwork...and got a habit of roaming about and taking care of themselves."[1] How slaves took their agency in an urban environment to the extreme can be demonstrated in the comparatively high instances of runaways from the cities and among those who had acquired a marketable, urban skill. Douglass judged a successful escape ten times more likely from the city as from the country;[1] Solomon Northup hoped to be hired to a New Orleans master "for I conceived it would not be difficult to make my escape from New Orleans on some northern vessel."[1] Advertisements for fugitive slaves commonly described the runaways with skills including those of a blacksmith, "very good shoemaker," and others.[1] We can thus infer that the slaves who were successfully running away were largely the slaves with industrial abilities, i.e., slaves with a means of independent survival.

Southerners perceived slaves' willingness to act on their own and their successes through personal agency in an urban environment as a direct threat to the paternalist ideology that justified the subjugation of one race of human beings by another. When planters complained that slaves were acting out their own economic and social desires independent of masters' direction, they expressed their fears that slaves were demonstrating that they neither wanted nor needed the masters at all. In the face of successes like Douglass's in establishing some measure of economic independence through incentivized city work, it must have been increasingly difficult for slaveowners to declare that the slave was "essentially parasitical in nature...dependant for guidance and direction even to the procurement of his most indispensable necessities."[1] Thus, southerners often pronounced slaves who returned from cities ruined for plantation labor. Not only would they themselves not submit properly to the masters' authority, they might corrupt the other slaves. City slaves rejected the offer of paternalism more overtly than their plantation brethren, and slaveowners perceived them (sometimes correctly, sometimes not) as bent on spreading their new knowledge of power through independence to their fellow bondsmen. John Hammond protested the use of slaves in industry, declaring that they became "more than half freed" and "corrupt and turbulent,"[1] while William Weaver believed that any slaves with vices (and self-sufficiency was certainly a vice in a slave) "would pollute your other Negroes."[1] Manufacturing brought cities, and cities "polluted" slaves. Therefore, in a system where wealth and prestige hinged on slave ownership, southerners had little reason to invest in urban growth.

In effect, the benefits of slave labor that were so apparent on a plantation—cost efficiency, no labor laws, complete control over the labor force—were overshadowed by the risks of bringing slaves to cities, where they could mingle with and learn from free blacks and whites alike while acting in ways that obviously betrayed the fiction of paternalistic good. On plantations, southerners could use rigid systems of control to prevent blacks from developing modes of free will, like wage labor and literacy, that were overtly destructive to the slave system and ideology. Cities removed slaves from under their master's direct power. Examples of blacks made impudent, resistant, or downright rebellious by too strong a brush with freedom in urban environments taught slaveowners not to hire out their property to city industrialists. Thus, both real and anticipated slave agency in urban and manufacturing environments led southerners away from the cities and deeper into the countryside in search of their profits, even as the North continued to industrialize up through the Civil War.

Dorsey, Bruce and Woody Register, eds. "Saddles and Spurs: Creating a Pro-Slavery

Ideology." Crosscurrents in American Cultural History. (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

Douglass, Frederick, and Harriet Jacobs. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an

American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.(New York, NY: The

Modern Library, 2000).

Hillsborough Recorder. NC, May 17, 1820 and August 9, 1820.

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. (Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Levine, Bruce. Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of Civil War. (New York, NY: Hill

and Wang, 1992).

This paper was written for Professor Bruce Dorsey's History 5a:  United States History to 1877.  Abigail Graber is a sophomore who is only a little bit ashamed to join the hordes of double majors in History and Political Science that yearly sweat their way through the Swarthmore honors program.  Her enjoyment of the social science has not been dulled in the least by the alarming tendency of her professors to assume that she has time to write them weekly essays.  Quite on the contrary, Abby finds little in life more enjoyable than a late night with a cup of hot tea and a satisfying thesis, and she's only half kidding.  When not donating her soul to nineteenth-century America or American foreign policy, Abby gives what is left to the art history and Russian, if for nothing else than to prove that she is in some way unique.