Enslaved Families in the Antebellum Market Economy


After the Sale: Slaves Going South, Eyre Crowe, 1853

by Calvin Schermerhorn

When enslaved Americans confronted the intensifying market economy of the nineteenth-century United States, they faced ominous changes and serious challenges.  If they lived in the coastal upper South – Delaware plus the eastern portions of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina – most would lose family members to the cotton and sugar plantations of the Deep South.  Coffles of chained human beings were a regular sight on the roads and in the ports, and slave traders advertised cash for slaves in newspapers.  In the Virginia tidewater, an enslaved family of five could expect to lose one member each decade between 1820 and 1860.  Those left behind would also suffer dislocations as men, women, and children were hired out and put to work redeveloping the Seaboard South, processing its tobacco, constructing its railroads, hauling its goods, and performing its domestic labor in the dwellings of its middle class.

Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South attempts to historicize American slavery by viewing the particular contexts and contingent circumstances of members of slave families over time.  I was curious to know what the stakes of slavery’s modernity were for the enslaved themselves.  Ex-slave autobiographies such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) have been extensively studied for what they tell us about African American voices and authorship.  When I examined Douglass’s autobiographies and those of others like him, I wanted to understand how the enslaved responded to the historical challenges they faced.

I found that from the turn of the nineteenth century to the eve of disunion, enslaved people shared a general set of goals and took advantage of an evolving set of opportunities.  Initial industrial development and an advancing market were processes in which the enslaved were implicated along with everyone else, and they participated in shaping them.  To keep families together, members formed networks of associations that cut across lines of class, gender, and race.  Often the most effective (or the least ineffective) ally was a slaveholder.  Operating at a distinct disadvantage, the enslaved used whatever resources they could seize, human and material, to forestall separations.  They were intensely reliant on local status, and far from construing the self in liberal-individualist terms, their personhood was the sum of the roles they lived (not played). That did not, however, make enslaved people categorically different from other non-citizens in the early American republic.

The broad contexts of enslaved people’s lives highlight the stakes of their strategies. The key to the development of the American South and to the Industrial Revolution in England was the African American family.  Simultaneous incredibly vulnerable and exceptionally strong, enslaved families underwrote the agricultural revolutions in cotton and sugar in the lower South, were at the heart of the redevelopment of the upper South, and the products of their labor sustained Britain’s Industrial Revolution.  The ability of enslaved families to reproduce and raise children enabled the cotton kingdom of lower South to flourish, which in turn provided the raw materials to manufacturers in New and old England.  The Seaboard South was undergoing its own redevelopment and enslaved people were essential to its success, whether in the cash exchanged for their children that financed it, or else the burdens they shouldered as laborers.

With each ship that sailed from Charleston or New Orleans for England loaded with cotton, demand for enslaved laborers rippled back into the old neighborhoods of Virginia and Maryland.  Slave owners selected the young, able, and fertile, causing a demographic catastrophe yet leaving enough family members in each generation to sustain family formation among the enslaved. Nevertheless, the slave trade tended to break apart families with young children and at precisely the time cooperative childrearing was imperative.

For most, running away was not a viable option.  Ten enslaved people were forcibly transported or sold across state lines for every one that made good an escape.  Instead, enslaved people cultivated alliances, gathered resources, and earned cash in attempts to prevent or delay enforced separations.  They put family over freedom, although freedom was not usually on the bargaining table.  Many saw their best efforts fail, but in attempting to preserve family ties, the enslaved became networkers as well as workers.  They became as deeply rooted in their local areas as they could, if only to make it more difficult to be deracinated and driven across a rapidly expanding continental empire.  Slave owners talked the game of mastery but preferred money, selling enslaved people when it was profitable or convenient to do so.

The trials of the Nancy and Henry Brown family illustrate the stakes of family-centered strategies among the enslaved.  In about 1830, at age fifteen, Henry Brown was put to work in his owner’s Richmond tobacco factory.  Not interested in slaves’ nonworking lives, tobacconists gave small allowances for slaves to buy room and board.  Through a regime of overwork Brown could sometimes earn five dollars a week for exceeding his daily quota of twist tobacco – flavored twists that found their way into the mouths of Americans, Britons, and Australians.

Brown’s hard-gotten savings were critical to the maintenance of family ties. Brown and Nancy married in 1836.  Also enslaved, Nancy was a domestic laborer. When Nancy was offered for sale in 1844, a would-be buyer enlisted Henry Brown’s help in raising the purchase price. Brown contributed fifty dollars to help buy his wife and children and another fifty dollars a year to rent them.  The new owner insisted that the Browns find their own lodgings.  They turned to a fellow free member of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond. Slaves, after all, could not make contracts. The Browns moved in together, enjoyed a domestic arrangement few enslaved people had, and in the next few years had more children.

The Browns’ arrangement was made possible by the processing industry in which Brown labored and by the network of allies in the church and city that the Browns were able to cultivate.  That was an unintended consequence of market intensification, which the architects of the system tolerated so long as it tended to make workers like Brown more pliable. As Brown was put to work building the commercial future of the region, he was also participating in the future of slavery.

Most enslaved people in the region remained in agricultural work, but it was dependent upon slavery at the start-up phase of industrial development.  Nearly every mile of railroad track laid down south of the Potomac River was done so by enslaved laborers.  Trains and depots were staffed by slaves, as were ironworks.  Commercial processors used slaves extensively.  On roads and rivers, enslaved wagoners and boatmen delivered the region’s goods.

Time was not on the side of the Browns’ arrangements.  In the four years after 1844, slave prices soared.  Each baby to which Nancy gave birth was the property of her owner, and when he appeared at their door demanding money one summer morning in 1848, dread and fear gripped the household.  Brown had no choice but to report to work, where by midday news reached him that his wife – now pregnant with their fourth child – had been sold in the nearby slave market and would depart the city the following evening.  The owner realized a substantial profit off of Nancy and her three children, besides the four years’ rent he had collected from Brown.

The Browns’ network was unraveling. Brown implored his owner and friends to intervene but to no avail.  The next evening, Brown arrived at a scene that was increasingly common in his corner of the South. Some 350 enslaved people were being marched out of the city.  His children called after him from a wagon. Henry and Nancy were briefly united and walked a few miles with clasped hands after which they were forced to part, never to meet again.

Nancy’s part of their network held more firmly, and after reaching North Carolina she obtained a letter of dismissal from the church attesting to her good standing and character.  She had been bought by a Methodist minister and could join another church.

Brown’s network had not completely failed either, and in March, 1849, he escaped Richmond and slavery in a shipping crate, emerging half-dead in Philadelphia as Henry “Box” Brown.

The Browns’ failure to perpetuate their domestic arrangement shows the perils and pitfalls of their social landscape.  They could count success in months and seasons of living as a nuclear family, expending their resources to hold together a tenuous and legally invisible agreement.  And so the ordeals of even the most successful among the enslaved assumed tragic configurations.  Enslaved people took benefits from the invisible hand of the market only to have loved ones snatched away by the all-too-visible hands of slave owners.

About the Author:

Calvin Schermerhorn is Assistant Professor of history at Arizona State University. His research focuses on slaving and slavery in the United States and cosmopolitan contexts. He is the author of Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South.