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Labor in the Mind of Masters: Antebellum Slaveholder Ideas of Work

by guest contributor Alec Israeli

By Alec Israeli

In his opening address to the May 1853 Convention to Organize an Agricultural Association of the Slaveholding States, chairman William C. Daniell mounted a detailed defense of slavery. Much of his speech articulated a critique of free wage labor that could have come from a working-class radical— “strife” between labor and capital was inevitable; machinery made labor dependent on capital. Yet he did not attack capitalism itself. Rather, he claimed the superiority of the economic form that bound labor and capital as practiced by his fellow “capitalists”— slaveowners. He also defended slavery in terms beyond political economy, claiming that slavery’s benefit lay in the “wholesome pupilage” provided by the master to the slave (“An Address,” American Cotton Planter, Feb. 1854).

Daniell’s apparent ambivalence about how to define the role of slaveowners in relation to their slaves was representative of a broader tension felt by the master class. As studies in the New History of Capitalism now aim to center American slavery in the development of capitalism, it is worth examining exactly how slaveowners themselves understood their status vis-à-vis the labor, free and slave, that made their wealth possible. I suggest that they attempted to maintain identities of both employer and master, manager and paterfamilias, which were often in contradiction, but united by an elevation of planters’ mental labor. Personal class identity notwithstanding, however, planters could never abandon the reality that their enslaved laborers served their bottom line.

As scholars like Laurence Shore have written, planters consciously sought to prove the compatibility of slave labor with classical political economy and to solidify their status as responsible capitalists. By the mid-nineteenth century, this tendency engendered both an anxiety over the South’s lagging economy and a reformist call for planters to improve Southern domestic production, so as to relinquish dependence on Northern imports. Among the many reformist planter journals that sprang up was the American Cotton Planter (ACP), which presented itself as “Devoted to Improved Plantation Economy, Manufactures, and the Mechanic Arts.” Most articles discussed applications of so-called “book” farming, with various suggestions for practicing crop rotation, maintaining soil fertility, and experimenting with different cultivars. But efficient farming was not the ACP’s only concern.

Peppered throughout practical advice columns were intimations of slaveholders’ growing consciousness as managers of business enterprise. As one 1854 article on crop rotation offered, “proper management” of a plantation would secure the “labor and pains-taking of the proprietor.” Such management in turn “reward[ed] the industrious labor of the merely plower and hoer”—that plower and hoer, of course, being the slave (“System and Rotation in Cotton Culture,” Dec. 1854). Notably, the author described the work of both the planter and the slave in the same terms of “labor,” rather than taking pride in the planter’s status in the leisure class. The distinction was not in labor itself (emphasized in either case), but the kind of labor: while the slave “merely” plowed and hoed, the planter thought about how to do so. When slaveholders engaged in modern management, they saw themselves as modern brainworkers.

This aspiration towards membership in the bourgeois world of brainwork was a common line throughout the ACP. Farming, its writers insisted, was not drudgery. “I don’t care,” complained one letter to the editor, “how practical any man may be […] he must apply his mind to work […]” It was “high time,” indeed, “that intellect make it mark upon Southern Agriculture,” (“Agricultural Improvement,” Feb. 1854). One article taken from a peer publication, the American Agriculturalist, likewise made the case that agriculture, “not simply the art of plowing” but “viewed in all its […] scientific bearings”, should be understood as a respectable career path for college-educated boys with a “culture of mind,” and take its place alongside the “professions.” (“Agriculture and the Professions,” Dec. 1854).

Granted, the “professions” are unspecified here beyond a passing mention of politicians; they likely refer to law, medicine, and perhaps the then-growing world of business management (clerks, administrators, and so on). Other writers, though, were more specific in their connection between cultivating the mind and professionalizing planting. A letter in the ACP from Carlisle P.B. Martin of Georgia, taken from another peer publication, The Soil of the South, maintained the premise of planting as educated brainwork, but pushed the timeline back for schoolboys-cum-planters. Carlisle called for the creation of a “scientific and practical College” to teach incipient planters modern agriculture, complete with an on-site farm for study. He insisted: “I do not propose to make it a MANUAL LABOR SCHOOL.” The plowing and hoeing was to be left to slaves, “as on any other plantation.” Carlisle was well-received; the ACP published a glowing companion piece to this letter in the same issue (“Agricultural Education,” “Agricultural School,” Oct. 1855).

The planter identification as brainworkers went beyond technical training and plantation work. A short article about the need for physical recreation placed its readers as quintessential Americans: “an unhappy people […] Perpetually absorbed in business, with our mental faculties constantly on the stretch […] Bending all our energies to the one object of making money […]” (“Physical Recreation,” May 1856). The ACP seemed to relish that planters could join white-collar workers in anxiety-ridden productivity—soon to be medicalized as a condition peculiar to the American brainworker class.

It is hard to know how much the planter readership saw itself in this image offered in the ACP. But it is clear, though, that these kinds of publications were avidly read, and their advice taken to heart. The Mississippi cotton planter Francis Terry Leak, for example, was the consummate scientific farmer. As Caitlin Rosenthal has discussed, Leak kept daily picking records in hand-drawn tables, made projections for future planting, and wrote detailed records of fertilization experiments on his plantation. Looking to his expense reports, one can see that he was a book farmer: Leak subscribed to De Bow’s Review, the Southern Cultivator, and the Soil of the South, all forums for reformist planters.

Leak’s financial records also point to his work as a manager of free labor as well as slave. He recorded three year-long contracts for overseers, with a set salary, often including room and board. Overseers, as free laborers, were employed at will; as Leak’s contracts suggest, planters were scrupulous employers, and overseer turnover was high. Overseers were responsible for plantation management when planters were absent, but that did not mean they could escape the watchful eye of their employer. Writing to his business partner Rice C. Ballard in July 1846, Mississippi planter Samuel Boyd reported that upon a brief visit to one of their plantations, he had to scold the overseer Cox about his overly-harsh “discipline of the negroes.” Cox himself previously wrote that a slave had escaped for fear of being whipped.

This brief episode, stringing together the employer/master, the free laborer, and the slave, offers some insight into the dual nature of the planter. On the one hand, here is a manager chastising his employee (the overseer) for damaging his productive property (the slave). On the other hand, though, is a paternalistic master distinguishing between the mere worker who he pays, and the enslaved ward, for whose life he sees himself responsible. Cox’s apparent deviation from the master’s will constituted a disturbance in the metaphysics of plantation power.

The proper relationship between master and overseer was a matter of some contention in the planting community. A debate on the subject unfolded in the November 1854 ACP. One reader wrote in, asserting that, “An overseer is an agent, invested with authority to act for his employer, and if he has no authority to act for or instead of his employer, he is no agent, or overseer, but a driver,” (“Reply to Dr. Phillips,” Nov. 1854). In other words, overseers should have some license to exercise their own will in plantation management.

M.W. Phillips—a prominent scientific planter, and frequent contributor to the ACP and other similar periodicals— disagreed. He wrote in reply that “I regard the overseer to be an agent, and no more than an agent.” The overseer was “bound to obey instructions,” (“Overseers, Agents,” Nov.1854). Phillips expected the overseer to extend the will of the planter, and nothing more.

This, it seems, was the correct view for enlightened book farmers. The next issue of the ACP opened with an essay on “The Duties of the Overseer” from Thomas Affleck’s Cotton Plantation Record and Account Book (one of the more commonly used pre-printed recordkeeping books) which affirmed the overseer’s purpose to “carry out the orders of [his] employer […] and […] to study his interests,” (“The Duties of an Overseer,” Dec. 1854). Another article in this same issue affirmed this sentiment, advising planters to “place the overseer’s copy of the contract” in their copies of the Account Book so “that it may be before [the overseer] every evening.” Advice like this suggests that the ACP’s managerial tips were meant for a readership of planter-proprietors rather than overseers. Indeed, this article echoed Phillips’ top-down directive in stating that “The overseer is the agent of the employer, to carry out his will in the promotion of his interest in the management of his plantation, hands and stock,” (“Overseers,” Dec. 1854).

Here, the overseer is but a surrogate for the planter, mediating between the “will” of the planter and its material extension through the “hands”—the slaves. The overseer was the connective tissue of a plantation body-politic, with the planter as the head controlling the movements of its enslaved limbs. The plantation in this formulation becomes an organic form; brainworkers and manual workers, those units of capitalist organization strictly divided by skill and class, now become mind and flesh bound together in preordained purpose. Both articulations were espoused by these book farmers— a dual identity of mental capacity not without contradictions.

“Hands” as a metonym for enslaved laborers offers a curious case. The word itself, of course, suggests corporal form. But its simplicity as a designation also lent it to planters’ use in their attempt to fully commoditize slave labor by rendering slaves fungible. Rosenthal has written how a single “hand” became a reference point for a slave at maximum productivity, such that slaves could then be described in terms of fractional hands to determine their sale value. But such methods to render slaves uniform belied the subtle ways planters capitulated to the impossibility of the aim. Letters to Ballard from his overseers refer to “hands”, but likewise mention slaves by name; the diary of planter William Ethelbert Ervin followed a similar pattern. Leak, as carefully as he tallied cotton picking, still noted slave births, deaths, and tasks by name.

Likewise, planters’ capitalist-conscious desire to encourage Southern domestic production ironically engendered a paternalistic vision of the plantation as a self-reproducing, market-free being. Articles throughout the ACP called on planters to develop a “proper system of plantation economy” to avoid import dependence, for example, by planting plenty of grain alongside their cotton (“Prospects of the Crop,” Nov. 1854; “System and Rotation in Cotton Culture,” Dec. 1854).

And yet, commodity production took precedence over reproductive plantation labor for in situ slaves. One of Ballard’s overseers wrote that he would not be able to do much “surplus work”— in this case, building corn sheds— aside from “the crop”; another had been hesitant to direct slaves to begin repair work, as picking season approached. Leak avoided the dilemma entirely, contracting out painting, bricklaying, fencing, and other such work to free laborers.

Try as they might, planters could not escape the pull of the market of free labor beyond. Nor could they resist organizing their enslaved laborers to cater to the demands of this market. By necessity (and in practice), the old body-politic submitted to the new brainworker, but the former was still a salient articulation of hierarchy that structured slaveholders’ understanding of labor. In itself, the significance of this atavism should not be forgotten as continuing scholarship reveals the brutal historical intertwining of capitalism and slavery.


Alec Israeli is a senior in the Department of History at Princeton University, pursuing certificates in African American Studies, European Cultural Studies, and Humanistic Studies. With research interests in the overlaps of labor and intellectual history in the 19th-century Atlantic, his senior thesis advised by Matthew Karp will examine the labor ideologies of antebellum cotton planters in the Lower Mississippi Valley. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog. He can be reached at aisraeli@princeton.edu.

Featured Image: The American Cotton Planter, vol. 4, no. 5, 1 May 1856. American Historical Periodicals from the American Antiquarian Society. Accessed 9 Oct. 2020.

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