Exchange relations within the slaves' internal economy can be characterized in economic, social, and racial terms. Fundamentally, however, exchange relations are about issues of power and are thus political.
In economic terms, bondpeople functioned according to the market roles of producers, sellers, consumers, and middlemen. The most optimistic (or perhaps naïve) slaves expected prices and wages to fluctuate according to laws of supply and demand, but narrative accounts and memoirs reveal the creation of a much more thorny set of relationships when slaves entered the marketplace. Slaves, poor whites, storekeepers, free blacks, and slaveholders engaged in trade cagily, constantly evaluating the advantages or disadvantages that their race, status, or social connections conferred upon them.
Slaveholders were wary of slaves' participating in dealings beyond their range of surveillance. State statutes and local slaveholder customs prohibited unregulated trade; in many cases slaveholders required that their charges carry tickets or written permission allowing them to exchange specific goods. The rationale was both practical and political. Slaveholders worried constantly that their charges might steal from their stores, then slip off to trade stolen goods such as corn or cotton for cash or manufactured goods. Storekeepers and, especially, transient peddlers and wagoners were subject to particular suspicion because of the large variety of goods they could offer—including alcohol—and the temptation they offered to acquisitive servants. "The storekeepers are always ready to accommodate the slaves," Charles Ball (c. 1780–?) declared, "who are frequently better customers than any white people; because the former always pay cash, whilst the latter almost always require credit" (1859, p. 130).
But did slaves receive a fair price for their goods? Ball continued: "In dealing with the slave, the shopkeeper knows he can demand whatever price he pleases for his goods, without danger of being charged with extortion; and he is ready to rise at any time of the night to oblige friends who are of so much value to him" (Ball 1859, p. 130). Herein lay the crux of the problem for both storekeeper and slave: In engaging in trade not sanctioned by the master, shopkeepers risked fines from local authorities and the ire of their slave holding customers. As Ball explained, however, there were risks for slaves too. Storekeepers could easily report such activity to masters, losing a sale but gaining the favor of a wealthier patron. In most cases, mutual interest and wary trust made for uneasy and sometimes risky exchange. Sales need not have occurred in formal consumption venues such as taverns and local merchants. If the trade was illicit in the eyes of the master, the same risks and benefits characterized less formal transactions with poor whites and free blacks as well.
At risk for the master in these transactions was bond labor and human capital both and he had to carefully consider local market opportunities and temptations in the management and regulation of his workforce. Slaveholders were wary of the relationships that market participation engendered. Collaboration between social inferiors, no matter what their race, challenged the mastery of the slave holding class. Yet, the material desires of their charges were real and to deny them risked dissatisfaction and, perhaps, resistance. As a result, many slaveholders promoted, or at least permitted, participation in the internal economy. The ex-slave Henry Clay Bruce (1836–1902) observed this practice in Virginia, explaining "[t]he practice of allowing slave ground to raise a little crop obtained generally among slave owners, but most of them had to work their crop of tobacco after sundown, and without plowing" (1854, p. 84). Who profited, then, from the slaves' hard work? Bruce minced no words: "The master got the benefit of money after all, because the slave spent it for his own pleasure and comfort, which was a direct advantage to the master" (1854, pp. 84-85).
Slaveholders not only recognized the potential benefit of a carefully regulated internal economy, they also deployed examples of slaves' money-making activities in their defense of the peculiar institution against abolitionist attacks. Commenting on the economic difficulties of a northern, wage-earning seamstress, Nehemiah Adams (1806–1878) commented, "A vast many slaves get wages in a better form than this, in provision for their support for the whole of life, with permission to earn something, and more or less to the disposition of the masters and the ability of the slaves" (1854, p. 51). It is worth noting that few proslavery advocates acknowledged the declining fortunes of nonslaveholding whites in their own communities during this same period.
In participating in the internal economy, bondpeople not only wrestled with the contradictions of their own enslavement, they also negotiated the tenuous relationships of power that marked slave society. Though mutual interest facilitated much of this economic activity, self-interest, jealousy, and the desire for political and social advantage made exchange relations among and with slaves particularly tenuous.
Adams, Nehemiah. A South-Side View of Slavery; or, Three Months at the South, in 1854. Boston: T.R. Martin, 1854.
Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave. New York: H. Dayton, 1859.
Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-nine Years a Free Man. Boston: T.R. Marvin and B.B. Mussey, 1854.