Internal Economy: An Overview

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Internal Economy: An Overview

Enslaved people in both the Caribbean and in the United States participated in what historians call the "slaves' internal economy." This phrase refers to an informal economic system that operated within or underneath legally sanctioned systems of economic exchange. As property, slaves could not legally make contracts, thus negating any sort of legal personal trade. Yet, abundant evidence from narratives, court cases, plantation records, and even legal statutes themselves indicate that slaves actively engaged in economic activity outside the labor completed for their masters. The inherent contradictions of the internal economy make it fruitful territory for explorations of master-slave relations, enslaved life and culture, and the economy of slave societies.

The ways in which scholars have interpreted the internal economy not only reflect predominating historiographic trends, they also reveal the process by which historians have attempted to cope with the seeming paradox of property ownership by chattel. In the Caribbean, anthropologists were at the forefront of this discussion. Seminal work by Sidney Mintz and Douglas Hall in the mid-1950s paved the way for later efforts to ascertain the mechanics and meaning of slaves' economic behavior among the varied labor systems of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Caribbean.

In the United States, early twentieth-century historians such as Ulrich Phillips (1877–1934) and Lewis Gray (b. 1881) grappled with the paradox of the internal economy indirectly, establishing the extent to which such activity occurred and considering the meaning of such activity to the master class. The synthetic works of the 1970s fit slaves' economic activity within the context of larger interpretations of master-slave relations and slave culture. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman (1974) characterized the internal economy as part of a system of rewards and incentives, whereas Herbert Gutman and Richard Sutch considered it as part of a set of customary rights and concessions. John Blassingame (1979) argued that slaves' economic behavior increased communalism and solidarity, whereas Eugene Genovese's (1976) precapitalist characterization of the South held that market systems in the South were not developed fully enough for internal economic activity to have significant impact on slaves' life and culture.

The first detailed studies of internal economies in the antebellum South emerged in the early 1980s. In 1982 and 1983 Philip Morgan published two essays exploring the nature of the task system in Low Country South Carolina and Georgia. According to Morgan, the internal economy allowed slaves to earn cash and accumulate property, thus inculcating in slaves a "quasiproprietorial attitude" (1983, p. 401). Moreover, the decisions that slaves made regarding the management and sale of their goods "fed individual initiative and sponsored collective discipline and esteem" (Morgan 1982, p. 597). Slaves, according to the interpretation put forward by Morgan and others, were empowered by such economic activity, their behavior being an assertion of their agency. Other scholars, among them Lawrence McDonnell, Peter Coclanis, and Peter Kolchin, challenged this prevailing interpretation, wondering whether the introduction of market behavior into the slave community introduced dissent and, ultimately, tied slaves more closely to their masters. More recently, Dylan Penningroth (2003) has attempted to straddle these conflicting interpretations, arguing that though conflicts often emerged in the slave community, property and kinship were inextricably linked.

Though scholars continue to differ over the meaning of slaves' economic behavior, most agree on its importance for understanding slave societies as a whole. The major themes that predominate in slavery historiography emerge starkly in focused study of internal economies in the South and the Caribbean. With the emergence of social and cultural history, for example, historians have focused not simply on the ways in which masters managed their slaves, but on the ways in which bondpeople created their own lives within a system of bondage. Historians have established the presence of active economic networks within slave communities and have explored the interplay of gender, family structure, religion, and African traditions within them. Questions asked by historians interested in slave life and culture include: To what extent did market participation solidify ties in the slave community?; did family structure affect conceptions of property ownership?; and what roles did women play in the internal economy?

In addition to relationships within the slave community, considering the internal economy helps scholars think productively about slaves' connections with the surrounding nonslave community, particularly with free persons of color and poor whites. Bondpeople did not restrict their trade to their fellow enslaved. Rather, they forged economic and concomitant social ties to members of the surrounding community. United, in many respects, by class but differentiated by race, poor whites and slaves both competed and collaborated in economic affairs. Scholarship in this area has been particularly insightful but—especially with regard to relationships with free blacks—much ground has yet to be covered.

Finally, work on the internal economy reminds scholars that slaves' lives were not divorced from their masters. The economic behavior of enslaved people occurred within the context of white management and governance. Among the more important questions addressed within the historiography is whether or not the internal economy served as a means of resistance or accommodation to the slave system. On the one hand, bondpeople developed skills and behaviors that challenged the mastery of the slaveholding class. On the other, participation in the internal economy offered a level of satisfaction that may have allayed long-term dissent and resistance to the system.

Scholars interested in the slaves' internal economy find a wealth of sources available to them. The Works Progress Administration interviewed elderly ex-slaves in the 1930s—these oral histories provide a wealth of information about everyday life, particularly the presence of money in the slave community. Planters' journals reveal management techniques and economic accounts with slaves. Court records detail aspects of underground or illicit economic activity. Travelers' narratives, among them Frederick Law Olmsted's (1822–1903) Cotton Kingdom, provide a useful outsider's perspective on the economic relationships among members of slave-based societies.

Published memoirs, particularly those written by exslaves, have proven significantly useful as they detail the minutiae of everyday life in slavery. Authors such as Charles Ball (b. 1781), Henry Clay Bruce (1836–1902), Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), Lunsford Lane (1803–1863), and many others detail the independent economic activities in which they participated while enslaved.


Ball, Charles. Slavery in the United States. A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina, and Georgia, as a Slave under Various Masters, and Was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, during the Late War. New York: John S. Taylor, 1837.

Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of An American Slave. New York: H. Dayton, 1859.

Berlin, Ira, and Philip Morgan. The Slaves' Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. London: Frank Cass, 1991.

Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Fogel, Robert, and Stanley Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. Boston: Little and Brown, 1974.

Forret, Jeff. "Slaves, Poor Whites, and the Underground Economy of the Rural Carolinas." Journal of Southern History 70, no. 4 (November 2004): 783-824.

Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Hudson, Larry. To Have and To Hold: Slave Work and Family in Antebellum South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

Lockley, Timothy. Lines in the Sand: Race and Class in Low Country Georgia, 1750–1860. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

McDonnell, Lawrence T. "Money Knows No Master: Market Relations and the American Slave Community." In Developing Dixie: Modernization in a Traditional Society, eds. Winfred B. Moore Jr., Joseph F. Tripp, and Lyon G. Tyler. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Mintz, Sidney, and Douglas Hall. "The Origins of the Internal Marketing System." Yale University Publications in Anthropology 57 (1960): 3-26.

Morgan, Philip D. "Work and Culture: The Task System and the Work of Low Country Blacks, 1700-1800." William and Mary Quarterly 4 (1982): 563-599.

Morgan, Philip D. "The Ownership of Property by Slaves in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Low Country." Journal of Southern History 49, no. 3 (1983): 399-420.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Cotton Kingdom: a Traveler's Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slave States: Based upon Three Former Volumes of Journeys and Investigations by the Same Author. New York: Mason Brothers, 1861–1862.

Penningroth, Dylan C. The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

                             Kathleen Hilliard