Those implicated in slavery, the "peculiar institution," daily wrestled with its many contradictions. In no area was this more apparent than the realm of the internal economy. Slaves, as legal chattel, could not, logically, hold chattel themselves. Yet, evidence shows that slaves went to sometimes extraordinary lengths to acquire and accumulate cash and property.
Though no law sanctioned slaves' economic activity, the statutes themselves implicitly acknowledged its existence. In the United States, as the antebellum period progressed, legislation appeared that explicitly prohibited the ownership of certain types of property. Some of these prohibitions were obvious: Slaves could not possess firearms, for example, for fear of resistance and insurrection. Similarly, most areas prohibited slaves' ownership of boats and horses, as they might facilitate running away. Still other codes included sumptuary legislation, which regulated the type of clothing worn by slaves. But these legal restrictions often fell before local custom, and historians have found that slaveholders consented and often promoted property accumulation by their charges.
The amount of property slaves were able to accumulate depended greatly on the type of labor system operated by their master and the skills held by the individual slave. By and large, slaves' ability to accumulate property was based on an economy of time—the more time slaves spent away from labor for their master, the more time they could devote to productive activity. For that reason, bondpeople engaged in task work, especially in the Low Country regions of South Carolina and Georgia, tended to accumulate more property than those who worked as gang laborers or house servants. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) noted the taxing but flexible nature of the task system while traveling through South Carolina: "In the woods I saw a negro by a fire, while it was still night, shaving shingles very industriously…. No doubt he was a slave, working by task, and of his own accord at night, that he might have the more daylight for his own purposes" (1861–1862, p.215).
Though Olmsted did not speculate on the "purposes" to which the South Carolina slave would devote himself during the day, his narrative details the many ways in which bond people put their time to economic activity. Though slaves might accumulate property by inheritance from other slaves or gifts from their masters, most bond people accumulated property via productive money-earning activity. For example, many slaves planted personal gardens or raised chickens, often selling excess produce, eggs, and fowl. Others sold baskets or other handmade goods. Still others sold their time, hiring themselves for wages as either agricultural labors or skilled tradesmen.
Bondpeople spent their money, according to accounts from the early nineteenth century, on both "necessities" and "luxuries," the definitions of which varied according to individual tastes and desires. In Slavery in the United States, Charles Ball explained this process of consumption and property accumulation:
The money procured by these, and various other means, which I shall explain hereafter, is laid out by the slaves in purchasing such little articles of necessity or luxury, as it enables them to procure. A part is disbursed in payment for sugar, molasses, and sometimes a few pounds of coffee, for the use of the family; another part is laid out for clothes for winter; and no inconsiderable portion of his pittance is squandered away by the misguided slave for tobacco, and an occasional bottle of rum. Tobacco is deemed so indispensable to comfort, nay to existence that hunger and nakedness are patiently endured to enable the slave to indulge in this highest of enjoyments (1853, pp. 190-191).
For some bondpeople, especially those who purchased items such as foodstuffs, liquor, or tobacco, the process of property accumulation was slow—immediate needs, wants, and desires took precedence over longterm property accrual. Others, however, laid aside money, looking for ways to increase wealth for themselves and their families. The historian Philip Morgan examined internal economies in Low Country South Carolina and Georgia and noted that bondpeople there took advantage of the flexible nature of the task system to accumulate significant amounts of property such as cattle, horses, and even carts and carriages (Morgan 1983, pp. 399-420). Still others put off even these more durable investments in hopes of accumulating enough to acquire yet more valuable pieces of "property—their own bodies. Lunsford Lane, for example, accumulated few luxuries, instead dedicating himself to acquiring enough wealth to purchase his freedom. He explained this process to the readers of his narrative:
Fearful that the accumulation of so much money might prove disastrous to my hopes, should it be known, I deemed it politic, during all this time, to go shabbily dressed, and to appear as poor as possible, but to pay my mistress for my services promptly. My funds I kept hid, never venturing to lend or invest a penny in anything likely to create suspicion; nor did I let anyone but my wife know that I was making any. (1845, p. 48)
Property accumulation via participation in the internal economy was a double-edged sword for both slaves and masters. Slaves could vastly improve the material quality of their bonded lives, and in so doing, develop a sense of pride and accomplishment as they watched the accumulation of the fruits of their labor. Slaveholders were wary of the sense of independence this sort of economic activity engendered, but recognized that those with significant property interests were bound more tightly to their plantations.
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.
Lane, Lunsford. The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C., Embracing an Account of His Early Life, the Redemption by Purchase of Himself and Family from Slavery, and His Banishment from the Place of His Birth for the Crime of Wearing a Colored Skin. Boston: Hewes and Watson, 1845.
Morgan, Philip D. "The Ownership of Property by Slaves in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Lowcountry." Journal of Southern History 49, no. 3 (1983): 399-420.
Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller'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.