Relationships between Masters and Slaves: An Overview

views updated

Relationships between Masters and Slaves: An Overview

Masters and slaves in the Old South were never separate entities. "They belong to us. We also belong to them," wrote Rev. John Adger: "They are divided out among us and mingled up with us and we with them in a thousand ways" (1998, p. 167). Bound by conflict and common purpose both, linked by powerful, insolubly contradictory emotions of love and hate, blacks in bondage and whites who held them in thralldom derived economic and political status, social identity, and cultural and moral imperatives from the struggle they waged against each other. Historians still violently disagree over the character of this conflict, and have not nearly begun to explain its trajectory with regard to time and place. Virtually all, however, agree that the national political conflict that eventuated in civil war in 1861 had its foundation in the ambivalences of the master-slave relation.

Certainly there was nothing distinctly American—much less southern—about that bond before the antebellum era. Slavery is a system of social organization and labor control found in virtually all cultures across the past two millennia. Though commonly employing ritual mechanisms of denigration or social death, there is nothing essentially racial about the peculiar institution as it existed in the American South or elsewhere. Indeed, the forced importation and sale of Africans was resorted to only as a consequence of the failure of white indentured servitude and enslavement of Native Americans. Initially, free, indentured, and enslaved workers of various races labored alongside each other in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake, and even more complex and overlapping social identities emerged in the decades before secession. In general, however, relations between masters and slaves in America between 1620 and 1865 fall into two broad political categories: the so-called warfare state and the regime of paternalist hegemony.

The Warfare State

That naked antagonism should govern the terms of bondage seemed perfectly obvious to both blacks and whites throughout the colonial era. Southern planters were economic men-on-the-make, risking heavily in hopes of turning big profits fast. Treatment of slaves necessarily involved a complex cost-benefit analysis, shaped both by considerations of bondpeople as social capital and tokens of honor, and by pragmatic political calculations. Working hands hard in the fields and cutting costs to near subsistence level promised rich rewards. But pushing slaves too hard might send them over the brink into violence and rebellion. Legal codes and daily practice reflected colonial planters' unrelenting search for the limits to their mastery, hemming in black self-activity, curbing access to the Gospel, and complicating private projects of emancipation. Again and again, overlords fell back on the tools of open violence to secure subservience, beating and mutilating slaves, raping and selling them, and murdering their human chattel in a dozen legal and horrifying fashions.

Slave conspiracies, uprisings, and acts of day-to-day resistance punctuated early American history, culminating in the Stono revolt in South Carolina in 1739 and the plot—real or imagined—to burn New York in 1741. Hopeful blacks confounded white Revolutionary ideology during the War of Independence by insisting that any struggle for freedom and sovereignty necessarily involved them as well as their owners. Freedpeople from Crispus Attucks (c. 1723–1770) onward played an important, if marginalized, role in the patriot cause. Conversely, tens of thousands of enslaved blacks took heed of Lord Dunmore's Proclamation (1775), which offered freedom to slaves who joined Dunmore's army (although after his retreat, he resold them back into servitude). The Declaration of Independence itself, silent on slavery's place in the new republic it created, reflected the internal divisions and indecision within the planter class and its northern allies about how best to secure bondpeople to "good and faithful" labor. Increasingly, worried masters described their human chattel as the "Jacobins of the country," bent on murderous self-liberation. They sought to defeat such schemes through rigorous laws, harsh treatment, and fierce reprisals. Like ruling classes everywhere, however, slaveholders fretted whether the path of safety was one of tighter discipline or of gradual amelioration. When bondpeople in Haiti rose up in bloody—and successful—revolution in the 1790s, the days of the American slaveholding republic looked numbered as well. As Thomas Jefferson put the problem, Americans held the "wolf" of slavery "by the ears," and seemed unable either to hold it for long or to let it go.

Republican fears of creeping tyranny and a seemingly inevitable race war culminated in a two-pronged scheme to restrict slavery politically and geographically, eradicating it across the course of generations. From 1787 to 1819, state and federal lawmakers steadily barred slavery from Western territories and newly admitted states, simultaneously enacting provisions for gradual emancipation of bondpeople in the northern states. Equally important, they blocked access to fresh importations of Africans by closing the transatlantic slave trade to America after 1800 (though South Carolinian protests gained their state congressional dispensation to import slaves until 1808). Both parts of this strategy were predicated on whites' realistic calculation that the warfare state that existed eternally between masters and slaves could be reined in for a time, but never finally mitigated. With no more blacks making the Middle Passage, slavery's ranks would gradually dwindle—all slave populations had shown a steady tendency to decline over time without fresh imports—, its territory would shrink, and eventually, effortlessly, bondage would disappear from the American republic.

The terrible irony was that, across the next three generations, slavery did not die. On the contrary, it exploded, both territorially and demographically. Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase of 1803 vaulted the peculiar institution across the Mississippi River and laid the basis for five decades of sectional controversy. More astounding still, between 1800 and 1860, the number of enslaved blacks in the United States did not dwindle—it quadrupled, from 1 to 4 million souls, outpacing the rate of population increase among whites and free blacks both. The sources of this remarkable, perplexing turn of events remain understudied, but leading slavery scholars to attribute it to changes in the political character of the master-slave relation itself, a shift from the so-called warfare state to what historian Eugene Genovese has called an ideology of paternalism.


Whereas colonial slavery essentially depended on the ability to beat blacks into submission, paternalism relied upon the political and psychological power of the blow that did not fall. Pre-revolutionary overlords had been tyrants in the truest sense, accepting—and demonstrating—few or no limits to their terrifying power. For eighteenth-century elites, steady profits and obedient labor, white and black, had provided ethic enough to justify this brutal course of action. By perhaps 1820, however, Anglo-American ruling classes had increasingly turned toward abstract equations of right, duty, and submission that denied class antagonism between rich and poor, slave and free, and described a harmonious—if rigorous—interaction that pleased God and served all. "That an inscrutable Providence will eventually work out [the slave's] moral elevation, through the agency of the white man, I have not a doubt," one master told the Southern Cultivator; "but it must be done by 'moral suasion,' coupled with a smart sprinkling of that great civilizer—the cow hide" (Hurricane 1860, p. 276). There were ethical limits to what overlords and underlings might demand from each other, a paternalist bargain of rewards and punishments, constantly renegotiated, that seized and surrendered measures of freedom in exchange for mites of order and security.

In justifying themselves to themselves, however, masters accorded slaves an elevated status and an enlarged sphere of rights and customs. Blacks were not brutes to be compelled and restrained by vigilance and violence, southerners now declared: They existed interdependently with their overlords, combining their brawn with the master's brain—and heart—to the mutual benefit of all. The slave owed the master faithful labor and due submission under this scheme; the master provided all the gifts of law, material security, moral guidance, and managerial direction. Just as the bondman might err in a score of ways, including sloth, sauciness, willful obtuseness, or "drapetomania" (the supposed tendency of blacks to run away), masters might wrongly give way to tyrannous passions or an equally egregious spirit of inconsistent leniency. Though never realized in practice, and spelled out only in piecemeal fashion in political, agricultural, and religious documents of the antebellum era, paternalism held both master and man to a doctrine of reciprocal rights and duties.

Paternalism became pervasive especially in the seaboard South and on smaller slaveholding units where such personalism was unavoidable, not simply because of the material prosperity it generated. Cotton's kingdom made slaveholders incomparably the richest segment of the American ruling class, then or thereafter. It also materially improved the lives of slaves themselves over their colonial counterparts, as far as surviving evidence shows. Slave houses became more substantial and often larger. Black diets improved. Family units grew in size and complexity, marriages were more frequently respected, and many slaves managed to acquire skills, property, and even a smattering of education. Whites on occasion still betrayed jittery nerves about the possibility of massive slave revolt, but with the passage of time those fears came to seem increasingly unrealistic, not least because nothing more than the most disorganized, localized, and suicidal risings ever took place.

The success of paternalism as a political strategy, the failure of blacks to emancipate themselves through violence in the antebellum era, and the improvement of blacks' material lives under antebellum slavery all derive finally from the judicious and unrelenting struggle over the rightful limits of the masters' power. When planters portrayed themselves as good masters, blacks struggled to hold them to that ideal. In doing so, however, they were compelled to identify with the master, performing in rough outline the characteristics of the good slave. By a constant work of artifice, negotiation, bluff, and self-deception, masters and slaves struggled for hegemonic control of day-to-day life in the antebellum South.

It is inevitable and obvious that this political coupling of love and hate—real, feigned, self-contradictory, and half-realized—created enormous strife, tension, and torment among and between enslaved blacks and enslaving whites. Historians have done much to ponder—and avoid pondering—just what the master-slave relation cost Americans and how it shaped generations to come. For Ulrich Phillips, a pioneer of modern slavery studies, bondage was usually mild and educative for blacks; it was white masters who were truly liberated by emancipation. Writing forty years later, Kenneth Stampp accentuated the enduring brutality of slavery, suggesting that nothing like a paternalist bargain was ever played out in practical terms. Indeed, writers such as Stanley Elkins and Willie Lee Rose chimed in, the infantilization Phillips described and the cruelty Stampp discovered were two sides of the same coin: Slavery had been more horrific than elites let on, and the consequences left blacks scarred, socially, culturally, and psychologically, long after emancipation. In response to this damning—and depressing—indictment, an outraged circle of white and black liberal researchers described how slaves avoided cultural damage by creating their own world of the slave community beyond the master's control, where a countervailing ethos reigned from sundown to sunup. Most complex of all has been Genovese's view, detailed in Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), that paternalism did spread broadly across the South by the 1850s, and that it exacted perilous costs and yielded ambiguous benefits to both blacks and whites, ultimately leading to secession and civil war.

Nothing like consensus currently exists among scholars on these questions, and much closer consideration of the warfare state, paternalism, and the transition between the two—if such indeed took place—is needed. Beyond these broad considerations, closer attention to how the master-slave relation was shaped by region, crop choice, farm unit size, race, gender, market access, and many other factors will focus research in years to come. Likewise, greater attention to questions of attachment and loss generated by object-relations theorists, kinship and property considered by anthropologists, and the formation of social movements, debated by political scientists and sociologists, will enrich discussion. Despite a century of research, scholarly understanding of the master-slave relation, its meanings, changes, and consequences, remains in its infancy.


Adger, John B. My Life and Times, 1810–1899 [1899]. Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Company, 1998.

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

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Slaveholders' Dilemma: Freedom and Progress in Southern Conservative Thought, 1820–1860. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Hurricane. "The Negro and His Management." Southern Cultivator 17 (1860): 276.

Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: D. Appleton, 1918.

Rose, Willie Lee. Slavery and Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Vintage, 1956.

                              Lawrence T. McDonnell

About this article

Relationships between Masters and Slaves: An Overview

Updated About content Print Article