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Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South

Author(s):Martin, Jonathan D.
Reviewer(s):Pritchett, Jonathan B.

Published by EH.NET (September 2006)

Jonathan D. Martin, Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 237 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-674-01149-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan B. Pritchett, Department of Economics, Tulane University.

For an economist, the owners’ attempts to master or control their slaves are examples of the principal-agent problem. In order to maximize economic profit, owners constructed elaborate systems of monitoring, punishments and rewards (see, for example, Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross and the ensuing literature). For many owners, control required the threatened use of force. Southern society placed very few restrictions on the owner’s right to coerce labor from his slaves. As interpreted by the courts, such absolute mastery was only restrained by the owner’s self interest. Coercion through harsh punishments risked possible injury to the slaves, thus reducing the market value of the owner’s property.

Like owners, renters sought the absolute mastery of their slaves. Renters’ absolute mastery was not recognized by the courts, however, because they lacked the owner’s self interest when it came to the protection of slaves as property. The title of Jonathan D. Martin’s book, Divided Mastery, refers to the conflict of interests between owners, renters, and slaves. Although Martin’s book is a comprehensive survey on slave hiring in the American South, “the story about hiring is, at bottom, one about conflict” (p. 11).

Chapter 2, entitled “A Blessing and a Curse,” is written from the viewpoint of the hired slaves. Hiring was a curse because it threatened the separation of families, but it was also a blessing because slaves could exploit the conflict of interests between the owner and the renter. Slaves were empowered by their ability to modify the rental contract, by refusing to work for some renters or by threatening to run away.

The owner’s views are considered in Chapter 3. Although owners expressed many different reasons for hiring out their slaves, money was the most important. “Worth, values, profit, and expense — these were the criteria by which slaveholders judged their slaves. As a result, slaves and owners approached each other on ground thoroughly shaped by the market, in particular by the potential returns for owners in the hiring market” (p. 86). In addition to prompt payment, owners wanted renters who would protect the property value of their slaves. Although the renter’s reputation was important, many owners required legal contracts that specified the treatment of their slaves.

Although renters sought absolute mastery, owners placed checks on the use and treatment of their slaves. Despite these limitations, Martin argues in Chapter 4 that renters still preferred hired slaves to free labor. Renting gave poor Southern whites an “enticing taste of mastery” and could change “an individual’s social and personal identities overnight” (pp. 11, 109). Apparently Martin attributes conspicuous consumption to the renters of slaves.

Disputes over hiring contracts are discussed in Chapter 5. In general, the courts restricted the absolute mastery of renters for fear such punishments would violate the property rights of owners. Renters had the right to enforce obedience by moderate correction but the difference between prudent actions and abuse was ill defined. Especially troublesome was the lack of recognized witnesses of the renters’ actions. Although slaves could not serve as witnesses in a court of law, their actions could be used to infer abusive behavior by a renter. For example, a rented slave who ran back to his owner might be taken as evidence of brutal treatment by the renter (p. 156). Consequently, a slave’s threat of running away might have deterred some of the most abusive behavior by renters.

Chapter 6 addresses self hire, where the slave promised payment to his owner in exchange for greater independence. Because self hires often lived on their own, with little supervision from their owners, this arrangement is sometimes referred to as a form of quasi freedom. But as Martin stresses, self hires faced constant threats and hardships — the slaves were under the constant pressure to acquire money for their owners; they were exploited by their costumers; and threatened by white workers fearing competition. According to Martin, self hires were just another form of slavery rather than a form of quasi freedom.

According to Martin, historians have paid little attention to the practice of slave hiring. This “neglect is no doubt due in part to scholarly suspicion that slave hiring was merely one of the ‘business’ aspects of slavery, an insipid subject that reflects only on the viability and profitability of the system” (p. 8). Instead, Martin promises to “take the story of slave hiring beyond the basic economics of supply and demand” (p. 9). Despite his promises, Martin could have benefited from some basic economic analysis. For example, Martin calculates a high rate of return from hiring out slaves and concludes that it was lucrative (p. 80). A high rate of return from hiring suggests that owners demanded compensation for risking their slaves with others. In addition, Martin speculates that the scale of slave hiring was nothing short of monumental (p. 8). Consequently, the conflict of interests between owners and renters was not large enough to prevent the operation of this market.

Jonathan B. Pritchett is the author of “Quantitative Estimates of the United States Interregional Slave Trade, 1820-1860,” Journal of Economic History, 61 (June 2001): 467-75.

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century