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Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South

Author(s):Scarborough, William Kauffman
Reviewer(s):Gudmestad, Robert

Published by EH.NET (March 2004)

William Kauffman Scarborough, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xviii + 521 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-2882-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Robert Gudmestad, Department of History, Southwest Baptist University.

William K. Scarborough’s book, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South is the result of many years of labor, research, and thought. Scarborough, professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi, has written about plantation overseers and edited the diaries of William S. Ruffin, so this volume is a culmination of a distinguished scholarly career. The book is an interesting and important step towards understanding the world-view of elite slaveholders.

Scarborough’s methodology is deceptively simple, but yields impressive results. He examined the 1850 and 1860 census records to better determine slave ownership in the Old South. Scarborough set his threshold at 250 slaves, meaning that there were 338 planters in his sample. In 1860, by my calculation, these few planters owned a total of 104,327 slaves, or 2.6% of the total in the United States (pp.456-84). Probably one third of these elite slaveowners had holdings in more than one state and almost all owned property in more than one county. Historians have long known that the large planters had property in different areas, but Scarborough’s work reveals that it was common for planters to own property in two or more states. Edward Lloyd IV of Maryland, for instance, also operated plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. It appears that absentee plantation management was more prevalent than previously imagined.

The book also calls into question traditional definitions of who were planters and, more importantly, the distribution of slaves. John A. Quitman owned slaves on four different properties, distributing them in groups of 46, 11, 134, and 85. Using the traditional approach of defining a plantation at 20 slaves leaves Quitman as representing two different groups. Since most planters in this book owned slaves in more than one place, they would be counted multiple times in determining the percentage of white slaveholders. One wonders how many southerners who owned between, say, 50 and 250 slaves held them in disparate areas. Much further research is necessary, but uncorrected numbers might overstate the percentage of slaveholders and underestimate the concentration of slaves.

Once Scarborough quantified the information, he ransacked archives and libraries to examine their personal papers. The research is impressive, indeed. A reading of the sources led Scarborough to describe various aspects of elite life, including religious characteristics, gender relations, plantation management, slave labor, non-agricultural investments, political attitudes, attitudes toward secession and Civil War, and post-war adjustment. Historians interested in these topics will find much useful information.

This review will be selective in topics discussed, trying to emphasize material that would be of interest to the readers of EH.Net. What emerges clearly from Scarborough’s description is that these men and women constructed commercial agrarian empires. They exhibited a high degree of skill, and persevered in their worldly pursuits. The means to this end varied greatly. Some inherited their fortunes, others married well, and many relied on hard work and good fortune. While there was no “typical” route to wealth, the example of David Hunt might suffice. He moved to Natchez from New Jersey. There he worked in a mercantile firm and married into a wealthy family. Hunt then carefully managed several agricultural properties and owned around 600 slaves in the 1850s (p. 128).

Many of these planters quickly diversified their wealth. At least twenty percent speculated in land, bought shares of bank stock, or invested in commercial empires. These people clearly saw ownership of slaves as the primary means of wealth but also recognized the need to find other avenues to riches. Stephen Duncan provides an interesting case study. The Natchez nabob bought government bonds that yielded an annual income of $12,600 in the late 1850s. His portfolio also included northern railroad stocks and securities. He was worth $2 million in 1855 (pp. 235-7). Men such as Duncan were closely tied to the credit markets of the northeast and might have had as much in common with the investment bankers in New York as they did with the yeomen farmers in the rural South. These close economic ties were imperiled by the Civil War and it is instructive that a significant portion of the elite slaveholders opposed secession. Elites near Natchez in particular never committed themselves to the war effort. As Scarborough writes, for Josiah Winchester, “the war was merely an annoying distraction” (p. 341). More commonly, though, these planters supported the war. About eleven percent of Scarborough’s sample shouldered muskets while almost thirty percent of the families in the study sent men to the Confederate Army (pp. 317-8).

Early in the book, Scarborough certainly hints at the capitalistic orientation of these planters, but he develops this idea most fully in the book’s last chapter. The elite slaveholders “were clearly capitalists” (p. 409). Scarborough cuts to the heart of the tiresome debate over the orientation of the South by making the sensible conclusion to describe capitalism as a system where individuals invest capital in hopes of generating a return. At the same time, Scarborough contends the elite planters were paternalistic in the sense that they believed in some duties owed to their slaves. EH.Net readers should find this discussion profitable and thought provoking.

The book also engages in historical debate. Specific historians are mentioned in the text and Scarborough clarifies his thoughts in the footnotes. The book, for instance, aligns itself with the interpretation of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese while disagreeing with Catherine Clinton [1]. Scarborough bluntly writes, “Slaves in the antebellum South were oppressed; the wives and daughters of those who owned them were not” (p. 91).

Scarborough has written an important book and the following thoughts seem like mere carping. The chapter describing slaves’ lives and work is the weakest in the book. Scarborough has virtually no African-American sources. One would expect that material in the WPA narratives could have been utilized here. Scarborough believes that “some scholars” have exaggerated the extent to which market forces destroyed slave families, and specifically takes Michael Tadman and William Dusinberre to task [2]. He introduces a series of anecdotes to show that elite slaveholders did have some regard for the slave family. His point is well taken, but a more nuanced discussion might have been helpful here because Scarborough provides no examples of elite slaveholders who separated families. They surely exist, especially given the fact that one, Rice C. Ballard, made his fortune as an interstate slave trader. Scarborough is also silent on interesting interpretative matters such as the culture of honor and how elite planters related to yeomen and small slaveholders.

Masters of the Big House is an interesting book that will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the South in the final two decades prior to the Civil War. It is well researched, engages in scholarly debate, and has much to say about the Old South.

[1] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, (Chapel Hill, 1988); and Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York, 1982).

[2] Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South, (Madison, 1989); and William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, (New York, 1996).

Robert Gudmestad is an Assistant Professor of History at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri. LSU Press recently published his Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. He is currently writing a book about the influence of steamboats on the Mississippi River valley.

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