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Slaves For Hire: Renting Enslaved Laborers in Antebellum Virginia

Author(s):Zaborney, John J.
Reviewer(s):Bourne, Jenny

Published by EH.Net (March 2013)

John J. Zaborney, Slaves For Hire: Renting Enslaved Laborers in Antebellum Virginia.? Baton Rouge, LA:? Louisiana State University Press, 2012.? xi + 218 pp. $42.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8071-4512-8

Reviewed for EH.Net by Jenny Bourne, Department of Economics, Carleton College.

John Zaborney has sifted through numerous secondary and primary sources — including letters, account books, diaries, and court records — to craft a description of slave hiring in antebellum Virginia. Although he claims to provide a “picture … radically different from any yet advanced” (p. 5), his contribution is actually a bit more modest. What the book does well is to offer specific examples of hiring practices; where it falls short is in making sweeping pronouncements with little backing evidence.

The book consists of seven confusingly titled chapters. Chapter 4 (Hired Slaves, Whites, and Slavery) seems ill-distinguished from Chapter 5 (White Ladies, White Men, Masters All: Slave Hiring and White Society), for example, and Chapter 7 (Slave Hiring and Slavery) may as well not have a title. I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly, but the vagueness of the chapter titles signals something about the loosey-goosey nature of this book.

Throughout, Zaborney argues that the ubiquity of slave hiring in Virginia strengthened white solidarity and made the state unique (pp. 3, 5, 7, 8, 161, 165, and elsewhere). Yet he fails to substantiate his claims. Mightn’t free laborers in fact have resented the competition, creating schisms among whites? Whites at the Tredegar Iron Works went out on their first strike in 1847 to protest the use of hired slaves, for instance. And what made Virginia’s hiring practices so special? Perhaps they were, but Zaborney doesn’t really show us.

Zaborney also states that the frequency of slave hiring kept slaves in-state rather than sold southward. OK, but what I’d like to know is exactly how this internal market worked to keep so many slaves in old Virginny. Did plantations specialize in crops with different harvest schedules, or did slaveowners agree to stagger their planting or butchering or building? After all, a hiring market requires two sides.

Speaking of markets, Zaborney seems at least a little unaware of the role of prices. He claims that hiring offered “additional benefits” to slaveowners because hirers paid for clothing and medical bills (pp. 14-15). Presumably, however, the hire price would have been larger absent these provisions. A more interesting question is why parties agreed to this sort of arrangement — was it a moral hazard/monitoring cost issue, perhaps? Zaborney also suggests that pregnant women were often hired out because they had “diminished labor capacities and consequent increased expense” (p. 29), but he then acknowledges that they also went for a lower price. Surely this is just an example of arbitrage at work. Intriguingly, Zaborney claims that pregnancy actually increased a female slave’s likelihood of being hired out (p. 30), although he furnishes no empirical evidence.

At times, Zaborney seems to contradict himself. Chapter 3 emphasizes the plight of slaves who were hired out to different people each year (or even more frequently), robbing them of continued relationships with family and friends. Yet Chapter 5 states that “white solidarity made repeat hirings [to the same hirers over a period of years] pervasive.” Which was it? I’m sure both occurred, but some attempt to quantify relative importance could help with context. Lack of quantification also leads to imprecise statements: “Virginia white men spent much of their time hiring out slaves for their female relatives” (p. 101). How much Or “Many hired out their slaves to others in order to render them more tractable in the future” (p. 151). How many?

Zaborney devotes a chapter (Chapter 2) to the hiring of female slaves. This is a nice touch, as much of what has been written about slave hiring focuses on men. He also injects various comments about gender roles in the South, referring to slave hiring days as “hubs of white manhood” (p. 99) where no woman showed her face. Some of these comments are a little hard to swallow: when John Grant hired two slave women as house servants, this supposedly “enabled Grant to underscore his own manhood by enhancing his wife’s ladyhood while it also conferred mastery upon them both” (p. 119). And, in referring to the presence of black midwives at parturition time in the big house, Zaborney says that “black and white women, though divided by their status as free and slave, often experienced one of womens’ [sic] most wonderful life events together” (p. 33). But I?ll bet not too many white women showed up when a black slave gave birth.

Zaborney does offer intriguing details about how slave hiring bonds worked (pp. 12-13, 22-24). I was fascinated to hear that these circulated as a form of currency (p. 25), although I would like to know how prevalent this was. And the description of the hiring-out practices of the Briery Presbyterian Church (pp. 47-57) is truly rich. Although a minority of the congregation objected to the disruption of families that were hired in different places each year — and the subsequent deleterious effects on monogamy among slaves — the majority hard-headedly argued to continue this profitable practice rather than selling the church’s slaves and gaining less.

In short, Zaborney includes some good examples of slave hiring in antebellum Virginia in his book. How encompassing are they? Hard to tell: no overarching description of data sources or data collection methods appears. Nor does any mention of the legal history literature regarding slave hiring. And, although Zaborney mentions the fine work of Claudia Goldin and lists one of Robert Fogel’s books as a secondary source, he neglects most of the economic history literature in this area as well. Zaborney has a nice contribution to the literature on slave hiring, but it is something that complements the work of others rather than upending it.


Jenny Bourne is Professor of Economics, Carleton College, Northfield, MN, Her recent publications include “New Wine in an Old Bottle: How Minnesota’s Receivership Statute Can Promote Both Efficiency and Equity,” Hamline Law Review; “Double Take: Abolition and The Size of Transferred Property Rights,” U.S. Capitol Historical Society Paper; and “The Economic History of Slavery,” Routledge Handbook of Modern Economic History. Current work includes a book manuscript entitled In Essentials, Unity: An Economic History of the Granger Movement.

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