A Society With Slaves

A review Slave and Free on Virginia’s Eastern Shore by Kirk Mariner (Onancok, VA: Miona Publications, 2014). The book can be purchased by emailing Miona Publications.

One of the ironies that plague the proponents of the “South is about slavery and slavery is about the South” school of history is the lack of knowledge we possess regarding the everyday lives and social interactions of the majority of black Southerners, slave and free, who lived south of the Mason and Dixon.  We are thus left with some illusions regarding slavery rather than the reality of the thing itself as lived by white, black and red, free and slave. The popular imagination tends to associate slavery with vast cotton plantations worked by hundreds of slaves.  The experience of most slaves, however, was on small plantations and farms where five to eight slaves resided and worked side by side with their white masters.  Historians have relied upon the records in state archives and university libraries which are weighted toward larger plantations, legislation regarding slavery, and state court cases.  This “top down approach,” as Mr. Mariner terms it, does reveal a great deal about certain aspects of slavery and slave society, but it also distorts.  One example of this distortion occurs in Kenneth Stampp’s “classic” work on slavery, The Peculiar Institution.  Stampp relied heavily upon the manuscript collections in Southern archives, the vast majority of which originated from large plantations.  This excluded about fifty percent of those slaves who lived on smaller plantations and farms, as well as the ten percent of those slaves who lived in urban areas, and perhaps another five to ten percent of slaves whose labor was rented out.  Gene Genovese’s, Roll, Jordan Roll offered a much needed correction to Stampp’s plantation as concentration camp thesis.  Genovese found a more complex interaction between slave and master, but Genovese’s work also suffered from the same difficulty regarding the narrow range of sources.

As for legal historians who have braved the troubled waters of slave codes in the South, let us say that we find their innocence and naivete charming.  I have long suspected that the slave codes adopted by the Southern states, and even some of the court decisions handed down in cases regarding slavery and slaves, had far more bark than bite and were often unenforceable.  The society in which we live today is far more legalistic than the Antebellum South; custom and tradition in antebellum times often trumped both law and judicial verdict.  Mariner’s fine work suggests that this was often the case in the eastern shore Virginia counties of Accomack and Northampton.

What Mr. Mariner in fact has accomplished in his modest book ranks with some of the past work produced by the Annales school in France and the Cambridge group in Great Britain.  Mariner unapologetic ally seeks to make known the hidden figures of history at all levels, while avoiding the temptation, for the most part, of imposing contemporary modes of understanding and social values upon the historical actors he is studying. His is a fascinating local history from the “bottom up,” surely as good as that produced by such historians as John Demos, who made New England his focal point.  Mariner does enjoy the huge advantage of having access to the county records of Northampton, which may be the oldest and most comprehensive in the United States.  What Mariner does is to make excellent use of what is available to him to draw a picture of how slavery played out as a legal, social, and cultural institution in small communities on an every day basis.  Most importantly, the slave holders of Accomack and Northampton counties were small planters and farmers, so the implications of Mr. Mariner’s book for filling in at least some of the considerable gaps in our knowledge of slavery are intriguing.

Mr. Mariner begins his work on familiar ground already plowed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and T. H. Breen.  He accepts the thesis that Virginia in the seventeenth century was a society with slaves, but would slowly develop into a slave society by the middle of the eighteenth century. Yet, even as the legal status of African American slaves became that of chattel, and the liberty of free African-Americans came under greater and more onerous legal restriction, the reality was far “less fixed, much more muddled and fluid.”  For example: slaves received and owned property granted to them by their masters, slaves often were allowed to hire themselves out and keep a portion of the wages, slave resistance was significant in both passive and more violent forms, and segregation was virtually nonexistent.  But, dear reader, there is more.  To quote Mr. Mariner,

Blacks and whites, slave and free, lived in close proximity, knew each other and dealt with each other on a daily basis.  They regularly mingled together, and sailed together.  They went to church together, drank together, and celebrated together.  They hatched crimes together, and stood together before courts.  Not infrequently they lived in the same houses and slept in the same rooms. (15)

Yet there is still more.  African Americans successfully sued for their freedom in the county and magistrate courts.  (These findings lend support to the recent findings of Professor DeRosa regarding slave standing and litigation successes in local, county, and state law courts.) The suits became more frequent through the eighteenth century.  As a result, Virginia’s law makers passed a law requiring all such suits by African Americans to be in forma pauperis, that is the plaintiff had to employ local counsel and damages awarded could only total one cent.  Nevertheless, the number of such suits increased, and in some cases Mr. Mariner found that the in forma pauperis provision was ignored.

Another example concerning the disjuncture between law and lived reality concerned the Act of 1806 in Virginia regarding free blacks.  The law required that all slaves manumitted after 1806 to leave the Old Dominion in one year or face re-enslavement.  Those slaves manumitted prior to 1806 were required to register this fact with the county clerk.  When the law did go into effect, it was rarely enforced on the local level. Indeed, one Jim Outten was re-enslaved under the Act of 1806 and successfully sued his new master to regain his freedom.  In other cases where the county court in Accomack county indicted and sold back into slavery free African-Americans manumitted post 1806, the sales were in effect paper sales, the free African Americans continued to live as free men.  Nevertheless, many free African Americans did leave the eastern shore of Virginia for Maryland and Delaware, suggesting that while truly being re-enslaved was a remote possibility at best, being legally harassed over one’s free status was a real threat.

The question as to why the white authorities in Accomack and Northampton counties would either ignore or reluctantly and haphazardly enforce state laws regarding slaves and fee African-Americans is intriguing.  As usual the answer is complex.  For instance, the resistance to expelling free African-Americans was in part due to labor shortages in both counties, and in part due to compassion for the plight of free African-Americans.  Another example of the white concern for the plight of African Americans was the purchase by white slaveholders of elderly slaves at estate auctions who were too infirm to work.  The purchase price was usually under one dollar, but the care and maintenance of these folks were assumed by the purchasers who could expect a considerable loss on their “investment.”  Also of interest was the toleration of intermarriage among folks of African, European, and Native American origin in both Accomack and Northampton counties.  Interracial marriage was not infrequent in the 1600s, and not unheard of in the 1700s.  Even in the 1800s, though legal, social, and cultural opposition among whites had increased, there will still cases of intermarriage among free African Americans and whites on the Eastern Shore.

Racial tensions would increase on the Eastern Shore with Nat Turner’s rebellion, and finally deteriorate during and immediately after the Civil War.  One could suggest that this was because whites felt their privileged position threatened by these events, and one would be partially right.  If, however, a social system begins to break down, no matter what injustices may have been present in it, many of the accommodations that ameliorated those injustices often disappear as well, and folks are left with the lesser angels of their nature to untangle the mess.

Mr. Mariner wrote an excellent local history, and in many ways a courageous book, that deserves a much wider reading.  In our day of virtue signaling, he was wise, I suppose, to lodge the obligatory condemnations of slavery, segregation, and inequality.  He was wiser still to go where the sources told him to go, and for this he is to be commended.  Most importantly his work is an important challenge to all historians of slavery.  It is time to make the long trek through the local sources and archives and construct the history of slavery from the bottom up, a la Annales Ecolé.  If the challenge is taken up we may: 1) Recover the important history of most rather than some who were enslaved and the complex web of interactions that characterized societies with slaves. 2) Be darned surprised at what is uncovered as to how the institution of slavery really functioned in the everyday lives of white, black, and red.  And thus we may achieve that most elusive of goods in the historical profession, understanding.

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