Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

Slave Labor Previous Next
Digital History ID 457



It is a mistake to think that slave labor was simply unskilled brutish work. Cultivation of cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar requires careful, painstaking effort. On larger plantations, masters relied on slave carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, tanners, tailors, butchers, masons, coopers, cabinet makers, metal workers, and silversmiths. Large numbers also worked as boatmen, waiters, cooks, drivers, housemaids, spinners, and weavers. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson worked slave women in a small textile mill and a nail-making factory.

For the vast majority of slaves, however, slavery meant back?breaking field work, planting, cultivating, and harvesting cotton, hemp, rice, tobacco, or sugar cane. On a typical plantation, slaves worked ten or more hours a day, "from day clean to first dark," six days a week, with only the Sabbath off. At planting or harvesting time, planters required slaves to stay in the fields 15 or 16 hours a day. When they were not raising a cash crop, slaves grew other crops, such as corn or potatoes; cared for livestock; and cleared fields, cut wood, repaired buildings and fences.

On cotton, sugar, and tobacco plantations, slaves worked together in gangs under the supervision of a supervisor or a driver. On many rice and hemp plantations and the coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia, slaveowners adopted the task system. Slaves had specific daily work assignments, and after they completed their tasks, their time was their own.

There is a tendency to think of slavery as an economically backward and inefficient institution. But far from being an economic anachronism, recent research has shown that slavery was highly productive precisely because slaves could be forced to work far longer hours than free workers. During the peak cotton picking or sugar harvesting seasons, 18 hour days were common.

Sugar plantations were the most innovative economic unit of their time in terms of labor management and organization. They were the first true factories in the world and anticipated the assembly line and the factory system in their reliance on such as close supervision and division of tasks.

Older or physically handicapped slaves were put to work in cloth houses, spinning cotton, weaving cloth, and making clothes. Altogether, masters forced two?thirds of all slaves to work??twice the labor force participation rate among the free population, reflecting the high proportion of children, women, and the elderly toiling in cotton or rice fields.

Because slaves had no direct incentive to work hard, slaveowners combined harsh penalties with positive incentives. Some masters denied passes to disobedient slaves. Other confined recalcitrant slaves to private jails. Chains and shackles were widely used to control runaways. Whipping was a key part of plantation discipline. On one Louisiana plantation, a slave was lashed every four-and-a-half days.

But physical pain was not enough to elicit hard work. To stimulate productivity, some masters gave slaves small garden plots and permitted them to sell their produce. Others distributed gifts of food or money at the end of the year. Still other planters awarded prizes, holidays, and year-end bonuses to particularly productive slaves.

Not all slaves were field hands. During the 1850s, half a million slaves lived in southern towns and cities, where they worked in textile mills, iron works, tobacco factories, laundries, and shipyards. Others slaves labored as lumberjacks, as deckhands on riverboats, and in sawmills, gristmills, and quarries. Many slaves were engaged in construction of roads and railroads. Even on plantations not all slaves were menial laborers. About 250,000 were craftsmen such as blacksmiths, shoemakers, or carpenters or held domestic posts such as coachmen or house servants.

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