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March 23, 2012


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Can we confidently say that "many" enslaved people were paid overtime? Of course the phenomenon of giving slaves gratuities probably existed from the beginning. But how does this change the way we think of slavery?

Brian Sawers

I think we can say "many" with confidence. In my research, I came across examples of payments in every state and in many occupations. The high court in both Carolinas acknowledged the practice, while Louisiana's high court wrote:

"According to the provisions of law, slaves are entitled to the produce of their labor on Sunday; even the master is bound to remunerate them, if he employs them. He, therefore, who does not require their services on that day, and does not retain them on his plantation, impliedly permits them to earn money by their labor, and cannot complain of their being employed by his neighbors." Rice v. Cade, 10 La. 288, 294-5 (1836).

Leased slaves generally received a weekly bonus, if they weren't paid a piece-rate. Slaves growing rice worked under a task system, where completing more than the quota earned a reward. Even slaves growing cotton, the classic gang labor crop, received rewards for working longer than usual during the harvest.

Dylan C. Penningroth, Claims of Kinfolk (2003) provides a good summary of the historical research.

But, how does this practice change how we think about slavery? Firstly, chattel slavery in the United States is a complicated institution. Evil, but complicated.

Secondly, it is more evidence of the hard-fought, but limited, autonomy that enslaved people negotiated from their masters. Penningroth's book also describes the varied ways in which enslaved people operated autonomously in markets, growing and marketing crops, making and selling crafts.

Thirdly, between overtime and the small-scale production, slaves already had the skills to prosper independently in a market economy in 1865. Together, this suggests that the slow economic progress after emancipation cannot be explained by slavery alone, but indicates a persistent effort by white government and business to thwart black prosperity.


The things you cite do not necessarily add up to "many". Where are the numbers? Saying that you came across examples in every state does not tell us what percentages of the enslaved population received pay.

Pick a time period, say just before the Civil War, the roughly 4 million slaves in the US, how many would you say we're getting paid?

Brian Sawers

If one expects that no slave would be paid, then many is appropriate to describe even a minority.

Of the roughly 4 million slaves in 1860, 2 million grew cotton, 1 million grew other crops, and another million worked in domestic service, industry, forestry, mining, and transportation.

Some slaves growing cotton received "over-wages" or bonuses, but I have not seen any figures on what share.

Of the 1 million who grew other crops, at least 125,000 grew rice. All rice was grown under the task system, which allowed slaves either to produce for themselves or complete a second task for which they would be paid.

Forestry, mining, and industry were organized similarly to the task system, with quotas and "over-wages" for exceeding the quota. For slaves in domestic service and transportation, some portion received pay, but I have not seen a figure.

Only slaves who hired their own time would be paid wages like a free worker. Even in Charleston and New Orleans, I think few slaves hired their own time.

Assuming no slave in agriculture (except rice) received anything, but 3/4 of those working in other jobs did, still almost a quarter of the entire population received overtime or a bonus.

Alternately, consider Louisiana, where 331,000 slaves had a legal right to their earnings on Sunday, which is roughly 8 percent of entire enslaved population.


I disagree emphatically with your first statement. Defining " many" by the ignorance of people, rather than what it means in real numerical terms is problematic. It focuses on the experiences of people today at the expense of the lived experiences of the people in the past.

Having a right to earnings in Sunday does not translate into having earnings on Sunday. Where are the figures?


Without a citation, or empirical evidence, I, too, find the conclusion problematic - perhaps more importantly, though, I find the conclusion anachronistic. There is nothing about a slave labor system that suggests a "fair wage" or a "work week" or an "hours cap" that would make "overtime" a reasonable characterization of the practices described here. Also, if Olmstead is the only person using the term "over-wages", I have no confidence that anyone else (least of all, enslaved men and women) perceived of the system described as one which paid out "bonuses."


To be clear, I am not saying that work could not be done that would establish that many slaves were paid in some way. It is just that I do not think the existence of a right, even if enunciated in a case, tells us that all the people who had the "right" got to exercise it.


I guess it is unavoidable that people go into a tizzy whenever slavery is mentioned, but arguing over the fine-grained definition of "many" is a little ridiculous. Regardless of the precise number, the finding is really interesting because, prior to this, I would have thought a "paid slave" was an oxymoron. I find the hostile tone of the comments inexplicable except as a knee-jerk reaction against anything that might put slaveholders in a better light. But I do not read Brian as a closeted slavery apologist, and I don't think anybody will suddenly start thinking that slavery was OK, or even a little less evil, just because slaveholders somehow figured out that no carrot and all stick was an inefficient way to get work out of people.


No, it is not ridiculous. It was a call for some degree of clarity in making claims that involve numbers. To say that "many" is derived from the fact that some people today did not know that any slaves ever got paid struck me as odd. My comments were meant to be forceful rather than hostile. I do not think it possible to put slaveholders and slavery in a better light. But I am aware that there are people who do.

I do not at all think Prof. Sawer an apologist for slavery. I just balked at the notion of deriving numbers out of an announced right to have something.


Thanks for the additional works. I do know that enslaved people were sometimes paid for work. I have written about that myself. I also know the works you are citing. But slavery spanned several centuries, and involved millions of people. It could be merely semantic, but I am still wondering whether what was happening at Buffalo Forge and other places amount to "many" in relationship to the total numbers of enslaved people. And the books you cite are based upon records from these establishments. The information about Louisiana, for example, seems more speculative --at least in terms of real numbers.


AGR, would it be more satisfactory to say "some" slaves were paid? I don't think that really undermines Brian's claim, since the interesting part for me is that any slaves were paid.

On the semantics, the word "many" is generally used in two senses: as a large proportion, or as a large absolute number. Given, as you say, that there were 4 million slaves just before the civil war, and multiples of that number over the entire history of slavery in North America, I think it is easy to say that "many" slaves would have been paid even if it comprised only a tiny fraction of the total.


That might be true if slavery were a static institution. Lots of stuff happened in the antebellum period that did not happen in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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