CONVERSATION / Legacy / Deep Dive

The Concrete Confederate Crisis
Part 3: Slavery & The South

The conditions slaves faced depended on the size of the plantation or farm where they worked, the work they had to do, and, of course, the whim of their master. Those who worked the fields with their owner and his family tended to receive better treatment than plantation slaves under an overseer, who was interested only in maximizing the harvest and had no direct investment in their well‐being. Household slaves, blacksmiths, carpenters, and drivers (slaves responsible for a gang of workers) were better off than field hands. Ultimately, any slave's fate was determined by his or her owner; the use of corporal punishment and the granting of privileges, such as allowing a visit to a nearby plantation, were his decisions alone.



Field hands—men, women, and children—might work as long as sixteen hours a day during the harvest and ten or more hours a day in winter; the work week was typically six days long, with Saturday usually a half day. Slaves were organized into gangs of about twenty‐five under a driver and overseer ( the gang system), or individuals were given a specific job to do each day ( the task system). Punishment was inflicted by the overseer or driver if the assigned job was not completed or done poorly or if equipment was lost or damaged. Usually, punishment meant a whipping, but extra work and a reduction in food rations were other forms of discipline. Consistently good work was rewarded by extra food, a pass to visit friends or family on another plantation, or the privilege of having a vegetable garden.

Ready‐made clothes were generally given to men twice a year, and everyone received new shoes about once a year; women were provided with cloth to make dresses for themselves and clothes for their children. Some plantations ran a kitchen for the slaves, but it was more common for food to be distributed weekly to individuals and families. Typically, rations consisted of cornmeal, salt pork or bacon, and molasses.

The number of calories was adequate, but the diet had little variety and was heavy on starch and fats. It could be supplemented with fish, small game, chickens, and vegetables from a garden, if the master approved. On large plantations, slave quarters were located near the fields and main house. They were one‐ or two‐room dirt‐floored cabins that were hot in summer and extremely cold in winter. More than one family usually lived in a cabin.

The overall slave population was not generally healthy. The combination of hard physical labor, corporal punishment, a diet often lacking nutritional value, and poor living conditions contributed to a very high infant mortality rate—at least 20 percent of the slave children died before the age of five—and a much lower life expectancy than southern whites. While it was in the economic interest of planters to keep their slaves healthy, most did not provide satisfactory medical care. A few large plantations had infirmaries, but conditions in them were often worse than in the slave quarters.


While without legal standing, slave marriages were accepted by most planters because they believed marriage made slaves easier to control and less likely to run away. The marriage ceremony itself might have consisted of a man and woman “ jumping the broom,” a custom that affirmed their commitment to each other before the slave community; a formal wedding in the main house with the planter and his family; or just a simple agreement from the owner.

A planter or farmer's acceptance of marriage did not mean, however, that he respected the institution. Selling wives away from husbands or children from parents was common, as was the sexual abuse of slave women. Slave children who were sent to another plantation would be taken in by a family belonging to their new owner.

Despite the ever‐present threat of having their family torn apart, slaves did their best to maintain stability. The division of responsibility between husband and wife was much the same as in white society: the husband acted as the head of the household and was a provider—fishing and hunting for extra food, collecting firewood, and fixing up the cabin; the wife cared for their children when they were very young and did the cooking, sewing, and any other domestic chores.

Many slave narratives, accounts of slavery told by the slaves themselves, note how much work women did after they had spent a long day in the field tending cotton. A pregnant woman would work in the fields as long as the overseer believed she could do her job. Mothers would be given time off to nurse a young child who was sick. Beyond mother, father, and children was an extended family of uncles, aunts, and grandparents as well as individuals who had no direct familial ties, all providing a strong support network in the slave community.


In much the same way they viewed slave marriage, planters also saw religion as a means of controlling their slaves, and they encouraged it. Slaves, in a prayer house built on the plantation or at services in their master's nearby church, heard time and again a simple sermon—obey your master and do not steal or lie. But the slaves also developed their own religion, often an amalgam of evangelical Christianity and West‐African beliefs and practices, and it was the source of a very different message.

At services held secretly during the evening in the slave quarters or nearby woods, prayers, songs, and sermons focused on ultimate deliverance from bondage. Not at all surprising was the emphasis on Moses, the “promised land,” and the Israelites' release from Egypt in both slave religion and song.

Music, particularly what became known as the “Negro spiritual,” was an important part of slave culture. It seemed to southern whites that slaves sang all the time, and apologists for slavery argued that this showed slaves were happy and content with their lot. They evidently ignored the songs' lyrics about the burden of backbreaking labor; sorrow over the breakup of families; and hope for the end to slavery, either in the hereafter or sooner, if escape to the North could be arranged.

Part 4: Resistance to & Defense of Slavery

Resistance to slavery took several forms. Slaves would pretend to be ill, refuse to work, do their jobs poorly, destroy farm equipment, set fire to buildings, and steal food. These were all individual acts rather than part of an organized plan for revolt, but the objective was to upset the routine of the plantation in any way possible. On some plantations, slaves could bring grievances about harsh treatment from an overseer to their master and hope that he would intercede on their behalf. Although many slaves tried to run away, few succeeded for more than a few days, and they often returned on their own. Such escapes were more a protest—a demonstration that it could be done—than a dash for freedom.

As advertisements in southern newspapers seeking the return of runaway slaves made clear, the goal of most runaways was to find their wives or children who had been sold to another planter. The fabled underground railroad, a series of safe houses for runaways organized by abolitionists and run by former slaves like Harriet Tubman, actually helped only about a thousand slaves reach the North.



The United States had fewer violent slave revolts than the Caribbean colonies and Brazil, and the reasons were largely demographic. In other parts of the Western Hemisphere, the African slave trade had continued, and the largely male slave populations came to significantly outnumber the white masters. In the United States, with the exception of Mississippi and South Carolina, slaves were not in the majority, and whites remained very much in control. Perhaps most important, marriage and family ties, which formed the foundation of the U.S. slave community, worked against a violent response to slavery.

Nevertheless, in the early nineteenth century, there were several major plots for revolt. Gabriel Prosser recruited perhaps as many as a thousand slaves in 1800 with a plan to set fire to Richmond, the capital of Virginia, and take the governor prisoner. The plot failed when other slaves informed the authorities about Prosser. In 1822, Denmark Vesey's scheme to seize Charleston was also betrayed by slaves who were involved in the conspiracy. Despite these failures, some African Americans, most notably David Walker (in his 1829 Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World), still saw armed rebellion as the only appropriate response to slavery.

Motivated by religious visions of racial violence, Nat Turner organized a revolt in Virginia in August 1831. He and a close‐knit group of slaves went from farm to farm killing any whites they found; in the end, fifty‐five of them were found dead, mostly women and children. Turner intentionally did not try to gain support from slaves on nearby plantations before the short‐lived revolt began. He had hoped that the brutality of the murders (the victims were hacked to death or decapitated) would both terrorize slaveowners and gain him recruits. Once he had a larger force, he planned to change tactics: women, children, and any men who did not resist would be spared. But only a few slaves joined Turner, and the militia put down the rebellion after a few days. Turner, who managed to elude capture for several months, was eventually tried and hanged along with nineteen other rebels. Other trials of alleged conspirators in the revolt resulted in the execution of many innocent slaves by enraged whites.


Turner's revolt convinced many Virginians—particularly farmers in the western part of the state who owned few slaves—that it was time to end slavery. Early in 1832, the state legislature considered a proposal for gradual emancipation, with owners compensated for their loss. Although the measure prompted an open debate on the merits of slavery, it failed in both houses, but by only comparatively small margins. Ironically, after coming to the brink of abolishing slavery, Virginia, and then other southern states, moved in the opposite direction and opted for greater control over the black population. New slave codes passed in each state increased patrols to locate runaway slaves and guard against new outbreaks of violence, prohibited African Americans from holding meetings, denied free blacks the right to own any kind of weapon, made it illegal to educate a slave (Turner knew how to read and write), and outlawed the manumission (freeing) of slaves by their owners.


The debate in the Virginia legislature coincided with the publication of William Lloyd Garrison's first issue of the Liberator. The moral attack that the abolitionists mounted against slavery called for a new defense from the South. Rather than emphasize that slavery was a profitable labor system essential to the health of the southern economy, apologists turned to the Bible and history. They found ample support for slavery in both the Old and New Testaments and pointed out that the great civilizations of the ancient world—Egypt, Greece, and Rome—were slave societies.

The most ludicrous defense of slavery was that enslavement was actually good for African Americans: slaves were happy and content under the paternal care of their master and his family, toward whom they felt a special affection, and talk of liberty and freedom was irrelevant because slaves could not even understand those concepts.

The proponents of slavery also maintained that slaves on plantations in the South were better off than the “wage slaves” in northern factories, where business owners had no real investment in their workers. In contrast, planters had every incentive to make sure their slaves were well fed, clothed, and housed. Harsh masters, more often than not, were northerners who had moved to the South, rather than those born and bred in the region, the proponents claimed. Underlying all the arguments was a fundamental belief in the superiority of whites.

Public discussion of slavery and its abolishment effectively ended in the South after 1832; all segments of white society supported slavery, whether they owned slaves or not. The growing isolation of the region was reflected by splits in several Protestant denominations over the slavery question. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church South was established as a separate organization, and a year later, southern Baptists formed their own group, the Southern Baptist Convention. Not only did southerners try to counter the abolitionists in print, they wanted help in suppressing the antislavery movement altogether.

In 1835, the South Carolina legislature called on the northern states to make it a crime to publish or distribute anything that might incite a slave revolt. The resolutions made it very clear that South Carolina considered slavery an internal issue and that any attempt to interfere with it would be unlawful and resisted.


The existence of slavery was just the most visible difference between the North and South. The two regions' economies had been complementary, but by most measures—the number of railroads, canals, factories, and urban centers and the balance between agriculture and industry—they were moving in opposite directions. The reform movements that arose in the decades before the Civil War made few inroads in the South because any calls for social change were associated with abolitionism. Although wealthy planters hired tutors for their children, and many of their sons went on to college, even public education was considered not particularly important in the South.

In the North, the rejection of slavery as an institution did not mean there was widespread support for extending full political rights, let alone social equality, to African Americans. Residents of both the North and South believed in democracy, but at the time, the goal that would attain full democracy for the nation was the expansion of the franchise to all white males. Both northerners and southerners took part in the westward movement of the country, looking for better land and greater opportunities, but they could not escape the divisive issue of slavery. It was over the status of slavery in the new territories of the west that the sectional lines dividing the nation became rigid.


Congress considered slavery so controversial that in 1836, the House of Representatives, largely at the insistence of southerners, passed a gag rule prohibiting discussion or debate of the subject. This move was a reaction to numerous petitions submitted to Congress that called for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia, a reflection of a growing anti‐slavery movement in the United States.

Not all Americans who opposed slavery favored simply putting an end to it. Some considered slavery to be wrong but were unwilling to take action against it, while others accepted slavery in the states where it already existed but opposed its expansion into new territories.

An early antislavery proposal was to repatriate slaves to Africa. Far fetched as it seems, in 1822, under the auspices of the American Colonization Society, the first freed slaves departed for what would become the independent nation of Liberia in West Africa. Over the next forty years, however, only about fifteen thousand blacks emigrated to Liberia, a number far below the natural increase in the slave population that accounted for most of the population's growth before the Civil War.

Advocates of an immediate end to slavery were known as abolitionists. The movement's chief spokesperson was William Lloyd Garrison, who began publishing his antislavery newspaper, the Liberator, in 1831. His American Anti‐Slavery Society (organized in 1833) called for the “immediate abandonment” of slavery without compensation to slaveholders; the end to the domestic slave trade; and, radically, the recognition of the equality of blacks and whites. The abolitionists, however, were divided on how best to achieve these goals. While Garrison opposed political action, moderate abolitionists formed the Liberty party and ran James G. Birney for president in 1840.

The party's strength was such that it determined the outcome of the presidential election four years later. The movement split, however, in 1840 over the appropriate role of women within the organization. Even though women, such as Angelina and Sarah Grimke, were deeply committed to the cause, many members of the society felt it was inappropriate for women to speak before predominantly male audiences. More important, there was significant opposition to the inclusion of women's rights issues under the umbrella of the abolitionist program.

Free blacks were the strongest supporters of the abolitionist movement and its most effective speakers. Escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass provided northerners with vivid firsthand accounts of slavery, and his book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) was just one of many slave autobiographies popular in abolitionist circles. While most blacks supported a peaceful end to slavery, some believed that only insurrection could actually bring it about.