Monday, April 15, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom

While the majority of the the accounts that historian Calvin Schermerhorn uses in crafting his Money over Mastery, Family over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South are well known to students of slavery studies, how he interprets those accounts is what makes this book truly an original piece of scholarship.

Schermerhorn focuses his work on the Chesapeake Bay region, examining how the "peculiar institution" played out in coastal or tidewater areas roughly between Wilmington, Delaware and Wilmington, North Carolina. This region was in the midst of great transition during the first half of the 19th century. As tobacco agriculture began to wane due largely to soil exhaustion in many of these states' eastern most counties, being replaced with grain cultivation and city and town manufactures, the centuries old practice of human bondage began to change as well. Not needing the larger populations of slaves for the labor intensive tobacco plantations, planters and farmers sought sell or find new uses for slaves; which often resulted in enslaved family separations. Schermerhorn looks at how enslaved individuals attempted to exercise agency to deal with these disruptions.

As mentioned above, using many well known slave narratives, such as those of Charles Ball, Moses Grandy, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, as well as a number of less famous accounts, the author examines how the enslaved developed networks that tried to keep their families together, reunite separated family members, and just navigate day to day in a "slave society." Schermerhorn contends that as planters died and their children inherited slave property, or a new generation sought to migrate to the emerging "Cotton Kingdom" to the southwest, or they tried to reduce their surplus slave populations through sales to traders, all of these situations and more had a detrimental impact on the enslaved maintaining cohesive family situations.

Through the sources he chose to use the author shows that slaves worked almost every angle available to them to try to keep their families together. Sometimes their decisions and actions were effective and sometimes they were not. However, the argument bears strength and shows that the enslaved were not passive actors in this drama. Enslaved men and women used emerging new technologies and the skills they had learned to try to manipulate both free and enslaved individuals in their surrounding environments and the life situations they encountered to try to produce best-effect scenarios.

In addition, Schermerhorn also shows that African Americans shouldered the burdens of a changing market-based Upper South. Slaves built the canals, railroads, and town and city factories that emerged in this region during this time. Slaves were rented out in large numbers by their owners, who often placed more value on the amount of money their human property could earn rather than their monitory worth. Whether working the region's waterways, toiling in other families kitchens, earning "overwork" pay in tobacco factories, or doing dangerous work on the railroads, enslaved people attempted to use these roles and the people around them to keep their family relations together and away from the hungry maw of the internal slave trade that chew up so many enslaved families.

This is an amazing book. Well written and researched, it should find a welcome spot on the bookshelf of any serious slavery studies student. I most emphatically recommend it!

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