Journal of a graduate student in military history and the American Civil War

On Slavery – 1

with 3 comments


Photograph of Slave Cabin and Occupants Near Eufala, Barbour County, Alabama (Photo source: Library of Congress)

I’m reading Kenneth M. Stampp’s fascinating book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South for class. A focus this week and next is, among other things, the ways in which slave owners controlled their bondsmen. The methods varied considerably as did the ethical sensibilities of the masters and overseers. Stampp suggests that behavioral control included both the carrot and the stick with heavy weighting on the stick. That is to say, some masters and/or overseers used positive incentives and some negative.

Positive incentives included: work stoppage at noon on Saturdays and Sunday off, holidays off, parties and dances, holiday gifts, cash for the best worker for a given period, the right to grow one’s own crops whether for personal food or sale, the right to rent oneself out and keep some of the income, and the ultimate incentive, the right to achieve freedom.

Negative incentives were many. Stampp suggests that few adult slaves did not have some experience with flogging. This seemed to be the most acceptable method of disciplining slaves and was used extensively. Other forms of physical punishment used to control slaves included: confinement either in “the blocks” or even jail, mutilation (ranging from castration to branding), and even more severe forms of torture. For young slaves or those who needed “breaking,” there were actually specialists who through, undoubtedly mental and physical persuasion, reduced high spirited individuals to more pliable and subservient workers.

Another method of control was the introduction of religion to the slaves. Indoctrination of slaves into Christianity had its advantages. It was not uncommon for them to ensure that sermons emphasized those verses in the Bible that instructed servants to obey their masters. (Stampp, 158) Particular focus was made on teaching slave children “respect and obedience to their superiors” in the belief that it made them better servants. (Stampp, 159) This suggests a fascinating area of study – the effects of religion on American slaves – for which I must look for information. Let me know if you can recommend any.


3 Responses

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  1. I was struck, when I read the book, how Stampp used the work “positive” to describe those incentives. I don’t think it was for lack of a better term, I think he used it in a tongue-in-cheek manner. He knew full well how disgraceful it was to treat another human being like this, but managed to keep such editorial comment out of his book, which is one of it’s strengths. In using the word “positive”, I think he’s venting a little bit to show how there’s nothing at all positive about slavery


    November 10, 2008 at 12:52 pm

  2. Mark,
    You could be absolutely right! It’s all relative.

    Say and thanks for the mention on your site! I’ll include a link on next post over to your book review.


    Rene Tyree

    November 10, 2008 at 9:13 pm

  3. I am reading this book for a class as well, but I have read the ‘Confessions of Nat Turner’ previously- expanding on the issue of slave rebellion that Stampp addresses. It is an interesting case because of Turner’s status in the community as a sort-of minister, a “prophet”, and his religious reasons for killing 60 people.


    May 14, 2009 at 11:20 am

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