The “Slaves’ Economy”
In 1847, Adam Foster, a northerner visiting Mathews County, described enslaved life in Virginia in a letter to his daughter Cynthia Foster Claxton. He observed that there was “a garden to each dwelling” and that enslaved households kept poultry and “provide themselves with fish from the river, and such oysters as would sell in Boston at three cents each.” Foster recounted enslaved people who gardened and fished at night in their “after work” hours. Foster’s letter provides an example of the typical experience of enslaved Virginians in what has been called by historians the “slaves’ economy.” The economy of the enslaved refers to the productive activities of enslaved people outside of the labor required by their enslavers. Enslaved Virginians grew a variety of vegetables of New World and African origin. They raised chickens and other poultry, hunted and fished, and sold their skilled labor. Enslaved blacksmiths, barrel makers, shoemakers, and others plied their crafts to Blacks and whites in the surrounding communities.
This economy was as old as slavery itself and continued to evolve alongside changes in the larger economy until chattel slavery was abolished in 1865. When slavery replaced indentured servitude in Virginia in the seventeenth century, enslaved people found opportunities to work for their own profit, pushing back against attempts by enslavers to monopolize their time and labor. Over time, enslavers and others in the community accepted the privilege of enslaved Virginians to have access to a small garden plot and time off to tend it, customarily on Sundays, as well as several holidays throughout the year, including the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Growing produce and raising poultry in these small yards gave enslaved Virginians a measure of control over their lives and a diet more varied than the rations typically provided by enslavers.
By law and custom, enslavers were expected to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to the people they enslaved. However, there was great diversity throughout the period of slavery and across the slaveholding states in the quality and quantity of provisions and shelter provided by enslavers to the enslaved. Enslaved people often engaged in independent production in order to provide better food and clothing to their families and from a desire to have some choice in what they consumed. Enslavers took advantage of this impulse. They could provide less food knowing that parents would work in garden plots at night and on Sundays to ensure their children had enough to eat. Enslavers enjoyed higher profits when they had fewer expenses associated with provisioning the enslaved population.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the economy of the enslaved was increasingly conducted in cash instead of barter, which allowed some enslaved people to accumulate savings and property. The use of cash in these transactions reflected the proliferation of banks and money in this period. Legally, enslaved Virginians could not own property. However, in practice the right of enslaved people to own some forms of property was accepted by whites and respected in the community. Savings accumulated by the enslaved could be used to expand livestock holdings or purchase items for comfort, such as furniture. Enterprising enslaved people passed property down in their families in an attempt to ease the burdens of later generations. Despite rising property ownership among the enslaved in the nineteenth century, most enslaved people remained poor. The majority saw only a modest improvement in their standard of living because of their independent economic activities. Even fewer individuals were able to leverage their participation in the market to gain legal freedom.
The example of Lott Cary shows how exceptional it was for enslaved people to purchase their freedom from the profits of their labor. Cary was born enslaved in Virginia in about 1780. He was hired out by his enslaver to tobacco warehouses in Richmond. Cary’s position as a warehouse laborer and the relative freedom of being hired out gave him the opportunity to employ his talents as a businessman. According to his biographer, Ralph Randolph Gurley, Cary was allowed by warehouse owners and operators “to sell for his own benefit, many small parcels of waste tobacco.” Cary saved the cash he made and, combining it with a fund taken up for his benefit by local merchants, was able to purchase freedom for himself and his children. Cary’s experience was extraordinary, however. He was literate in a time when most enslaved people were not. His success managing a tobacco warehouse gave him unique access to the white men who raised money on his behalf. Cary and his children gained their freedom because he was able to leverage these men’s good opinion of him.
Enslavers also wielded the limited economic freedom allowed the enslaved as tool of control. Enslaved people with cultivated land, livestock, and consumer products had more invested in life on the plantation. Enslavers knew this investment gave the enslaved less incentive to try to flee slavery. It also was a privilege that could be taken away by enslavers as a form of punishment to control their human property. In addition, competition for profit and resources sometimes resulted is disharmony within the enslaved community, which could be used by enslavers to prevent one of their greatest fears: collusion by enslaved people against the enslavers’ authority.
Fear that independent economic activity loosened control over enslaved individuals, encouraged them to purchase their freedom, or resulted in competition with whites resulted in the passage of laws in the late eighteenth century to limit the economy of the enslaved in Virginia. In 1782, a group of Henrico County citizens petitioned the General Assembly to prohibit enslaved people from hiring out their own time. The petitioners said they feared that allowing freedom of movement to enslaved people bred idleness, encouraged trade in stolen goods, and discontented enslaved people who were not allowed this “indulgence.” A series of comprehensive laws passed in 1792 and 1798 prohibited enslaved individuals from buying commodities from or selling to anyone other than their enslaver. The laws also penalized enslavers who allowed enslaved people to “go at large” or hire themselves out. To ensure that these laws were enforced, legislators included a provision authorizing “any person” to apprehend and bring before a justice of the peace any enslaved person they suspected of going at large. These laws did not stop the expansion of the economy of the enslaved, which continued in the form of legal trade between enslavers and the enslaved and clandestine arrangements between the enslaved and everyone else. The enslaved often found themselves at a disadvantage in the market, however, as enslavers held the balance of power and often paid below-market rates or “borrowed” the earnings of enslaved individuals and refused to repay them.
Between 1800 and 1865 the economy of Virginia changed and the system of enslavement and the economy of the enslaved shifted as well. Virginia’s agricultural economy began to decline by the early decades of the nineteenth century. Tobacco had given way to wheat in the late eighteenth century, but lower wheat prices, exhausted soil, and a severe economic recession beginning in 1819 shifted the centers of commerce from plantations to growing cities and towns. Enslavers reallocated hands from waning agricultural work to the tobacco and iron industries taking root in Richmond and other population centers. The increased hiring out of enslaved people—especially in the 1840s and 1850s—gave those individuals greater opportunities to make cash on the side through overwork and access to larger markets for goods and services. Greater opportunity for overwork in industrial settings ultimately did not result in the enhanced ability of enslaved people to save and build wealth. On the eve of the Civil War, enslaved people remained desperately poor, and their labor profited the growing class of Virginia industrialists.
The economy of the enslaved ended with the end of chattel slavery in 1865. Freed people took their experiences as producers and consumers in the market with them into freedom. They defended their right to property they had acquired in slavery. They took advantage of freedom to buy land and start businesses, knowing the symbiotic relationship between economic independence and civil and political rights.