Slave Property in the Old South

This quarter, I assigned Liberty, Equality, Power in the U.S. history survey.

I might try another book next year because it’s getting to be too expensive for the students.

Anyway, it’s a solid book. Reading over the chapter on “The Old South, 1790-1850,” I stumbled over this bit, describing the deep South:

“Slaves under the task system won the right to cultivate land as ‘private fields’—farms of up to five acres on which they grew produce and raised livestock for market. There was a lively trade in slave-produced goods, and by the late 1850s slaves in the lowcountry not only produced and exchanged property but also passed it on to their children.”

Interesting history here. I know that slaves kept garden plots and sometimes had money. But here we have the actual ownership of land. Would this be a case of the labor theory of property at work? Property ownership is derived from mixing one’s labor with the land. Surprising to see it at work in the Old South. Interesting to ponder what that tells us about the South and about human nature under the conditions of life there.

Richard Samuelson

Richard Samuelson is Associate Professor of History at California State University, San Bernardino.

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  1. gabe says


    Interesting tidbit, indeed!
    I was aware of the private plots and also of the slaves’ ability to sell that excess for money. This was also true to a lesser extent with respect to slaves who were “loaned out” as tradesmen.
    Yet, I must ask, when you say that slaves actually owned the land (presumably because they could pass it down to their children) did this entail actual legal ownership of land (I forget the legal term for it) or was it similar to early Russian serfs “stewardship” of the land?

  2. Kevin R. Hardwick says


    I thought Foner’s book was quite good–like you, I assigned it for several years. In the end though I thought the Henretta/Brody text was marginally better. Fair disclosure, for what it is worth–I wrote my dissertation under Henretta’s direction.

    Also like you, I was distraught by just how much money these books cost. So I now assign the brief text by David Reynolds, AMERICA: EMPIRE OF LIBERTY, which has several advantages: 1.) it costs about $15, rather than the $60-75 price of books like Foner’s or Henretta’s; 2.) it contains none of the cosmetic features that drive up the price of the books published by the major textbook companies–full color photographs, test banks, four-color maps, time lines, and so on; 3.) it is written by a Brit., and reads extremely well; and 4.) it is written by a conservative, and so treats conservatism respectfully. If you want the basic political/constitutional narrative, Reynolds is easily the most cost effective book I have found. My students actually read it, and that’s saying something.

    I will post in a moment on the substantive issues you raise here, which are quite fascinating in their own right.

    All best,

  3. Richard S says

    An agent handed me Foner’s book to look over a few years ago. I happened to open it at the page discussing the Virginia bill establishing religious freedom. I hit upon this sentence: “Jefferson drew up a bill of Establishment of Religious Freedom. . . . ‘I have sworn eternal opposition,’ he would later write, ‘to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.'”

    Jefferson’s letter to Benjamin Rush in 1800 (quoted in the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, by the way), reads: “I have sworn on the alter of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

    I pointed it our and I believe, eventually, the mistake was fixed. But it does give me pause.

  4. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Following up on Gabe’s suggestion, I (very strongly) suspect that the property possessed by South Carolina slaves (and passed on to descendants) was a kind of customary property, and not anything supported or sustained by South Carolina law. That does not mean that it was not real–but it does mean that it existed by custom and lacked formal state acknowledgment or protection.

    Customary property “rights” developed over time, as a kind of accommodation to the practical realities of getting slaves to work. In South Carolina, the development of the task system emerged in rice production in the 18th century, and was a way of providing rewards (of time) to slaves as an incentive to get them to work harder. In a slave labor system, the primary method for getting slaves to work is negative incentives–in essence, the slave must be persuaded to work out of fear that bad things, eg. physical violence, will happen to them if they do not. The development of the task system softened the edges of that, by providing positive incentives for work.

    Over time, slave owners faced pretty strong incentives to respect the customary property rights that developed over time. If they did not, their slaves did not work as hard–and were quite capable of staging “work slow downs.” So as a practical, day to day matter, these kinds of property arrangements were moderately stable. But not fully–customary property was never as secure as property acknowledged and protected by formal law. In particular, when a planter died, when estates were dismantled via probate or sale or inheritance, there was no guarantee that the next owner would respect arrangements established by previous owners. Moreover, these kinds of customary property arrangements did not translate well across plantations–they depended ultimately on the sanction of the plantation owner, after all.

    I find the whole issue fascinating, because it raises fundamental discussion of just what property *is*, and what it takes to make it secure.

    I can cite chapter and verse in the literature to warrant my claims above, if anyone cares. I am not, however, an expert in the history of 19th century slavery, so take everything I say above with an appropriate grain of salt.

  5. gabe says


    Good post and no need to quote chapter and verse. My limited reading of the materials also lead to the same conclusions.
    And you are right – It is a very interesting question as to the nature of property and in some ways tahkes us back to the Codevilla discussions of the past few days.

    take care as always

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