August 24, 2015By Toussaint Heywood
Could a slave own property? On first thought, one might say obviously not; an enslaved person was considered property himself and could no more own something than a cow could own a horse.
But in practice, the situation was more complicated. South Carolina, for example, recognized an odd sort of ownership which was upheld on appeal: "A slave may, by the consent of his master, acquire and hold personal property. All, thus acquired, is regarded in law as that of the master."
If property could only be held at the consent of the master and actually belonged to the master, the slave's ownership seems not to be recognized at all. But it was an attempt at addressing the reality: enslaved people earned things, either money or tangible goods.
Charles Ball explained how plantation slaves could earn and spend:
"Not the slightest religious regard is paid to Sunday; but the slaves are allowed to work for wages, and by this means the overseers who have no slaves get their field-work done. Many slaves work for other planters on a Sunday, and others work at their patches—little bits of unprofitable ground given them in some remote part of the estate, generally in the woods, where they plant corn, potatoes, pumpkins, &c. for themselves: this must be done on a Sunday. I must remark, that when slaves go out to work on a Sunday, they are never flogged, and they are honestly paid. Sunday is also the customary washing-day on cotton plantations; and the few clean garments among us were reserved for Monday morning. The earnings are spent in clothing, sugar, molasses, coffee, or tobacco; and some money may also be made in the rainy days, when the slaves do not work, by making baskets, brooms, horse-collars, and other things, which are sold among the planters. I could make wooden bowls and ladles, and added my earnings to those of the slave Nero and his wife, with whom I lived, on condition that I should be allowed to partake of the proceeds of their garden. Before Christmas I had enabled Nero to buy blankets for us all, which Dinah made up into coats."
Where there was an excess of slaves for farm labor but work available in cities, the practicality of letting slaves hire their own time was too tempting for an owner. The owner did not need to negotiate directly with a hirer nor pay a fee to a broker, but could let the enslaved person take care of all the details. The slave bore most of the risk of violating the law, but could make substantial profit if he or she were skillful and industrious, making the risk worthwhile, and as long as no trouble occurred, officials looked the other way.
In South Carolina, there was an exception to the law stating slaves could own property with permission of their master. Anything necessary for their work, such as a boat, or livestock raised by them, could be seized by anyone, though only if the slave took it off the plantation.
Judge John Belton O'Neall saw the law in 1848 as a cruel relic of the past, but his humanitarianism included a healthy dose of self-interest, as he thought better-treated slaves would be less apt to escape. (Paragraph breaks added.)
[I]t ought to be repealed. The reasons which led to its enactment have all passed away. It is only resorted to, now, to gratify the worst passions of our nature. The right of the master, to provide as comfortably as he pleases for his slave, could not be, and ought not to be abridged in the present state of public opinion.
The law may very well compel a master to furnish his slave with proper, necessary, wholesome, and abundant raiment and food; but certainly no legislator now, would venture to say to a master, you shall not allow your slave to have a canoe to fish with, or to carry vegetables to market or that he should not be allowed to have a horse to attend to his duties as a stock-minder in the swamps, savannas, and pine forests of the lower part of the State, or that a family of slaves should not have a cow to furnish them with milk, or a hog to make for them meat, beyond their usual allowance.
All these are matters between the master and the slave, in which neither the public nor any prying, meddling, mischievous neighbor, has any thing to do. Experience and observation fully satisfy me that the first law of slavery is that of kindness from the master to the slave. With that properly inculcated, enforced by law. and judiciously applied, slavery becomes a family relation, next in its attachments to that of parent and child.— It leads to instances of devotion on the part of the slave, which would do honor to the heroism of Rome herself.
With such feelings on our plantations, what have we to fear from fanaticism? Our slaves would be our sentinels to watch over us; our defenders to protect our firesides from those prowling harpies, who preach freedom, and steal slaves from their happy homes.
Many enslaved people saved up their money and used it to purchase their freedom. Even then, emancipation might require official permission. For example, owner John Thompson had to petition the Mississippi legislature in 1831 to set free his slave Cato Buck, after Buck "by his own industry and economy has saved sufficient money to pay & satisfy his owner for his time and services."
But many more enslaved people used their money or property for little purchases, and this led to a booming market for merchants who targeted slaves and, therefore, tempted slaves to steal things to barter.
In 1857 Mississippi, J. J. Rainwater was "convicted of 'trafficing & bartering with slaves.' Rainwater was 'a dangerous man in a slave community,' inducing slaves to steal from their owners. One of [William] Bell's slaves, for example, stole $260 from him and took the money to Rainwater, who 'appropriated it to his own use.'... When a criminal indictment was handed down, Rainwater fled to parts unknown, forfeiting $500 in securities."
In 1842 Virginia, "Sixty-two citizens of Botetourt County complain[ed] about the 'swarm of foot pedlers' who frequent 'our negro cabins.' The traders not only offered them illegal goods, but incited them to steal from their masters. Most of the vendors are itinerants only recently arrived in the country. These traffickers can be found in every county in Virginia, they assert; and the legislature should put a stop to 'those who are engaged in this business.'"
A hundred citizens of Maury County, Tennessee complained in 1859 about "the traffic & sale of Ardent spirits to the slaves," stating "no other vice or dissipation in our Community half so ruinous as this liquor traffic with slaves."
The de facto ownership of property by slaves was a two-edged sword, for both slave and master. On the one hand, it encouraged industriousness, allowed a slave to purchase some luxuries or even his freedom, and made the master feel generous, but on the other hand, it encouraged greed and theft.