'A Species of Labor We Do Not Want'

One of the early triumphs of Black Reconstruction In America is the way its author, W.E.B. Du Bois, is able to offer a cogent class analysis of the antebellum economy, without flattening the difference between different types of “degraded” labor. In Du Bois’s time, and even occasionally in our time, intellectuals would often claim that slave labor was ultimately no worse than free labor. “One-half of them prefer hiring their servants for life, and the other half by the hour,” claimed Thomas Carlyle.  More to the point, while workers in the North enjoyed no guaranteed support and thus were “free to starve,” in the South the enslaver assumed responsibility for clothing and feeding the enslaved. The enslaved were awarded shelter, rudimentary health care, and cared for in old age. In many respects (so the argument went) the black slave was advantaged over the white “wage slave.” This argument found traction among slavery’s apologists and even some left radicals in the 1830s.*

When labor activist George Henry Evans explained to abolitionist Gerrit Smith his opposition to emancipation, he noted:

I was formerly, like yourself, sir, a very warm advocate of the abolition of slavery. This was before I saw that there was white slavery. Since I saw this, I have materially changed my views as to the means of abolishing Negro slavery. I now see, clearly, I think, that to give the landless black the privilege of changing masters now possessed by the landless white would hardly be a benefit to him in exchange for his surety of support in sickness and old age, although he is in a favorable climate. If the Southern form of slavery existed at the North, I should say the black would be a great loser by such a change

Du Bois was having none of it:

...there was in 1863 a real meaning to slavery different from that we may apply to the laborer today. It was in part psychological, the enforced personal feeling of inferiority, the calling of another Master; the standing with hat in hand. It was the helplessness. It was the defenselessness of family life. It was the submergence below the arbitrary will of any sort of individual. It was without doubt worse in these vital respects than that which exists today in Europe or America.

Above all it was the fact of being vended like oxen that separated the condition of the enslaved from the oppressed worker—“No matter how degraded the factory hand,” writes Du Bois. “He is not real estate.”

And yet having teased out the difference, Du Bois does not lose sight of the ways the slave society injured the prospects of poor non-slaveholding whites in the South. The slave system depressed wages and ensured unemployment—why pay a white person to do a job that an enslaved black person is bound to do for free?Enslaved blacks worked in nearly every capacity in the South, from field-hand to artisan leaving white labor to “compete” with enslaved blacks for jobs and wages. But there was no competition on account of slavery. The only real restraint was the supply of enslaved blacks, and slaveholders tried to alter even that by pushing to re-open the slave trade. “If we cannot supply the demand for slave labor,” asserted the governor of South Carolina in 1856. “Then we must expect to be supplied with a species of labor we do not want.” That would be poor whites.

Big slaveholders feared the white labor movement emerging much to the detriment of the slaveholder. From the Charleston Mercury in 1861: