'A Species of Labor We Do Not Want'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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:

Within ten years past as many as ten thousand slaves have been drawn away from Charleston by the attractive prices of the West, and [white] laborers from abroad have come to take their places. These laborers have every disposition to work above the slave, and if there were opportunity, would be glad to do so; but without such opportunity they come into competition with him; they are necessarily restive to the contact. Already there is disposition to exclude him from the trades, from public works, from drays, and the tables of the hotels; he is even now excluded to a great extent, and ... when more laborers ... shall come in greater numbers to the South, they will still more increase the tendency to exclusion; they will question the right of masters to employ their slaves in any work that they may wish for; they will invoke the aid of legislation; they will use the elective franchise to that end; they will acquire the power to determine municipal elections; they will inexorably use it; and thus the town of Charleston, at the very heart of slavery, may become a fortress of democratic power against it.

No such movement was in the offing. This offends our romantic sense of struggle and coalition. There seemed a natural interest between the enslaved and the white poor. In a very real way, enslavement circumscribed the lives of both classes. Blacks could never hire out their labor. Whites could, but only at wages repressed by enslavement. There seems here a clear common interest for the construction of a revolutionary coalition. Instead the opposite happened, and  poor whites became the direct agents of enslavement themselves, working as overseers, slave-drivers and serving on slave-patrols.

This formulation is somewhat backwards. In fact it was the very existence of enforcement work in the slave system that militated against coalition-building. Slave-driving and overseeing were the only kind of labor in the slave system that could not be entrusted to blacks, and thus was guaranteed to poor whites. Revolution sounds nice, until you consider that it meant poor whites sacrificing the only exclusive means they had for feeding and sheltering their own families.

The upshot of this labor quota does not end at basic needs but expands into the psychological:

...above and beyond this, [slavery] fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters. Slavery bred in the poor white a dislike of Negro toil of all sorts. He never regarded himself as a laborer, or as part of any labor movement. If he had any ambition at all it was to become a planter and to own “niggers.” To these Negroes he transferred all the dislike and hatred which he had for the whole slave system. The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white.

For those on the left, working in the realm of coalition politics, this problem of tiered privilege and basic human psychology still poses a problem. Poverty, oppression and degradation are relative. They depend, not simply on who is above, but who is beneath. When Du Bois writes that white labor could never be “real estate,” he is not simply making an observation about the economics of slavery, he is noting an actual class distinction which can’t be papered over by regarding everyone as “workers.” It’s true that enslavement restricted the possible for poor whites, but it also guaranteed that some class of people would always be lower than them. More, it held out the chance of poor whites possibly joining the very class of people responsible for holding down their wages in the first place.

One must take care to not lapse into moral condemnation in regards to poor Southern whites. The erection of a “buffer class” to maintain an oppressive system is not original, and poor whites are neither the first, nor the last, to serve that role. For decades, the gens de couleur of Haiti sought to preserve and augment their rights at the expense of enslaved blacks and by making common cause with “pure” white slaveholding French. So it goes. There is nothing shocking or amazing in the calculus of poor whites in the antebellum South. Their behavior was neither particularly craven nor particularly anomalous. Indeed it was deeply human.

* I looked at the wage slavery argument a few years ago while blogging about the fascinating 1857 pro-slavery polemic Cannibals All.